Deccan Chronicle

Book Review | Climate Change is Upon Us All, But Can Seaweed Save the Planet?

Deccan Chronicle.| Ranjona Banerji

Published on: October 14, 2023 | Updated on: October 14, 2023

This is in equal measures a book that is intriguing, engaging and infuriating

Coverpage of 'The Seaweed Revolution: How Seaweed Shaped Our Past and Can Save Our Future'.

Coverpage of 'The Seaweed Revolution: How Seaweed Shaped Our Past and Can Save Our Future'.

This is in equal measures a book that is intriguing, engaging and infuriating. It begins on the fascinating premise that seaweed can save us, humankind, the planet, everything on it. The oceans are full of it. And it is full of all sorts of properties and possibilities — nutrients, plastic alternatives, gel alternatives, medicinal applications, electricity generation, cosmetics, commercial food production, waste clearance, animal feeds and then the future of Earth itself.

The mind boggles and gets all excited. One of the most exhilarating stories is of the Azolla episode, when 49 million years ago in the Arctic Sea a humble sea fern, Azolla, changed the temperature of the planet, created the ice poles and tropical equators. The Arctic and Antartic were lush forests.

The atmosphere was full of carbon and methane. Temperatures were high. Into this unique set of circumstances, this little sea fern found the perfect conditions for itself.

It thrived. And as it thrived and spread into giant sea forests, it also died. And with its demise, it began to sequester large amounts of that carbon under the sea. The atmosphere cooled. And the rest is history.

Until now.

Vincent Doumeizel is senior adviser on the oceans to the United Nations Global Compact. He also co-leads the Global Seaweed Coalition, to scale up the seaweed industry. That he is passionate and enthusiastic about seaweed is evident from page one. Initially, he gathers you up headlong into his deep dive into the many advantages of seaweed, and the many benefits in the few countries where it is eaten and farmed.

In the back of your head a few ugly voices of doubt pop up, but you ignore them as you rush along in the excitement. Yes, this could be the answer. Seaweed will end global warming, it will cure cancer, it will feed the hungry, it will make your skin better, everything. But just as you emerge from the glow of the Azolla episode and the saving of the planet, you plonk into reality.

Thanks to Doumeizel himself. As you wonder about overuse, and over-industrialisation of the oceans, the writer fills you with amazement at some nascent cottage industry seaweed project. But soon after you learn that the usual combination of human greed and lack of support has foiled proper success. Or that medicinal use has not been properly tested, because they are still ancient systems which have not undergone sufficient scientific scrutiny. Or the scariest of all, that the long arm of capitalist machine has stymied local success.

However even as Doumeizel lists all the problems, he is always optimistic that success is imminent, that it will come, by means way or the other, in spite of the odds. That our oceans remain deep mysteries is no secret. The question one might ask is should they remain so? We venture into space at our own peril. But we venture into the oceans, we may well impoverish more than just the human species.

Still, onward and downward the Seaweed Revolution goes, to our coastlines and ocean depths. Seaweed is often seen in the West, says the author, as the creator of problems — damage caused by seaweed tides. Whereas in Asia, seaweed has been turned into an asset. Algae and bacteria are needed to clean our oceans as much as our digestive systems and seaweed can help with both.

Africa and India are the new frontiers for seaweed farming on a larger scale. China, Japan and Indonesia topped the list so far, but also because seaweed consumption is common in those parts of Asia.

For all its flaws, the Seaweed Revolution will open the minds of anyone interested in ecology and the environment. Doumeizel ends with a bit of Utopian wishful thinking: that thanks to intelligent use of seaweed and micro-algae, humans have managed to offset some of the effects of global warming and climate change. And the world as a whole has embraced this wonder weed of the seas. It’s an intriguing idea. If not completely convincing.

The Seaweed Revolution: How Seaweed Shaped Our Past and Can Save Our Future
By Vincent Doumeizel
Translated from the French by Charlotte Coombe
pp. 257; Rs 799

About The Author

The writer is a senior journalist who writes on media affairs, politics and social trends.

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