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Lock and Load: Books Provide Ordnance for Earth Day Salvo

I was striding through a subway tunnel somewhere under deepest Manhattan in early 1970 when I first encountered the term. A poster was mounted on the corridor wall — bearing, if memory serves, one of those riveting Apollo photographs of the Big Blue Marble and the words “Earth Day, April 22.”

My response was concise and easily articulated: “Huh?”

The late Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., later wrote that he founded the event because “it had been troubling me that the state of our environment was simply a non-issue in the politics of the country.”

A New York Times article in November 1969, foretelling “a national day of observance of environmental problems” the following spring, had given the event some traction, and I would soon learn that Earth Day events were planned nationwide.

Still, I remember thinking, as I looked at the poster, “Yeah, right.” I was probably marginally more aware of the concept of “ecology” than most, largely because a college professor of mine had been obsessed with the subject, which none of her students had heard of until she begun drumming it into our little heads. (Her name was Rita Atkins. Thanks, Rita.) But the notion of trying to rouse the entire human race to any sense of urgency over the interconnectedness of the global environment seemed preposterous. The human race was in deep and aggressive denial about the whole thing.
I wish I could report, 35 years later, that this denial is behind us, but in many ways, things have gotten worse. We’ll get to that.

There was no national environmental movement in 1970 — at least, nothing that registered on the radar of mainstream consciousness. The Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society et al had been toiling in the shadows for decades, lobbying for environmental legislation at the federal level and not getting their calls returned much.

Over the next 20 years, against all odds, the sleeping giant awoke. We got ourselves a Clean Air Act, a Clean Water Act and a lot more. People began swimming and catching fish in rivers that had been open sewers.

But in 2000, two former oil industry executives were elected (or appointed, depending on your point of view) president and vice president of the United States. Ever since, their administration has been so busy rolling back the progress of environmental law that one wonders how they find time to sleep at night. They have sold or leased the mineral rights to sprawling expenses of federal land, for pennies on the dollar, to special interests that were shamelessly lavish contributors to their campaign coffers.

They have worn down congressional resistance to drilling for oil in one of the last pristine places on earth to extract enough petroleum to last the United States roughly six months. They have fiercely resisted legislation aimed at funding serious development of alternative energy sources.

They’ve also fought an illegal war, eviscerated a proud legacy of human rights and proposed the first constitutional amendment in history dedicated to curtailing them, and so on.

This cabal of knaves was re-elected in 2004, so it’s now all officially happening with the knowing consent of the governed.

On Friday, April 22, we celebrate the 35th anniversary of Earth Day. Celebrate. Right. I think “mourn” is the more appropriate term.

But mourning accomplishes little. This is where my rallying-the-troops paragraph belongs; as an exercise in self-motivation, try writing your own.

Instead, I will roll out the heavy artillery of the 16-ton cliche: Knowledge is power. And the ammunition du jour? A certain catalog of certain books published by a certain publisher.

Truth be told, one would be hard-pressed to find a book in Chelsea Green’s catalog, that isn’t dedicated in some way to advancing the vision of Earth Day. From solar power to biodiesel, from permaculture to the self-evident fact that the earth’s capacity to absorb human expansion is finite, the catalog is practically a handbook of resources for Earth Day acolytes.

Consider Pinhook, an ode to wildness and wilderness restoration in which Janisse Ray recounts the battle to protect a vital watershed and wildlife corridor in Georgia through the eyes of those who live there: naturalists, beekeepers, homesteaders and hunters.

Or David Cook’s The Natural Step: Towards a Sustainable Society, which describes the framework of an organization that helps decision makers put sustainable development into action through the power of “systems thinking.” Teams furthering the Natural Step mindset are established in 10 countries, and there is growing activity in several others.

Tomm Stanley’s Going Solar and Joel Davidson and Frank Orner’s The New Solar Electric Home disarm the argument that solar power is not ready for a practical role in America’s energy mosaic. Going Solar reveals the hows and whys behind solar heating, and offers readers a handle on how to apply the technology to their own lives. The updated third edition of Davidson and Orner’s classic work condenses years of hands-on and industry experience into a concise education in photovoltaics, from deciding to embrace the technology to sizing, selecting, installing and maintaining your system.

Patrick Whitefield’s long-awaited The Earth Care Manual offers practical advice for the practice of permaculture (a sustainable alternative to modern agriculture) in cooler climates. What began with an emphasis on gardening has expanded to include everything from community design to energy use — an overall framework that puts a wealth of “green” ideas into perspective while stressing low work, high output and genuine sustainability.

Ross Mars’ The Basics of Permaculture Design introduces the novice to the principles of permaculture, with practical guidance on designing gardens, urban and rural properties, water harvesting systems, animal systems and permaculture in such small spaces as balconies and patios, farms, schools and “ecovillages.”

In The Permaculture Garden, Graham Bell shows how to turn a bare plot into a beautiful, productive garden while working in harmony with nature. Learn how to plan a garden for easy access and minimum labor; recycle materials to save money; plan crop successions for year-round harvests; save energy and harvest water; and garden without chemicals. Similarly, Bell’s The Permaculture Way shows how to design a lifestyle that is low in environmental impact and highly productive.

Considered a visionary classic since it was first published in 1972 as a study by four young MIT scientists, Limits to Growth shocked the world and became an international best-seller as Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows used a computer model to show the consequences of unchecked growth on a finite planet. The newly released update brings data on overshoot and global ecological collapse to the present moment, with projections into the coming century.

Intended for serious students of Limits of Growth, a companion CD permits users to reproduce graphs of the parameters for each of the book’s 10 scenarios, and print out 47 key variables in five-year increments from 1900 to 2100. The CD also includes 85 JPEG files of illustrations for use in lectures and classroom discussions.

Julian Darley’s timely expose High Noon for Natural Gas takes a hard-hitting look at natural gas as an energy source, outlining the implications of our increased dependence on natural gas and its potential to cause serious environmental, political and economic consequences. Readers will find a critical analysis of government energy policy, as well as a carefully researched warning about our next potentially catastrophic energy crisis.

If all these issues seem overpowering, Lisa Harrow’s What Can I Do? brings sustainable living back to the personal level. Concern for the planet’s health led the award-winning actress and her husband, famed whale biologist Roger Payne, to create a performance piece, Lessons from Copernicus, that left audience members wanting to know how they could help. Harrow’s practical and charming “Alphabet for Living” provides a long list of Web sites, selected for their wealth of information and links, where readers can find valuable tools for fresh ways to view the world and live gently in it.

There’s more, of course. Manuals for building energy-efficient homes don’t seem as far-fetched as they did a generation ago. We stewards of the Earth can make political statements by the foods we choose to eat and how we prepare them. We Can “Just Say No” to genetically engineered foods and industrial agriculture.

Need some practical advice on composting, seed selection, bread baking? Or books that inspire simply by the beauty of photographs of the natural world? Or — well, how about just remaining an optimist in the face of it all?

It’s all here. Feel the power.

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