Walden is a book of deep thoughts lashed to a compelling gimmick -- namely, Henry David Thoreau's decision to spent two years living in a self-made ca...moreWalden is a book of deep thoughts lashed to a compelling gimmick -- namely, Henry David Thoreau's decision to spent two years living in a self-made cabin by the shores of the titular pond, surviving (mostly) on what he is able to extract from the land. Thoreau is at his most engaging when writing about nature, and there are many lovely passages sprinkled throughout. But his other targets here are his fellow humans. He starts off the book with a hilariously cranky blast of misanthropy in which he disrespects his elders, mocks the salt of the earth wisdom of farmers and generally takes aim at all society holds dear.
There is from time to time the whiff of elitism in Thoreau's writing. In one chapter he visits an Irish immigrant family who is living in a similar situation to him, although due to poverty rather than choice, and has the gall to criticize them for doing it wrong. In his defense, Thoreau doesn't exactly flinch from leveling criticisms at everyone else too.
More so than many books, the personality of its author shines through: he's a crank, although not an unpleasant one. You can easily imagine him as your intense, slightly odd friend -- opinionated, idealistic, never dull, prone to saying unusual things to shopkeepers. The flip side to this is he is occasionally overly obscure, caught up in private jokes about classical texts, or belaboring complicated analogies. Too often there are jewels of insight and beautiful writing buried among the tedious jabbering. But the land anchors the book, yanking its author back to earth when he threatens to float off into a cloud of abstraction.(less)
A fairly technical and academic introduction to neotropical ecosystems. Happily it is also highly readable, consistently fascinating and even amusing...moreA fairly technical and academic introduction to neotropical ecosystems. Happily it is also highly readable, consistently fascinating and even amusing in places. The highlight for me were the long, clear discussions of forest succession and evolutionary patterns in tropical rain forests. Less consistently engaging than Tropical Nature, but also more useful in case you actually wanted to identify that strange [tree, bird, bug, snake] you are looking at.(less)
The spiritual descendant of Rachel Carson's classic, Silent Spring. While the villains of Carson's book have mostly been banned (in the U.S. anyway),...moreThe spiritual descendant of Rachel Carson's classic, Silent Spring. While the villains of Carson's book have mostly been banned (in the U.S. anyway), the underlying dynamic that most concerned Carson continues: namely, that technological development outpaces our scientific understanding of technology's effects on human health and the environment. That we are, in effect, all guinea pigs in a great un-supervised experiment.
Our Stolen Future focuses on chemicals that are not acutely toxic nor necessarily carcinogenic. Rather they are endocrine disruptors that can either mimic or block the body's hormones. As the authors point out in case study after case study, the consequences of these chemicals are both potentially enormous and remarkably hard to study. For starters, endocrine disruptors upset the traditional toxicological maxim that the "dose makes the poison." For many of these chemicals it matters more when the dose is administered rather than how much it is. A minuscule dose of a certain substance delivered at just the right moment in the biological development process can cause remarkably large problems for the organism. And the evidence indicates that our environment is literally flooded with these chemicals, with consequences that we are only perceiving dimly.
The book is another fine example of good science writing, with clear and cogent chapters addressing the tragedy of the "DES daughters" or tracing the remarkable path of a PCB molecule as it bioaccumulates its way up the food chain. There's even a hermaphroditic beluga whale. The scientific field profiled here is one that is very much in its infancy -- pre-paradigmatic, as Kuhn would say -- which makes much of what is discussed somewhat speculative. The scientific picture has become somewhat clearer in the years since publication, although a coherent policy response remains years away.(less)
With one exception. In this book, Boff gives himself more space than before to talk about cosmology and quantum mechanics, with disastrous results. For example:
"The fermions within us are our individual and bodily dimension, while bosons are our relationships and spiritual dimension." (p.54)
Gaaaah! Just. No.
And here it's not just a few paragraphs here and there. Basically all of Chapter 2 is devoted to mixing up a big salad of cosmology, quantum mechanics, ecology, biology with a dash of New Age seasoning. Boff's heart is in the right place--he's enthusiastically pro-science, whatever it is--but it's clear that he's read too many popular science books without speaking a word to an actual working scientist. His understanding of the science is superficial when not factually incorrect. This is a big flaw in an otherwise interesting book, and almost a disqualifying one.
