Posted on

Book Review: Junk Raft by Marcus Eriksen

Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution tells the terrifying and important story of plastics in our oceans, framed by Marcus Eriksen’s journey aboard Junk, the all-plastic raft he and his sailing partner took from California to Hawaii to raise awareness of the plight of our seas.

Eriksen, who would later go on to co-found the organization 5 Gyres Institute with his wife, Anna, writes about the 2,600-mile journey over eighty-eight days and its challenges—among them, structural problems with the raft and bracing storms—interspersing the narrative with facts that all consumers should know about plastic and its effects on the environment, especially the oceans. For example, even if we are among those who recycle, it’s not enough: up to 12 million tons of plastics end up in the ocean.

The statistics are staggering: Plastic production, which was zero during World War II, rose to 40 million tons by 1972, to 311 million tons in 2013, and is projected to reach 1 billion tons by 2050. Yet the recycling rate in the United States is only 9.2 percent (based on the latest study in 2013), and, even more alarming, non-recyclable plastics are exported to countries where environmental standards and workers’ health are unregulated. Of a visit to a processing site in India, Eriksen writes, “After ten minutes, my eyes were tingling and the back of my throat burned. The men [working] in this room absorb the largest dose of volatile plasticizers and pollutants, and according to a local NGO, they give up somewhere around twenty years of their lifespan for two dollars per day sorting our trash.”

India and China are among countries that send the plastic right back to the U.S. via new products created with the plastic sent to them. To tackle the problem at its inception, Eriksen advocates for an end the “throwaway culture” that leads to such waste in the first place. “I’ve witnessed a growing movement to end throwaway living…We need zero-waste and end-of-life design for everything we create; a world in which social and environmental justice becomes part of product and systems design.”

A veteran of the Persian Gulf War, Ericksen has a unique perspective on the politics of plastic: After the war, while rafting on the Mississippi, he “witnessed a never-ending trail of trash, which had its roots in the petroleum I had been sent to defend in Kuwait. Now I watched it drift to the ocean via America’s greatest watershed.” During some of the quieter moments during his journey onboard Junk, he reflects on the sense of betrayal he felt as a veteran: “I had given everything, a willingness to kill and be killed, for the sake of cheap oil and national interests.”

Junk Raft details the history and contemporary problem of plastics, including their production, the powerful lobbying that keeps such items as plastic bags in the marketplace, and the devastating effect plastic has on marine life. Countries like Germany and Chile are on the forefront of recycling that works—from reducing packaging to requiring producers to recover the waste from their own products—and by contrast, Eriksen writes, the U.S. is the only country of the thirty-five members of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development that does not have extended producer responsibility for packaging. Only ten U.S. states have bottle-recycling programs.

When it comes to plastics, marine animals are the biggest losers of all. Various studies have estimated that between 9 and 35 percent of fish have plastics in their stomachs—and this doesn’t even include sea lions and seabirds, and all those animals caught in discarded fishing gear. If today’s plastic waste goes unabated, up to 99 percent of seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050. “Even in fish markets,” Eriksen writes, “clams and fish have been found with abundant micro- and nanoplastics in their guts, which we ingest if we eat them whole.” One recent study in the U.S. and Indonesia found that 25 percent of the fish in markets had plastics in their stomachs.

While the statistics are daunting, Eriksen writes with optimism—yet it is only through commitment to change our ways that life will improve for the oceans and its creatures. Eriksen writes, “I have tremendous hope. I am confident that we possess the collective intelligence and will to overcome the course that was set in the last century…Are we capable of replacing the globalization of stuff with the globalization of new ideas to transform our culture of consumption? To rebut Kurt Vonnegut’s epitaph for our species—‘Nice try’—I argue: ‘Not done.’”

 

Posted on
Posted on

Book Review: Wildlife Spectacles by Vladimir Dinets

 

Wildlife Spectacles: Mass Migrations, Mating Rituals, and Other Fascinating Animal Behaviors by Vladimir Dinets is a gorgeous book that takes readers on an unforgettable journey into the lives of some of our planet’s most magnificent creatures, from muskoxen to moths, with spectacular photographs and incredible stories.

Wildlife Spectacles is divided into three major sections: Great Migrations (migrating animals on land and in air and water), Spectacles of Love (breeding habits and mating rituals), and Everyday Spectacles (how animals hunt, play, and otherwise spend their days).

