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Summer Reading: Environment Books That Changed the World

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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

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.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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