Nature Books for Kids
A high school science teacher’s new book suggests a fresh approach to the rancorous debate about global warming.
What’s the Worst That Could Happen?
A Rational Response to the Climate
By Greg Craven
Penguin Group, 264 pages, $14.95 (paper)
Greg Craven is an Internet phenomenon. Well over four million people have viewed his 10-minute YouTube video titled “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See”—which shows him scribbling on a whiteboard, weighing the outcomes of action versus inaction on climate change—since he posted it in 2007. Spurred by its popularity, Craven made 52 follow-up videos, established a growing website, gave interviews, and just published a book. He also happens to be an exuberant high school science teacher in Oregon, with a feverish drive to reorient the climate change debate through a few simple critical thinking techniques for both warmers and skeptics.
Craven’s new book, What’s the Worst That Could Happen?, expands on his videos. Unlike most tomes on the subject, his doesn’t set out to prove that the planet is warming or not warming. Instead, Craven lays out his refreshing approach to thinking about climate change—one that aims to move the conversation away from whether the atmosphere is heating up due to human activity and toward the responsible response to a possible threat.
First off, Craven wants you to know you shouldn’t believe anything he says. One, because he doesn’t consider himself a global warming expert, and two, true to his chosen profession, he wants you to come to your own conclusions about the issue. Most of the book is devoted to supplying tools and diagrams that will help readers analyze their thinking. Craven’s goal is to quell the sophomoric shouting matches about climate change and engage everyone in a rational, well-reasoned dialogue. He recasts the discussion in a matter of sentences: “This issue is not about the question, Should I believe global warming is true? any more than starting your car is about the question, Should I believe I’m going to get into a wreck this trip?” He argues that because we can’t ever know the answer for sure (at least not until it’s too late), the more relevant question is, Do I buckle my seatbelt?
To encourage this kind of climate change risk assessment, Craven developed the Magical Grid Machine. Putting aside the goofball name (Craven pushes the science teacher clown persona pretty hard to lighten up the conversation), the four-quadrant grid has two rows representing climate change as true or false and two columns representing our response to climate change as action or inaction. The four quadrants represent future scenarios, such as: Global warming is false, but we take action as though it’s real and—worst-case scenario—create a terrible economic depression. Or: Global warming is true, but we act as though it’s false, do nothing to combat it, and, as a result, life as we know it changes dramatically for the worse. For Craven, risking an economic meltdown is the most prudent choice when forced to place a bet on whether climate change is true or false.
While Craven starts out saying he doesn’t want to discuss whether or not climate change is really happening, he thinks it really is. Sure, he offers tools to help people of every opinion assess their beliefs. But his motivation for the book, and its title, is his fear of “an unlikely but feasible future where I end up holding people off at gunpoint to protect my grandkids’ clean drinking water, due to a breakdown of modern civilization.” The book in fact ends with an appendix on actions individuals can take to prevent further climate change.
In an effort to be upfront about his bias, and to help others get a handle on theirs, Craven explores at length a phenomenon in cognitive science called confirmation bias, when people tend to find or interpret information that reinforces their preconceptions. Craven concludes that confirmation bias is the fundamental obstacle to progress in the popular debate over climate change. “Confirmation bias doesn’t just trick you into being wrong,” he writes. “It tricks you into being wrong with confidence.” As an antidote, he encourages everyone to consider what it would take to alter their dearly held arguments about climate change, and then to try and falsify their own hypothesis—essentially to find information that contradicts their beliefs. These exercises and a slew of other tips are intended to keep our biases in check.
Having sought to open minds, Craven offers a simple method for judging the value of facts. He creates a vertical continuum from most to least credible sources. For example, Craven holds statements from professional societies in high regard but grants little value to those from individual lay people. He urges readers to come up with their own Credibility Spectrum and then use it to assess the trustworthiness of various climate change reports and statements. The point is twofold: A visual map of information credibility emerges, ideally with a dense cluster of facts coming from high-quality sources. Also, it combats bias. In Craven’s case, if a professional society came out with a statement denying climate change, his Credibility Spectrum would prod him to take the fact seriously, despite the fact that it contradicts his point of view.
It’s worth noting that Craven went to great lengths to test the techniques he offers. Not only has he thrown them out to the public for comment through his videos, but he has asked hundreds of experts to weigh in and punch holes through his approach. And he doesn’t stop there. He invites feedback from readers and further discussion on his website, gregcraven.org. In the end Craven’s objective isn’t really to perfect the book’s tools, it’s to create a platform for people to think about their actions. Because simply ignoring one of the greatest issues of our time has the same effect as choosing to do nothing.
Freelance journalist Victoria Schlesinger, who wrote the July-August book review, writes frequently about climate change.
