As we enter June, and many of us here in the UK prepare to pack our cases for our summer holidays, I encourage you to think about what books and articles you might take to read. Now, I love a good thriller, and won’t be found far from a Jack Reacher, but these are my top 5 reads to do with the environment and the health of our planet. In no particular order…
No. 1: Blue Planet II
David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II brought images of grandeur and devastation to our screens, highlighting the impact our actions are having on the world’s oceans. In particular, it showed the damage caused by plastic pollution (the topic of my May 2017 article “Seas of Plastic“). You can buy the book which accompanies the BBC TV series, and it’s well worth a read.
Packed with outstanding photographs from the BBC teams on location, this book tells us some of the most captivating stories of the creatures which call Earth’s oceans home. It also goes into more detail than the BBC TV series on some of the other problems affecting our oceans – chemical pollution from agriculture and industry, coral bleaching due to rising sea temperatures, melting Arctic sea ice, and ocean acidification.
Ends on a message of hope!
No. 2: Rainforest: Dispatches from Earth’s Most Vital Frontlines
In my opinion, one of Tony Juniper’s best books to date – alongside “What Has Nature Ever Done for Us?”. There’s a clue in the name… “Rainforest” takes a look at the threats facing one of the planet’s most vibrant and important ecosystems, how their continued functioning has global significance, and how we got to the perilous situation we are in today.
Much of the book is based on Juniper’s own career with various NGOs and international bodies working to protect the environment. It includes a few comical anecdotes, most memorably the exploits of Friends of the Earth at the 2001 Davos World Economic Forum (I’ll let you read it!). Like Blue Planet II, Juniper’s book ends with some good news from “Earth’s most vital frontlines”, but the author stresses that the battle is far from over.
No. 3: A Farewell to Ice
Moving from Juniper’s focus on the tropics to an altogether different by no less important part of our planet – the poles. Peter Wadhams’ “A Farewell to Ice” is, I think, a must-read for anyone concerned about humanity’s future. The Observer‘s review just about sums it up: “Astonishing…beautiful, compelling, and terrifying.” It’s not one for the faint hearted, and Wadhams takes a frank look at the crisis that is climate change and global warming. The line of argument isn’t overly difficult to follow, but there’s a fair bit of scientific data and language, as well as some graphs, to get to grips with.
Wadhams has been a polar researcher and specialist since the 1970s, and has witnessed first hand the dramatic changes to the polar regions just in his lifetime, changes which have hitherto taken place over hundreds of thousands of years. The problem: rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane. The fear: melting sea and land ice in the Arctic and Antarctic not only leading to rising sea levels, but also reducing the Earth’s albedo (reflectivity) and leading to higher temperatures and more ice melt – an Arctic death spiral.
Worryingly, Wadhams seems to think we’re beyond the point of no-return to a great extent, and that only geo-engineering and utilising as-yet-undeveloped methods to take carbon out of the atmosphere will help us avoid catastrophic consequences.
As I said, not one for the faint hearted.
No. 4: “Choice”
A bit of an odd one for this blog, but possibly one of the most eye-opening articles I’ve ever read. “Choice” is written by a clinical psychologist based in New York State, Dr. Steven Phillipson. Although it evolved from Phillipson’s experience in the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder, this article’s focus on the power of choice is applicable to any area of life.
“Choice” distinguishes between the “self” (what Phillipson refers to as the “gatekeeper”) and the natural pleasure- and safety-seeking tendencies of our brains.
One key take-away for me is that our brains will always tell us to avoid discomfort.
Being a sustainability advocate might put you in positions you find uncomfortable, in your work life, in your relationships, or in other social situations. Recognise that the feelings of disappointment and alienation you might feel if you have a setback, or the thoughts you might have that you’re not strong enough or confident enough to lead change, are things over which we, the gatekeeper, have no control. Whether or not we choose to listen to these thoughts and feelings, or act in line with our values – these might be caring for the natural world, helping those in need, it doesn’t matter – is where the gatekeeper has the final say.
At 23,000 words, it’s quite a lengthy article, but I think it’s well worth an hour or two of your time. There’s also an audio version available on Dr Phillipson’s website.
No. 5: Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Yep, as bad as it sounds. Dick Russell’s 2017 work covers, as per its subtitle, “the men who are destroying life on Earth and what it means for our children”. Think oil executives, corrupt politicians, short-termism and profiteering from the destruction of the environment, and you get the general idea.
I’m not usually one for blaming. It’s not particularly helpful (it doesn’t really line up with my values, either, so maybe I ought to re-read “Choice”!), and it certainly doesn’t show us the way forward. But here, I’ll make an exception. This is the story of how a handful of individuals have imperilled the lives of hundreds of millions already alive – and unborn millions to come – for personal financial gain. The focus is primarily on the USA. It traces the story of how oil companies like ExxonMobil hid climate science from the public, instead using their money to set up think-tanks and pay politicians to promote their own corporate agendas.
I’ll finish by reproducing a review of Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Margo Oge, former director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality at the US Environmental Protection Agency: “As the impacts of climate change grow increasingly visible in our daily lives, so must our understanding of the forces that are conspiring to stop actions to mitigate those impacts. This book lays bare how these forces, borne largely of self interest, are trying to make sure the US continues to add to global carbon pollution, the primary factor in climate change. With the new Trump administration trying to roll back President Obama’s actions, this is a timely and essential read for everyone concerned.”
- Sir David Attenborough, walking along a plastic-strewn beach. Photo from Blue Planet II, BBC Books, by James Honeyborne and Mark Brownlows
- Tony Juniper, CBE. Photo from https://www.coolearth.org/2018/04/rainforest-tony-juniper/
- A polar bear among ice floes in the Arctic. Photo from: https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/arctic-circle-sea-ice-free-global-warming-limit-two-degrees-celcius-climate-change-paris-agreement-a7616311.html
- Dr Steven Phillipson, Ph.D. Still from an interview with Aaron Harvey of https://www.intrusivethoughts.org/
- Canadian tar sands. Photo from http://obiter-dicta.ca/2014/03/04/questioning-the-federal-oil-sands-narrative/
Links to Amazon for the four books listed: