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I finished another book on the Yale Climate Connections blog “12 books about climate change ‘solutions’ that belong on your summer reading list,” Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living. Presented by the Union of Concerned Scientists, this 2012 book is a non nonsense action guide. Nearly the entire book focuses on what we can do as individuals, in our communities, and as a society to reduce our carbon footprints, slow the pace of global warming, and protect the future. If you feel paralyzed or just uncertain about what concrete steps you can take, this book, and the accompanying website, is for you.*

The Computer Scientist and I have taken some steps already — some deliberately to reduce our footprint, like investing in hybrid vehicles, and some accidentally beneficial because they also make sense and save money, like trip-chaining or replacing our old drafty windows and adding insulation to the house when we replaced the rotting siding.

Although I found Being the Change very compelling, I’m not Peter Kalmus. Some of the changes he has made are impressive but not for me, like gleaning from dumpsters, converting an old diesel car to burn recycled vegetable oil,  or composting human waste. I admire his knowledge and commitment but I was left feeling like even if I took modest versions of his actions, things may not necessarily work out. Cooler Smarter‘s recommendations seem more accessible to me, a person with very few DIY skills who lives in a much colder climate than Kalmus.

Please don’t get me wrong — you should still read and enjoy Being the Change, learn what you can from itand feel glad for people living with this kind of passion for his values. Kalmus also addresses issues of justice and equity related to climate change in his book, and that is a key piece to understand. My advice: read both books!

Anyway, at my house, we’re going to try to take further steps, like eating less meat, installing programmable thermostats and living with colder winter temperatures in the house, and thinking carefully when we have to replace the water heater and our roof (both likely in the next decade) about energy use and conservation. Mainly we’ve committed to thinking more intentionally about climate change and the way all of our actions contribute to global warming.

As Cooler Smarter notes, “Can we accomplish the transition to a low-carbon society? Of course we can.” This isn’t a matter of not knowing enough, or not understanding what needs to happen — scientists have been telling us for decades. It’s a matter of will.

There is some good news. Cooler Smarter‘s team of science writers goes on to laud the progress already made around the world and shares their conviction that “Working together, we can step back from the brink of ecological disaster and move toward a more sustainable balance between the natural world and human civilization, ensuring a healthier planet for our children and grandchildren.” That is something very much on my mind these days, and in my prayers. I agree that it’s not too late, although it’s getting pretty darn close. If you’re frustrated by the inaction of our national government, take heart — there is so much happening in towns and cities across America to reduce the human impact on our world. And you can easily do so, too. Start by reading. You’ll be inspired to get going with this work.

*If you know anyone who is not yet convinced we should worry, Cooler Smarter also includes a very clear, 20 page chapter called “The Weight of the Evidence” that paints a compelling picture of the scientific consensus, although since this book was published, the situation has become more urgent and dire for earth’s climate.

 

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Recently I’ve been digging into some climate change booklists.  The first book I checked out is Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution by Peter Kalmus. I was drawn to the description in Michael reading list at Yale Climate Connections: “The core message is deeply optimistic: living without fossil fuels is not only possible, it can be better.”

Kalmus is a climate scientist. He writes in a very personable way, not only telling the science like it is, in enough detail that I had to go back and re-read some of the more technical sections, but also telling his own story. The book is a sort of hybrid memoir-popular science-how-to. Kalmus writes of his own awakening to the reality of global warming, not only because he studied it but also because he began to practice meditation.

With his new awareness of reality, Kalmus felt called to live what he believes: that we owe it to all of life on Earth (including future life), to stop extracting, processing, and burning fossil fuels. Even though he has taken actions that will seem like too much for some readers he repeatedly suggests starting with what you can do and going from there. Humanure is probably a bridge too far for some, but he explains honestly that it was for his wife, until eventually, she used his “leaf toilet” too. But he goes on to say if you can’t imagine that, just compost. 

Kalmus offers lists of more accessible actions people can take and tips on taking them, not because he believes that individual actions will end global warming but because his own story illustrates the way his commitment to making changes grew as he continued to explore our culture’s addiction to fossil fuels. The book is as philosophical as it is scientific, grounded in Kalmus’s sense of justice and practical insights into human nature. He reminds readers regularly that his life is more rewarding, happy and fun since he began reducing his use of fossil fuels.

