Ask Plenty

Top 10 green books of 2008

Q. My new year’s resolution is to read more in 2009. What are some important new-ish green titles I should start with? – Martin, NH

A. As Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “there is no frigate like a book / to take us lands away.” Or, in the case of most eco-tomes, there is no frigate like a book to depress the hell out of us, make apocalypse feel menacingly imminent, and cause us to chuck all our toxic personal care products and beloved Teflon frying pans in the trash. 

Actually, it’s not all that dire. Green publishing flourished in 2008, and while some of the year’s titles admittedly did a bit of the usual finger-wagging and jargon-spewing, many were inspiring, accessible, and even—gasp—enjoyable. Here’s our list of 2008's green must-reads.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, and How It Can Renew America
By Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $27.95

You’ve probably got an opinion or ten about New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman—most do. Maybe you’re a technology diehard and think the sun shines out of his Lexus. Maybe you bash him at cocktail parties for his support of biofuels, globalization, and carbon trading—and wish those Brown University students who hurtled two pies at him during an energy speech on campus had done more. Whatever sentiments his name evokes in you, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Friedman's fifth book, is one green title you’ll want to read if only for the major buzz it’s garnered. Drawing heavily on reporting done for his column, extensive world travels, and conversations with an overwhelming number of today’s fascinating leaders—from Bill Gates to the Crown Prince of Bahrain—Friedman calls America to a no-nonsense revolution. Revolution means sacrifice and hard work, he says, but time is running out for our hot, flat (as in economically leveling, due to rapidly expanding and resource-hungry middle classes worldwide), and crowded world. Meanwhile, post-9/11 fear is undoing the spirit of openness and exploration that made America great. Enter: Operation Code Green, Friedman’s blueprint for saving the planet and curing America of its economic and entrepreneurial maladies all at once. Friedman’s knack for asking the big questions at the intersection of politics, economics, sociology, and environment, and for drawing memorable quotes and anecdotes out of prominent figures, makes for an absorbing read. – Tobin Hack 

The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-Being
By Nena Baker

North Point Press, $24
It’s no fun to be told that toxins in the shampoo you’ve used for decades, the fire-retardants covering your electronic equipment, or the nonstick Teflon pan you love so dearly could be hijacking your body’s systems—just as they do the planet’s ecosystems—and contributing to cancer rates, diabetes, and birth defects. But unfortunately, in the span of only about 100 years, we’ve rushed headlong into “better living through chemistry,” and we’ve done it all blindly, thanks to an antiquated 1976 Toxic Control Act that does not mandate toxicity testing for chemicals used in everything from carpeting to liquid cleaners to cosmetics. We’re our own lab rats, effectively, and the test results coming back today don’t look good. But Baker is neither obsessive nor alarmist. She calmly presents two decades’ worth of critical research into the science and industries behind leading chemical culprits such as pthalates, pesticides, and PFOAs. In an appendix, she outlines the reasonable, manageable steps she’s taken to detox her own home, body, and lifestyle—a good reason to start this book in the back. - TH

Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It
By Elizabeth Royte
Bloomsbury USA, $24.99

They say the wars of the twenty first century will be fought over water, not oil. In this “fascinating if not terribly comprehensive” book, as New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani put it, Royte “uses the story of a face-off between the small town of Fryeburg, Me., and the giant Swiss food conglomerate Nestlé, which, as the owner of Poland Spring water, sucked more than 168 million gallons of water out of Fryeburg in 2005 alone, as a prism through which to look at the many issues at stake in these water wars.” International Herald Tribune’s Lisa Margonelli added that “Where others are bold, Bottlemania is subversive, and after you read it you will sip warily from your water bottle (whether purchased or tap, plastic or not), as freaked out by your own role in today's insidious water wars as by Royte's recommended ecologically responsible drink: ‘Toilet to tap.’ Eww. Sorry.” Good—it’s about time someone made us face up to the truth behind our dirty little water habit. – TH 

Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water
By Maude Barlow
New Press, $24.95

