Nature Books for Kids
Lost in the Wilderness
Has the environmental movement become stale and stodgy, too concerned with nature at the expense of people? The authors of this book-length manifesto think so and have charted a controversial new path for environmentalism in the 21st century.
Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility
By Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger
Houghton Mifflin; 368 pages; $25
It’s been three years since Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger first lectured environmentalists—and their funders—that their movement had outlived its usefulness and must die so that something new could rise. Their polemical treatise, “The Death of Environmentalism,” packed a punch not just because it was shrewdly titled but also because the two authors were longtime members of the same tribe; they’ve spent their careers working as policy wonks for green groups. The essay’s underlying premise angered a lot of enviros, opened the eyes of many others to a potentially empowering vision for the future, and ignited a healthy and much-needed debate over the fate of both the movement and progressive politics in this country.
Break Through, their book-length follow-up to 2004’s contentious manifesto, aims, as its subtitle says, to move us “from the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility.” It stumbles on the way. But the overarching argument is also broadly powerful and represents an important step toward reenvisioning and revitalizing the sputtering left.
The core of the authors’ argument is that climate change poses a unique set of problems that the environmental movement is simply not up to the task of addressing. Environmentalists, they contend, are too focused on special-interest politics, and their doom-and-gloom attitude stifles positive change. What’s more, the movement’s “politics of limits” leaves no room for celebrating or stimulating human ingenuity and creativity.
As Nordhaus and Shellenberger see it, Americans are living in a period of “insecure affluence, a kind of postmaterial insecurity.” Our basic needs have been met, but there’s a pervasive fear that our lifestyles are under threat. “Americans have seen their wealth and spending power rise,” they write, “but they have also become increasingly insecure in terms of their employment, retirement, health care, and community.”
Growing affluence coupled with growing insecurity have created a unique set of conditions that require a “new social contract—one that also lays the foundation for a fresh can-do attitude that will inspire novel solutions to climate change’s growing problems, such as creating a “new clean-energy economy.”
Therein lies the rub, because environmentalists, Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue, tend to see material prosperity as the problem when, in fact, it’s the solution. Adopting psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” the authors draw heavily on the idea that only when humans have met the basic, lower-order needs can they move up the pyramid to higher-order ones—which include belonging and status, and, above those, purpose and fulfillment. Poor Brazilians living in the Amazon, for instance, can’t be expected to care about saving the rainforest when their main concern is finding food and shelter.
But environmentalists, the argument goes, are so narrowly focused on protecting nature that they don’t recognize that protecting people is the only way forward. Toward that end, anyone who wants to protect places like the Amazon must start by ensuring that more people around the globe are meeting their own material needs. “If we are to overcome ecological crises,” the authors write, “we must no longer put concepts like nature or ‘the environment’ at the center of our politics.” Trying to save the Amazon through grassroots projects scattered throughout the jungle won’t work; canceling Brazil’s international debt will.
So far, so good. But then things get a little muddled.
Another major problem with today’s environmentalism, they write, is that it’s all about placing limits on human activity: Don’t develop, don’t use so much energy, don’t pollute. We need to focus on what we can and should do instead of what we can’t and shouldn’t, the authors assert. Rather than harp about “limiting greenhouse gases,” we should talk about “unleashing economic potential.” The wrong approach is Tony Blair’s 2005 Davos speech about the climate crisis, full of “scientific” facts and economic fears; the right way is Winston Churchill’s post-WWII “United States of Europe” speech, which encouraged Europeans to “dream about a better future.”
But it’s never clear why we must choose one path over the other. Surely we can encourage innovation while also acknowledging that some limits are necessary.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger also take issue with the long-standing symbols and stories of environmentalism. Drawing from the psychiatric practice of cognitive therapy, in which “patients re-narrate their lives and in doing so imagine new possibilities and futures for themselves,” they call for new narratives that will move us away from the depressing, immobilizing images of belching smokestacks and besieged creatures and places. These narratives, the authors insist, have “stifled innovation, imagination, and the creation of a new pragmatic politics for more than a generation.”
Instead of continually saying that “global warming could bring drought, disease, and war,” the authors suggest that environmentalists tell a story “that makes people feel more in control of their future.” Their solution: reframe global warming “in terms of preparation for natural disasters and extreme weather.” But how the threat of hurricanes and drought is different than the threat of species extinction or excessive pollution is entirely unclear.
Still, it’s one thing to envision new narratives and another to ignore the plain facts you’re staring at. As the authors spend quite a bit of time discussing, the Amazon is rapidly disappearing. But their solution—to raise the standards of living for all Brazilians, so that they can move on to “postmaterial” values and start to care about saving the forest—works too slowly. It’s commendable to call for a sweeping new movement, but we can’t simply put critical problems on hold while we wait for the revolution.
At times Nordhaus and Shellenberger also make assertions that verge on the absurd. For example, they blast biologist E.O. Wilson and his concept of “biophilia” by denying the primacy of an intrinsic connection between humans and the natural world: “Is the pleasure we get from buying trinkets at the mall,” they write, “any less innate than the pleasure we get from walking through an ancient redwood forest?” Well, actually, yes.
