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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

This Year’s Hot Picks

Air Date: Week of

From global warming to Darwin to America’s food: Outside magazine’s Bruce Barcott gives us his list of favorite environmental books of the year.


GELLERMAN: Well, books make great presents this time of year. Whether you go to the mall, local bookstore or shop online, Bruce Barcott has some suggestions for family or friends. He’s a contributing editor for Outside magazine and has this list of favorites for 2006.

BARCOTT: In the world of environmental books, 2006 was dominated by one big story: global warming. After years of apathy, a majority of Americans now believe that climate change is happening, is human-caused, and requires immediate action.

That tipping point came, in part, because of three of the year's best books. In “Field Notes From a Catastrophe,” New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert took readers on an engaging ramble to the planet's hot spots, including Greenland, Iceland, and the village of Shishmarif, Alaska, which is drowning under an angry Bering Sea. Along the way, Kolbert unpacked the issue's politics and blew away the smokescreen thrown around climate change by the oil and coal industry.

Australian scientist Tim Flannery presented the year’s clearest, most convincing explanation of the greenhouse effect in his book “The Weather Makers.” In sharp, simple prose, Flannery showed why atmospheric CO2 levels are rising and why that increase is melting glaciers around the world.

Joining Flannery and Kolbert on the warming shelf was Al Gore. The book version of his documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” was much more than a cheap movie novelization. Gore laid out his evidence in spectacular side-by-side photos that forced readers to ask: Are you going to believe the skeptics, or do you trust your own lying eyes?

It was a vintage year for non-warming books, too. 2006 gave us "The Reluctant Mr. Darwin," David Quammen's delightful portrait of Charles Darwin, the driving force behind the theory of evolution by natural selection. In his book, Quammen distilled the story of Darwin and his world-shaking idea into a slim, accessible essay that
reminded us why Darwin's theory is worth fighting for.

In “The Worst Hard Time,” New York Times reporter Timothy Egan recounted the history of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s in vivid scenes that left his readers weeping over the devastation. Egan’s book, which recently won the National Book Award, illustrated the link between environmental destruction and human suffering, a connection that's too often lost in discussions of issues like, say, global warming.

Finally, my personal award for top book of the year goes to “The Omnivore's Dilemma,” Michael Pollan's brilliant and controversial exploration of America's food: Where it comes from and why we eat it. “Omnivore's Dilemma” followed Pollan's quest to investigate four simple meals: A McDonald's lunch, an organic dinner from the supermarket Whole Foods, a meal cooked with food from small local farms, and his own foraged-in-the-woods concoction. Pollan uncovered a nation sustained by cheap corn: corn flour, cornstarch, corn oil, and corn-fed beef.

In recent years, books like “Fast Food Nation” and films like “Supersize Me” have made Americans take a second look at what goes in their bodies. Food-based environmentalism is exploding, and with “The Omnivore's Dilemma,” Pollan stakes a claim to become the Rachel Carson of the movement. I can't wait to read what he comes up with next.

GELLERMAN: Bruce Barcott reviews books for Outside magazine.

[MUSIC: Christmas Baubles “A” from ‘Christmas Baubles and Their Strange Sounds’ (Lo Recordings – 2002)]

GELLERMAN: Next week on Living on Earth, if the mosquitoes and bears don’t get you, the water will.

TAYLER: There was no point of wearing a life jacket, given that if we’d fallen in we could never have… the cold would’ve given us hypothermia so we wouldn’t have been able to get ashore.

GELLERMAN: Up Russia’s Lena River, even with a paddle, is tough-going. Next week on Living on Earth.



“Field Notes from a Catastrophe” by Elizabeth Kolbert

“The Weather Makers” by Tim Flannery

“An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore

“The Reluctant Mr. Darwin” by David Quammen

“The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan


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