Bringing Environmental Issues Home

In time for Earth Day, a number of current books focus on the frail condition of our planet

CLEARCUT: THE TRAGEDY OF INDUSTRIAL FORESTRY Edited by Bill Devall Sierra Club Books/ Earth Island Press 291 pp., $50

SILVER SWIMMER: THE STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL OF THE WILD ATLANTIC SALMON By Richard Buck Lyons & Burford 416 pp., $35

AND NO BIRDS SING: THE STORY OF AN ECOLOGICAL DISASTER IN A TROPICAL PARADISE By Mark Jaffe Simon & Schuster 283 pp., $23

TANKERS FULL OF TROUBLE By Eric Nalder Grove Press, 294 pp., $24

LEAVING ALASKA By Grant Sims Atlantic Monthly Press, 431 pp., $22

MORTGAGING THE EARTH: THE WORLD BANK, ENVIRONMENTAL IMPOVERISHMENT, AND THE CRISIS OF DEVELOPMENT By Bruce Rich Beacon Press, 376 pp., $29

THE GREEN CRUSADE: RETHINKING THE ROOTS OF ENVIRONMENTALISM

By Charles T. Rubin Free Press, 312 pp., $22.95

THE NATIONAL AUDUBON SOCIETY ALMANAC OF THE ENVIRONMENT: THE ECOLOGY OF EVERYDAY LIFE Written and compiled by Valerie Harms G.P. Putnam's Sons 290 pp., $16.95 paper

GARDEN CITIES 21: CREATING A LIVABLE URBAN ENVIRONMENT By John Ormsbee Simonds McGraw-Hill, 231 pp., $42

IN many communities, Earth Day is observed with events like ``All-Species Parades'' for kids and beach cleanups. But behind the celebrations are serious political struggles and values tied to pollution and resource protection, consumption and population. Many of these are explored in new books about the environment.

The Clinton administration last week submitted to a federal judge its plan to solve the spotted owl situation in the Northwest, which involves fundamental questions about the importance of biological diversity. One of the best places to get a sense of the depth and scope of the problem is Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry.

This collection of essays by some of the best forest ecologists and conservation biologists in North America is accompanied by a series of stark photos illustrating the impact of mechanized logging on the land.

In his introduction, editor Bill Devall of Humboldt State University in northern California, lays out a key question meant to be answered here: ``How do we approach forest-watershed ecosystems in our scientific studies, in our emotions, our experience?''

The answers provided in the text and in the haunting images of barren landscapes leave no doubt that the way mankind uses and abuses the continent's forests needs to change. It is clear that more than spotted owls and timber jobs are at stake.

Another Pacific Northwest species impacted by logging is salmon, several stocks of which now are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Perhaps less well-known is the story of Atlantic salmon, which also has dwindled to dangerously low levels because of dams, overfishing, and other human activities.

That story is well told in Silver Swimmer: The Struggle for Survival of the Wild Atlantic Salmon. Author Richard Buck has spent the past 25 years organizing conservation and restoration efforts. His book is a wake-up call to the depletion of ocean fisheries occurring worldwide.

Plants and animals also go extinct when exotic species are introduced into an ecosystem. And No Birds Sing: The Story of an Ecological Disaster in a Tropical Paradise, by environmental journalist Mark Jaffe, follows the precipitous decline of bird populations in Guam.

The culprit, it turns out in this readable and informative eco-mystery, is a tree snake introduced from other Pacific islands. There are untold stories of alien species in many parts of the world. ``And No Birds Sing'' is a model for telling them.

The fifth anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska was recently noted. Journalist Eric Nalder won a Pulitzer Prize for his Seattle Times series on oil tankers.

Tankers Full of Trouble is the timely book version of his months spent investigating the problems in transporting large vessels full of petroleum through often-rough seas - problems that still exist to a large extent. This is an engaging people story as well; Nalder traveled aboard a supertanker outbound from Valdez.

Leaving Alaska, by Grant Sims (to be published in June), is a portrait of the state focusing on the tough and sometimes moving lives of a dozen Alaskans. It covers a five-year span that includes the largest oil spill in United States history - the dumping of 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. The best kind of environmentalism - and the best kind of environmental writing - focuses on a place one loves. ``Leaving Alaska'' is a fine example of this kind of writing.

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the World Bank, which has made hundreds of billions of dollars in development loans to more than 100 countries. The problem, as an increasing number of critics see it, is that much of what the bank funds - dams, power plants, road-building - is destructive of the environment and disruptive of the people it is meant to help.

This is the thesis of Mortgaging the Earth: The World Bank, Environmental Impoverishment, and the Crisis of Development, by Bruce Rich, once a consultant to the bank and now a senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. It's a hard-hitting and authoritative work, useful and provocative.

Critics who question the basis of environmentalism have become more outspoken in recent years. In The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism, political scientist Charles Rubin of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh critiques what he calls the ``environmental popularizers,'' including Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner, Paul Ehrlich, Garrett Hardin, and E.F. Schumacher.

Rubin does not fault them for ``founding their work on moral and political judgments,'' but he writes that they ``have been wrong in allowing these judgments to be obscured by a careless use of science, and in failing to recognize the utopian and totalitarian character of the principles they have relied on.'' This is strong stuff and worth considering as the environmental movement advances into a more scientifically sophisticated era where it is likely to gain in political power.

Included among the writers in The National Audubon Society Almanac of the Environment: The Ecology of Everyday Life are some of the ``popularizers'' Professor Rubin criticizes, plus a lot of others who leave no doubt about where they stand.

The theme of this hands-on, reader-friendly collection of pieces compiled by Valerie Harms is ``thinking like an ecosystem.'' It's very useful - as long as it's not the only thing you read on the subject.

Increasingly, the personal environment for human populations means cities. How to deal with urban ills as cities swell is the challenge veteran landscape designer and urban planner John Ormsbee Simonds takes on in Garden Cities 21: Creating a Livable Urban Environment. This is an essentially hopeful book, filled with solid observations, sound advice, sketches, and photos. Professional urban designers, teachers, and lay readers will all find it interesting and useful.

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