The forgotten legacy of a driven, self-taught environmentalist
In after-dinner conversation at the table of a friend in Toronto, novelist and naturalist Graeme Gibson remarked that he thought Canada’s four most important thinkers of the 20th century were Marshall McLuhan, George Grant, Northrop Frye and John Livingston. Someone said, “Who the hell is John Livingston?”
I was taken aback because I had long placed him, along with the other three, high up in my pantheon of originals. Only at that moment did it occur to me to ask how it was that the other three still shone so brightly and John Livingston’s star had grown so dim.
Returning from the navy after World War Two, Livingston became a leading voice for the Nature Conservancy of Canada, advocating in his writing and broadcasting the need to combat unregulated industrial expansion if we were to have anything left of the wildlife we claimed to love and the natural world that sustained it. By the time Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring appeared in 1962, he was widely recognized as a founding member of the then fledgling environmental movement in Canada.
Livingston was president of the Canadian Audubon Society and the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, and a founding trustee of the Nature Conservancy. In 1962 he became executive producer of CBC’s The Nature of Things, joined by Lister Sinclair, producers Jim Murray and Nancy Archibald, and, a little later, a young geneticist at the University of Alberta named David Suzuki. Together they created what became the most enduring documentary series in the history of the CBC. The public never got to know John Livingston as a TV personality. Unless pressured he rarely appeared on camera, but he sometimes did the narration. In his classic 1960s filming of the Serengeti, the nature photography is stunning, but it is the voice you remember—a gruff, raspy, Johnny Cash baritone, tinctured by irony and a note of despair. But it was not only the voice that was distinctive; it was also the economy of the commentary—none of that synthetic anthropomorphism about what animals are thinking or feeling as we watch them, just the words needed to place us in the scene and leave us to watch.
In 1965 Livingston mounted an expedition to the Galapagos Islands that resulted in a ground-breaking nature series. A graduate of English literature, with no formal scientific training, he was by then a recognized authority on wildlife, especially birds. But his expertise was by no means only that of the weekend birdwatcher. As his later works make clear, he was a disciple of Darwin’s champion, Thomas Huxley, ardent 19th-century proponent of the scientific method. He was never comfortable with ecological movements grounded solely on sentiment or ideology. He taught himself the geology and biology he deemed essential for anyone serious about trying to understand the dynamics of the natural world, and his observations and accounts of the unique creatures of the Galapagos meet the most rigorous standards of scientific reporting. What distinguishes them from the neutral tone of ordinary scientific writing is that they are couched in a language of deep feeling.
Anne Tait, a close friend of Livingston’s, spoke of his recollection of the Galapagos: “John told me about walking the black beaches, squatting beside the giant lumbering tortoises, coming close to all those varieties of finches—especially the ‘tool-using’ one. He told me about how, while swimming, he joined a line of tropical fish in a kind of undersea ‘car wash’ to have his skin—and the fishes’ skin—sucked clean by the tiny feeders around them. This was a mystical moment for him—when the gap between human and non-human was erased.” His encounters with the life of the creatures of the Galapagos were hard science, but they were also passionate experiences.
Which may have been why he was approached by a newly minted York University in 1968 to help set up a Department of Ecological Studies. From the beginning he was a favourite on campus. His looks may have had something to do with it. There is irony in comparing him to the movie image of Indiana Jones because Jones’s field of study was Homo sapiens and Livingston’s was the blight Homo sapiens has wreaked upon the rest of creation. But the physical resemblance was there, the rugged, weathered look of the scholar who is more at home in the field than the library.
In a way, York University rescued Livingston from the countdown mentality of the television world. Along with his teaching he began research in depth into the record of humans’ impact on the planet. In the years that followed, he wrote unsparingly of humanity’s relentless pillage of the natural world in many articles, and in three full-length studies that challenged the very premises of western culture.
One Cosmic Instant: A Natural History of Human Arrogance came out in 1973. The book begins with something everyone knows: on the earth’s clock, humans arrived a few seconds before midnight. We know this but it has done nothing to give us pause. We proceed like sleepwalkers blindly presuming we are special. If we detect a problem we persuade ourselves that human ingenuity will rescue us in the end.
