The first “read” is not a book, but an internet resource, and it will not fill your heart with confidence. It is the work of the Stockholm Resilience Center (don’t worry; it’s all in English). The Swedes, led by Johan Rockstrom, have summarized mountains of data to uncover a disturbing pattern: humanity is breaking 10 or 11 of our Earth’s ecological limits, our planetary boundaries.
The boundaries include global climate warming, salinization of the seas, loss of biodiversity, and others. In the case of three of those boundaries we have already reached or past the “tipping point,” at which catastrophic results can be expected: the climate crisis, the nitrogen cycle, and loss of biodiversity. Making things worse, the breaking of each boundary also compounds the effects of breaking the others.
You can study the model yourself by a search for “Stockholm Resilience Center.” If you are in a hurry just look up “Planetary Boundaries” on Wikipedia.
Now that you are thoroughly depressed, let’s turn to some books that will restore your hopefulness.
The first is Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (New York: Penguin Books, 2017). There are a lot of books out there that float pie-in-the-sky schemes to fight climate change. Drawdown is different. The researchers at the Drawdown Institute (founded by Paul Hawken) focus on 80 solutions that are already being implemented and proven to work. As far as possible, each solution is evaluated for relative strength, cost, and benefit.
Among the solutions expect to be surprised. For instance, what’s the number one solution? Replace our current refrigerant chemicals with safer options. Number 2? Build more land-based wind turbines. You will also find inspiring essays, including one by Pope Francis.
Next, turn to Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by E. O. Wilson (NY: W.W. Norton, 2016). Wilson has calculated that current human development endangers the very viability of biological life on Earth. He is focused on the catastrophic loss of biodiversity. Wilson’s proposal is that we designate 50 percent of the planet for human civilization, and 50 percent exclusively for the unrestricted functioning of Nature. He argues that half of the planet is the minimum for normal evolutionary processes to continue.
Finally, here’s a read that does something critically important. It restores hope by giving us normal mortals something we can do. I am talking about Douglas Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2019).
There are thousands of books out there that tell you how to landscape your property, and superficially Nature’s Best Hope looks like any of them. But appearances can be deceiving. Behind the cheery façade of a gardening book Tallamy is proposing a quiet revolution.
Like E. O. Wilson, Tallamy is focused on the loss of biodiversity on our planet. But, instead of tackling the whole planet — which is overwhelming — Tallamy ask us to look to our own back yards. An entomologist by training (like Wilson), he spent decades studying the devastating effect our common landscaping practices have on birds and other wildlife. Our yards are pretty to look at, with their manicured lawns and gorgeous flowers and shrubs (mostly imported from other continents), but to wildlife they are “food deserts.”
Tallamy’s keystone idea is straightforward: unless we use the kinds of plants that feed a lot of little bugs, worms and other creepy-crawlies — no matter how much we dislike them personally — the birds we do like will starve. It’s as simple as that. From this simple premise he develops a revolution.
Simple and timely. As The Smoky Mountain News, the Asheville Citizen-Times, and other papers have recently reported, many species of birds once common to Appalachia have been reduced by up to one half in the last five decades. When was the last time you heard the song of a meadowlark, or were awakened by a bobwhite? Will your grandchildren know how a sparrow sang, or the hue of a bluebird?
It’s a good thing that the world has created national parks and nature reserves. Much of the planet, however, is in private hands. We have built cities, suburbs, urban parks and playgrounds, and, of course, millions of parking lots. But everyone who owns a house on a lot has at least a small pocket of land that he or she can turn into a “backyard Eden.” Even apartment dwellers can volunteer to help with projects. Individually, the amount of land in our control is usually small, seemingly inconsequential, but as more and more of us make at least a small effort, the cumulative effect could be enormous.
If you find Nature’s Best Hope inspiring, you may also want to read his earlier works, Bringing Nature Home, and The Living Landscape (written with Rick Darke). Whereas Nature’s Best Hope sums up Tallamy’s wisdom, the earlier works offer more of the “nuts and bolts” of natural landscaping and how to attract wildlife to your property. There are also other books on the market that cover the same territory.
In times of gloom it is important to light even one small candle. If we only listen to the voices of doom, then fatigue and a sense of impotence imprison us. We lose the strength to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” These resources are helpful because they motivate us to rise up and do something, even if it is only small steps. As the Chinese poet Lu Xun said, “Hope is like a path in the countryside. Originally, there is nothing there – but as people walk this way again and again, a path appears.”