For most Midwesterners, the Great Lakes frequently serve as a backdrop for outdoor adventure-- frigid, clear and impossibly vast, this freshwater system is a central source for recreation, commerce and much more. Individuals and businesses across the continent depend on these lakes, and in the past century, this dependency has been reflected in a changing ecology that is taking place on a level that many Americans remain unaware of.
UW-Madison’s 2018/2019 Go Big Read pick “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” by Dan Egan is a fastidious examination of these changes. Egan’s book traces the natural development and human impact on these crucial bodies of water from earliest history to the alarming present.
In addition to being a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Egan is also a senior water policy fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and his expertise shows. This book manages to be abundantly factual without sacrificing its narrative heft, calling attention to an issue that few civilians seem to recognize in an age in which the dire state of the planet’s climate is often overlooked.
At the forefront of the crisis affecting the Great Lakes, Egan argues, are invasive species that enter the water systems by means of shipping vessels passing through a canal that links the lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. The perpetrators may be small, but the havoc that they wreak is not.
Egan writes of invasive mussels and lampreys that have leached the lakes of life-supporting mainstays, causing toxic algal blooms and rampant depletion of the native fish population. Additionally, Egan recounts the human attempts at alteration and control of these destructive forces. As one reads these accounts of what is essentially a snowball effect of human intervention, it’s apparent that while some forms of regulation are more successful than others, none are without consequence.
Ultimately, Egan’s book is a red flag, written for policy makers and civilians alike. After describing the threats closing in, such as an increased invasion of much bigger aquatic creatures and the contamination of drinking water for many across the region, Egan asserts that unless water policy changes rapidly, the lake system that holds a staggering 20 percent of the globe’s freshwater runs the risk of transforming into what Egan dubs “North America’s Dead Sea.”
He closes the book on a humanistic note, reflecting on his son’s experience catching his first fish in Lake Michigan. It is arguably this final portrait that strikes the most harrowing chord with the reader, reminding us that the lakes are not just a vehicle for shipping transactions or a large patch of blue on a map, they are a foundational component of the places that millions of humans call home.
Regardless of one’s level of fluency surrounding the environment and natural science, all North Americans should become acquainted with this book. Egan’s thorough account sheds much-needed light on an issue that lurks just below the surface of widespread acknowledgment, an encroaching threat that is all the more shocking because it is undeniably true.
Final Grade: A
Madeline Peterson is a literature columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of her work, click here.