October 23, 2014
(++++) THINKING SMALL – AND BIG
Beetle Busters: A Rogue Insect and the People Who Track It. By Loree Griffin Burns. Photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
The Next Wave: The Quest to Harness the Power of the Oceans. By Elizabeth Rusch. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.
These two entries in the always excellent Scientists in the Field series take readers from their own yards to the farthest reaches of Earth’s oceans. Beetle Busters is about the challenges of trying to find and eliminate an invasive pest that is a significant danger to North American trees: the Asian longhorned beetle (ALB). This is an attractive-looking inch-and-half-long insect with very long, striped antennae. Female beetles chew into trees to lay their eggs, and when the eggs hatch, the larvae chew their way out. If a tree harbors enough larvae, they can kill it. So just kill the beetles and their larvae and problem solved, right? Not so fast – Loree Griffin Burns explains why this is a difficult and complex situation: the only way to kill the beetles when they are inside a tree is to cut the tree down and run it through a wood chipper, which means destroying some trees to protect others. To get young readers involved in this difficult scientific issue, Burns repeatedly asks what readers would do if they had to make the decision, and brings them along (with the help of clear and informative photos by Ellen Harasimowicz) as scientists work on eradication. Making the task even harder is the fact that the ALB closely resembles other insects, and scientists must rely on people watching for, spotting and accurately reporting ALBs – a difficult situation: “I’d been called hundreds of times throughout my career by people thinking they had seen an Asian longhorned beetle,” says one scientist, “and every single time, it wasn’t ALB.” But then comes a call that is about the ALB, and scientists soon find out just how bad the infestation is: very bad indeed. The book’s narrative and photos take readers to forests infested by the ALB, to labs where studies of the beetles and the trees they attack are done, and to the U.S. Forest Service, where attempts are being made to predict where the ALB may show up in the future. There are no easy answers to this infestation, and Burns, to her credit, does not claim that there are. She ends the book by repeating questions raised early in it about whether readers feel it is right to cut infested trees – and whether they would feel the same way if the trees were the only ones in their home’s neighborhood. Scientists themselves are not sure about the tree-cutting program: there is nothing better available to stop the ALB, but even those who cut the trees are unhappy that it is necessary – and are involved in reforestation to try to replace, eventually, what is lost in the battle. Beetle Busters is especially valuable because it shows that ecological and scientific problems, even when acknowledged by all parties affected by them, do not necessarily have neat solutions – or ones without significant costs to us humans.
The Beetle Busters lesson is important because it needs to be applied thoughtfully to issues on which people agree far less than they do about the danger of the ALB. Finding and harnessing alternative sources of energy – alternatives, that is, to fossil fuels – is one such issue. There is a great deal of noise, social and political, surrounding this matter, and even a scientifically oriented “how to do it” book such as The Next Wave must be read within a sociopolitical context. There is no question that Earth’s oceans are sources of enormous power – power that occurs naturally and could, if captured, produce huge amounts of electricity without the necessity of burning oil, natural gas or coal. Devices that can catch and make use of wave energy have, however, proved elusive. Now, Elizabeth Rusch writes, a number of people and companies believe they have solved the problem of harnessing waves’ energy, or are on the verge of solving it. Some approaches involve devices that float atop the waves. Others involve ones that sit on the ocean floor. Some devices have already been tested; others exist as prototypes. Concepts differ; potential funders and investors are lining up behind one approach or another – or failing to do so, being worried about failures in tests and risks of deployment. And there are questions about how animals that live in the oceans would be affected if humans started harnessing wave energy – questions that are simply unanswerable in a laboratory environment, but that could lead to torpedoing promising scientific developments in the name of protecting wildlife. And then there is a broad question not discussed in the book: how to get wave energy to areas far from the ocean. That is no small matter: environmental extremists have successfully delayed or stopped many promising alternative-energy projects by demanding that they be 100% harmless to everything from birds or bats (in the case of on-shore wind farms) to people’s lines of sight from land (in the case of off-shore ones). But moving energy from the source of production to the place of consumption requires transport mechanisms – that is what a nation’s power grid is all about. Without a grid that extends to the area where wave power is harnessed, all that power will simply sit out there, unavailable for use. But moving that power from Point A to Point B will require heavy construction, heavy industry, and development of power-grid sections to which area residents and professional environmental agitators are unalterably opposed. Ultimately, the science to get energy from ocean waves is not enough. There must also be enough social and political will to put nonhuman species at some unknown level of risk for the sake of lessening human dependence on fossil fuels; and there must also be enough will so that transport mechanisms for zero-emission power can be placed where needed to bring that power where it has to go. The Next Wave tells only part of this story – the part involving science and innovation – and tells it very well. Families would do well to go beyond Rusch’s book to discuss the harsh non-scientific realities that will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the scientists profiled in this book to do the social good that they are trying so hard to do.