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Happy Earth Day (PT. 3): Top Five Myths, and Top Five Books

Our friends over at ReasonTV have produced this snappy video on the top five environmental myths. Definitely worth a viewing.
Meanwhile, in my new Almanac of Environmental Trends I offer a list of the 12 best environmental books, and they’re not any of the titles you find on most environmental studies reading lists (i.e., no Silent Spring, Population Bomb, or Limits to Growth). Here I’ve condensed the list to the top five:
• Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. First published in 1949, this memoir by the great Wisconsin naturalist Aldo Leopold makes a lyrical case for what he called the “land ethic.” “That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology,” Leopold wrote, “but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.” But Leopold was no pure romanticist. He recognized the importance of prosperity, and that a modern economy was necessary for any environmental ethic to flourish. “These wild things,” he wrote on the first page of A Sand County Almanac, “had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast.”
• Alston Chase, Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America’s First National Park (1987). Written a year before the catastrophic fires that burned most of Yellowstone’s trees, Chase explores how an area seemingly so beautiful can in fact be an ecological disaster area because of our hubristic belief that it could be “scientifically managed.” It is a good object lesson in our casual belief that government bureaucrats are good at protecting the environment. Chase’s prose is bracing: “As a wildlife refuge, Yellowstone is dying. Indeed, the park’s reputation as a great game sanctuary is perhaps the best-sustained myth in American conservation history and the story of its decline perhaps one of our government’s best-kept secrets.”
• Terry Anderson and Don Leal, Free Market Environmentalism (2nd edition, 2001). “Free market environmentalism” might seem like an oxymoron to the conventional environmentalist, and indeed it still gives some a case of the vapors. “Economics is a form of brain damage,” the great environmentalist David Brower once proclaimed. But Anderson and Leal, Montana economists and sportsmen, relate through numerous case studies how the basic economic concepts of incentives, property rights, and common law rather than bureaucratic regulation are no less important to environmental protection than any other sphere of social life. This “Berlitz course,” as Anderson and Leal describe their book, does not offer answers for every kind of environmental problem, but has been influential in getting conventional environmental leaders and organizations to rethink their views about the role of economics in environmental protection.
• Daniel Botkin, Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the 21st Century (1990; new edition forthcoming). Botkin, an award-winning ecologist and wildlife biologist, challenges the common view that nature and ecosystems would persist in a stable equilibrium in the absence of outside disturbances from humans, and that this misperception, often embedded in accepted scientific models and government policy, is an impediment to real progress of environmental knowledge. Botkin’s splendidly written narrative combines provocative reflections on prominent human perspectives on the natural world from Lucretius through Roderick Nash along with illuminating case studies of African elephants and north American wolves and moose.
• Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Break Through: From The Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (2007). Nordhaus and Shellenberger represent a generational shift within the environmental movement. The authors scorn the apocalypticism that has dominated environmental discourse, seeing its essential pessimism as a hindrance to political and social success. They also acknowledge and repudiate the misanthropy that often comes to the surface in environmental agitation; humans and what we make are a part of the planet’s environment, too. Environmentalists “see in housing development only the loss of nonhuman habitat–not the construction of vital human habitat. Thus, the vast majority of environmental strategies aim to constrain rather than unleash human activity.” And they reject environmental romanticism, noting, as with other forms of political romanticism, its danger: “Environmental tales of tragedy begin with Nature in harmony and almost always end in quasi-authoritarian politics.” While the author’s recommendation that the environmental movement reconstitute itself within a broad-spectrum “progressive” movement may be doubtful, the serious-self criticism from within the environmental movement is a refreshing and positive development.
There are several other worthy authors (Wallace Kaufmann comes to mind) who could easily be in any top five list, but this is enough for today.

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