Alanna Mitchell is a great writer, an excellently capable and determined journalist, and most importantly, someone who cares about the state of the earth and all the species that inhabit it.
In her 2005 book ‘Dancing at the Dead Sea’, which grew out of winning an environmental journalist of the year award, Mitchell crossed the world and doggededly pursued leads and contacts to uncover some of the key environmental issues, in some of the key hotspots. This is a finely crafted and evocative tale of that journey, beginning in Jordan, on the banks of the Dead Sea, where she was collecting the award.
The award led to a residency at Oxford University in the UK, where her fascination with the work of Charles Darwin was able to flourish, and she was able to start walking in his footsteps. She writes as a talented interpreter of his theory for the modern green or eco-conscious audience, and weaves Darwin’s life and thought through her own journeys, both personal and professional.
Darwin, regarded by many as ‘the Devil’s Chaplain’, and by Sir Julian Huxley as “the most respectable revolutionary the world has ever known” rather reluctantly got his theory of evolution into the world’s consciousness, and shifted human understanding up a notch or two.
It is this shift in human understanding of the planet’s health and the potential catastrophe that is coming that Mitchell pursues, and she finds the experts out in the wilderness who are uncovering bones, protecting Oryx, observing ice patterns in the Arctic, studying turtles in the Galapagos Islands (which Darwin ate in abundance!) or sailing down the Amazon and protecting trees in Madagascar. All these experts provide the author with first hand experience of climate change, and she writes clearly and sympathetically of the local human dilemmas involved in this.
From indigenous people’s way of life being threatened, to greed, corruption and politics pushing big business’s to squander natural resources, Mitchell holds spiritual values close: “unpicking a societies’ legends, to understand what the underlying, unstated value system is.”
This is the finest environmental book I have read for a long time. It is the environmental book that I have been wanting to read, and that I had hoped so many of the others I’ve read this past year would turn out to be.
Madagascar tragedy is heart breaking
The author combines her own story (though not too much, as some other writers have) with this fantastic journey to follow Darwin and see for herself some of the world’s environmental hotspots, and meet some of those who campaign so passionately (and lose their lives sometimes doing so, as did British environmentalist Andrew Lees in Madagascar).
The tragedy of the Malagasy chopping down nearly 200,000 hectares of rainforest a year, and then burning the land, destroying mature trees and habitat for the once vast range of species in Madagascar is heart breaking.
Ten percent of the forest cover in Madagascar (in 2005) remains. Later in the book Mitchell is in Suriname, “one of the world’s few conservation victories” where 90% forest cover remains, and an International conservation group (Conservation International) led by Russ Mittmeier has been very successful is preserving lots of land within a reserve, and working with the local tribes on preservation issues.
For the Inuvialuit of Banks Island, the future looks grim. As I have seen myself in nearby Iqualuit, capital of the Independent Inuit territory of Nunavut, the ice melts quicker every spring and summer than anyone has seen before.
Why is no one listening?
This is, according to Mitchell, a “sophisticated community with layers of secrets, decades of mystery” and they are trying to warn the Western world. Mitchell spells it out to the reader that the arctic is
a regulator of the planets temperature and climate, and the Inuvialuit and Inuit travel to meet politicians and bodies like the IISD (International Institute for Sustainable development), but few listen
or seem to care.
Weaving in and out of the academy, namely Oxford University, where Mitchell hails great British learning but reveals its prejudices too, Mitchell writes for both the casual reader as well as activists,
experts, and concerned individuals who care about the world and want to understand the broader picture. Mitchell takes us, sometimes rather bleakly, to places we are unlikely to get to, and reflects, “as a species, it’s not our strong suit to think long-term.”
She says of Phillip Currie, an American palaeontologist who has developed a radical theory of previous ecosystem collapse, that he “has the odd sense of humour that comes from understanding that almost every life form that ever existed has gone extinct. It’s a gentle fatalism born of the evidence that extinction is not just the agent of destruction, but of renewal as well, both necessary as well as capricious.”
New light on Jordan’s depleted water aquifer
This is the book to read to hear about the hotspots, get a glimpse at some of the problems and also see some of the solutions. We here in Israel and particularly here on Green Prophet are familiar with the
issues surrounding the Dead Sea and its decline so I won’t quote from that, but Mitchell’s chapter on Jordan and the Azraq Oasis, ‘Parched Oasis’ (pages 121 – 145) sheds new light on the ecological problems faced by our neighbour Jordan, and particularly the damage done to their underground aquifer.
The oasis has been in human use for 250,000 years: the most important spring there (of 10) dried up completely in 1993, just 13 years after water authorities in Amman began pumping water from it, at the rate of up to 39 million cubic metres a year.
However, Mitchell negotiates the mass of human emotions that surround this issue, and blends realism as well as optimism and positive thinking throughout her valuable work:
“I have found Darwin, seen what he saw, consulted his oracle, sought the lost islands and the promised land. But I have no big answers. No tidy new legends. Darwin’s ghost cannot foretell the fate of the species because that fate is in our hands now. It is bound in patterns of human behaviour.”
Dancing at the Dead Sea – Journey to the Heart of Environmental Crisis, by Alanna Mitchell 2005 published by Eden Project Books, UK. (Transworld Publishers, a division of Random House)