Weekend Reading: Out to Sea

In this weekly roundup, we scour the Web for our favorite long-form magazine and newspaper articles, collecting them here and on Longreads and Twitter. This installment focuses on novel sources of food, what it's like to be very tall, the health of the seas, and how awesome China's cities really are.

An ocean reef.

An ocean reef.     Photo: Derek Keats

Saving the world isn’t cheap. But a new ocean health index throws that framework into the recycling heap.

Ordinarily, tensions between commerce and conservation are inescapable. This past week alone provides plenty of examples: When a ski company released plans to build an 11,000-foot-long gondola line linking two ski resorts in Utah, environmentalists called foul, and when Nevada threatened to pull out of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency—the agency tasked with coordinating between Nevada and California to keep Tahoe crystal clear—unless the agency paid more attention to economic factors.

Looking long-term, issues like climate change, deforestation, and energy transportation all point to the same problem: Saving the world isn’t cheap. But a new Ocean Health Index throws that notion into the recycling heap.

The new index is based on a scoring system that evaluates ecological, social, economic, and political factors to determine the value countries extract for their coastlines. What makes the index so groundbreaking is that a country can receive a poor score not just for over-exploiting its waterways, but for failing to fully harness their economic potential. Dump too many pollutants into the water, lose a point. Net too few fish, same deal.

Put another way, economics matter, and they’re not pitted against preservation, but alongside them within a framework of sustainability. As Benjamin Halpern, one of the study’s authors, said in an interview with National Geographic, the index isn’t designed to merely measure how pristine the water is; rather, “we’re measuring how well the ocean can deliver benefits for that place.”

Now, imagine if such an index were available for the air and land. Would it reframe how we think about, say, climate change? Imagine a score that punished a country for not maximizing its economic output by refusing to build a pipeline but also rewarded it for avoiding fracking. Such a score wouldn’t just punish actions that harm the environment, but reward for making the most of the world’s resources.

As you consider the implications of a global environmental health index, it’s worth noting another bit of research that isn’t all that it appears: The X-51A, the Mach-5 missile that hopes to revolutionize air travel, promising flights from the U.S. to London in a mere 45 minutes. While many military-developed technologies make it into the civilian realm, this missile is targeted for a very specific use: Hitting any target within minutes. But with Wednesday’s test failure, it looks like super-fast travel isn’t going to be a possibility anytime soon—for adventure seekers and warheads alike.

However, sci-fi fans still have something to cheer for: synthetic meat. It turns out that the Thiel Foundation, chaired by one of PayPal’s co-founders, is backing a startup that thinks 3-D printing could make meat a lot more environmentally friendly. But delicious too?

Now, for the top stories you should be reading this weekend:

On the topic of delicious, what could possibly be more tasty and local than the urban squirrel, otherwise known as the chicken of the trees. Mike Sula, The Chicago Reader.

I stood staring at the enemy's trophy, the familiar impotent rage rising. But the impulse to fall to my knees, gnash my teeth, and howl at the gods was stayed this time by a resolution I'd made earlier that spring. The squirrels may take my tomatoes and spit them back, but they would not go unanswered. The time had come to close the circle of life.”

Squirrels can be annoying, but pigs are an incredibly destructive invasive species, which is an excuse some people use for hunting them and feasting on their flesh. Jackson Landers, Slate.

"Pigs are omnivores, like most humans. Wild swine will eat the eggs and young of ground-nesting birds, reptiles, and amphibians that have essentially no hope of escape. Invasive pigs will almost certainly cause the extinction of native species if left alone. This is not just nature doing its thing—this is a problem that human beings created by introducing the pigs. To let nature run its course would be, ethically speaking, not very far from dumping industrial waste in a river and calling the result natural selection.”

I’m 6’ 2’’, but I’d hardly reach the shoulders of some giants. And perhaps it’s better that way. Because being tall isn’t always a gift from above. Tom Breihan, The Classical.

“When you're this tall, it becomes a deeply entrenched part of who you are. You become separate, or at least you think of yourself that way. At loud parties, you need to find a stool if you want to hear anything anybody says; otherwise, you're a disembodied head floating a foot above the crowd. Your clothes will not fit as well as other people's clothes, and you will be acutely aware of that fact at all times. In certain American cities, large crowds of children will just bust up laughing when they see you coming. (Baltimore, you are forever my home and I love you, but sometimes fuck you.) And if you spend enough time looking at the Wikipedia pages of past famous giants, you will start to think of yourself as doomed.”

That global health index of ours might come in handy when assessing just how awesome China’s unlivable cities really are. Isaac Stone Fish, Foreign Policy.

Chinese central government propaganda has gotten more sophisticated, even believable over the years, but official descriptions of cities are a major exception. Xiamen, for example, a sweltering concrete mess across the strait from Taiwan, is known as the 'Garden of the Sea.' Harbin, a gray Manchurian industrial powerhouse 300 miles south of Siberia that McKinsey says will be the world's 55th-most dynamic city in 2025, gets the award for the worst abuse of language: It is widely known in China as 'The Little Paris of the Orient,' even though the two cities have nothing in common besides roads, people, buildings, and a fondness for bread.”

The ocean index isn’t all doom and gloom, but things could be a lot better. While this piece is six years old now, it’s one of the most comprehensive takes on ocean health available. Julia Whitty, The Fate of the Ocean.

“Paradoxically, fishing has become so efficient as to be supremely inefficient. One of the biggest culprits is long-lining, in which a single boat sets monofilament line across 60 or more miles of ocean, each bearing vertical gangion lines that dangle at different depths, baited with up to 10,000 hooks designed to catch a variety of pelagic (open ocean) species. Each year, an estimated two billion longline hooks are set worldwide primarily for tuna and swordfish—though long-liners inadvertently kill far more other species that take the bait, including some 40,000 sea turtles, 300,000 seabirds, and millions of sharks annually. Thrown dead or dying back into the ocean, these unwanted species (bycatch) make up at least 25 percent of the global catch, perhaps as much as 88 billion pounds of life a year.”

Even during the Olympic cycle, you likely didn't hear about the story of Ian Dobson and Julia Lucas, one couple chasing two Olympic dreams. Michael Heald, Propeller.

I think to myself that there must be runners out there saying the exact opposite thing: it’s the fact that guys like Ian Dobson are at their best at the Trials that makes them so difficult. But I manage not to interrupt him. And then I think, Did he just say, Guys who are really good? A guy who has run 13:15 for the 5k, which works out to 3.1 miles at a 4:16 pace, a guy who ran in the Olympics, is making a distinction between himself and guys who are really good?”

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