Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Featured: The View from Lazy Point – Carl Safina [Vol. 4, #6]

“A Landmark Piece of
Conservation Literature
?”

A review of

The View from Lazy Point:
A Natural Year in An Unnatural World.

By Carl Safina.

Reviewed by Brittany Buczynski.

Carl Safina - The View from Lazy PointThe View from Lazy Point:
A Natural Year in An Unnatural World.

Carl Safina.
Hardback: Henry Holt, 2011.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

Ecologist Carl Safina has penned what will surely be read and revered for years to come as a landmark piece of conservation literature and global climate change documentation. Whether one agrees with his philosophical and scientific conclusions or not, there’s no arguing with his eloquent prose and stirring description of wildlife the world over.

Spanning a full year and several continents, including both the Arctic and Antarctic, Safina’s sophisticated travel journal chronicles his environmental studies both abroad and at home in Lazy Point, a secluded seaside inlet near Amagansett, Long Island. The way he tells the stories of animal and plant survival, of interwoven ecosystems—and the dangers they are facing— almost resembles ancient parables rather than modern-day records of species struggling to adapt to changing conditions. His arguments detailing the domino effect of ecological decline are particularly convincing, as he connects micro changes within the food/energy chain to tragic environmental crises, such as dying coral reefs, vanishing forests, and endangered native populations.

With obvious affection for wilderness and wildlife, Safina paints an incredibly vibrant, delicate portrait of penguins, polar bears, parrotfishes, and many species in between. Yet the conclusions are laid out in unflinching black and white. “Fire is advancing. Ice is shrinking. Portage Glacier is missing” (244). “Predicted droughts and coastal flooding would displace around 200 million people” (245). Whether one believes the predictions or not, it’s impossible to remain unmoved by such stark forecasts.

I can think of nothing I have read in recent years that has been both so educational and so enjoyable to read. The result is staggering, and one cannot help but have a tremendous respect for Safina as a writer, let alone as a conservationist. Even when I vehemently disagreed with his points—e.g., his belief that “we’re very much on our own, with no one watching over us, no cosmic righteousness to check our folly, no just reward postmortem, solely responsible for our content and the consequences” (321)—even reading such blatant secular humanism, I couldn’t help but be entertained by the sheer cadence and beauty of the composition itself. His writing style appears effortlessly impressive, leaving too many succinct gems to count. Reading Safina’s prose is a bit like mining for gold in a jewelry store or (perhaps a metaphor more to his liking) like fishing for algae in a dying coral reef. It’s overwhelming, inundating, and ultimately satiating, at least in style, if not always in substance.

Although this is an enjoyable read, it should be noted that it’s not a book for the faint of heart or attention span. It’s a hefty book: 356 pages, including dozens of detailed maps and wildlife sketches, plus references and an extensive index that lends this train of ecological essays a textbook-like caboose. I suspect Safina’s goal in penning this sturdy volume was to educate, inspire, and challenge. For all the inescapable gloom and doom of the global-warming message, his tone is not so much depressing as convicting. At times it’s uncomfortable to read, but in a wholesome, healthy way, almost like a good sermon—a sermon that promotes ethics without God. According to Safina, religion is a medieval holdover, an outdated institution whose “‘use by’ date expired centuries ago” (315).

Though he describes himself as an ecologist, Safina frequently steps beyond that narrow role and embraces something more along the lines of a rogue politician crossed with a mystic mountain man. This alternates between inspiring and tiring, especially when his tirades sound more like a treatise against societal norms (“Resist! Do the unadvertised and the unauthorized”) than an ecological call to arms (310). But these moments of unfiltered antiestablishment rebellion are limited. More pervasive is an overarching existentialism and the sad hubris it reveals. “The sacred does not require the divine,” he writes, while later affirming that “we are self-absorbed stardust aware of the universe and the future” (321, 356).

There will be an eager audience in the scientific community for this book. Young ecologists will likely carry dog-eared copies in their field bags to distant corners of the globe, or perhaps just memorize and quote their favorite sections. My own favorites include such witticisms as America’s claim to Alaska through “Moneyfest Destiny” (165), the dangerous economic cycle of “Fail. Bail. Repeat” (271), and how Adam Smith’s “invisible hand becomes sleight of hand” via abusive industry practices that could enact worldwide “Earthron” as opposed to Enron (268). With quips like these sprinkled generously throughout his writing, it would be easy to become so enamored of Safina as a thinker, a leader, a guru of all things ecological, that questioning him amounts to being a killjoy. Safina says basically the same things Al Gore says about climate change, pollution, conservation, etc. But the difference is that he frames it in such an engaging, visceral, commonsense approach. “If we don’t get it,” he writes, speaking of the reality of global climate change, “it will get us—and then we’ll get it” (266).

The sad thing is, of course, that for all the good this book might do for reversing destructive environmental practices, it could also sway readers to buy into the author’s corollary thesis that all we need in life is “a compass of compassion” (355) to guide our ethics and keep us from sin—which Safina defines as “contravening ethical teachings,”—while protecting the sacred, or “all that is worthy of reverence, all that is deep and true” (321). The problem with these eloquent, but nebulous definitions is that they have no universal standard, no bedrock truth beneath their idealized criteria.

More disturbing still is the way Safina lumps Jesus in with Buddha and Confucius, in order to “prove” that compassionate science can be just as sacred and reverent as religion. “Compassion is what brings Jews, Christians, and Muslims to what they call God; it’s what the Buddha says will bring you to Nirvana. Confucius propounded the golden rule five centuries before Christ” (353). What Safina doesn’t mention is that these religions don’t just differ on minor doctrinal points. They are antithetical to each other, and their mutually exclusive claims cannot all relate to or support Safina’s grand ideal of the common “truth” of compassion.

Despite these questionable theological ideas, The View from Lazy Point is a wonderful piece of ecological literature and an important watershed work in the conservation movement. It challenges readers to use global natural resources wisely, to tend to the world in a responsible manner (what pastors might call “good stewardship”), to treat all fellow creatures with respect and restraint, and to question the selfish, consumeristic mentality with which marketers and businesses everywhere attempt to indoctrinate us. These are all valuable reminders indeed, and wrapped in the rich texture of Safina’s engaging wildlife narratives, this is a journey readers will find well worth their time.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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