Book Review: The Big Ratchet by Ruth DeFries

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I am interested in the environment at large which led me to believe that those who align themselves politically with the Green movement would make great Facebook friends. I was wrong. Where I sought discussion about the problems facing the biosphere all I got was a wall of blame and apocalyptic dread. Well, that’s a wee bit of an overstatement, not all my Green friends were that way, some were powerfully reflective but they were far and away a minority voice.

Mostly the Green’s on Facebook seemed view the environment as a black and white thing missing the grey subtleties entirely and so after a couple of years of comments proclaiming ‘were fucked, the planets fucked and ………… (fill in the blank) is to blame’ crowding my timeline I cracked and went on a de-friending rampage. It was doing my head in.

I am not blind to, nor unconcerned about the environmental problems being wrought upon the biosphere by human activity, I simply refuse to believe that our activities are beyond redemption and the damage we have caused irreversible. In saying that I must acknowledge the role of fear and anger in stirring debate and bringing issue to light and to those former friends I say job well done but anger alone is not enough, it is but one component of the process that alters perception and behaviour.

In her book ‘The Big Ratchet’ scientist Ruth DeFries (Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology) addresses black and white perception of the human impact on the biosphere with a an easily understood scientific exploration of the processes that have allowed life to evolve and flourish on this planet. With that perspective anchored, she focuses her attention on humanity and our broader relationship with the natural world.

Here she reflects on our ability to observe, consider and then manipulate evolutionary machinery, a proclivity that has allowed us to achieve extraordinary things, most notably with food supply. Our explorations have allowed us to flourish but without a manual to steer us, our experiments have resulted in unforeseen outcomes, not always positive.

The books sub-title ‘How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis’ tells us the story of how environmental crisis triggers within us a response that has allowed us to successfully think our way through extraordinarily difficult challenges and problems. A ratchet is a mechanical device that allows continuous linear or rotary motion in only one direction while preventing motion in the opposite direction and DeFries uses this metaphor to reveal our species onwards momentum as environmental engineers.

A thoughtful writer, DeFries has produced a thrilling page-turner that is filled out with history, discovery, insightful analysis and some indications of how she sees the near future unfolding. I would imagine my Green activist friend would have a lot of problems with De Fries conclusions that despite everything, (increasing population, habitat destruction and climate changes), the future looks bright. The Big Ratchet is a hopeful big-picture kind of story and I came out of the reading somewhat better for the experience, certainly more informed.

 

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One Response to “Book Review: The Big Ratchet by Ruth DeFries”

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