This month’s bookshelf showcases titles to keep you company as you settle in for the darkest time of year – ideally with a blanket, a cozy couch, and a cup of cocoa.
Here are books designed to provoke deep reflection, including such topics as how human beings might remake our societies for the better, how to draw on religious teachings to sustain activism, and how to tell better stories. The selections include a book of cartoons – co-authored by scientist Michael Mann and Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles – along with several works of fiction.
The text has been drawn from the copy provided by the publishers, which has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth’s Newest Age, by David Biello (Scribner Books 2016, 288 pages, $26.00)
In a time when a species dies out every ten minutes, when summers are getting hotter, winters colder, and oceans higher, some people still deny mankind’s effect on the Earth. But all of our impacts on the planet have ushered in what qualifies as a new geologic epoch, thanks to global warming, mass extinction, and such technologies as nuclear weapons or plastics. The Unnatural World examines the world we have created and analyzes the glimmers of hope emerging from the efforts of incredible individuals seeking to change our future. Instead of a world without us, this history of the future shows how we can become good gardeners, how people can thrive along with an abundance of plants, animals, with all the exuberant profusion of life on Earth. The current era of humans need not be the end of the world – it’s just the end of the world as we know it.
Dangerous Years: Climate Change, the Long Emergency, and the Way Forward, by David W. Orr (Yale University Press 2016, 320 pages, $28.50)
In Dangerous Years, David Orr, an award-winning, internationally recognized leader in the field of sustainability and environmental education, pulls no punches: even with the Paris Agreement of 2015, Earth systems will not reach a new equilibrium for centuries. Earth is becoming a different planet – more threadbare and less biologically diverse, with more acidic oceans and a hotter, more capricious climate. Furthermore, technology will not solve complex problems of sustainability. Yet we are not fated to destroy the Earth, Orr insists. He imagines sustainability as a quest and a transition built upon robust and durable democratic and economic institutions, as well as changes in heart and mindset. The transition, he writes, is beginning from the bottom up in communities and neighborhoods. He lays out specific principles and priorities to guide us toward enduring harmony between human and natural systems.
Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future, by David Grinspoon (Grand Central Publishing 2016, 508 pages, $28.00
For the first time in Earth’s history, our planet is experiencing a confluence of rapidly accelerating changes prompted by one species: humans. Climate change is only the most visible of the modifications we’ve made – up until this point, inadvertently – to the planet. And our current behavior threatens not only our own future but that of countless other creatures. Without minimizing the challenges of the next century, astrobiologist David Grinspoon suggests that our present moment is not only one of peril, but also great potential. Our species has surmounted the threat of extinction before, thanks to our innate ingenuity and ability to adapt, and there’s every reason to believe we can do so again. Our challenge now is to awaken to our role as a force of planetary change, and to grow into this task. We must become graceful planetary engineers, conscious shapers of our environment and caretakers of Earth’s biosphere. This is a perspective that begs us to ask not just what future do we want to avoid, but what do we seek to build? What kind of world do we want?
Climate Change Communication and Activism
Doing Good Without Giving Up: Sustaining Social Action in a World That’s Hard to Change, by Ben Lowe (Inter-Varsity Press 2014, 208 pages, $16.00 paperback)
If you’re working to make the world a better place, you might find yourself discouraged. Needs are overwhelming, resources are limited, opposition is real and progress is slow. How do we persevere when the novelty wears off and our enthusiasm runs out? We all want change in the world. But as C. S. Lewis put it, we don’t get second things by placing them first; we get second things by keeping first things first. Ben Lowe, spokesperson for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, renews our mission with key postures and practices for sustaining faithful social action. What makes social action distinctively Christian includes such things as living out Jesus’ love, having a prophetic witness, building bridges with opponents, repudiating idolatries, and practicing repentance and sabbath. Moving beyond theory, Lowe showcases practical examples of what it looks like to persevere in faithful activism and advocacy today.
Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, by Randy Olson (University of Chicago Press 2015, 256 pages, $20.00 paperback)
Hollywood has a lot to teach scientists about how to tell a story – and, ultimately, how to do science better. With Houston, We Have a Narrative, he lays out a stunningly simple method for turning the dull into the dramatic. Drawing on his unique background, which saw him leave his job as a working scientist to launch a career as a filmmaker, Olson first diagnoses the problem: When scientists tell us about their work, they pile one moment and one detail atop another moment and another detail – a stultifying procession of “and, and, and.” What we need instead is an understanding of the basic elements of story, the narrative structures that our brains are all but hardwired to look for – which Olson boils down, brilliantly, to “And, But, Therefore,” or ABT. At a stroke, the ABT approach introduces momentum (“And”), conflict (“But”), and resolution (“Therefore”) – the fundamental building blocks of story. Written with an uncommon verve and enthusiasm, Houston, We Have a Narrative has the power to transform the way science is understood and appreciated, and ultimately how it’s done.
The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy, by Michael E. Mann and Tom Toles (Columbia University Press 2016, 208 pages, $24.95)
The award-winning climate scientist Michael E. Mann and the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist Tom Toles have been on the front lines of the fight against climate denialism for most of their careers. They have witnessed the manipulation of the media by business and political interests and the unconscionable play to partisanship on issues that affect the well-being of billions. The lessons they have learned have been invaluable, inspiring this brilliant, colorful escape hatch from the madhouse of the climate wars. Toles’s cartoons collapse counter-scientific strategies into their biased components, helping readers see how to best strike at denialist fallacies. Through his skills at science communication, Mann restores sanity to a debate that continues to rage against the widely acknowledged scientific consensus. The synergy of these two climate science crusaders enlivens the gloom and doom of so many climate-themed books – and may even convert die-hard doubters to the side of sound science.
