Painstakingly researched and clearly heartfelt, Jeff Alexander’s “Pandora’s Locks” tells the story of how invasive species took over the Great Lakes, and the personal toll this destruction had on the author, a Michigan scientist. The book charts how the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway made the formerly isolated, protected Great Lakes ecosystem vulnerable to attacks from alien parasites from across the globe. Alexander explains how, along with money and goods, commercial ships brought more pernicious cargo—nasty, hardy critters that could out-compete local species, and which radically altered the native landscape in the process. Alexander gives a detailed and clear account of how biological invaders destroyed much of what makes the Great Lakes special—their profitable fisheries and spotless beaches—and how they created problems that made the Great Lakes unsafe for human use by clogging water pipes and creating poisonous algae. Alexander’s writing style is conversational, and he gives concrete, effective explanations of the legal, scientific, economic and political reasons that the problem of biological invasion has been so hard to solve.
The only problem with Alexander’s book is the all-too-frequent intrusion of the word “I” into his narrative. Though Alexander often offers illuminating personal experiences, at times these digressions become somewhat long-winded and seem more self-indulgent than informative. This might not be so bad, if Alexander did not have a tendency towards ranting and excessive sentimentality, if he did not—for example—compare the plight of the lakes to a sick and dying AIDS patient. Given the credibility of his sources and the overwhelming amount of evidence he has to present, Alexander’s maudlin metaphors and his self-conscious attempts at self-justification seem unnecessary and out-of-place, especially in a scholarly work. So, too, does the emotional pitch of the political recommendations which come at the end of his book. It would be best if Alexander kept his policy suggestions to a minimum, because his evidence is so powerful that it speaks for itself.
But, in the end, these mistakes are forgivable. Alexander knows his subject inside and out, and it shows. It is often hard to understand how political problems can exists for years without getting solved, but Alexander connects all the dots for the reader, explaining how the system failed and how biological invasions continued in spite of the fact that many important people—including businessman, environmentalists and politicians—knew about the technologies and policies that could have protected the Great Lakes. Alexander offers insightful explanations for the motives of those who had the power to make the necessary changes, but did not, and this alone makes the book a worthwhile read. (Ilana Kowarski)
By Jeff Alexander
Michigan State University Press, 416 pages, $29.95