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Notable green books from 2010

 Posted by on December 23, 2010
Dec 232010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Climate change seems to have fallen off the political map lately. But it remains the urgent issue of our time. Indeed, it is the issue that will determine “our time.”

Several books released this year reflect this reality. And yes, reading them can be grim going. There are no requisite Hollywood endings, only monumental problems, from the highest melting mountain glacier to the deepest toxic dung lagoon (the proverbial pile of poo) of the animal factories. There are rising oceans, onerous heat, desertification, walloping storms, vanishing forests and depleted soil — enough pestilence and disaster for a Bible update.

But weighted as they are with mind-boggling issues, and warnings that we must attend to our planet or veer into disaster by 2020 or 2030, they do offer hope, opening up new ways of thinking and illuminating pathways forward.

None of these 10 books belong to the genre of once- over-lightly green tips manuals (sorry, authors of once-over-lightly green tip manuals). It seems rather to be the year of living seriously, a time to gather our defenses against climate change, corporate malfeasance and citizen apathy (and antipathy); to take a pilgrimage in search of solutions.

Even the cookbook and DIY manual on this list tack toward a different future, in which we will grow more of our own food, and cook what we grow — or eat it raw.

So curl up and get ready to explore the landscape. It won’t always be a pretty view, but it will lead you to a greener route in life. (Lighten the heft by getting these on your Kindle, though some are not yet available that way).

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben (Times Books 2010)

McKibben, one of America’s best known environmentalists, became known for sounding the early alarm about global

Aptly described by one review as a book that will "knock you down and pick you up."

warming with his 1989 book The End of Nature. Now he brings us up to date with a devastating assessment of where we are in 2010. Life on Earth, or Eaarth as it must be renamed, will never be the same because we are already moving “out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived,” he writes.

Bad news doesn’t come much worse than that. And yet, McKibben lights the way toward the best possible outcomes. Some critics have said that he offers too much hope that we’ll adapt; that radical changes and chaos are now unavoidable. But few have an iron grip on forecasting the future, McKibben has more credentials than almost anyone.

Either way, this is the “must read” book of the year for those of us who are deeply worried, and in McKibben’s nimble prose style, it’s an easy assignment.

Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson (Trinity University Press/San Antonio)

This collection of essays ponders that question that nags at those who are convinced climate change is the looming issue of our time: Why we can’t seem to marshal a consensus, let alone a clarion call to action, to save the planet. The  missing link in the dialogue, the editors say, is that we have not framed climate action as a moral obligation, one we must rise to meet for the sake of our children and grandchildren and everyone else who’s being affected by climate changes right now on coastlines and deserts around the world.

We must show that shepherding the earth and our natural resources is vital, not because a scientific graph of carbon pollution is curving dangerously upward, but because it is the right thing to do.

Moral Ground points us toward the moral compass in the climate debate.

This obvious point has not been well articulated, or gets lost in the bickering over the scientific details. But history tells us that we humans rally to stop social injustices when there’s a moral imperative. Think of the Holocaust, the civil rights movement, the Samaritan who dives into a cold river to save a drowning person.

Essayist James Garvey captures the spirit of the book in the essay “Climate Change is a Moral Problem for You, Right Now.”

Science can give us the facts, but we need something more if we want to act on the basis of those facts. The something more has at least a little to do with what we think is right, with justice, with responsibility, with what we value , with what matters to us. You cannot find that sort of thing in an ice core. You have to think your way into and through it….

Garvey and several other scholars help us think through it, exploring the moral facets of climate change and surfacing the solutions.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, author of Hot, Flat and Crowded, recalls a 12-year-old from Vancouver pleaded with adults at a climate summit to act more responsibly toward the earth, “If you don’t know how to fix it, please stop breaking it.”

Dale Jamieson, director of Environment Studies at New York University, notes that we must consider the victims of climate change who have not yet been born because “every action we take ripples into the future.”

Massoumeh Ebtekar, a feminist scholar from Iran, concludes that science and technology could be redirected toward social issues, ameliorating poverty, disease and inequality, if so much of the globe were not at war because of the “aggressive masculine grip over world affairs.”

Anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, a New England hero of the climate movement, argues in her essay “Why Should I Inconvenience Myself?” that we simply must learn to live differently — recreating ourselves as neighbors and beings within natural ecosystems.

World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse
by Lester R. Brown (W.W.Norton & Co.)

If this list were part of a meal, it couldn’t be either an appetizer or a dessert. As an appetizer it would agitate the guests,

Lester Brown's latest call to attend to climate change.

and it would be a bitter dessert. Lester Brown, founder of WorldWatch and later, the Earth Policy Institute, delivers a rainfall of information backed by a sea of facts that make the reality of climate change irrefutable.

Beginning with the weird fires in Moscow and devastating floods in Pakistan last summer, Brown works his way backward and around the globe, taking us on a tour of ravaged landscapes, dwindling resources and baking earth. Like an evangelical warning of the end times, he collects devastating images — the depletion of aquifers from Afghanistan to Arizona; the loss of glaciers that feed crops almost everywhere; the disappearance of coastlines; the poisoning of lands and rivers from industrial pollution; the struggle of nations unable to feed themselves as the soil and water disappear.

Scary? Yes. But don’t let chapters like “Eroding Soils and Expanding Deserts” or “Mounting Stresses, Failing States” deter you from reading this book. Quixotically, Brown, author of several previous books including Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (Substantially Revised), restores us, like a doctor with a serious message but a good grasp of how to treat the ailment. There’s reassurance here, because if we can see the face of the monster and we might be able to defeat it. Read on and you will be rewarded in later chapters — “Harvesting Wind, Solar and Geothermal Energy” — with a second blizzard of ideas about how we might lift ourselves away from “the edge.”

The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction by Rebecca D. Costa (Vanguard Press)

A sociobiologist and former Silicon Valley executive, Rebecca D. Costa looks at how other civilizations have dealt with societal collapse and rapid changes, as she scans our increasingly complex modern world. While not explicitly about climate change or sustainability, this thought-piece about the potential collapse of civilization helps clarify and re-frame

If only our brains could keep up with the complexities of modern life -- we could rescue ourselves from ruin.

the issues. It shows how people must break through old, unworkable methods, push past  hesitations, myopic viewpoints and the faulty thinking that often stands in the way of positive change.

Costa takes an exhaustive look at what doesn’t work, reserving a chapter for the “Supermemes” that thwart our response to complex problems, such as “irrational opposition” and “silo thinking” (over-specialization) and ” counterfeit correlation” (confusing correlation for causation). She looks at how the  inadequate mitigation of problems, such as recycling for example, can actually block further progress by posing as complete solutions.

This is fascinating stuff for anyone interested in how our human biology and evolution affects issues such as the decline of the American education system or the inability of public policy to counteract economic decline. The ramifications for the environment are obvious.

Throughout, Costa shares anecdotes about breakthroughs that highlight people’s ability to surmount incredible obstacles, such as the microfinance solution developed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus that addressed the crushing poverty in Bangladesh by giving tiny businesses small, short term loans.  Applying her biologist’s filter, Costa points out that the program perfected by Yunus tapped into our human instinct to band together in small troupes.

Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment
by David Kirby
(St. Martin’s Press)

A well-researched narrative about how factory farming is killing more than animals.

We’ve heard about the problems of CAFOs — those Concentrated Agricultural Feeding Operations that produce copious waste, and subject animals to a brutal world of forced feeding and confinement. But you’ve not heard this story, which follows people who live near the destructive factory pig farms, dairies and chicken operations. These human victims, the collateral damage of factory farming, have watched their rivers destroyed, their farmland polluted and their communities blanketed with an inescapable stench.

David Kirby spent three years reporting this work, and the effort pays off for the reader, who is treated to a page-turner  about regular folks turned activists.

There’s a risk here, you may become just as indignant as you read about the pollution, destructive waste and unfair advantages of the titans of modern meat production. Visit Kirby’s website if you do.

Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It by Anna Lappe (Bloomsbury).

Continuing a family tradition, Anna Lappé looks at the food systems we need to survive on a heavily populated planet. But this work is no mere update of Diet for a Small Planet, the ground-breaking 1971 book by her mother Frances Moore

Discover how "slow food" can help heal the planet.

