Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

We Are Petroleum Junkies

Hydrocarbons are a dog-damned miracle. The things we get out of crude oil, from fuel to explosives, from fertilizers to clothing, from pharmaceuticals to candle wax, from pesticides to plastics, from asphalt to inks… it’s just mind-boggling. Mostly we think of gasoline, but that’s not the half of it. The stuff both powers and rules civilization: we wear it, we eat it, we breath it. And what happens to the stuff when we burn it radically transforms the planet.

That old baked plankton, all that life from at least a 100,000,000 years ago, we shoot it up the mainline! I’ve been reading Eric W. Sanderson’s Terra Nova: The New World After Oil, Cars, and Suburbs. I think everybody should have a copy at home. The first half of the book is how we got here. The second, where we should go. (There’s a discussion of the book in this Roosevelt House/CUNY video.)

Here is where oil, cars, and suburbs have left us. Sanderson gives us a great primer on hydrocarbons and their “siren song,” which lured us into the mess we’re in now, especially during the halcyon days of the “cheap oil window” of the 1930s-1970s. I lived through some of this, but of course the times you grow up in always seem like the way things are, and always have been.

Part Two of the book is his vision of a new world. Here’s a teaser: we have to get rid of the automobile. Check! I’ve been on that track for some 35 years, never having owned a car.

You may have noticed the paucity of optimistic thinking about the future in recent decades, barring the usual bubble-mania-hype of the market. The Right even believes — gotta defend their privileges any way possible — that utopian thought leads, inevitably, to the gulag. Yup, straight line.

Yet in this mire we’re bogged down in, clear-headed thinking about the future, envisioning it (with actually existing technology, not science fiction), and proposing how to make those visions come true (politics) are more vital than ever. With The Dumpster approaching the White House, now more than ever. That makes this book a weapon. Arm yourselves!

Gotham Unwatered

IMG_1328.jpgTed Steinberg’s Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York is a history of the de-watering of the region. From the Dutch on, but particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we have have pushed out the borders of the archipelago with landfill. The interior wet places have been drained, filled in, and covered over. We’ve bulkheaded the expanded edges and made impervious great swaths of the landscape, or rather hardscape. The vast tidal flats and marshes of Staten Island, Newark Bay, Upper New York Bay, Jamaica Bay, and Flushing Bay have all been completely landfilled (with ash, garbage, harbor sand, & bulldozed topography) or reduced to a small relict of their past glory. The three regional airports were all built on landfill on salt-water marsh. With rising waters and more powerful storm surges, these old marshes will be sorely missed; they will also be, in fact, the first to flood, as Sandy all too plainly showed.

The enormously rich biota of the estuary the New York megapolis is built upon is now a thing of the past. Some things have certainly gotten better than they were a century ago when the harbor was so polluted there were no fish and no Osprey to eat them, and the last of the shellfish beds were closed because of poison and disease, but the improvements we have made are definitely far from complete. The waters have gotten deeper and biologically more simplified. And we’re still pumping in far too much nitrogen!

While researching Ellis Island (which celebrates its 125 anniversary as gateway to America on New Year’s Day), I found that it was one of four “Oyster Islands” in the Upper Bay. Of the other three, one was dredged away; one is now home to a lighthouse; one supports the Statue of Liberty, or should we say Statue of Limitations? The great oyster richness of the region seems unimaginable now, something out of a fantasy of plenty, even with the evidence of shell middens dating back 5000 years. Oysters still grow here, but nowhere near the numbers they once did. And who would eat one? A local program with the memorable name Billion Oyster Project aims to bring them back in substantial numbers.

Yet, as Steinberg notes, there is “no recovering the biological glory of Henry Hudson’s day…. The only relevant question is how to manage the land to increase diversity and ecological complexity as much as possible in a profoundly human-dominated environment.”

And to leave you with one final gleaning from the book: NYC didn’t come up with seismic building building code until 1995. There was a one-year grace period: developers rushed to get permits in before then. One of those projects was Trump’s huge Riverside South complex, which is built on terrain prone to liquefaction.

Wait, earthquakes? Yup. I’ve felt two minor ones over the years here in Brooklyn. The actual threat, though, is something on par of the (estimated) 4.9 quake off of Rockaway Beach in 1884. A 6.0 there would have major affects through the area. There’s small hazard of such a quake, but it’s high risk because of the density of people and property.

The imperative of growth is what has driven New York’s colonization of the water, to swagger heedlessly over the floodplain. Developers and their realtor lackeys insist we should continue such — though growth for the sake of growth remains the ideology of the cancer cell, as Edward Abbey noted.  But “we must even seriously entertain the idea of retreat” from the coastline, and realize the true costs of our ecological footprint.

