Whether you are giving gifts to others or to yourself, or if your New Year's resolution is to read more books, this list of the best popular science books of 2017 in environment, climate science and conservation is a great place to start reading and gifting
As I mentioned here, 2017 truly was the year for excellent popular science books about biology, and my observation also applies to the suite of books about the environment, conservation and climate science. Once again, I find myself agonizing over cutting my list to just ten books -- I could easily have chosen 3 times as many books, but then I would have to write a mini-review for each one, which would be challenging since there isn't enough time in the day for me to do this. So without further ado, here are my selections for the best popular science books about climate science, conservation and the environment.
The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World by Jeff Goodell (Little, Brown and Company, 2017; Amazon US / Amazon UK)
Beware of the coming aquapocalypse. If you like reading dystopian novels, then you may enjoy this book, except for one tiny problem: this book is not fiction. Jeff Goodell’s meticulously researched and dispassionate reporting presents a sobering look at what our world will be like if we ignore the signs and continue spewing greenhouse gases unabated. He focuses mainly on how climate change and sea level rise will affect New York City and Miami, but includes plenty more information about other parts of the world, too. He presents data showing how climate change and sea level rise are looming threats to national security and food production, are causing environmental degradation, and have far-reaching implications for public health. Globally, hundreds of millions of people will be affected by rising sea levels by the end of this century, entire island nations will be swallowed by the sea and many of the world’s greatest cities will be transformed into modern day Atlantises. Yet, perversely, America’s political leaders remain in complete denial about this grave threat: currently, the USA is the ONLY country in the world that is not a signatory to the Paris Climate Accord; our public servants are actively scrubbing all mention of climate change from official government websites; and officials are threatening climate scientists who try to raise public awareness about these important issues. Goodell has interviewed the scientists, attended the conferences, and he clearly explains the science, geological history and engineering so non-specialists can understand -- and be terrified. This important review is absolutely brilliant scientific journalism, and certainly is a must read for all of the world’s citizens -- especially those in the White House.
The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World is a New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2017, is one of the Washington Post’s 50 Notable Works of Nonfiction in 2017, and is one of Booklist’s Top 10 Science Books of 2017.
The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea by Jack E. Davis (Liveright, 2017; Amazon US / Amazon UK)
Considering the importance of the Gulf of Mexico to the Americas, it’s astonishing that a comprehensive history of this body of water has never before been published. Undaunted by this monumental undertaking, environmental historian, Jack Davis, a professor at the University of Florida, addresses this deficiency in this painstakingly researched yet highly readable masterpiece that combines insightful storytelling with rigorous analysis detailing the natural history, cultural history, ecology and destruction of “America’s Sea”. Professor Davis covers everything, from the breakup of the original supercontinent, Pangaea, which was surrounded by a single ocean called Panthalassa; the exploration of the Gulf by Spanish, French, British and eventually, American, explorers and their interactions with the indigenous peoples; to a penetrating examination of the incredible variety of marine creatures that inhabit the Gulf’s many ecological zones. There are a couple chapters about fishing, and another about the feather trade; and the book ends with an extensive treatise about the myriad ways that people are destroying the Gulf -- nothing escapes this book’s encyclopedic coverage. This scholarly magnum opus is quite long, but it reads like a novel. Students of writing, history, ecology and the environment will be riveted by this book, and I think it should be required reading for every American, especially those in the White House. If you read only two books about the environment this year, make this one of those two.
The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea is the 2017 Kirkus Prize Winner for Nonfiction, and was just named a finalist for 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.
The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth's Past Mass Extinctions by Peter Brannen (Ecco Books, 2017; Amazon US / Amazon UK)
The world has come to an end five times that we know about, and now, we are facing a sixth mass extinction. This painstakingly-researched and sobering book by award-winning journalist Peter Brannen reads like a mystery novel, with the usual suspects being volcanoes and asteroids. But thanks to new technologies, Brannen tells us that scientists are unearthing ever more convincing evidence that climate change also played a major role in these mass extinction events. We learn that one massive supercontinent (Pangaea) dramatically changes how climate works, and that splitting and colliding continents cause huge changes in the availability of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon. Brannen also underscores many scientists’ disturbing observation that the apparent goal of humanity is to extract all carbon from the ground and burn it up as fast as possible -- a project we’ve been wildly successful at in only a couple hundred years. In addition to discussing the whys and hows of these mass extinctions, we meet a variety of fantastic creatures (now fossils) that lived in those lost worlds, and we get to know some of the scientists -- geologists, paleontologists and climate scientists -- who pursue this important research. Throughout this amazing book, Brannen’s humor, clear explanations, and beautiful, even poetic, prose, are combined with personal anecdotes to make this compelling book a gripping look at the future that awaits us if we do not quickly change our ways.
