’Tis the season, so I asked people in the TerraPass office to look at their own shelves and recommend some eco-themed books or movies that affected them personally. I had no idea what titles people would come back with, and although the resulting list ranges widely, it also seems surprisingly cohesive. All the recommendations offer viscerally affecting images or first-person reportage. And all raise questions about the intertwined fate of man and nature that ultimately readers (or viewers) must resolve for themselves.
See our full list of books and DVDs. And please leave your own suggestions in comments.
Baraka, by Ron Fricke
Review by Michael Kadish
Released in the U.S. in 1993, Baraka is a living portrait of globalization. Filmed by a three-person crew over a period of 14 months in 24 countries across 6 continents, Baraka may not be for everyone. The movie contains no plot and no dialogue — but it does have monkey chanting! From Japanese snow monkeys bathing to whirling dervishes whirling away, Baraka begins by presenting the daily patterns of both nature and mankind’s rituals. These beautiful images turn ugly as the film shifts its focus to man’s dark side: the destruction of nature through strip mining and clear cutting forests; the soul-killing conditions of the slums and industrialized workplaces of the modern world; and finally to man’s capacity to kill each other. Baraka needs no words to make a powerful critique and present a hopeful reminder of humanity’s capacity to live in balance with nature and with itself.
The Control of Nature, by John McPhee
Review by Erin Craig
John McPhee’s The Control of Nature is a collection of three thematically linked examinations of people attempting to keep natural forces at bay: an engineering marvel which steers the Mississippi River flow towards New Orleans instead of its natural course down the Atchafalaya; an all-out battle fought by the people of Iceland to prevent a major fishing port from being overrun with lava; and the nearly invisible drama taking place every day as the San Gabriel mountains uplift and throw boulders at Los Angeles. Typical of McPhee essays, these illuminate not only the engineering and geophysical details of each situation, but also the people embroiled in the struggles.
Almost 20 years since its original publication, the book now reads as a strangely prescient glimpse of the look and feel of “adaptation” responses to climate change, in which certain climatic changes are accepted as inevitable and our challenge is to engineer around them so our lives and economy can continue more or less as usual. It’s a fascinating study of what would take — the money, the engineering genius, the determination and hubris — to combat natural forces as they act against our human designs for the world.
As a gift, this book is great for anyone with an engineering or natural science leaning. For yourself, save some carbon and see if it’s available from your local library!
Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind, by David Quammen
Review by Adam Stein
This book is about man-eating animals, but don’t be fooled by the seemingly lurid subject matter. David Quammen, best known for his columns in Outside Magazine, is one of our finest and most thoughtful natural history writers. He uses the topic as a jumping-off point for a rumination on conflict between man and nature at its most stark. It’s not always a cheery book — neither animals nor humans fare very well in these match-ups — but it is always thought-provoking. It’s also beautifully written. Almost unintentionally, Quammen has written a fantastic travel book, jumping from India to Australia to the Carpathian mountains to the Siberian wilderness in search of charismatic beasties.
Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser
Review by Katie Blatt
I haven’t eaten beef in almost 15 years, but believe in a “live and let live” philosophy and generally refrain from preaching to friends and family about their dietary habits. However, I do think people should be aware of how the ground beef in their hamburgers actually gets from pasture to plate. Fast Food Nation is an eye-opening exposé of the meat-packing industry. At the very least, it’ll leave you glad you don’t work in a slaughterhouse. Even if the animal welfare and environmental issues surrounding meat-eating don’t concern you, Fast Food Nation might make you reconsider that trip to the drive-thru on your way home tonight.
The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss, by Claire Nouvian
Review by Adam Stein
The deep ocean is almost as remote as the moon — and about a billion times weirder. The handsome photography in this coffee table book introduces you to some of the more picturesque black water inhabitants. A sampling of species: deep-sea spanish dancers, googly-eyed squid, sea pigs, vampire squid from hell (not making this up), giant isopods, radiolarians, green globe sponges, and a fantastic-looking jellyfish known only as The Big Red.
Some of the species pictured in the book don’t even have names yet. They may never. As the oceans grow warmer, mass extinction becomes a real possibility.