July 6, 2021
EP. 112 — Seashells Contain an Ocean with Cynthia Barnett
Seashells may seem like a small topic for a book, or a podcast. But when we look into them deeply, we find that they reveal startling truths about our oceans, our planet, and ourselves. This week Cynthia Barnett joins Adam to talk about the surprising history of seashells and her new book The Sound of The Sea. You can check out her book at factuallypod.com/books.
112 — Seashells Contain an Ocean with Cynthia Barnett
Speaker 1 [00:00:02] Hello, welcome to Factually, I’m Adam Conover. So wonderful to have you listening to the show once again. We’re happy to have you here as we dive into some of the weirdest and wildest reaches of human knowledge with some of the smartest and most fascinating experts on the planet. Let’s talk about the show today. One of the coolest things about nature, is that you can look at any piece of it and from that little piece; you can begin to understand the entire world. The web of interconnections on Earth is so broad and so deep that from one little facet, you can build a model of every facet of reality. Case in point, today we’re going to be talking to an author who wrote a book about seashells. I know you’re thinking, ‘Adam, come on, you actually expect me to listen to you talk about seashells for a full hour?’ Guess what? Yes you are, and you are going to fucking love it, because seashells are quite literally our universe in microcosm. See, they’re not only incredibly beautiful natural objects, each with unique and interesting story of the creature behind it. They’ve also influenced human society for ages, touching everything from currency to oil extraction. Finally, they’re a metaphor for our relationship with the natural world. Mollusks build these structures, build these seashells to live in to protect them, just as people build structures for us and just like the creatures who live in those seashells, we often end up leaving our homes behind as the only record of our existence. Once you start looking at these things, I’m serious. You know that scene in ‘Uncut Gems’ where they push into the diamond and the stars fly by and he connects to a world miles away. That is what you will feel like seashells are like, when you are done listening to this interview. It will blow your mind with the vastness of the smallest things imaginable. So, get ready for seashells. My guest today is Cynthia Barnett, author (most recently) of ‘The Sound of the Sea: Sea Shells and the Fate of the Oceans.’ As always, if you want to pick up a copy of this incredible book, you can get it at our special bookstore at factuallypod.com/books. That’s factuallypod.com/books, and when you buy a book there you will be supporting not just the show, but also your local bookstore. Without further ado, please welcome the wonderful Cynthia Barnett. Cynthia, thank you so much for being here.
Speaker 2 [00:02:29] Thank you for having me on. I’m really excited to be on the show.
Speaker 1 [00:02:33] So you’ve written a book about seashells. How did you come to this topic, which might not be a lot of people’s first choice for a book? It’s a little, it’s a very specific topic. What made you come to it?
Speaker 2 [00:02:47] Oh, it’s interesting that you think it’s specific because to me, it’s the whole world. It’s a real metaphor for what’s happening to the world. I’ll tell you how I got started. I got started working on ‘The Sound of the Sea,’ after hearing a statistic that absolutely floored me. I was at a sweet little seashell museum on Sanibel Island in Florida; called the Bailey Matthews National Shell Museum. I had given a talk there about one of my previous books. I was out to dinner with the director and I learned that they had surveyed visitors (many of them tourists) visiting Florida with their children to find out how much they already knew about seashells. Some 90 percent of respondents did not know that a seashell is made by a living animal. Most people thought that they were some kind of rock or stone, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about that. Especially children not knowing that a seashell is made by an animal and I got to thinking about it. I actually started thinking about what a perfect metaphor it is for the ocean itself, because we’ve loved seashells for their beautiful exterior while ignoring these fascinating animals that build the shells. In that same way, we love the oceans like this postcard, right? It’s like we love the oceans, like a picture postcard or an idyllic backdrop to life rather than the very source of life. I started to think of sea shells as this great metaphor for helping people understand the life inside. That is what’s happening inside the oceans, what we wrought in the oceans because the sea is just so huge and so beautiful that it’s hard to understand the impact we’re having beneath the waves on things like water quality and now especially ocean chemistry, which you can’t see with your eyes. But it is happening and is pretty devastating.