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Fireflies, Honey, and Silk
By Gilbert Waldbauer
University of California Press, 246 pages, $25.95
On a return plane trip from Mexico some years ago, entomologist Gilbert Waldbauer spied a well-dressed woman with an unexpected accessory: “a large living beetle tethered by a thin silver chain crawling sluggishly on [her] jacket.” Though surprised, over the years he has found that insect jewelry (be it living or merely bug-inspired) is actually common—and is just one of a repertoire of creative uses people have found for the planet’s six-legged denizens. In Fireflies, Honey, and Silk, Waldbauer explores how insects have clothed us, fed us, and entertained us throughout centuries and across cultures, from silk-spinning worms to honey-making bees to chirping crickets. Far from being reviled, various insects have been prized. The enchanting sound made by the suzumushi, or bell insect, rings true, for example, when Waldbauer cites a Chinese quote, translated in 1898: “If a jewel of dew could sing, it would tinkle with such a voice!” Professorial yet conversational, Waldbauer’s essays are an homage to a world that first fascinated him as a child when he discovered a big brown cocoon that gave way to a cecropia moth. It was “the most beautiful and amazing insect” he had ever seen, and he’s been hooked ever since.—Julie Leibach
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Of Parrots and People: The Sometimes Funny, Always Fascinating, and Often Catastrophic Collision of Two Intelligent Species
By Mira Tweti
Penguin Books, 303 pages, $16
Beautiful and intelligent, parrots are often seen as the ideal companion animal. Their storied relationships with humans have been documented throughout history, from Aristotle to President William McKinley, but the bonds have never been tighter. Within the past 40 years birds, particularly parrots, have become one of the fastest-growing pet choices in the United States, with an estimated 40 million to 60 million living in homes nationwide. The popularity has a price, however. In Of Parrots and People, award-winning journalist and filmmaker Mira Tweti examines the costs of the country’s booming pet parrot industry, exploring what can happen when growing consumer interest trumps environmental responsibility. Through her jarring investigative account, readers learn of the horrific mutilation, malnourishment, and psychological abuse often inflicted on parrots by their owners and suppliers, including smugglers and major corporations like Petsmart and Petco, according to Tweti. At the same time she explores the inexhaustible efforts of the people who provide protection and stability for parrots injured and abandoned by industry. Despite the horrors the birds have endured, the care from these people helps them recover. “The birds have shown a remarkable emotional resilience,” writes Tweti. “Their effervescent spirit and social, nurturing nature begin to return as they are allowed to heal.”—Katherine Bagley
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The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant
By Robert Sullivan
HarperCollins, 354 pages, $25.99
Most of us probably imagine Henry David Thoreau as a solitary man in the woods. But with witty prose and entertaining anecdotes, journalist Robert Sullivan shows us that the father of environmentalism was a musician and an activist, in addition to being an accomplished naturalist. Thoreau, who worked as a schoolteacher and a pencil maker, sang, vacationed with friends, and even set fire to the forest (one time, accidentally). In his short life—he died of tuberculosis at 45—he came to understand more about the environment than many others of his time. Sullivan argues that Thoreau, through his writings, wanted readers to evaluate their relationship not just with nature but also their communities. Thoreau’s works, including Walden, written during a time of technological revolution and financial crisis, stress the importance of building strong communities, using the environment as a metaphor: “Thoreau’s nature book was no lark in the woods. It was a book about reviving the institutions of the metropolis, reawakening them the way leaves return to branches in the spring and, in so doing, restore the forest.” Thoreau was, it turns out, as much a man of the town as he was a man of the woods. (For an excerpt from Sullivan’s book, click here.)—Susan Cosier
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|Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
No Impact Man
Oscilloscope Laboratories and +impactpartners, 90 minutes; playing in select theaters
In the new documentary No Impact Man, Colin Beavan ropes his somewhat unwilling wife, Michelle Conlin, and their two-year-old daughter, Isabella, into living “deliberately” for a year. The surprisingly funny film follows the Manhattanites as they reduce their environmental impact as much as possible: biking in place of subways; cutting out electricity and toilet paper; doing laundry in the bathtub; and housing worms (for composting, of course). Beavan, sincere and committed to his pursuit, may be No Impact Man. But what makes this film compelling is watching him and his wife, a self-proclaimed high-fructose- loving shopaholic with a healthy sense of self-deprecating humor, strive to stick to the plan. The experiment yields some unexpected benefits, as Beavan ponders aloud: “What if I called it ‘The Year I Lost 20 Pounds Without Going to the Gym Once,’ or ‘The Year We Didn’t Watch TV and Became Much Better Parents as a Result,’ or ‘The Year We Ate Locally and Seasonally and It Ended Up Reversing My Wife’s Pre-diabetic Condition’?” Viewers aren’t likely to replicate the lengths the family goes to, but this entertaining and poignant film is sure to motivate others to action, even if just piecemeal.—Susan Cosier
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