Bookshelf: 12 recommended reads in recognition of Earth Day 2019
Earth, humans, and climate get a special nod in this month’s collection of new books recognizing the 49th annual Earth Day.
Ever since the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970*, April has provided a launching pad for new works about the environment. This year that includes the release of three highly anticipated books: Bill McKibben’s Falter, Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth, and Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey’s Our Planet, the companion to the NetFlix documentary series. Also included in the list below are new histories of environmentalism, both mainstream and radical, and some off-beat reflections on the life-challenges posed by climate change.
The descriptions of the twelve works listed below are drawn from copy provided by the publishers.
Major new releases
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells (Tim Duggan Books 2019, 320 pages, $27.00)
In his travelogue of our near future, David Wallace-Wells brings into stark relief the climate troubles that await – food shortages, refugee emergencies, and other crises that will reshape the globe. But the world will be remade by warming in more profound ways as well, transforming our politics, our culture, our relationship to technology, and our sense of history. It will shape and distort nearly every aspect of human life as it is lived today. Like An Inconvenient Truth, The Uninhabitable Earth is both a meditation on the devastation we have brought upon ourselves and an impassioned call to action. For just as the world was brought to the brink of catastrophe within the span of a lifetime, the responsibility to avoid it now belongs to a single generation.
Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, by Bill McKibben (Henry Holt 2019, 304 pages, $28.00)
Bill McKibben’s groundbreaking book The End of Nature was the first book to alert us to global warming. But the danger is broader than that: even as climate change shrinks the space where our civilization can exist, new technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics threaten to bleach away the variety of human experience. Falter tells the story of these converging trends and of the ideological fervor that keeps us from bringing them under control. And then, drawing on McKibben’s experience in building 350.org, the first truly global citizens movement to combat climate change, it offers some possible ways out of the trap. Falter is a powerful and sobering call to arms, to save not only our planet but also our humanity.
Losing Earth: A Recent History, by Nathaniel Rich (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2019, 224 pages, $25.00)
By 1979, we knew nearly everything we understand today about climate change – including how to stop it. Over the next decade, a handful of scientists, politicians, and strategists risked their careers in a desperate, escalating campaign to convince the world to act before it was too late. The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to Nathaniel Rich’s groundbreaking chronicle of that decade. Now expanded into book form, Losing Earth tells the human story of climate change in even richer, more intimate terms, carrying the story into the present day. Like John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, Losing Earth is the rarest of achievements: a riveting work of dramatic history that articulates a moral framework for understanding how we got here, and how we must go forward.
Our Planet, by Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey and Fred Pearce (Ten Speed Press 2019, 320 pages, $35.00)
With a foreword by Sir David Attenborough, this striking companion to the groundbreaking NetFlix original documentary series presents never-before-seen visuals of nature’s most intriguing animals in their natural environments. From deep oceans to remote forests to the polar ice caps, Our Planet takes nature-lovers deep into the science of our natural world. Revealing the most amazing sights on Earth in unprecedented ways, alongside stories of the ways humans are affecting the world’s ecosystems – from the wildebeest migrations in Africa to the penguin colonies of Antarctica – Our Planet places itself at the forefront of a global conversation as we work together to protect and preserve our planet.
There Is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years, by Mike Berners-Lee (Cambridge University Press 2019, 302 pages, $12.95 paperback)
Feeding the world, climate change, biodiversity, plastics – the list of concerns seems endless. But what is most pressing, what are the knock-on effects of our actions, and what should we do first? Do we all need to become vegetarian? How can we fly in a low-carbon world? Should we frack? Does it all come down to population? Mike Berners-Lee has crunched the numbers and plotted a course of action that is practical and even enjoyable. In There Is No Planet-B, you’ll find a big-picture perspective on the environmental and economic challenges of the day laid out in one place and traced through to the underlying roots. In this book you’ll find practical and even inspiring ideas for what you can actually do to help humanity thrive on this our only planet.
A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow, by Joshua S. Goldstein and Stefan A.Qvist (Public Affairs 2019, 288 pages, $26.00)
In this clear-sighted and compelling book, Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist explain how clean energy quickly replaced fossil fuels in such places as Sweden, France, South Korea, and Ontario. Their people enjoyed prosperity and growing energy use in harmony with the natural environment. They didn’t do this through personal sacrifice, nor through 100 percent renewables, but by using them in combination with an energy source the Swedes call kärnkraft, hundreds of times safer and cleaner than coal. Clearly written and beautifully illustrated, yet footnoted with extensive technical references, Goldstein and Qvist’s book will provide a new touchstone in discussions of climate change. It could spark a shift in world energy policy that literally saves the world.
Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale, by Deborah R. Coen (University of Chicago Press 2019, 464 pages, $40.00)
Climate in Motion presents the history of modern climate science as a history of “scaling” – the embodied work of moving between different frameworks for measuring the world. Looking back at the multinational Hapsburg monarchy of the nineteenth century, Deborah R. Coen argues that essential elements of the modern understanding of climate arose as a means of thinking across scales in a state. Habsburg scientists were the first to investigate precisely how local winds and storms might be related to the general circulation of the earth’s atmosphere as a whole. Linking Habsburg climatology to the political and artistic experiments of late imperial Austria, Coen grounds the atmospheric sciences in the everyday experiences of an earlier era of globalization.
The Environment: A History of the Idea, by Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin (Johns Hopkins University Press 2019, 256 pages, $29.95)
In this fascinating book, Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin trace the emergence of the concept of the environment following World War II, a period characterized by both hope for a new global order and fear of humans’ capacity for almost limitless destruction. It was at this moment that a new idea and a new narrative about the planet-wide impact of people’s behavior emerged, closely allied to anxieties for the future. Now we had a vocabulary for talking about how we were changing nature: resource exhaustion and energy, biodiversity, pollution, and – eventually – climate change. With the rise of “the environment,” the authors argue, came new expertise, making certain kinds of knowledge crucial to understanding the future of our planet.
The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism, by Keith Makoto Woodhouse (Columbia University Press 2019, 392 pages, $35.00)
In The Ecocentrists, Keith Makoto Woodhouse offers a nuanced history of radical environmental thought and action in the late-twentieth-century United States. Focusing especially on the group Earth First!, Woodhouse explores how radical environmentalism responded to both postwar affluence and a growing sense of physical limits. While radicals challenged the material and philosophical basis of industrial civilization, they glossed over the ways economic inequality and social difference defined people’s different relationships to the nonhuman world. A ground-breaking intellectual history, The Ecocentrists is a timely study of humanism and individualism in an environmental age that makes a case for skepticism and doubt in environmental thought.
Cultural Sustainabilities: Music, Media, Language, Advocacy, edited by Timothy J. Cooley (University of Illinois Press 2019, 364 pages, $32.00 paperback)
Environmental sustainability and human cultural sustainability are inextricably linked. Reversing damaging human impact on the global environment is ultimately a cultural question, and as with politics, the answers are often profoundly local. Timothy J. Cooley, a professor of music and global studies, presents twenty-three essays by musicologists and ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, folklorists, ethnographers, documentary filmmakers, musicians, artists, and activists, each asking a particular question or presenting a specific local case study about cultural and environmental sustainability. The authors celebrate human engagement with ecosystems, though with a profound sense of collective responsibility created by the emergence of the Anthropocene.
Climate and Society: Transforming the Future, by Robin Leichenko and Karen O’Brien (Polity Books 2019, $24.95 paperback)
Geographers Robin Leichenko and Karen O’Brien frame climate change as a social issue that calls for integrative approaches to research, policy, and action. They explore dominant and relevant discourses on the social drivers and impacts of climate change, highlighting the important roles that worldviews and beliefs play in shaping responses to climate challenges. Situating climate change within the context of a rapidly changing world, the book demonstrates how dynamic political, economic, and environmental contexts amplify risks, yet also present opportunities for transformative responses. This informative an engaging book empowers readers with a range of possibilities for equitable and sustainable actions in a changing climate.
Reoccupy Earth: Notes Toward An Other Beginning, by David Wood (Fordham University Press 2019, 240 pages, $28.00 paperback)
Our habits are integral to the good life, to social norms and expectations, as well as to economic reality. Yet many of our individual habits, when aggregated together, spell disaster. Philosophy is about emancipation – from illusions, myths, and oppression. In Reoccupy Earth, the noted philosopher David Wood shows how an approach to philosophy attuned to our ecological existence can suspend the taken-for-granted and open up alternative forms of earthly dwelling. In walking us through a range of reversals, transformations, and estrangements that thinking ecologically demands of us, Wood shows how living responsibly with the earth means affirming the ways in which we are vulnerable, receptive, and dependent – and the need for solidarity all round.
*For an historical account of that first celebration, see Adam Rome’s The Genius of Earth Day.