books science

Book review: A Natural History of the Future, by Rob Dunn

If you think of your favourite sci-fi film or franchise, is there any room for nature in it? “Most depictions of the future do not even include nonhuman life” Rob Dunn observes. “We imagine a future in which we are the only living protagonists.”

That’s something the book sets out to correct, looking at a series of different tendencies or ‘laws’ of nature, and how they will unfold in the years to come. These laws include things like the fact that more diverse ecosystems tend to be more stable. Or that all living things have a niche in which they will flourish, or the fairly basic principle that creatures do better when they are able to evade their predators.

These might sound a little obvious, but modern industrial capitalism pays them no heed. We use chemicals to simplify nature in order to control it, putting our agriculture at odds with laws of diversity. We divide up and order spaces in ways that fragment nature and doesn’t allow animals (or plants) to move, breaking the ‘law’ of escape. Meanwhile, our built environment inadvertantly creates a perfect habitat for certain creatures, including some that harm us, such as bedbugs. “We are reshaping nature at unprecendented scales, and for the most part, we are absentmindedly looking the other way while doing so.”

There are all kinds of fascinating topics in A Natural History of the Future. Dunn describes how our understanding of biology is biased towards big things that we can see, and that life on our planet has repeatedly shown itself to be deeper and more complicated than we thought. We’re also far more dependent on it than we tend to imagine, right down to the micro-biomes that we all carry about on us and inside us. And what we’re doing to the planet is creating winners and losers – crows are doing very well, apparently.

There are important questions of survival here too, from how our way of life is driving extinctions, to the risk of anti-biotic resistance, to how climate change is changing disease lines. There’s a stark chapter on how climate change is re-drawing the ‘human niche’, based on the same study that I wrote about last year and that continues to haunt me slightly.

Dunn has a flair for writing about science, combining stories of pioneering scientists with explanations of key theories, and their practical implications. Dunn is a practicing scientist himself, someone who has specialised in the biology of everyday life, and seems to be involved in all sorts of fascinating conversations.

I really liked A Natural History of the Future. It’s engaging, accessible, and written with a wry sense of humour. It’s an important book too, because our systems and our way of life are so fundamentally opposed to many of the laws of nature. That makes them unwise at best, suicidal at worst. We need books like this, that help us to think through our present, and what it means for “the future into which are – arms flailing, coal burning, and full speed ahead – hurling ourselves.”

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