The words “climate change” were not on the signs and banners that students, faculty, and community members brought to the first Earth Day rallies and teach-ins in 1970. Now those words are at the top of the global environmental agenda.
But the problems that mobilized millions more than 50 years ago – air and water pollution, threats to wildlife from chemical contamination and habitat destruction, soil degradation, etc. – are still issues today, albeit in somewhat different forms. And all these environmental problems affect, and are affected by, climate change.
On the one hand, for example, climate change can adversely affect habitats and ecosystems. On the other hand, efforts to restore habitats and ecosystems can increase carbon uptake and storage, or slow or even absorb flood waters, and thereby help communities mitigate the causes or adapt to the consequences of climate change.
This month’s Earth Day bookshelf feature highlights titles on other environmental issues that intersect with climate change, along with titles that promote more broadly-based engagement and activism. The list includes books on agriculture, biodiversity, coral reefs, environmental justice, food security, ice sheets, insects, oceans, plastics, pollution, soil degradation, and the natural sonicscape.
One title, Oceans of Grain, provides a timely reminder that agricultural choices can have political and also climatic consequences. When American farmers shifted from wheat to corn, a more water-intensive crop with more commercial options (like corn oil and ethanol), other nations, like Russia and Ukraine, had to fill the gap. With that production now seriously threatened by war, and with aquifers declining in the United States, an agricultural reset may be in order.
As always with this feature, descriptions of these titles are adapted from copy provided by their publishers. When two dates of publication are included, the second is for the release of the paperback.
A Kid’s Guide to Saving the Planet: It’s Not Hopeless and We’re Not Helpless, by Paul Douglas (author) and Chelen Ecija (illustrator) (Beaming Books 2022, 112 pages, $22.99)
We have every reason to be concerned about our planet, our only home. New inventions and technologies will help, but cleaning up the planet – saving the world – will require all of us to pay attention and take action. What can you do to help? Plenty! Despite what you may hear on the news, the situation isn’t hopeless, and we aren’t helpless. In this inspiring, informative book, nationally recognized meteorologist Paul Douglas clearly and thoughtfully presents the daunting problems of climate change. And he offers realistic solutions (including some that are already working!) and actions that kids can participate in now. It’s imperative that we all step up and become part of the solution, by engaging in new, smarter ways of living.
Rescuing the Planet: Protecting Half the Land to Heal the Earth, by Tony Hiss (Penguin Random House 2021/2022, 336 pages, $17.00 paperback)
Beginning in the vast North American Boreal Forest that stretches through Canada, Tony Hiss sets out on a journey to take stock of the “superorganism” that is the earth: its land, its elements, its plants and animals, its greatest threats – and what we can do to keep it, and ourselves, alive. In making the case that protecting half the land is the way to solve this problem, Hiss highlights the important work of the many groups already involved in the fight, such as the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, and the global animal tracking project ICARUS. Tender, impassioned, curious, and above all else inspiring, Rescuing the Planet is a work that promises to make all of us better citizens of the earth.
Pollution Is Colonialism, by Max Liboiron (Duke University Press 2021, 216 pages, $24.95 paperback)
In Pollution Is Colonialism Max Liboiron presents a framework for understanding scientific research methods as practices that can align with or against colonialism. Liboiron draws on work in the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) – an anticolonial science laboratory in Newfoundland, Canada – to illuminate how pollution is not a symptom of capitalism but a violent enactment of colonial land relations that claim access to Indigenous land. Liboiron’s creative, lively, and passionate text refuses theories of pollution that make Indigenous land available for settler and colonial goals. Liboirton demonstrates that anticolonial science is not only possible but is being practiced in ways that enact more ethical modes of being in the world.
Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis, Erica Cirino (Island Press 2021, 272 pages, $28.00)
In Thicker Than Water, journalist Erica Cirino brings readers on a globe-hopping journey to meet the scientists and activists telling the real story of the plastic crisis. From the deck of a plastic-hunting sailboat with a disabled engine, to the labs doing cutting-edge research on microplastics and the chemicals we ingest, Cirino paints a full picture of how plastic pollution is threatening wildlife and human health. Thicker Than Water reveals that the plastic crisis is also a tale of environmental injustice, as poorer nations and communities of color take in larger shares of the world’s trash. We must repair our throwaway culture, Cirino argues. Thicker Than Water is an eloquent call to reexamine the systems churning out waves of plastic waste.
A Blue New Deal: Why We Need a New Politics for the Ocean, by Chris Armstrong (Yale University Press 2022, 272 pages, $30.00)
The ocean sustains life on our planet, and as we exhaust resources found on land, it is becoming central to the global market. But today we are facing two urgent challenges at sea: massive environmental destruction and spiraling inequality. Chris Armstrong reveals how existing governing institutions fail to respond to these pressing problems. He examines the rising crises – from the fate of people whose lands will be submerged by sea level rise, to the exploitation of people working in fishing, to the rights of marine animals – and makes the case for a powerful World Ocean Authority capable of tackling them. A Blue New Deal presents a radical manifesto for putting equality, democracy, and sustainability at the heart of ocean politics.
