Summer Reading: Environment Books That Changed the World
By Stuart Braun
From Rachel Carsen's seminal literary depiction of a poisoned world in the early 1960s, Silent Spring, to David Wallace-Wells' profound climate crisis treatise, The Uninhabitable Planet (2019), here are six essential cautionary eco tales and nonfiction environmental books to be enjoyed in the shade of what is shaping up to be another scorching European summer.
Silent Spring (1962) — Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring,”was born 112 years ago today. Carson was attacked by the chemical industry… https://t.co/lRpsh83T79— Soraya Chemaly (@Soraya Chemaly)1558964980.0
Born in 1907, Rachel Carson was raised in a pristine farming region on the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania. The locality was perhaps the inspiration for the fictional town that she describes in her early classic of environmental writing, Silent Spring, a place with lush forests, diverse birdlife, copious farm animals, wild berries and fish-laden streams. But soon a "strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change." The cattle and sheep die. The land withers. Sickness spreads among the people. Few birds live anymore among the "strange stillness" and the "shadow of death." The culprit: Chemical pesticides.
The town was not real but had a "thousand counterparts in America or elsewhere in the world," explained the marine biologist turned writer. Also serialized in the The New Yorker, the book caused a storm on publication, with chemical giants like Dupont trying to have it banned. Carson herself died from cancer less than two years later. But her words are said to have helped inspire the founding of the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S., and a global environment movement.
The End of Nature (1989) - Bill McKibben
"If the waves crash up against the beach, eroding dunes and destroying homes, it is not the awesome power of Mother Nature. It is the awesome power of Mother Nature as altered by the awesome power of man, who has overpowered in a century the processes that have been slowly evolving and changing of their own accord since the earth was born." These portentous words were written three decades ago by a young Bill McKibben, then a journalist at The New Yorker. It was a wake-up call, a warning that humankind could alter the natural world and that the greenhouse effect was real.
McKibben noted that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere had risen 10 percent in the 30 years preceding the book's publication — the CO2 increase has almost doubled in the same time period since. While critics accused McKibben — who went on to found the climate crisis group, 350.org — of alarmism, his impassioned plea for radical change remains a groundbreaking work that argues for a fundamental philosophical shift in the way we relate to nature.
The Swarm (2004) - Frank Schätzing
This international bestselling eco-thriller was one of the first novels to sound a climate catastrophe warning. German author Frank Schätzing paints an apocalyptic scenario in which the North Sea shelf collapses, causing a tsunami that kills millions in Europe. But all over the world, the novel's diverse characters and subplots fall victim to the ocean's devastating revenge as the Gulf Stream stops flowing and a climate disaster beckons.
From a marine scientist witnessing humpback whales attacking and capsizing boats before killing those sent overboard, and a pandemic of shark and poisonous jellyfish attacks, to the U.S. General charged with putting down a mass death-inducing "swarm" of pfiesteria-infested crabs that attack New York City and beyond, this epic 1,000-page novel serves as a cautionary tale in which nature fights back violently against the cause of environmental destruction: Humankind.
The Story of Stuff: The Impact of Overconsumption on the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-And How We Can Make It Better (2011) - Annie Leonard
Three to five planet earths would be needed if all the world's inhabitants consumed like citizens in the U.S. This is the premise of The Story of Stuff, a landmark book that grew out of a celebrated online documentary exploring the threat of overconsumption and "how our obsession with stuff is trashing the planet, our communities, and our health." Also offering a "vision for change" based on sharing and reduced consumption, the eco explainer describes why just 5 percent of the global population consumes 30 percent of the world's resources and creates 30 percent of the waste, and how people can be galvanized to create a more sustainable future.
Annie Leonard further exposes the places our "stuff" is dumped around the world, the exploited textile workers in Haiti who produce it, the children mining coltan for cell phones in the Congo. She describes the tiny, toxic plastic particles we breathe, drink in our water and ultimately "absorb from our stuff." This classic exposé has become a movement that continues to raise consciousness about overconsumption.
The Overstory (2018) - Richard Powers
This sweeping novel details the lives of nine Americans whose special connection to trees bring them together to combat the destruction of old growth forests. The winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, which was also shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is a vast contemporary fable of environmental activism and commitment to preserving the last vestiges of pristine wilderness. The interlocking stories stretch from mid-nineteenth century New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the northwest Pacific coast, but each character is connected by the spectre of an ongoing environmental cataed istrophe.
The Overstory also contrasts this human-made scenario with descriptions of the symbiotic relationship between trees in forests communities — perhaps inspired by the fact that the author lives deep in the Great Smoky Mountains. The ancient redwoods and cedars that have coexisted for centuries are the true heroes of a story that, according to the Washington Post, "remakes the landscape of environmental fiction."
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019) - David Wallace-Wells
"The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn't happening at all," begins Wallace-Wells' essential study of life on a warming planet. The author describes a mass extinction that could include humankind, and destroys the myth that "wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming;" or that we can "engineer our way out of environmental disaster." He also cogently explains that half of the CO2 generated by humans throughout history has occurred since the Seinfeld TV series premiered.
But he offers a grain of hope. "If the planet was brought to the brink of climate catastrophe within the lifetime of a single generation, the responsibility to avoid it belongs with a single generation, too." The Uninhabitable Earth is a touchstone for those young Fridays for Future and New Green Deal climate activists who are committed, like no generation before, to averting that catastrophe.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Deutsche Welle.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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