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Archive for November 2020

Envirobooks for Christmas

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Book suggestions?  Yes, it’s that time of the year – though with Covid anytime is a good time to snuggle up with a book.  Here are a few that caught my eye and have an environmental theme to them.

Buying local is always a good idea, so let’s start with three from Vancouver-based authors.

Melissa and Chris Bruntlett are the founders of Modacity, a group dedicated to inspiring healthier, happier, and simpler forms of urban mobility.  When I picked up their book, Building the Cycling City, I though I was getting a description of projects in the Netherlands.  I got that plenty – the book starts, unexpectedly, with modernist Rotterdam.  But for each Dutch city the authors discuss, lessons and applications for other cities are presented.  I have not finished the book yet; I am reading the chapter about Eindhoven when Calgary is introduced.  Calgary, a cycling city?  I have so much to learn; I didn’t know about the Peace bridge, nor that its originator, city councillor Druh Farrell, was exposed to so much hatred for supporting cycling infrastructure that she needed a bodyguard escort.  The Santiago Calatrava designed bridge has now been completed and is a huge success.  The book is full is such surprises.  But it’s not about infrastructure, mostly; it’s about cycling culture, including cycling in poorer immigrant neighbourhoods.  A little gem, and especially relevant now that Covid has created a boost in cycling.

The Peace Bridge in Calgary

The other two came out just this year, and I have barely cracked the (compelling) preface of Seth Klein’s A Good War, let alone started Lynne Quarmby’s Watermelon Snow.  But I know both of them as excellent speakers and writers, and I suspect these are books that people will want to talk about. 

So instead of my own commentary, I’ll offer these two quotes (copied from here and here):

Watermelon snow refers to red algal blooms among snow colonies of microorganisms. Normally green, the algae adapt to warmer temperatures by using red pigments as sunscreens. Unfortunately, this also speeds up snow melt, setting up one of the many feedback loops that magnifies polar warming. Quarmby researched these jewellike, intricate microbes with wonder; the text communicates how exciting scientific discovery can be.

Quarmby also reveals her anger, grief, and frustration about global warming. Her climate activism includes civil disobedience and arrest over pipeline construction; she campaigned as a Green Party politician. She participated in the expedition to witness the impact of climate change on the Arctic, and to help other voyagers understand the science behind the changes, but admits “I am also feeling the emotional weight of being here, at the soft heart of global melting.”

Seth Klein explores how we can align our politics and economy with what the science says we must do to address the climate crisis. But Klein brings an original and uniquely hopeful take to this challenge. The book is structured around lessons from the Second World War – the last time Canada faced an existential threat. Others have said we need a “wartime approach” to climate change, but this is the first book to delve into what that could actually look like.

And now for something quite different: Un Lun Dun, by British author China Miéville.  It’s not new; it was first published in 2007, and my copy is from one of these community free book boxes.  When I picked it up, I had no idea that it is written for young readers.

I don’t know what that says about me, but I was hooked right away.  The story is simple, as fantasy stories go.  School girl Zanna, the main character, realizes that she is Shwazzy – the chosen one – for the dwellers of Un Lun Dun, an underground London in an alternate reality.  And this reality is one of garbage and pollution: everything discarded by the “real” London ends up there, from broken appliances to empty milk cartons.  But the residents of Un Lun Dun are under threat, and sides line up, including broken umbrellas that serve as smog shields.  You can see the attraction for a budding environmentalist.

Except that nothing is at it seems.  Shwazzy is not the main character; she gets defeated by the evil smog early on.  Sidekick Zeena is the one that takes over.  This is one of the twists that keeps the story going, with the underlying theme that what is written in The Book, including how to select the Shwazzy, is all wrong.  The well-meaning authorities that obey The Book are constantly upended; this gives Un Lun Dun a delicious iconoclastic flavour.  Spoiler alert: it’s a book for young readers so the bad guy – the smog – is defeated at the end, and all ends well.  But it’s a lot of fun getting there, and maybe that a dose of optimism that was quite welcome.  

Optimistic isn’t quite what I would call my next selection, Erin Brockovich’s Superman’s Not Coming.  This important book details the career of the famous environmentalist.  It is part biography, part science explanation, and part community activism how-to.  Brokovich’s work has focussed on water quality – why what comes out of the tap is sometimes polluted and unfit to drink, much too often.  She returns to Hickney, the site of the case of hexavalent chromium pollution that made her famous in the eponymous movie (I was aghast to read that the site is still contaminated, decades later).  We visit Flint.  We visit military bases where the residents have seen their kids get dangerously ill from the water.  And so on – it is not cheerful.  In the process we learn about what Brokovich considers the top five water pollutants: hexavalent chromium (an anti-corrosion agent), chloramines (a disinfectant), trichloroethylene (a dry-cleaning fluid), perfluorinated chemicals, and fracking chemicals.

Lead is also hugely important, and Brokovich discusses it in the Flint context.  Nobody puts lead in drinking water; it comes from corrosion of old pipes.  This corrosion is much worse when a city uses chloramines (as opposed to chlorine or ozone) as disinfectant; worse yet when a city like Flint switches its raw water source to warm river water (to save money); and worse still when officials, again to save money, skimp on monitoring and enforcement.

Given that, I hesitate to recommend my last selection, Donna Leon’s Trace Elements, her latest installment of the Commissario Brunetti series. I do like that series, the simple whodunits in the serene atmosphere of Venice, where the description of food and cafés is as important as the plot.  But in this one Leon stumbles badly, and it’s a bit jarring.  Possibly responding to Amitav Ghosh’s contention that not enough fiction addresses climate change, she describes a summer city that is relentlessly hot and humid, with a villain who says “don’t start with all that nonsense about global warming.” 

The crime, though, revolves around water pollution, with nefarious goings-on in a private water utility.  It’s fun to read about nitrates or mercury – except that Leon has a completely unrealistic view of how water quality is monitored.  She has an employee explain that

 “The various conduits that transport water – pipes, streams, rivers – have sensors placed all along them, about a half-kilometer from one another, sometimes closer, and if one of them detects anything harmful or dangerous, our system registers it and a technician is sent to collect that particular sensor [which includes a sample in a tube], replace it with a new one, and bring it back for further examination…sometimes it’s possible to determine from these tests where the pollutant came from.” 

These automatic sensors test for arsenic, nitrates, copper, lead, mercury, vinyl chloride, “bisfenolo”, “clorato, beta estradiolo, and micro-cistine.”  Sample tubes are made of glass “because one of the things we check for is plastic.” 

Wow – that sure would be nice.  Do I need to specify that such sensors do not exist – or that samples of water are not routinely tested for all these substances?  It’s still a fun yarn, though.  Maybe it is an indication of how complex environmental science is that a good fiction writer ends up making stuff up, not because the plot requires it but because she can’t tell a clorato from a bisfenolo.  Environmental teachers and communicators, you have your work cut out for you.

Be that as it may – grab a good book, it’s the best thing to do these days.  Happy reading!

Written by enviropaul

November 23, 2020 at 6:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized