Breakpoint: Reckoning with America’s Environmental Crises

Jeremy B.C. Jackson and Steve Chapple. Yale University Press, 2018. 296 pages. $26.00.

By David L. Kirchman

After seeing the title, I steeled myself as I opened up the book for an onslaught of bad news. The preface does begin by saying that the book grew out of the “shockwaves” of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which killed eleven workers on April 22, 2010, and devastated the northern Gulf of Mexico until it was finally declared “effectively dead” on September 19, 2010. But then Jeremy Jackson, a marine ecologist, and Steve Chapple, a journalist, jump into the cab of a quarter-million-dollar tractor to survey John Weber’s farm in Iowa. In between hearing about storm damage to Weber’s soybean fields and admiring his hogs, Jackson and Chapple introduce some of the problems caused by modern agriculture, one of the crises highlighted in the book. Iowa’s iconic crop, corn, is used to make sugary drinks and food that are fueling a rise in obesity, diabetes, and heart problems. About 40 percent of the corn harvest goes toward the synthesis of biofuels, which arguably are more harmful to the environment than fossil fuels.  

Weber does what he can to minimize the damage. In his expensive tractor and its “Variable Rate Technology,” guided by satellites and extensive testing of the soil, Weber can apply fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides only where needed. He alternates corn with soy, which requires less nitrogen fertilizer. His fields are bordered by sixty-foot-wide buffer zones that are meant to filter out chemicals before leaving his property. But some do, of course. The chemicals get into drinking water, and the fertilizer stimulates algal blooms in nearby rivers, reservoirs, and lakes. 

Some of the fertilizer makes it to the Mississippi River and to the Gulf of Mexico. Once there, the fertilizer nutrients stimulate more algal blooms, which have closed down beaches and lead to depletion of oxygen dissolved in bottom waters, creating a dead zone the size of New Jersey. The dead zone is only one of several environmental crises facing Louisiana and other Gulf states.  

The authors’ native guide in Louisiana is Gene Turner, a professor of coastal science at Louisiana State University. During a small plane ride out of New Orleans and boat trips in the bayous, Turner talks to Jackson and Chapple about marshes and wetlands disappearing from the Mississippi Delta. Since the 1930s Louisiana has lost an area equivalent to the state of Delaware. Among several causes, the biggest is the leveeing and damming of the Mississippi River in an effort to control it and protect communities on its bank. But this straitjacketing of the river also means the sediments needed to sustain and build wetlands are lost to the Gulf, if they make it that far south at all. Jackson and Chapple ponder the consequences while relaxing at an eccentric fishing lodge with a well-stocked bar and an ice cube-crunching dog. 

As their travels in the bayou come to an end, the authors turn to another environmental crisis, sea level rise. Much of New Orleans is already below sea level, so its vulnerability is not surprising. It is more surprising and disturbing to hear about the many other cities threatened by sea level rise. Both LaGuardia and JFK airports in New York may be underwater by the end of the century, and already streets of Miami Beach are flooded by some high tides. 

Just when the news couldn’t be darker, the authors pull us back from the edge. A long epilogue to the book begins with a quote from Thomas Edison writing to Henry Ford in 1931. The Wizard of Menlo Park says he’d put “my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power!” Jackson and Chapple seem to agree, noting that recent investment in renewable energy was twice the money going into fossil fuels. More electricity in the U.S. is now generated by renewable sources than by coal. The authors are equally optimistic about “agricultural sustainability” and moving away from industrial agriculture and its reliance on chemicals. The news about sea level rise remains grim, but at least New York City and others are facing up to the problem. The most optimistic note is at the end of book; the environmental crises facing the country are solvable if we only work together. Unanswered is whether we can come together in time before reaching a breakpoint. 

David L. Kirchman (ΦBK, Lawrence University, 1976) is the Maxwell P. and Mildred H. Harrington Professor Marine Biosciences at the University of Delaware and a resident member of the Alpha of Delaware chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.