The book recovers a bit after Chapter 2, especially in two of the more grounded chapters--one on the destruction of the Amazon, and another on St. Francis of Assisi (the patron saint of ecologists and, one assumes, hippies). The book remains interesting and even moving in places, but too often you have to dig through a lot of guff to find those pearls of wisdom.(less)
A collection of more than 70 essays about global warming collected and compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists. As with any collection the style...moreA collection of more than 70 essays about global warming collected and compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists. As with any collection the style and emphasis vary a bit from page to page, but there are many nice moments found here. What the authors make clear is that our natural environment has deep, personal meaning for a lot of people and that climate change is slowly degrading a form of cultural heritage just as much as it is reworking our ecosystems.(less)
A data-driven look at how American consumers impact the environment, and hence, what the most effective steps are to reduce that impact. Woulda been 4...moreA data-driven look at how American consumers impact the environment, and hence, what the most effective steps are to reduce that impact. Woulda been 4 stars but it's a bit outdated. The economy and the environment have changed a bit since 1999, so it would be cool to see an updated version, especially given the proliferation of internet-based advice (not all of it trustworthy).
Realizing that most people only have limited bandwidth available for changing their lifestyle to be more ecological, this book aims to identify the largest consumer impacts on the environment. The big ones turn out to be connected to driving a car, eating meat and heating your home. These aren't surprising results for anyone paying attention to the environment. But it is nice to see the results put into a comprehensive framework where you can compare the impact of owning a big car to eating steak weekly to buying paper napkins. They also tell you not to sweat the small stuff -- activities where the impact is small, or where the alternative is not significantly better. E.g. if you live in an area with water scarcity, go ahead and use plastic diapers; cloth isn't radically better, just a different set of problems.
There is a rhetorical divide within the environmental movement about whether to be optimistic or pessimistic when talking about environmental problems and solutions. This book falls squarely into the can-do, optimist camp. But they are careful not to state that consumer action alone will be sufficient to the task, and include a later chapter talking up the importance of government action and calling your Congressperson.(less)
A well-written and frequently fascinating overview of tropical rainforests in the Americas, Africa and Asia. A good companion to Tropical Nature, whic...moreA well-written and frequently fascinating overview of tropical rainforests in the Americas, Africa and Asia. A good companion to Tropical Nature, which focuses exclusively on the science, Caufield's book delves into the economics, politics and history of rainforests. Various chapters touch on the ability of traditional forest dwellers to live and farm in the forest and their shameful treatment by colonizers, stories of Costa Rica's Quaker dairy farmers and New Guinea's gold miners, the history of quinine (an anti-malarial drug derived from the bark of the cinchona tree), and above all the tragic, far-reaching and unexpected consequences of deforestation. Caulfield competently integrates a tremendous amount of information, and when she dips into her personal experiences, she can be a funny, tart observer. The only knock on the book is that it is several decades in need of an update.(less)
The best way to read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is as a species of Greek Tragedy -- whom the gods would overthrow, they first make great. In the 19...moreThe best way to read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring is as a species of Greek Tragedy -- whom the gods would overthrow, they first make great. In the 1940s, the gods gave us humans mastery over organic chemistry, a tool of tremendous power, flexibility and usefulness. But pridefully we overreached, attempting to micro-manage the insect kingdom and assert control over the natural world. Inevitably our pride is overthrown as the unintended consequences of our actions accumulate and multiply. When it was published in 1962, Silent Spring captured the public imagination with stories of a poisoned environment, but the dramatic undercurrent is what has kept it relevant in the 50 years since. Were he alive to read it, Sophocles would be furiously taking notes.
It's common to say Silent Spring is the book that launched the environmental movement. Certainly there were environmentalists before Carson -- John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Henry David Thoreau -- but it wasn't until the late '60s, early '70s that you could really speak of a movement. Carson's best-seller was one of the catalysts of this movement, which led eventually to landmark legislation like the Clean Air Act and a greater public awareness of environmental issues.
