Tag Archives: ecology

Book: Genetic Modification in Food

Genetic Modification in Food

Balanced introduction to GM foods for absolute beginners.
<100 pages, ★★★★★

Quick review today. I spent a long time making a table of organic compounds and their smells (view it here).

This book, Genetic Modification in Food, it’s one of the few books that succeeds in conveying a controversial scientific issue to the public while maintaining balance and accuracy. It’s suitable for readers who know nothing about science at all. It appeals to people who are concerned (with good reason) after reading/hearing/seeing reports about GM crops in the news. The concerned British public, for whom this book was intended, has an unusually high resistance to GM foods—so this book, which is free from ‘pro-green’ or ‘pro-science’ extremism, is a welcome addition to the pop-sci literature mix. ★★★★★

Book: Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?

Countdown

Factual, optimistic tour of the Earth that spans space and time.
513 pages, ★★★★★

One bacterium is placed in a bottle at 11:00am. It divides into two bacteria every minute until the bottle is completely full of bacteria at exactly midday. The author asks two questions. One: at what point was the bottle half-full? Two: and at what time exactly did the bacteria start to realise that they were running out of space?

The answers, of course, are “11:59am” and “they didn’t”—which should make any successfully proliferating organism shudder! The author uses this analogy to kick-start the topic of human overpopulation, which the author says is the root of all our problems (climate change, pollution, resource shortage, floods, biodiversity loss—basically everything) and is also the theme of this book.

Rather than focus on the problems, however, the author focusses on the population management solutions that education (educated women have fewer babies), economics (access to birth control) and religion (changing attitudes) are bringing to the table. This was all a pleasant surprise. With the certainty and pessimism of a title like Countdown, I was expecting to read a prophesy of how humankind will die out from ecological disaster by 2050. I opened this book expecting doom-and-gloom climate threats like we saw in Al Gore’s infamous keynote, where everything bad in the world was due to CO2 emissions and CO2 emissions were all our fault. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. Countdown had happy overtones throughout—this book bas the anthropological depth of Jared Diamond’s Collapse blended with the optimism of Robert D. Kaplan’s MonsoonCountdown is a celebration of life across different cultures, and how humanity will continue to thrive despite the problems we face.

Most of Countdown is an enlightening tour of the Earth. Reading Countdown makes me feel like a spy satellite, looking closely into global communities that span decades and continents with ease. Reading this book feels like watching Life (a little-known documentary flim) or using the Solar Walk app for iPad. Such detailed, top-down insight of communities in China, India, Israel, Japan and the Philippines make Countdown a fascinating, liberating read. Many of humanity’s ambitions and problems appear to be the same wherever we look.

Countdown begins by examining Israel’s rapid population expansion since 1948. The author then tells us that the limits Israel is facing as it expands beyond its ecological capacity also apply to the entire world. We then learn about rapid population growths in Japan, the post-war Philippines, 1980s China and its one child policy, Britain with its Islamic influx, and in the United States under President Obama. We also visit India, where farmers are suffering so much from the effects of overpopulation that suicides are commonplace and whole communities are constantly on alert to try and prevent them. In each place we visit in this book, the author zooms in on particular characters and dialogues that bring each community to life.

There’s a massive emphasis on three religions in this book: Judaism, Catholicism and Islam. These religions play a huge role in dictating family sizes, birth control (if any) and the level of female education worldwide. Countdown takes a fascinating look at the mentalities behind family size and the preferred methods of birth control in different religious communities. The reader is shown the obvious health benefits of monogamy and a low birth rate, and how female education can help to promote both. The book gives ample examples of how religious leaders (even the infamously busy Mormons) are doing their bit to reform their practices, reduce the local birth rate and improve women’s rights at the same time.

The author is very positive throughout Countdown. Even though he describes some miserable scenarios (particularly in India and Pakistan), the book’s respectful, optimistic tone and abundance of success stories make it a very uplifting read.

One of those success stories—although not connected to population—is hydrogen fuel cells. I was at the AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago in 2009, where one of the speakers told us that only hydrogen fuel cells powered by hydrogen obtained by the solar-powered splitting of water could power all human activity sustainably. I’m a huge fan of this idea, and was therefore pleasantly surprised to learn that the author is also a fan of this little-known technology in Countdown. (The only thing holding back further development is the lack of an artificial “photosystem”—a kind of crystal—but we’re slowly getting there.)

Some other interesting points the author raises include:

  • Eradicating diseases also increases the human population. Should charities who help eliminate malaria also be required to invest in family planning education initiatives in the same places?
  • Reduced breast feeding (a worldwide phenomenon) leads to hormonal changes that result in more pregnancies because lactation suppresses ovulation.
  • The Population Bomb in the late 1960s predicted massive famines, especially in Asia. Fortunately, Norman Borlaug invented a dwarf wheat with a high yield so that impending crisis was averted.

