Best environmental books for the holidays: two to stretch your mind

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right now. Send more, please!). It was The Green Book: The Everyday Guide to Saving the Planet One Simple Step at a Time by Elizabeth Rogers and Thomas M. Kostigen. As I plowed through the book’s dozens, probably hundreds, of surreal and spurious everyday tips (including, believe it or not, subscribe to delivery of a daily newspaper, rather than read the newspaper online), I could find promises that these purchasing decisions would, yes, “save the world,” but no vision of what that world would be like.

There weren’t even any reasons the world was worth saving. Not even a single standard inspirational paragraph — nothing about a bird or a bee, or the feel of fresh air in the mountains, or the alarming, invigorating rush of water on your genitals when you go skinny dipping in a mountain stream. “Saving the world” was just a pious thing the reader was supposed to do, and the authors didn’t seem to think that readers would care what a saved world would look like, smell like, or sound like. I suppose if there was anything that might be inferred about the authors’ or the readers’ vision it would be that things would in some fashion stay the same and not get worse.

Hmm, skinny dipping — now that’s a reason to save the world. Any future “saved world” must include skinny dipping in my opinion. If you don’t understand this, the first thing you need to do is strip and dive in. Then come talk to me. I’ll have a thermos of hot chocolate waiting if you’re cold.

Anyway, with holiday gift-giving season coming up, I thought it might be worth it to point readers to some books that have a broader perspective on the environment, one beyond “paper vs. plastic.” Two novels by Vernor Vinge immediately came to my mind: A Fire Upon the Deep, and A Deepness in the Sky.

Don’t let their cheesy sci-fi covers fool you: these are extraordinary books with a lot of deep environmental content. No, not deep in the sense of advising you “psst, Earthling!- paper shopping bags are really better than plastic!”, but deep in the sense that they describe whole alien ecologies and environments, and show how drastically ecology and environment influence culture and personality.

In Fire, a planet at a medieval level of technology is populated by wolf-like creatures intelligent only as packs of five or six. The “individual” is a group, and a single “soul” can carry on over centuries, with ever-shifting individuals as its components. This biology creates all sorts of unique rituals and capabilities — ones confusing and impenetrable to the humans that crash land there, fleeing a hi-tech menace from a galactic culture the wolves know nothing of.

Of course humans have their own biological quirks and cultural curiosities, but you rarely think about them until you’ve gotten into the mind-set of a completely different race — and Vinge manages to give us that remarkable experience.

In Deepness, human traders and conquistadors are orbiting and observing a most unusual planet: one revolving around a star that turns on and off in a several-hundred-year cycle. Over decades, the planet’s surface goes from freezing and airless, to burning and chaotic, to lush and humid, to autumnal and serene, and back to airless darkness again.

It’s a completely different kind of seasonal cycle Vinge has dreamed up here, but it seems completely plausible — perhaps because the spiderlike inhabitants have been shaped by it as deeply as our culture has been shaped by spring, summer, fall and winter. They sink underground and freeze themselves in winter, and create moralities about the proper seasonality of offspring — just like we have moralities about homosexuality. It’s totally alien and yet totally familiar. As the spiders’ growing technology gives them protection from the ravages of the cycle, they also perceive the invaders on their doorstep.

Both of these books are tremendous explorations of the way physical facts of biology and geology help create personality and society. And in both of these books the storylines catch societies when they are starting to overcome the limitations of their biology — as we humans are now, with central heating and the scientific method and such. The question common to both books is something like this: how can an expansive, intelligent species survive in the presence of world-wrecking power?

That’s a good question for us humans to contemplate. The answers aren’t clear, but anyone who’s observed changing seasons, shifting beaches, growing forests, or petrifying fossils knows one thing: the most impossible goal of all is keeping things the same. Though since few of us leave our heated houses now, to actually see seasons change or beaches shift or forests grow, maybe that’s not so obvious after all. We need a few good skinny dipping trips to get our perspectives straight.

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