Nine books that can (help) save the planet

Laudato Si books

It still amazes me that there has not been more discussion of climate change in the media in the United States, nor have the presidential candidates said much. But we seem, finally, to have turned a corner; more people are paying attention.

Recently, stories have been published about Exxon’s alleged campaign of climate change disinformation and denial, while another industry leader has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030. This week’s Hurricane Patricia was the strongest hurricane ever recorded at sea, while climate scientists expect 2015 to be the hottest year on record. I’ve a son living temporarily in southern California, and I just read that mosquitos carrying dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever have arrived. Scientists believe they are rapidly reproducing in part because of the drought.

Countries around the world are preparing for the 2015 UN Conference on Climate Change to be held in Paris November 30 – December 11. There will be climate marches in major cities around the world on November 28 and 29 and a Mass Mobilization and Civil Disobedience Action in Paris on December 12.

When Pope Francis visited the United States in September, he spoke to Congress, the United Nations, and other groups about the need for action on climate change, framing it as the greatest moral issue of our time. His climate change encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, calls for the world to adopt an integrated ecology that combines eco-justice, which understands the earth has limits, with social justice, which recognizes that the poor are the hardest hit by the ravages of climate change.

The Pope calls for “a revolution of tenderness, a revolution of the heart” in regards to the earth and the earth’s poor.

The Huffington Post article at this link is a brief and excellent introduction to the concept of integral ecology. The author of the article, a former NASA researcher, says: “The fates of all peoples are linked, and they are linked ultimately to the fate of the earth. What befalls the earth befalls us all.”

Here is a link to the Buddhist perspective on climate change: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change

If you will be following the UN Conference on Climate Change and would like to do some reading beforehand, here are eight more of my favorite fiction and nonfiction titles that are relevant:

Arcadia book coverArcadia, by Lauren Goff

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Collapse of Western Civilization, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway (See my next blog post about this fascinating fictitious “report,” written in 2393 from the Second People’s Republic of China, chronicling reasons for the collapse of western culture.)

This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Great Disruption, by Paul Gilding

The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben

The Only Kayak, by Kim Heacox

And if you are an earth and nature lover, you absolutely must acquaint yourselves with these writers if you haven’t already:

Wendell Berry (essays and poetry); Mary Oliver (poetry); Barry Lopez (See “The Case for Going Uncivilized.”)

This Changes Everything book cover

Pope Francis spoke with great passion and love about families during his visit to the US. There are many parallels between our nuclear families and the family composed of all creatures on mother earth, aren’t there?

Are you planning to participate in any climate change events before or during the UN Climate Change Conference? Do you belong to a climate change group? If you’ve read other good books about the topic, please let us know in the comments.

If you believe we need to act to prevent disastrous climate change, please share this post on your favorite social media.

 

“I wish to address every living person on this planet.”

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation that includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”    Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home

Columbia River Gorge

(Columbia Gorge) “If we acknowledge the value and fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress.” Pope Francis

Pope Francis will visit the United States September 22 – 27 and will no doubt speak about climate change.

His recently published encyclical on the environment and human ecology can be downloaded for free or ordered at this link: Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.

I believe Laudato Si’ will prove to be one of the most important documents of our time. It is a stirring, eloquent, and direct call to action.

I’ll be featuring it here on Books Can Save a Life during the pope’s visit. I hope you’ll read it along with me and join in our discussion. I welcome both secular and faith-based perspectives.

On Care for Our Common Home is urgent and wide-ranging; you may be surprised at the topics addressed as the pope seeks to show how our values and our actions have far-reaching implications for humanity and for the planet.

Here are some excerpts to get us started:

“…the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor…”

“The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

“…access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.”

“We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”

“We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”

“…when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously…True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution….Today’s media….shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences….alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.”

Please share this post on social media and leave a comment. Will you be watching and listening to Pope Francis? Have you read, or read about, Laudato Si’? Do you agree that it may prove to be one of the most important documents of our time?

Laudato Si' books

This Changes Everything

“…only mass social movements can save us now.”  Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

This Changes Everything book cover

Notice the cover. No author, no subtitle. One clear message.

 “….this impossibly thin blue curve keeps everything alive beneath it.”  Reid Wiseman, #spacetweets.  

For starters, take two and a half minutes to watch astronaut Reid Wiseman’s video, “A Photo I Love,” and then come back here. You’ll see a new view of Italy (some of you know how much I love Italy). Notice in particular Reid’s photo of the earth’s atmosphere, “….so blue, so incredibly thin….” and Reid’s tweets (#spacetweets).

I wanted to begin on an upbeat note, hence Reid’s video of “watching our earth be alive” that so vividly highlights what the stakes are when it comes to the climate debate. It’s not that Canadian journalist Naomi Klein doesn’t offer hope in her latest book, This Changes Everything. Certainly, she does, but this is a read with plenty of emotional lows before you get to the highs.

