Dan Egan

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

  • 64-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 10 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with a Master's from NYU
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The Death and Life of the Great Lakes Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 64-page guide for “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” by Dan Egan includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 10 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Balancing Competing Interests in the Great Lakes and Conquering Nature Versus Adapting to It.

Plot Summary

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is a nonfiction book of science journalism delving into some of the key past and present issues surrounding the ecology, politics, and commerce of the Great Lakes. The book was published in 2017 and was the recipient of the J. Anthony Lukas Award as well as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Author Dan Egan is a reporter who covers the Great Lakes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

The book starts with a map and overview of the Great Lakes—the world’s largest freshwater system, which has fascinated European colonizers ever since they set foot in North America. As the American Industrial Revolution gets underway, Egan dives into efforts to build a Fourth Seacoast that would connect this natural resource to the ocean through a series of canals, thereby enabling greater flow of goods and boosting commerce. Both American and Canadian men—jurisdiction over the Great Lakes is divided between the U.S. and Canada—believe it is their natural right to finish the job that nature has laid out for them, which is to expand their reach across the country by enabling a water passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico through the Great Lakes.

The canals end up boosting the transportation industry, but an unanticipated problem occurs. Overseas ships unintentionally pick up and carry non-native wildlife in the ballast water retained in the hulls of their ships; these creatures are then dropped off in the Great Lakes and surrounding rivers, leading to ecological and commercial chaos. Invasive species—like Asian carp and quagga mussels—decimate local fish populations and hamper the fishing and tourist industries on the Great Lakes; they also threaten drinking water for nearby cities like Chicago.

Egan pulls from historical records and interviews a variety of sources from fishermen to scientists to government officials to highlight the scope and scale of the situation. Although most of the book utilizes the third-person point of view of a journalist interviewing people and reporting on other source material, Egan occasionally writes in first-person point of view to share his personal connection to the topic.

Through his reporting, Egan underscores how human arrogance and scientific curiosity can lead to shortsighted decisions with widespread consequences—particularly in an interconnected global economy. He also shows the efforts on the part of these scientists and legislators to tackle the issue, though most of their solutions—such as poisoning non-native fish species or exercising veto power over distributing water to other regions—are short-term fixes rather than an overarching solution.

Not all is doom-and-gloom, however, as Egan offers a solution tackling the root of the issues facing the Great Lakes: preventing overseas freighters from entering the Great Lakes and instead, shipping goods inland using freight trains or other methods.

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