Narrator: Jason Culp
Published by Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group on March 17, 2017
Genres: History, Science
Length: 12 hours 20 mins
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The Great Lakes - Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Superior - hold 20 percent of the world's supply of surface fresh water and provide sustenance, work, and recreation for tens of millions of Americans. But they are under threat as never before, and their problems are spreading across the continent. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is prize-winning reporter Dan Egan's engaging portrait of an ecological catastrophe happening right before our eyes, blending the epic story of the lakes with an examination of the perils they face and the ways we can restore and preserve them for generations to come.
For thousands of years, the pristine Great Lakes were separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the roaring Niagara Falls and from the Mississippi River basin by a "subcontinental divide". Beginning in the late 1800s, these barriers were circumvented to attract oceangoing freighters from the Atlantic and to allow Chicago's sewage to float out to the Mississippi. These were engineering marvels in their time - and the changes in Chicago arrested a deadly cycle of waterborne illnesses - but they have had horrendous unforeseen consequences. Egan provides a chilling account of how sea lamprey, zebra and quagga mussels, and other invaders have made their way into the lakes, decimating native species and largely destroying the age-old ecosystem. And because the lakes are no longer isolated, the invaders now threaten water intake pipes, hydroelectric dams, and other infrastructure across the country.
Egan also explores why outbreaks of toxic algae stemming from the overapplication of farm fertilizer have left massive biological "dead zones" that threaten the supply of fresh water. He examines fluctuations in the levels of the lakes caused by manmade climate change and overzealous dredging of shipping channels. And he reports on the chronic threats to siphon off Great Lakes water to slake drier regions of America or to be sold abroad.
In an age when dire problems like the Flint water crisis or the California drought bring ever more attention to the indispensability of safe, clean, easily available water, The Death and the Life of the Great Lakes is a powerful paean to what is arguably our most precious resource, an urgent examination of what threatens it, and a convincing call to arms about the relatively simple things we need to do to protect it.
I was actually at Lakeside Chautauqua on Lake Erie for a week earlier this summer. I’ve lived in Ohio most of my life and even if we don’t go up to Lake Erie often, it’s still part of our state identity, if that makes sense, which is why The Death and Life of the Great Lakes caught my attention. It’s an interesting book and an easy read, even for a non-history, non-science girl like me. We all know that humans affect the environment, but found it really interesting how a lot of the problems the lakes experience now can really be traced back to the 1800s when the lakes were first opened to the Atlantic Ocean and the Chicago River and onto the Mississippi.
Egan does a wonderful job of combining history and science in relating all the lakes have been through and why. He also includes individual’s stories, about what the lake was like when they were young versus today, or how they thought/think that the choices they made were in the best interest of the communities.
The last bit was especially interesting looking forward. In that section, Egan’s not talking about the fish or mussels or seaweed, he’s talking about the actual water. The Great Lakes account for 21% of the world’s surface freshwater and about 84% of North America’s. Many people think that the next set of wars will not be over oil but over water. Recently even places as far away as Atlanta have been eyeing the Great Lakes’ water to supplement their own supplies. At the moment, with few exceptions, a county needs to be in the Great Lake basin to utilize the Great Lakes as a source of water, but in the future who knows.
I won’t remember many of the details Egan supplied, but I will remember his general points. I would definitely recommend The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, especially for those of us with a connection to the lakes, which is pretty much all of us, one way or another.