The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017; Amazon US / Amazon UK)
The Great lakes -- Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario -- are a system of five interconnected North American lakes that hold 21% of the world’s fresh water, and thus, they are a vitally important source of water, food, jobs and recreation for millions of Americans. But the ecosystems in the Great Lakes are under siege from a succession of invasive species, starting with sea lampreys that fed upon and destroyed lake trout in the 1930s before we discovered a selective poison to finally kill them off in the 1950s. After the lampreys were gone, invasive alewives then exploded until two more non-native species were introduced to keep their population under control. After that, two invasive species of mussels that hitchhiked into the Lakes in discarded freighter ballast water became a problem until two native species in the Great Lakes adapted to eat them. In this carefully researched book, award-winning journalist, Dan Egan, documents the history of the Great Lakes: the canal systems; the invasive species; the massive biological “dead zones” and the unsafe drinking water; and, of course, climate change. This eye-opening book could be quite a depressing read, but Egan’s touches of humor and discussions of the relatively simple things we must do to restore and revitalize this precious freshwater sea make this compulsively readable account into a surprisingly hopeful and empowering book.
The Archipelago of Hope: Wisdom and Resilience from the Edge of Climate Change by Gleb Raygorodetsky (Pegasus, 2017; Amazon US / Amazon UK)
Climate change is not a Chinese hoax nor an abstract policy issue, it is the reality of daily life for indigenous communities. Conservation biologist Gleb Raygorodetsky, who has worked and lived with indigenous communities for two decades, takes us on a global journey to learn how indigenous peoples are faring and what they are doing to deal with rapidly changing environments. In this book, we meet men and women, young and old, of the Skolt Sami of Finland, the Sapara of Ecuador, the Karen mountain peoples of Myanmar and the Tla-o-qui-aht of Canada, to name a few, and learn about their traditional practices and their creative solutions for dealing with modern climate change. According to Dr. Raygorodetsky, these communities are an “archipelago of hope” because they represent humanity’s best chance to learn how to take care of Earth. In addition to sharing real stories about indigenous peoples at the forefront of changing environments, Dr. Raygorodetsky also writes about some of his childhood experiences growing up on the Kamchatka Peninsula. This exceptionally well-written book skillfully interweaves memoir and science with good old fashioned storytelling, and gives us a sense of hope, and a course of action for how we, individually and collectively, can reverse the damage we are doing to the planet and how we can help restore what has been lost.
A Hole in the Wind: A Climate Scientist's Bicycle Journey Across the United States by David Goodrich (Pegasus, 2017; Amazon US / Amazon UK)
This entertaining memoir follows one scientist’s three-month 4200-mile bicycle excursion from Maryland’s Eastern Shore to the Pacific Coast of Oregon. Along the way, our intrepid hero, a retired climate scientist who was the former head of the U.S. Global Change Research Project in Washington, D.C., and a former director of the UN Global Climate Observing System office at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, chats with ordinary folk and learns how climate change is affecting their health and livelihoods as well as the local environment. Professor Goodrich also shares some iconic American history: he travels along part of the Underground Railroad; recounts a story about a shawl worn by a free black man who was killed in John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry that eventually swaddled Langston Hughes; follows the heartbreaking trail traveled by Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce; shares stories about the massacre at Wounded Knee; and about Lewis and Clark’s epic exploration of the continent; and he visits the contested Dakota Access Pipeline. Bolstered by thorough research, amusing observations, and wit, Professor Goodrich’s sumptuous prose makes his journey into an absorbing, important read that will speak to adventurers, naturalists, historians and cyclists. As an added bonus, the book has an appendix detailing how the Professor packed his bicycle for this journey.
Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution by Marcus Eriksen (Beacon Press, 2017; Amazon US / Amazon UK)
Although he comes off as a likeable guy, Marcus Eriksen pulls no punches: “As short-lived, short-sighted, bipedal, big-brained primates preoccupied with war and sex, we risk consuming and overpopulating until we collapse”, he writes in the prologue to his thought-provoking book. He states then that his goal is “to end the throwaway culture”. Eriksen and his wife, Anna, have devoted their lives to raising the public's awareness about the growing problem of plastic pollution in the world's oceans. But as Eriksen discovers during his sea voyage from Los Angeles to Hawaii aboard a homemade plastic raft, marine plastic waste doesn’t form a solid floating mass in these oceanic gyres, instead, it forms a “plastic smog” of floating microparticles that are not easily cleaned up. Microplastic waste, which results from the physical breakdown of plastic dumped into our oceans, is polluting beaches and entering the food chain -- and us -- and is killing marine life with its toxic plastic chemistry. (The effects on human health from ingested microplastics is left as a mental exercise for the reader.) It quickly becomes clear that either we clean up our act or we will drown in a sea of our own waste. In addition to Eriksen’s environmental message, this book tells the exciting story of his seafaring adventure, and his unconventional fight to raise the public’s awareness about plastic pollution. Eriksen also recounts successful efforts by citizen activists to demand that plastics producers take responsibility for this problem they created. He also provides specific solutions along with the empowering message that each one of us can make a difference. I was truly disappointed that the book doesn’t include any photographs, but nevertheless, this inspiring and well-written adventure story will certainly change how you use, consume and recycle plastics.
Bee Quest by Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape, 2017; Amazon US / Amazon UK)
There are many species of bumblebees, as bumblebee expert, Dave Goulson, a professor at the University of Sussex, can tell you. But these days, a more important question is how many bumblebee species are still left on Earth? This was the motivation for Professor Goulson’s globe-trotting “bee quest”. In this thoroughly charming book, Professor Goulson’s third about bumblebees, we accompany him on his journeys from Sussex hedgerows to Ecuadorian jungles in search of the world’s rarest bees. But this wonderful book is more than just a global travelogue about a quirky adventure, it discusses the reasons -- pesticides, herbicides, habitat destruction, and human ignorance, to name a few -- for these beneficial insects’ seriously declining populations. Although some of the information is depressing, Professor Goulson’s enthusiasm for his buzzy subjects, his personal stories and his laugh-out-loud humor are absolutely irresistible. Along the way, we also learn weird facts about these delightfully fuzzy insects. Professor Goulson’s scientific expertise and passion for conservation shines forth on every page, and it will change how you view your role in the world -- and it just may inspire you to plant a wildflower garden or to build a “bug” hotel, or maybe to even stop eating almonds.
Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves by Brenda Peterson (Da Capo Press, 2017; Amazon US / Amazon UK)
Why are humans so hell-bent on exterminating the last of the wolves? This is the question posed by Seattle-based novelist and nature writer, Brenda Peterson. Peterson’s considerable writing skills shine brilliantly through her engaging, flowing prose as she seamlessly interweaves science, history and memoir in this important and meticulously researched book. Wolf Nation traces 300 years of human interactions with wild wolves in North America. Starting with Native Americans, who venerated them, to the white settlers, who tenaciously worked to exterminate them, we learn about the history of America’s shameful public lands policies that look the other way whilst Big Money and the cattle industry use an astonishing variety of vicious, cruel methods to exterminate wolves -- and indeed, to over-fish and over-hunt all of America’s wildlife. The book includes lots of references to many organizations that are working to preserve wild wolves to thereby restore a functioning ecology, but it’s difficult to come away from this informative and deeply disturbing book without a profound sense of despair for the future of wild wolves and deep outrage at what and who Americans really are.
The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature's Great Connectors by David George Haskell (Viking, 2017; Amazon US / Amazon UK)
I’ve always loved trees, but I was deeply affected -- indeed, I was forever changed -- after reading Peter Wohlleben’s exquisite book, The Hidden Life of Trees, whilst a judge for the Royal Society Insight Investment Popular Science Book Prize of 2016. Thus, that book sets a very high bar to meet to make an impression. That said, award-winning author and 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist, David George Haskell, a professor at Sewanee: The University of the South, has managed this beautifully -- and I do mean beautifully. In this eloquent book, Professor Haskell selects a dozen trees around the world that live in a variety of situations, including a ceibo in the Amazon and a pear tree on a Manhattan sidewalk, and visits them repeatedly. He carefully studies “his” trees with a biologist’s eye and a poet’s heart. He listens to them (trees are much noisier than you might expect), explores the webs of fungal and bacterial communities that connect “his” trees with the forests where they live, he discusses how trees deal with a variety of animals and other plants, and unearths connections to industrial development and climate change even in the most distant rainforests. There is so much to love about this book, but the prose is truly ethereal. For example, this is just one of many enchanting passages, where he discusses birds that hide seeds of particular trees, to later recover and eat only some portion of them: “Bird memories are therefore a tree’s dream of the future.” In this book, Professor Haskell uses scientific and literary studies to argue that trees have much to teach us about Earth’s interconnected ecology and how humans are an integral part of that, too.
The Songs of Trees was selected by NPR's “Science Friday” and “BrainPickings” as one of the best science books of 2017.