Extreme Conservation: Life at the Edges of the World
by Joel Berger
University of Chicago Press, 2018
The photo on the dust jacket of Joel Berger's Extreme Conservation shows a polar bear standing on a dissolving shelf of polar ice, but this is perhaps a small gesture of marketing. Berger has quite a few enlightening things to say about polar bears in these pages (including the mind-boggling fact that increasing temperatures in the Arctic are encouraging grizzly bears to move farther north – and interbreed with polar bears), but he has an entirely different focus when studying the wildlife in some of Earth's most frozen, barren landscapes:
If polar bears are the face of climate change, muskoxen are the heart. They're the largest land mammal of either polar realm – Antarctic or Arctic. Neither ox nor maker of musk, their name is a complete misnomer. A nobler moniker is needed.
These regal survivors have ethereal black fur, two-foot horns that unfurl under a massive boss, and thick skirts drooping to the ground. They're an Arctic apparition, a Pleistocene remnant.
A Pleistocene remnant … and also a bellwether, on the tip of the spear of accelerated climate change. These creatures and others (yaks, saiga, etc.) live in some of the most unearthly places on Earth: the Arctic tundra, the forbidding Tibetan Plateau, the Gobi Desert, the Himalayas. Berger goes to these back-of-beyond places, observes the animals, meets the hardy groups of humans whose entire societies depend on these animals. He visits places that seem as remote from the climate-change debate as if they were moons of Saturn, but Extreme Conservation makes the point again and again that remoteness is itself frittering away – and was always an illusion in any case:
Today we quicken the process of extinctions and paint a bleaker future. Catastrophes occur at the Roof of the World, where temperatures warm two or three times faster than elsewhere. In central Asia's highlands with its forty-five thousand glaciers – the greatest amount of ice outside the two poles – the melting grows serious for the two billion people downstream.
Berger is a passionate, eloquent guide to the hinterlands and their suddenly endangered signature inhabitants. Those inhabitants – human and otherwise – are facing massive changes, almost all of them bad. Warmer temperatures can lock the food of yaks and oxen under sheets of ice, warmer temperatures wreak havoc on the metabolisms evolved for thin, frigid air, and warmer temperatures change the balance of predator and prey.
In other words, near-total disruption, visible on the horizon. Joel Berger here describes a world on the cusp of altering beyond recognition – and the “extreme conservation” necessary there will soon be necessary everywhere.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.