Flannery’s “The Eternal Frontier”

Over the past 4 months in NZ Tina and I have spent much of our waking moments immersed in the natural beauty which makes this country such a special place to visit.  As it does with traveling to foreign places it got me thinking about the natural treasures which are close to home that I have yet to explore.  Furthermore, I’ve come to realize that I am ignorant about the natural forces that have shaped the very environment in which we live.

It just so happened that while I was exploring another one of my favorite environments, a used book store, I came across a book by Tim Flannery entitled, “The Eternal Frontier: An ecological history of North America and its Peoples“.  Perfect.

Flannery’s book takes the reader back 65 million years when an asteroid, now known as ‘Chicxulub’, struck North America thus brining “modern” ecological history into being up to the present day where he focuses on the human impact on the environment.

For me, the first 64,999,500 years of the book were a little slow.  However, there were two themes that struck a chord with me.  First, it is remarkable how detailed of a history modern day scientists are able to create based on the limited remnants of ancient history they are given to work with.

Second, it is humbling to compare our concept of time, which is heavily influenced by the length of a human life, in the perspective of “modern” ecological history which spans 65 million years.  Even if you live long enough to call yourself a centurion you will only witness .00015% of North America’s modern ecological history.

In the last 500 years of the book Flannery focuses on the impact that humans have had on the North American environment.  Much like Friedman’s, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded the story he writes is not pretty.  BUT, he also ends on a hopeful note which leaves the reader with a positive feeling about the future.

Especially interesting was the sociological insight he borrowed from the turn of the 18th-century lecturer Frederick Jackson Turner who characterized US society as a “Frontier” society in which pioneers continually push the edge of the frontier, exploiting natural resources (which are plentiful on a frontier), all the while furthering economic development (see page 292).

When viewed in this context it is not entirely surprising that the US has developed into the world super-power given that human immigrants acting within a free market economy have benefitted from a very rich ecological base over the past few hundred years.  The cornucopia of natural resources has allowed our “frontier society” to consume almost without end all the while becoming the wealthiest country on earth.  But  the environment is beginning to show signs of our “frontier” existence.  As Flannery suggests, the environment is beginning to place natural limits on our ability to live and exist as we have in the past.

I was left thinking that “The Eternal Frontier” will be twofold.  First, it will involve developing technologies that will allow our society to “do more with less” (AKA efficiency).  However, it will also likely have to involve a cultural shift away from valuing more (AKA consumption) towards valuing a simpler existence.

Here are some of my notes from the book:

*The land-mass that is today North America was formed many millions of years ago when two smaller land-masses with very different environments separated by the Bearpaw Sea merged.

*Miraculously, some species of trees have survived and evolved over 65 million years when the Chicxulub struck North America to today.  These are the Houn Pine, Kauri, Araucaria Pine, and Wollemia Noblis and some others listed on page 33.

*Trees that grow into the shape of a cone have evolved from polar conditions where the sunlight is flat.  By having a cone shape they are able to optimize light coming from both flat and vertical angles.

*The existence of trees today that were around before the Chicxulub struck means that it likely struck in the winter.  This is because darkness engulfed the planet for many months after the asteroid struck.  Trees would have been able to survive because they would have already lost their leaves for the winter.  When they lose their leaves they absorb the nutrients for the dark months.

*This rule of biology can also apply to other forms of competition-

“One of biology’s more iron-clad rules seems to be that the inhabitants of larger lands are likely to be more successful immigrants than those of smaller ones.”

*The topographic makeup of North America creates a “climactic trumpet” which intensifies climatic shift on the continent.  This trumpet is created by two land features.  First, the up-side-down pyramid shape of the continent that is created by the wide reaches of Alaska-Greenland in the North and the tip of the Mexican Peninsula in the South.  Second, the fact that North America’s coasts have North-South running Mountain ranges.  Therefore, in the winter cold air surges south through the funnel that is created and vice-versa in the summer.  As a result, temperature changes are more extreme in North American relative to other continents.

*Trees are an excellent example of a self-sustaining organism-
“…little is lost to the tree when it sheds its leaves, for a leaf loosed into the… air has a 99 per cent chance of landing within twenty to thirty meters of its source.  As its leaves rot in spring, it’s quite likely that the tree will be able to recoup whatever investment in nutrients it put into making the leaf, just at a time when it needs it most.”

*On page 147-148 Flannery provides an excellent explanation of an ice age & glacial periods.

*Because of the North American “climate trumpet” we should actually be the MOST worried about climate change around the world because the effects will be most dramatic on our continent.

*Animal behavior & genetics: “The behaviors animals use to avoid predators are both genetically based and learned.”

*I always thought that complex societies grew into existence at the same time as agriculture.  However, Flannery points out that in pre-Columbian North America large societies evolved in California even though many still ate on hunting & gathering methods.

*When the Spanish arrived in Mexico around 1520 they came across an Aztec society which was far more advanced than anything they’d ever seen in Europe.  In fact, Tenochtitlan covered 13 square km’s and had a population of about 200,000, five times larger than London.  A detailed description is written on page 251.

*On page 267 Flannery explains that English settlers were “inept colonizers”.  However, what ultimately allowed them to overcome French settlers as the dominant ethnic group in the new colony was their “character of… frontier..of the soil”.  They expanded the frontier and controlled more soil.

*Flannery suggests that two myths exist regarding pilgrims of the Mayflower.  First, that Plymouth Rock is likely NOT the location at which they set foot in America.  AND, that the pilgrims were not seeking religious freedom.  His argument is laid out on page 270-271.

*Frederick Jackson Turner believes that the challenges of the frontier had a “cultural-stripping” effect on the pioneers which helped to shape the modern ‘American’.

*A sad piece of US history- “By 1871…the United States had made more than 370 individual treaties with various Indian groups, every one of which had been violated…”

*On page 320 Flannery explains the importance of mega-fauna (large mammals) on the health of grasslands.  Essentially, they eat the grass and store the nutrients in their stomachs and digestive systems then dole it out in their waste.  Without mega-fauna these nutrients are washed away during the rainy season.

*On page 324 Flannery explains that many animals evolved in herds or flocks because congregating in large numbers made identifying stealth predators easier (multiple sets of eyes are better than one set).  However, in 19th century America it ultimately led to their downfall because human predators were hunting with guns.  He goes into detail about the Great Plains bison.

*“…mussels are important indicators of ecosystem health.”

*Scary stuff- “In 1990 the Nature Conservancy summarized the losses and depletions from this rich realm (N.A. ecosystem).  They reported that four out of every ten species of North American freshwater fish were either extinct or vulnerable to extinction.  Half of the continent’s crayfish species were similarly affected, while nearly 70 per cent of its freshwater mussels were in danger.”

*More scary stuff on page 336- “By the 1950s North Americans had eliminated about four-fifths of the continent’s wildlife, cut more than half its timber, all but destroyed its native cultures, dammed most of its rivers, destroyed its most productive freshwater fisheries and depleted a good proportion of its soils.”

*On page 345 Flannery calls for a holistic approach to natural conservancy.  He goes as far to suggest reintroducing mega-fauna such as jaguars and lions may be needed in Yellowstone.