As author—and head of the Blue Planet Project—Barlow told in February, "There are many parts of the world that are already running out of fresh water: 22 countries in Africa, all of Northern China, big parts of India, Australia, Mexico City, the whole Middle East, most of the US southwest. This isn’t a cyclical drought, and it reflects very badly on us that we’re so unready for it. I worry about the corporate control of water and dependence on technology instead of conservation and source protection. In the global north, [there's] this myth of abundance and the notion that somebody will fix it. In Arizona they’re going to build a water park on the desert [with] waves you can surf on—in the middle of the desert. In the global south, [there's] desperate poverty and inequality. But you have to find a balance between lecturing people and hoping the word comes to them." Barlow's Blue Covenant successfully strikes that balance—no surprise that she's become one of the world's foremost water activists, or that she was recently appointed Senior Water Advisor to United Nations General Assembly Head, Father Miguel d'Escoto Brockman. We're listening. - TH 

Why I Came West
By Rick Bass
Houghton Mifflin, $24

Rick Bass made Montana’s Yaak valley his home because it made him feel small, because it was full of stories, and because he knew at first sight that he would forever feel compelled to protect it. Why I Came West is part memoir, and part petition on behalf of one of America’s great, wild, fragile territories—now threatened by loggers and pressure to build roads that scar the land. Bass’ humorous, self-effacing, wise, and meandering musings on place, self, and nature will hit home no matter where yours is. - TH 

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
By Michael Pollan
Penguin Press, $21.95

In the past 50 years, nutritionists have transformed how we think about what we eat. If we could just figure out exactly what is healthy and unhealthy about a particular food, their reasoning goes, we could take the bad stuff out, put more good stuff in, and presto! A wonder-food! But nourishment straight from the garden, it turns out, is almost always superior to the tinkered-with “food-like substances” (think low-carb pasta and whole-grain sugar cereals) that line supermarket shelves. Fans of Pollan’s last book take heed: In Defense of Food is not groundbreaking like The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In essence, it’s about the importance of eating foods that aren’t too heavily processed. This philosophy is by no means radical—in fact, it harkens back to a time before the organic and local movements, when labels at health food stores simply said, “all natural.” But the fun is in following Pollan to his conclusion. Perhaps the most rewarding section of the book is the last, where he offers a list of rules to eat by. This is no dull nutritional litany; Pollan’s instructions are witty, and they pithily make the point that how we eat may be just as important as what we eat. The rule “Do all your eating at a table” has only seven words of explanation: “No, a desk is not a table.” Now there’s a lesson that won’t go out of style. – Kiera Butler 

Earth: The Sequel – the race to reinvent energy and stop global warming
By Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn
W.W. Norton, $24.95

As President of the Environmental Defense Fund, Fred Krupp is uniquely positioned to deliver a manifesto on the state of our little blue world. Earth is his call for action, focused primarily on the inventors who will “stabilize our climate, generate enormous economic growth and save the planet.” A tall order, but Krupp insists said innovators are up to the job—so long as both politicians and entrepreneurs work to help them compete in the global marketplace. In the sea of global warming books, this one stands out for its hopeful and authoritative focus on new technologies. – TH 

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
Edited by Bill McKibben
The Library of America, $40

If you think literary environmental writing died with Thoreau at Walden Pond, Bill McKibben is ready, willing, and able to prove you wrong. In this inspiring (and seriously hefty) anthology, he pulls together seminal writings from dozens of greats like Walt Whitman, Terry Tempest Williams, and John McPhee, with a foreword from Al Gore. Also expect a bit of formal policy (an excerpt from the Wilderness Act, for example), as well as historical pop culture surprises like lyrics to Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” A Norton Anthology for any student serious about America’s environmental legacy. - TH 

World Made By Hand
A novel By James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press, $22

