The Book I Gave (And Didn’t Give) Senator Baucus


The other week, flying back home from DC to Montana, I found myself sitting across the airplane aisle from Max Baucus, the senior senator from Montana powerful, influential, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and author of a leading version of the much ballyhooed health care bill. One of the advantages of living in a low-population state is that you get to see your elected representatives often. Both Senator Baucus and his counterpart, Senator Jon Tester, are frequent sights on the D.C. to Montana flights.

Another passenger, spotting the senator, pressed a book into his hands, with a polite yet insistent entreaty that Baucus should read it during the flight. I glanced over, and it was the new Glenn Beck book — Glenn Beck of Fox News Channel. The senator, who is a Democrat, was gracious: he smiled and took the book, which he proceeded to occasionally scan during the flight.

As I sat there, it occurred to me that I, too, should give a book to the senator. It’s a great idea to do this — devoid of distractions, people on planes are a captive audience, and might read a book they would other wise take a pass on. It’s a unique chance to educate.

But there was one problem: Although I am a voracious reader, I couldn’t think of a single book I’d give him about conservation — one that compellingly tells the story of what we in the conservation movement are ultimately trying to do.

Sure, there are tons of conservation textbooks out there, but those would hardly be airplane reading. There are also a huge number of books on the climate change dilemma — a recent one is Matthew Glass’ great thriller Ultimatum. And some bestsellers are now skirting the edge of the conservation movement, by excellent authors such as Jared Diamond (Collapse), Jeffrey Sachs (Common Wealth) and Thomas Friedman (Hot, Flat and Crowded) — although Diamond’s and Sachs’ tomes aren’t gripping page-turners, and if you’ve read Friedman’s New York Times‘ columns, you’ve read his books.

In truth, though I could recommend bits of several excellent books, I really could not think of one written in the past decade that captures the essence of what we are trying to accomplish as conservationists on Planet Earth. David Quamann’s Song of the Dodo is the closest I could come up with, but that came out 20 years ago!

This revelation is telling. It says to me that our movement, ignited with so much fanfare as a “crisis” discipline in the mid 80s, is in the doldrums. Its direction is entirely rudderless because we are lacking powerful, articulate, opinionated voices who can challenge and thus ultimately steer us forward. Without modern and perhaps non-traditional voices (as opposed to Abbey, Muir, and Leopold) propelling us forward, I fear that we will never become a global movement.

In the end, after introducing The Nature Conservancy (he recognized the organization instantly from his work on the Montana Legacy Project) and myself to the senator, I gave him the book I was carrying — a book I had already given to two leaders at the Conservancy. Not a book about conservation, but a book about persuasion: John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation.

The book recounts the turbulent days around apartheid’s fall and the rise of Nelson Mandela as he sought (brilliantly) to reconcile the grudging majority (blacks) with the powerful yet scared minority (whites), drawing out the best in people to coalescee around a white sporting event — the South African Springboks’ improbable shot at winning the Rugby World Cup. A canny strategist, Mandela realized that bringing people together around a passion was more powerful that pulling them apart.

It’s a great book, and one I hope is now in Senator Baucus’ library (or better yet, his briefcase). But how much better would it have been if I could have given him a book on conservation that not only educates but also motivates, a page-turner that also turns hearts.

Still, one line from Playing the Enemy sticks with me. When Mandela was trying to convince his own highly skeptical colleagues in the African National Congress about the importance of reaching out to the “enemy” white minority in South Africa, he said to them: “You don’t address their brains, you address their hearts.”

And it is this more than anything that I find lacking in the current crop of books about the environment and conservation. They sound the clarion call, but fail to inspire. We authors must never forget that the heart always wins over the head — always.

(Image by Mick Opportunity/Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenburg

    The Ghost with Trembling Wings by Scott Weidensaul

    The Future of Life by E.O. Wilson

    Win-Win Ecology by Michael Rosenzweig

    Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac may not be new, but his ideas are as relevant today as they were in the 1940s. Despite all the ink spilled about conservation, nobody has still written it better.

  2. E.O. Wilson’s “The Diversity of Life” comes close to being the summation of the problem, in my mind.

    I don’t see Quammen’s “Dodo” as touching conservation directly, but it certainly inspires the heart. I think it should be mandatory reading for naturalists/conservationists, along with Leopold, Carson, Abbey, Thoreau, Emerson, et al.

  3. So many of the books one could recommend, while important, provocative, and helpful, are longish, often narrowly focused, and sort of make one skip pages to find the ‘good stuff’.
    But I have a new book I am recommending to everyone I know: “The Balance of Nature – Ecology’s Enduring Myth” by John Kricher.
    No, it’s not another book like “the skeptical environmentalist” by bjorn lomborg, but rather a thoughtful and eloquent melding of ecology, evolution, and real sustainability by a master teacher, researcher, and biologist.

  4. The Abstract Wild – Jack Turner

    although, as much as it champions conservation, it also challenges many of its current practices.

  5. Oh, thanks all! I’m making a new reading list…

  6. Since writing this blog I have received many emails from friends all suggesting their favorite books – and I agree, many are really great books. Wilson, Stolzenberg, and Weidensaul amongst others are all great writers.

    But while many paint a picture of the challenges facing wildlife, or the conservation movement, no one really does a good job depicting where the movement is heading. No one seems to provide a unifying theme. That’s the challenge with our movement.

  7. When words fail me I give people Wangari Maaathai’s memoir “Unbowed”. It’s not about methods or approaches, it’s about her own lifelong struggle for justice for people and the planet. And she’s our partner!

  8. Last Chance to See, although it is 19 years since it first came out.

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