Lappé , which promoted a plant-based diet as a way to feed a hungry world. The younger Lappé must confront the newly recognized element of climate change, and how modern, mechanized global food systems exacerbate it.

Lappé  elaborates on this “food-climate connection,” revealing the wasted energy in industrial food systems that ship ingredients around the world, depend upon synthetic chemicals and create images that belie their ecological damage. She cites Syngenta, the pesticide maker, as just one example of a company that burnishes its profile by donating to an environmental concern, Ducks Unlimited (ironically with donations of its trademark herbicide). These revelations make for good reading, and will excite those who are already convinced that chemicals are part of the problem. More important for some readers, perhaps, is that Lappé details better ways, demonstrating that local and organic food production is not only cleaner and less polluting, but more efficient, safer and more nutritious.

Those looking for relief from the current cascade of catastrophes — chemical pollution, food shortages, loss of farmland — can find some in the section entitled “Hope.” There we meet a chorus of people that buck the big agribusiness rationale that big, bio-engineered and chemically enhanced farms are necessary, such as: A 1.5 acre Michigan farm that produces 27 tons of food annually; thriving small farms in Oaxaca; the competitive farmer-owned Organic Valley co-op in Wisconsin and an apple farm where good and bad bugs are left alone creating a rich ecosystem where the produce never meets a pesticide.

Homesteader’s Kitchen, The: Recipes from Farm to Table by Robin Burnside, (Gibbs Smith)

Homesteader's offers nourishment with flair, straight from the garden.

In this cookbook for “homesteaders,” Robin Burnside, former chef and co-owner of Carmel Café in Carmel, California, manages to redefine comfort food for those of us seeking healthier ways to eat. If you’re looking for ways to incorporate more vegetables and fruits, you’ll find elegant, nutritious recipes that won’t require hours of preparation but will lead you to a new, rustic American cuisine based on foods from your garden or the farmer’s market. The clincher for me came with the recipe for “Chard Pie” — finally a way to make a quick entree with this nutritious leafy veggie that I’ve avoided for too long.

There also are meat recipes, such as “Grass-fed Beef and Mushroom Stroganoff” a family favorite of Burnside’s, and a wealth of staples, like Hummus, Salsa Fresca, Garden Pesto and Yogurt, that are just best made at home. You’ll also find a sampling of fruit and veggie juices, soups with protein and cohesively seasonal veggies, and a wonderful recipe for Green Tea Chai.  It’s like going to a health food spa, but staying home. You’ll just need someone to wash the dishes.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Self-Sufficient Living
by Jerome D. Belanger (Alpha)

This book may not get the traction it could among mainstream Americans. The vast majority of us can’t have goats in the

A hundred ways to become more self-sufficient, which isn't for idiots.

backyard. But we can garden, make our own yogurt or cottage cheese, build a compost pile and raise chickens. At the very least, we might want to renew our acquaintance with the kitchen, where cooking occurs. This book can help with that. It also can help you reduce household waste and improve your garden yield and efficiency. (Are you saving your own seeds yet? Find out how.)

I wasn’t so keen  on the “Raising Rabbits for Food” concept — I don’t even eat chickens anymore — but I was intrigued by the helpful info on raising backyard laying hens, a huge phenomenon in the U.S. now, and the rundown on keeping a goat for milk and cheese. My HOA would be screaming foul! over these activities, so I support family farms and am shopping for a CSA with a goat cheese element. But for people in locales friendlier to “gentleman farmers,” this would be a fun book.

In fact, for anyone wanting to put their homes and yards to better use, this is a good survey of the options. Should you really get into raising honeybees or home canning produce, you’ll probably need some additional guides.

Worth a Look:

How the West Was Warmed: Responding to Climate Change in the Rockies
Beth Conover, editor (Fulcrum)

Anyone living in or in love with Colorado or other Rocky Mountain states will want to know how climate change is eroding ecosystems and forests in the American west. (Technically from late 2009.)

Raw Food for Real People: Living Vegan Food Made Simple by the Chef and Founder of Leaf Organics
by Rod Rotondi

Healthy ideas that will surprise you with how they fit into today’s lifestyles.

Copyright © 2010 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network