This Changes Everything is proving to be enormously influential as well as controversial. If I read her correctly, Klein does not advocate a dismantling of capitalism, but her book is indeed a polemic against the extreme version of capitalism that pervades much of the world today. Her message is that the earth cannot possibly continue to sustain a world economy based on unlimited growth and the endless extraction of resources. We need to change course to keep the earth’s warming under two degrees Celsius (this is according to many climate scientists, who also maintain that a warming of four degrees Celsius would be catastrophic). We need to act now, on a massive scale.

If you care deeply about climate change, I highly recommend putting This Changes Everything at the top of your to-read list. There is so much I don’t know about this huge topic. Though I’ve been against fracking (recently outlawed here in New York), I didn’t know much about it, and I knew absolutely nothing of Canada’s tar sands project and its devastations. Klein brought me up to date on all of this, as well as the current climate change activist scene. She synthesized an enormous amount of research, which makes for slow reading at times, but it’s worth it if you want the big picture.

Here are some things I learned that surprised me:

  • We’ve come a long way with alternative energy technologies. It seems like a no-brainer – if we can meet our energy needs at very little cost using solar, wind, and other technologies, why would we continue using expensive and dirty fossil fuels?
  • Native Americans and indigenous populations around the world are winning important victories against the fossil fuel industry, more so than activists in the mainstream. In Canada and the US, for example, some of these groups, by treaty, retain rights to their land, including the right to make a living from it. The courts have, in many cases, upheld these rights, effectively blocking or delaying extraction projects. These delays have given alternative energy technologies time to develop.
  • Though it’s important for developed countries to convert to clean energy, it’s crucial that we help developing countries turn to clean energy, too–otherwise we’ll never be able to stop global warming. Klein and others maintain that, since developed countries have grown wealthy from fossil fuels, we have a responsibility to help developing countries pay for their energy infrastructures.

A New York Times review called This Changes Everything “…the most momentous and contentious book since Silent Spring,” and “…a book of such ambition and consequence it is almost unreviewable.”

This Changes Everything is absolutely a book that can save lives.

Have you read This Changes Everything? Do you recommend other important books about this topic? If so, please do in the comments. And if you care about climate change, I hope you’ll share this post.

Scopello sunset

What we don’t want to lose. View of Zingaro Nature Preserve in Sicily. (Photo by A. Hallinan)

Chasing Ice

This is the memory of the landscape. That landscape is gone. It may never be seen again in the history of civilization.    James Balog

Ice Book CoverHe is a master photographer, an obsessed and possessed artist documenting our dying glaciers.

We sat with a packed audience Tuesday evening at The Little Theatre in Rochester watching Chasing Ice, a documentary about James Balog’s quest, which has become the quest of many others. After the movie, producer/director Jeff Orlowski (thoughtful, intelligent, thoroughly engaging) spoke with the audience via Skype.

Your first stop should be here, to listen to and watch this perfect marriage of music, image and theme: Scarlett Johansson singing “Before My Time”  to a montage of Balog’s magnificent work.

Chasing Ice is playing in selected cities around the country. You can request to host a screening by filling out a form on the Chasing Ice site. Let’s hope that it will be available on Netflix and other venues soon.

While you’re waiting for the documentary, visit the Extreme Ice Survey (art meets science) to see the official trailer, and then stop by the Earth Vision Trust.

Balog has just published Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers. His other books include Tree: A New Vision of the American Forest; Wildlife Requiem; Anima; and Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife.

The filmmakers dedicated Chasing Ice to their children and their children’s children.

So stop by for a listen and a look. It’s the next best thing to seeing the movie.

Next up at Books Can Save a Life

At the moment I’m interested in nature, art, memoir, and fiction all rolled into one, so I’ll be featuring Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams, Winter Count, About This Life, and “Sliver of Sky,” a recently published essay in Harper’s Magazine); The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett; and When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams.

Arcadia, and what’s next

“The monster is peering in the window. The ice caps have melted, the glaciers are nearly gone; the interiors of the continents becoming unlivable, the coasts so storm-battered people are fleeing by the millions. New Orleans and the Florida Keys are being abandoned. The hot land-bound places are being given up for lost; Phoenix and Denver becoming ghost towns. Every day, refugees show up in the city. A family takes shelter in the lee of Bit’s front steps, parents with two small children, silent and watchful.”       from Arcadia, by Lauren Groff

Arcadia book cover

In the novel Arcadia, Bit and his family leave the dying commune they helped establish and move to New York City when Bit is fourteen. As an adult with a teen-age daughter, Bit is a good man who nonetheless feels guilty over what he calls his selfishness: his greatest concern is Grete’s survival in a world rendered dangerously unstable by climate change. No matter what happens, he says to himself and any greater power that may be listening, let Grete survive. That’s something I wonder about too, the kind of world my sons will inherit and the challenges they’ll face.