Speaker 1 [00:05:17] Wow, what an incredible answer to my first question. Like, ‘So why a book about seashells?’ You’re like, ‘Well, let’s go from this very small thing to an entire metaphor for the world and our relationship with it.’ I’m sold. I’m sold immediately by that description.
Speaker 2 [00:05:34] It’s really the way I think about seashells, and the other metaphor (which I don’t write about in the book, but which was in the back of my mind) is this metaphor of home. If you think of seashells as a home to an animal that builds the sea shell, it’s also a metaphor for our home: this Earth. The other thing that was in my mind in the years that took me to do this, is the metaphor of home. So it’s kind of funny to me to hear you say, ‘Oh, it’s just such a small little thing,’ because to me the shell is the world
Speaker 1 [00:06:14] As it should be if you’re gonna write a book about it, as it absolutely should be. I am kind of floored by your statement; about people not realizing that seashells are made by animals because I learned this as a kid. My parents were both biologists, and so I was fortunate to be able to swim in such waters as a young kid. But it’s true that I don’t think about that much anymore, when I’m walking on a beach and many beaches are just littered with seashells. In fact, I grew up on the north shore of Long Island, which is a very rocky coast and has a lot of just shells and rocks. It’s not a lot of sand and so I’ll walk along a beach and walk past sea shells and not really consider the fact, that hold on a second, animals are making these things. That is kind of a baffling truth to remind myself of. It’s one of those things that makes Earth sort of start to seem alien. But it’s kind of a fantastical idea that that the our shores are littered with the empty homes of sea creatures. Just tell me more about where do seashells come from? How are they made? What are they used for by these animals?
Speaker 2 [00:07:30] Yeah, sure. So that word ‘alien’ is interesting, isn’t it? Because there are so many different mollusks that make marine shells, that it’s hard to generalize them. But some of them have eyes on the end of tentacles that go in crazy directions like an alien. So that’s the cool word to use and it’s also illustrative, I think, of what you’re saying. We don’t necessarily think about these animals and we don’t feel the need to save them because they don’t have big human eyes like a sea turtle or a Florida panther. There are so many animals that are really charismatic and part of what’s charismatic about them, is that they have these big human eyes. We can get into that later; how we don’t think about saving the animals that we don’t connect to with in that way. But to answer your question about what or who makes the sea shells, so these are the mollusks and specifically they are the second largest group of animals in the sea and on the land after the arthropods, which include insects on land and crabs in the ocean. So I’m writing specifically about marine mollusks, the animals that build what we sometimes call ‘sea snails’ or ‘shellfish.’ They build their shells using minerals from the surrounding sea water. Those that build a spiral shell like a conch or a whelk are called the ‘gastropods.’ The paired shells, like a clam, are the ‘bivalves’ and there are other mollusks but those are the two main ones that we know and that I write about. My idea is that they’re just so gorgeous. I think sea shells are some of the most beloved objects in nature, and I know they’re some of the most collected natural objects. My idea was that by writing about seashells and the animals that make them, I might be able to draw new audiences to environmental stories. I’m an environmental journalist and I teach environmental journalism, and I think a lot about what might draw a new audience or a cynical audience to the story of what’s happening to the planet. That’s how I came to write about these animals. But anyway, they build shells. The marine mollusks build shells by drawing minerals from the surrounding sea water: primarily calcium carbonate, and they build their shells layer by layer as they grow. So the older they get, the more layers of shell they build.
Speaker 1 [00:10:48] Cool. They’re literally just sucking in minerals from the medium in which they live and turning it into turning it into like –
Speaker 2 [00:10:58] They’re turning it into beauty. They’re turning into a hard shell, but they’re also turning it into beauty. Another way I thought about this, is that they’re also constantly turning carbon into beauty. That’s another neat thing about seashells in our time; they’re upcycling just like we should be upcycling. They are taking the carbon dioxide that’s harmful when there’s too much in the ocean. They’re drawing out the calcium carbonate and turning it into beauty. That means the carbon stays locked up in the shell instead of being out there in the atmosphere. In fact, the oceans have absorbed (I think) 90 percent of the extra carbon dioxide we’ve put out into the world. So that’s another thing that makes these animals really important.