More Book Gifts

9781101875759Richard Fortey‘s book about his four acres of Chiltern beechwood is just out in the U.S. This is a natural history in every sense, a kind of archeology of an ancient forest whose trees are barely a hundred years old. Sound paradoxical? Read on! “I believe that all organisms are as interesting as human beings, and certainly no less important than the observer.”the_moth_snowstorm_for_web_df271fb2-a6f7-4703-9f9a-23ea2dbb7f70_1024x1024I wrote about Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm for Humans and Nature. Buy this book!
9780226395883Size of images snagged from the internet are not measure of a book! Peter Marren’s Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Butterfly Delight is a history of butterflies in Great Britain. By this we mean, of course, a history of humans and butterflies.

(What is with all these Brits writing about nature? There’s a strong elegiac tone in these works, as well as celebration, as well as inspiration to do god-damned better, mates!)

I just started reading Ted Sternberg’s Gotham Unbound: An Ecological History of Greater New York and it’s off to a very good start.

Are there books you’re recommending this year? Please add them to the comments section.

Did you notice that under “Tags” above the title, I have the category “books.” Clicking on this or any tag will bring up every post (uh, unless I forgot to add it!) about books I’ve written.


And let us not forget that a man who encouraged thuggery as a campaigner now unleashes death and rape threats from his sociopathic supporters via twitter as a President-elect. Trump is an assault on democracy, decency, civility, and civilization. He will never be my President.

Book Gifts

There’s nothing quite like a book. Erasmus had his priorities right: “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” Alas, it’s now impossible to send the old boy a gift of a book, but I think you and yours might appreciate the following as long as you don’t use Amazon, a nasty business even before its disgusting boss realized he could work with Trump.

9781250070975Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust in the UK, explores the disappearance of bumblebees in Britain and his efforts to reintroduce the extirpated Short-haired BB, which by an irony of colonial history survived in New Zealand. Ah, but you’ll be saying to yourself, what about evolution, the 160 plus generations since that introduction to NZ? There’s a lot here on humblebees in general (dumbledore, by the way, is an old Britishism for BBs).
9780393239973_198Richard Mabey spins many a tale about the long relationship between humans and plants. This is an episodic botanical history with a lot of stories within; I was particularly taken with his early chapters on trees.5f4d1356a146d43f98766f2719f182feDid you know that Henry David Thoreau’s extensive natural history notes have been used to document the much earlier blooming times for plants now in Concord. You can explore Thoreau’s plant observations yourself in Geoff Wisner‘s distillation of Thoreau’s voluminous journals. The illustrations by Barry Moser nicely complement the extracts. (Geoff’s Thoreau’s Animals is due in March.)unknownIn the last few years, you’ve probably been reading about the microbiomes all around us, in us and of us, and how they have helped to make us, and all animals, what we are. Ed Yong puts it all between covers. The definition of human has changed in our lifetime. How amazing is that? I for one celebrate it.

Next Sunday: some more books.

And check out the rest of my book notices in these pages of blog. A good book never goes out of style.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also suggest the very relevant again 1984 by George Orwell. Orwell’s most interesting contribution was his take on how language is corrupted and co-opted by authority. From Reagan’s “facts are stupid things” to Trump spokesmodels saying there are no such things as facts, through the lying machine of advertising and corporate bullshit, truth has taken an enormous beating in our time. That has been done for a purpose, and it has very much succeeded for far too many Americans. Note also Steve Tesich’s first use of “post-truth” 25 years ago. It’s up to us to save language and with it ourselves.

McCarthy on the Roof, With Wildflowers

Tomorrow night, Michael McCarthy will be speaking at Kingsland Wildflower Roof in Greenpoint, right next to the egg-shaped digesters of the sewer facility. the_moth_snowstorm_for_web_df271fb2-a6f7-4703-9f9a-23ea2dbb7f70_1024x1024McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy is just out from NYRB. I intend to write further about the book soon, but suffice for now to say that it is a most thought-provoking elegy for life on Earth and a plea for using joy and wonder at the natural world to counter our own worst instincts and efforts. moth-snowstorm-pic(The British cover.)

The Trouble With Tibbles

img_0140Tibbles is right up there in the roll of famous cats, along with Hodge, who has a statue in Gough Square; Mrs. Chippy; and Unsinkable Sam, originally Oskar, who abruptly abandoned the Kriegsmarine for the Royal Navy and then proceeded to survive two more ships going down.

Tibbles was the pet of Lyall the lighthouse keeper on Stephens Island, off the coast of New Zealand. She was first brought to the island in 1894, evidently already pregnant, so it was either Tibbles or one of her offspring who ate the last of the island’s endemic wrens, a rare flightless passerine. Over a hundred cats were hunted down on the island in 1899, but it was already too late for Traversia lyalli.

