Five Nature Books for Your Summer Vacation

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Published on July 25th, 2012  |  Discuss This Article  

Book on beach

Looking for a good book to hit the beach with this summer? Conservancy staff and scientists have reviewed some of the latest non-fiction releases on the environment—from water conservation and ocean management to trendier topics like hunting your own food and how environmental economics can save the planet.

Check out these 5 books this summer and catch up on your environmental reading. Note: these books won’t leave you snoozing in the sun!


Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know by Ray Hilborn, with Ulrike Hilborn
Reviewed by Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy

Put plainly, this is the best book on a “conservation topic” I have read, ever. Why? It is wonderfully unpretentious, authoritative, engagingly written, concise and easy to read. I wish someone would turn this into a series: “Deforestation: What Everyone Needs to Know,” “Green Infrastructure: What Everyone Needs to Know,” “Climate Stress and Extreme Weather: What Everyone Needs to Know,” “Payments for Ecosystem Services…” you get my point.

Sadly, there are too few Ray Hilborns in our world. Ray has worked on fisheries for 30+ years. He is analytical and skilled at modeling and understanding the ways statistics and data can be abused. He is fearless and unconcerned with political correctness. He is a terrific writer. But most of all, he is a Zen master of his topic: fisheries. You need depth and wisdom to reduce a complex topic to 130 pages of crystal clear thinking and information. The rest of us experts write long books filled with jargon and non-essential information to cover up for our lack of true insight. Every person who is in any way concerned with or working with fisheries needs to read this book.

I want to offer a few quotes from the book to capture its flavor:

“But it is good to keep in mind that the standards we have set for maintaining biodiversity in fisheries management by groups advising consumers are much higher than the standards we have set for agriculture.”

And: “Fisheries should be a source of great wealth to all coastal countries as they are already in Iceland, Norway and New Zealand. It is truly sad to see so many countries squandering potential wealth of their fisheries through excess capacity and over-harvesting.”


Girl Hunter: Revolutionizing the Way We Eat, One Hunt at a Time by Georgia Pelligrini
—Reviewed by Joe Smith, conservation ecologist, The Nature Conservancy in New Jersey

Georgia Pelligrini’s Girl Hunter, an account of her discovery of hunting and eating what she kills, does an outstanding job of reaching a new audience for conservation. The author is a woman in her 20s who lives in New York City, and she is writing for people like herself—many of whom have probably never considered going hunting before.

In this hybrid travelogue and cookbook, she describes a long list of hunts for dove, squirrel, boar, elk, woodcock, duck, turkey—even coot—which were conducted under the careful attention of guides at high-end hunting lodges throughout the United States and in England. She celebrates the hunting lifestyle: rich dinners with fine wine and good whiskey, classic sporting apparel, and the jaunty look of a side-by-side shotgun over the shoulder. Her stated message is that we should be more in touch with the food we eat and that hunting is part of understanding where our food comes from.

Throughout her book and blog, the author presents the sporting life as an aspirational pursuit: living the good life, looking fabulous while doing it, and being proud that you know how to kill, skin and enjoy the taste of a squirrel. Pelligrini makes the outdoor life glamorous. Although Girl Hunter rarely touches upon conservation themes, her writing helps to make the field and forest trendy among a new audience of urban, adventurous eaters—and this is very good for conservation.


But Will the Planet Notice? How Smart Economics Can Save the World by Gernot Wagner
—Reviewed by Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy

This is a great book by Environmental Defense Fund economist Gernot Wagner. Right off the bat—starting with the book’s title—Wagner asks exactly the right and most important question: How do we scale up environmental initiatives so they really move the needle and have a measurable impact on the planet?

Wagner is an economist who more or less believes what you’re taught in Econ 101. He spends a good amount of the book helping readers understand externalities, focusing especially on climate change. Of course he respects market power, so he lays out a powerful case for putting a significant price on carbon. Take taxes, for example. Economists have always agreed: We should tax activities we want to discourage, not encourage. But in the United States today, we tax income. We tax (i.e., discourage) work and jobs. Why not deal with our fiscal deficit challenges instead by taxing carbon? If we did, we’d discourage use of the fossil fuel-based energy that is cooking the planet. And we’d move toward leveling the playing field so that clean forms of energy could better compete.

