Douglas Adams has made a successful living as an author. His nine books have sold over 15 million copies. What he is most concerned about, however, is the environment.
“Though it’s about a serious subject, there’s all sorts of ways of dealing with it,” he said. “I’ve always felt the worst way to alert people to these kinds of issues is to bang them around the head with it. If you bang people around their heads, they’re liable to put their heads somewhere else. It’s much better to entertain the hell out of them, if you can, and leave them to figure it out themselves.”
Thursday night, he came to entertain 800 people in a packed Campbell Hall with his talk, “Parrots, the Universe and Everything.” The talk was based on Adams’s favorite, and least successful, book: Last Chance to See.
“All my other books are lined up in the science fiction section – which I kind of wish they weren’t. I think they could be in general fiction, but I don’t think there’s a science fiction writer who doesn’t think that,” Adams said. “Last Chance to See is completely orphaned from my other books, either off in the travel section or in the natural history section or whatever.”
To write Last Chance to See, Adams traveled the world with zoologist Mark Carwardine, looking for endangered species. The two met when the World Wildlife Fund sent Adams to Madagascar to write about an endangered lemur, the aye-aye.
“Lemurs were the dominant life form on the planet and when the continents split up, Madagascar kind of sailed off then into what suddenly became the Indian Ocean and took with it a representative sample of the livestock of the area, which included a lot of lemurs,” he said. “They sat there for millions and millions of years in glorious isolation, while in the rest of the world a new creature emerged that was much more intelligent than the lemurs, according to it, much more competitive, much more aggressive and incredibly interested in all the things you could do with twigs.
“Twigs were absolutely wonderful. There’s so much you can do with twigs. You can dig around in the ground, you can burrow into the barks of trees for grubs, and you can hit each other with twigs. If there would have been Twig User magazine around in those days, these creatures would have been lining up for it. As you may have guessed, these animals were called the monkeys.
“Because they were more competitive than lemurs, they successfully supplanted lemurs everywhere in the world except Madagascar. Madagascar was right out in the middle of the Indian Ocean and they couldn’t get there until about 1,500 years ago when, due to startling advances in twig technology, they were able to get there in boats and planes. Suddenly, the lemurs, who had had this place to themselves for millions and millions of years were suddenly facing their old enemy, the monkey.”
Adams came face to face with a lemur – for about 10 seconds.
“This creature came out along the branch, looked down at me and I looked at it, and as it looked at me, it obviously didn’t at all like the look of what it saw and it went away,” he said. “What this encounter had been was I was a monkey looking at a lemur. Our roots in this planet go back an awfully, awfully long way and we don’t tend to think about that very much.”
The interactions between man and beast have often ended up with the beast getting the short end of the twig, Adams said. Humans think the world was created for them and prance around like they own the place, he said, which is often not in the best interests of anything.
“We think we can screw about with the world any way we like. But maybe we can’t,” he said. “We don’t have to save the world. The world is fine. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us after we’re through with it.”
The world is in the middle of the greatest period of extinction since a six-mile wide asteroid killed the dinosaurs, Adams said, but humanity is not doing much about it, and what humans are doing isn’t being done fast enough. Even if it’s a billion years until the Earth becomes uninhabitable for humans, he said, that is not much time.
“Any writer will tell you a billion years is nothing,” he said. “We’ll get down to 999,999,999 years and we’ll say, ‘Oh, well we better get on that.’ That’s how writers and most people tend to work.”