From mass extinction to overflowing landfills, America stands at a strange crossroads. We are living, as Jon Mooallem puts it, “in the eye of a great storm of extinction.” The environmental problems we face range from climate change and habitat destruction to water pollution and chemical exposure; urban sprawl and the mountains of waste we produce daily are among the culprits. But how did this happen? The following five books show that while the challenges we face are real, they aren't always what they seem.
By William R. Leach
Beginning with the period shortly after the Civil War and spanning many years, William Leach tells of a time in history when “Americans of all classes came in contact with nature — and with butterflies — in pervasive ways.” Leach, a cultural historian at Columbia University and a lifelong butterfly lover, offers a “dense, serious-minded study” in his latest work, “Butterfly People.” The book describes a defining moment in history when family farms brought people close to the fields and meadows where butterflies thrived, and the burgeoning railroads acted "as avenues into nature.” Of course, the country was simultaneously undergoing a massive industrial transformation, and the very railroads that facilitated butterfly collecting would eventually lead to the decline of the family farm, the creation of the first suburbs and the rise of industrial logging — all of which degraded the creatures' habitat, reducing their numbers and diversity. “As Walt Whitman observed,” writes Leach, “it seemed as if Americans were about to know "nature and artifice" together at once, not as adversaries but as collaborators in the enrichment of life, and such, he believed would continue to be the case, so long as a balance endured between them.” But that balance did not endure, and Leach shows how Americans came to know the butterflies and, subsequently, how the butterflies (representative of all natural beauty) began to lose out in the contest with another form of beauty: human-made artifacts, many of which were being seen for the first time at the world’s fairs. This thought-provoking book blends natural history with American culture as it strives to understand what that victory meant not only for the well-being of the natural world but for the well-being of American culture as well.
By Jon Mooallem
Publisher: Penguin Press
When Jon Mooallem’s daughter was born, he noticed something absurd unfolding around him. Her world – like the world of most American babies and children, was overflowing with wild animals. From her toys to her onesies to the decorations in her room, lionesses and wolves, sparrows and hippos surrounded her. "It feels as if they just appeared — like some Carnival Cruise Lines-esque Ark had docked outside our apartment and this wave of gaudy, grinning tourists came ashore,” writes Mooallem in his debut book, “Wild Ones.” “Before long, they were foraging on the pages of every bedtime story, and my daughter was sleeping in polar bear pajamas under a butterfly mobile with a downy snow owl clutched to her chin.” When she entered preschool, the animal theme continued. “That’s just how it works at the Montessori school where she goes. Instead of “4-year-olds” and “5-year-olds,” or even “preschoolers” and “kindergartners,” each class is given an animal name and, at the end of every school year, the children graduate into being a different species entirely, shape-shifting like spirits in an aboriginal legend.” The absurdity, notes Mooallem, is that as the teddy bears and giggling penguins of contemporary American childhood keep coming, "we are living in the eye of a great storm of extinction, on a planet hemorrhaging living things so fast that half of its 9 million species could be gone by the end of the century." Seeking to understand what it means to live in, and bring a life into, a broken world, “Wild Ones” explores what Michael Pollan has called “our schizophrenic attitudes toward animals.” The journey is framed by the stories of three modern-day endangered species: the polar bear, the little-known Lange’s metalmark butterfly and the whooping crane. Mooallem introduces the scientists and conservationists, professionals and volunteers working to understand and manipulate the path and pace of coming extinctions. He often takes his young daughter with him when he ventures into the field, hoping to move beyond childlike fascination and make those creatures feel more real. After all, Mooallem notes that children seem drawn to other creatures almost from birth, and that “in the 21st century, how species survive, or go to die, may have more to do with Barnum than with Darwin. Emotion matters. Imagination matters.” Wild Ones merges reportage, science, and history into a humane and endearing meditation on what it means to live in, and bring a life into, a broken world.