Author and photographer Vladimir Dinets has focused Wildlife Spectacles on the wild animals of North America, noting: “Some of the most amazing wildlife spectacles in the world, such as mass migrations, mating dances, and predator-prey interactions, occur in North America, but the information on them is often scattered and difficult to find, and many are virtually unknown to nonspecialists.” Dinets not only offers information about and insights into these incredible events—such as the section “How Do Birds Know Where to Fly?”—but he also includes “Viewing Tips” at the end of each section for readers who wish to seek out and witness these spectacles for themselves. The tips include such details as location and the best time of year to visit.

As Dinets notes in his introduction, “North America has seen its share of horrible abuses of the environment, and there are still powerful political forces bent on sacrificing every last living thing to so-called business interests, which is a politically correct euphemism for greed.” In so many ways, this book makes a powerful argument for protecting the wildness we still have left. The desolate beauty of many of Dinets’ photographs make it possible to imagine “a time when the world was free of fences, highways, sprawling cities, pesticide-laden farms, shipping lanes, dams, and miles-long driftnets”—and certainly will inspire readers toward conservation, if they are not conservation-minded already.

In the first section—alongside photographs and maps showing the migrations of animals by land, sea, and air—are fascinating facts and anecdotes about various creatures. Once, Dinets witnessed a pack of orcas attempting to attack a sea lion herd when they were interrupted by humpback whales who surfaced between them, trumpeting and spouting—three different times, the whales interfered as the orcas tried to attach different packs of sea lions. In addition to such stories are the more depressing facts of human impacts on wildlife, beginning with the very first humans and gaining momentum in the eighteenth century, when “modern technologies and market-oriented hunting arrived in North America, and massive slaughters of everything that moved began anew.”

From the oceans (whose animals, even though better protected from overfishing, are still killed by boats, fishing gear, plastic, and climate change) to the plains (where only fifteen thousand years ago roamed such animals as mammoths, mastadons, camels, giant sloths, and wild yaks) are stories of species gone extinct and otherwise suffering at the hands of humans—and perhaps this is what makes those creatures who still exist so important to witness. Dinets photographs and writes about the migrations of animals from bison and elk to the tiny Mormon cricket and the montane vole. His descriptions add so much to the photos, as if to invite readers into the scene; of the sounds of caribou herds, he writes, “They make a lot of noises, but the most unusual and persistent one is the loud clicking of their knee and elbow joints.”

No animal is too small to be included here. Among the more unusual migrations covered are those of butterflies, beetles, dragonflies, and ladybugs. No book on waterway migrations would be complete without mentioning salmon, but also mentioned here are grunion, turtles, frogs, toads, salamanders, eels, and crabs.

Similarly, in the next two sections of the book, Dinets showcases not only the mating and predatory rituals of large animals like seals, sea lions, and elk but also those of termites, ants, and fireflies. The book is peppered with wonderful details about courtship rituals; for example, birds are not the only species to sing while courting: so do insects, whales, alligators, and crocodiles. Among those to use dancing to attract mates are birds, fish, butterflies, spiders, and slugs.

And despite the challenges of living in today’s world—“Diseases, predators, and particularly parasites often make it totally miserable…the amount of innocent suffering in nature is impossible to fathom”—animals do play, and “watching them can be pure joy.” Polar bears, elephant seals, crocodiles, fishes, and even insects are among those who have been observed in play—and species have even been seen mingling in play, such as fox cubs playing with domestic kittens, or an alligator with a river otter. Crows and ravens are “uncommonly playful.”

Wildlife Spectacles opens our eyes to the worlds we don’t see often enough, if ever, in North America, and it’s a book that engages not only visually but emotionally and intellectually. A wonderful gift book for anyone who loves animals and nature, it’s also a book that we should all have on our shelves to remind us how precious—and how vulnerable—our wild places are.

Posted on
Posted on

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Peter Godfrey-Smith has a passion for cephalopods, the class of sea animals that includes the octopus, cuttlefish, and nautilus, among others. Animals that among the oldest creatures on this planet.

Measured in numbers of neurons, the octopus has the largest brain of all invertebrates. Its eyes are remarkably similar to ours. And, like us, the octopus can unscrew jars, recognize faces, plot creative escapes, and generally make plenty of mischief.