Reading this novel and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior   got me thinking about a symposium on the environment I attended in 2010, sponsored by the Rochester Zen Center. Rochester has many treasures, and the Zen Center is one of them. Founded by Roshi Philip Kapleau in 1966 and now one of the largest organizations devoted to Zen Buddhism in the country, it occupies one of Rochester’s stately old homes off of East Avenue near the George Eastman House.  It has been extensively renovated, and the zendo is a stunning space for meditation.

The symposium, called “Turning Toward the Earth,” centered on the Buddhist response to our environmental crisis. This was an intense and unsettling day, the kind of day that makes you want to take dramatic action, upend your life to make a difference – but just how do you do that? The name of the symposium came from “The Great Turning,” a term coined by Joanna Macy, one of the featured speakers that day. Her stance is explained in an article in the Zen Bow:

“The Great Turning is a concept developed by Buddhist philosopher and activist Joanna Macy to help us understand and engage with the momentous change in worldview that is required of us now, at the close of the modern age. Because our species’ enormous technological power is not matched by our spiritual development we have reached a crisis-point unlike any other in the history of humankind, one in which all other sentient beings and so-called inanimate things are irrevocably caught up.”

In her talk at the symposium, Macy encouraged us to act, regardless of any specific outcomes, no matter how overwhelming the challenges may seem. Author and Zen Buddhist David Loy also spoke. He, too, talked of the need for spiritual transformation on an individual level to save our earth as we know it. A tall order, but he seemed hopeful. Conservation biologist Michael Soule, also a speaker, is largely concerned with the dramatic diminishing of species. He believes humans must change their self-centered nature and overcome their selfishness to solve the the extinction crisis, but he is less hopeful. He wasn’t shy about saying he thinks it is already too late.

If you’d like to know more about the Buddhist response to the environmental crisis, take a look at some of the books authored by Macy and Loy. I have read Macy’s World As Lover, World As Self, and I want to read more of her work.

Buddha

Chasing Ice is a documentary about environmental photographer James Balog, who set up time-lapse cameras across the Arctic to record the melting glaciers. One of the trailers shows an astounding view of a glacier calving – breaking up into an immense iceberg. Once part of a glacier becomes an iceberg, it melts much more quickly.

We’ll be watching the documentary Tuesday evening at the Little Theatre.

Introductory quote from Arcadia, Lauren Groff, Hyperion, New York: 2012. Quote from Zen Bow: “It Goes Along With Everything Else: Mass Extinction and the Great Turning,” Sensei Amala Wrightson, Zen Bow, 23(1), 3 – 8.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior

Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward, she thought, words from the book of Job, made for a world unraveling into fire and flood.          Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior

Flight Behavior book coverBarbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior blindsided me; I didn’t see the end coming, though perhaps I should have. Reading it on the heels of Hurricane Sandy only added to its impact. What incredible timing for this novel to be published just days after a superstorm brought a 13-foot storm surge to New York City.

I once lived in New York, so I found it hard to believe the scenes in the news: water pouring into the 9/11 construction site at the World Trade Center, Bellevue and NYU’s Tisch hospitals in lower Manhattan evacuated, entire neighborhoods destroyed on Staten Island.

Flight Behavior is about climate change and its consequences. If you don’t believe in climate change, you probably won’t like this book. If you do believe in it, you may still find Flight Behavior to be a thinly disguised polemic. I did. Sometimes I had a hard time losing myself in this particular fictional world as I like to do in a good novel.

Nonetheless, I found Flight Behavior to be powerfully and beautifully written. It made me uncomfortable, which is what I think Kingsolver intends for her readers. She loves the earth and respects it as a scientist. (Kingsolver has a degree in biology and worked as a scientist before she began to write fiction.) She wants people to wake up and do something before it is too late.

I couldn’t help thinking of Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption, one of the most disturbing nonfiction books I’ve ever read on The Great Disruption book coverclimate change. Gilding believes our first priority should be to stop the earth from warming another couple of degrees, and this can be done only with a worldwide, cooperative effort, the likes of which we haven’t seen since World War II. If we don’t do something, Gilding believes disaster will soon be upon us – floods, famines, wars, the end of life as we know it.

He predicts (and hopes) enlightenment will come soon, this decade. People will realize something is wrong, mobilize, and take action.

In Flight Behavior, for a farmer’s wife with two young children, climate change quite suddenly becomes personal. She’s forced to take a stand and brought to a kind of enlightenment. I believe that’s a road we’ll all have to travel.

What do you think about climate change? If you’ve read Flight Behavior or The Great Disruption, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Quote from Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2012.

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