Welcome to Union Grove, just one of myriad American towns facing the end of oil, and the chaos, lack of transportation, hunger, disease, violence, and political unrest that come with it. In this new era, farmers are nobility, and neighbors give each other medical treatment and legal advice not because they’re paid to do so, but because their collective survival depends upon it. World is Kunstler’s first fictional treatment of the end of oil, a topic he’s been onto since his fast-paced, sweeping book The Long Emergency (2005). While it isn’t great literature—logistical information forced into characters’ dialogue too often betrays Kunstler’s agenda, and his prose is more efficient than graceful—it’s an intriguing thought experiment, and effective as the pulse-quickening social awakening it means to be. - TH

The Life of the Skies: Birding at the end of nature
By Jonathan Rosen
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $24

Forget baseball—birding is the national pastime, or would be anyway, if Jonathan Rosen were king. Life is an exploration of birding as the intersection between the natural world and the industrial world, as Rosen’s antidote to nature deficit disorder. Enriched with revelations from history, science, and theology, the book is generously sprinkled with literary candy (references to Henry James, Kafka, Tennyson, D.H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, Saul Bellow, Keats, Frost, and practically everyone else). It’s an elegant and honest account of how Rosen learned to live by learning to bird—and by following the elusive, possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, in particular. You’ll agree, by the time you put the book down, that “Looking up is the best we can do.” - TH

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Are natural sea sponges greener than synthetic shower poofs?

Q. I'm trying to green my bath and beauty routine, and I'm wondering about natural sea sponges. They seem to be more eco-friendly than plastic shower poofs, but they come from live animals and I'd hate to contribute to the depletion of ocean species. Is it green to use a sea sponge? – Marianna, MT

A. A little background: Sea sponges are some of the oldest and simplest multi-celled organisms on the planet. They live in almost every aquatic environment, filtering nutrients from the water through their pores. Humans have been bathing with their spongy skeletons for thousands of years.  

According to an article from the University of Florida, there are two methods for harvesting sea sponges: fishermen either dive for them, cutting them from the sea floor with knives, or they spot sponges from the surface of the water and tear them loose with long hooks. If enough of the sponge is left behind, it will regenerate itself. Cutting sponges increases the chance of survival, but the U of F estimates that even hooked sponges will grow back about a third of the time.

So the sea sponge’s regenerative properties make it an ideal candidate for sustainable harvesting or even farming. Unfortunately, although some personal care companies do tout their bath sponges as being “sustainable,” there’s no third party certification in place as of yet to verify their claims. That said, we don’t seem to be in danger of over-harvesting: Synthetic sponges still dominate the market, and Florida, the nation’s largest supplier of sea sponges, currently produces about 60,000 pounds of sponges per year. That’s a mere tenth of what the state was producing before World War II. Truth be told, global warming is probably a much greater threat to the humble sponge than are beauty companies. 

It’s worth mentioning, also, that the process of turning a live sea sponge into a beauty product produces very little waste, and requires no chemicals. Sea sponges are biodegradable, to boot, not-endangered, and lack a nervous system with which to feel pain.

So we say go for it. Just don’t tell your kids their new scrubbie used to be Spongebob, or you’ll never get them in the tub again. 

Finally, a bit of trivia, to wrap things up: Many sea sponge farms, like this one in New Zealand, cultivate sponges for medical research. Natural chemicals in these critters have been shown to kill cancer cells—arguably a greater feat than skin exfoliation, and reason number 147 for us all to work to preserve our planet’s precious biodiversity.

- Rachel Brown

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Is there concrete evidence for the health benefits of childhood nature play?

Q. Having raised our two children in a major city, my husband and I sometimes worry that we didn’t get them outside often enough. I know people link outdoor play to better health, but can you tell me more specifically what the benefits are?  – Eileen, NY 

A. Timely question, Eileen. The $500 million No Child Left Inside Act (H.R. 3036, sponsored by Rep. John Sarbanes and Sen. Jack Reed) was passed by the House on September 18th of this year and might actually be up for Senate scrutiny in early 2009 if all goes well. In anticipation, the No Child Left Inside  (NCLI) coalition has already drafted an open letter to the President-elect, urging him to throw his weight behind the bill. According to a September 18 government press release, “The legislation would improve existing environmental education programs by providing states with resources to train teachers, develop research-based programs and create environmental literacy plans to ensure that students understand the role of the environment as a natural resource.” In other words, it would get kids outside and instill in them a bit of awe and respect for the natural world.

