Let’s Not Be the Last Book on the Shelf

Driving with my kids the other day. I saw a sign announcing: “Borders’ Books Going Out of Business: 90% Off!” We headed in with great enthusiasm, thoughts of nearly free books dancing in our heads.

The place was swarming with bargain hunters. The remaining inventory had been moved to the front; the rest of the cavernous box store was gloomily empty behind movable partitions.

Though there were still thousands of books, I quickly realized the store had been picked clean, like a carcass where all the soft parts were long gone and just the hide, hoofs, horns and bones remained. Like those ungulate parts, the titles left behind were mostly undigestible.

Jackal-like, I joined the others sniffing among the store’s skeletal shelves for some overlooked palatable morsel. There were literally no books for kids — those sections simply didn’t exist anymore.

“Sorry guys, I guess there’s nothing left,” I said to the dejected pair shuffling along behind me.

But just then I turned a corner and stumbled upon the “Nature/Environment” section. It had books. Lots of books. New hardcover books, including four for which I’d recently read reviews and mentally filed away as potential reads. Two were on the future of water, and two were on the climate crisis.

My elation at finding such great bargains soon waned as I realized what their presence indicated.

Here were brand new books on some of the most important challenges facing society today — now truly priced to move at about $2.50 — and they’d been left behind by the swarming scavengers, lingering on the shelves in the company of the odd, obscure and obsolete. What I found to be intriguing evidently had as much appeal to the general public as Getting to Know Your Commodore 64, Knitting with Dog Hair, and Nasal Maintenance Made Easy.

Nature as the last of the remainders: It made real for me the now ubiquitous adage that conservation must strive to be more relevant to people. But relevant in what way?

Major conservation organizations have responded to the need to increase their relevance by placing most of their money on…money. With an undercurrent suggesting that nature’s beauty, majesty and mystery are perhaps frivolous, our dominant themes now emphasize the economic returns from nature.

Don’t misunderstand me: I think that quantifying and demonstrating the economic value of natural ecosystems have great potential to improve decisions and increase investments in conservation. While we must pursue such opportunities for progress, I question the extent to which those concepts will expand the appeal of conservation to new audiences or galvanize the broad level of support that can undergird tough political choices on climate change, for instance.

Why am I skeptical? Because of the letter D and the number 35.

The letter D is the grade given by the American Society of Civil Engineers for the condition of, and investment in, infrastructure in the United States. This grade includes a D- for both levees and water-treatment plants.

Seeing as flood-risk reduction and clean water are two of the best horses in nature’s stable of ecosystem services, these near-failing grades offer a sobering reality check. While I believe strongly that demonstrating nature’s benefits will resonate with certain key audiences, and thus advance our mission, when it comes to expanding the relevance of nature to broader audiences, establishing nature’s bona fides as infrastructure may produce underwhelming results. “Hey, nature,” says the levee, “congratulations on joining a woefully underfunded club!”

The number 35 is the percentage of U.S. charitable dollars going to religious organizations, considerably ahead of categories such as education (14%), human services (9%), health (8%), and environment/animal welfare (2%).

Philanthropic giving flows first and foremost to something that provides people with a sense of connection, spirituality and refuge. Giving to categories focused on advancing economic growth or material well-being for the poor and disadvantaged lag behind.

Nature as infrastructure may be important. Nature as NGO calendar scenery may be inspiring. But nature’s most essential relevance may be in its intimate connection with our daily psychological, spiritual and physical well-being.

I just heard a speech by Martin Palmer, leader of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (a wonderful speaker, by the way). He said: “No one has ever been converted by a pie chart” — and added that, when trying to connect with people, we should only use words that are “sufficiently understood, indeed sufficiently loved, to have been used in a poem.”

I can’t imagine a sonnet that contains “green infrastructure” or “ecosystem services” — or even “nature’s benefits.” Yet nature is the etymological raw material of poetry.

Conservation organizations must find the words to convey how nature is intertwined with the things people care most deeply about: their connections to family, community, sense of place and love of country.

The next time some big bookstore goes out of business, what will be the last book on the shelf? Something about wastewater treatment plants or highways? Or books about God, yoga, food or how to stay connected with your children?

Nature has deep relevance for everything on that second list, and we should not forget to write those books, too.

(Image credit: Martin Deutsch/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. 90% of my charitable gifts go to conservation organizations every year. Two thirds of the books I read relate to ecology. Why? The reasons have very little to do with the utilitarian values of nature. I’m inspired by its intrinsic values in the form of wildlife, prairies, rivers and great landscapes around the world. The real powers of nature as a motivator for giving and acting, I believe, come from such things. I would bet most of The Nature Conservancy’s membership agrees with this.

  2. I don’t see this as a bad thing. Of course the nature and conservation books were still there! It’s a simple matter of demographics: They did not and could not appeal to the overconsumers that surrounded you.

    Among the hard-core bargain hunters you will find a creature who will buy things they didn’t even want, because they’re cheap. They have a thought process similar to that of the hoarder: This thing has (some) value, so I will acquire it/keep it, even though it is neither useful nor brings me joy.

    Someone who knows they have this problem could get as far as the self-help books in that section, the ones that teach you to stop consuming so much. Beyond that, you get to the books that make you feel guilty. Don’t you kind of expect to see the rest still hanging out on the shelf?

  3. Jeff, thank you for this great perspective on what means nature to our societies. I rarely comment, but found your example very self explaining. Cheers from France. Merry Xmas and Happy new year.

  4. I think your quote from Martin Palmer is “right on” and writers should use words that are “sufficiently understood, indeed sufficiently loved, to have been used in a poem.”

    I remember reading A Walk in the Woods and getting bogged down in the part about coal in Pennsylvania. Technical words, no matter how accurate, break the flow of a good narrative.

  5. Bill Bryson’s book “A Walk in the Woods” is very popular at my used bookstore in Alexandria. In fact, customers like nature books, but a few factors are involved in buying nature books. It seems that many nature books are printed in a large coffee table format, and many are too large and much too heavy just for casual reading. More often than not, most books bought at bookstores such as Borders are for casual reading. Another factor is cost, too many nature books are printed on photo quality paper, and this makes any book expensive. Yet another factor is many nature books are picture books, and the contents can be read and “consumed” at the bookstore. Once this type of book is perused, the want of buying the book is fulfilled, and the money goes for other books that can’t be perused at the bookstore. One other factor is that many nature books are content heavy and need a background in the area just to understand the content. The demographics of the bookstore that the author visited just might be one that doesn’t have the demographics to support this type of nature book. Too often the book buyers buy for the whole chain rather than for a single store’s demographic, so in the end a store can end up with too many books of a certain type.

    Borders was notorious for buyers who bought esoteric books that did not meet the needs of the bookstore’s customers. Plus, Borders treated many of its venders less than good, and when Borders needed the vendors to work with them, those venders refused. Also, Borders management was not always employee friendly, so in the end clerks working were not always customer friendly. The focus was on productivity that could be measured rather than customer service, which is less measurable. Borders lost its focus on books, and moved towards a product mentality. Finally, the Internet was an issue, but it was more in the way that Borders was a late adopter and missed the chance to become a mover… it was just a follower.

    In the end, an average Borders or Barnes and Noble carry about 16,000 individual titles, an average used bookstore, even though small in size, carries 25,000 to 50,000 + individual titles. In the end, the prices and selection did Borders in.

    So many factors could figure in to why this Borders still had nature books in stock. I just guessing as to what happened there.

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