Monday, January 18, 2016

Let Them Eat Shrimp (Kennedy Warne)

Let Them Eat Shrimp
Kennedy Warne
Island Press
Nonfiction, Nature
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In 2004, a massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean devastated coastal cities and killed more than 200,000 people... deaths due in part to the stripping of coastal mangroves for shrimp farms and other developments. It highlighted the cost of an ongoing environmental disaster that only scientists and local communities seemed to know or care about, one that takes on new urgency as we reach a tipping point in climate shift. The author travels around the world to view firsthand the price of mangrove destruction to wildlife, local economies, and people - and finds a few small slivers of hope for the future.

REVIEW: Like any book about the environment these days, it can't help but be a downer. Warne's travels bring him into contact with the many people with a personal stake in mangrove preservation, from various scientists to native villagers, in areas trying (or not even trying) many different tactics with varying degrees of success. Despite the proven worth of mangroves - not just as nurseries to commercial fish and numerous birds, shoreline buffers for storm surges, and providers of nutrients to saltwater environments, but as incredibly efficient carbon sinks to offset industrial pollution - the world by and large still views them as it views all swampland: something to be destroyed, or at best exploited for a quick buck. There are also intangible benefits, the beauty and serenity and inspiration to be found among the life-filled mud and branches and tangled roots of the mangrove forests - inspiration drawn on by prominent writers and orators from John Steinbeck to Martin Luther King, Jr. Placing a monetary value on such things is impossible - but, as Warne points out in his final chapter, the idea that the only things of worth have a concrete cash value is part of what got us into this mess to begin with. He also explains the roots of the shrimp farming global juggernaut, an idea that began with good intentions (as so many disasters do) but which has created a monster... one that few people in industrialized nations seem to care about as they chow down on endless shrimp buffets at their favorite fast-food restaurants. (I distinctly remember watching this shift as I grew up; at one time, shrimp was a luxury food, and then suddenly I was seeing DQ selling them by the bucket.) Of course, it's not the fault of the shrimp industry alone; population growth in coastal cities, rising real estate values, pushes for new tourist resorts and golf courses, and more pressures are putting the squeeze on these brackish rainforests, not to mention poor public image; everyone can see the beautiful fish of a coral reef, or the tigers of a jungle, but mangroves lack a charismatic "face" for people to care about. A growing number of people and governments are coming to realize the cost of mangrove destruction, and the value of sustainability, but with a patchwork of imperfectly-enforced laws and conflicting interests and hard-learned distrust on all sides, it's hard to see much hope for long-term prospects... at least, not until humans are either forced to wake up or knocked off the top of the global totem pole by our own short-sighted land (mis)management. It's a good, eye-opening book, even if some of the names ran together by the end.

You Might Also Enjoy:
The Ghosts of Evolution (Connie Barlow) - My Review
Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation (Bill Nye) - My Review
Swamplandia! (Karen Russell) - My Review

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