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Nature

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Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change

Viewed from above, Greenland offers an endless vista of whiteness interrupted only by scattered ponds of azure-colored melt water. Ninety percent of Greenland is covered by ice; its ice sheet, the largest outside Antarctica, stretches almost 1,000 miles from north to south and 600 miles from east to west. But this stark view of ice and snow is changing—and changing rapidly. Greenland’s ice sheet is melting; the dazzling, photogenic display of icebergs breaking off Greenland’s rapidly melting glaciers has become a tourist attraction. The Fate of Greenland documents Greenland’s warming with dramatic color photographs and investigates episodes in Greenland’s climate history for clues about what happens when climate change is abrupt rather than gradual.

Greenland’s climate past and present could presage our climate future. Abrupt climate change would be cataclysmic: the melting of Greenland’s ice shelf would cause sea levels to rise twenty-four feet worldwide; lower Manhattan would be underwater and Florida’s coastline would recede to Orlando. The planet appears to be in a period of acute climate instability, exacerbated by carbon dioxide we pour into the atmosphere. As this book makes clear, it is in all of our interests to pay attention to Greenland.

Computer Explorations of Fractals, Chaos, Complex Systems, and Adaptation

"Simulation," writes Gary Flake in his preface, "becomes a form of experimentation in a universe of theories. The primary purpose of this book is to celebrate this fact."In this book, Gary William Flake develops in depth the simple idea that recurrent rules can produce rich and complicated behaviors. Distinguishing "agents" (e.g., molecules, cells, animals, and species) from their interactions (e.g., chemical reactions, immune system responses, sexual reproduction, and evolution), Flake argues that it is the computational properties of interactions that account for much of what we think of as "beautiful" and "interesting." From this basic thesis, Flake explores what he considers to be today's four most interesting computational topics: fractals, chaos, complex systems, and adaptation.

Each of the book's parts can be read independently, enabling even the casual reader to understand and work with the basic equations and programs. Yet the parts are bound together by the theme of the computer as a laboratory and a metaphor for understanding the universe. The inspired reader will experiment further with the ideas presented to create fractal landscapes, chaotic systems, artificial life forms, genetic algorithms, and artificial neural networks.

The extraordinary and adorable antics of penguins attract thousands of tourists every year to remote and icy locations. Penguins never fail to make people smile; wild penguins waddle up and inspect us as if we were just another kind of flightless creature walking on two legs. In this book, the vibrant world of penguins is shown in all its glory by David Tipling, who has trekked to beautiful and faraway locations to capture these birds in their natural habitats.

Tipling’s gorgeous full-color images catch moments rarely witnessed by humans. He shows us an Adélie penguin speeding through water at 25 mph; a line of King penguins in a snow squall; doting Emperor penguin parents with their fluffy chick; a young penguin nuzzling a camera’s telescopic lens; a Rockhopper penguin hopping from rock to rock; a large social gathering of Chinstrap penguins; the striking plumage and courtship display of a male Macaroni penguin; and much more. The book features 139 striking photographs of these unique birds taken in the wild. In the accompanying text, Tipling profiles all of the world’s seventeen penguin species, and chapters cover every aspect of their lives and behavior, including migration, defending against predators, and life in extreme climates.

This stunning book is a celebration of penguins that is sure to captivate any bird lover, wildlife enthusiast, or photography buff.

For as long has humans have lived in communities, storytelling has bound people to each other and to their environments. In recent times, scholars have noted how social networks arise around issues of resource and ecological management. In this book, Raul Lejano, Mrill Ingram, and Helen Ingram argue that stories, or narratives, play a key role in these networks—that environmental communities “narrate themselves into existence.” The authors propose the notion of the narrative-network, and introduce innovative tools to analyze the plots, characters, and events that inform environmental action. Their analysis sheds light on how environmental networks can emerge in unlikely contexts and sustain themselves against great odds.

The authors present three case studies that demonstrate the power of narrative and narratology in the analysis of environmental networks: a conservation network in the Sonoran Desert, which achieved some success despite U.S.-Mexico border issues; a narrative that bridged differences between community and scientists in the Turtle Islands; and networks of researchers and farmers who collaborated to develop and sustain alternative agriculture practice in the face of government inaction. These cases demonstrate that by paying attention to language and storytelling, we can improve our understanding of environmental behavior and even change it in positive ways.

What We Have Taken from Nature

The biosphere—the Earth’s thin layer of life—dates from nearly four billion years ago, when the first simple organisms appeared. Many species have exerted enormous influence on the biosphere’s character and productivity, but none has transformed the Earth in so many ways and on such a scale as Homo sapiens. In Harvesting the Biosphere, Vaclav Smil offers an interdisciplinary and quantitative account of human claims on the biosphere’s stores of living matter, from prehistory to the present day. Smil examines all harvests—from prehistoric man’s hunting of megafauna to modern crop production—and all uses of harvested biomass, including energy, food, and raw materials. Without harvesting of the biomass, Smil points out, there would be no story of human evolution and advancing civilization; but at the same time, the increasing extent and intensity of present-day biomass harvests are changing the very foundations of civilization’s well-being.

In his detailed and comprehensive account, Smil presents the best possible quantifications of past and current global losses in order to assess the evolution and extent of biomass harvests. Drawing on the latest work in disciplines ranging from anthropology to environmental science, Smil offers a valuable long-term, planet-wide perspective on human-caused environmental change.