“The entire career of Homo sapiens has taken place in a period so brief as to be invisible on the geological time scale,” he wrote in One Cosmic Instant. “We often hear of the final retreat of the ice, or the ultimate form of the Rocky Mountains, or the eventual shape of the continents. This is a human conceit only. We blind-side ourselves by thinking volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are just blips. All is not over. Earth processes continue.”
Humans have a massive cerebral cortex in comparison to other creatures on earth, but our minds still seem too small to comprehend what we are doing to our home. We “destroy all the larger animals, either for meat or because they compete with us for space … Extinction of non-human species continues at an accelerating rate, until the only nonhuman living beings remaining will be those who are willing to share their squalor with us—rats, gutter curs, and parasites and micro-organisms which thrive in times of environmental dislocation.” This is tough talk. One Cosmic Instant is not a cheerful book.
The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation is even less so, especially for many followers who considered Livingston a leading advocate of their cause. His target this time, however, is not only the juggernaut of industrial despoliation but also those in the environmental lobby who accede to the idea of sustainable development by means of technology. (Might David Suzuki be one of them?)
Livingston had an Orwellian disgust for eco-speak. He called sustainable development a full-blown oxymoron, eco-development a lunatic term. What the words “stable economy” really mean, he wrote, is a constantly expanding gross domestic product right on into eternity, nothing to do with stability at all, and an obvious logical impossibility.
In the still widespread optimism of the last years of the 20th century, when we were confident that technology would save us from ecological disaster, Livingston’s alerts became as unpopular among many of his colleagues as they were ignored by the public. What he feared—the depletion of salmon, cod, polar bears, elephants, tigers, monarch butterflies, real blueberries—has come to pass.
Graeme Gibson, a long-time student and friend of Livingston’s, gives a reason for his having become if not a cultural outcast, a kind of -discomfiting Jeremiah. “I think that Jake’s anonymity is a result of his fierce and unpopular recognition that sustainable development, in our current intellectual and on the whole fraudulent game-playing, only means that development will be relentlessly sustained, and that (as he says in The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation) there are no industrial solutions to cultural conditioning. And it is only industrial solutions that we’re exploring. His distrust of technology as a solution (bury nuclear waste deep in the earth or shoot it into space) makes him an unpopular voice. I know passionate, dedicated and hard-working conservationists who found Jake’s The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation a hugely painful and, on some level, a betraying book. They have spent their life at it, in the best and most honourable way, and he argues it is all a waste.”
There is another reason for his eclipse on our cultural pop chart. His diagnosis of the damage we do to the biosphere may be valid but his prognosis was too unsparing, too intransigent, perhaps too strident for his time. What he called for is what only saints and prophets have the audacity to call for, a radical transformation in our way of life, a collective change of heart.
“The end of human dominance over nature requires a major value shift, a change in the dominant culture,” he wrote. “This is why theoretical work, that is, changing cultural mind sets, is necessary and vitally important.” Nothing explains more clearly his move from television to academe, from mere presentation to radical polemic.
If the years eroded his hopes for such a transformation, they did not silence him. Rogue Primate came out in 1994 and won the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction. It was a surprise to him and to all who knew his works, because the book questioned not just our homocentric presumptuousness, but also the misguided cultural and religious values that gave it root.
The rogue is, of course, us. From the time we became the dominant primate plus or minus 80,000 years ago, we began taking over. Not only did we learn to kill in packs like wolves, but we also invented sophisticated armaments like spears and arrows. Most consequential of all we learned to domesticate—to turn wild grasses into corn and wild animals into cattle. Over the centuries our ingenuity gave us control over nature. It allowed us to build gardens in the wilderness where, with vigilance and policing to keep the weeds from taking over, we could control nature. It made us masters of flora and fauna and allowed us to forget that we are creatures too.
