Reviewed by Meron Wilson, NPA Sydney Environmental Book Club 

Sunlight and Seaweed by Tim Flannery looks at the mess we have gotten ourselves into, fouling our planetary nest by living beyond our ecological means, and offers a few rays of hope we can yet put things right-ish.

Tim has a rare talent for describing complex situations in simple ways. He tells stories to convey his ideas so we learn about them almost by default. At times this leads to frustrating over-simplification and fact-sliding, but a reference list at the back of the book is there for any who would like to delve deeper.

The opening paragraph sets the scene: “There is no doubt that humanity is nearing a crisis point. Old ways of doing things…have proved to be so damaging to human health and the environment… new methods of providing life’s essentials must be devised.” Our current habit of using 50% more resources than can be replaced, and leaving contaminated messes behind, needs to change.

Tim uses some startling facts to illustrate how we have contaminated the air, water and soil on which life depends. Nearly five hundred years after it was recognised that pollution from mining and smelting degrades the environment, one in seven people suffer from lead poisoning through contact with contaminated soils. Nearly one fifth of China’s agricultural soils are contaminated with bio-accumulating heavy metals, in other words, they pass up the food chain, concentrating as they go. Finite fresh water supplies are routinely spoiled and squandered: every year more people die from unsafe water than from war.

Putting aside the impacts on other species, we are squandering the very resources we will need to feed ourselves as our numbers continue to grow. Tim suggests kelp could play a role in providing protein in the future. One species of kelp has the capacity to absorb COfrom the ocean. If farmed in large enough areas, it could reduce local acidity and provide feeding grounds for fish and mollusc aquaculture. Experiments in this blue sky – or sea – technology are being carried out around the world.

And then there is climate change and the dilemma of how to wean off fossil fuels.

An exciting emerging technology Tim describes is industrial Concentrated Solar Thermal (CST). Put simply, CST uses mirrors to capture sunlight, and salts or sand to store it as heat. As well as generating heat and electricity after the sun goes down, CST can produce fresh water from polluted or seawater, and decontaminate soils using high temperature (550oC) steam. CST plants are being built around the world, experimenting with different designs as new problems emerge. In one application, 10 per cent of Australia’s truss tomato crop is grown in greenhouses with fresh water converted from seawater using CST technology.

The problems are real and need to be addressed urgently. New technologies are the way forward. Some don’t even exist yet. But investing in and encouraging them offers the best chance of survival for not only our species but for the web of life we are intricately part of. Go with Tim. Read his book.

To check your own ecological footprint, visit www.wwf.org.au

Sydney members meet regularly to discuss environmental books. To find out more or to RSVP for the next meeting contact NPA President, Anne Dickson: president@npansw.org.au

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