Book Review: ‘The Ocean of Life’ by Callum Roberts

The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the SeaThe Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea by Callum Roberts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Many people think of the oceans as a remote and incidental feature of our world. Their importance is felt in a physical sense, but people don’t realize how much we all owe to life in the sea…. Humanity is in retreat all over the world.”

(I pulled some cool images of marine life from Tumblr; click to visit the original posts and learn about the species. Because fishy fishy fishy fishy fishy. There’s your disclaimer: I loooove marine life.)

It seems incredible to me that anyone could doubt the reality of climate change, or the pressing need to use and reuse our resources more efficiently than we have been doing since the beginning of recorded history. But those people are out there. Roberts, being on the forefront of multiple initiatives to assess the current health of, and to protect, the ocean, is well aware of this.

While a lot of environmental books will take only a chapter or two to lay the groundwork and then shift into explaining how we’re screwing ourselves over, Roberts takes practically the first half of this book to lay out how the earth works (including quotes from, I was amused to find, a book that I’ve been reading on and off since 2011) and how humans have been interacting with the ocean.

It’s not that the environmental issues don’t slip in; moving descriptions of sights he has seen have an unfortunate tendency to end with the fact that those areas have not been so beautiful due to missing or sick species when he’s revisited them 20-odd years later. Still, he spends a lot of time building up his premise. He opens with a very level-headed assessment of the evidence, quantifying and qualifying with available historical data as much as possible (lots of anecdotal accounts from 19th century fishermen, who while fanciful didn’t have the Photoshopping skills to fake their massive catches, or the bad business sense to lie in their ledgers). I think this book is a good primer for someone who needs to be persuaded that, yes, things have changed for the worse and it’s our fault.

And evne believers are pretty ignorant about our oceans. Roberts mentions it multiple times—there’s this notion of Earth as the big blue marble and while doomsayers repaint the continents in brown with diminished coastlines from rising sea levels, we just don’t consider that whatever’s killing the land could also be hurting the sea. So a lot of this introduction is devoted to disabusing the notion that the sea is some kind of deus ex machina just waiting to clean up all the crap we produce on land. The truth is, we simply don’t see what’s going on, or think about where those waste products end up. Sometimes the destinations are so counterintuitive that proper analysis of the origin points isn’t conducted.

And let’s not mention invasive species; the carelessness of dumping; misguided attempts to change nature (unintended consequences, who would’ve imagined?!)—all these things have their place in the book, from one chapter to the next. It is a very comprehensive read, and manages to flow neatly into topics without being boring or jarring. That said, I tend to read a few chapters of nonfiction and then take a break so the information has time to digest. There is a lot of information here, even though it is interspersed with beautiful and/or heartbreaking descriptions.

Like any sane environmental scientist (I’ve met one neuroscientist at a reputable university who was convinced climate change was a load of crap; somehow the recent blizzard and preceding weird weather—February 2010—was just business as usual), Roberts is aghast at the way we’ve been handling the oceans. And the calmness which pervades the beginning drops off once he starts discussing what our recent initiatives have been (and the pushback from corporations) and what we should be doing, which unfortunately don’t overlap half as much as they should. Roberts has a dry sense of humor, and when he reaches the bit about fisheries it takes on a bitter edge. Based on what I read in the October 24th issue of Nature, he should be foaming at the mouth.

At this point, you should be convinced enough to egg him on. If the photographic inserts of calamities he has described don’t shock you into the realization that our behavior has been nothing but ridiculous, it is quite possible you have no soul.

And even the soulless know about self-interest: Roberts makes a compelling argument, and when I say compelling I mean backed up by actual data, that conservation now will help greatly with staving off Malthusian nightmares and, guess what, it means we’ll have a prettier world to look at. There is a very backwards attitude focused on short-term profits with huge long-term expenses (long-term meaning even within the lifetime of a company, within half a century), and hopefully this book will reach those people and increase awareness. A problem he repeatedly mentions is that people don’t do a good job of drawing the appropriate parallel between land and sea; the evocative metaphors in this book (bluefin tuna sandwich == Amur leopard meat) should help there.

Roberts ends the book with mentioning that he remains an optimist, despite misguided ‘attempts’ at conservation—more so than restoration, which he argues is the real need if we want to see a reversal of trends rather than a preservation of a deleterious status quo—that fly in the face of good scientific data. There are two appendices, the first listing safe seafood (as a vegetarian, I laugh in all your faces…yes, I’ve given up Guinness since finding out about isinglass) and the second listing organizations that do good work for the environment.

I’d also like to make a pitch for your local aquarium, and this has nothing to do with the book. Despite nonsense like that ‘Blackfish’ documentary, aquariums are important and necessary for species rehabilitation, study, and education. Who is more likely to dump plastic on a beach, a child who has seen a sea lion with a scar around its throat or a child who hasn’t?

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