The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Picador USA, 2014).
After hearing Elizabeth Kolbert give a guest lecture at my university and learning that this book won the Pulitzer Prize, I had to buy and read it. Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. She previously wrote “Field Notes from a Catastrophe” which I read, and in this book she continues her approach of visiting scientists in the field and then writing about their work. The previous five mass extinctions of plant and animal life on Earth are well documented by scientists and include the famous asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. In recent decades, so many species are going extinct at such a rapid rate that it is generally agreed we are experiencing the sixth mass extinction. The difference is that this time, it’s being caused by humans. Kolbert tells the fascinating story of a few of these species that are going or have gone extinct, and the heartbreaking details of how scientists are making last ditch efforts to save them.
Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-first Century by Daniel B. Botkin (Oxford University Press, 1990).
A friend gave me this used book, knowing of my interest in environmental science, and it made a good companion for a cross-country airplane trip. Although it was published 27 years ago, it certainly belongs on the bookshelf of all environmentalists. Dr. Botkin was one of the pioneers in the field of ecological research in the U.S., and developed some of the first computer models. However, this is not an academic treatise; it is an attempt (and I think a successful one) to explain ecology to the general public. Botkin begins by exploring various ways of thinking about nature and our Earth – as a divine creation, as a machine, or as an organic being. He then explains how the idea of nature as a constant, steady-state system is scientifically false, because the historical data shows so much change of an essentially random nature. This understanding leads to some key consequences for the management of natural resources, which he illustrates through discussions of specific ecological niches which he has personally studied. Botkin clearly knows his environmental science, because in this book he predicted the climate change we have experienced since 1990.
Strangers in their own land: anger and mourning on the American right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (The New Press, 2016)
This nonfiction book written by a respected sociologist (her tenth book) is as readable as a novel. A resident of Berkeley, California, Dr. Hochschild spent the past six years visiting Louisiana, interviewing people on the political right and getting to know their culture. Her goal was to try to understand what she calls the Great Paradox. Red states that have the most industrial pollution and environmental damage consistently elect the most right wing Republican and Tea Party candidates. These politicians eliminate or fail to enforce environmental regulations, while offering incentives for fossil fuel companies to relocate to their states. Over the past twenty years states such as Louisiana have become havens for oil refineries, fracking operations, and all kinds of polluting industries. Hochschild takes a very personal approach in which she tries to “scale the empathy wall” and truly understand people whose political values are very different from her own. By visiting people’s homes, churches, and businesses, she gradually builds up a “deep story” about why people on the right end of the political spectrum prioritize jobs, their Christian faith, and their communities over the very real health impacts (such as cancer) that local environmental degradation is causing themselves and their families. Part of it is a deeply ingrained loyalty to the free market system and pride in being able to take care of themselves; part of it is a hatred of the federal government dating back to the Civil War. A key factor is that the South has an insular culture (most folks don’t ever travel far from home) with a heavy dependence on right-wing media sources like Fox News and talk radio. I recommend this book highly to liberal and progressive readers open-minded enough to want to understand people on the other end of the political spectrum.
Rain: a natural and cultural history by Cynthia Barnett (Crown Publishers, 2015)
I thought this was a fairly interesting book, but then I’ve always been interested in weather. My first summer job as a college student was in the Meteorology department of the local university. Cynthia Barnett approaches the topic of rain as a journalist, traveling around the U.S. and the world interviewing people and doing historical research. She covers pre-historical climate, rain and ancient civilization, the history of weather data collection and forecasting, rain makers and geo-engineering, drought and rains of frogs, the scent of rain, and the rainiest places in the world. Barnett concludes with a down-to-earth discussion of climate change and how it may be changing rain patterns around the world. I am pretty knowledgeable about weather and climate, but I learned a lot. If you enjoy watching the Weather Channel, you’ll find this book worth reading.
This book, lent to me by a friend, tells the story of the creation and first ten years of the Eco Village at Ithaca, New York. EVI was the first eco-village on the east coast of the U.S. (only the third in the entire U.S.) and is still going strong in 2016. An eco-village is an intentional community which combines sustainable design with co-housing. The concept originated in Denmark and there are many different models used in eco-villages worldwide. The one in Ithaca is a 175 acre community with 60 households residing in two clustered neighborhoods (as of 2005); the majority of the land is used for organic farming and open space. EVI is especially strong in the community aspect of an eco-village, with residents eating regular meals together and participating actively in community governance and events. Although some houses use solar panels, EVI is still on the grid and uses town water and sewer systems. With the proximity of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, educating the wider community about sustainability and co-housing plays a significant role in the life of EVI. Liz Walker, founder and director of EVI, tells its story fairly without glossing over negatives like financial issues and interpersonal conflicts. Even so, this is an inspirational book.
Heat and Light by Jennifer Haigh (Harper Collins 2016)
This book may have the distinction of being the first novel about the impact of fracking on the lives of ordinary Americans. Fracking is a new technology for extracting natural gas from deep in the earth which has disrupted the lives of residents of Pennsylvania, New York, and the Dakotas over the past ten years. Heat and Light is set in western Pennsylvania, in a fictitious town in the region of the Marcellus Shale geological formation. Jennifer Haigh tells the story from the points of view of several people: a worker in the fracking industry, a local prison guard and his family, a fracking activist, and a couple that owns a dairy farm. The local residents are initially thrilled to be offered money by the company that wants to drill under their land for natural gas, but there turn out to be unforeseen consequences.
Prosperity without growth: economics for a finite planet by Tim Jackson (EarthScan, 2011)
Endless economic growth is a fundamental requirement of capitalist economics, but a disaster for a finite planet. Since we happen to live on a finite planet (not there are any infinite ones out there), this is a problem looking for an economist with an understanding of ecology to solve. That economist is Tim Jackson, a British professor who has both the academic knowledge of economic theories and models and a grasp of the finite character of our natural resources. Although this book is somewhat dry reading for all of us non-economists out here in the real world (there are equations), it is quite well done. Jackson makes some excellent points about the psychology of material possessions and how capitalist economics has made consumerism a virtually inescapable part of our lives in order to continue the cycle of economic growth. He goes on to explore a variety of alternate approaches that would allow us to live sustainably in both the economic and environmental senses.