Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants / Douglas W. Tallamy -- Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2007

I've known more than a few wags who have remarked slyly that a weed is simply a plant that you don't want, and while that initially seems generous and open minded with respect to the natural world, it misses the critical role that some plants play in their ecosystem and the role that others don't play. From the perspective of a healthy, diverse, and functioning ecosystem, some plants (weeds) simply don't pull their weight, while others are citizens in good standing. In the first half of Bringing Nature Home, Douglas Tallamy brilliantly argues that plants in good standing are, generally speaking, native to the region, while non-natives tend in almost every case to be either unhelpful or positive threats to the diversity of life. What Tallamy hopes the reader will take home from this is that converting your garden to a native plant preserve is one of the easiest ways a gardener can help recover the ecosystem that is most beneficial to his or her locale.

The key element in the overall picture is the insect population. Gardeners often treat insects as the enemy and in some cases they can be; however, in a well-functioning ecosystem herbivorous insects are a critical link in the food chain linking plants to larger, more charismatic animals, like birds, frogs, rabbits, and turtles. Non-native plants have become best-sellers in nurseries all over the country in large part because they are "insect resistant," meaning, they aren't food for anything in the ecosystem. Planting such species is comparable to laying down astroturf, planting plastic flowers, and erecting artificial trees. They may look nice and be generally whole and intact, but they serve no other purpose but to decorate one's garden. Worse, they have a tendency to spread out of control and take up an enormous amount of space, crowding out ecologically valuable species. Of course, the loss of habitat for insects results in a loss of habitat for larger animals. After reading Tallamy's arguments, one comes to appreciate the beauty of the ragged shape of an insect-eaten leaf. One's heart goes out to noble native plants that has given up some portion of their foliage for the greater good of the ecosystem.

One of the most significant environmental problems we face today is the loss of habitat. Urban sprawl and mono-cultural fence-to-fence agribusiness farming has left less and less room for inhabitants of the natural world and is drastically reducing the size of numerous species' populations. Tallamy argues that urban and suburban gardeners can do quite a lot to mitigate this problem simply by choosing to plant natives in their gardens. One small suburban lot may not seem like a significant contribution to the solution, but if gardening with natives becomes as popular as gardening with non-natives, the problem will be cut in half.

A yet stronger response to the urban-suburban desert-scape that we have created would be to organize whole neighborhood or cities to plant native plants. Recent ecological research shows that the size of a contiguous ecosystem is important to maintaining a native wildlife population. This runs counter to the belief that many small fragments of an ecosystem can effectively support the population. Obviously, fragments suitably close and with no significant barriers can be helpful, but organizing large swaths of natural habitat is preferable. Still, to get to this stage, pioneer native gardeners are critical. Happily, Tallamy provides tips on "making it happen."

The second half of Bringing Nature Home is essentially a reference guide to useful native plants and insects, a.k.a., "bird food." Tallamy also provides a valuable chapter entitled "Answers to Tough Questions," like "If birds eat the berries of alien plants..., why shouldn't I plant those species?" (The short answer is that those berries do not provide adequate nutrients required to make eggs, to feed the parent birds while they are feeding the young, and to feed the young themselves. Too many such plants means there will be fewer insects to provide the nutrition needed for reproduction.)

Finally, there are three excellent indexes listing native plants across the U.S., host plants for specific butterflies, and results from experiments comparing the value of native and non-native plants. Also there are numerous beautiful color photographs and a superb bibliography.

No gardener interested in native plants should be without this book!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Green Washed: Why We Can't Buy Our Way to a Green Planet / Kendra Pierre-Louis -- N.Y.: Ig Publishing, 2012

There are plenty of books still to be published in 2012, but for now, I would rate Green Washed as the book of the year. This is not to say it does not have some unfortunate weaknesses. Broadly put, the book's thesis is that all of the highly publicized "green" products that have been coming out in recent years do little to address the serious environmental challenges we face. Even were we all to substitute green products for the conventional products we currently buy, we would still be facing environmental contamination, depleted resources, degraded and vanishing habitats, and of course, climate catastrophe. According to Kendra Pierre-Louis, the author of Green Washed, our only way out is to consume less.

