Monday, June 26, 2017

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

Dan Egan
I have lived my whole life by the Great Lakes, specifically Lake Michigan.  I love the vastness of these waters, like interior freshwater oceans.  I grew up visiting the beaches and now walk along the waterfront quite regularly; I live only a mile away from the shore.  So as soon as I heard about Dan Egan's book The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, I knew I would read it.  I don't think I realized just how depressing and stressful the book would be, though.  (That said, it ends on a semi-happy note!)

The Great Lakes were a bastion of glorious fresh water and bountiful fish for many, many years.  They were difficult to navigate, so they were mostly protected and allowed to grow and thrive as they wanted.  And then the St. Lawrence Seaway was built and things have been going downhill since then.

The lakes have been under attack by invasive species constantly since then.  The first attack by these really, really scary looking sea lampreys, which are basically blood-sucking eels that came from the Atlantic Ocean and attacked our poor, unsuspecting lake fish.  I do not recommend googling images of the sea lamprey because it is not something you'll be able to get out of your head any time soon.  It is ghastly and will likely show up in a nightmare.

Luckily, with some great work (that still continues to this day, at a cost), scientists were able to get the sea lamprey population way down by finding a poison that worked on them and only them.  BUT THEN, someone came back to Michigan from out west and was like, "What the Great Lakes need are sporting fish, not boring fish!" and so then he imported salmon to the lakes and then brought a bunch of species for those salmon to eat, and AGAIN the native fish populations dwindled.  (But recreation on the lakes SOARED into a very lucrative industry.)  And people were happy but the lakes were not really a great place.  AND THEN came the mussels, the true villains of our story (and the villains of lake stories all over the country, I think).  And they ate all the phytoplankton and starved out the salmon and the other fish, and there is NO GETTING RID OF THEM.  Really, I heard a Science Friday podcast with Dan Egan and some other scientists recently, and they were basically like, "Hopefully something will come and solve the mussel problem, but it's not likely to be humans."  Because there are just trillions of them.  If you were to drain the lakes, they would be full of these quagga mussels, cleaning the water and eating all the food and being complete menaces.

Also, asian carp has infested the Chicago River and is likely to already be in Lake Michigan and who knows what will happen then.

Suffice it to say, things do not look great for the Great Lakes.  Not only are there the many invasive species, but the lakes are bordered by eight different states, and two countries, and they have all these river tributaries, and people travel from the lakes to other parts of the countries, and the EPA seems to really not care that much about the lakes (to an appalling degree, really), and Chicagoans really want to keep taking from the lakes without giving a lot back, and the fishing industry really wants the salmon back, and other groups really want the trout and perch back, and it is very disheartening to read about.  Very important and fascinating, but fairly disheartening.  People can understand a forest fire or can see glaciers receding, but they don't care nearly as much about things happening underwater.  They don't understand just how different the lakes are now than they were 50 years ago, or 100 years ago.  There has been an incalculable loss to the whole world, and we seem not to notice.

Egan goes into excellent detail not only about the many rounds of invasive species in the lakes, but also about the people who depend on the lakes but also hurt them, the many government agencies that seem pretty ineffective in managing the lakes, and the people who are trying valiantly to help the lakes as much as they can.  I noted many quotes about the lakes that I was going to share in this post, but they are fairly sad and long, and I don't know if that's the best.

Instead, I'll leave you with the uplifting fact that Egan gave me at the end that made me feel a little better.  Native fish species in the lakes may be learning how to eat and digest the evil quagga mussels!  They never did before, and they were starving because the mussels ate all their food.  But now, since the mussels are so plentiful and the fish food is not at all plentiful, the fish are going after the mussels.  This is glorious.  I hope this continues and helps put the lakes in a little bit of a better balance.  Of course, this could all be of no help if more invasive species come in and wreak havoc on the system, or if we continue to pollute the lakes at the same rate that we do now.  But it's a story of resilience and adaptation and rooting for the underdog, and I think that's grand.

If you live by the Great Lakes, or any lake, I highly recommend reading this book!  If you enjoy books about environmental impact, or even if they cast you into despair, but you like to feel well-informed, I recommend this book to you, too.  I plan to do some research to see how I can help the lakes!  If only to go and clean up the beaches sometimes.

And if nothing else, I recommend a listen to the Science Friday podcast I linked to above!  It's excellent.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Testosterone Rex, by Cordelia Fine

Cordelia Fine
There are a few times in her book Testosterone Rex in which Cordelia Fine self-deprecatingly talks about how, when she introduces herself to people, she is always saddened by the fact that she is not immediately surrounded by fangirls and fanboys who carry copies of her book around and want her to autograph it right then and there.

I admit that I don't carry Fine's Delusions of Gender around with me, but I am a HUGE fan of the book, and I'm pretty sure that if I were ever to meet Fine in person, I would be a total fangirl and absolutely ask to take a photo with her and all sorts of other things.

SO NOW YOU KNOW, CORDELIA - you are just meeting the wrong people.  You have LOADS of fans who love you and your work.

I was pretty excited to learn that Fine had a new book out, this one about how people assume that testosterone is a hormone that creates vast differences between men and women (besides the private bits), and that it can explain a lot of things about human and animal behavior, from risk-taking to spreading the seed to being successful at work.  And, as she does, Fine shoots all of these assumptions down using science.

The book clocks in at less than 200 pages before the footnotes, so it's not long, but there's a LOT packed into its pages.  I don't remember this happening at all while I read Delusions of Gender, but I admit that reading all these details about the sex habits of fish and insects was a little trying for me.  I didn't love every page of this book the way I loved every page of Delusions of Gender, but I do think the pay-off for this book is really just as good!  Just know that I skimmed some parts of it.

Fine makes a lot of great points, and some of them really resonated with me.  For example, she talks about risk-taking and how studies have shown that men are more likely to take risks than women are.  Then she totally breaks apart this whole thing, and it was amazing.  FIRST, she says that when you separate people by ethnicity, it is actually mostly just white men who feel the world is super-safe and therefore are quite willing to take risks.  And, within that subset, it was white men who were "well educated, rich, and politically conservative, as well as more trusting of institutions and authorities, and opposed to a "power to the people" view of the world..."

Who would have thought?  The people with the most privilege are the ones most likely to take "risks," possibly because they are the least likely to lose.

Fine goes on to state that people view risks very differently, and someone may consider one thing quite risky and something else quite safe.  For example, a skydiver could be very conservative with his money, and a Wall Street speculator could drive a Volvo.  It's the individual's perception of the risk that is important, not a general idea of what is risky and what is not.

A salient point to bring those two facts together?  "When asked about the risks to human health, safety, or prosperity arising from high tax rates for business, now it was the women's and minority men's turn to be sanguine."  (Ah, so rich white men were very worried about the risks that would come with taxing business, whereas the people who would more likely benefit from taking that risk were not so worried!)  Basically, people of both genders and all races take risks all the time, it is just that we seem to value some actions as being more risky (skydiving) than others (accepting a job at a company where that you will be the only woman, surrounded by bros).

Cordelia Fine is one of those people with so much glorious righteous anger PLUS a fantastic sense of humor that you kind of want her to fight all your battles for you.  She shares a story about how she went to a school sale and some woman was selling plastic knives, and made a point to say the girl could have a pink knife, but her brother could have red or blue.  She talks about how early kids become aware of gender and what they are "supposed" to do.  (She goes into even more detail on this in Delusions of Gender).  She reminds us that we should never say stupid phrases like, "Boys will be boys," as though we should give them a free pass for being jerks.  She really carries the banner on gender equality, and I love her for it.

Really excellent book!  Go read it!