We did this once. Well, to be precise, OPEC did it to us. I’m old enough to remember the OPEC oil crisis in the 70s. I remember the lines at gas stations in my high school days. By reducing oil supply, OPEC sharply raised gas prices. It was as if OPEC imposed a carbon tax. Except in this case, the tax revenue went to OPEC, not us. What happened when the tax (i.e., the price shock) was imposed on U.S. consumers? At first it was quite a shock to the U.S. economy, and growth stalled. But after a very short adjustment period, consumers changed their behavior. Faced with sharply higher gas prices, both business and man-on-the-street consumers quickly focused on energy efficiency and materially reduced their energy consumption. Fuel-efficient cars, for example, became the rage. And economic growth in the U.S. quickly resumed. Once OPEC faded, we could have kept the country on this energy-efficient trajectory through a carbon tax (but we would have kept the money this time).

Instead, we did the politically expedient thing, allowed gas prices to fall, and set up the opportunity for SUVs and Hummers. We could still address this challenge today—that was the core idea behind a carbon tax or cap and trade. But instead, we (perversely, in my view) subsidize the use of fossil fuels.

Please excuse this rant (essentially mine). But Wagner provides an interesting framework for thinking about issues like this and the role of market forces in guiding environmental actions. He does so in a very clear style, while showing off his great sense of humor and excellent writing. Who says economics needs to be the “dismal science?”


The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman
Reviewed by Bryan Piazza, director, freshwater and marine science, The Nature Conservancy in Louisiana

The Big Thirst is not only a book about water. It is a book about change. By taking the reader on a world tour of water, Fishman shows how humans currently view and use water and how that has to, and will, change in the future. From American suburbia to the streets of Delhi, Fishman illustrates both the ultimate power of water in economic and personal development and the apathy with which we view this resource—that is, until it becomes hard to get or disappears. And that’s when people begin to see water’s value and begin to change. They change by innovating around conservation, as in Las Vegas where, ironically, water is used much more wisely than almost all of America. They begin to innovate around water pricing and delivery, as in India, where homegrown water delivery innovation in some slums has spurred micro-economies and made standing in line to wait on a truck a thing of the past.

When these changes happen, growth happens; but until that time, we face the oncoming dilemma of falling groundwater levels, rivers that no longer flow to the sea, and threatened biodiversity. As a scientist concerned with and working on water issues, I related strongly with Fishman through his journey. And I think this book will resonate with anyone who is concerned about the human use and biodiversity effects of our current water system and the opportunities that are possible if we change how we think about water.

One thing that I particularly liked about The Big Thirst is that Fishman does not use these pages as a platform for a “gloom and doom” scenario. Rather, he points out that, unlike many other complicated problems that humans face (e.g., energy, climate change), water issues are local, with local solutions, and that localness should give us real hope. For example, water use in Louisiana does not affect someone in Shanghai, or even Florida for that matter. And because they are local, water problems are very solvable within a short period of time. But to solve them, we must change.


Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue by William Stolzenburg
Reviewed by Matt Miller, senior science writer, The Nature Conservancy

Like stranded teenagers cavorting in a B-grade horror movie, island birds come ill prepared to deal with menace. In his latest book, William Stolzenburg opens with the gruesome fates that await native birds confronted with a seemingly endless parade of introduced rodents, cats and foxes. Consider Gough Island, off the South African coast: “Gangs of mice were rushing from out of the dark to attack birds three hundred times their size. The mice were chewing holes in the rumps of seventeen-pound albatross chicks as they sat, eating the living birds from the inside out.”

Islands, small and contained, make the dangers of invasives particularly severe. But the small and contained nature of islands also allows conservationists to set things right. Stolzenburg—one of conservation’s most astute chroniclers—tells this as an adventure story, full of characters, failed missions and easy-to-despise villains.

Through trial and a lot of error, conservationists now employ the latest research and technology to eradicate the invaders. It’s an often remarkable story of success, of turning biological desert covered in rat turds into an island paradise echoing with the chorus of baby birds.

But even in paradise restored, there can be uncomfortable truths. Conserving birds means many furry mammals must die, often painfully. While rats and foxes make convenient villains, they’re really just following their own evolutionary paths. Stolzenburg briefly mentions the concerns of animal rights activists, but is rooted firmly in the “ends justify the means” camp. He also fails to address the very real possibility that a new generation of rats might recolonize these islands, thereby starting the whole cycle anew. But these are minor quibbles: it’s a well-told, well-paced tale, that rare conservation book that is suited for the beach. Just watch out for what’s nibbling on your toes.

[Image credit: jordie23/Flickr through a Creative Commons license]

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Comments: Five Nature Books for Your Summer Vacation

  •  Comment from Rick Wilson

    I would add:

    Plastic Ocean – How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans, by Capt. Charles Moore

    and

    Ghost Wave – The discovery of Cortes Bank and the biggest wave on Earth, by Chris Dixon

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