The plastic paradox, and how to regulate the seas: Books in brief


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Plastic Unlimited

Alice Mah Polity (2022)

An excess of single-use plastics — accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic — is plain to everyone. Also obvious is that “for all of the toxicity and pollution associated with plastic, it is difficult to imagine living without it”, writes sociologist Alice Mah in her lively and sophisticated study. Chapters deal with plastic toxicity, marine waste, the climate emergency, the pandemic and the cumulative plastics crisis. However much individuals might reduce their personal use, the root problem remains the capitalist drive for limitless growth.

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James Poskett Mariner (2022)

Science’s internationalism is well recognized. But scientists tend to regard it as a recent phenomenon that arose from the ‘big science’ of the twentieth century, rather than one with a history of more than 500 years going back to the Islamic science that inspired astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, and beyond, observes historian James Poskett. His revisionary “global history” boldly rebuts this: “The myth that modern science was invented in Europe is not only false, it is also deeply damaging.”

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The Earth

Elsa Panciroli Greenfinch/Quercus (2022)

This highly illustrated history of life by palaeontologist Elsa Panciroli vivifies 47 plants and animals, starting 2.5 billion years ago with early eukaryotes — the group that includes most multicellular organisms — and ending with humans. The reader meets corals and graptolites, earthworms and dinosaurs, ants and woolly mammoths. Fossils are key to understanding geological time, as are the age, composition and distribution of rocks, but these can be misleading because “in deep time, solid rock can flow like water and crumple like paper”.

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The Poseidon Project

David Bosco Oxford Univ. Press (2022)

The ancient Greek god of the sea was “unpredictable, almost always in motion, and dangerous”, notes international-relations specialist David Bosco. His ironically titled book is a complex but readable study of ocean governance, ranging from politics to science, starting with Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius’s 1609 defence of the freedom of the seas. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has yet to draw in the world’s leading maritime power, the United States. Nevertheless, concludes Bosco, ocean regulation will increase.

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The Monster’s Bones

David K. Randall W. W. Norton (2022)

A monstrous, 66-million-year-old fossil of Tyrannosaurus rex symbolizes the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, much as the Rosetta Stone does the British Museum in London. But few know how it was found. Journalist David Randall’s entertaining book focuses on an intrepid fossil hunter backed by a privileged socialite, and includes robber barons, eugenicists and cowboys. “Rather than a mirror into the past,” Randall says, “the creature proved to reflect the concerns of the present.”

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.

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