Because of the successes of the environmental movement many of the specifics in the book are no longer relevant. Carson's primary villains are chemicals such as DDT, dieldrin, aldrin, heptachlor and others -- the so-called "Dirty Dozen" persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Most of these "first-generation" pesticides have been banned in the U.S. for decades (although some continue to be sold and used overseas). We are already seeing the fruits of these policies: in 2007 the Bald Eagle was removed from the Endangered Species List, thanks in no small part to the DDT ban.
Writing before the existence of large, systematic studies on the effects of pesticides, Carson relies heavily on anecdote, case studies and expert opinion. Some of the book is fairly speculative. Still it is remarkable how much she gets right. She identifies most of the themes that still trouble environmental policy today: bio-accumulation, persistence in the environment, effects on non-target species, evolving resistance to pesticides, the importance of biological controls, etc.
DDT may be (mostly) gone from our environment, but the central tension illustrated in Silent Spring remains with us in the age of climate change and other emergent environmental threats. Our ability to control and shape the natural world is greater than ever, but we are still profoundly ignorant of the richness and interconnectivity of that world, and as a result, we are vulnerable to the unintended consequences of our actions.(less)
Diamond's previous book Guns Germs and Steel was for me (and lots of other people, I think) a real eye-opener. There were 5 or 6 ideas in that book th...moreDiamond's previous book Guns Germs and Steel was for me (and lots of other people, I think) a real eye-opener. There were 5 or 6 ideas in that book that I had never even heard mention of before reading, but that seem so elegant and obvious upon reflection. To give just one example, the way the east-west orientation of the Eurasian continent facilitates travel and the spread of crops and ideas, in contrast to the north-south orientations of Africa and the Americas, which hinder that spread. Regardless of whether you fully buy into his overall argument, it was a masterpiece of popular science writing.
Collapse continues that high-level of quality, although the tenor of the work is different. Rather than a collection of diverse ideas supporting one theme, Diamond applies a set of 5 factors to explain the collapses of several ancient civilizations -- Easter Island, Pitcairn/Henderson, the Anasazi, the Classic Period Maya and the Norse in Greenland. This gives the book more of a repetitive feel than Guns, but the romance of ancient civilizations and his beautiful explanations are more than enough to keep you glued to the pages.
The second half of the book addresses collapses in the modern world (Rwanda, Haiti) or current societies that are probably unsustainable (China, Australia). In these sections you can sense that Diamond is a little out of his element. The chapter on China is an especially deadly litany of environmental statistics offered with little real insight into the complexity of that country. He closes the book with a generally interesting discussion of sustainability in the modern world.
Like its predecessor, Collapse is a synthesis of a very large body of scientific work, which naturally means that it is not the last word on any of these topics. He alludes briefly to some of the controversies found within the scientific communities that study these civilizations. The book has also spawned some pushback in the form of a collection of essays -- Questioning Collapse. I don't think it's a big knock on a work of popular writing, but it's important to note that there are other perspectives out there on these complicated questions.(less)
Leonardo Boff is a Brazilian theologian and former priest who was one of the early proponents of liberation theology within the Catholic Church. After...moreLeonardo Boff is a Brazilian theologian and former priest who was one of the early proponents of liberation theology within the Catholic Church. After several high-profile feuds with the hierarchy, Boff left the church in 1992. Since then he has written extensively on the connections between environmental destruction, poverty and injustice. He remains fairly influential in Latin America and has close ties with a lot of social movements in the region. His goal for this book is to articulate (or resuscitate?) an ecumenical, post-Berlin Wall version of liberation theology and base it in the critical need to conserve the environment.
Boff's general focus and conclusions are good stuff, and there is a lot to like and think about in this book, but for the most part I found his method of writing frustrating and a little bit baffling. Boff is an exuberant writer, but not a precise one. He doesn't build up his arguments piece-by-piece with an eye towards convincing you that they make sense, instead he plucks declarative sentences from the sky and arranges them in front of you. You get stuff like "mysticism is life itself apprehended in its radicalism and extreme density" (p.161). If you're already on his same wavelength then maybe that's really deep and moving, but if you're not, well, Boff never offers much to help you figure what the heck he's talking about.