Speaker 1 [00:11:59] Maybe one of the things that draws us to these objects is that there’s a strange commonality between what they do and what we do as people, that we also build structures for ourselves. We also eventually outgrow or abandon them. We pull things from our surrounding environment to build a structure. Obviously we do it for different reasons. The structures we build are very, very different but we see ourselves in them in a way that we don’t with a lot of other things that live in the sea. I don’t have a lot else in common with a tuna, but I do feel like I understand a gastropod in this way.
Speaker 2 [00:12:41] That’s a cool idea. I haven’t thought of it that way, and I love that statement. I didn’t think of that. That we relate to them in building a structure, but the way I thought about it was that our structures themselves are often built of their bodies. Basically we walk on a world of shell. All the carbon remains of all the calcified life that has ever lived is underfoot at any given time. So it makes up the limestone aquifers that hold our water. It’s at the top of mountains. It’s deep in the ocean. But specifically, what I thought about and what I wrote about is that the limestone, especially here in the United States; the limestone that made the Pentagon, the Lincoln Memorial and the Empire State Building. They all owe the power of the building to these small, soft, fragile creatures and I think that’s such a cool idea. You related to them being builders and I was relating to them as home. Then there’s this other really cool reality: that we literally use their shells in these super powerful buildings and they’re fragile creatures, so that’s kind of a neat dichotomy.
Speaker 1 [00:14:16] So tell me about this. I’m missing something, that limestone is made of these shells?
Speaker 2 [00:14:24] Yeah. Quarried limestone was originally put down by sea creatures that at one time lived in the former seas that covered, for example, the United States. When we cut limestone slabs or limestone blocks, we are essentially cutting through those animals. So, for example, I’ll give you one example. If you look at the walls of Rockefeller Center, when you’re at a distance, they look creamy and smooth. But if you get up really close, you see these incredible coils and spirals, fans and curlicues, and they’re embedded in the limestone. That limestone was quarried in Indiana. It essentially forms from denizens of this shallow sea that covered the Midwest 300 million years ago. So in that neat way, they’re homes in all kinds of fabulous ways.
Speaker 1 [00:15:44] Wow. See, this is why we brought you on the show, because we had a sneaking suspicion that you would blow my mind with what, again, seems like a simple topic. We’re 13 minutes into the interview or so. ‘What’s so great about sea shells?’ ‘Well, the Empire State Building is built out them. We literally are constructing our homes and our buildings out of these structures made out of these tiny, tiny little animals.’ That’s incredible. That’s absolutely incredible to think about.
Speaker 2 [00:16:15] I do want to say something about cement and the building process. The other thing I think about a lot, is the fact that marine life is reincarnated in the sculptures of ancient gods. If you’re in Italy and you see some of this incredible limestone, and you see it carved into the David or whatever it is, that’s actually all these other millions of lives and that’s a cool thing to think about. But I want to mention something a little more serious, which is that we turn limestone into cement, which is one of the largest manufacturing endeavors in the world and it’s also one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide. So part of living differently needs to be more of the molluskian upcycling rather than constantly churning up and extracting new parts of the earth to make something big. Upcycling is the best way I can think of to put it, but even ancient people burned seashells to make slaked lime; which is one of the first manufactured chemicals. And now, of course, we have a major cement industry. It’s all very wild and fascinating.
Speaker 1 [00:17:51] Well, let’s talk about some specific shells. I know that you talk about some in the book, some that are particularly fascinating. Hit me with one. Tell me about one of these creatures and how they live.