Birdsong may seem to us to be the purest expression of joy, but in fact when a male bird bursts into melodious song, he is warning off other males and advertising his availability to females. He may also engage in spectacular displays of plumage, dance-like movements, or even acrobatics (tree-based or aerial)--all as part of courtship. The female, meanwhile, assesses his vocalization, plumage, and territory before accepting him as a mate. The Mating Lives of Birds offers an engaging and lavishly illustrated account of this most captivating phenomenon in the natural world: bird courtship and display. It explains how birds’ reproduction strategies have evolved, and describes bird monogamy, polygamy, polyandry, promiscuity, and communal living arrangements. It shows us dancing cranes, somersaulting hummingbirds, drumming ducks, and the outrageously extravagant plumage of birds of paradise. It describes group territorial displays, jousting males, and phalarope role reversal (with the female sporting brighter plumage)--not to mention elaborate nest decoration and the presentation of food offerings.

The book’s fascinating account of the mating behavior of bird species from around the world is illustrated by 140 vividly detailed color images. Birdwatchers will find The Mating Lives of Birds to be an essential addition to their libraries.

The Global Politics of Transgenic Crops

Genetic engineering has a wide range of cultural, economic, and ethical implications, yet it has become almost an article of faith that regulatory decisions about biotechnology be based only on evidence of specific quantifiable risks; to consider anything else is said to “politicize” regulation. In this study of social protest against genetically engineered food, Abby Kinchy turns the conventional argument on its head. Rather than consider politicization of the regulatory system, she takes a close look at the scientization of public debate about the “contamination” of crops resulting from pollen drift and seed mixing. Advocates of alternative agriculture confront the scientization of this debate by calling on international experts, carrying out their own research, questioning regulatory science in court, building alternative markets, and demanding that their governments consider the social and economic impacts of the new technologies.

Kinchy focuses on social conflicts over canola in Canada and maize in Mexico, drawing out their linkages to the global food system and international environmental governance. The book ultimately demonstrates the shortcomings of dominant models of scientific risk governance, which marginalize alternative visions of rural livelihoods and sustainable food production.

Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together

Rachel Carson’s classic 1956 essay “Help Your Child to Wonder” urged adults to help children experience the “sense of wonder” that comes only from a relationship with nature. It’s clear we haven’t succeeded in following her advice: eight-year-olds surveyed in the United Kingdom could identify more Pokémon characters than common wildlife species; and Richard Louv’s recent best-selling book Last Child in the Woods identifies a “nature deficit disorder” in children around the world. But today a growing number of environmentally minded parents, teachers, and other adults are seeking to restore nature to its rightful place in children’s lives. This anthology gathers personal essays recounting adventures great and small with children in the natural world.

The authors--writing as parents, teachers, mentors, and former children--describe experiences that range from bird watching to an encounter with an apple butter-loving grizzly bear. Rick Bass captures fireflies with his children and reflects on fatherhood; Michael Branch observes wryly that both gardening and parenting are “disciplines of sustainability”; Lauret Savoy wonders how African American children can connect to the the land after generations of estrangement; and Sandra Steingraber has “the big talk” with her children, not about sex but about global warming.

By turns lyrical, comic, and earnest, these writings guide us to closer connections with nature and with the children in our lives, for the good of the planet and our own spiritual and physical well-being.

Nature, Technology, and the Sustainable City

When rain falls on the city, it creates urban runoff that cause flooding, erosion, and water pollution. Municipal engineers manage a complex network of technical and natural systems to treat and remove these temporary water flows from cities as quickly as possible. Urban runoff is frequently discussed in terms of technical expertise and environmental management, but it encompasses a multitude of such nontechnical issues as land use, quality of life, governance, aesthetics, and community identity, and is central to the larger debates on creating more sustainable and livable cities. In this book, Andrew Karvonen uses urban runoff as a lens to view the relationships among nature, technology, and society. Offering theoretical insights from urban environmental history, human geography, landscape and ecological planning, and science and technology studies as well as empirical evidence from case studies, Karvonen proposes a new relational politics of urban nature.
After describing the evolution of urban runoff practices, Karvonen analyzes the urban runoff activities in Austin and Seattle--two cities known for their highly contested public debates over runoff issues and exemplary stormwater management practices. The Austin case study highlights the tensions among urban development, property rights, land use planning, and citizen activism; the Seattle case study explores the city’s long-standing reputation for being in harmony with nature. Drawing on these accounts, Karvonen suggests a new relational politics of urban nature that is situated, inclusive, and action-oriented to address the tensions among nature, technology, and society.

Adaptation and the Future of Human Life

Our forebears may have had a close connection with the natural world, but increasingly we experience technological nature. Children come of age watching digital nature programs on television. They inhabit virtual lands in digital games. And they play with robotic animals, purchased at big box stores. Until a few years ago, hunters could "telehunt"—shoot and kill animals in Texas from a computer anywhere in the world via a Web interface. Does it matter that much of our experience with nature is mediated and augmented by technology? In Technological Nature, Peter Kahn argues that it does, and shows how it affects our well-being.

Kahn describes his investigations of children's and adults' experiences of cutting-edge technological nature. He and his team installed "technological nature windows" (50-inch plasma screens showing high-definition broadcasts of real-time local nature views) in inside offices on his university campus and assessed the physiological and psychological effects on viewers. He studied children’s and adults' relationships with the robotic dog AIBO (including possible benefits for children with autism). And he studied online "telegardening" (a pastoral alternative to "telehunting").

Kahn's studies show that in terms of human well-being technological nature is better than no nature, but not as good as actual nature. We should develop and use technological nature as a bonus on life, not as its substitute, and re-envision what is beautiful and fulfilling and often wild in essence in our relationship with the natural world.

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