Popular Darwinism clings to the notion of survival of the fittest—nature red in tooth and claw, as in the moribund economic theories of unmediated laissez-faire economics. Livingston’s Darwinism is antithetical to this idea. His many years in the field showed him that nature’s rule was not always competition; just as often it was accommodation. The meticulously observed evidence he gives in species after species is overwhelming. Rarely do animals fight to the death for mates. They do not just fight to survive; they accommodate to survive. The loser simply gives in and moves on. Animals communicate, not with words but with sounds and gestures and movement, and they transmit learned experience from one generation to another just as we do. Watch any mother bear and her cubs.
Livingston sees a profound lesson in all of this: animals, too, have culture—just not our variety. Who are we not only to arrogate our culture above theirs, but to consider them chattel, creatures we have a right to chop up for food, dissect for science and conserve so hunters can have fun shooting them?
This critique of humankind’s thrust for domestication has formidable enemies. The main one is the western belief in humanism—meaning not only a return to the wisdom of the ancients but also to what Livingston calls the Attic fantasy that the human is the measure of all things. His daughter, Sally, told me: “The word ‘humanism’ did not mean the same thing in our house that it means to your average liberal intellectual.”
Promulgated by the Greeks, resuscitated by the Renaissance, heralded by the Enlightenment, fuelled by the Industrial Revolution and now aspiring to Faustian control over the natural world, the idea of man as the measure of all things Livingston saw as a cultural meme had evolved not into a triumph for humanity, but into a swan song for the Earth.
The word he used for what we call humanism is domestication. It meant for him what extensions meant for Marshall McLuhan: tools we make that turn around and transform us. Domesticating nature we domesticated ourselves, amputating our minds and bodies from the primal rhythms of life.
Such apparent dismissal of culture is not as quixotic as it seems. Livingston was no yahoo; he loved music and art and poetry. What he despaired of was humanity’s overweening self-importance in assuming the world has been put here for its exclusive use. What persuaded these creatures, here for a cosmic instant in the vast sweep of time, that it was all made for them? Livingston has not been recognized as a metaphysician so far as I know. His approach is outside the categories of formal philosophy. But in page after page he tackles philosophy’s eternal imponderables—being and time. Is there a better definition of metaphysics?
In emotive prose so rare in scientific writing he describes a victim of the amputation imposed by domesticity: “Over the thousands of generations of captive procreation … what you see in the cattle feed-lot is all that remains—glazed, dulled, blurred travesties of their once wild ancestors.”
Place this beside what he sees we are losing:
The overwhelming Impression conveyed by a hunting lioness is total awareness … when her intention zeroes in on her target her face and body convey an intensity of concentration so powerful that its energy emanation is palpable … All of her sensory apparatus is cued to the instant, and all the potential explosiveness of muscle and sinew is gathered and controlled by a hair trigger. The hunting lioness in that moment is the evolutionary miracle personified … She is all of life, all of time. She is utter, and consummate.
Throughout Toronto ancient streams cut out deep ravines, little wedges of wilderness descending into the Don River valley. A few steps can take you off the pavement into a micro wilderness where wildlife—even foxes—thrives to this day. Livingston grew up on the edge of one of these ravines, spending summer days there, watching the newts, toads, frogs and birds … touching them.
Then the city put a storm sewer “through my ravine, ripping the heart out of the place … [leaving me] weeping with rage, anger and frustration … It was like a piece coming out of my stomach, and I was only ten or twelve.”
That anger and frustration remains in some of the last things he wrote: “Ideologues do not hear the screaming of the buttressed trees or the wailing of the rivers or the weeping of the soils. They do not hear the sentient agony and the anguish of the non-human multitudes—torn, shredded, crushed, incinerated, choked, dispossessed.”
What kept Livingston going in those last years when he seemed not simply to retire, but to withdraw from the species? Something from long ago must have stayed with him—the memory of his first awareness of the world, of his awestruck wonder at the activities of living things, the memory of his ravine perhaps, not Adam and Eve’s post-lapsarian garden where the beasts of the field were subject to man’s duress, but long before that when man too was a magnificent animal, before he evolved into an instrument of planetary devastation.