cover image Degrees of Disaster: Prince William Sound: How Nature Reels and Rebounds

Degrees of Disaster: Prince William Sound: How Nature Reels and Rebounds

Jeff Wheelwright. Simon & Schuster, $23.5 (348pp) ISBN 978-0-671-70241-0

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. (Aug.)