Friday, March 7, 2014

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

Image: The Sixth Extinction cover, via Macmillan (source)

My initial goal for a review of The Sixth Extinction was an interview with the author, Elizabeth Kolbert.  I interviewed Melissa Harrison about her book, Clay, and readers of this blog enjoyed it very much.  The questions I would have asked of Elizabeth Kolbert were: (1) How did you decide on the book's title? (2) How did you prepare for the various research trips you undertook? (3) Did you purposefully select species and places or were the trips fortuitous? (4) Did you purchase carbon offsets for your travel? (5) What inspired the structure of the book?

The alternate approach was a conventional review. To prepare, I read reviews published in the New York Times (written by Al Gore!), the Boston Globe, the Seattle Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Wall Street Journal. Most of these reviews were favorable and made similar observations about the book. Elizabeth Kolbert provides a fascinating overview of the development of extinction science. Animals become extinct with repeated human encounters either through direct action (hunting) or indirect activities (habitat loss via logging). We are in the midst of a sixth extinction period that is not only terrestrial and atmospheric (aka climate change/global warming) but also oceanic (aka ocean acidification).

Of the reviews I read, the WSJ review was the only one that explicitly challenged the arguments made by the author. The reviewer, Rupert Darwall, wrote that environmental focus has shifted from "the atmosphere to the oceans, to search there for the most likely candidates for extinction" and also raised the issue of scientific revolution, paradigm shifts, "and the contingent nature of scientific interpretation." These observations sparked a sixth interview question for me: What was your research methodology? What was your process for validation with the wealth of data and information available to you?

I enjoyed many aspects of this book of which I will share three. One, the organization was inspired. Each chapter, through the device of an extinct or threatened species, explored an extinction period or extinction-causing process.  The great auk of "The Original Penguin" illustrated an early instance of human-caused extinction and coincidentally occurred during Darwin's lifetime. Declines in reef biodiversity point to effects of ocean acidification.  Tree species "dropping out" of tropical forests underscore the significance of climate.  An extended quote here offers a better explanation than I can draft: "'In other kinds of human disturbances there were always spatial refuges. Climate affects everything.'"

The second aspect of the book I enjoyed was its lexicographical nature. Reading The Sixth Extinction was like reading a glossary of extinction science.  Are you familiar with the term hibernaculum?  I wasn't until I read "The New Pangaea" about bats and white-nose syndrome.  What of SAR aka species area relationship? I felt like I should have known this one having studied ecology.

Finally, the third feature of the book I was drawn to was its concluding message.  It is not exuberantly hopefully, but neither is it positively pessimistic.  Part of Elizabeth Kolbert's takeaway is not that humans are simply changing the biosphere, but that humans are changing the biosphere at an unprecedented rate. Furthermore, the rate of change is producing path dependent effects.  Here again I include an extended quote:
Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed.  No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be out most enduring legacy.  The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust....
Elizabeth Kolbert is on Twitter as @ElizKolbert.  Her website is

Thank you to Emily Kobel at Henry Holt for the advance reader's edition of The Sixth Extinction.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Look inside florists' windows

One place I look to for signs of spring's arrival are the windows of florist shops.  Two of the florists on my morning walk were still sporting lots of winter flora.

Image: Interior of fleursBELLA
What's happening in your local florists' windows?

There were a couple of bright spots on the sidewalk in front of the furniture store Nadeau.

What is brightening up your neighborhood's streets?

Friday, February 28, 2014

Short Stack: Books about urban animals

Did you think of three small pancakes when you read the title of this series?  Instead of pancakes, we offer three books around a theme.  This week the theme is books about urban animals.  This is a recommended reading list, not a review series.  Happy reading!

Image: Architecture According to Pigeons cover via Phaidon (source)
I learned about this fun-looking book from the McNally Jackson Books newsletter.  The bookstore hosted a children's story and art time based on this book.

Image: On Looking cover via Tulsa Public Radio (source)
Alexandra Horowitz's observations reminded me of books about seeing and reading the landscape by authors such as J.B. Jackson, Grady Clay, Paul Groth, Dolores Hayden, and others.  The chapter devoted to animals is titled "The Animals Among Us."  Also, check out William Cronon's guide to how to read a landscape.

Image: The Urban Bestiary cover via Hachette Book Group (source)
This book is a delightful combination of natural history, myths, and direct observation.  It's quite like a guidebook to emblematic urban fauna.