(Two caveats: one, the translation seems poor and perhaps it's more compelling in the original language, and two, from the little I've read of Cry of the Earth Cry of the Poor, that book seems tighter and more analytical. Also: I've not read much of this type of theological writing before, so maybe it gets easier with practice.)
I was most interested by the incorporation of science into this paradigm. He occasionally prompts eye-rolls when he cites the "weirdness" of quantum mechanics or relativity as direct support for his mystical worldview (Deepak Chopra would be proud). Other times he pushes a maximalist interpretation of legitimate scientific conclusions that is at odds with the cautious, evidence-based perspective of working scientists. To give one example, he claims "the basic concept of nature seen from an ecological standpoint is that everything is related to everything else in all respects" (p.10). Really? In all respects? This sentence takes a mundane insight of ecology (that life webs are rich and complex) and amps it up to the level of mystical revelation.
In Boff's defense, he is emphatically pro-science and is not one of those who is pushing for skepticism of scientific findings in the name of preserving religion. Indeed, the Big Idea in this work is that theology should learn from the insights of ecology, and that a truly ecological perspective brings us closer to the Divine. In addition, his advocacy of "mysticism" turns in part on a redefinition of "spirit" to avoid the long-standing problems of dualism. In other words, his mysticism is at least somewhat reconciled to science. He does finger "rationalism" and "scientific messianism" as the main culprits in environmental contamination, but is clear that this criticism does not extend to "science" writ large.
In the end, perhaps it is best to approach this book like you would a book of poetry, or a sermon, and on that front, Boff can be fascinating, beautiful and moving in places. YMMV.(less)
Environmental justice is the concept that environmental risks should be borne equitably by society, whereas the harsh reality is that poor people and...moreEnvironmental justice is the concept that environmental risks should be borne equitably by society, whereas the harsh reality is that poor people and people of color are disproportionately affected by pollution and environmental degradation. The environmental justice movement arose in response to this inequality and over the past several decades has grown to become a global movement closely involved in debates over globalization, development, climate change and broader discussions of justice in society.
This collection of essays is a retrospective of the movement's past accomplishments and future challenges. Many of the essays focus on various local "David vs. Goliath" struggles -- from New Jersey to South Africa, Los Angeles to Nigeria -- and such tend to have many common characteristics. In particular, a few of the essays here stand out for their analytical clarity: the scientific analysis of pollution siting in Los Angeles by Manuel Pastor and collaborators is excellent, as is David MacDonald's analysis of neoliberalism in post-apartheid South Africa.
In all, a very good academic reference for the subject. A little dry in places, especially for a topic that is so clearly ripe for dramatization, but that's sort of an occupational hazard with stuff like this.(less)
An excellent introductory textbook to global warming and climate change. I was hoping for a little more depth in the atmospheric physics sections (I'm...moreAn excellent introductory textbook to global warming and climate change. I was hoping for a little more depth in the atmospheric physics sections (I'm geeky that way), but what Houghton presents is more than adequate for a non-major college-level class. Plus the book more than makes up for it in the breadth of topics -- paleoclimatology, international negotiations, climate impacts, sustainable energy. It's all here, and while there are other books that delve deeper into each of those topics, this is a good intro to the field.
Sadly my version is from 2004, which means that it's already quite dated, lacking even the already-aged 2007 4th IPCC report findings. Supposedly the 2009 version is more to-the-minute, so be sure to check that one out.(less)
A nice, readable, thought-provoking series of essays arguing that caring for the environment (or, the capital-C Creation) is a key religious calling....moreA nice, readable, thought-provoking series of essays arguing that caring for the environment (or, the capital-C Creation) is a key religious calling. There is an admirable breadth of perspectives here, with contributions from the many varieties of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian faiths (although for all that, very American in its outlook).