Speaker 2 [00:18:04] I decided to build the book around 12 really iconic seashells. I made a conscious decision at some point to not write about oysters or eating clams, because these animals have had entire books written about them already. People have written entire books; Rowan Jacobsen has written wonderful books about oysters and Mark Kurlansky (a friend of mine) wrote an entire book just about razor clams. I devoted a chapter to an animal called the money cowrie. A cowrie is a little humped shell. They’re gorgeous. They’re the most collected seashells in human history. In fact, there was a seashell collection found in the ruins of Pompeii, and many of those shells were different kinds of cowries. So people love cowries. But the Money cowrie is especially important to humanity because it was the first global money. So the first global money was not cryptocurrency. It was a little white shell called a money cowrie. It’s a funny story in some ways and it’s also a terribly serious story because money cowries actually ended up purchasing a third of the enslaved Africans that were forced to the Americas. So, it’s this incredible transglobal story. Money cowrie is traded (just like coin but more more widely than coin) for a thousand years around the world. They were all harvested in the Maldives. They’re prolific in the Maldives and I actually went to the Maldives, and I’ve now seen beautiful little money cowries living on the reef and what they actually do. That to me is fascinating. To me, it’s fascinating to hold this ancient money in your hand in one hand and then on the other hand, to see the living animal on the reef is just completely wild. It’s got these little tentacles. It’s just this gentle, cute little algae eater and it scoots along. These things were money for a thousand years. So when I say the book is about listening, I set out to listen to seashells and listen to what they’re saying about nature and the world around us. But they actually turned out to have much more to say about people. So I ended up following the trail, the unlikely route of the money cowrie from the Maldives to West Africa. I end the book in West Africa, reflecting on money and capital and what’s really important and what the shells ended up telling me. One of the themes is that theme of justice: that we won’t really solve the environmental problems without putting people at the center and also solving a lot of these human problems that we have. So, again, that was just a cool thing to be able to use a humble little animal on a reef, to be able to extrapolate about something much bigger. And again, with my hope being that people will listen to seashells, that we’ve always listened to sea shells. It’s just astonishing how often they lead to truth. In earlier times, seashells on mountaintops helped tell scientists about the rising and falling seas; the fact that the sea had once covered the land. Seashell fossils in rock, seashell fossils of animals that no longer live like the ammonites. Those told scientists about extinction and geologic change. So, I’m not just making it up. If we listen to seashells, they actually do tell us something about the world around us and they always have.
Speaker 1 [00:22:44] They tell us something about ourselves. Yeah, it’s almost a psychedelic, science fiction idea that you’ve described; about the money cowrie. This sounds like it’s out of Dune or something, there’s this little creature in a reef in one little area of the world and they’re harvested and their leftover exoskeletons somehow become a global currency that ends up being used for such evil. Honestly, a science fiction writer would be proud to come up with an idea like that and to center a book around it.
Speaker 2 [00:23:21] I guess it’s no crazier than using paper as the money. They were almost impossible to counterfeit because they’re so unusual. They’re really gorgeous. I think I have one I can show you, even though your listeners won’t be able to see it. But they have a beautiful little hump. They’re very shiny, like porcelain and then underneath they have a slit that’s a bit toothy. So it’d be impossible to forge, but the other thing about them is that they’re quite uniform in the way that the animal makes it. So that made it quite easy to count. So you can fill a certain bag and know how much money you had.
Speaker 1 [00:24:07] So just because of the physical properties of it, the uniformity of it, you could have different ways to catalog. I bet you could put them on a string or something like that. You could put them in a thing, find a way to bundle them up and they were uncounterfeitable and they’re also beautiful and have some amount of scarcity because they have to be harvested.
Speaker 2 [00:24:29] Yes, scarcity is a great point. I did find this book in many different ways – I’m sure economists know this better, but the fact that because they came from the Maldives, they were considered more precious in Africa because they were believed scarce. The problem was that they actually weren’t scarce and so later it really harmed the African economy, that they had relied on these sea shells as currency. But generally, the farther you get from an object, the greater value it has in trade. So that was interesting to learn about the economics of ancient global money.
