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.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.