“Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare” by Paul Colinvaux

My reading so far this year has taken me on a path through Patrick Leigh Fermor; Nick Wood; Laurie Lee; Naomi Klein; George Monbiot; and now Paul Colinvaux. It feels very much as though I have been approaching the science of conservationism and climate change backwards – the beautiful, nostalgic lyricism of PLF and Laurie Lee reminded me of just how much pleasure I take in being outside, walking through beautiful places. Naomi Klein jolted me into recognising how truly under threat that natural world is (not to mention our way of life), and George Monbiot stepped in when I was feeling helpless and nihilistic about it all, and introduced a much-needed sense of thrilling hope.

I’m sure that a lot of people have finished This Changes Everything and looked about them, frantically wondering what on earth they can do about it. I’ve spent the past few months trying to work out what to do with all of this new information. Should I try to learn about environmental law? Volunteer? Curb my consumerism (like some kind of activist Larry David)? So far, the answer has been an attempt to combine all of those things – and most recently, I’ve decided that I need to try to go back to first principles. If I really want to engage in this conversation, I know that I need to educate myself – it’s not enough just to agree with newspaper articles and books telling me that we need to divest/ avoid fracking/ stop exploiting fossil fuels/ rewild where possible as a way of injecting a bit of balance into our environment. I need to take my daydreaming, novel-loving brain and try to get it to understand something about the science.

I hope to study Biology A-level as soon as the new curriculum has settled down and its possible to do that via distance learning, and in the meantime, I’ve signed up to do an Environmental Studies A-level over the next two years (which seems like a really good idea now, but I’m sure will feel daft when I find myself in an exam hall next summer, clasping a sweaty fountain pen and trying to remember whatever silly mnemonic unlocks my revision notes). For now, a very clever scientist I know recommended Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare, and I have absolutely loved it.

Colinvaux’s book is essentially a series of essays which answer questions like “Why the Sea is Blue”, and “Why There Are So Many Species”; one of which is the excellently named, “The Curious Incident of the Lake in the Now Time.” Each essay is a perfect little capsule of information, clearly explained, beautifully written, and never intimidating. Big animals are so rare, he tells us, because they are limited by the supply of energy which is able to flow from the sun, through the food chain and ultimately to our largest, rarest predators. The sea is blue because only blue light is able to make the journey from the surface to the depths and black, and because there are not enough plants to make it green. The territoriality of yellowhammer birds enables pairs to establish a kind of marriage contract, and the problem with burning fossil fuels is that we are releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere more quickly than the sea can absorb it. It is full of fascinating nuggets of information which are thoroughly and most entertainingly explained, and he ends with a compelling (if rather alarming) description of the evolution of mankind and the fall of empires.

One of things I found most intriguing about the book is that it was first published in 1980 – a time when climate change theories were still relatively nascent (at least in the public consciousness). What is so interesting, and in fact so frightening, is to read passages like this, and to realise that almost nothing has been done about it during my entire lifetime:

“We are embarked on the most colossal ecological experiment of all time; doubling the concentration in the atmosphere of an entire planet of one of its most important gases; and we really have little idea of what might happen.”

A hundred pages later, he talks about the Alaskan pipeline: “I happen to think that the Alaskan pipeline is a disaster to the American heritage, both for the aesthetic damage it does to the last wilderness and for the encouragement it gives to the continued misuse of fuel reserves.”

It is precisely the argument being rehearsed now over the Keystone Pipeline (although of course there is now a great deal more urgency, because we have done nothing to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels over the last thirty five years). I don’t mean to misrepresent Colinvaux here, or to invest these quotes with an agenda – he is not an environmental campaigner and presents these facts with an academic’s eye, not as a call to arms. (It would be fascinating to hear him speak on these subjects in 2015.) But it is so interesting for an amateur like me to find the roots of current, popular science in this collection of essays – I very much had Feral in mind when I was reading the chapter called “The Succession Affair”, for example.

Paul Colinvaux’s personality informs ever page, and the science is presented with compelling conviction; he must be a very inspiring teacher. If you have any interest in the natural world, then I cannot recommend this highly enough.

(Postscript: I loved Carolyn Scrace’s cover illustration for the Penguin 1990 edition. Perfect.)

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