In conclusion, population reduction—a topic so controversial that most scientists don’t want to address it—is the answer to all of humanity’s problems. It’s a magic bullet. Two billion is the “ideal population” of the Earth that Daily and the Erlichs calculated back in the 1990s. I commend the author for tackling this highly controversial topic (spanning religion, birth control, female education and poverty) with respect and optimism, and making Countdown a fascinating, uplifting read in the process. Highly recommended for anyone interested in climate, sociology or human geography. ★★★★★

Book: The Disestablishment of Paradise

Disestablishment-of-Paradise

GORGEOUS sci-fi/fantasy setting, but the storyline’s not rich enough for me.
528 pages, ★

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

The Disestablishment of Paradise is set a few hundred years in the future at a time when humans have colonised at least 150 planets. The majority of these planets are located outside our solar system, and a giant “fractal” network allows people, goods and letters to travel between these planets with relative ease. The setting for this story is gorgeous.

The story takes place on a planet called Paradise. Paradise is a relatively hospitable planet—there are no living predators, plant life is everywhere, gravity is at a comfortable level and oxygen is more abundant than on Earth. Early pioneers encountered nothing dangerous at all, but did discover an irrestibly delicious, aphrodesiac fruit called the “Paradise Plum”, which, along with mining, quickly became Paradise’s most important export.

However, Paradise has become plagued by problems since its colonisation by humans: mining company MINADEC causes widespread destruction to the delicate ecosystem; and the Paradise Plums contract a mysterious disease, making them unsuitable for export and causing violent vomiting and nausea in anyone who eats them. By the time this novel begins, Paradise’s two main industries (mining and plums) had already been forced to grind to a halt, and the planet goes into debt.

Disestablishment begins when the Economic Subcommittee makes the sudden announcement that all humans must abandon Paradise because it’s unprofitable—a decision, which, once ratified by Central, has no chance of being revoked. The inhabitants are required to remove or destroy all evidence of human colonisation (the regulations tell them to “leave nothing intact”), then start new lives on another planet with monetary compensation. Most inhabitants are understandably disappointed to leave the planet, but protagonist Hera Melhuish, a leading plant scientist on Paradise, is completely heartbroken. She loves her planet so much that she breaks down upon hearing the news, attempts suicide, and spends ten days recuperating in a safe-haven. The story then follows Hera and her assistant Mack while they stay on Paradise as long as possible, discover one of its hidden treasures, and ultimately become the last people to leave.

The beginning of this story is told from personal, political and scientific perspectives. It’s written in a way that makes readers empathise with the characters as they learn the disappointing news that their planet is to be ‘disestablished’. We learn the political and economic arguments from the other side for doing so, and the interplanetary legal battle to reverse the decision is a compelling one. All the science fiction is explained convincingly in the narrative or in the appendices, and the story makes clever allusions to Genesis and to Greek mythology before page 50. Over thirty characters make themselves known before page 200. I loved this richness and complexity in the first half of this book.

Spoiler alert

This book went downhill for me after page 200 when the “hunch” that leads Mack to fly half-way around the planet unguided by maps to save Hera from danger turns out to be correct. This unexplained act killed my sympathy for both of the main characters. Mack and Hera then wrestle a Dendron (an animal-like plant), a process throughout which, it becomes increasingly obvious that they love each other and will eventually have sex. Disappointingly, they do.

I am disappointed because the politics, science fiction and maturity from the first half of the book don’t continue into the second half. Character complexity and fantasy melt away and the book becomes a simple romance story between Mack and Hera. The author sexualises both characters heavily and makes them dwell on their feelings to the extent that they sound like adolescent, first-time lovers (highly reminiscent of Gale and Katniss from the Hunger Games, actually) even though they’re both fifty years old. This novel’s intense focus on Mack and Hera’s naïve, predictable relationship in the second half didn’t match the complex, political sci-fi/fantasy novel I was expecting after reading the first half of the story.

I would have preferred an alternative storyline. First, I’d have preferred to see Mack transported back to Earth or Mars after his sex with Hera. The book’s ending could be the same, but Hera would then be faced with a big question: does she care more about Mack than about Paradise? Second, I’d have preferred to bring Hemi back into the spotlight in the second half. I’d make Hemi (who has an obvious crush on Hera) work for a demolition team, and thus introduce a new conflict: should he abdicate his duties as a demolition worker to protect Hera and her scientific samples? Unfortunately, such dilemmas were absent from the second half of the book.

End of spoilers

I recommend this book for anyone who enjoyed the film Avatar. You’ll enjoy The Disestablishment of Paradiseeven more if you’re also familiar with young adult literature, science fiction and the few allegorical references that this novel makes to other stories. Even though the storyline weakens towards the end, the world that the author creates in The Disestablishment of Paradise is a beautiful one. I still enjoyed reading this book as a whole.