Thursday, August 2, 2007

Sunday Not-So-Funnies

I almost wish I’d just stuck to reading the comics in last Sunday’s Washington Post (7/29/07). The Book World section cover story reviewed The Unnatural History of the Sea, in which Callum Roberts traces the history of our “boundless delusion” that the sea is a limitless resource immune from human overexploitation. In case reading about the possibly-irreversible degradation of ocean life weren’t depressing enough, another review looked at Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle over Global Warming by science journalist Chris Mooney. Storm World looks into the increasingly grim facts about global warming and its spinoffs, such as Katrina and other “hypercanes,” and finds something even more distressing: our government is muzzling the scientists who would alert us to danger perhaps in time to prevent the worst results. I took a breather after these two dismaying critiques and scanned the column for young readers. Sunday’s presented an array of retellings, often with ethnic twists, of classic fairy tales. But I couldn’t help wondering which Brothers Grimm parable of human folly describes our environmental blindness best.

Back to the adult book reviews, the one that most caught my eye addresses the perhaps-surprising best seller, The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. A science journalist, Weisman postulates that all human life could suddenly disappear, perhaps from a human-specific, airborne virus. Then he asks—how would the Earth react? Within days, New York’s subway tunnels would flood, within years pet dogs would start their decline toward extinction, and within decades, most of our homes would be collapsed, the remains overgrown with vegetation and overrun with new four- and six-legged occupants. The end of humans would also mean the cessation of nuclear power plant maintenance, and the resulting Chernobyls would spread radioactive contamination around 100s of sites. But the most ubiquitous, persistent signs of former human glory would be our plastic trash. Plastic bags would block sea turtle intestines and miles-long plastic nets would continue to fish the troubled oceans long after we vanish into the past.

To my surprise, the reviewer (Michael Grunwald, author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise) doesn’t seem to grasp the value of this thought experiment. He says The World “is trivia masquerading as wisdom” and criticizes the author for recommending population control as a partial solution to current and projected environmental crises. It’s just the kind of formal book review I dislike—devoting more space to the reviewer’s reactions than to the substance of the book. We learn that the reviewer attends lots of “depressingly apocalyptic environmental conferences” and that he adamantly opposes strict population limits and thinks human survival is the best and only reason to protect the planet. But he fails adequately to present Weisman’s viewpoint or to quote from the book to give potential readers a taste of Weisman’s prose style. Although I’m a strong supporter of newspaper book reviews as an essential resource for readers confronted with so many books, this one doesn’t do its job. I can’t tell from this reviewer’s strident objects whether or not he’s giving Weisman’s arguments a fair shake.

Luckily, The World has attracted enough attention that Weisman’s out there on the talk show circuit speaking for his book himself. Check out his July 30th interview on public radio. Or you can read a transcript of a live discussion, sponsored by The Washington Post, with Weisman and Callum Roberts (author of the above-mentioned The Unnatural History of the Sea about both of their books. Weisman takes the time to respond to the Post review and to talk about how he remains optimistic about the future in the face of all that he learned during his research. I may have to read it again to capture some of that optimism for myself. Or maybe I’ll just read Zits.

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