If you look at The New York Times Advice & How-To list, you’ll see a good percentage of that list populated by food books. This week, five of the ten are cookbooks or diet books. We love getting advice about how to eat – what to eat, what not to eat, how much of it, and so on. Dr. Phil tells us that there are 20 key foods we should focus on while Trisha Yearwood says don’t sweat it, you only need to eat well 80% of the time. The advice is confusing and contradicting. It’s hard to ever feel like you’re eating properly…. and that’s just when we consider how food affects our bodies.
As you may have heard, our diet has a huge impact on the environment. According to Anna Lappe’s Diet for a Hot Planet, our food system probably contributes to about one third of the world’s emissions. “…[L]ivestock production alone is responsible for as much as 18 percent of the global warming effect.” (11) Once you start reading facts like that, it’s kind of hard to ignore our food’s connection with our climate. Lappe’s book is a good introduction to the ecology of the food system. She isn’t really advocating for a single diet, just setting out the facts and talks about food politics on a much more systematic level, along with some guidelines at the end.
I also don’t advocate for any single diet change. I don’t eat most meat because that’s something I feel like I can do to help the planet. Robin doesn’t eat fish because of the impact it has on our oceans (and she can’t eat shellfish anyway so doesn’t know how delicious it is). I like to think that between the two of us, we make a great vegetarian. There are books out there that will tell you that unless you eat a certain way and feel guilty about every bite that is not local, water-conscious, or doesn’t have a mother (don’t all living things genetically have mothers?) you are an eco-failure. I don’t believe that’s helpful to anyone. That’s why I really like reading books about the food system a lot more than I like reading books telling me what to eat. These authors pay more attention to how we eat and why than giving us a list of unbreakable rules.
The rock-star critic of the food system is, of course, Michael Pollan. I finally got around to reading In Defense of Food when it was assigned to the freshman class of the university I was working for. This is the book from which the best diet advice for both human and global health originated. “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” Talk about simple and non-judgemental. Pretty much any diet, except maybe hardcore paleo, works with those parameters. It’s always what I come back to when I get overwhelmed by people telling me to only eat acai on Tuesdays or binge eat for three days and then fast for two. Side note, Michael Pollan is one of the most interesting people to follow on Facebook if you’re interested in all things edible.
Another food juggernaut is Mark Bittman. I love him for his How to Cook Everything books which I’ll elaborate on in another post. For this topic, though, I direct you to VB6, which stands for Vegan Before 6. He eats a vegan diet for breakfast, lunch and snacks and then allows himself to eat whatever he wants at dinner. Instead of choosing a very earth-friendly vegan diet or remembering to not eat meat on certain days, this way he significantly limits his meat intake while still enjoying all sorts of food. I did try this technique myself, but found out I like dairy with pretty much every meal way more than I crave chicken. Bittman’s newest book, A Bone to Pick will compile his insightful articles on food politics.
Toward the end of Diet for a Hot Planet Lappe relates the story of a professor she was working with that followed all the green rules that we like to promote – use less water, don’t buy plastic bottles, recycle, bike to work… That woman went to New York City, stood in Times Square, and looked at all the energy being used around her. “In one minute of standing there,” she says, “more energy was used up than I had personally saved in my entire lifetime.” We have all felt like this. I recently read a statistic from Steven Johnson, author of How We Got To Now, on how even if everyone south of LA moved up to Oregon, it wouldn’t improve the drought as much as a 10% reduction in water use for crops in the Central Valley. (source) That makes cutting a few minutes off the shower feel much less virtuous.
So why should we read these books and take a stand by changing our diets? Recycling or using greener products are usually just a change in routine, but what you eat is attached to your health, identity and social life. It’s a big deal to change your food habits, especially when you may wonder if it’s worth it. The truth is, your single choice probably won’t do much. It takes major institutional change to bring about the future we need. However, that type of change doesn’t happen without individuals. When you take a stance to purchase more locally grown, whole foods and less resource-intensive products, companies start to take notice. They try their hardest to get you to do what they want with advertising, but if their customers want something new, they need to change or die. They know it. And if no one makes that change because they think it won’t matter, then nothing happens. Being informed about our food system enables you to be a good consumer and make small changes that, when compounded, can have big results.
I can’t quite recall how The World Without Us wandered into my collection, but it has languished on my shelves for over a year while I was distracted by other books. When April and I agreed to do a literary themed Earth Day I decided to pick it up to see if I wanted to review it. Within a few pages I was totally sucked in. The giant stack of books flowing in from the library that I needed to look at for other Earth Day posts was ignored so I could finish it.
