Earth in Crisis

1. Extreme conservation: life at the edges of the world
Berger, Joel. Chicago, 2018

Extreme Conservation is not a textbook. It is a well-written account by a respected biologist that chronicles his many years of work studying and conserving large mammals that live in extreme climates—arctic and high-altitude regimes. Berger (Colorado State Univ.) conveys a consistent message: the animals that survive in these extremes have done so because of natural selective adaptations over many millennia. Their margin for survival is limited because they are highly specialized to their environment, and therefore human interference in these vulnerable environments poses a serious threat to these species—both directly through habitat conversion and indirectly through factors such as global warming. Berger conveys this message in narrative form, relating adventures and misfortunes as he embarks on research involving species such as musk oxen and yaks in remote areas of the world.
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2. Perishability fatigue: forays into environmental loss and decay
Bruyère, Vincent. Columbia, 2018

Using the Ovidian narrative of Myrrha’s transformation into a tree as a consequence of desiring to be neither dead nor alive, Bruyere (Emory Univ.) argues that the contemporary discursive practices and technological narratives of perishability (i.e., seed and toxic waste repositories; genetic engineering and tissue preservation) have transformed human relationships to living and dying by managing perishability, mortality, and temporality in ways that obfuscate their reality and meaning. In particular, the author seeks to place in dialogue the documents, discourses, and boundaries separating biomedical, political, and ecological practices to reveal their impact on constructions of sustainability—providing in the process a space for the recognition of human transience and suffering. Chapters focus on the discourses and practices associated with preparedness and survival, including the Svalbard Global Seed Vault Project, the preservation of Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cancer cells, and the culture of cancer treatment in the context of “living in diagnosis.” Bruyere’s exploration is a groundbreaking examination of the intersections of the social, scientific, and philosophical practices associated with being human.
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3. Losing Earth: a recent history
Rich, Nathaniel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019

Rich is a writer at large for such respected national publications as The New York Review of Books and The Atlantic. In the opening to this provocative book, he writes that “nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979. It was, if anything, better understood.” In the chapters that follow Rich argues that scientists, the fossil fuel industry, activists, and politicians all understood the threat posed by climate change before the emergence of sharp political divisions and the onset of lobbying to spread disinformation. Focusing on a group of key protagonists and political actors, Rich makes debates over climate policy come alive. This powerful corrective history dispels the myth that knowledge of the climate crisis is recent; Rich documents the collapse of a potential consensus for action during the 1980s, a collapse that culminated in the administration of President George H. W. Bush. Rich shows the influence of Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, who expressed skepticism about climate science and advised Secretary of State James Baker to (as quoted by Rich) “stay clear of this greenhouse effect nonsense.”
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4. The wild and the toxic: American environmentalism and the politics of health
Thomson, Jennifer. North Carolina, 2019

With this book Thompson (history, Bucknell Univ.) reminds readers of the current condition of the environment. To the detriment of the planet, humans have managed to destroy the Earth, the wild, nature, and all living things through uncaring\unthinking policies about dumping toxic materials in soil, water, and the atmosphere. Starting with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), environmentalism has been complicated by efforts to turn back the tide of indifference, on the one hand, and activism on the other, as planet saving has evolved. Thompson untangles the various strands of these efforts by looking at individual health and the health of the “wild.” The book comprises three chapters, the most enlightening of which offers an overview of Love Canal, a neighborhood near Niagara Falls where the Hooker Chemical Company dumped thousands of tons of toxins in the 1940s. Eventually the land was sold and contractors built houses and a school over the poison beneath; seepage occurred. When this began to jeopardize residents’ health, many heroic activists arose.
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5. Vanishing ice: glaciers, ice sheets, and rising seas
Gornitz, Vivien. Columbia, 2019

In Vanishing Ice, Gornitz (emer., Columbia Univ.) documents the recent rapid and ongoing changes in the cryosphere—the climate system component made of frozen water, which includes the large ice sheets, mountain glaciers, sea ice, seasonal snow cover, and permafrost. Observations of changes in the cryosphere have come from a wide variety of sources. Gornitz provides an excellent account of historical cryospheric data collection, including the relatively new focus on satellite remote sensing, and includes valuable geologic evidence from environmental proxies used to explore changes during the period preceding instrument-based collection. This long-term view effectively contextualizes the recent changes and provides strong evidence regarding the role of humans in contemporary climate change. Considering the wide range of time scales considered, the physical processes associated with changes in the cryosphere are presented in a remarkably clear manner. The text also provides insight into what continued changes in Earth’s cryosphere might portend for current and future inhabitants of the planet.
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