Peter notes instances of octopuses, who don’t like bright lights, squirting jets of water at the lights above their tanks in order to short circuit them. In another case, an octopus didn’t like a specific researcher and always sent a dose of water her way when she passed.

Their ability to change colors is hard to fathom. And nobody has fully cracked the code for what all those colors and patterns mean. Darker colors tend to signal aggression; an octopus will turn black when attacking another. But often it seems the light show is occurring completely on its own.

Godfrey-Smith devotes about half of the book exploring the evolution of sentience, which I found the least interesting aspect of the book. Then again, it’s hard to compete with an octopus. What I most enjoyed about the book were his experiences with them in their environment. Peter spent a great amount of time off the coast of Australia at a place known as Octopolis because it was home to so many of these creatures. Witnessing their interactions, their soap opera lives, and the tragic briefness of it all — they only live a few years — is by itself good enough reason to read this book.

What’s sobering about this book is learning about the many scientific tests conducted on these creatures, some using electric shocks. Fortunately, these animals now receive a degree of protection as “honorary vertebrates,” but that doesn’t save them from the prison of tanks.

What’s nice about this book is how it places the reader underwater with these amazing creatures, hopefully, encouraging readers to consider what they can do to protect them. Giving up on calamari (and all seafood) would be a good start.

Peter Godfrey-Smith has a passion for cephalopods, And by the end of this book I suspect most readers will as well.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Posted on
Posted on

Book Review: What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe

It’s difficult to think of another title that is more important to the oceans—and therefore to the earth’s entire ecosystem—than What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe. Not only does Balcombe introduce us to the fascinating, complex lives of these sentient creatures, he shows us how devastatingly we are treating them, to the point of endangerment and extinction.

While fishes aren’t usually at the top of the list of animals that elicit human sympathy (“We hear no screams and see no tears when their mouths are impaled and their bodies pulled from the water”), Balcombe writes that it is only because of their differences that we do not see their suffering: “Crying out in pain is as ineffective for a fish in air as crying out in pain is for us when we are submerged.” Fishes do feel pain, of course; they just express it in very different ways, and we must adjust our way of thinking in order to see it and acknowledge it.

And of course, fishes feel so much more than pain; What a Fish Knows is divided into sections about what a fish perceives, feels, thinks, and knows as well as how it breeds and how it suffers. (Balcombe chooses to use the word fishes rather than fish to acknowledge that they are individuals with personalities and relationships.)

Each section in this book is more interesting and engaging than the last, with information on the habits, abilities, and perceptions of many of the 30,000 species of fishes in our waters. The facts about fishes’ uniqueness and diversity are fascinating in themselves—for example, that ocean sunfishes carry 300 million eggs while sharks reproduce via one live birth at a time—but what’s most interesting are the scientific and anecdotal stories of how alike fishes are to other animals, shattering any misconceptions readers may have about fishes being dull or unperceiving. In fact, Balcombe writes, “A small squid can learn mazes faster than dogs do, and a small goby fish can memorize in one trial the topography of a tide pool by swimming over it at high tide—a feat few if any humans could achieve.”

Fishes not only have excellent hearing (which makes them sensitive to human-generated underwater noise), they can tell the difference between classical music and the blues. Their keen sense of smell allows them recognize one another and warn other fishes of danger. They have more taste buds than any other animal, and they enjoy the touch of one another and of humans, as Balcombe shows in several anecdotes, including one about a fish who “even rolls side to side to be petted properly, as a dog or pig will do.”

In addition, What a Fish Knows portrays the ways in which fishes form close bonds (goldfishes, for example, should never live alone in a bowl or tank), as well as how they learn, play, parent, form relationships, and problem solve. They have good memories and express flexibility, curiosity, determination. They cooperate and they deceive.

Of note in this book is something that is all too frequently missing from other books about animals’ sentience: the irony of the impact of the scientific experiments that prove to us that these animals experience the range of emotions that they do. As Balcombe writes, “Fishes show the hallmarks of pain both physiologically and behaviorally,” and he acknowledges the cruelty of the experiments fishes endure for us to gain this knowledge. He writes of the “pain, distress, and ensuing disorientation caused by blinding salmon” and assures us, after one experiment, that “the surgeonfishes were returned to their homes on the reef.”

