Our Burning Planet


Twelve new books to honour Earth Day

Twelve new books to honour Earth Day
Illustrative Image: Earth (Illustration by LoganArt / Pixabay) | Book covers (Supplied)

These books link climate change to biodiversity and healthy ecosystems.

In the more than 50 years since it was first celebrated on April 22, 1970, Earth Day has become Earth Month, a longer time to take a wider view of our connections with nature.

For Earth Month 2024, Yale Climate Connections offers a bookshelf that links climate change with the broader goals of preserving biodiversity and cultivating healthy ecosystems.

The first book, “Gaia’s Web,” maps the broader terrain for the more focused books that follow. We need an “environmentalism [that] can combat climate change, restore biodiversity, cultivate empathy, and regenerate the Earth,” writes the author.

To preserve biodiversity in a changing climate, we need to better understand our wild neighbours, to learn lessons from the tenacious beasts that recovered from near extinction, and to appreciate the roles that insects play in healthy ecosystems. 

We must also see plants as actors in the new nature stories we are writing by changing the climate, and we must understand the vital role that darkness plays in punctuating the lives of all living things, including ourselves. Preserving darkness, it should be noted, might also save energy and thereby reduce climate-warming carbon pollution. 

Polluted rivers and highway litter were near the top of the agenda on the first Earth Day. Clean and healthy waterways are now essential to managing extreme weather events, and keeping waste out of those waterways — and our changing oceans — is essential to meeting that goal. 

This month’s list ends with three children’s books — on the ocean bottom ecosystem created by the death of a whale, the life of naturalist David Attenborough, and a previously unpublished essay about clouds by Rachel Carson. 

As always, the descriptions of the title are drawn from copy provided by the presses that published them. 

Gaia’s Web: How Digital Environmentalism Can Combat Climate Change, Restore Biodiversity, Cultivate Empathy, and Regenerate the Earth by Karen Bakker (The MIT Press 2024, 288 pages, $29.95) 

At the uncanny edge of the scientific frontier, “Gaia’s Web” explores the promise and pitfalls the Digital Age holds for the future of our planet. Instead of the Internet of Things, environmental scientist and tech entrepreneur Karen Bakker asks, why not consider the Internet of Living Things? At the surprising confluence of our digital and ecological futures, Bakker explores how the tools of the Digital Age could be mobilised to address our most pressing environmental challenges, from climate change to biodiversity loss. Interspersed with 10 enigmatic parables, “Gaia’s Web” evokes the conundrums we face as the World Wide Web intertwines with the Web of Life.

The Age of Deer: Trouble and Kinship with Our Wild Neighbors by Erika Howsare (Catapult 2024, 368 pages, $28.00) 

Deer have been an important part of the world that humans occupy for millennia. They’re one of the only large animals that can thrive in our presence. In the 21st century, our relationship is full of contradictions: We hunt and protect them, we cull them from suburbs while making them an icon of wilderness. There is no doubt that we have a connection to deer: in mythology and story, in ecosystems biological and digital, in cities and  forests. This is a masterful hybrid of nature writing and cultural studies that investigates our connection with deer — from mythology to biology, from forests to cities, from coexistence to control and extermination — and invites readers to contemplate the paradoxes of how humans interact with and shape the natural world.

Tenacious Beasts: Wildlife Recoveries That Change How We Think about Animals by Christopher J Preston (The MIT Press 2023/2024, 328 pages, $24.95 paperback)

The news about wildlife is dire — more than 900 species have been wiped off the planet since industrialisation. Against this bleak backdrop, however, there are crucial lessons to be learnt from animals that have defied global trends toward extinction: bears in Italy, bison in North America and whales in the Atlantic. These populations are back from the brink. Drawing on compelling personal stories from the researchers, Indigenous people, and activists who know the creatures best, Preston weaves together a gripping narrative of how some species are taking back vital, ecological roles. Tenacious Beasts is quintessential nature writing for the Anthropocene, offering a road map for a future in which humans and animals can once again coexist.

See also Restoring the Balance: What Wolves Tells Us about Our Relationship with Nature by John A Vucetich (Johns Hopkins University Press 2024, 410 pages, $29.95 paperback)

Alien Worlds: How Insects Conquered the World and Why Their Fate Will Determine Our Future by Steve Nicholls (Princeton University Press 2023, 496 pages, $39.95)

Life on Earth depends on the busy activities of insects, but global populations of these teeming creatures are currently under threat, with grave consequences for us all. Alien Worlds presents insects and other arthropods as you have never seen them before, explaining how they conquered the planet and why there are so many of them, and shedding light on the evolutionary marvels that enabled them to thrive and colonise the far corners of our planet. Blending glorious imagery with entertaining and informative science writing, this book takes you inside the hidden realm of insects and reveals why their fate carries profound implications for our own.

Plants in Place: A Phenomenology of the Vegetal by Edward S Casey and Michael Harder (Columbia University Press 2024, 208 pages, $26.00 paperback)

Plants are commonly considered immobile, in contrast to humans and other animals. But vegetal existence involves many place-based forms of change: stems growing upward, roots spreading outward, fronds unfurling in response to sunlight, and seeds travelling across wide distances. How do plants shape the places they inhabit, and how are they shaped by them? How do human places interact with those of plants — in landscape painting; in cultivation; in forests, fields, and cities? This compelling portrait of plants and their places offers readers new ways to appreciate the complexity and vitality of vegetal life. Eloquent, descriptively rich and insightful, it also shows how the worlds of plants can enhance our understanding and experience of place more broadly. 