For a book about breaking away from pessimism and forging a new politics of possibility, Break Through spends a lot of pages trashing both environmentalists and progressive thinkers (such as Al Gore and Jared Diamond). Among other sins, they accuse Gore of overly emphasizing apocalyptic visions and “exacerbating” the partisan divide over global warming. Considering the role Gore’s recent climate activism has played in educating millions of Americans about climate change, it’s particularly odd that he’s framed as a villain.
I sincerely wanted to love this book, to fall under its spell, to feel empowered, to have my aspirations unleashed. But more often I was frustrated—most seriously by its failure to offer a viable substitute for modern environmentalism once it’s obliterated. What the authors offer, largely, is some appealing though not exactly revolutionary ideas (a positive outlook, a “new social contract,” a clean-energy economy) that environmentalists would do well to digest as they dig in for the long road ahead.
Hillary Rosner is a freelance science writer based in Boulder, Colorado.
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Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters With Ordinary Birds
By Sam Keen
Chronicle Books, 120 pages, $14.95
Embedded memories come in all forms. For example, people often associate certain songs with seminal experiences that resurface years later whenever they hear that song again. For Sam Keen, birds are the vessel to such memories. In Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters With Ordinary Birds, a slender book of poignant essays, he relives some of his own pivotal or searing experiences, which spring from chance encounters with various birds. To Keen, a former professor of philosophy and writer of the best-selling self-help book Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man, the birds trigger flashes of clarity related to the past. Keen recalls the memory of watching two turkey vultures hover over a wounded gull, which brings back recollections of his father’s death: “I understood, as a son whose father would always be missing, that all beauty and love is fleeting.” Other birds, such as the crimson cardinal, hark back to childhood ramblings through Tennessee woods. Each of the birds that serve as Keen’s muse for the dozen vignettes are beautifully illustrated by Mary Woodin. Sightings is engaging and often perceptive, the sort of book you would expect from a philosopher turned self-help author.—Kristin Phillips
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Life in the Valley of Death: The Fight to Save Tigers in a Land of Guns, Gold, and Greed
By Alan Rabinowitz
Island Press, 296 pages. $25.95
Life in the Valley of Death is not your typical chronicle of rescuing wildlife. Rather it’s a clear-eyed rendering of conservation’s unruly, dangerous, and chaotic side. In telling his tale, ecologist Alan Rabinowitz details the enormous struggles and bureaucratic wrangling he endured while trying to safeguard tigers in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Rabinowitz, who has spent 25 years with the Wildlife Conservation Society and more than a decade working in Myanmar, is an engaging yet effectively understated writer. In Life in the Valley of Death he matter-of-factly describes the remarkable events that ultimately led to tiger protection throughout the remote 8,500-square-mile area in the country’s northeast corner. “Meeting with an insurgent army in some bustling little backwoods town, trying to convince them against all odds that they should help us protect tigers and other wildlife. This is the side of conser-vation that few people ever hear about or experience,” Rabinowitz writes. “But this is often how progress is made.” He also learns that in conservation—as in life—the most difficult challenges are those we rarely expect. The author describes deftly maneuvering through the unforgiving land-scape and murky politics of the Hukawng, only to face the all-too-common realities of development, mining, and poaching. Similarly, Rabinowitz recalls cheating death numerous times in the wilderness (from tropical disease, accidents, and even a plane crash)—and then being blindsided with a diagnosis of leukemia shortly before his 47th birthday. “I would soon be forced to face the fragility of my own existence, and would come to realize the parallels between the human condition and the fight for wildlife—both requiring constant attention and compromise,” he writes. “The struggle for conservation is, after all, a struggle of life against death. There will never be an end to such a struggle.”—Andrea Anderson
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No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations
By David S. Wilcove
Island Press, 238 pages, $25.95
From butterflies to bison, sea turtles to salmon, No Way Home offers entrancing accounts of some of the world’s iconic migrants of the sky, land, and sea while underscoring the obstacles they face in their travels. “It is the sheer abun-dance of these animals that inspires and excites us,” writes Princeton University ecologist David S. Wilcove. But, “simply stated, the phenomenon of migration is disappearing around the world” due to habitat destruction, overexploitation of natural resources, and climate change. The migrants’ jour-neys are absolutely breathtaking: At the end of May Wilcove finds Delaware Bay aswarm with red knots “frantically pro-bing the sand and mud for crab eggs” to sustain them on their transcontinental trip north. While visiting East Africa’s Serengeti, he enjoys a spectacle of more than 100,000 wilde-beest “marching across the dry, brown savanna” to quench their thirst at a watering hole. Although his examples of con-servation efforts may seem reassuring—such as the creation of Serengeti National Park and Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, which encompass key migration ranges—Wilcove argues that what’s working now to protect migrants may not secure their future. “We wait until a species is in dire straits and then take steps to prevent its disappearance,” he writes, recommending instead proactive measures such as develo-ping an early warning system to flag migrations before they’re imperiled, greater conservation efforts across political and jurisdictional boundaries, and, above all, curbing global warming. Those solutions aren’t easy, but it’s time to get a move on.—Julie Leibach
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