How many people can planet Earth support? That is the thorny question that economist Partha Dasgupta tackles in Time and the Generations. Or, as he asks: “How should we evaluate the ethics of procreation, especially the environmental consequences of reproductive decisions on future generations, in a resource-constrained world?” Given that I have previously called overpopulation the elephant in the room that few wish to address, my interest was immediately piqued.
Overfishing is a topic I can get particularly fired up about. But how bad is the situation really? Am I buying too much into the stories of gloom, doom, and impending fisheries collapse that is the bread and butter of environmental organisations? Ocean Recovery is a short and snappy book by fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn that offers a more nuanced picture. While highlighting that there are serious problems and there is plenty of room for improvement, he shows fishing can be, and in many places is, sustainable. The book certainly challenged some of my preconceived notions with a healthy reality check.
What does the deep ocean make you think of? An alien world right on our doorstep? The cradle of life? A global garbage dump? The lungs of the planet? Or the world’s most abused ecosystem? If I am to believe marine biologist Alex Rogers, the deep ocean is all of the above, and so much more. With three decades of research experience and scientific consultancy credits for the BBC series Blue Planet II under his belt, he knows what he is talking about and he knows how to talk about it. The Deep is an intensely captivating and urgent book that swings between wonder and horror.
The phenomenon of “shifting baselines” is, to me, one of the most powerful concepts in ecology, explaining a lot of the damage humanity has wreaked on its environment. Vanishing Fish is a career-spanning collection of previously published essays, with some new material, from the pen of fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly who coined this term in 1995. And when a man like him speaks, I listen. The book gives an eye-opening overview of the state of the world’s fisheries, and the research that revealed the institutional ignorance that partially obscures the gravity of the situation.
Given that I consider overpopulation to be the mother of all problems and, unfortunately, the elephant in the room that few wish to address, this book immediately drew my attention. Empty planet? Global population decline? Those are not words you often hear when the subject turns to future demographic trends. And yet, these two Canadian authors, Darrell Bricker the CEO of social and opinion research firm Ipsos Public Affairs and John Ibbitson a journalist for Globe and Mail, contend exactly this.
Fossils fuels have powered civilization since the Industrial Revolution, and their consumption has exploded in the last few decades. But for all the prosperity that coal, gas, and oil have brought, there are many downsides, not least amongst these climate change. So how did we get here? Usual explanations point at individual consumption and population growth, and I would be quick to agree. With Burning Up, Simon Pirani, a visiting research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, basically says “not so quick, things are not that simple” and provides a deeply researched history of fossil fuel consumption.
Speaking of controversial. As mentioned in my previous review of An Essay on the Principle of Population: The 1803 Edition, concerns about human overpopulation go back to at least Malthus, a name that has become synonymous with this topic. How do you tackle this incredibly thorny issue? Malthus believed moral restraint where having children is concerned should be encouraged, which strikes me as starry-eyed and completely out of reach, especially in the individualized societies of today. Simultaneously, we have seen some pretty drastic population control measures with ugly side-effects, such as China’s one-child policy and forced sterilization in India. The cry of eugenics if never far away when this topic is tabled. Can we have any sensible discussion to find a middle ground between utopia and dystopia? This small book does a serious attempt.
If there is one group of animals that Steven Spielberg has not done a favour, it must be sharks. Already feared as a dangerous predator in an environment where humans are not in their element the 1975 movie Jaws drove this fear to stratospheric heights and painted a portrait of these fish as ruthless man-eating monsters. Browse any selection of books on sharks, and you’re likely to see photos of a breaching great white, jaws agape. Many people are not happy with this Jaws effect (see for example Lindsay Abrams’s post on Salon or Marc Lapadula’s piece on Screenprism), and this lingering fear even affects policymakers (see Christopher Neff’s article in the Australian Journal of Political Science). Tobey Curtis provides an interesting counter note to this sentiment on The Fisheries Blog, also pointing out how – ironically – Peter Benchley, author of the book on which Spielberg based his movie, was actually an advocate for shark conservation (see his book Shark Trouble). As a side-note, shark attacks have happened for as long as human have entered the sea, though have long been poorly documented – Richard Fernicola’s Twelve Days of Terror: Inside the Shocking 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks is a bit of an exception.
This, by way of a short introduction, brings us to the current book: Chapman’s Shark Attacks. The problem with shark attacks is that they are a bit like plane crashes: low-probability, high-impact events. You’re not likely to experience either, but when you do, the results can be disastrous. And thus we fear both flying and sharks.
This book presents a historical analysis of overfishing, following up on her 2012 book All the Fish in the Sea: Maximum Sustainable Yield and the Failure of Fisheries Management. Though many reviews have been written on overfishing, and everyone agrees that too many fishing boats have been built, Finley contends that the question is never asked who built these boats in the first place. Her analysis aims to show that government policies, especially during the Cold War (1946-1990), have been responsible, with subsidies for the fishing industry being a proxy to attain other goals. As the opening sentence puts it: fishing has always been about more than just catching fish. The US-side of the story is scrutinised most intensely, though developments in other nations are covered at length.
The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise lays bare a conundrum of our times. How is it that so many of us loathe resource extraction (e.g. the cutting down of trees for timber, or the mining of ores to produce metals), yet we absolutely adore the products that are subsequently made from these resources? We are up in arms when our forests are under threat, or companies want to start fracking in protected areas (a current concern in the UK), and when we successfully halt these things, the results are invariably hailed as a victory for the environment. Except that they aren’t.