Sunday marks yet another Earth Day. And while there are many ways to show appreciation for Mother Nature, why not pick up one of these titles on the state of the environment now?
Read more new and notable nonfiction books this April.
The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century
This debut is the author’s first full discussion of the concept [of vertical farming], which has been widely covered in major media but never implemented. Recounting the evolution of agriculture, Despommier argues that traditional farming has ruined our ecosystems and cannot possibly meet the needs of a global population expected to grow to nine billion by 2050…Vertical farms would rely on soil-free technologies: hydroponics, which permits growing plants in a water-and-nutrient solution; and aeroponics, which grows plants in a nutrient-laden mist. Housed in transparent buildings to capture sunlight, the urban farms would operate year-round, immune to the weather, and produce dozens of varieties of pesticide-free fruits and vegetables. Lower floors would house chickens and fish subsisting on plant waste. Providing food for “60 percent of the population that will live in cities twenty years from now,” the high-rise farms would recycle their own water, use the host city’s remediated household wastewater to grow crops, reduce carbon emissions and permit reforestation of farmlands to restore ecosystems and sequester carbon…A captivating argument that will intrigue general readers and give policymakers and investors much to ponder.
The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature
David George Haskell
Highly informative and entertaining, these short essays are dense with sensory details and deserve to be read slowly and carefully. The sights, smells and sounds of the forest permeate the pages, bringing readers face to face with a panoply of simple natural wonders: leaves, wildflowers, mosses, ferns, snails, salamanders, deer and more. Throughout an entire calendar year, Haskell scrutinizes this “mandala” of space, connecting the microcosm of birds, plants and animals in this patch of woods to the macrocosm of the outer world. This in-depth look into the natural biosphere emphasizes the idea that nothing—not even the small microbes that exist in the leaf litter—lives unrelated or unconnected to any other thing…Exceptional observations of the biological world worthy of any naturalist’s library.
Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks
Worried about the increasing evidence that global warming is affecting America’s national parks, Backpacker northwest editor Lanza crammed a year full of visits to 10 sites with his wife and two young children. Based on the premise that his children needed to see these natural wonders before the parks completely disappeared, the book is part family travelogue and part ecological observation. Scientists are not “talking about the distant future; they’re talking about ecological calamities and social breakdown on a scale unprecedented in human history, which many adults alive today will witness.” With this thought ever-present, Lanza writes with a bittersweet tone. He relishes his children’s joy as they discover these natural wonders for the first time and remembers his own first experiences. However, there is also a darker side to the narrative, as the author contemplates the sometimes-drastic changes that have taken place in the last 30-40 years…His best advice: See what you can of these natural wonders before it’s too late.
Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology
Atlantic senior editor and technology writer Madrigal presents a host of good ideas and missed chances in the history of energy production, many of which were in the realm of renewal/sustainable. The author seeks to understand why certain choices were made. For example, at the turn of the 20th century, electric and gasoline-powered automobiles were vying for market dominance. Gasoline won out because it fit snugly with the public attitude for autonomy, set in gear by the massive popularity of the bicycle, which “laid the cultural, infrastructural, and legal groundwork for the privately owned, gasoline-powered vehicle’s dominance.” It got people wanting to travel where they pleased on their own schedule, and the network of bike-repair shops became auto-repair shops. Madrigal covers a dozen other energy schemes with the thoroughness of a convert to each—why the wave motor, windmills, compressed-air systems and solar homes burned brightly for only a short while, but also (and this is critical) why they are now ripe for rediscovery…A well-told cautionary tale about the need for widespread renewable-energy production.
The Hockey Stick and The Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines
Michael E. Mann
From climate scientist Mann (Meteorology and Geosciences/Penn State Univ.; co-author: Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming, 2009, etc.), an important and disturbing account of the fossil-fuel industry’s well-funded public-relations campaign to sow doubt about the validity of the science of climate change. The author was an originator of the “Hockey Stick,” a graph showing that average temperatures today are higher than they have been for at least the past 1,000 years, which became an icon of the “climate wars” when published in a 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. In 2009, he was among the scientists whose e-mails, hacked and posted online, gave rise to “Climategate.” As a target of critics who deny the reality of climate change, he has been subject to smear campaigns and accusations aimed at discrediting his work. In fact, the validity of his work has been affirmed many times by leading scientists. Despite personal anger, Mann offers a scientist’s factual chronicle of the evolution of the disinformation industry that has challenged climate science…This blistering indictment of corporate-funded chicanery demands a wide audience.
