As we enter a new year, we tend to contemplate our past: our successes and failures, our goals and limitations, and our relationships with loved ones, friends, family and coworkers. Yet while doing this assessment, let’s not forget about another important relationship – our relationship with nature, which, if we don’t get it right, might make our lives difficult if not impossible. This includes, among other things, protecting wilderness areas, establishing clean, renewable energy sources, and teaching everyone – especially the younger generations -- about the importance of doing so.
My overview of environmental literature begins with “Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone ” (St. Martin’s, 2012), by George Black , which tells the story of establishing the world’s first national park. This book describes a wide array of events, from early western explorations, conflicts between Indians and whites, and vigilante violence, to the creation of the park in 1872 and the establishment of the National Park Service in 1918. Read this book before your next Yellowstone vacation; it will give you a much greater appreciation for the park and those who have worked for it.
Our next pick is written by a nonpartisan group of ecological experts called Climate Central. Their book, “Global Weirdness: Severe Storms, Deadly Heat Waves, Relentless Drought, Rising Seas, and the Weather of the Future ” (Pantheon Books, 2012), discusses facts, myths and rumors behind the phenomenon we call climate change. The material here is arranged into four sections: “What the Science Says,” “What’s Actually Happening,” “What’s Likely to Happen in the Future” and “Can We Avoid the Risks of Climate Change?” (The latter gives projections for the period circa AD 2100.) Despite the difficult subject, the tone of the book is calm, and its simple presentation makes it very accessible, even to complete novices and young readers.
“Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats ” (Crown Publishers, 2012), by Kristen Iversen , is an account of what war hysteria, greed, denial, criminal cover-up and habitual silence can do to a beautiful area and its residents. Iversen grew up in Rocky Flats, Colorado, three miles from a nuclear weapons plant that was secretly manufacturing plutonium triggers for atomic bombs. When residents (especially children) began getting sick and animals grew sterile and deformed, activists and whistle-blowers, aided by one attorney, took their case to court. Eventually, the whole area was closed and, after extensive clean-up, turned into a wildlife refuge, some parts of which will remain unusable forever.
Andrew Blackwell strikes a different tone in “Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places ” (Rodale, 2012). His book, written in a tongue-in-cheek style, is a cross between environmental investigation and adventure travel. Blackwell, who enjoys the beauty of these now-abandoned places, offers no solutions to their problems. Instead, he wants his readers to realize how difficult it is to balance a goal of saving the Earth with recognition of the fact that people have to make a living on it.
David Owen , author of “The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse ” (Riverhead Books, 2012) puts a paradoxical spin on everything we’ve learned about protecting wilderness and green living. According to Owen, environmental strategies that call for increased efficiency in energy production “make no sense, unless they’re preceded -- and more than negated -- by measures that force major cuts in total energy use.” He then proceeds with examples showing that urban living is, in fact, a better way of preserving valuable natural resources, and he calls for developing cities that are livable enough for people to stay in them.
Fred Pearce , author of “The Land Grabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth ” (Beacon, 2012), does not concern himself with climate change and green living. He focuses on the practice of selling land to foreign corporations or private individuals, who then develop it into massive industrial farms. This mostly takes place in developing countries governed by tyrannical and corrupt governments, and it often leads to displacement of native populations and sectarian violence. Pearce describes land grabs in Africa, Asia, Indonesia, South America and Ukraine, and he shows how these deals influence the law and trigger environmental and humanitarian calamities.
“The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change ” (Random House, 2013), by Al Gore , discusses, among other things, the emergence of a global economy, redistribution of the world’s power, rapid population growth and the unsustainable consumption of natural resources. Gore’s book shows what impact these changes have had on people everywhere, and he calls for a collective debate about what our responses should be.
Those who don’t feel like reading extensive environmental literature, but who want to be “drivers” of local change in their communities, should read Sara Gilbert’s “The Imperfect Environmentalist” (Ballantine Books, 2013). This book provides quick, practical and to-the-point information everybody can follow, while Gilbert’s accessible style and humorous presentation make it an easy read.
In the end, whatever you decide to do after all this reading, the important thing is not to wait for one global solution, but to do something -- even on a small scale -- today. As Abraham Lincoln  put it, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”