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From Fukushima fallout to retreating ice: 10 great New Yorker pieces now outside paywall

Year after year, New Yorker writers are well represented in the "Best American Science and Nature Writing" annuals.

Since The New Yorker's announcement of a summer-long relaxation of its paywall policies — allowing open access to all content published since 2007 — the blogosphere has been abuzz with read-it-while-it's-free advice on the magazine's best coverage of sports, business, food and other subjects.

Strangely, there's been no similar attempt as yet (and as far as I know) to nominate standouts in the magazine's exemplary long-form coverage of  environmental and natural science subjects.

It was The New Yorker, after all, that brought us Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" in serial form in 1962. In the same way that work changed forever the way we think of pesticides, and of ecosystems, Bill McKibben's "The End of Nature" and Elizabeth Kolbert's "Field Notes From a Catastrophe" would, decades later, reshape public awareness of global warming and its threats.

Year after year, New Yorker writers are well represented in the "Best American Science and Nature Writing" annuals — a fair measure, I think, not only of content quality but also of the magazine's steady, above-average emphasis on these topics. As a longtime fan, I'm delighted to be able to share some personal favorites today.

And trust me, I'm doing you a favor, because this magazine of fine, up-to-the-minute journalism has a glitchy online persona. Indeed, its open-archive offer is designed to attract and hold new readers while the digital platform (and paywall policies) are rebuilt.

Meanwhile, nonpayers can access any article published in the last six and a half years as long as they can find it, and that won't be easy. No issue-by-issue browsing allowed, for starters, and then there's the strikingly unadvanced search tool, with a single field for text entry and no narrowing options for, say, publication year. You can search for everything written by "elizabeth kolbert"  — not a bad idea — but everything written about her will be returned as well.

So I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it — just use Google's advanced search page, specifying in the Site field and adding date-range limiters, etc., to your heart's content. But for starters, have a look at these 10 gems, freshest first:

A Valuable Reputation: After Tyrone Hayes said that a chemical was harmful, its maker pursued him. By Rachel Aviv, Feb. 10, 2014. A nuanced, complex profile of the atrazine researcher whose work linking the herbicide to frog deformities got him famously invited and then disinvited from keynoting a 2006 program sponsored by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which denied being pressured by the agribusiness giant Syngenta.

Hayes has devoted the past fifteen years to studying atrazine, and during that time scientists around the world have expanded on his findings, suggesting that the herbicide is associated with birth defects in humans as well as in animals. The company documents show that, while Hayes was studying atrazine, Syngenta was studying him, as he had long suspected. Syngenta’s public-relations team had drafted a list of four goals. The first was “discredit Hayes.” In a spiral-bound notebook, Syngenta’s communications manager, Sherry Ford, who referred to Hayes by his initials, wrote that the company could “prevent citing of TH data by revealing him as noncredible.” He was a frequent topic of conversation at company meetings. Syngenta looked for ways to “exploit Hayes’ faults/problems.” “If TH involved in scandal, enviros will drop him,” Ford wrote. 

Recall of the Wild: The quest to engineer a world before humans. Elizabeth Kolbert, December 24, 2012. An intriguing and frequently funny look at Dutch efforts to recreate extinct ecosystems, after a fashion, for dubious reasons.

The biologists set about stocking the Oostvaardersplassen with the sorts of animals that would have inhabited the region in prehistoric times—had it not at that point been underwater. In many cases, the animals had been exterminated, so they had to settle for the next best thing. For example, in place of the aurochs, a large and now extinct bovine, they brought in Heck cattle, a variety specially bred by Nazi scientists. (More on the Nazis later.) The cattle grazed and multiplied. So did the red deer, which were trucked in from Scotland, and the horses, which were imported from Poland, and the foxes and the geese and the egrets. In fact, the large mammals reproduced so prolifically that they formed what could, with a certain amount of squinting, be said to resemble the great migratory herds of Africa; the German magazine Der Spiegelhas called the Oostvaardersplassen “the Serengeti behind the dikes.” Visitors now pay up to forty-five dollars each to take safari-like tours of the park. These are especially popular in the fall, during rutting season.

When the Earth Moved: What happened to the environmental movement? By Nicholas Lehman, April 15, 2013. A book review that, like so many in this magazine, ranges far beyond the new title in talking about its topic.

Throughout the nineteen-seventies, mostly during the Republican Administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Congress passed one environmental bill after another, establishing national controls on air and water pollution. And most of the familiar big green groups are, in their current form, offspring of Earth Day. Dozens of colleges and universities instituted environmental-studies programs, and even many small newspapers created full-time environmental beats.