By Jim Sterba
While Jon Mooallem considers the decline of species such as the polar bear and whooping crane, Jim Sterba’s new book, “Nature Wars,” looks at an unexpected effect of human sprawl: populations of wild animals burgeoning out of control. Though it’s not a headline that has gotten as much space or attention as melting ice floes, Sterba insists that the issue is real and is causing damage costing billions, not to mention degrading ecosystems. After 400 years of North America’s wildlife and forests being desecrated by colonial expansion, conservationists in the 20th century outlawed commercial hunting, created wildlife sanctuaries, transplanted isolated species to restored habitats, and imposed regulations on hunters and trappers. Over decades, these efforts slowly nursed many wild populations back to health. Eventually, the conservation movement produced miraculous comebacks of many wild species across a landscape of regrown forests. This was all fine and good, but what Sterba explains is that when the first federal and state wildlife agencies were established, sprawl didn’t exist. As these regrown forests and newly protected lands began to fill with sprawl dwellers, things started to go awry. “Growing populations of wild animals and birds became habituated to life with or near people,” writes Sterba. “Sprawl became their home. To be sure, many species showed little or no appetite for sprawl, which fragments habitat, disrupts migration and travel patterns, reduces species diversity, and adversely impacts native habitats in other ways. For many species, however, sprawl had all the things that they needed to thrive, foremost among them being food, protection, and hiding places. Even species known to be people-shy — wild turkeys and bears, for example — accommodated as their numbers grew.” Between the attractive living arrangements offered to wild creatures by human sprawl, and rules against discharging firearms and trapping put in place by local governments, a “menagerie of so-called subsidized species” has proliferated. By 2000, more than half of the American population lived in that vast “urban forest” that demographers call sprawl, and conflicts between people and wildlife were reaching a crescendo. A prime example: More than 4,000 American drivers hit a deer —e very day. From geese to coyotes, wild turkeys to beavers, “Nature Wars” offers an eye-opening look at Americans'’ interactions with nature and animals, illustrating how we’ve failed to be responsible stewards despite our best efforts and intentions.
By Robin Nagle
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
According to the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA, the average American produces about 4.4 pounds of trash daily. An infographic like this one can put that statistic into shocking perspective. Considering that American threw away 34 million tons of food in 2010 — enough to fill the entire Empire State Building 91 times — it’s clear that waste is as American as, well, the Empire State Building. Though we live in a disposable society, once we’ve tossed something, it’s generally “out of sight, out of mind.” Anthropologist and NYU professor Robin Nagle became curious about the hidden world of New York City’s garbage — 11,000 tons of which are expelled from households each day on average. But Nagle was less interested in the actual refuse and more in the city sanitation workers who efficiently keep it off the streets. Unlike members of the fire or police department who are routinely recognized and lauded for the dangers they face and work the do, city sanitation workers who are generally ignored, sometimes even derided, and definitely under appreciated. That seems especially unfair considering that sanitation workers have twice the fatality rate of police officers, nearly seven times the fatality rate of firefighters, and their work has similarly life-or-death consequences in the long term. Nagle’s curiosity led her to accompany crews on their routes, question supervisors and commissioners, and document story after story about blizzards, hazardous wastes, and the insults of everyday New Yorkers. Ultimately, she even trained and sat for the city sanitation exam and worked alongside the force as a sanitation worker herself. Driving the hulking trucks, she obtained an insider’s perspective that she shares in her recent book. Nagle chronicles New York City’s 400-year struggle with trash, and traces the city’s waste-management efforts from a time when filth overwhelmed the streets to the far more rigorous practices of today, when the Big Apple is as clean as it’s ever been. Throughout, Nagle reveals the many unexpected ways in which sanitation workers stand between our seemingly well-ordered lives and the sea of refuse that would otherwise overwhelm us. In the process, she changes the way we understand cities — and how we live within them.
By Amy Korst
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
You may remember Amy Korst, who made headlines back in 2010 when she and her husband, Adam, managed to live almost garbage-free for a year. Korst chronicled their waste-free year at The Green Garbage Project, ultimately showing that they were able to produce less trash over the course of a year than most Americans do in one day. Considering that the average American tosses out nearly 2,000 pounds of garbage every year, and that the piles and piles of trash filling our landfills threaten our air and water quality, it was a worthy challenge — and Amy made it look easy. Her full year of waste weighed less than three pounds and fit into a standard shoebox. The lifestyle proved to be so simple and inexpensive that the couple continues to live nearly trash-free to this day. Korst’s book, “The Zero-Waste Lifestyle,” is a practical handbook that offers creative strategies to de-waste every room in the house, along with valuable insight on how to remain waste-free in every situation, including parenting, shopping, dining out and vacationing. Learn how to make wise purchases, repurpose just about anything, and eliminate unnecessary items in every aspect of your life. The book offers achievable strategies for those looking to decrease litter, reduce toxic exposure, become more self-sufficient, and preserve the planet for future generations.
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