Books about environmental and economic issues are always kind of depressing, because it's really easy to show examples of how very badly we are hoisting ourselves on our own petard on an epic scale. Like most authors of such books, Charles Fishman shows us how very, very bad it's getting and then tries to end on an optimistic note: "Hey, we have the technology and the science, and if we just behave like rational adults who know we're all in this together, we can solve this problem!"
Uh huh, how often does that happen?
Some interesting points to ponder:
1. The Earth will never "run out" of water. The Earth has exactly the same amount of water today that it did a billion years ago and will have in a billion years. It doesn't go away, it doesn't get destroyed, it just gets recycled.
2. Every drop of water you drink was once dinosaur pee. Probably millions of times over.
3. It's been shown repeatedly that people given access to relatively unlimited, cheap water use less water than people whose water supply is sporadic and uncertain, because people who can't count on their water supply tend to horde water, which leads to more wastage.
4. There are potentially oceans-full of "deep water" locked in the Earth's crust, miles down. Unfortunately, no technology currently known to us would make it possible to access it.
There are a lot of other interesting not-so-random facts in this book. But "The Big Thirst" is about water, and water management, and the economics of water. Basically, we have too many people and not enough water. Except that's not precisely true- we have enough water. We just don't distribute it or manage it wisely. Fishman talks about the extraordinary growth of water technology in the 20th century - how something we now take for granted (in the U.S.), that when you turn on the tap, safe, unlimited, practically free drinking water will come out, is a tectonic shift in culture. People used to have to spend hours every day just to haul enough water to live on. About half the world still does (and this burden mostly falls on women, with many long-term secondary consequences).
Fishman examines three main "case studies" - Las Vegas, Australia, and India. Las Vegas, of course, is a city built in the middle of a desert where people come and pay hundreds of dollars a night to sleep in hotel rooms overlooking enormous water fountains. Vegas's water supply from Lake Mead has been getting sparser and sparser. In response, they have made a number of very intelligent water choices and imposed restrictions that would seem insane in much of the U.S., yet Vegas residents have shown it's perfectly possible to live comfortably under a water-conservation regime. And yet, they still irrigate luxury golf courses in a desert. And yet, they still use (and waste) less water than farmers.
Australia is also suffering from years and years of drought, which does not look to be ending any time soon unless you believe the global warming denialists. One of Australia's major crops is rice. Yes, Australians raise rice - a very water-intensive crop - in the desert. Seems like madness, but it made perfect sense when rain was plentiful and rivers were flowing. Now there are rivers that have literally dried up, and if you do believe in climate change, then they are probably not coming back in our lifetimes. There is a certain futility in the attitude of the rice farmers whose "solution" is basically to hope the rains come again.
There's also an interesting story about a town that could have solved its water shortage problems easily by using waste-water - very clean and efficient sewage treatment plants - except the residents went nuts at the idea of drinking "sewer water" (even though, see above, every drop of water you drink has been urine many, many times for millions of years). More and more cities are in fact now using waste-water and desalinization to provide much of their water. (Desalinization, unfortunately, is not a magical process that turns seawater into drinking water with merely an investment in a plant. It has a massive energy cost - in other words, it's likely to increase global warming — and all that salt you extract has to go somewhere.)
Then there is India. Where even rich people tend to have erratic public water and supply themselves through inefficient, wasteful, technically illegal jury-rigged supply lines filled by private water trucks. Where millions of girls basically can't go to school because they are too busy fetching water for their families. (And because they have no toilets at school that any human being would want to use.) India also has massive water problems, but ironically, they are worse now than they were in the 70s, because what was once a fairly workable public water system has been allowed to fall apart.
So, all these problems, which are in fact solvable, but they are solvable through a combination of technological, economic, and social means which will require people act like responsible adults on a global scale. Although Fishman makes the point several times that even if the residents of California suddenly implemented heroic water-saving measures, it wouldn't do a thing for the water needs of people in India or Australia.
We are really foolish about water, and water is going to become a more pressing problem than oil in the next fifty years in some parts of the world.
An interesting if somewhat gloomy book (unless you're a really optimistic futurist). I thought Fishman belabored some points a bit, and was a little too trusting in the magic of "the market" to solve our water problems if applied correctly, but the basic point that people don't value something they get for nothing has been born out.
I haven't read Mark Kurlansky's Cod, but this book is clearly capitalizing on the popularity of that book. Paul Greenberg even interviews Kurlansky and has the rather more famous writer sample a variety of wild, farmed, and organic cod to see if he can taste the difference. I guess I can't blame Greenberg for playing "gotcha" with a more famous author who made his reputation on a book about one fish species, but it seemed like he was trying a little too hard.