Then, forty years after Earth Day, in the summer of 2010, the environmental movement suffered a humiliating defeat as unexpected as the success of Earth Day had been. The Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, announced that he would not bring to a vote a bill meant to address the greatest environmental problem of our time—global warming. The movement had poured years of effort into the bill, which involved a complicated system for limiting carbon emissions. Now it was dead, and there has been no significant environmental legislation since. Indeed, one could argue that there has been no major environmental legislation since 1990, when President George H. W. Bush signed a bill aimed at reducing acid rain. Today’s environmental movement is vastly bigger, richer, and better connected than it was in 1970. It’s also vastly less successful. What went wrong?

The Artificial Leaf: Daniel Nocera's vision for sustainable energy. By David Owen, May 14, 2012. One of our more thoughtful contrarians on renewable energy explores manmade  photosynthesis technology and points out that where it's needed most isn't where you think.

The people who contact him about buying the device are usually denizens of what Nocera calls “the legacy world”—the fortunate minority of the earth’s population which historically has enjoyed most of the considerable benefits of burning fossil fuels. These are not the people he views as the target users of his technology, at least in the near term. Since the early eighties, he has focussed on the non-legacy world—the billions of impoverished people who have little or no access to modern fuels or to any electricity grid. “If there’s one thing that’s unique to the technology development I’ve done, it’s been doing science with the super-poor in mind,” he told me. His emphasis is largely humanitarian; it also arises from his belief, as a scientist, that the only way to meet the world’s projected energy needs without causing intolerable environmental harm will be to work, in effect, from the bottom up—an approach that’s very different from the ones that dominate energy research.

Crunch: Building a better apple.  By John Seabrook, November 21, 2011. How the new apple variety SweeTango made its way from development in Minnesota to Manhattan produce counters.

In its débutante season, supplies were so limited that few New Yorkers got to taste it; this year, there were three times as many nationwide. Tweets from SweeTango’s Twitter account and posts on its Facebook page tracked the apple’s progress from Minnesota, where it was bred, to stores around the country. Like Honeycrisp, SweeTango has much larger cells than other apples, and when you bite into it the cells shatter, rather than cleaving along the cell walls, as is the case with most popular apples. The bursting of the cells fills your mouth with juice.

Chunks of SweeTango snap off in your mouth with a loud cracking sound. Although a crisp texture is the single most prized quality in an apple—even more desirable than taste, according to one study—crispness is more a matter of acoustics than of mouthfeel. Vibrations pass along the lower jaw and set the cochlea trembling. Biting into a really crisp apple, one feels, in the words of Edward Bunyard, the author of “The Anatomy of Dessert,” “a certain joy in crashing through living tissue, a memory of Neanderthal days.” But, no matter how celebrated its parents, any new apple in the Big Apple is going to face a tough crowd.

The Fallout: Seven months later, Japan's nuclear predicament. By Evan Osnos, October 17, 2011. Still the best single article you're likely to find on the tsunami at the Fukushima nuclear power stations and its cascading consequences.

In the imagination, tsunamis are a single towering wave, but often they arrive in a crescendo, which is a cruel fact. After the first wave, survivors in Japan ventured down to the water’s edge to survey who could be saved, only to be swept away by the second. In all, twenty thousand people died or disappeared along a stretch of the Japanese coast greater than the distance from New York to Providence.

At the plant, the first wave arrived at 3:27 P.M., but it did not overtop a thirty-three-foot concrete seawall. Eight minutes later, the second wave appeared: a churning white mass of water, four stories tall, that leaped over sixty thousand concrete blocks and barriers—designed to defend against typhoons, not tsunamis—and advanced toward the reactors. First, the water approached the turbine buildings, which had been built with large shutters facing the sea. It burst through the closed shutters and swamped the buildings. Inside, the plant’s emergency diesel generators, each the size of an eighteen-wheeler, were stored on the ground floor and in the basements. They were destroyed, and two workers who had been sent underground to check for leaks were killed. The water hurled pickup trucks pinwheeling end over end into delicate pipes and equipment, and it swamped the campus in roiling brown pools, fifteen feet deep, leaving the nuclear reactors protruding like boulders in a river. And then it recoiled into the sea.

The Gulf War: Were there any heroes in the BP oil disaster? By Raffi Khatchadourian, March 14, 2011. A deeply reported retrospective that may surprise you with its conclusion that the Gulf of Mexico suffered less harm, and recovered more quickly, than many media accounts suggested.

The old saying has it that oil and water don’t mix, but every day the world’s oceans absorb colossal amounts of oil. When hydrocarbons flow into the sea—whether from spills, or leaky ships, or natural seeps—experts call them “petroleum input.” The world’s total petroleum input is thought to be about three hundred and eighty million gallons per year—a quantity similar to the catastrophic Gulf War spill—with a fifth of it happening in American waters. Much of the input off the United States comes from natural seeps. Some of the largest of those are in the Gulf of Mexico, which is thought to absorb more than fifty million gallons of oil annually.

