A slender but punch-packing overview of the environmental destruction of the Far North.
Spookier than the Conrad Aiken short story from which it takes its title, environmental journalist Cone’s debut examines the causes for the Arctic’s emergence as the industrial northern hemisphere’s dumping ground. Though the air over Chicago carries far more polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, than that over the Arctic island of Svalbard, the bodies of animals and people throughout the Far North contain far higher levels of “toxic trash”—precisely because the food chain is much more attenuated there, so that animals at the top of the web consume the full weight of the pesticides and poisons their prey has eaten. In the Arctic, humans occupy that spot and “can carry millions, perhaps billions, of times more PCBs than the waters where they harvest their foods.” The poisons have every danger of demolishing the Inuit and other northern peoples, who can stop hunting and thus, by abandoning their traditional ways, lose their cultures, or who can continue following the old ways and thus continue consuming dangerous levels of toxins. Cultural or environmental genocide: Either way, it’s an unlucky draw, and the psychological distress this wholesale poisoning has brought on is massive. The polar bears have it no better; their blood now carries billions of times more PCBs than do the waters of the Arctic Ocean, yielding stillbirths, cancers and other maladies. But, Cone notes, though the Arctic is what one scientist calls the world’s “ ‘indicator region’—the canary in the mine—for the persistence and spread of toxic compounds,” it is not alone; the residents of the Arctic may be suffering, but then so are those in industrial nations—witness the one in six babies now born in the U.S. to mothers whose mercury levels exceed those judged by the government to be safe.
Gloomy, stern and wholly memorable—certainly for environmentalists, wherever they may be, but, let’s hope, reaching policymakers as well.