Towards the end of the book he describes bigger cultural and collective steps to take and alludes to his motivations:

“Our predicament is the result of a vast industrial-commercial system of living, which can be viewed in various ways. It’s the systemic fossil-fuelization of almost everything. It’s the replacement of interpersonal transactions with money and debt. It’s the redirection of distributed natural cycles with linear, centralized monetized flows of energy and resources . . . . It’s as if humanity’s cyclic connections to the land were cut by the scissors of the industrial system. We then plugged ourselves into the matrix, and we must now rely on that system for our survival.

Part of my response is to opt out of this destructive system. Opting out brings me the satisfaction of transitioning from consumer to producer. It can be playful, or delicious; sometimes it can be frightening; ultimately it’s fulfilling. Opting out is another form of reconnecting; as I lessen my dependence on global corporate systems, I naturally need to opt in to local biospheric systems.”

He goes on to say that imperfection is fine. He himself does “remain deeply intertwined within the industrial system . . . . But that’s OK; this is a path of transition . . . . Cultivate stillness, listen, go where your principles lead you — and do what brings you satisfaction.”

I’m not sure about this. I find it hard to reconcile being motivated by personal satisfaction with the kind of community building and awareness of the interconnectedness of living things that Kalmus espouses. I suspect doing what feels good is not necessarily going to lead everyone onto the path to doing what’s right, but I absolutely admire Kalmus’s commitment and conviction and the way he is living according to his values.

This is a very interesting book. It will (and should) alarm you, but it’s also very thought provoking and I don’t think anyone can come away from reading it without feeling at least slightly empowered to begin breaking fossil fuel’s grip on their lives and communities.

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I’ve written about a number of Howard Mansfield’s books over the years here at bookconscious. Today on the bus back and forth to Boston I finished his latest, The Habit of Turning the World Upside Down, and I’m pleased to report that like all of his writing, it is both a delightful read and one that will leave you better informed and perhaps pensive. Mansfield has the gift of writing both clearly and intellectually. His topic this time is property, particularly the American concept of property as “the rock-solid part of our creed of individualism.” From the colonies to climate change, Mansfield traces the ways we’ve sought, fought over, bought or taken land, and how we associate land with identity and progress.

I learned some things, as I always do when I read his work. I had not ever stopped to think about who lived on the land where the interstate highways now run. I’ll never pass exit 8 on I91 without feeling for Romaine Tenney, the bachelor farmer who, faced with losing his farm to eminent domain for the highway project, freed his animals, set fire to his barns and house, and killed himself in 1964. I’ll never visit the White Mountains without thinking of the Weeks Act, which I’d heard of but now understand better. I had no idea that New Hampshire’s north country was clear cut and burned, so denuded that Concord and Manchester flooded because the runoff overwhelmed the Merrimack. without the flooding, and the impetus to protect the mills that were big business, national forests might not have been established in the east. Mansfield also tells of the dark side of the Weeks Act, which permitted the government to preserve land but not what’s underneath, which is why mining and drilling can take place on national land.

Although I am very aware of projects which propose to install wind turbines, electric lines, or gas pipelines through private lands, I hadn’t ever really considered the extent to which people’s lives are completely disrupted, often with little compensation, when such a project comes to their neighborhoods. And although I’m concerned about climate change, I hadn’t heard about some of the things Mansfield illuminates, like marshes “walking,” and communities having conversations now about how they will survive sea level rise. Or about how we both care and blithely go on visiting the coast as if it will always be there. I know I do.

The book is definitely about hard things, but Mansfield doesn’t leave us entirely without hope. His suggestion for how to move forward is based in a Buddhist idea of accepting the reality of fragility, and living as if things are already “broken.” It’s interesting, and complicated, and thought provoking. And he lets Tocqueville have the last word, writing about the wilderness he saw as he traveled America, knowing that the American penchant for “progress” would conquer it: “It is this consciousness of destruction, this arriere-pensee of quick and inevitable change that gives, we feel, so peculiar a character and such touching beauty to the solitudes of America. One see them with a melancholy pleasure; one is in some sort of hurry to admire them.”