Speaker 1 [00:25:17] I want to hear more of these stories, but we got to take a really quick break. We’ll be right back with more Cynthia Barnett. OK, we’re back with Cynthia Barnett. Look, I have on my list of questions here, I want to hear more seashell stories. I have a couple more on my list of questions that my producer Sam put together, I want you to pick the coolest one to tell me the story of. He told me I should ask you about the Chambered Nautilus, the Lightning whelk and the Queen Conch. These are all, first of all, incredible names. Beautiful names. I feel like each of these must have a fascinating story behind them. Which one should we talk about?
Speaker 2 [00:26:00] I’ll tell you about my favorite shell, which is the lightning whelk. Adam, I should ask you, do you have a favorite seashell when from when you were a kid in Long Beach?
Speaker 2 [00:26:13] Long Island.
Speaker 1 [00:26:14] I’m sorry, Long Island.
Speaker 1 [00:26:16] I’m a favorite shell. Oh, my God. You’re cutting to the core of me. I feel like the shells that I had the closest relationship with as a kid were muscle shells. There were muscle shells all over Long Island. In terms of when you’re a kid and you’re doing tactile play, I spent a lot of time with them. They’re the first one that I think of and they feel very homey to me, even though they’re beyond common on Long Island
Speaker 2 [00:26:52] Oh but they’re so beautiful, I completely understand that. They’re so sleek and they have a great feel to them and there’s something satisfying about holding them. So I guess out of the three you threw out, I will talk a little bit about the lightning whelk, because that’s my favorite shell. The way you know I am not a total shell aficianado or collector, is that I have a favorite shell. I followed around shell collectors for a couple of years as I was working on this. They call themselves conchologists and they’re really rabid about shells and they know everything about shells and the animals that make them. They’re actually really helpful to scientists because they know so much about the taxonomy of shells and they end up identifying a lot of new creatures. But when you ask a conchologist to name their favorite shell, they can’t do it because their mind is just blown. It’s like asking a parent about their favorite kid, they don’t have a favorite shell but they always remember their first shell. It’s kind of like asking an alcoholic about their first drink, it is so vivid and they’ll tell you exactly how old they were and where they were and what it felt like. That’s how you know I’m not a serious collector. I’m just a journalist who loves shells. I grew up in Florida and California, and I always loved the beach and loved seashells. So my favorite shell is a lightning whelk. That is fairly common in the Gulf of Mexico and also part way up the Atlantic Eastern Seaboard and what is so special about it is that when you’re holding a shell up, the little pointy part at the top is called the apex. That’s where the mollusk started when it was a little tiny baby. That’s where it started to wind its shell around. The little tiny point at the top is always the oldest part of the shell. So if you hold the shell in front of you with that at the top, almost all shells will open on the right hand side. But a lightning whelk opens on the left, the animal winds that in the opposite direction of almost every other cell. What’s so cool about that is that the Native American people were crazy about lightning whelks. So here in Florida, there was a an indigenous tribe called the Kaluza who built these incredible cities of Shell in southwest Florida and they built these huge structures on top of shell mounds. They had ports. They just had this incredible shell world in southwest Florida and it was all razed in the late 19th and early 20th century for highways and farms and other uses. But the most commonly used shell among their tools and their building materials by far was the lightning whelk. The fascinating thing fascinating thing about that, I know you know about Cahokia, where modern day Saint Louis is now. Many, many shells are also found at Cahokia. By far the most common shell found in the remnants of Cahokia is also the lightning whelk, even though they had to have come from so far away, so far inland and the Gulf of Mexico. It is so far inland and these things are all over Cahokia. They’re in beads, they’re in burials. They’re in these special cups that the Cahokia people used to drink their special black tea, which was also the case here in the southeast. So lightning whelks were extraordinarily important to an earlier people. I just loved them because they’re so beautiful. They look like a conch, but they’re a little bit more slender and they’re called lightning whelks because they have these really subtle and incredibly dramatic (well, it sounds weird that they’re both subtle and dramatic, but they really are) angles and they do look like lightning strikes coming down the side.
Speaker 1 [00:31:42] I’m looking at a picture, down the side of the shell. It’s like a strike of lightning, like a vertical line.