But the real authority when it comes to nature play and outdoor education is Richard Louv—Audubon Medal winner, author of 2005 bestseller Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, and founder of the Children & Nature Network. Plenty interviewed Louv back in September (read the full Q&A here). Having literally written the book on the importance of nature play, Louv had this to say about its psychological and physical health benefits: 

“Children benefit greatly from unstructured play, particularly make-believe play. And kids are far more creative in natural play spaces than on the typical flat playground, whether it’s made of concrete or turf. They are far more likely to invent their own games in natural places. And in schools that have outdoor classrooms kids tend to do better across the board from social studies to standardized testing. One reason is that other than in a New York subway, when else do you use all your senses at the same time? It seems to me that using all of your senses at the same time is the optimum state of learning. When you’re sitting in front of a computer screen, or locked in a cubicle called a classroom, you’re not using all your senses at the same time. Outdoors, you are.


Nature play has also been correlated with a longer attention span, and studies show it’s an antidote to child obesity. Psychological health is another benefit: kids with more experience in nature, even if it’s just a view from their room of a natural landscape are more psychologically resilient, or correlated to more psychological resilience.”

Creativity, greater capacity for attentive learning, sharpened senses, physical fitness, psychological resilience—there’s clearly no dearth of reasons to get children outdoors as early as possible. If you’re a numbers person, and this all sounds a little touchy-feely to you, try these stats on for size: According to a study done at the University of Illinois, “children with ADHD demonstrate greater attention after a 20-minute walk in a park than after a similar walk in a downtown area or a residential neighborhood.” 

Another study, conducted on at-risk children by The American Institutes for Research for the California Department of Education, found that week-long outdoor education programs produced a 27 percent increase in “measured mastery of science concepts; enhanced cooperation and conflict resolution skills; gains in self-esteem; gains in positive environmental behavior; and gains in problem-solving, motivation to learn, and classroom behavior.” Not too shabby.

The good news for your kids, Eileen (if it’s true that they didn’t get out much in early childhood), is that it’s not just young children who benefit from outdoor education. A 1998 study by Dr. Stephen R. Kellert at Yale University looked at the positive effects of wilderness trips on teens, studying youth enrolled in programs with the Student Conservation Association (SCA), National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and Outward Bound. Kellert found that the teens’ experiences inspired lasting growth on personal, intellectual, and even spiritual levels. Participants left with greater self-esteem, self-confidence, independence, autonomy, and initiative.

So it’s like George Eliot, wise lady, said in the late 1800’s: “Never too late to be the treehugger you might have been.” 

-         Tobin Hack

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What's sodium coco sulfate, and is it bad for me?

Q. I've heard that we should avoid sodium laurel sulfate in shampoo because it's toxic, so I buy shampoo that’s "SLS-free,” but now I’ve noticed that it contains something called sodium coco sulfate instead. Is this actually a better alternative or just an example of green-washing? – James, MI

A. You’re smart to wonder about this suspicious-sounding sodium coco sulfate—not only because your body is a temple, but also because we all vote (with our wallets) for better personal care product health standards every single time we make a purchase. With the Organic Consumers Association reporting that even supposedly “organic” body care lines often contain carcinogens, we know we’ve got miles to go before we sleep.

So let’s talk science. “SLS” can actually refer to two different, but similar-sounding chemicals—one of which is merely irritating and the other of which may be linked to cancer. Both are a type of surfactant, which are what allow shampoos and other detergents to suds up and clean really well, explains Sean Gray, senior analyst for the Environmental Working Group. For years, the most common surfactant was sodium laurel sulfate, or SLS. Unfortunately, it irritates lots of people’s skin, so companies started looking for ways to improve it. They started putting sodium laurel sulfate through a marvelous process whereby it becomes sodium laureth sulfate, which does the same job, but without irritating skin. That’s great, right?

