June 22, 2010

The Fate of Nature by Charles Wohlforth: A Review

This book is a primer for understanding natural eco systems, the stress humans have placed on those eco systems and how we might be able to save nature from our own need for resources. It also addresses the spilling of oil and what comes after the oil is spilled. The book is beautifully written, not preachy and isn't bleak. Much of the author’s descriptions of the Exxon Valdez disaster will be immediately recognizable in today's headlines and stories. I enjoyed the book. It made me think a great deal about how I use food and energy and why I like to walk on the beach. The book is a “must read” for anyone who has ever tackled these difficult issues and certainly should be required reading for everyone facing the current Gulf spill. I think it would be an excellent book for discussion in a reading group or class. Educators will love it.

In "The Fate of Nature" by Charles Wohlforth, he asks the question: Do humans have it in themselves to live within their means? Are we connected to nature or set apart from it? Using Alaska history, Prince William Sound and the Exxon Valdez disaster as a topic for discussion, Wohlforth does a great job of examining the current state of the oceans, the history of the Exxon Valdez and issues surrounding finite resource management. Readers of this book are asked to ponder some very important questions: Are we doomed to use up and destroy the very resources that allow us to live or can we overcome our instincts and arrive at a sane approach to resource management.

The subject matter is complex but Wohlforth does his homework laying out the story and breaking it into understandable pieces. The writing is beautiful and his descriptions come alive as they are read. Here is an example of where Wohlforth writes about a tide pool in Prince William Sound:

The sound is heavy with mystery, full of secret places where life stews down in the mud, on fractured rocks, and within tide-pool universes, where I have watched a twenty-four-legged sunflower star chase a herd of fleeing hermit crabs like Godzilla pursuing extras through the streets of Tokyo.

I have to work hard to get Godzilla references into my own writing so I applaud Mr. Wohlforth. If only we could look forward to a Megallon reference in his next one.

Part of the book is devoted to laying out an introduction to Alaskan history from the time before white’s arrived on the scene, the Russians first, then Captain Cook, followed by events including a gold rush, land reform, and then an oil pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, Alaska. It also attempts to imagine what Alaska looked like during those early days when sea life including otters, salmon and herring were plentiful. Readers will learn about Alaskan Native tribes and how they managed to coexist with their food resources. Was it simply because their numbers were so small, or did they have a different relationship to the sea, the land and its animal inhabitants?

Wohlforth looks deeply into the psychology of hunting and gathering cultures who manage finite resources in ways we may not have thought about. He looks at psychological game theory to better understand why groups of individuals make the choices they do (sometimes in their own self interest and sometimes not). One of my favorite sections is when Wohlforth describes a group of indigenous people who did not allow fishing at a particular time of year. Any man caught fishing during this time would be insulted sexually and made the but of sexually explicit, derogatory jokes.

Wohlforth visits all of the places he writes about, getting to know the people to whom his question matters the most, fishermen, biologists, native villagers and government officials. Each one has a different spin on the subject matter. Wohlforth meets a whale biologist who refused government grants so he could conduct his own research without bias or interruption. He meets residents of Chenga, Alaska whose home town was destroyed by a tsunami in the 1964 earthquake, but was rebuilt years later at a new location, safe from tsunamis. He meets a blind biologist at the University of California who expertly identifies snail shells by feel and suggests that the rules of economics may fit as well to snail biology as they do to human interactions. He meets a fisherman from Cordova so affected by the Exxon oil spill and the changes it brought that he moved to Anchorage and never fished again. It is clear that Charles Wohlforth has been out in skiffs, drudging through marsh land, walking beaches, bouncing through muskeg and listening to nature. This is the only way he could have brought the characters in his book to life.

Much of the last third of the book is devoted to a history of the Exxon Oil Spill and its after-effects. Wohlforth, at the time a “cub reporter” with the Anchorage Daily News revisits the spill twenty years later and rekindles relationships with people he hadn’t seen since then. In this portion of the book we learn some amazingly relevant facts about the subject. We learn how the cleanup itself created a new economy for people in the area, pitting those that worked with Exxon against those who didn’t. We examine if there really is any way to clean up spilled oil. We learn that long after the spill, Exxon used their nearly infinite resources to tie up litigation in court and slow reform. In the end, many of the fishermen affected by the spill received their share of the settlement some 20 years later. Most of the settlements amounted to pennies on the dollar lost. Lastly we learn that long after the beach appears clean and the otters have been washed, trace amounts of oil are still affecting salmon and herring recoveries some 20 years after the initial insult.

Some of Wohlforth’s descriptions of the atmosphere surrounding the oil spill are quite haunting (Remember, they were written before the current BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.) Here is an excerpt:

As I spent more time in the sound, in oil, the press conferences and carnival of activity in Valdez seemed increasingly irrelevant and disconnected from reality. Exxon officials always announced numbers—miles of boom, numbers of skimmers, millions of dollars spent—facts that, if they meant anything at all, couldn’t be checked….State officials, fishing groups and the like pointed out Exxon’s faults, lobbing impotent verbal shells from bunker to bunker. ..The Coast Guard sent a series of admirals to take charge, issuing commanding statements to once and for all get the situation under control….Everyone adopted the metaphor of war. We were an army en route and we needed leadership and aggressiveness to meet the enemy and start taking back ground

With everything I liked about this book there were a few things I didn’t care for. I would have liked to see pictures depicting some of the history of Alaska. One especially that I wanted to see is Mike Webber’s Shame Totem Pole that he carved after the oil spill. The pole was described in great detail that left me urgently grasping for my keyboard and “the Google”. Also I found some of the description of the politics surrounding Gifford Pinchot a little lengthily but still important to an understanding of his thesis.

It is with fortunate yet horrific timeliness that this book has just hit the book shelves given the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Although the book was written well before this current spill, it is full of important information for everyone facing this current disaster and future environmental disasters which may come. Had the Gulf oil spill never happened, Wohlforth’s book would stand on its own merits, but because it is so useful as a tool to understand the current disaster, it cannot be overlooked.