This book is another of what the author calls "endangered fish" books. He focuses on four of the most common food fish: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna. Talking about the biology and our history of consumption of each, Four Fish is interesting for anyone who is into food science, ecology, or marine biology, but the story is pretty depressing for every species: we're eating them all to extinction. Pretty soon many species of once-abundant fish will be available only as farmed fish, or not even that, and the international community has had very bad luck getting fishermen to stop over-fishing even when it's obvious to everyone what the inevitable outcome will be.
Greenberg tries to end the book on an optimistic note, pointing out that it's not too late, there are conservation, economic, and public policy measures that have been proven to work, and listing the necessary steps that, if taken, could result in all of our favorite fish rebounding and even remaining available as seafood for generations to come. But I cannot say I am as optimistic. The sad story of bluefin tuna seems to be the likely fate of one species after another as we greedily eat anything we can catch.
Not an extremely deep book, but good for a high-level view of our use and overuse of the ocean's resources, and definitely something that will appeal to anyone who ever had an interest in marine biology.
Family father, neuroscientist, and non-fiction audiobook addict.
I will start by admitting that I am a fan of Richard Muller. Before I even went to university I watched every lecture in his "Physics for future presidents" course at UC Berkeley, which was one of the first courses to become available online as a free webcast. I would describe Muller as an honest and rigorous scientist who is not afraid to speak his mind even when his views are controversial. He is also very critical of the way that different energy issues are portrayed in the media, something which you will realize if you read this book.
One good example of what can only be called overblown media reporting is what followed the BP oil spill in the Mexican gulf. When it happened the media was reporting on little else and many high standing politicians described it as one of the worst (sometimes the worst) environmental disasters in the history of mankind. What happened next? Suddenly the media moved on and I was surprised to learn (from this book) that though the initial explosion killed 11 workers, the subsequent oil spill only caused 6000-30.000 bird deaths. "Only" is indeed the appropriate term here, considering that glass windows kill 100.000.000 birds annually and power lines kill many million more. The BP oil spill was unfortunate, and it cost human lives, some birds and a lot of money to fix it, but it is clear that the media and the politicians got a bit carried away with this one.
Another so called " disaster" which got an unfair treatment in the media was the Fukushima power plant accident. To date not a single person have died from the radiation released and the prognosis is that a few hundred extra cancers, some of which could have a fatal outcome, will be the result of this “disaster”. My Fukushima headline would have read: “No deaths from breakdown of old nuclear power plant even though it was hit with an 8.0 earthquake and a tsunami”... (also see my pre-fukushima post on the irrational fear of nuclear power as well as my Review of the book “Radiation”).
Richard Muller spends a good deal of this book discussing the ever controversial topic of Global Warming. He was at a point very critical of the methodology used by climate researchers when they calculated the rate of global warming. For example it is not appropriate to use weather stations in populated areas because as population grows so does temperature. He also found some of the mathematics used... funky...
For this reason he did his own study, and unlike IPCC researchers this study was/is completely transparent with all data freely available for anyone who desires to make their own calculations. What did Muller find? Basically he says that the IPCC, despite their sometimes flawed methods, are correct. In other words, according to Muller the globe has warmed, and this warming has been due to human caused increases in atmospheric CO2 levels. While backing their overall conclusions about the temperature increase on earth Muller does not seem to share many peoples sense of pending disaster due to this warming. Models that predict the future climate of earth tends to have a lot of uncertainty associated with them, and it is almost impossible to know if we are able to come up with technologies that will significantly alter the future climate.
He also says that if we really want to prevent increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere we should turn our efforts to China. For quite a long time they have been building one coal plant per week spewing out not only CO2, but also huge amounts of other pollutants such as lead and arsenic. Convincing them to use clean energy sources such as solar or nuclear power (by paying them if necessary), makes a lot more sense than going for expensive alternatives in the west. That is, if you aim to achieve the maximal reduction of CO2 release per dollar, that dollar should be invested in China. Muller also reiterates several times throughout the book that energy conservation will be a huge part of the future. Proper isolation of houses, driving efficient cars etc can drastically reduce energy expenditure.
I have really only touched upon some of the issues that are discussed in this book. Muller offers a perspective on many other energy related issues such as Shale gas/oil, electric cars, fusion, wind/solar/water energy, etc etc. All in all this book is both very educational and at the same time a page turner (keep in mind though that I am kind of a nerd). If you are even just a little interested in the technologies and politics related to energy issues this book is a terrific buy!