Approximately twenty thousand oil spills are reported in America every year. Most of them are small and do not attract much attention; only a tiny fraction cost more than a million dollars to clean up. An economy based on oil must be prepared to deal with large amounts of pollution, and over many decades this country has evolved a way to respond to spills. “There is no plan,” one politician took to saying as the response progressed last summer. But there was a plan. Its origins dated back to the first major industrial oil spill at sea: the collision of a tanker called the Torrey Canyon against Pollard Rock, off the coast of England, in 1967.

Hearth Surgery: The quest for a stove that can save the world. By Burkhard Bilger, December 21, 2009. A look at the "small but fanatical world of stovemakers" devoted to producing inexpensive, safer, cleaner cooking and heating devices for the world's poor.

 A map of the world’s poor is easy to make, Jacob Moss, a Stove Camper who works for the Environmental Protection Agency and started its Partnership for Clean Indoor Air, told me. Just follow the smoke. About half the world’s population cooks with gas, kerosene, or electricity, while the other half burns wood, coal, dung, or other solid fuels. To the first group, a roaring hearth has become a luxury—a thing for camping trips and Christmas parties. To the second group, it’s a necessity. To the first group, a kitchen is an arsenal of specialized appliances. To the second, it’s just a place to build a fire.

Clean air, according to the E.P.A., contains less than fifteen micrograms of fine particles per cubic metre. Five times that amount will set off a smoke alarm. Three hundred times as much—roughly what an open fire produces—will slowly kill you. Wood smoke, as sweet as it smells, is a caustic swirl of chemical agents, including benzene, butadiene, styrene, formaldehyde, dioxin, and methylene chloride. Every leaf or husk adds its own compounds to the fire, producing a fume so corrosive that it can consume a piece of untreated steel in less than a year. The effect on the body is similar. Indoor smoke kills a million and a half people annually, according to the World Health Organization. It causes or compounds a long list of debilities—pneumonia, bronchitis, emphysema, cataracts, cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure, and low birth weight—and has been implicated in a number of others, including tuberculosis, low I.Q., and cleft palate, among other deformities.

The Ice Retreat: Global warming and the Adélie penguin. By Fen Montaigne, also December 21, 2009. One very close-up measure of the consequences of the Antarctic's retreating ice sheets.

Studies of Adélie bones buried under layers of guano have shown that penguins have nested on Litchfield Island since at least the sixteenth century. When Fraser first arrived in the region, in 1974, as a graduate student, the island’s penguin rookery had nine hundred breeding pairs. Over the years, the number of Adélies had fallen to a few dozen breeding pairs, and a census conducted earlier that season by a birding team that Fraser led indicated that the rookery was on the verge of disappearing.

Still, he was not prepared for the scene that greeted him on Litchfield’s southern shore: only five Adélie nests remained, containing seven fluffy chicks—no taller than a man’s hand—and eleven adult Adélies, which reached a person’s knee. They were huddled on an oval-shaped patch of stones, twenty-five feet across at its widest point.

 “The poles are very sensitive barometers of warming, and what we’re looking at here on the Antarctic Peninsula is an entire ecosystem that is changing,” Fraser said. “And it’s not changing in hundreds of years—it’s changing in thirty to fifty years. To me, this is foretelling the future across major parts of the planet.”

Swingers: Bonobos are celebrated as peace-loving, matriarchal, and sexually liberated. Are they? By Ian Parker, July 30, 2007.  An award-winning look at one of our primate cousins, sometimes described as a kinder, gentler, randier chimpanzee.

This pop image of the bonobo—equal parts dolphin, Dalai Lama, and Warren Beatty—has flourished largely in the absence of the animal itself, which was recognized as a species less than a century ago. Two hundred or so bonobos are kept in captivity around the world; but, despite being one of just four species of great ape, along with orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees, the wild bonobo has received comparatively little scientific scrutiny. It is one of the oddities of the bonobo world—and a source of frustration to some—that Frans de Waal, of Emory University, the high-profile Dutch primatologist and writer, who is the most frequently quoted authority on the species, has never seen a wild bonobo.

Attempts to study bonobos in their habitat began only in the nineteen-seventies, and those efforts have always been intermittent, because of geography and politics. Wild bonobos, which are endangered (estimates of their number range from six thousand to a hundred thousand), keep themselves out of view, in dense and inaccessible rain forests, and only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where, in the past decade, more than three million people have died in civil and regional conflicts. For several years around the turn of the millennium, when fighting in Congo was at its most intense, field observation of bonobos came to a halt. In recent years, however, some Congolese and overseas observers have returned to the forest, and to the hot, damp work of sneaking up on reticent apes. 

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Comments (1)

This is a good selection of

This is a good selection of some of The New Yorker's great environmental/scientific writing (it's also absolutely splendid on medicine).

I hope those who peek at the magazine in the free-access time frame think of actually subscribing: somebody has to pay those writers, and their fact checkers and their editors. Great magazine writing doesn't happen on the cheap.