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Shelf Life – Feb. 7

On Extinction,
by Melanie Challenger
@SPL: FIC 576.84 Cha

On Extinction, by Melanie Challenger, could be a tricky book to sell midwinter. A coworker of mine asked me to summarize On Extinction, and we decided this is a book you would read if you really, really want it to feel like February. It is not what you could call uplifting, is what I’m getting at. Try to contain your surprise.

That said, it’s not what you could call flatly depressing, either, and it certainly is an absorbing, fascinating read. Melanie Challenger has taken on an ambitious project here, and for all the heavy subject matter, the book as a whole holds a certain sweetness.

Broadly speaking, On Extinction is a meditation on the logical conclusions of industrialization. More than just considering lost species or the latest global warming statistics, Challenger opens up a philosophical discussion of what nature means, and how that meaning changes when nature becomes a resource for making profit.

Challenger travels the world’s most remote regions – areas where industrialization has still not completely taken hold – to witness human interaction with the natural landscape, and how it changes as industrialization influences lifestyles. She notes that extinction of languages and extinction of species are often concurrent victims of a globalized industrial lifestyle.

A good portion of her argument centres on nostalgia. She debates the evolutionary and neurochemical origins of the emotion, and the role it may play in helping us moderate our behaviour in relation to the natural resources we have to hand. She analyzes the role nostalgia plays in her own life, driving her to become more familiar with the flora and fauna populating her own ancestral home in rural England. She acknowledges missing the piece of her identity that would formerly have been composed of language of wildflowers and other hyperlocal phenomena. She does this without losing sight of the portion of her identity composed of the minutiae of an industrialized existence.

Challenger balances a sense of loss – acknowledging some losses are necessary for healthy change – while managing to establish that our current rate of change is not healthy for us or the planet as a whole.

While On Extinction may not be an uplifting read, it is a sweet, elegiac, thoughtful one rendered in some very pretty language. It’s recommended to readers concerned with environmental issues, and especially to those readers craving a more thoughtful, less bombastic argument in favour of treading lightly.

 – Shauna Thomas, librarian

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