Have you read any of these books?  What are your favorite books about urban animals?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Joe Dobrow's Natural Prophets book launch

Author and marketer Joe Dobrow is on a cross country tour for his new book, Natural Prophets: A History of the Natural Foods Industry published by Rodale.  A graduate of the Yale School of Management, launch events in New York (Feb. 26) and Los Angeles (Mar. 5) have been organized by Yale alumni organizations.  A third major city launch event in D.C. is scheduled for March 20th.  I attended the NYC launch held at GustOrganics, "the first and only certified organic restaurant in New York".  (Disclosure: I paid the entry fee and live-tweeted the event on behalf of Yale Blue Green.)

Dobrow's book, which I have not read, examines the emergence and rise of the natural and organic foods movement.  In the event description for the NYC launch, the Feb. 26, 1989 airing of a 60 Minutes segment about the potentially harmful effects of Alar or daminozide, the ripening agent and food additive used on conventional apples and in apple products. Last night's launch was scheduled "by happenstance" 25 years after the "Alar scare" and "panic for organic". In an article authored by Dobrow about the Sprouts Farmers Market IPO, he listed three catalytic events of the natural foods industry: the Alar scare of 1989, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, and the Whole Foods Market IPO in January 1992 which raised $22.5 million.

Natural prophets (have you gotten the double meaning yet?) featured in the book are guests at each launch event. Myra and Drew Goodman of Earthbound Farms attended the NYC launch. Myra Goodman is a dynamic storyteller as is Joe Dobrow! Earthbound Farms began in 1984 as a "2.5 acre garden" and has expanded to 50,000 acres. The company was sold late last year for $600 million. Earthbound Farm was the first company to successfully sell packaged salad greens. One of the funny stories told my Myra: the company began labeling its Ziploc bags of pre-washed lettuce with "Inspect before eating" stickers when Billy Crystal was upset to find a caterpillar in his salad! Natural and organic, indeed.  Attendees of the NYC launch also heard from Dan MacCombie, co-founder and co-CEO of Runa, a guayusa products company.  The line-up for Los Angeles includes Sandy Gooch (founder of Mrs. Gooch’s), Paddy Spence (CEO of Zevia natural sodas), and Russell Parker (former head buyer for Whole Foods and currently SVP at Nature’s Best, one of the industry’s largest distributors). In DC, Paula Johnson, Smithsonian food curator, will moderate a discussion featuring Seth Goldman, President and TeaEO of Bethesda-based Honest Tea.  Check out the Natural Prophets tour calendar for events in your community.

Attendees of the NYC launch were given goodie bags with products from Runa, Zevia, Kind, Earthbound Farms, and OCHO (for organic chocolate).  I look forward to buying salad greens, eating my coconut chocolate bar (would like to try the caramel & peanut bar, too), and drinking a sugar-free, Stevia-sweetened soda.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Nature Table: Planting vegetables and herbs at school

I am fascinated by the nature table, a concept I learned about on a Montessori blog I follow titled How We Montessori.  I am sharing a nature table from a local nursery school.  Today the children in one of the classrooms planted a variety of vegetables and herbs including tomatoes and chives.  I will share a nature table on a windowsill at home in the weeks to come.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Before & After Green: Domenici U.S. Courthouse Water Retrofit

Image: Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse pre-construction, courtesy of Biohabitats, Inc.

Image: Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse post-construction, courtesy of Biohabitats, Inc.

A conventional landscape of "turf grass, impermeable paving, and high water-use plants" in arid Albuquerque was retrofitted with water sustainability in mind by Rios Clementi Hale Studios (Lead Landscape Architect) and Biohabitats, Inc. (Civil, Water Reclamation, Plumbing consultants) among others (see the Sustainable Sites profile for the complete project team). 

Image: Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse during construction, courtesy of Biohabitats, Inc.

The landscape in question is the 4.4 acre Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse. A lot of concrete was removed - "over 21,000 square feet of existing concrete" - and a 16,000 gallon underground cistern was installed. The combination of the rainfall-capture cistern and the replacement of turf with native plants has led to a 86% plus reduction in the site's water use.

Other green stormwater infrastructure features, installed by Biohabitats, include vegetated swales, rock gardens, biofiltration beds, an efficient drip irrigation system, and "a flow meter along the sidewalk [to generate] public awareness of the rainwater collection system."

Image: Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse pre-construction, courtesy of Biohabitats, Inc.

Image: Pete V. Domenici U.S. Courthouse post-construction, courtesy of Biohabitats, Inc.

The dramatic planting design is based on the Rio Grande Floodplain Bosque ecology with a "palette comprised of drought adapted plants and 79 percent native plants." Check out the New Mexico Museum of Natural History's Bosque Education Guide.

Our thanks to Jean Wisenbaugh of Biohabitats, Inc. for providing the photographs used in this essay.

Other posts in the Before & After Green series: Seoul's Cheonggyecheon Stream, Schenley Plaza, East River Stormwater Vegetative Control, Halcyon Commons, 9th Avenue USPS Building

Wednesday, February 19, 2014