The central question of the book is brilliantly simple: “What would the world look like if humans disappeared?” The answer is surprisingly complex.
In trying to answer it Weisman takes the reader to some surprising and fascinating places. Through his descriptions we are transported across the globe and through time. From the subways and skyscrapers of New York to see how long our buildings would last, to our evolution in Africa to see what might replace us. We witness nature reclaiming abandoned cities in war torn Cyprus and explore the long lasting underground cities of Cappadocia. We learn about the lasting legacy of plastic, deep space probes, dioxins, nuclear waste, radio waves, and the world’s most interesting pile of sloth poop. It’s not always a happy-go-lucky journey, but it is fantastic. The book is well paced, and manages to be informative without information overload.
Hopefully I’ve raved about this book enough to make you want to read it. Make sure you learn from my mistake and put it at the top of your “to be read” pile.
Below is a picture (albeit not a very good one) of one of the owls that lives outside of our library. It’s only one of the reasons that I think my library is one of the coolest places ever. We’re smack dab in the middle of a 350-acre park, the largest city park in Orange County. It’s no Yosemite, but I think it makes a difference when every window looks out onto trees and ponds. I get to park under a huge bank of solar panels that pay for almost our entire facility’s electricity. It’s fun working somewhere that I can feel good about our impact on the planet.
Libraries tend to be pretty socially-minded places, since they’re supposed to be havens for all sorts of people and ideas. They’re also usually under tight budgets, meaning they have to be creative in finding ways to reuse and make do with less. I think these two attributes mean that libraries are more likely than not to try out green initiatives. Our library’s eco-friendly traits are actually pretty minor when it comes to the library world. Here are four other public libraries that are doing their part for books and the planet.
McAllen Public Library – You may have heard of the “Walmart” library. It was pretty big news on Facebook and got press worldwide. This is one of several libraries that have reused abandoned structures. After its renovation, the McAllen library became the largest single-story library in the U.S. (which also tells us something about Walmarts). When big box stores fail, they are often left as empty urban blight. The library’s reuse of the space not only improved the community, it also helped rid the town of an abandoned eyesore.
San Francisco Library Environmental Center – Filled with resources for anyone wishing to increase their environmental knowledge, the Wallace Stegner Environmental Center contains programs, information, and exhibits on sustainability. Especially in larger libraries, these centers can be great resources for their cities. The San Francisco Library also has a page called Green Stacks, which points out all the ways that the library champions the environment. For example, they changed their receipt paper to a BPA-free brand.
Pima County Library – PCL is an example of the growing trend to add seeds to the collection. While there are specific seed libraries, public libraries are joining the mission. Seed libraries keep heirloom versions of seeds to preserve unique and heritage plants. Members can borrow seeds to start their own plants and are then encouraged to keep the seeds so they can continue to share them.
Wilmette Public Library – It’s not many libraries that include their green initiatives in their “about us” statement on their web page. Their list includes both a commitment to purchasing from eco-friendly companies and promoting environmental programming to their patrons. It’s a simple mission that works really well as a starting point for any library that wants to contribute to saving the planet.
As sources of information sharing, a lot of libraries find ways to promote their eco-friendly tips. Here’s some further reading:
Green Libraries from the University Library at UIUC
Green Libraries from ALA
Sustainable Libraries Facebook Group
10 Wonderful Libraries Repurposed from Unused Structures
This is the World Without Us in front of Half Dome. A great place to entertain the thought of what Yosemite Valley would look like without us.
I came across this quote when I was reading the aforementioned Wild and I loved it. I loved that it gives permission not to be the best, as long as you complete whatever it is you have put your mind to. I’ve though about it a few times when I’ve wanted to quit a particularly grueling hike (including the one up Mount Baldy that’s pictured in this photo). It comes as special comfort today when I just completed a 5K that I was pretty sure I was going to have to walk. Yeah, I think that Abraham Lincoln was definitely talking about finishing fun runs and hikes when he said this. He has some ideas. I think he’ll do good things.
This book grew out of a TED wish presented by the legendary Sylvia A. Earl. It’s one of my favorite books, and full of mind blowing facts about the ocean, and many reasons why everyone on earth should care about it. This is just a sample of the quotes and facts that blew my mind:
1. “Even if you have never have the chance to see or touch the ocean, the ocean touches you with every breath you take, every drop of water you drink, every bite you consume. Everyone, everywhere is inextricably connected to and utterly dependent upon the existence of the sea.”
2. Less than five percent of the ocean has been explored, and only one percent has been protected.
3. 20% of the oxygen in earth’s atmosphere, or one in five breaths, has been produced by one type of water dwelling blue green bacteria with the unfortunate name prochlorococcus.