As is usual with these types of books the style and quality vary greatly, but I imagine that there are enough fresh perspectives, insights and sharp personal stories to keep most people turning pages.(less)
Tropical Nature provides an elegant and engaging introduction to the ecology of new world tropical rain forests. It is organized into 17 pithy chapter...moreTropical Nature provides an elegant and engaging introduction to the ecology of new world tropical rain forests. It is organized into 17 pithy chapters each of which focuses on a particular piece of the ecosystem: frogs, army ants, birds, etc. Each chapter provides an introduction to the various critters as well as a fascinating history of how that species evolved to fill its particular niche. Indeed, one of the book's strengths is its continual focus on the how's and why's of evolution as the drivers of the astounding biodiversity on display in these forests.
All in all, a truly excellent piece of popular science writing. After reading this I feel ever so slightly less ignorant about biology!(less)
This is a terrific book for anyone interested in learning about the shape of our world's energy production. What's unique about the book is how MacKay...moreThis is a terrific book for anyone interested in learning about the shape of our world's energy production. What's unique about the book is how MacKay analyzes the problem of sustainable energy. His calculation is emphatically not the state of the art; it is, in fact, deliberately crude. Any old university, environmental group or coal power trade organization is likely to have more sophisticated energy models and predictions -- with their own assumptions buried deep within. MacKay's book aims to arm his readers with the ability to separate hype and spin from scientific facts.
MacKay (a physicist by trade) approaches sustainable energy as a series of Fermi Problems, or "back-of-the envelope" calculations. This approach seeks to take a complicated problem and boil it down to its essential core. As the saying goes, "as simple as possible, but no simpler."
To solve such a problem it helps to clearly state assumptions, identify the right physical quantities (and their units) and ultimately arrive at an "order of magnitude" estimate. Physicists in particular are trained in this way of thinking and often use it as their first crack at a research problem. The process won't necessarily get the "right" answer, right away, but by doing it you learn the structure of the problem and better understand how your simple model might be made more accurate.
MacKay's goal with this book is to assess whether it is even technically possible (economics and politics aside) to live on sustainable energy. The energy system is, of course, quite complicated, but MacKay breaks it up into numerous bite-sized problems, with each bite yielding an estimate of part of our energy consumption or production. Wind, solar, biofuel, nuclear, cars, heating, gadgets, etc. are all subjected to this analysis.
The book can be read on many levels. The main narrative is suitable for interested layfolk who aren't scared off by equations. Many of the most fun Fermi problems are contained in the appendix, which should probably be read by any physical science students studying for their doctoral candidacy exams. The figure captions and endnotes also provide a wealth of additional information, such that the book has that multi-threaded feel you get from browsing wikipedia for an hour.
MacKay ultimately concludes that yes, it is indeed possible to switch to sustainable energy. He even provides 5 different possible plans for Great Britain. But he cautions that none of them will be easy and all will require the citizenry to start saying "yes" to change, rather than complaining about how ugly windfarms are.
For MacKay, it remains an open question whether the political barriers are surmountable and whether human societies will choose sustainability as a preemptive strike against ecological collapse. This crucial political and economic question is left as an exercise for the reader.
File this one under books I disagree with but grudgingly respect. Cass Sunstein argues here (quite passionately) for wider use of formal cost-benefit...moreFile this one under books I disagree with but grudgingly respect. Cass Sunstein argues here (quite passionately) for wider use of formal cost-benefit analysis (CBA) in government policy making. Lest you think this is merely a dry legal exercise, note that Sunstein is currently serving as President Obama's regulatory czar where he is putting his stamp on all manner of government regulations. The arguments in this book may well play a role in the safety of your workplace or the quality of the air you breathe.
Formal CBA is the notion that any government action should be justified by an accounting of all costs and benefits. In theory that's pretty unobjectionable, but in practice CBA has been used to tear down public health and environmental protections. Sunstein swears he is not a de-regulator. As a liberal, he claims to be interested in making government regulation more efficient by targeting scare resources at the most pressing problems.
There are still a lot of progressive objections to this sort of thing. For example, it is easy to measure costs, but much harder to measure benefits. What monetary value do you place on cancer deaths averted? For another, most costs and benefits are not shared equitably - how do we deal with that? For a third, cost calculations often involve future economic predictions which are, to put it charitably, extremely uncertain.