Along with the Stephens Island Wren, cats have helped cause the extinction of 122 other species of birds; 25 species of reptiles; and 27 species of mammals. They kill many millions of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects each year in the U.S. alone — the numbers are highly contested, but the thing about cats is that they are “subsidized predators,” fed by their keepers, which makes them (50% of the 86 million pet cats in the US are allowed to roam free) able to survive at extraordinarily high densities outside the house. Another 80 million or so cats are feral, outside all the time, and some of these are also fed, or subsidized, by humans as well, meaning they continue to do their thing out there. k10809A new book details this slaughter, its implications, and the struggle to stop it. The cat lobby has chosen, in classic style, to challenge the science and not the enormous problem. (This strategy goes back at least to the chemical industry’s response to Rachel Carson.)

I like cats. I like dogs, too. I grew up with both as pets. It seems to me a peculiarly limited mind that must distinguish itself between being a “cat person” or a “dog person.” But I am whole-heartedly on the side of all the other species against the cats.  This is an invasive species run absolutely amok.

If you have a pet cat, you must not let it out. It’s obviously healthier for the cat, too.

For the armies of feral cats, Trap, Neuter, & Release (TNR) programs superficially sound like a good idea, but they presume continuous management & funding since the supply of cats from fertile  domestic cats and the pet industry remains unchallenged. Meanwhile, the individual TNR’ed cat continues to kill during its lifetime. Feral cats have to be removed from habitat where they don’t belong.

Pet owners helped create this problem, but like consumers everywhere they don’t really want to take responsibility for it.img_9785This cat has an enclosed porch she can use, which lets her get plenty of fresh air but keeps her from stalking the animals she sees outside (we saw pigeons, doves, squirrels, cardinals, and a hummingbird in this Park Slope backyard over a few hours of lazy summer attention). Cat patios (“catios”) are a thing now; friends of mine have made window-box versions. Turns out to be pretty easy to stop a cat from what it wants to do. Rather less so for people.

The Once & Future World

Ischnura positaThis is a Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posits), spotted recently in Prospect Park. But it has been a lousy year for damselflies. I’m seeing neither the species nor the numbers I’ve seen in the past, particularly in Green-Wood. There, the “waters” are a mess: Valley Water has had no lilies all season; the Sylvan Water is so green it hurts the eyes — I suspect it’s saturated with too much nitrogen from fertilizer run-off. As nitrogen-supercharged algae dies, it consumes the water’s oxygen in decomposition, making a hypoxic dead-zone. The cemetery, concerned with maintaining absurd lawns, also still sprays pesticides. This summer’s heat hasn’t helped. In Prospect, fish died like crazy, also probably due to the oxygen-depleted water.

imagesMy comparison of damsel numbers with past seasons is purely anecdotal. I just know what I know. When I post a picture here to celebrate a form of fellow life, do not forget that our normal is not necessarily the normal of the past, nor necessarily the normal of the future.

J.B. MacKinnon discusses the phenomenon of “change blindness” in his book The Once and Future World. Our lives are so short we just know what we know. What we see of the natural world is what we then assume it’s always been like and always will be.

There is, for instance, a now classic study of big-game fishermen posing with their fish. The fish from the 1950s are larger than anything caught in the 2000s (by taking the big fish of a species, we removed the genes for larger fish in the gene pool for that species), but until they see the evidence, modern fishermen didn’t believe this, because they think they’re the one’s who caught the big ones. This goes along with the depletion of species in general: some studies argue that as much as 97% of the fish life off the East Coast is gone. “Shifting baselines” is each generation’s acceptance of what they know, the diminishment remains invisible. An even scarier study was done of (mostly poor, mostly minority) children in one of our most polluted cities; they didn’t think they lived mired in pollution because that was their normal, all they’d ever known. “Memory conspires against nature,” says MacKinnon of “knowledge extinction.”

MacKinnon calls our world the 10% world, one in which 90% of the natural abundance of the earth is gone. When the “once” was is as contested as the percentage point. But the record seems pretty clear: as humans spread around the world, they killed off the large species and began a radical transformation of the planet, diminishing the environment and, he argues, our own imaginations. We now call this the Anthropocene, the geological era where the works of humans are written onto the planet; just when it started (agriculture, industrial revolution?) is a big question.

We’re not the only life-form to have radically changed the planet. A few examples would include the single-cell organisms that began the oxygenation of the atmosphere 800 million years ago; the whales who played an enormous role in fertilizing the oceans; and beavers, both the extinct giant Castoroides and the ones we know, nearly made extinct, that terraformed North American in advance of the human migration via Barring.

Yet what a mess we have made! It’s not accurate so say we’re the only creature that fouls its nest: some will do it for defense! But we are the only creature that kills wantonly, often unknowingly, like a storm, a blind force of nature. Yet we know!

Ischnura posita


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