Speaker 2 [00:31:48] Exactly. Yes. So there are many, many fascinating stories to tell about the lightning whelks. Many of those stories involve Native American people who revered them, and some of the archeologists I interviewed for the lightning whelk chapter think it has it may have some spiritual connection for them that is based on the leftward spiral. That’s a lovely thing to think about.
Speaker 1 [00:32:27] There’s something about the fact that this species spiraled the other way that was meaningful. Why do they spiral the other way? What is the biological reason that they would spiral the opposite way from every other creature?
Speaker 2 [00:32:43] Yeah, evolutionary biologists are pretty frustrated by that question. They don’t know exactly. But there are some theories about it. One of the evolutionary biologists I interview for this book is a fascinating fellow, you would love to have him on for a whole hour. His name is Gary Vermes and he is at University of California at Davis, and he is blind. The way he fell in love with seashells, was that he was in fourth grade in New Jersey and his teacher had been down to Sanibel Island on vacation and brought back a trove of seashells. One of them was a lightning whelk. She brought them back and she set up a shell display for her students. When he was a little boy, he wandered over to this display and he just couldn’t believe it. He felt these shells and he felt beauty like he could never imagine. I love talking to him about shells because he describes them in what seemed to me like visual terms of beauty, but it’s all about his having spent a lifetime feeling shells. One of these shells that he had been connected with since 4th grade was the lightning whelk. He is well known for his theory of why mollusks build shells: it has to do with an evolutionary arms race. As they evolved, they began by building pretty simple, bulky shells. But over time, as fish developed bigger teeth and stronger jaws and as crabs developed tougher pinschers, the sea shells became more and more elaborate; thicker and all these spines and spikes and things to foil enemies. So his theory is that the lightning whelk may have spiraled left to avoid a particular crab that has a left handed pitcher. But it can’t explain everything because there are other left handed shells and other parts of the world where no left-pincher crabs live. It’s all pretty complex, but it’s kind of cool and it probably has to do with an enemy. I could tell you the time that a major oil company was founded out of a teeny tiny sea shell shop in the east end of London.
Speaker 1 [00:35:42] Yeah, sure. Is that Shell Oil?
Speaker 2 [00:35:43] Yes.
Speaker 1 [00:35:44] OK, good guess on my part.
Speaker 2 [00:35:47] Yeah. So I think this is a little known story, and to me it’s a fascinating and poignant story because it will get us back around to climate change and what’s happening to the Earth. Shell Oil’s history indeed dates to the early 19th century and a Jewish curio shop owner in the east end of London named Marcus Samuel. He imported tropical seashells. There were various times in human history where there was a madness for seashells. The Victorians were just crazy about sea shells.
Speaker 1 [00:36:29] Oh my god, the Victorians did this with so many things. They would find out about something and they were like, ‘Oh, my God, we must have more of it!’ And they just go crazy. There’s so many stories like this.
