Garbage Warrior

Directed by Oliver Hodge, Open Eye Media

garbagewarrior.com, $24.98

Irresistibly irreverent architect Michael Reynolds has spent 30-plus years building houses out of garbage—old beer bottles, plastic water bottles, used car tires, you name it. The result is a groundbreaking model for entirely off-the-grid commu­nities of recycled “cellular” homes called Earthships—self-sufficient units that look to the sun for energy, the sky for water, the earth for heat, and the backyard for food. But US zoning and housing laws aren’t quite as trash-friendly as an experimental architect might have hoped; Hodge devotes much of the film to the Man vs Red Tape battle that ensues when New Mexico state author­ities revoke Reynolds’ architectural li­cense and ban his radical building techniques. Eventually, he and his team buck authority by marching out to the tsunami-hit Andaman Islands and post-Katrina New Orleans, offering their services to grateful, open-minded, and deserving home-seekers. Reynolds’ Earth­ships are as ugly as they are ingenious, but with water supplies drying up and oil at over $100 a barrel, they could start to look pretty good, even to the McMansion set. He claims he’s only trying to “save [his] ass” from global warming, pollution, and infrastructure breakdown, but the twinkle in his eye suggests he’s also in it for a good laugh, the thrill of rocking the boat, and the challenge of creating safe havens in an unstable world. — Tobin Hack

The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler

By Thomas Hager

Harmony Books, $24.95

At the turn of the 20th century, the world faced an unprecedented problem: global starvation. Natural sources of fertilizer were nearly tapped, and unless someone developed an artificial source, a food crisis was imminent. Then scientists Carl Bosch and Fritz Haber invented a machine that produced ammonia, the main ingredient in fertilizer, out of thin air. Considered one of the greatest discoveries of all time, the technology created the means for feeding billions of people. But the success carried a heavy price. Arms makers used the same process that generated man-made manure to make explosives that killed millions in the world wars. Nature has also suffered from the discovery—nitrogen pollution has poisoned our air, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Hager’s latest book, Alchemy is a gripping account of the partnership between two Nobel Prize winners whose efforts to save the world had tragic consequences we’re still sifting through today.  —Alisa Opar

The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens our Health and Well-being

By Nena Baker

North Point Press, $24

It’s no fun to be told that toxins in the shampoo you’ve used for decades, the fire-retardants covering your electronic equipment, or the nonstick Teflon pan you love so dearly could be hijacking your body’s systems—just as they do the planet’s ecosystems—and contributing to cancer rates, diabetes, and birth defects. But unfortunately, in the span of only about 100 years, we’ve rushed headlong into “better living through chemistry,” and we’ve done it all blindly, thanks to an antiquated 1976 Toxic Control Act that does not mandate toxicity testing for chemicals used in everything from carpeting to liquid cleaners to cosmetics. We’re our own lab rats, effectively, and the test results coming back today don’t look good. But Baker is neither obsessive nor alarmist. She calmly presents two decades’ worth of critical research into the science and industries behind leading chemical culprits such as phthalates, pesticides, and PFOAs. In an appendix, she outlines the reasonable, manageable steps she’s taken to detox her own home, body, and lifestyle—a good place for anyone to start. —TH

The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age

By John Michael Greer

New Society Publishers, $18.95

A look at the coming “deindustrialization” period, Long Descent brings little to the conversation about peak-oil survival technologies, but it offers an intriguing discussion of spirituality. Society must ask what values and goals will lead us through peak oil and beyond; these questions, Greer posits, will lead us away from our almost religious faith in technological progress and toward a more nature-based set of spiritual beliefs. Long Descent is a provoking read for those interested in religion and spirituality, so long as they can stomach the occasional rant (Palm Pilots and iPods are usurping our health and happiness) and a few melodramatic comments about the US sliding “down the long slope into history’s dumpster.” —TH

The Book of Animal Ignorance: Everything You Think You Know is Wrong

By John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

Harmony Books, $19.95

From the authors of the bestselling Book of General Ignorance comes this gleeful, quirky compilation of little-known animal facts. Coauthors Lloyd and Mitchinson offer up an A-to-Z guide full of entries on more than 100 animals, from common beasts like the monkey and dog to the more exotic capercaillie (a grouse) and pangolin (a type of anteater). A sampling of the book’s titillating tidbits: Spiders don’t eat but dissolve and drink their prey.Dogs can detect lung and breast cancer just by smelling a patient’s breath; and although a silverback gorilla weighs in at about 350 pounds, his penis is only an inch-and-a-half long. Think of the countless (shocking) conversation starters you’ll take away. —Sarah Parsons

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America

By Roger Tory Peterson

Houghton Mifflin, $26

Arguably the father of birding, Roger Tory Peterson is celebrated this August, on what would have been his 100th birthday, with an updated version of the renowned Peterson Field Guide. The new guide combines North American birds from the East and West with updated painted plates and range maps, and includes species not previously found in North America. The guide’s companion website offers descriptions, photos, video podcasting, and bird calls for select species. —Victoria Schlesinger

Story by various writers. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008.