Naturally Sunstein anticipates and responds to all these objections and more, but I was left with the distinct feeling that CBA is sometimes a way of wrapping your assumptions in numbers in order to give them an aura of scientific certainty. In one especially damning chapter, Sunstein describes the range of cost-benefit balances for one proposed regulation (arsenic in drinking water). The range is so enormous that you could justify regulating or not based on which assumptions you choose to make.
Sunstein says that despite all these flaws it is better to do CBA than to be in the dark. Your mileage may vary.(less)
Like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, this book is a synthesis of science, philosophy and cultural observation that aims to change the way you...moreLike Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, this book is a synthesis of science, philosophy and cultural observation that aims to change the way you look at a big complex chunk of the world -- namely food. Pollan's style is more casual than Diamond's -- more dinner conversation than college lecture -- but he is an amiable, self-deprecating, common-sensical, highly-quotable chef.
Another thought: On one hand, Pollan is an idealist who offers harsh condemnation of the industrial food system and advocates a sustainable way forward. On the other hand, he is an arch cultural-conservative, celebrating a return to traditional (even primitive) food systems. Contradictory? Discuss.(less)
I'm neither an expert on this topic nor unbiased (one of the editors is an old friend), but I think it's hard to be unimpressed by this book. Both "hu...moreI'm neither an expert on this topic nor unbiased (one of the editors is an old friend), but I think it's hard to be unimpressed by this book. Both "human health" and "biodiversity" are enormous, complicated topics on their own, so it stands to reason that their intersection is a rich, detailed topic as well. But they certainly do it justice (or at least try to). The assembled authors hit a large number of topics: ecosystem services, medicines from animals and plants, changing patterns of disease due to ecosystem disruptance, biodiversity and agriculture, etc.
The book is a hybrid between hard-core technical literature review and glossy coffee-table book. People with more biology background than I will probably get more out of the technical sections, but each chapter is also packed with supplemental information and a ton of beautiful photos. And even the technical sections are not impenetrable, and most do a decent job explaining the ideas they present.(less)
First rate introduction to soil ecology, the fascinating things that happen underground and how they relate to our life above. Baskin presents a handf...moreFirst rate introduction to soil ecology, the fascinating things that happen underground and how they relate to our life above. Baskin presents a handful of cases studies -- from the sparse ecosystems of Antarctica's dry valleys to the relationship between wolves and microbes in Yellowstone -- and touches on most of the hot issues in soil ecology (coastal dead-zones, range and forest management, invasive species, etc.).
Be warned, you won't find a lot of the hand-holding that you see in other popular science books. She dumps you right into sentences full of technical discussion about 'nitrogen fixing' and 'mycorhizal fungi.' But spending a little time with the topic is quite rewarding in the end.
Now, if only someone would write a good book tying these topics to issues of development and sustainability... (less)
Thoughtful, even-handed and timely book from the author of 'The Republican War on Science' that seeks to answer the question of whether global warming...moreThoughtful, even-handed and timely book from the author of 'The Republican War on Science' that seeks to answer the question of whether global warming is currently making hurricanes stronger (or will in the future). (Inadequately short answer: probably yes, but it's complicated.)
I really enjoyed how Mooney delves into the messy process of scientific advancement, how it's driven by personality and happenstance, and yet somehow manages to lurch slowly toward the right answer.(less)
The first book you should read if you feel like getting angry at the public relations industry and the way they sell disaster. This book has some pret...moreThe first book you should read if you feel like getting angry at the public relations industry and the way they sell disaster. This book has some pretty crazy examples. The ones that stick in my mind are the people who infiltrate activist groups and try to push them towards extreme and/or criminal actions.
I could gripe a little that some of the examples aren't as firmly argued as I would prefer, but that's not really the point.
The point is this. Large corporations spend billions of dollars each year to manipulate the public opinion for their own private gain, and often the loss of common good. And, like advertising, it works -- if it didn't they wouldn't do it. (less)