Clean Energy Nation: Freeing America from the Tyranny of Fossil Fuels
Gerald McNerney and Martin Cheek
War, pestilence, starvation and the collapse of the global economy are just some of the consequences of not moving aggressively toward energy independence, assert Congressman McNerney—a member of House committees on Global Warming and Energy Independence and on Science and Technology—and science and technology journalist Cheek. They outline the many dangers of ignoring the Peak Oil Theory, which predicts that the world’s oil output will begin to decline in the near future. With growing economies like China increasing their fossil fuel use and developing strategic alliances with oil-rich countries that are not allies of the United States, the authors argue, there is no time to waste in implementing lower emission standards and greater use of alternative energy sources, including solar, wind, water, biofuel, geothermal and possibly nuclear power…The authors present a plan to reduce oil dependence from OPEC nations by 75 percent by the year 2020. If the incoming administration can immediately prioritize the development of clean, abundant, natural energy, they write, the United States can emerge victorious from this transition period and retain its reputation as the world’s most innovative and autonomous country, “the peace power of the twenty-first-century world.”
Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain's Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans
Charles Moore and Cassandra Phillips
Capt. Moore, a lifelong seafarer, was spurred to activism when his catamaran stalled in a remote area of the northeast Pacific and he noticed a visible proliferation of plastic bits and other trash floating on the water's surface. Dubbed "The Great North Pacific Garbage Patch," it was an ominous indicator of the cavalier way in which humans dispose of tons of plastic trash. This initial discovery led the author on a decades-long investigation into plastic production, distribution and chemical makeup, which revealed a level of pollution—in the sea and otherwise—far more insidious than people realized. The rise of "disposable" products coupled with inexpensive mass-production processes resulted in an unprecedented number of plastic bottles, lighters, shopping bags, diapers and other detritus being thrown away each year. Too much of it winds up in the ocean, where cool salt water drastically slows down decomposition rates. Growing numbers of vulnerable animals are ingesting these materials, and often suffering malnutrition, unhealthy offspring and death. Evidence suggests that the entire food chain may be affected, since millions of micro-plastic bits are consumed by tiny sea creatures, which are eaten by bigger fish or birds, and so on. This "toxic Trojan horse" effect extends to air and land, as well, since plastics pervade so much of our lives and often leave toxic traces behind…If human behaviors change, we can still save the oceans, and ourselves.
The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet
New York Times contributor Robbins spent more than 10 years following the efforts of David Milarch and his Champion Tree Project. “A ‘champion’ is a tree that has the highest combined score of three measurements: height, crown size, and diameter at breast height.” The project’s goal “was to clone the champion of each of the 826 species of trees in the United States, make hundreds or thousands of copies, and plant the offspring in ‘living archival libraries’ around the country to preserve the trees’ DNA.” Robbins was at first skeptical, unconvinced of Milarch’s belief that the welfare of the entire planet lies within the old-growth trees that have lived for thousands of years. The author was especially dubious when Milarch discussed his near-death experience and a visitation by “light beings” who instructed him to begin the cloning project. However, Robbins’ thoughts changed as he followed Milarch from one giant tree to another: sequoias on the coast of California, white oaks in Maryland, bristlecone pines in Colorado, a rare forest of dawn redwoods in China, stinking cedars in Florida and ancient yews in Europe. The sheer size of these trees brought awe; coupled with extensive research and interviews with leading environmental scientists, Robbins soon came to appreciate Milarch’s view.” Because trees create oxygen, filter water and also can cleanse the atmosphere of large amounts of pollutants, the planting of trees “may be the single most important ecotechnology that we have to put the broken pieces of our planet back together.”
Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming
Taking her lead from Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin, Seidl writes that both men were correct: “Now in an era of warming, where organisms experience suddenly changing environments, we see…how seminal adaptation is to the evolution of life.” She cites coral reefs, “the poster child for extinction in oceanic environments,” as a case in point—marine ecologists have discovered resilient reefs off the coast of Africa which appear to be successfully recovering. Exploring the effects of climate change already apparent in the behavior of birds, fish, insects and plant life, the author looks for analogous proactive transformations in human society and finds hope in the resilience of nature and in human ingenuity when it is spurred by challenge…Seidl's glass-half-full optimism is a welcome change from the many fatalistic prognostications of the future.
Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism