Best Science Books of 2017: Growing Ocean, Shrinking Planet

I have stopped reading books on the environment. Not out of disinterest, but because I have lost all hope. My mind cannot compute any scenario in which we don’t end up in a technological and civilisational collapse. When I was younger, I wrote screenplays and even a video game in which humanity lives in glorious futures that showcase our potential as a species; the slowly changed as I got older, and my opinion has been so degraded that my latest film idea is that we become the plaything of the stupidest alien species in the universe (there is much more, but that’s beside the point). By now, I have come to the conclusion that our science fiction canon really is fiction, and even the bleakest cyberpunk will be the future equivalent of nostalgic retro-futurism (… if we can even read in the future…).

Anyway, that is my explanation for why there are only two books in this year’s environmental books list. I can’t read any more about the collective stupidity of humanity that has brought us to this point. There are only two books that piqued my interest: The Water Will Come, an important contribution with solutions to the impending problem of rising sea levels; and Inheritors of the Earth, a treatise that offers science-based hope that we haven’t totally screwed up the environment and our legacy will have a few positive points appended to it.

Rising sea levels are one of the most tangible effects of anthropogenic climate change, and one that will have the most direct effects on large segments of the world’s population – many of the world’s largest cities are coastal and are pretty much doomed (barring any technological way to keep the ocean out of the streets). Jeff Goodell’s excellent The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World skips any sort of feel-goody introduction about how there is still time to change our fate if we just wisen up, and goes straight to adaptation strategies. At this point, adaptation is the only topic worth discussing, so I’m always happy when books don’t go through the whole “is climate change happening`and can we stop it?” charade, or waste time discussing professional denialist idiocy. Solutions are what are needed now, and Goodell’s book takes us through a world tour of how sea levels are already being a nuisance, and what potential schemes are being thought of or applied. This is a must-read book that comes at just the right time. The author is a journalist, so rest assured that it’s an extremely well-written book and easy to get through.

Narratives of biology are frequently essentialist and judgemental. Parasites are evil beings. Extinctions are just mass-death events. Humans are destroying the Earth and biodiversity. While these are technically true statements, nature is far more nuanced than such simplistic thinking. Some parasites have a unique life cycle that involves debilitating or killing their hosts, but that is just the only way they can reproduce. Extinctions, by definition, are mass-death events, but they also allow new organisms to rise up and take the place of what went extinct. Humans have had a destructive effect on the environment, but in Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction, Chris D. Thomas offers us a much more nuanced view of the flipside of our effects on biodiversity. Yes, we are causing a new mass extinction-level event (although it’s not really the fabled “sixth mass extinction”), but we are also giving many organisms the opportunity to thrive like they have never done before, and thereby also creating new hotspots for diversity. The main gist is that humanity’s expansion across the planet has greatly expanded the range of many species, such as the house sparrow, originally confined to Central Asia and now a fixture in cities worldwide. He calls the effect “New Pangaea”. Now only that, we are also in some cases increasing speciation rates, with members of invasive species populations not reproducing as easily with members of the parent populations from the original distribution. Purists will find much to argue with, especially with the conclusion that all of this is natural since our behaviour is also natural, and the book’s perspective is undoubtably provocative; but in my opinion, it is also more or less correct. My only worry isn’t with the book itself, it’s with the modern method of discourse that encourages kneejerk absolutists statements over well thought-out, wholesome thinking, and this book’s message is very easy to hijack for nefarious, anti-environmentalist purposes. Which is why it’s worth advertising it far and wide, so that many people read it and so the quote-mining won’t work.

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