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Degrees of Disaster Hardcover – August 1, 1994

3.8 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Are all environmental disturbances categorically destructive? Are all human efforts to compensate for environmental damage essentially helpful? Using as a tableau the massive 1989 oil spill created when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound, science writer Wheelwright addresses these provocative questions with debatable logic and mixed results. Concluding that ecosystems are periodically buffeted by natural disturbances, and that the ecosystems often prove remarkably resilient, the author passes off human perturbations as largely insignificant. He also claims that efforts to clean up after such disasters often do more harm than good. The evidence Wheelwright presents leads one to question whether Alaskan wildlife would have been better off if the spilled oil had been left to dissipate on its own, rather than being removed by heroic, if often disruptive, efforts. However, his judgement that the consequences of the spill are unimportant does not convince, especially in such a statement as, "I had the strongest sense of the oil being incorporated by the Sound, even embraced." Although Wheelwright demonstrates some of the tensions between science and politics, his dismissal of scientific studies that fail to support his point of view undermines his credibility.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Although this book focuses on the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on the biota of Alaska's Prince William Sound, science writer Wheelwright also uses the Good Friday earthquake that devastated this area 25 years earlier to explore the broader concept of how ecosystems accommodate cataclysmic events. He describes the confusion of scientists and government officials when confronted with an oil spill of this magnitude; after viewing the sound and reviewing the data on the rescue/cleanup effort five years after the incident, Wheelwright questions the need for much of what was done. He details the effects of the oil on organisms ranging from bacteria to the sound's Native peoples, with special emphasis on sea otters. Wheelwright's sanguine views on ecosystem resiliency provide a pleasant counterpoint to the more commonly encountered doom-and-gloom predictions. While not so readable or clearly written as John Keeble's more general Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound (LJ 4/15/91), this book is recommended for libraries with considerable ecology collections.
Lynn C. Badger, Univ. of Florida Lib., Gainesville
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (August 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0671702416
  • ISBN-13: 978-0671702410
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.5 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,502,320 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jeff Wheelwright is a freelance journalist and the former science editor of Life magazine. He is the author of Degrees of Disaster, The Irritable Heart, and The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess. He lives on the Central Coast of California. More information is at jeffwheelwright.com.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Many mysteries faced the scientists who came to investigate the worst oil spill in American history, who arrived with hundreds of pet theories to explore and promote. But even greater challenges arose with the arrival of the politicians, enviro-activists, Exxon executives, and, of course, federal bureaucrats; they had to choose, and finance, measures to contain and perhaps "reverse" the environmental damage. Were otters and salmon as threatened as they appeared? Would the poison work its way up the food chain, to the bald eagle and man? Would the cold climate doom their efforts? Or should nothing be done? What, finally, did "environmental recovery" mean?

To explore these questions, Jeff Wheelwright decided to tag along with the scientists. Sometimes awestruck, sometimes antagonistic or even macho - in one place he licks raw oil off his finger to silence a heckler - Wheelwright got unusually close to his subjects, which highlights both the strengths and the drawbacks of his approach.

On the positive side, he examines issues in the infant science of ecological disaster and recovery. Many assumed, for example, that animal populations were severely harmed. This seemed natural, but were they?

Sea otters, who sustain their high metabolisms through ravenous eating, were judged extremely vulnerable to breakdowns in the ecological chain. To help them, some scientists captured and scrubbed the oily otters clean, then implanted radio transmitters in their bellies to monitor their progress. But soon others claimed that a quick wash removed their natural insulation, worsening their chances in the wild. In the end, no one could determine whether the surviving otters were even ill.
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Format: Paperback
Though some are quick to wince and scurry from the depth and gravity of this fascinating work, those with true intellectual capacity will regard it as classic. Jeff Wheelwright writes with a type of fluidity and beauty that is rarely seen in science writing today. He should be praised and rewarded for Degrees.The continuous quality of Wheelwright's writing is astounding.
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Format: Paperback
Though some are quick to wince and scurry from the depth and gravity of this fascinating work, those with true intellectual capacity will regard it as classic. Jeff Wheelwright writes with a type of fluidity and beauty that is rarely seen in science writing today. He should be praised and rewarded for Degrees.The continuous quality of Wheelwright's writing is astounding.
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Format: Hardcover
Degrees of disaster contains a great deal of information. Because of the scientific nature of the material, I would suggest the addition of visuals to assist the reader. The inclusion of graphs and charts would help readers digest the vast quanity of statistics presented.
It seems that the authors sporatic attempts to "personalize" the text by romanticizing the Sound act to discredit. I'm referring to passages like "I had the strongest sense of th oil being incoporated by the Sound, even embraced." Descriptions such as this and others that appear on the following page(132) detract from the book. They don't appear to "mix" with the hard science text. This incongruence caused me to wonder who his intended audience was.
I think the book focuses on problems without offering solutions. The afterward seemed shallow, as if the author was rushed or tired. Wheelwright missed an opportunity for a heart to heart with his audience.
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