Speaker 2 [00:36:40] And I will say that Queen Victoria is pretty important because she was crazy for seashells. Actually the reason that Queen Conch are named Queen Conch has to do with Queen Victoria and her love for those pink shells which were actually imported from the Bahamas to London to make her cameos. They were called ladies work; Victorian women would do all kinds of shell crafts. But anyway, Marcus Samuel catered to this shell craze in the 1830’s. He has this tiny little curio shop and he’s importing shells from the tropics and he gets particularly involved with Japan (where a lot of really beautiful sea shells come from) and he started importing more and more goods from Japan and trading with Japan. He had really good relationships there. I should also tell you a quick story about him: he came up with the idea to make these little bejeweled shell boxes. Have you ever been to a little shell shop by the sea and you see these little shell boxes that open up? They look like little jewelry boxes or they might just hold children’s treasures. He thought of those and he began to sell them in shell gift shops around England, like in Brighton and places like that and they were hugely popular. Those little shell boxes actually made the family’s fortune. He soon had 40 women in the east end working for him, making the little shell boxes and other curios. After the second generation, his son and namesake; Marcus Samuel Junior, he had three sons and they all carried on the family business. It was his middle son, Marcus Samuel Jr., that was continuing the trade with Japan and other parts of the east. He ended up figuring out the first oil tanker that could move kerosene through the Suez Canal. He was in a real head to head battle with Rockefeller and Standard Oil and he ended up winning that battle and founding the Shell Oil Company. He helped design the first big oil tanker through the canal and and he called it the’ Murex,’ which is another sea shell. All the early tankers were named for seashells in his father’s honor, and Shell Oil continues that tradition today. There’s a tanker now called the ‘Murex’ that I think ships liquefied natural gas to Asia. But I want to quickly finish this story with something really poignant that I know even since the book was finished a couple of months ago, I saw a study and I just had to call the researcher. His name is Paolo Albano. He’s at the University of Vienna and he was researching mollusk populations in the Mediterranean, to see how they were responding to warming. Because the Mediterranean, this spot he was analyzing, is one of the warmest spots in the world. He found a devastating die off of mollusks in this area right along the Mediterranean coast, where so much of this book takes place earlier. The single most devastating die off was of a very common mollusk and that mollusk is the Murex. The team, in fact, didn’t find a single living murex. I just find it so poignant and ironic that the same animal that was loved by the man who founded the company that became Shell Oil, who obviously loved seashells, this same animal now is endangered by the very fossil fuels that are made by the company.
Speaker 1 [00:41:15] Wow. That’s an incredible full circle for that story to come, and an incredibly sad one. I just looked up a picture of the murex. They’re beautiful shells.
Speaker 2 [00:41:25] Oh, they’re beautiful. A lot of people don’t like them because they’re predators of oysters. So they’re also called Oyster Drills. They will glom onto an oyster reef and they can just wipe out an oyster reef. I write about them. I write about the impact. I also write about the impact of plastics on these animals. You can find plastic in every mollusk in the sea. Everywhere scientists are looking for plastics, they are finding plastics. That includes microfiber plastics in mollusks that are buried as deep as you can get. At the farthest poles, the mollusks contain plastics. They also contain chemicals, including the chemicals that are put on ship hulls to keep barnacles off. I wrote a lot about murex and what’s happening with murex. One thing I noticed is that people were very late to respond to anything happening to murex because they were kind of happy to see the oyster predator wiped out
Speaker 1 [00:42:40] We’re the oyster predator! We’re eating the oysters!
Speaker 2 [00:42:43] We are eating the oysters.
Speaker 1 [00:42:45] We’re mad because we’re competing with the murex to kill the oysters.
Speaker 2 [00:42:48] But now that acidification and warming is obviously having an effect on so many sea creatures, I think people are becoming more knowledgeable about all of that. But again, I’m always thinking about my audience and how to draw broader readers. I don’t want to write for the choir. I feel that environmental writers are too often writing for each other, or writing for the environmental audience or people who already care about all this stuff. I really want to reach a different audience; an audience I think of as the caring middle: people who will care and do care once they know something. So my hope is that seashells might reach them in a way that other wonkier things wouldn’t reach them.
Speaker 1 [00:43:39] Well, I very much hope you’ve reached some of those folks in this podcast. You’ve certainly reached me. Now that you’ve reached us, what do we do with our new understanding of seashells?
