Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were, by Philip Lymbery, March 2018. Bloomsbury, ISBN: 9781408868263, 384 pages. RRP £10.99 (paperback)
If I was scanning the “Environment” section in my local bookshop, I would probably leave this book sitting on the shelf. The title tends towards the theatrical, which I always find off-putting, and apart from a jazzy front cover it offers no illustrations in its 300+ pages. The author also comes with strong vegan credentials which as a committed omnivore I may find an unwelcome challenge to my eating habits. In so doing I would have missed an opportunity to experience a well-written, balanced, and engaging account of the impacts of industrialised farming practices on the life of planet Earth. Lymbery Is certainly passionate about his subject and he had me hooked by the end of the Preface. As a follow-up to his comments on farming practices in Farmageddon, Dead Zone takes a critical look at the ways in which the industrialisation of farming is impacting upon wildlife, using a number of case studies, and asks the question “what kind of legacy do we want to leave for our children?” History is littered with examples of human societies which have had a reckless disregard for their environment on the road to their ultimate demise.
The expansion of deforestation to create land on which to produce palm oil, primarily for animal feed, has driven forest dwelling animals to leave their natural homes, bringing them into direct conflict with human societies. The industrialisation of agriculture has not only polluted the environment but has also removed habitats for plants and small mammals. (Conversely, changes to less intensive land-usage have already resulted in growing populations of, for example, the iconic barn-owl.) The slaughter of the American bison was part of the campaign to rid the country of Native Americans, leaving the prairies free of the animal by the end of the nineteenth century. The open prairies were then farmed intensively, leading to long-term environmental damage such as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Marine environments have been contaminated by the excessive amounts of fertilizers added to the land, creating coastal “dead-zones” which are incapable of supporting fish life. One victim of this is the shrimp. The application of industrial farming methods, driven in part by profit maximisation and also by the application of agricultural policies such as the EU’s CAP, can raise chemical levels in soils, increase vulnerability to diseases, and accelerate loss of habitats. Lymbery uses further examples of the water vole, peregrine falcon, bumble bee, jaguar, penguin, and marine iguana to lay bare the tragic ecological damage which human society has inflicted on the landscape. He states: “if humans continue to produce, consume and waste food as they currently do, they will continue to be able to feed themselves for another few decades but there’ll be nothing left for nature”.
Lymbery illustrates that it is not necessary to exploit the land in this way and that it is possible to farm within a landscape, his arguments amply supported by notes and references. So this is a book which we should all take from the shelf and read. The written style is such that once started you will find yourselves fully engaged and, perhaps, as passionate about the subject matter as the author.
Rev Dr John Harrison