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Remaking the Way We Make Things
by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
North Point Press, 193 pp., $25

Cradle to Cradle

Need to ship something fragile? The tree-hugger's three R's -- "reduce, reuse, recycle" -- instruct you to use a small amount of leftover packaging material made of recycled cardboard. Instead, what if packaging material were made of leftover organic materials -- rice husks from China, perhaps -- and enriched with nutrients? What if, when you were done, you could throw it on the ground, where it would fertilize the soil and begin its life anew?

That's the concept behind Cradle to Cradle, a design manifesto in which renowned architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart describe a post-industrial-age world where products that consumers fail to consume never end up in a landfill. In their vision, humans don't create waste any more than a cherry tree does by producing more blossoms than it does seedlings. And vision here is key. If you're looking for easy tips on saving the planet, you won't find them. In fact, if you're like me, your home contains only one product the authors approve of: their book, which is printed on waterproof plastic "paper" that, unlike tree pulp, can be disassembled, scrubbed clean, and reused without sacrificing quality.

While clearly taking aim at the businesses that perpetuate our consumer culture, the authors nevertheless show some mercy. Harmful, wasteful products "are not the result of corporations doing something morally wrong. They are the consequence of outdated and unintelligent design," they write. For the undifferentiated mass of consumers, reading this harangue can be about as useful as watching your big brother get in trouble for something you knew he shouldn't do. But for those of us who have a hunger to know what the next great idea will be, this highly readable book captures and challenges the imagination.
-- Sarah D. Scalet

An Environmental History of Long Island Sound
by Tom Andersen
Yale University Press, 256 pp., $24.95

This Fine Piece of Water

It was Daniel Webster who first called Long Island Sound the "American Mediterranean," an association based not on raw physical shape or geographic magnitude -- the Mediterranean Sea is many hundreds of times larger -- but on how the sheer hospitality of the two bodies of water have shaped the destinies of the people who populate their shores. Both are wild enough to host important fisheries, to be home to sharks and dolphins, and to cause shipwrecks. Yet the two are sufficiently temperate to have encouraged vast fleets of recreational boaters and to have each developed an almost continuous string of waterfront villages and ports. Both are exemplars of classic maritime worlds.

But the strains placed by a burgeoning population upon this 110-mile-long funnel extending east from New York City went from locally bothersome to regionally acute by the 1970s. Unlike what occurred almost a century earlier in neighboring New York Harbor, the threshold to true ecological strangulation was never passed. But for a decade or so the sound flirted with calamity, suffering enough symptoms of sickness to mobilize environmentalists, without actually expiring.

Tom Andersen's history of Long Island Sound features rich detail on the seventeenth-century explorations of Adrien Block, the oyster industry, and suburban sprawl. But the story of the sound becomes most compelling when he describes the appearance in the 1970s of an annual summertime pool of oxygen-starved water at its western end. This seasonal desert and much of the overall degradation of the sound was unequivocally linked to nitrogen enrichment, caused by such hallmarks of negligent urban planning as inefficient sewage facilities and polluted storm water runoff -- problems not easily or cheaply solved.

Anderson tells an intense story of how years of neglect and abuse ended in an ecological crisis, and how advocates finally managed, in 1998, to get the government to do something about it. It was, perhaps, a turning point -- the realization that, like the Mediterranean, the sound will never again be truly wild, and we must become its stewards in order to save it.
-- John Waldman

by Edward O. Wilson
Knopf, 229 pp., $22

The Future of Life

Edward O. Wilson's latest book is blessedly devoid of the wispy cant that can easily sully environmental writing. The renowned biologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author refuses to preach to the choir. His arguments in favor of conservation are aimed largely at those inclined, out of indifference, habit, or ideology, to oppose environmentalism.

His hokey introductory letter to Thoreau aside, Wilson sticks rigorously to the scientific justification for conservation, and his case is beyond reproach. Everywhere he looks he sees a simple, irrefutable fact: The greater the diversity in a given ecosystem, the more fruitful and resilient it is. While sprinkling his analysis with vivid case studies -- from the extinction of species such as Australia's northern gastric-breeding frog to the rescue of others such as the California condor -- he argues that the loss of even a single species is a disservice to the whole of life on the planet.

The most intriguing of his arguments occur when he strays from biology to economics, though his claim to an expansive, biocentric worldview is belied by a subtle anthropomorphism. "No one can guess the full future value of any kind of animal, plant, or microorganism," he writes. "Its potential is spread across a spectrum of known and as yet unimagined human needs." This idea -- that all non-human life has worth only insofar as it possesses quantifiable utility for Homo sapiens -- is, in fact, one aspect of the pernicious philosophy that justifies our destruction of the planet. Elsewhere, he cites a study purporting that "all the ecosystems services provided humanity free of charge by the living environment . . . [equal] $33 trillion or more each year," or nearly twice the output of all the world's economies combined. We always knew the earth was our most valuable resource. But can we really put a dollar amount on it, likening it to a factory or a country's GNP?

I'm skeptical. But if analytical rather than emotional arguments gain the conservation movement a significant number of new adherents, perhaps Wilson's reliance on economic arguments is, shall we say, worth it.
-- Philip Connors

The Creation of the Worldwide Energy Web and the Redistribution of Power on Earth
by Jeremy Rifkin
Tarcher/Putnam, 283 pp, $24.95

The Hydrogen Economy

The idea that hydrogen-powered fuel cells may, one day soon, propel our vehicles, light our offices, and heat our homes has captivated environmentalists, who see hydrogen as a squeaky-clean alternative to nasty fossil fuels. Jeremy Rifkin -- the author of several would-be gestalt-shifting books, including The End of Work and The Age of Access -- shares this vision and makes the case that, in fact, we will soon have no choice but to kick our addiction to oil.

The scenario he sketches goes roughly as follows: Non-OPEC oil-producing countries will reach peak production within the next two decades; thereafter, oil-producing Muslim nations will exercise ever greater control over the price of our favorite fossil fuel. Should Islamic extremists succeed in toppling unpopular Middle East regimes, they would have us -- literally -- over a barrel. Just as conversion to hydrogen will alleviate the geopolitical problem, so, too, will it at least mitigate the rate of global warming, for hydrogen-powered fuel cells emit no carbon dioxide.

Rifkin is least persuasive when he resorts to scare tactics to get his message across, and his generalizations about the Muslim world and its history are sweeping and simplistic. His reporting on how major energy companies are gearing up for the switch to a hydrogen economy, however, is solid. And he even owns up to the daunting problems that are likely to delay the conversion, such as the fact that nearly half of the hydrogen produced worldwide is derived from natural gas -- via a process that leaves carbon dioxide as the by-product. If hydrogen is going to live up to the environmental hype, its manufacture is going to have to be carbon-free, and that technology is at least a decade away.

The book's closing chapters are devoted to more utopian musings and visions of a time when every homeowner is connected to an "energy-sharing network," effectively eliminating electric utilities. Rifkin posits that the changes will be as far-reaching as the development of the World Wide Web -- homemade and home-managed, the ultimate power to the people.
-- Jon Swan

Back to Top

Five Past Midnight in Bhopal
Cradle to Cradle
This Fine Piece of Water
The Future of Life
The Hydrogen Economy

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OnEarth. Fall 2002
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council