A Harvest of New Books for Earth Day

OCEAN PLANET: WRITINGS AND IMAGES OF THE SEA

By Peter Benchley

with Judith Gradwohl

Harry N. Abrams

192 pp., $39.95

SEA CHANGE: A MESSAGE OF THE OCEANS

By Sylvia Alice Earle

G.P. Putnam's Sons, 362 pp., $29.95

VOYAGING: CHARLES DARWIN, A BIOGRAPHY

By Janet Browne

Alfred A. Knopf, 606 pp., $35

LET THE MOUNTAINS TALK, LET THE RIVERS RUN: A CALL TO THOSE WHO WOULD SAVE THE EARTH

By David R. Brower

with Steve Chapple

HarperCollinsWest, 196 pp., $20

MANY RIVERS TO CROSS: OF GOOD RUNNING WATER, NATIVE TROUT, AND THE REMAINS OF WILDERNESS

By M.R. Montgomery

Simon & Schuster, 255 pp., $22

ENVIRONMENTAL GORE: A CONSTRUCTIVE RESPONSE TO EARTH IN THE BALANCE

Edited by John A. Baden

Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 270 pp., $21.95

A MOMENT ON THE EARTH: THE COMING AGE OF ENVIRONMENTAL OPTIMISM

By Gregg Easterbrook

Viking, 743 pp., $27.95

Earth Day is a time for reflection and celebration, for public ax-grinding and private appreciation.

It's also become, since the first Earth Day 25 years ago, the time to put out new books on the environment -- forests of new books. I'm looking at a pile of 42, and that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Selecting those to mention can be an exercise in frustration, but here goes:

Oceans have been much in the news lately. The United Nations last month reported that 70 percent of the world's fisheries are no longer commercially viable. Several new books remind us why we should be concerned.

Ocean Planet: Writings and Images of the Sea is a collection of photos and essays making up a companion volume to a traveling exhibit opening this month at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

Well-known writers are included: Peter Benchley, Rachel Carson, Loren Eiseley, Joseph Conrad, Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and Farley Mowat, among others. There are artistic photos of the sea and its beauties, but also pictures showing mankind at work there and the impact this can have.

One of the best-known marine biologists and expedition leaders is Sylvia Earle. In Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans, Earle reviews the history of ocean exploration, describes her own scientific research, illustrates how development and other human activities have degraded ocean ecosystems, and argues for greater protection of marine biodiversity.

''Curiously, no one really knows what the consequences will be of ocean dumping, overfishing, oil spills, whale kills, and thousands of other thoughtless actions that chip and gouge away at the healthy functioning of ocean systems,'' she writes.

Charles Darwin knew the oceans from his travels aboard the Beagle, which eventually produced ''The Origin of Species.'' In Voyaging: Charles Darwin, a Biography, British biologist and science historian Janet Browne launches the first of a two-volume biography of the man who was perhaps the most influential scientist of the 19th century.

At a time of increasing controversy over rates of extinction, international trade in endangered species, and the United States Endangered Species Act (arguably the most profound piece of environmental legislation ever enacted by any country), Browne's work provides excellent background on mankind's urge to understand the natural world.

If Darwin was a towering figure in the last century, David Brower has been the ''archdruid'' (to use John McPhee's phrase) of 20th-century environmentalism. Still going strong in his ninth decade, Brower is an accomplished mountain climber (70 first ascents) who founded several of today's most prominent activist groups.

In Let The Mountains Talk, Let The Rivers Run: A Call to Those Who Would Save the Earth, (written with Steve Chapple), Brower talks about his work and his adventures, and about the challenges remaining. In pointed and humorous fashion, he takes on his opponents, some of his comrades in the conservation movement, and the apathy and greed often at the heart of environmental degradation.

He offers some inspiring and practical advice. The optimism in his book's dedication -- ''To those already committed to healing the Earth and to those about to be'' -- is more reflective of his view of others than of his own accomplishments.

The well-known Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson coined the word ''biophilia,'' which means mankind's innate affection for the natural world. This sense of love, especially for a particular place on earth or kind of place, is much evident in M.R. Montgomery's Many Rivers to Cross: Of Good Running Water, Native Trout, and the Remains of th Wilderness.

Writing beautifully in lyric and sometimes ironic fashion, with a firm grasp of the history and landscape of the American West, Montgomery searches out those places where native fish have survived. These are a comfort and reason to be hopeful about accelerating efforts to protect natural places, but also an indicator of what needs to be done.

''I am not sanguine about the future, but I am comforted that at last we are arguing about the right things,'' he writes.

A book published in 1994, but worth including in a roundup related to the 25th Earth Day, is a response to ''Earth in the Balance'' by Vice President Al Gore. It is titled ''Environmental Gore: A Constructive Response to Earth in Balance.''

Here, 15 writers (most of them academics) challenge Gore's assertions and conclusions. ''We have found his book to be severely flawed on both scientific and political economy grounds,'' writes editor John Baden of the University of Washington.

The vice president was particularly critical of economists. His critics here assert that greater emphasis on free-market economics and more respect for private-property rights are key to preserving the environment. ''Although Vice President Gore pays much lip service to the importance of individuals and of decentralized solutions, his prescriptions are for centralized regulations made acceptable by appealing to spiritual and communitarian values,'' writes James Huffman, professor of law at Lewis and Clark College in Godfrey, Ill.

Another environmental contrarian (to more extreme activist thinking, at least) is Gregg Easterbrook. In A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism, Easterbrook acknowledges the good that environmental activists do, and he agrees that ''ecological consciousness is a leading force for good in world affairs.'' But he also cites clear evidence of environmental improvement (such as cleaner air and water), and then goes on to assert that ''the Western world today is on the verge of the greatest ecological renewal that humankind has known....''

This thoughtful and solidly reported work that reaches some conclusions many may find startling, such as that ''world pollution will end within our lifetimes, with society almost painlessly adapting a zero-emissions philosophy.''

Let's hope he's right. That would really be something to celebrate at the 50th Earth Day.

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