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Birding Babylon
Last Great Wilderness
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Hot Book
A must read on global warming lays out climate change’s causes and effects in a clear and gripping fashion.

The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth
By Tim Flannery
Atlantic Monthly Press, 384 pages, $24

Carbon dioxide is difficult to visualize, but picture this: 1.3 billion 53-gallon drums, stacked 10 high, six miles long, three miles wide—an area roughly the size of Manhattan. It’s the space required, says Tim Flannery, to hold the carbon dioxide produced every day by Australia’s coal-fired power plants. And Oz emits only 2 percent of the world’s CO2.

The coal that Australia, and the rest of the world, is burning comes from plants that lived in the Carboniferous Period, 290 million to 360 million years ago. By one scientist’s calculations, it takes 110 tons of such fossilized plant life to make just more than a gallon of gasoline. Since the industrial age began, then, each year “humans have required several centuries’ worth of ancient sunlight to keep the economy going,” Flannery writes in The Weather Makers. How’s that for connecting the dots? 

The Weather Makers is full of mind-blowing facts and observations. Despite the recent onslaught of media attention to global warming, he takes up topics that have not been explained in quite this way before. No matter where you look, human-caused climate change is making a rapid push into mainstream consciousness. But in the new wave of global warming reading for the masses, Flannery has no peer.

An Australian zoologist and a prolific writer, Flannery tackles the causes and effects of global warming with a sort of gleeful enthusiasm, a neat little trick given the utterly depressing subject matter. He takes readers on a lively gallop through millions of years of our planet’s natural phenomena; it’s a nice context setter. Flannery ambitiously sets out to explain for a general audience the ABCs of climate change, ranging from fossil fuels to El Niño cycles, drought, coral bleaching, melting polar regions, and extinction crises. He addresses global warming policy and politics, and even takes a whirlwind tour through human-engineered responses like carbon sequestration (removing carbon from the air and storing it elsewhere) before laying out various small steps each of us can take that might collectively add up to a solution, such as installing solar panels or driving more fuel-efficient cars. Throughout, he manages to turn global warming into a literary page-turner.

He describes a study, for instance, published in 2003, in which the researchers compiled hundreds of years of natural history observations from birdwatchers and other nature lovers and found that, post 1950, species were creeping higher up mountains, drifting toward the poles, and beginning their springtime rituals earlier. The trend was so apparent, Flannery writes, “it’s as if the researchers had caught CO2 in the act of driving nature polewards with a lash.” Later, lamenting the extinction of Central America’s golden toad, last seen in 1989, he writes, “We had killed it with our profligate use of coal-fired electricity and our oversize cars just as surely as if we had flattened its forest with bulldozers.”

Flannery, whose previous books include The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of Australia, is also deft at making connections that help explain why we need to care and must act now. For instance, while species once had room on the planet to migrate in response to changing climate patterns, for the most part they are now trapped on the only remaining islands of their habitat. “Global warming could not have come at a worse time for biodiversity,” he writes. “In the past when abrupt shifts of climate occurred, trees, birds, insects—indeed entire biotas—would migrate the length of continents as they tracked conditions suitable for them. In the modern world, with its 6.3 billion humans, such movements are not possible.”

The only drawback to Flannery’s book is that it occasionally feels as though he’s extrapolating from one study to a much larger generalization. He frequently uses the word inevitable, an odd term given global warming’s many lingering uncertainties. Describing a climate model’s predictions about the impacts of a projected decrease in rainfall over the Amazon combined with rising temperatures, he writes, “These conditions … will, the model indicates, stress plants to the point that collapse of the Amazonian rainforests will become inevitable.” The result is that, despite his command of the issues and the science, I sometimes found myself thinking, “Can this really be true?”

To what degree are scare tactics an effective means of conveying urgency and prodding the public to action? The right wing frequently accuses environmentalists of being alarmist, but is that the only way to make people sit up and take notice? Flannery’s book is partly polemical, but if it gets people to care, it’s likely due more to his storytelling than his proselytizing.
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Hillary Rosner lives in Boulder, Colorado. 