Life on the Rocks: Building a Future for Coral Reefs, by Juli Berwald (Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House 2022, 352 pages, $28.00)
Coral reefs are a microcosm of our planet: extraordinarily diverse, deeply interconnected, and full of wonders. But corals across the planet are in the middle of an unprecedented die-off. Juli Berwald fell in love with coral reefs as a marine biology student. Alarmed by their peril, she traveled the world to discover how to prevent their loss. She met scientists and activists doing everything they can think of to prevent coral reefs from disappearing forever. Life on the Rocks is an inspiring ode to the reefs and to the undaunted scientists working to save them. As she also attempts to help her daughter in her struggle with mental illness, Berwald contemplates the inevitable grief of climate change and the beauty of small victories.
Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution’s Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction, by David George Haskell (Penguin Random House 2022, 448 pages, $29.00)
We live on a planet alive with song, music, and speech. David Haskell explores how these wonders came to be. He takes us to threatened forests, noise-filled oceans, and loud city streets. In the startlingly divergent sonic vibes of the animals of different continents, he finds the legacies of plate tectonics, the deep history of animal groups and their movements around the world, and the quirks of aesthetic evolution. Sound is a generative force, and so the erasure of sonic diversity makes the world less creative, just, and beautiful. The appreciation of the beauty and brokenness of sound is therefore an important guide in today’s convulsions and crises of change and inequity. Sounds Wild and Broken is an invitation to listen, wonder, belong, and act.
The Insect Crisis: The Fall of the Tiny Empires That Run the World, by Oliver Milman (W.W. Norton 2022, 272 pages, $27.95)
What is causing the collapse of the insect world? With urgency and great clarity, acclaimed journalist Oliver Milman explores this hidden emergency, arguing that its consequences could even rival climate change. He joins the scientists tracking the decline of insect populations across the globe. These losses not only tear at the tapestry of life on our degraded planet; they imperil everything we hold dear. Even insects we may dread, including the hated cockroach, or the stinging wasp, play crucial ecological roles, and their decline would profoundly shape our own story. Part warning, part celebration of the incredible variety of insects, The Insect Crisis is a wake-up call for us all.
Meltdown: The Earth Without Glaciers, by Jorge Daniel Taillant (Oxford University Press 2021, 304 pages, $29.95)
In his new book Meltdown, Jorge Daniel Taillant takes readers deep into the cryosphere, connecting the dots between climate change, glacier melt, and the impacts that receding glacier ice brings to livability on Earth. Taillant walks us through the little-known realm of the periglacial environment, a world of invisible subsurface rock glaciers that will outlive exposed glaciers as climate change destroys surface ice. Our climate is changing right in front of us. Meltdown is about the unfolding demise of glaciers during one of the most critical moments of our planet’s geological history. If we can reconsider glaciers in a new light and understand the critical role they play in our own sustainability, we may be able to save the cryosphere.
A World Without Soil: The Past, Present, and Precarious Future of the Earth Beneath Our Feet, Jo Handelsman (Yale University Press 2021, 272 pages, $28.00)
Humans depend on soil for 95 percent of global food production, yet let it erode at unsustainable rates. In the United States, China, and India, vast tracts of farmland will be barren of topsoil within this century. The combination of intensifying erosion caused by climate change and the increasing food needs of a growing world population is creating a desperate need for solutions. Biologist Jo Handelsman begins her very accessible book by telling soil’s origin story, explaining how it erodes, and offering solutions. She considers lessons learned from indigenous people who have sustainably farmed the same land for thousands of years, practices developed for large-scale agriculture, and proposals using technology and policy initiatives.
Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World, by Scott Reynolds Nelson (Basic Books 2022, 368 pages, $32.00)
To understand the rise and fall of empires, we must follow the paths traveled by grain – along rivers, between ports, and across seas. In Oceans of Grain, historian Scott Reynolds Nelson reveals how the struggle to dominate these routes transformed the balance of world power. Early in the nineteenth century, imperial Russia fed much of Europe through the booming port of Odessa. But following the US Civil War, tons of American wheat began to flood across the Atlantic. Cheap American wheat spurred the rise of Germany and Italy and the decline of the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. In these rivalries, there was no greater power than control of grain.
Note: Russia is once again the world’s leading supplier of wheat. Corn is the biggest crop in U.S.
Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them, by Dan Saladino (Farrar, Straus, Giroux 2022, 464 pages, $30.00)
Of the roughly six thousand different plants once consumed by human beings, only nine remain major staples today. Just three of these – rice, wheat, and corn – now provide fifty percent of all our calories. Worse, the source of much of the world’s food – seeds – is mostly in the control of just four corporations. In Eating to Extinction, the distinguished food journalist Dan Saladino travels the world to experience and document our most at-risk foods before it’s too late. From an Indigenous American chef refining precolonial recipes to farmers tending Geechee red peas on the Sea Islands of Georgia, the individuals profiled in Eating to Extinction are essential guides to treasured foods and to a healthier, more robust food system that is richer in flavor and meaning.