My own views on this are in complete accord with Pierre-Louis's and because of the urgency of the environmental problems we face, I dearly hope that her book receives a wide audience. Unfortunately, the case she makes for her thesis is merely good -- not great. I suspect that anyone in the developed world who is moderately attached to his or her current lifestyle will find ways to dismiss Pierre-Louis's arguments, but hopefully Green Washed will be the starting point for a more serious examination of the futility of green consumerism and the need for reduced consumption and that it will not serve as a vaccine that inoculates consumers against calls for reduced consumption.

Most of the book is taken up exposing the environmental damage that is done by many "green" products: organic cotton, local food, cleansers and cosmetics, hybrid and electric cars, aluminum water bottles, and LEED certified buildings. Perhaps the strongest case can be made against hybrid and electric cars. Pierre-Louis points out that the advantages that hybrid and electric cars have over gas-powered cars are that they are marginally more efficient, that tail pipe pollution is not concentrated in city centers, and that the electricity on which they run can be produced from renewable sources.

What is left out in the enthusiasm for hybrid and electric cars are the resources necessary to make a car in the first place. The embodied energy in a hybrid or electric car is comparable to that in a gas-powered car; consequently, the improved gas mileage of a hybrid represents a fraction of a fraction of the energy consumed by the cars.

Even more telling is the environmental cost of building and maintaining the system of roads and parking facilities, without which our cars would be useless. The amount of concrete and asphalt that goes into our road system is staggering and it needs to be virtually rebuilt every decade or so. Roads themselves constitute a significant portion of the impermeable surfaces that are destroying our watersheds and heating our urban areas. Roads quickly transport tire fragments and motor oil into our sewers, streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans, regardless of whether they are accommodating gas or electric powered vehicles. Roads encourage the urban sprawl that is responsible for the destruction of vital natural habitats. Pierre-Louis is completely correct in observing that the "green" car is little more than a device that will perpetuate a system of transportation that is destroying the planet.

A more sensible response to the crisis brought on by gas-powered cars is to stop driving cars, or at least drastically reduce the amount that we drive. Imagine if all auto and truck traffic was reduced by a mere 50%. Auto production would decline significantly and the number of lanes we would need to maintain would diminish. Plant and animal life would rebound and our air and water would become significantly cleaner. Rational bicycle-oriented city planning and improved public transportation could make our cities completely car-free. This is far greener approach than converting our gasoline-powered car culture to an electric-powered car culture.

Pierre-Louis employs a similar style of critique to the other topics she addresses. Her criticism of the LEED building standards and organic cotton clothing are strong. She points out that the greenest building is the one that's already built and that wearing clothes to the end of their useful life is a far better way to green our wardrobe than buying organic cottons if we replace those clothes as rapidly as we do.

Her critique of the local food movement is not quite so persuasive as she focuses primarily on the slight benefits of reducing "food miles" and ignores a number of other environmental benefits of local food production. Oddly, in that chapter, she describes the rapid depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, upon which the production of food in the American Midwest depends. It would seem that local food production would need to make use of the water that is available nearer to population centers on the East and West Coasts, thereby forcing agriculture to rely once again on surface water and not as much on non-renewable ground water.

As her general approach is to point out how our social and economic institutions are at the root of our environmental crises, it is curious that she does not mention the significant environmental damage that is done by our meat-eating culture. This is particularly true in that her recommended way forward is to consume less, reduce waste, and develop alternative institutions that are more environmentally friendly. Meat production requires a significantly greater input of energy and a significantly greater use of land than plant food production for the same nutritional value. Furthermore, a 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report estimated that the ranching and slaughter of cows and other animals for meat is responsible for 18% of the world's greenhouse gases and, of course, concentrated animal feeding operations (a.k.a. factory farms) have a profound impact on their environs due to the enormous and concentrated mass of manure they produce. There is likely nothing easier and more effective for reducing the negative impact one is having on the planet than simply becoming a vegetarian, or better yet, a vegan.

Pierre-Louis devotes three chapters to alternative, or "green" energy. Clean coal is an easy target, but Pierre-Louis's critique of biomass is a more valuable contribution to the discussion. Her examination of solar power is somewhat ambiguous. She criticizes impacts of constructing photovoltaic panels and their poor positioning by consumers, but solar power does not receive scathing criticism. The worst that is said of it is that it is likely to simply facilitate continued consumption of other resources and degradation of the land and water.