The Darkness Manifesto: On Light Pollution, Night Ecology, and the Ancient Rhythms That Sustain Life by Johan Eklof (Simon &Schuster 2023/2024, 272 pages, $26.00/$18.00 paperback)

The world’s flora and fauna have evolved to operate in the natural cycle of day and night. But in the past 150 years, we have extended our day — and in doing so have forced out the inhabitants of the night and disrupted the circadian rhythms necessary to sustain all living things, including ourselves. Conservationist Johan Eklöf urges us to appreciate natural darkness, its creatures and its unique benefits. He reveals the startling domino effect of diminishing darkness: insects failing to reproduce; birds blinded or bewildered by artificial lights; and bats starving as they wait in vain for insects that only come out in the dark. The street lamps, floodlights and neon signs of cities are altering entire ecosystems, and scientists are only just beginning to understand their long-term effects. 

River Profiles: The People Restoring Our Waterways by Pete Hill (Columbia University Press 2024, 278 pages, $30.00 paperback)

Centuries of mismanagement and destructive development have gravely harmed American waterways, with significant consequences for the ecosystems and communities built around them. But a range of passionate and committed people have stepped up to restore streams and rivers around the United States. Pete Hill — a twenty-year veteran of the field of watershed restoration — profiles the practitioners, scientists, and activists from all walks of life who take part in restoration efforts, exploring their differing, sometimes controversial approaches. Underscoring the need for adapting strategies to local contexts, he shows that new ideas have come from a wide range of people — from mechanics to ecologists — and that Indigenous knowledge offers vital resources. 

Wasteland: The Secret World of Waste and the Urgent Need for a Cleaner Future by Oliver Franklin-Wallis (Hachette Books 2023, 400 pages, $30.00)

In Wasteland, award-winning investigative journalist Oliver Franklin-Wallis takes us on a shocking journey inside the waste industry — the secretive multibillion-dollar world that underpins the modern economy, quietly profiting from what we leave behind. In India, he meets the waste-pickers on the front line of the plastic crisis. In the UK, he journeys down sewers to confront our oldest — and newest — waste crisis and comes face-to-face with nuclear waste. In Ghana, he explores the global export network that results in Goodwill donations clogging African landfills. In this thought-provoking book, Oliver Franklin-Wallis tells a new story of humanity based on what we leave behind and shares a blueprint for building a more sustainable world — before we’re all buried in trash.

See also Wastiary: A Bestiary of Waste edited by MH Pecard et al (UCL Press 2023, 176 pages, $35.00 paperback). 

At Every Depth: Our Growing Knowledge of the Changing Oceans by Tessa Hill and Eric Simons (Columbia University Press 2024, 280 pages, $32.95) 

The world’s oceans are changing at a drastic pace. Beneath the waves and along the coasts, climate change and environmental degradation have spurred the most radical transformations in human history. In response, the people who know the ocean most intimately are taking action for the sake of our shared future. In At Every Depth, the oceanographer Tessa Hill and the science journalist Eric Simons profile efforts to understand and protect marine environments. They delve into the many human connections to the ocean — journeying to places as far-flung as coral reefs, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the poles. In this way, they provide perspective on the changing oceans, letting us see how our relationships with the oceans are changing too.

Whale Fall: Exploring an Ocean Floor Ecosystem by Melissa Stewart, Illustrated by Rob Dunlavey (Random House Studio 2023, 40 pages, $18.99)

When a whale dies, its massive body silently sinks down, down, through the inky darkness, finally coming to rest on the silty seafloor. For the whale, it’s the end of a 70-year-long life. But for a little-known community of deep-sea dwellers, it’s a new beginning. First come the hungry hagfish, which can smell the whale from miles around. Then the sleeper sharks begin their prowl, feasting on skin and blubber. After about six months, the meat is gone. Year after year, decade after decade, the whale nourishes all kinds of organisms from zombie worms to squat lobsters to deep-sea microbes  — sequestering carbon in the process. This fascinating real-life phenomenon is brought to vivid life by nonfiction master Melissa Stewart and acclaimed illustrator Rob Dunlavey.

Wild Places: The Life of Naturalist David Attenborough by Hayley Rocco, Illustrated by John Rocco (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2024, 48 pages, $19.99)

As a boy, David loved exploring the wild places near his home in England, collecting fossils, rocks, and newts. When he grew older, he got a job in television, where he had an idea for a new kind of show: He would travel to wild places all over the world to film animals in their natural habitats. Over the span of seven decades, David’s innovative documentaries have been treasured by millions of people. But as time went on, he noticed the wild places he loved were shrinking. What could David do to help? What could we all do? This is the story of David Attenborough. It’s also the story of our planet, which has changed rapidly over the course of his lifetime, and a clarion call for us to do our part to bring back the wild places and protect the creatures who call Earth home.

See also The Wild by Yuval Zommer (Doubleday Books 2024, 32 pages, $18.99)

Something About the Sky by Rachel Carson, Illustrated by Nikki McClure (Candlewick Studio 2024, 56 pages, $19.99)

Cut-paper wizard Nikki McClure is a brilliant steward for the words of a pioneering environmentalist in this wondrous ode to clouds—and the scientific “language of the sky.” Rachel Carson once wrote, “It is not half so important to know as to feel.” What do we know about clouds? There are three basic types: stratus, cumulus, and cirrus. Some are fleecy and fair-weathered; others portend storms. Clouds are the vehicle of water between sea and land, land and sea, in a cycle without end or beginning. They are the writing of the wind on the sky, a language all their own. In addition to illustrating it, Nikki McClure explains the origins of Rachel Carson’s shimmering essay — previously unpublished in its entirety — and the process of adapting it to picture book format. DM

This article by Yale Climate Connections is published here as part of the global journalism collaboration Covering Climate Now.

Absa OBP

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