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.
The Revolution Where You Live by Sarah Van Gelder (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2017)
The co-founder of Yes! Magazine, Sarah Van Gelder, wrote this book to tell the story of her “12,000 mile journey through a new America.” Yes! Magazine (to which I subscribe) is an online and print outlet for articles by progressive “solutions journalists” who envision “positive futures” for our country. Van Gelder started from her home in the Seattle area in mid-August 2015 and drove all the way across the country and back home again, stopping along the way to learn and pass on inspiring stories of various communities. The unifying theme across these stories is the concept of “acting locally” to solve community problems. The problems that Van Gelder is concerned about involve poverty, inequality, racism, and climate change, and she encounters some great solutions like local food production, worker owned cooperatives, urban farms, time banks, and restorative justice circles. Because the author lives on land that belongs to an Indian reservation, indigenous peoples are featured in many of the book’s chapters, along with African-Americans and other people of color. Van Gelder didn’t talk to political leaders (with one exception) or CEOs of large think-tanks; her focus was on grassroots solutions being implemented by people in American communities, both rural and urban. This is an inspiring compilation about what must have been a wonderful journey.
The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan (Hogarth, 2016)
This novel has a simple plot with a high impact. It takes place in the winter of 2020, not too long from now, in the UK. The main character leaves London when his mother dies and leaves him a home in a trailer park in northern Scotland. Due to climate change, the winter is much, much colder than normal (even for northern Scotland) – essentially a new Ice Age. He makes friends with his neighbors, a single woman and her transgender teen, and they get through the winter together. That’s it, but it’s worth reading.
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010)
Bill McKibben is one of the most well-known environmentalists in the United States. He is the author of a number of best-selling books, including The End of Nature, and the founder of climate change group 350.org. So even though this book is six years old now, it’s worth reading and even owning. The premise is that we no longer live on the planet we grew up on, Earth; instead it is a new planet, symbolized by the extra “a” in the name. After six years of “this year is the hottest year ever,” and the knowledge that we went over 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere a couple years back, this is not that radical an idea anymore. In this book McKibben makes the point that global warming is already happening, not something that we are doing to our grandchildren. He talks about how that realization led to him founding 350.org, and how we can learn to live on this “tough new planet.” We are going to need to localize our economies, get to know our neighbors, and live more sustainably; relying on endless economic growth and global trade is not going work in this new world.