The last three chapters address "the way forward," which is, again, to reduce consumption. Pierre-Louis recognizes that our economic system is dependent upon ever increasing consumption and so the way forward will involve an entirely new economic model. Here, she recommends the "steady state economy" advanced by Herman Daly and others.

Among the more disappointing aspects of the book are its numerous typographical errors. The work appears not to have been proofread and instead, seems to have been prepared for publication by a spell check program. (Amory Lovins is, for example, noted as "Armory" Lovins.) The errors are -- in the big picture -- trivial, but it leads one to wonder how carefully done was the research that went into the work. As the research is based on a variety of kinds of sources (peer-reviewed scientific articles, government publications, N.G.O. reports, and popular news sources), one needs to look carefully at the support for the claims being made. Obvious errors in the bibliographic citations do not instill confidence.

Despite these criticisms of this particular work and its presentation, the thesis is eminently plausible and supremely important. Kendra Pierre-Louis has given us an honest attempt to make the case for adopting institutions that will support sustainable lifestyles. Very much of what she has given us makes perfect sense and she provides much material to raise questions about the effectiveness of green products. My hope is that she or someone like her will continue to publish works along the lines of Green Washed.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Nepal / Tessa Feller -- London: Kuperard; N.Y.: Distibuted by Random House Distributing Services, 2008

Nepal is a volume in the series Culture Smart!, "the essential guide to customs and culture." Most travel guide books tell you where to stay, where to eat, where to shop, what to see, and what to do. This one gives you some valuable tips on how to navigate the strange social world that you'll encounter: how to greet someone, when to stand, when to sit, what to wear, how to eat, how to address people, whom to tip, which hand to use, what to touch, what not to touch, etc. Most of all, it tells you what you might expect of native Nepalis.

If the volume on Nepal is at all representative of the series, anyone traveling to a destination covered by the series should pick up a relevant copy. It certainly won't prevent you from making a fool of yourself in every instance, but it is likely to head off more than one embarrassing incident.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Illustrated Atlas of the Himalaya / David Zurick and Julsun Pacheco -- Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2006

The Illustrated Atlas of the Himalaya is a beautiful introduction to the Himalaya. Geographically, it covers everything between the Indus River and the Karakorum Mountains in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east and from Tibetan plateau in the north to the Terai lowland in the south. It is divided into five chapters: the regional setting, the natural environment, society, resources and conservation, and exploration and travel. It contains maps, tables and charts, photographs, and text.

The pages are ten inches by thirteen inches and oriented in a landscape format. This allows large panoramic images of mountain vistas and other subjects. While the photographs are the work's strongest feature, it is not simply a coffee table picture book. The other features are also of high quality.

The maps are detailed and usually precisely drawn, though often smaller than they could be. In several cases, details are lost in the small scale. At the same time, there is also a great deal of white space on the pages. While this makes reading the work a pleasure, the white space could have been used to include more detail or at very least to enlarge some of the graphics.

The text generally is well-written and informative, but the authors have an unfortunate habit of making reference to places not shown on any of their maps. This is curious, since much information appears on the maps that is not referenced in the text. It is almost as though the text and maps are for two separate works. The atlas does contain a place index, listing longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates; so it is possible to look up a place, find its coordinates, and then refer to one of more of the maps to locate the place. This usually is more work than is desirable. I found myself skipping the effort or seeking out other maps and atlases to supplement the work. Greater coordination between the maps and the text would have greatly improved the usefulness of the atlas.

The geology of the region is complicated, making the section on the natural environment difficult, but a careful reading is rewarding. The section on society provides much typical demographic information, along with information about the transportation and communication systems, development issues, and governance. It is, however, a somewhat elementary treatment of the society. Importantly, the section on governance is now quite obsolete with the success of the Maoist insurgency. The section on resources and conservation describes the flora, fauna, minerals, and water resources. Curiously, nothing is said about the effects of climate change in the region. One would think that a work published in 2006 would take this into account, since by that time it was well understood that the Himalaya will be profoundly affected by a warming climate. (Just recently, Appa Sherpa, the man who has made it to the top of Mt. Everest more often than anyone, asserted that climbing Everest would soon be too dangerous due to melting ice and snow.) The final section on exploration and travel is a concise history of the expeditions into the mountains by outsiders. It provides enough information for an interested reader to seek out more detail in other works.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works / Jonah Lehrer -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer is an entertaining, though, rudimentary introduction to the psychological and sociological dimensions of creativity. It leaves one with more questions than answers. Furthermore, the answers it provides are not especially Earth shaking and the questions it raises are largely due to a superficial treatment of the topic.