4. Aside from seafood, we regularly use a variety of ocean products in our everyday lives. A thickener derived from a single species of Kelp can be found in sauces, cheese, ice cream, pudding, chocolate milk, candy, toothpaste, those weird tooth impressions they make at the dentist’s office, lotion, tape, and hundreds of other products.
5. Fish populations are plummeting on a planet where one of seven people rely on ocean caught fish as their primary source of protein.
6. “We can shift our trash, move it, cover it up, toss it into the sea, and turn our back, but everything connects. There is no “away” to throw to.”
7. The top ten categories of marine trash are: cigarette butts, plastic bags, food containers, caps and lids, plastic botles, paper bags, straws and stirrers, cups plates and eating utensils, glass bottles, and beverage cans. These account for 83 percent of the trash found in the ocean.
8. A 1999 expedition to the Pacific Gyre found that trash outweighed plankton six to one.
9. “That same year, on a reef in the Coral Sea, I swam in a milling circle of more than a hundred gray reef sharks, feeling much safer than I do while driving on a freeway with cars heading in my direction at high speed, separated only by a line of yellow paint and a mutual desire to live.”
10. Before human impacts started affecting them, oysters managed to filter and clean all the water contained in New York Harbor every few days. The Chesapeake Bay was filtered every 24 hours.
11. “Their present precarious state makes eating bluefin tuna comparable to dining on snow leopard or panda.”
12. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that millions of tons of fish and invertebrates are caught and then discarded as bycatch every year.
13. Most United State Marine Sanctuaries still allow for commercial and sport fishing. Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii was the first and largest Marine Protected Areas in the world to ban fishing, and was created with a great deal of political support from (get this) George W. Bush.
14. Given how much of the ocean has yet to be explored or even seen by human eyes, we have no idea how many ocean species there are. Conservative estimates put the number at around ten million.
15. Loss of biodiversity in the ocean impacts its ability to provide food, and maintain water quality. One study found that restoring biodiversity increased it’s productivity by 400 percent.
16. Half of the worlds coral reefs have disappeared or are in sharp decline.
17. “Our near and distant predecessors might be forgiven for exterminating the last wooly mammoth, the ultimate dodo, the final sea cow, and the last living monk seal for lack of understanding the consequences of their actions. But who will forgive us if we fail to learn from past and present expriences, to forge new values, new relationships, a new level of respect for the natural systems that keep us alive?”
18. The ocean absorbs more than 22 million tons of CO2 daily. Unfortunately a large portion of the absorbed carbon turns into carbonic acid, which increases the acidity of the ocean, and has a huge impact on coral reefs.
19. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Even if green house gas emissions are halted at their present levels we can expect an ice-free summer in the arctic by 2040.
20. “In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.”
P.S. With the exception of the cover image the photos are my own and are of tide pools and mussels at Pillar Point Harbor, a sea star at County Line Beach, Malibu Point Reyes National Seashore, and the Indra’s Net exhibit at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.
Earth Day: Why I Still Like Stories About People Who Do Dumb Sh*t in Nature; or, Books with “Wild” in the Title9 Apr
You know what books I’m talking about*. They’re the ones where some idealistic yet world-weary young man (or woman) decides that the only way to overcome their problems is to disappear from modern life into the wilderness. True, they are unprepared, but their mettle more than makes of for their lack of planning. Armed with nothing but their pioneering spirit they venture off and… probably something awful happens. Because they weren’t prepared. Because as far as determination takes you, it doesn’t replace healthy caution. Because nature doesn’t care about life goals.
Before I defend this genre, I should elaborate on the critics. To do this, I called across the room and asked my husband why he hates these types of stories so much. The complaints include (paraphrased and edited for length and language):
- As someone who enjoys the outdoors, I feel zero sympathy for a person that went off into the wilderness without any sort of preparation.
- I’m supposed to have sympathy for idiots who got themselves killed, or almost killed, because of their own poor choices.
- Why is someone who made horrible life choices supposed to be a role model?
- People who have no experience outdoors think that they can do the same thing and everyone will think they’re so strong.
- But I think most people who don’t like Into the Wild are just Republicans that are like “Ah! Sean Penn and hippies!”
There you have it folks, the case against survival bios. I definitely identify with some of the points. When Cheryl Strayed described heading out onto the PCT in hiking shoes she was breaking in for the very first time, I practically screamed at my computer (I listened to the audiobook) as my feet broke out in sympathy blisters. I get that people who have not been out-of-doors much might read these books without much cynicism and that might get them into trouble. Actually, from every intellectual angle, I can see why these books should be deeply offensive.
The problem is, I really like them. Even with all their foibles, I get caught up in the inherent optimism of their protagonists. These people, who generally have not been brought up loving nature, feel pulled toward it to reinvent themselves. I’d also argue that while not nearly as prepared as they should be, both Cheryl Strayed and Chris McCandless did what they thought was their due diligence. Strayed discusses her foray into online discussion groups and McCandless carried in a plant identification book, thinking it would be enough. While most seasoned veterans can immediately see their errors, these people didn’t have the life experience to know just how much they didn’t know.
The mistake they both made was that they believed that nature is a restorative force. They’d read the romantics and saw the wilderness as something that would provide for them and heal their souls. Unfortunately, anyone who’s spent any time in the wild knows while those things can be true, nature is very unforgiving to even the best prepared. I think it’s that tragedy that draws me to the stories – the dichotomy between two of nature’s most powerful attributes.
I don’t see McCandless or Strayed as role models. They’re interesting characters, but not my heroes. Their stories may be the reason these books were written, but that’s not why I read them. I like them because it reminds me of why we need to respect the wild places of the world. They remind us that we are small parts of something large and we are not always in control. That’s the feeling these people were chasing in the first place and, whatever else happened, I think they probably found that.
Together Byrd Baylor and Peter Parnall have created ten books and every one of them is worth adding to your library. They are infused with the desert, and are among the most beautifully illustrated books ever made. I tried to pick my favorite and only managed to narrow it down to four:
Take a child to a wild place and read them one of these books. I promise you, what happens next will be unforgettable.
P.S. For the record their other books are:
Aliens invade. Robots become sentient. Nuclear war rages. Something is turning humans into flesh-eating zombies.
We’re familiar with the tropes and we’re fascinated by them. Dystopian themes are everywhere in our movies, tv shows, and books. They reflect our most primal fears – outsiders, technological change, violence, disease… Dystopian fiction captivates us because it’s a safe place to explore our worst fears. We can read a story about the arrival of unknowable creatures that turn anyone that sees them into deranged murderers (Bird Box, I recommend it) and then put it down, feeling thankful that, while the story seems possible (plausible, even!), today the sun is shining and all is right in the world.
It’s no surprise then, that there is a whole genre of books chronicling humanity’s doom from environmental catastrophe. These are stories that deal with peak oil, climate change, and mass extinctions. Pretty heavy stuff. And there’s a snappy new name for it: Cli-fi. As in sci-fi, but the “cli” stands for climate. Get it?
From the handful of books in the genre that I’ve read, one thing that stands out is the sheer hopelessness of them. Cli-fi, not that surprisingly, is a pretty bleak genre. If you’ve read The Road, a loosely classified cli-fi, you have an idea of what the basics are. Earth is dying, or has died, and humanity is trying their hardest to hold on, despite the fact that they all know they’re doomed.
I picked up The Book of Strange New Things to get some more cli-fi under my belt and while the story didn’t captivate me, it does hit the themes pretty hard. In this book, the author tells the story of earth’s destruction through letters to the main character from his wife, Bea. Peter, our protagonist, is a missionary to a pretty benign alien species on a strange and habitable, if somewhat boring, new planet. Meanwhile, his wife is mostly hinting at the devastation of extreme weather and resource depletion back in England, until her fate is no longer avoidable. I found myself wanting to hear Bea’s story much more than Peter’s, but the structure does allow the author to make an interesting point. What do people do when they know the worst is happening, but it seems far removed from their own reality? Do we choose to engage or ignore? It’s a question we are increasingly actually facing, and in its mission as a true sci-fi novel, The Book of Strange New Things forces you to tackle it.
Though the vast majority is, not all cli-fi is depressing. Well, the earth will pretty much be shot, but sometimes humanity survives. I racked my brain (and Google) trying to come up with a few “happy ending” examples, but I could really only come up with one. Interstellar, last year’s underrated Christopher Nolan film is a great cinematic example of cli-fi. Switching back and forth from the survivors on earth and the astronauts trying to find a new home for humanity, Interstellar navigates the different ways both parties react to the inevitable.
I imagine now that book lovers of the future will look back on cli-fi the same way we look at much of the science fiction of the 50s and 60s. They’re filled with anxiety about space travel, an anxiety which has ebbed, but not vanished. Now we find the fear of little green men to be quaint, even as stories of abandoned space crews and black holes remain. I wonder what aspects of today’s cli-fi will be considered overblown hysteria, which will still hit close to home, and which will be realities of everyday life.
I apologize for such a downer of a post, but I’ve been reading a lot of cli-fi lately. Maybe Robin can cheer us all up tomorrow? I’ve got to find a picture book about a kitten or something…