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Posts tagged ‘Environment’

Ocean of Life

I don’t often come across books I think everybody should read, but Callum Roberts’ Ocean of Life, which I reviewed for Saturday’s Weekend Australian, is definitely one of them.

My desire for people to read it isn’t because it’s beautiful, or liberating or even particularly wonderfully written. It’s because it manages, better than almost any other book I’ve read, to communicate the sheer scale of the catastrophe that’s taking place beneath the waves.

As I say in my review, I think its contents are likely to prove deeply confronting for many people. Although much of the material Roberts gathers together will be familiar to anybody with an interest in marine ecosystems I suspect the urgency and complexity of the crisis will come as a shock to people who aren’t. I challenge anybody to read the sections on ocean acidification or anoxic dead zones and not feel disturbed, or to feel comfortable reading Roberts’ lucid analysis of the speed with which fish stocks are collapsing through overfishing.

But in a way the most shocking bits of the book aren’t the facts and figures but the allusions early on to the sheer fecundity of the oceans before humans began to harvest them. Early in the book there’s a remarkable pair of excerpts from a work by the Roman writer, Oppian of Corycus (somebody, I have to confess, I wasn’t familiar with prior to reading the book), describing the methods used to catch the huge schools of tuna that once existed in the Mediterranean.

Most of these involve nets, into which the tuna pour, “without end”, but one is more basic, and relies on the use of a heavy log with spikes in it which is then dropped into the water.

I found the idea that fish might have been so plentiful it was possible to catch them with a  spiked log mind-boggling, as I’m sure many others will. But once one goes looking there are many such examples available.

One of my favourite concerns turtles. I have a longstanding fascination with turtles, which have always seemed to me to be creatures of great grace and beauty (I’ve wanted to write about them for years), and some of the most distressing material in Roberts’ book concerns them and the rapid declines taking place in many populations. Pacific populations of leatherback turtles, for instance, have declined more than 95% in the past 50 years.

But the example I’m thinking of doesn’t appear in Ocean of Life and doesn’t concern leatherbacks. Instead it relates to green sea turtles. These days there are estimated to be less than 90,000 nesting female green sea turtles left worldwide, yet when Europeans first arrived in the Americas 500 years ago it is believed there were 100 million in the Caribbean alone.

Exactly how reliable these sorts of estimates are is obviously an open question, and not one I’m in a position to assess. Ocean of Life includes an interesting discussion of attempts to derive historical fishing yields from extant data, while other studies have used at prices at market to estimate the same. But whether the figure was accurate or not, the fact is that turtles were once so common in the Caribbean that when Columbus arrived feeding groups often filled the ocean to the horizon, and as late as the eighteenth century ships that had lost their way to the Cayman Islands could steer there entirely by the noise of green sea turtles returning to nest.

If you’re staggered by that idea I suggest you read Ocean of Life, a book that doesn’t just make clear how much trouble the oceans are in, but goes one step further and offers an outline for a plan of action. And once you’ve read it, buy a second copy and send it to your local member of parliament, or hand it on to somebody else. Because as I say in my review, this is one of those rare books about the ocean that should be read not just by everybody with an interest in marine ecosystems, but by business leaders, politicians and policy-makers around the world.

Update: I’ve just discovered there’s an excerpt from Ocean of Life over at Newsweek. Please read it.


Inspired by the work of Dutch designer Pieke Bergmans, filmmaker David Parker set out to make a film about the ways we waste energy, but somewhere along the way it grew into Light, a haunting, poetic meditation not just on human wastefulness, but on the eerie, even spectral textures of the urban landscape.

There’s a short interview with Parker at The Atlantic.

Moby Duck

I’ve got a review of Donovan Hohn’s Moby Duck: the true story of 28,800 bath toys lost at sea and of the beachcombers, oceanographers, environmentalists, and fools, including the author, who went in search of them in this weekend’s Weekend Australian. As the review hopefully makes clear I liked it quite a bit, not least because despite the silly title (and the sometimes irritatingly digressive style) it’s a book that’s grappling in genuinely interesting ways with a series of questions about what Nature actually is, and perhaps just as importantly, how we should think about ideas such as wilderness and preservation in a globalised world.

These aren’t new questions, of course. There’s a growing body of theoretical work exploring them, and even in a more popular context recent years have seen the publication of books such as Bill McKibben’s Eaarth and Mark Lynas’ The God Species, but what makes Hohn’s book so refreshing is his interest in using the reality of the contemporary natural world to ask quite difficult questions about many of the assumptions underpinning environmental thinking. Some of these relate to what we actually mean by natural in 2011: there’s a great moment where he hikes through a rainforest only to realise when he hears a popping underfoot that it’s rooted in a great mound of old plastic bottles. But others are political, such as his argument the corporate-funded Keep America Beautiful campaign was less about cleaning up the environment than about transforming the public perception of litter and waste from a responsibility of polluting companies into something connected to personal conduct.

The book’s also interesting because it deliberately avoids the pieties of so much nature writing. Hohn isn’t interested in the chiselled prose and watchful reverence of Barry Lopez or Peter Matthiessen or Robert MacFarlane, instead he adopts a more contemporary (and more garrolous) style, one that allows him to write as lucidly about Chinese factories as vast, submarine gyres.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying there’s a lot to like about the book, and if you get a chance it’s well worth checking out. As I say, the review’s in The Weekend Australian, and you can find links to buy the book on Booko.

The Book of the Ocean

As I mentioned a while back, one of the projects I’ve been working on for a while now is an anthology of writing about the ocean for Penguin. It’s been a fascinating process, both because it’s given me a chance to revisit a number of books that have meant a great deal to me over the years and because it’s forced me to acquaint myself with many more I didn’t know, or only knew by reputation.

As the imbroglio over the Macquarie/PEN Anthology demonstrates, assembling anthologies is a perilous business. The bigger the subject, the more people have invested in it, the more likely you are to come in for a bucketing for mistaken emphases and omissions. And since the literature of the ocean is one of those subjects which is both vast and weighed down by its history it’s one that offers plenty of pitfalls.

As a result I decided early on that I had no desire to be either definitive or exhaustive. Instead my intention has been to assemble a relatively personal collection, which draws together a selection of writing I love. As someone whose life has been spent on the shores of the Southern and Pacific Oceans I also decided I wanted to put together a collection that spoke to and about that experience, rather than concentrating on the exploration of the northern seas that has traditionally preoccupied collections of this sort. In practice that’s meant letting go of a number of things I wanted to use, but it’s also helped give the collection a shape and cohesiveness it might not otherwise have had.

All of which brings me to the point of this post. The book’s now largely done, but I’ve still got space for a few more pieces, so I thought I might call upon all of you out there for suggestions. Is there anything you can think of that absolutely, definitely should be in a book of this sort? Or do you have ideas for things I might have overlooked? Because if you do I’d love to hear them.

A few caveats. I’m not looking for unpublished work or submissions. And while it doesn’t have to be Australian I’m very keen for a couple more pieces by Australians. Likewise, given the fact most of the pieces I’ve got so far are by men, I’m very interested in suggestions about work by women which might be suitable. And in the interests of preserving my sanity I’ve also limited the collection to writing in English, so no Jules Verne or Bachelard.

And please don’t assume I’m only after prose. Although the collection is predominantly prose it contains poetry, so suggestions for poems (especially Australian poems!) about the ocean are very welcome. Likewise I’m relaxed about whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, though since this is a book aimed at the general reader I’m not after academic writing, or monographs (which has, much to my regret, precluded a couple of idols of mine like Greg Dening I was hoping to include). What matters is that it feels urgent, and necessary, and – though obviously this isn’t something any of you are able to gauge – that it fit with what’s already in place.

I’ll look forward to your ideas.

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