The most significant shortcoming is Lehrer's failure to give a clear definition of creativity. While he occasionally writes about artistic creativity, most of the book focuses on problem solving in the high-tech industry. This is perhaps unsurprising in that Lehrer is first of all a contributing editor at Wired magazine. Not only are his central cases of creativity peculiar, Lehrer gives us no sense of the scope of problem solving. Some problems stand out for us and require significant time and energy to solve. Others are routine and mundane. For example, how to open an unfamiliar cabinet door might count as a problem to be solved, but the solution might also reveal itself after only a moment's examination. To be fair, one could distinguish degrees of creativity that map to the difficulty of the problem, but complex problems could be broken down into numerous smaller problems. Any of these problems might also be more or less obvious depending upon the background knowledge of the person solving the problem. The point here, is that the concept of problem solving is not as simple as it appears in Lehrer's book. To make problem solving the central case of creativity without exploring these complexities provides us with only a superficial insight into creativity.

The specific claims about problem solving that Lehrer does make are few and sometimes contradictory. Certainly, Lehrer is not unaware of these contradictions, but he provides us with little help in understanding how we can resolve them. For example, his first substantive claim is that creativity (in solving a problem) often comes after one has focused on a problem long enough to conclude that it is unsolvable. Then, after taking one's mind off of the problem and relaxing, one is able to see the problem from a broader perspective and possibly connect seemingly unrelated facts or concepts in manner that provides the necessary insight.

In contrast to this, Lehrer also observes that problems are often solved by sheer, dogged concentration. Instead of a relaxing walk in the woods or taking a warm shower, the problem is solved by taking enough Benzedrine to keep one's mind fixed on the problem. All that a reader can conclude from this is that problems get solved in lots of different ways. This is by no means a surprising revelation.

The more interesting portion of his work comes when he discusses the social context of problem solving. Lehrer observes that many problems are solved by "outsiders," i.e., people who are not steeped in the paradigms of the field that contains the problem. They are sometimes capable of pursuing solutions that an insider would discount as implausible from the start. He also observes that difficult problems are more likely to be solved when numerous people with different backgrounds collaborate in seeking a solution. One is reminded of the commonplace maxim, "two heads are better than one."

Again, Lehrer's observations about society and creativity are not terribly enlightening; however, the final chapter begins to make a bit more of the social elements of creativity. Lehrer points out that different times in history, social circumstances have fostered creativity. His chief example is Elizabethan England. According to Lehrer, the liberal attitude toward theatre productions and the availability of written material in 16th and 17th century England made possible a flowering of excellent dramatic productions, including the work of William Shakespeare. According to Lehrer, Shakespeare's success was in large part due to favorable social conditions, though his genius certainly made him stand out from the numerous other talented playwrights of his time.

This emphasis on the social climate for creativity does not, however, reach far enough. Lehrer overlooks (or at least understates) the role that resources play in problem solving. According to Lehrer, venture capital funding "is widely regarded as one of the best measures of innovation; money chases good ideas." While it may be true that venture capitalists constantly are seeking to invest in good ideas, a more likely relationship is that venture capital, along with a lot of unanticipated and coincidental factors make an idea successful. Without these external circumstances, good ideas are apt to come to nothing. We have no way of tracking all those extremely creative, but unlucky ideas. While so many other factors are involved in the success of an idea, one cannot use success alone as a defining characteristic of a good idea. Because Lehrer overlooks these factors, his book tends to reinforce the cult of the entrepreneur.

Among the best aspects of the Imagine is Lehrer's effort to ground his claims about creativity and problem solving on scientific research. Unfortunately, he does not always provide complete citations for these references. While one could track down some of the original research, it would be difficult to get to all of it. This forces the reader to simply accept Lehrer's judgements about the quality and representativeness of much of the research on which he draws.

All in all Imagine is an easy and often entertaining work, aimed at a popular audience, but for anyone genuinely interested in creativity, it's not a good use of time.