Perhaps the most important part of this book, especially after reading everything up to this point, is the section on humans’ exploitation of fishes—not just because it is shocking but because we have the power to change it. The number of fishes killed by humans each year is between 1 and 2.7 trillion (which does not include the great numbers of fishes caught illegally, recreationally, as bycatch, in “ghost nets,” or as feed for fish farms). After learning so much about the individual personalities of fishes, this number is especially staggering.

And, Balcombe points out, the fishes “do not die nicely.” They are crushed to death in nets; they are suffocated; they suffer decompression, in which the esophagus turns inside out, the eyes bulge from their orbits, organs are displaced, and hemorrhaging occurs, among other horrors. Fishes raised in captivity fare no better—they are electrocuted or decapitated and left to bleed out. Even if the amount of toxins in fishes (“Fish flesh is the most contaminated of all foods”) isn’t enough to prevent one from eating fishes after learning about their emotional, intellectual, and social lives, the brutal practices of an industry that subjects them to such torture should offer more than enough incentive.

Balcombe also addresses the fact that recreational fishing and farmed fishing are not better alternatives to the commercial fishing industry, as well as the problems of “ghost nets” (the up to 640,000 tons of netting and other equipment lost by fishing boats) and “bycatch” (those fishes and other animals caught unintentionally by the fishing industry). The main victims of ghost nets are dolphins, seals, turtles, and seabirds, and bycatch (whose victims include seabirds, whales, seals, and penguins) is responsible for 40 percent of the global fish catch. All of these animals are, because they are unwanted, thrown away. Because we have reduced predatory fishes (the ones humans like to eat) by more than two-thirds, Balcombe likens eating fishes to eating wildlife, and he quotes Sylvia Earle: “Think of everything in the fish market as bush meat. These are the eagles, the owls, the lions, the tigers, the snow leopards, the rhinoceroses of the ocean.”

This powerful, accessible book will ensure that we never look at a fish the same way again, whether it’s a pet or one in the sea—and it will certainly inspire us to keep them off our plates.

Posted on
Posted on

Holy Mōlī: Albatross and Other Ancestors

holy_molli

The Laysan albatross is known as Mōlī in Hawaiian. It is difficult not to speak in superlatives when describing the albatross. The bird has a wingspan longer than most humans are tall. Albatross far outlive most other birds — with one active albatross now 64 years old. They spend most of their lives  at sea, gliding just a few inches above the waves. Only 5% of their lives are spent on land — and this is where they are particularly vulnerable, when they are breeding and caring for their chicks.

Author Hob Osterlund is founder of the Kaua’i Albatross Network an organization that works to protect these birds. And through her writing you experience firsthand the challenges she and the birds face in establishing their relatively new colony. Generation by generation, Osterlund shares a wealth of stories, some happy and some not so.

Like the story of twin chicks, born to a couple that cannot possibly provide for both. Osterlund writes:

If you are like a lot of people, you might interrupt me now. You might ask if there wasn’t a way to hand-feed the chicks. I would have to refer you to Aaron; feeding a seabird is more complex than feeding a songbird. You have to be trained and officially authorized to slurry a squid and force-feed a ‘tross.

You might also ask whether The Twins should be euthanized to prevent their inevitable suffering. You might blame our species, and your own good self, for the many ways we’ve harmed the birds and their oceans. You might search for data to diminish your sorrow, to find a precedent. Alas, you will find little consolation in facts. None, actually. An albatross pair simply cannot catch and carry enough food to sustain two offspring.

We must try to be as brave as the babes, you and I.

But this is much more than a book about the albatross.

Interspersed are personal stories of a woman who lost her mother way too early. A woman who migrated to Hawaii after having been summoned in a dream by her ancestor.

Osterlund is a wonderful writer, deftly documenting a painful childhood while retaining her sense of humor throughout. She believes strongly in the power of humor, and this attitude carries through her writing.

As a bird lover, I appreciate how birds and humans are treated equally in this book. The birds have names, strong personalities, complex lives. They are, in other words, a lot like us. And, in other ways, they are our betters. Their navigational skills put most GPS devices to shame. And their willingness to raise chicks not of their own making is inspiring.

This is a lovely book about devoting your life to another species and coming to terms with your own.

Holy Moli: Albatross and Other Ancestors

Oregon State University Press

Posted on