 

Editors’ Choice

Birding Babylon: A Soldier’s Journal From Iraq
By Jonathan Trouern-Trend
Sierra Club Books, 80 pages, $9.95

Only a lifelong birder could spend a year as a soldier in Iraq and see “sublime natural beauty” amid the chaos and carnage of that war-torn country. In 2004 Jonathan Trouern-Trend, a sergeant first class in the National Guard’s medical unit, was stationed at Camp Anaconda, north of Baghdad in the Sunni Triangle. “Its 15 square miles held not only a large portion of the American arsenal in Iraq but also many birds and other creatures that shared the base with us,” he writes in this handsome, bite-size book. The odd juxtaposition of war and wildlife is presented matter-of-factly: “We’ve had a lot of rocket and mortar attacks in the last few days. One day we had 8 or 9 hits inside the wire [within the military base’s boundaries]. As a result we need to go everywhere in body armor and helmet. So Saturday was a day of birding in ‘full battle rattle,’ weapon included, of course.” In the next passage Trouern-Trend spots a squacco heron “clambering around a patch of reeds” at the laundry pond. “It was a lifer for me.” During his tour, this naturalist in fatigues kept a blog of his observations (see “Birding Babylon,” Field Notes, July-August 2005), and those postings have been selectively compiled in Birding Babylon (also the name of his blog). Trouern-Trend avoids talk of battles and politics, instead focusing on the beauty he sees. The news from Iraq is often so grim that the resiliency of nature apparent in Birding Babylon provides hope for eventual renewal.
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—Daniel Butcher

 

Last Great Wilderness: The Campaign to Establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
By Roger Kaye
University of Alaska Press, 269 pages, $29.95

Olaus Murie knelt in the Alaskan tundra and made plaster casts of animal prints, catalogued nearly two dozen spider species, and scooped up fresh bear droppings with his hands to see what the grizzly had eaten. In 1956, on an expedition led by Murie, a wildlife biologist and president of the Wilderness Society, five researchers ventured to northeast Alaska not just to document it but to spread the word. “To convey the values of this remote area to the conservation-minded public was, of course, the primary purpose of the expedition,” writes Roger Kaye in Last Great Wilderness. Murie and his allies accomplished their goal in 1960 when the Interior Department designated the Arctic National Wildlife Range, which was expanded and renamed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1980. The campaign Murie championed, argues Kaye, an affiliate professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, also embodies the country’s embrace of wilderness values “during a pivotal period of American environmental history.” (This was a time, post-World War II, when many Americans began awakening to ecological concerns, such as habitat loss.) Kaye’s lively account of the backroom deals on Capitol Hill helps frame today’s battles in a larger perspective by reminding readers of why people fought to conserve “America’s Serengeti” in the first place.
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—Susan Cosier

 

Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future
By Jeff Goodell
Houghton Mifflin, 324 pages, $25.95

It powered our way West, heated our homes, and ran the factories that created our unprecedented wealth. At a time when so many Americans (including President George W. Bush) are bemoaning our addiction to Middle Eastern oil, it’s worth addressing the country’s dependence on another equally destructive fossil fuel: coal, which, in contrast to oil, is plentiful and cheap. Indeed, 270 billion tons of the nasty black stuff still lies beneath our feet. (Not for nothing is the United States considered the “Saudi Arabia of Coal.”) “There should be monuments to coal in every big city, giant statues of Pennsylvania anthracite and West Virginia bituminous,” writes Jeff Goodell in Big Coal. “It is literally the rock that built America.” It is also the rock that is gravely damaging our environment and our health. But the bigger price we pay, argues Goodell, a veteran journalist and a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, is not apparent to coal consumers, owing mostly to cryptic electric meters and flat utility rates. “If people could see behind their light switches, if they could trace the wires back to the power plant and the coal mine, if they could get an accurate accounting of what a kilowatt really costs us, would they still choose to burn coal?” Fortunately Goodell does this work for us. In Big Coal he turns the light on the coal industry as he tracks the black rock on a bracing, eye-opening journey—from deep underground, through mining towns, to the railroads, through the halls of Congress, and, finally, into the air.
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—Melissa Mahony

 

Art of the Wild

Galen Rowell knew where the power of his pictures originated. “He understood that nature, in all of its glory and heart-stopping capacity, truly is an intricate tribute to the many forces, seen and unseen, that shape the world around us,” writes Tom Brokaw in Galen Rowell: A Retrospective (Sierra Club Books, 288 pages, $50). A plane crash in 2002 took the lives of Rowell and his wife, Barbara, but his work continues to inspire. This lush collection of photos, including this close-up of a polar bear, commemorates the life and work of a daring photographer.
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—Melissa Mahony

















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