Speaker 2 [00:43:52] I think that one thing they speak to, is the importance of nature based solutions like we were talking about earlier. From reefs as coastal barriers, there’s a lot of research about how much better living reefs perform in storms and sea rise than these cement barriers that we tend to make as humans. It’s listening to nature and using things like nature based solutions for reefs. Seagrass meadows are an important part of this book. A lot of mollusks live in seagrass meadows for a lot of their lives, especially when they’re little tiny larvae and seagrass meadows are super important. They can actually capture more carbon than forests. Project Drawdown found that restoration of coastal wetlands worldwide (if you’re counting seagrass and I think mangroves and some other kinds of coastal wetlands) they could store five times as much carbon as tropical forests. What we tend to do when we build things, is rip out. I live in Florida, so that’s sort of what I’ve seen over time. We rip out the mangroves or we might rip out the seagrass to create a swimming area. I think we’re doing it less and less as this awareness builds, but these are the kinds of things that are really important. Sea shells filter water. They clean up the water around them. They’re filter feeders, so scientists sometimes call them the liver of our rivers. But I think the big lesson here is living with less and the lesson of abundance. We haven’t talked about food, but I also write about seafood and about aquaculture. A couple of these animals are very much imperiled by humans just harvesting too many. That includes the queen conch and the giant clams. But in both cases, aquaculture is having a really promising impact. So, it is possible to save vast swaths of the ocean and grow shellfish and to grow food in a way that’s clean. As you may know, fish farms often pollute the sea. Shellfish farms really clean up the water around them. They’re part of the solution to what things could look like, and I think I often when we talk about this (and I loved the conversation you had with Jaquelyn Gill, I thought that was a great conversation) and what I’ve been thinking about a lot with this book is how we define abundance. When I was a kid, and even when my kids were little, we would go scalloping and we would collect wild scallops and try to get a bunch for dinner. But now when I go scalloping, I take pictures. I don’t actually collect any scallops any more because of what I know. I still have a great time and I have all these great underwater pictures and I still have a lot of fun with my kids. We think of doing less harvesting, putting out less carbon; we’re thinking of those as hard ships and they’re not hardships. We can live with less and live really well. We can live well without burning fossil fuels. We can live well without exploiting fellow people, without over harvesting seafood. It’s a changing ethos. It’s a different way of thinking about things. It’s just like me, and I try to be very honest in this book about the fact that I’ve always eaten shellfish. I’m not a vegetarian or certainly a vegan. I eat some shellfish in this book, and I struggle with my consciousness when I do. I’m really honest about all of that. You get to this point of not being preachy or dogmatic, but let’s get through this together. How can we live better? How can we define abundance by having clean water and living animals and a beautiful sea bottom to take photographs of rather than harvesting every last scallop in the sea, which is sort of how we’ve approached the world up to now.
Speaker 1 [00:49:05] And it’s amazing how you can – It’s about developing that awareness and that sense of how all these pieces are interconnected. It’s amazing how you have been able to develop that and help me develop it, just by looking at (again) something very small. I was ribbing you a little bit at the beginning to provoke you into that answer. What I said at the beginning of, ‘Oh, this is a little bit of a small topic.’ But to see it flower outwards and connect to everything has been so beautiful. It’s been beautiful to hear you talk about it.
Speaker 2 [00:49:36] I’m so glad. I’m so glad. That’s really what my hope was, it took me six years. Like you, when I was first thinking about this, I was like, ‘Oh, boy, seashells. Gonna bang out my next book in a couple of years.’ And it was so much more than that because like you said earlier, they reflected who we are. They have something to say, not just about the world around us, but how we treat other people and everything else. So I’m really glad that came across to you. And I hope your listeners will read the book and enjoy it.
Speaker 1 [00:50:14] I’m sure they will. Well, if they want to, the book is called ‘The Sound of the Sea.’ You can get it, I assume, wherever books are sold at your local bookshop. Or if you want to order it online, go to factuallypod.com/books, and you’ll support not just this show, but your local bookstore when you do so. Cynthia Barnett, thank you so much for being on the show to talk to us about this.
Speaker 2 [00:50:35] Adam, thank you for having me on. It was lovely to talk to you.
Speaker 1 [00:50:40] Well, thank you again to Cynthia Barnett for coming on the show. If you want to pick up a copy of the book that URL one more time is factuallypod.com/books to support not just this show, but your local bookstore as well. Thank you so much for listening. I want to thank our producers Chelsea Jacobson and Sam Roudman. Andrew Carson, our engineer. Andrew W.K. for our theme song. The fine folks at Falcon Northwest for building me the incredible custom gaming PC that I’m recording this very episode on. You can find me online at AdamConover.Net or @AdamConover wherever you get your social media. Thank you so much for listening. We’ll see you next time on Factually.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books