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Dancing at the Dead Sea: Tracking the World’s Environmental Hotspots

by Alanna Mitchell

Why do we assume that evolution ends with us? As Alanna Mitchell points out in Dancing at the Dead Sea, natural selection is always at work. Today, staggering numbers of species – 25% of all reptiles, 30% of fish, and 24% of mammals – are in danger of extinction. And there’s no reason to be sure we’ll make the cut.

Dancing traces the author’s personal and intellectual odyssey toward such uncomfortable truths. At a turning point in her personal life, Mitchell, a Globe and Mail feature writer, won an award for environmental reporting which sent her to study at Oxford. There, she began to contextualize her worries about the future of our planet. The fruits of Mitchell’s research – along with her skillful reportage from “hot spots” like the Dead Sea and the Canadian Arctic – are what drive this compelling travelogue.

Mitchell is inspired, in part, by the journey of Charles Darwin. As a directionless young man, Darwin embarked on a five-year sea voyage around the Americas. Darwin carefully observed wildlife, most famously the remarkably varied species of the Galapagos Islands. Thus the theory of evolution – which Darwin did not publish until 20 years later, in 1859 – was born in the notebooks of a young amateur naturalist.

Mitchell hopes her journey can help bring about a similar change, displacing the “legends” that keep us complacent about radical changes in our environment. While Mitchell is a passionate conservationist, this is no polemic; rather, it takes an idiosyncratic path through memoir, social history, and science journalism.

As we follow Mitchell from Madagascar to Iceland, the roundabout nature of the journey – and the accumulation of sobering detail – make it easier to internalize
her conclusion.

We need to be steered into changing our ways, and the average reader will find Mitchell a persuasive guide.