Photojournalism and Climate Change
The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change, by Philip Conkling, Richard Alley, Wallace Broecker, and George Denton (The MIT Press 2013, 232 pages, $25.95 paperback)
Ninety percent of Greenland is covered by ice; its ice sheet stretches almost 1,000 miles from north to south and 600 miles from east to west. But this stark view of ice and snow is changing – and changing rapidly. Greenland’s ice sheet is melting; the dazzling, photogenic display of icebergs breaking off Greenland’s rapidly melting glaciers has become a tourist attraction. The Fate of Greenland documents Greenland’s warming with dramatic color photographs and investigates episodes in Greenland’s climate history for clues about what happens when climate change is abrupt rather than gradual. Abrupt climate change would be cataclysmic: the melting of Greenland’s ice shelf would cause sea levels to rise twenty-four feet worldwide; lower Manhattan would be underwater and Florida’s coastline would recede to Orlando. The planet appears to be in a period of acute climate instability. As this book makes clear, it is in all of our interests to pay attention to Greenland.
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot, by Tom Butler (Goff Books 2015, 330 books, $50.00)
Why, when every problem facing humanity, from poverty to violent conflict over resources, is exacerbated by a ballooning human population, is the demographic explosion ignored by policymakers and the media? Why, when every problem facing nature, including ecosystem loss, species extinctions, and climate chaos, is caused by human overpopulation, is the root of the problem mostly ignored by the global environmental movement? Isn’t it time to start talking about the equation that matters most to the future of people and the planet? Overpopulation + Overdevelopment = Overshoot. In 2015, a book as large and dramatic as the topic it covers, Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot (OVER) will ignite that conversation around the world. In an exhibit-format treatment with provocative photos from across the globe, OVER moves beyond insider debates and tired old arguments. Framed by essays by population experts, the heart of OVER is a series of photo essays illuminating the depth of the damage that human numbers and behavior have caused to the Earth – and which threatens humanity’s future.
The Edge of the Earth: Climate Change in Photography and Video, by TJ Demos, Bénédicte Ramade, Paul Roth (Black Dog Publishing 2016, 192 pages, $45.00)
Increasingly and forebodingly, contemporary artists are turning their attention to the subject of climate change, in poignant and often confrontational ways. The Edge of the Earth: Climate Change in Photography and Video explores recent and historic work in the context of present-day environmental concerns, considering the future consequences of the age of the anthropocene and humanity’s harsh imprint on our planet. The Edge of the Earth accompanies a major exhibition at the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) in Toronto, and includes works by pioneering and renowned artists and photojournalism from the RIC’s Black Star Collection of historical reportage on the environment. The Edge of the Earth also includes critical texts by Benedicte Ramade and TJ Demos and an introduction by Paul Roth. This critical overview offers the insight of artists into the present climate crisis, with the motive of prompting reconsideration of our increasingly perilous relationship to our planet.
Climate Fiction and Reflections
Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff Vandermeer (FSG 2014, 608 pages, $35.00)
Area X has been cut off from the rest of the world for decades, explored only in a series of expeditions dispatched by a secret government agency called the Southern Reach. So far these expeditions have returned – when they have returned – with more questions than answers. . . .
At the beginning of the Southern Reach Trilogy, we join the twelfth expedition: four female scientists from a variety of disciplines, prepared to map the terrain, to document the flora and fauna, to collect and analyze samples. But once they cross into Area X, it becomes apparent that the rules of nature as they understand them do not apply, and that the goals and parameters of their mission are much different than they had been led to believe. . . . Together for the first time in one volume, the three celebrated novels of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy – Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance – tell an exhilarating, disturbing, and all but unbearably suspenseful story of humanity engaged in what might be an existential confrontation with nature.
Green Earth: The Science in the Capital Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Penguin Books 2015, 1088 pages, $20.00)
More than a decade ago, bestselling author Kim Stanley Robinson began a groundbreaking series of near-future eco-thrillers – Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting – that grew increasingly urgent and vital as global warming continued unchecked. Now, condensed into one volume and updated with the latest research, this sweeping trilogy gains new life as Green Earth, a chillingly realistic novel that plunges readers into great floods, a modern Ice Age, and the political fight for all our lives. The trilogy begins on a muggy summer day in Washington, D.C., as Senate environmental staffer Charlie Quibler and his scientist wife, Anna, work to call attention to the growing crisis of global warming. But as they fight to align the extraordinary march of modern technology with the awesome forces of nature, fate puts an unusual twist on their efforts – one that will pit science against politics in the heart of the coming storm.
The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, by Michael McCarthy (New York Review Books 2016, 272 pages, $24.95)
The moth snowstorm, a phenomenon Michael McCarthy remembers from his boyhood when moths “would pack a car’s headlight beams like snowflakes in a blizzard,” is a distant memory. Wildlife is being lost, not only in the wholesale extinctions of species but also in the dwindling of those species that still exist. The Moth Snowstorm is unlike any other book about climate change today; combining the personal with the polemical, it is a manifesto rooted in experience, a poignant memoir of the author’s first love: nature. . . . Arguing that neither sustainable development nor ecosystem services have provided adequate defense against pollution, habitat destruction, species degradation, and climate change, McCarthy asks us to consider nature as an intrinsic good and an emotional and spiritual resource, capable of inspiring joy, wonder, and even love. . . . Drawing on the truths of poets, the studies of scientists, and the author’s long experience in the field, The Moth Snowstorm is part elegy, part ode, and part argument, resulting in a passionate call to action.