If you live near a wild place that is transient — as most of us do — that will be developed, or drilled, or dug, or turbined, or covered in rising seas, go on. Hurry to admire them.

** I should add, I realized this morning, that this book has a gorgeous design, and is published by a wonderful NH indie press, Bauhan Publishing.

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It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired, Get Going! is a children’s book (I’ve seen it suggested for grades 5-8) which I read as part of our library’s teen & adult winter reading program, Book Bingo. Here’s my card so far:

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Clinton was also the final speaker at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston last week, where I was giving an Ignite talk on our customer service initiative, so the book caught my eye there.

Clinton writes about two main inspirations for writing It’s Your World. First her parents and grandparents, who taught her to be interested in and engaged with the world to appreciate her own good fortune, and second, a book some of you may remember, Fifty Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth. Clinton peppers her explanations of issues relating to economics, human rights, health, and the environment with personal anecdotes about her own early activism. She shares things she thought and felt as a child, like worrying about the plastic rings on six packs, helping her grandmother quit smoking, and being alarmed when she learned about the plague.

Clinton makes being curious and engaged seem not only cool, but normal, which is a nice touch. I did some letter writing as a kid (I was very concerned about the fate of the Snail Darter after reading in Ranger Rick that a dam was threatening its habitat) but I recall feeling like it was a pretty geeky thing to do. I did appreciate that I could get grown up information about this kind of thing and act on it, and Clinton’s book takes a similar tone — kids are capable of getting the facts and deciding where they stand, and of doing something positive. Each chapter ends with “Get Going!” suggestions.

I also like that she presents different ways people come at problems like poverty or hunger and then tells readers, “You’ll have to decide what to think,” or “You’ll have to make up your mind.” A book suggesting kids get the facts, think, and decide seems like a very good idea to me. She also suggests kids thank people who are making a difference, referring to this as “the discipline of gratitude” that her mom and grandmother taught her. And to share what they’ve learned with other people.

One small style issue: Clinton repeats certain points (and even notes she is doing so) throughout the book. I wondered if this was necessary, but studies do show that people need to hear things repeatedly before they sink in. More on that in a bit  . . . .

Even though I’m a grown up who volunteers and keeps up with issues that concern me, I still learned some things as I read It’s Your World, or thought about them in new ways. I did not know George Washington had his troops vaccinated against smallpox, or that pangolins are among the most endangered mammals on earth.

One thing that is both heartening and confounding is how many nonprofits Clinton cites in this book. I couldn’t help think that if I were a kid reading this, I’d wonder why the heck all of these problems are still happening, if we have facts and information about them and there are so many smart, capable, and kind people working to solve them.

So that’s my main quibble, and it’s a pretty cynical one. Is it right to give kids such an optimistic view of things when humankind has historically continued to harm each other, ourselves, and the planet whether we know better or not? Clinton’s belief that “small things matter” and suggestions of what kids can do every day (eat breakfast at school so no one who has to feels awkward, get your family to take walks) and over their lifetimes (recycle, give, use less energy, shop intentionally) may give kids the impression they can make more of a difference than they really can. There’s evidence that recycling sometimes uses more carbon that it saves, and that not all nonprofits are effective or ethical, for example. Granted that’s not the point of the book, but it bears mentioning.

Ok, I suppose criticizing a book for giving kids too much hope is really pretty grinchy. And some people —like Bill Gates, for example — who regularly talk to those working on the world’s problems see reasons for hope. And maybe the more individual people act responsibly, fairly, and peacefully the more likely  a global increase in civility and a decrease in inequality become.

But probably not, because  . . . humankind has historically continued to harm each other, ourselves, and the planet whether we know better or not. Still, I guess that doesn’t mean we should quit trying.

I’ve already admitted that I write letters, volunteer, and advocate for causes I believe in, so don’t worry, or flood me with comments about being cynical with kids. There is an important factor that Clinton sort of hints at behind all altruistic behavior — we do it because it feels good. There’s nothing wrong with that, nor with wanting to feel less helpless in the face of huge global challenges. So I’d recommend this book if you have a kid in your life. Just a suggestion though? Occasionally let them know that bad things happen, and not everything works as intended.

 

 

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