Wrong. This marvelous process leaves behind two chemicals, ethylene oxide and 1, 4-dioxane, both of which are, you guessed it, carcinogens. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. Anyway, both the skin irritation problems associated with sodium laurel sulfate and the potential cancer risks associated with sodium laureth sulfate (which can be called either SLS or SLES) have lead to a profusion of “SLS-free” and “SLES-free” shampoos and other sudsy products. Most of these new products use sodium coco sulfate as a replacement surfactant, which brings us, finally, to your question.

Actually, shampoo makers finally seem to have gotten it right this time. Sodium coco sulfate is a coconut derivative, and though it hasn’t been subjected to as much testing and scrutiny as have more widely-used ingredients, it does indeed seem to be a safer alternative to SLS. It’s less irritating than sodium laurel sulfate, but   doesn’t contain the cancerous byproducts of evil twin cousin sodium laureth sulfate, says Gray. So go ahead and lather up, without working yourself into a lather over SCS. Believe it or not, your shampoo sounds like a pretty safe option. Rub a dub dub, treehuggers in the tub.

-         Sarah Schmidt

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Is it safe to eat foods labeled "irradiated"?

Q. During the winter, I tend to buy a lot of fruits and veggies from overseas, and some of them have an irradiation sticker. What does it mean when fruit is “irradiated”? Is it safe? – Meredith, KS 

A. Well, you may grow a third eye like the fish that live outside the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant in “The Simpsons,” but other than that…

Just joking. Food irradiation—like pasteurization—is a measure taken to protect consumers from bacteria like E. coli. How it works, basically, is that foods are quickly zapped with gamma rays or electron beams. This, according to the Food and Drug Administration, “reduces spoilage bacteria, insects and parasites, and in certain fruits and vegetables inhibits sprouting and delays ripening.” That means a longer shelf life for irradiated items, as well as more flexibility and convenience for shippers. That's why you see a lot of irradiated fruit from overseas in the winter.

Wondering how E. Coli is getting into your food? Washoff from animal feedlots is the main culprit. Enjoy this savory passage from Fast Food Nation:

"Steven Bjerkli, former editor of Meat & Poultry, opposes irradiation... he thinks it will reduce pressure on the meatpacking industry to make fundamental and necessary changes in their production methods, allowing unsanitary practices to continue. 'I don't want to be served irradiated feces with my meat,' Bjerkli says."  

So E. Coli's no party, granted, but are irradiated foods safe to eat either? Depends on who you ask. The Environmental Protection Agency says it’s safe, as does the Center for Disease Control, the FDA, and the World Health Organization.

However (you knew that was coming), industry watchdogs like the Center for Food Safety say that irradiated food can sometimes contain mutagens, substances that cause gene and chromosome irregularities, and may even be carcinogenic. Food and Water Watch warns that irradiated fruit can sometimes lose nutrients and vitamins during storage, and both groups state that irradiated food can just taste kind of yucky. Naturally (no pun intended), Organic Consumers pans irradiated food altogether, bringing up the additional point that irradiant-resistant bacteria could evolve from the practice—the danger being that we could be stuck with super-bacteria, and no way to kill them. 

Currently, the FDA mandates that the irradiated fruits, vegetables, and meats you buy in the store have to be labeled as such. Unfortunately, when companies use irradiated ingredients in processed foods, like frozen dinners, they’re not required to give you a heads up on the label. The food you’re served in restaurants doesn’t have to be labeled either. If you’re concerned and want to avoid irradiated foods, check out Food and Water Watch’s list of irradiated foods from around the world.

So sure, it can’t hurt to avoid irradiated foods for the above health reasons. But it also can’t hurt to avoid them simply because they tend to come from overseas. Irradiated or not, genetically modified or not, if your food took a six thousand mile journey to arrive in your kitchen, it’s got a hefty carbon footprint you probably don’t want on your eco-conscience.  

-         Rachel Brown

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