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Sierra Magazine
In Print: Book Reviews

Environmental Values in American Culture
by Willet Kempton, James S. Boster, and Jennifer A. Hartley
MIT Press, $39.95 Even before scientists confirmed global warming, many people believed the climate was changing. Of Sierra Club members, Earth First! members, owners of dry-cleaning services, sawmill workers, and the general public, who do you suppose were the most likely to demand scientific proof before jumping to this conclusion?

If it piques your curiosity to learn that the answer is Sierra Club members and sawmill workers, then it's worth browsing this collection, whose lead author is Willet Kempton, an anthropologist at the University of Delaware.

By combining the polling of political scientists with the cultural perspectives of anthropologists, the authors explain both what we think about environmental issues and why.

They discovered that the U.S. public is far more unified around a set of environmental values and beliefs than most commentators assume. They also found that while many values and beliefs are drawn from environmental science, individuals' interpretation of that science is itself unscientific. (Sierra Club members are an exception to this, with beliefs closer to those of scientific specialists than others.)

Scientists themselves offer very different perspectives on ecology, some emphasizing nature's fragility, others its robustness. Americans consistently select interpretations that emphasize fragility because they are fundamentally conservative and risk-averse.

"The American cultural model has selected (from the available scientific paradigms) stable equilibrium over continuous disturbance, fragile interdependency over functional redundancy, and chaotic unpredictability over predictable regularities." The public chooses the cautious alternative from each of these three models, believing that "ecological science cannot consistently predict which changes will cause chain reactions and which will not," and that therefore "human disturbances are in fact risky, even if dire results are infrequent."

Willingness to act on a problem is influenced by a variety of values. For example, Americans believe that neither individual action nor corporate volunteerism will solve the climate problem, and they view government as a "necessary evil" to ensure that individuals and businesses deal with it. But they don't much like that fact, which, more than anything else, may explain the election results of November 1994.

reviewed by Carl Pope


Slide Mountain, or the Folly of Owning Nature
by Theodore Steinberg
University of California Press; $24

For hundreds of years, the Omaha Indians lived on a thumb of land along the Missouri River known as Blackbird Bend, which they were eventually "granted" as a reservation. Then late last century the mighty Missouri changed course, and, over a period of years, swallowed up Blackbird Bend and deposited it on the eastern bank of the river, where Iowa farmers claimed it.

The ensuing legal battle is one of five case histories in Theodore Steinberg's intriguing and sometimes amusing look at property law and how it tries to control the natural world--in much the same way that hundreds of dams today try to contain the Missouri River.

In a series of increasingly ludicrous but true tales, including one about a cloud-seeding scheme in southern Pennsylvania and the subsequent fight over who "owns the weather," and an account of Donald Trump and other developers buying and selling air space over Manhattan, Steinberg explores the limits and consequences of the relentless privatization and commodification of the planet. "Is all land," he asks, "even land along the shifting shores of the Missouri, suitable for ownership?"

Though Steinberg's book is philosophical and historical, the hard questions he asks about the limits of property are increasingly relevant as we witness daily more and more pieces of the natural world being transformed into products--from the razing of rainforests for cattle ranching to the mind-boggling attempts by biotechnology firms to patent human genes.

reviewed by John Byrne Barry


A Different Angle: Fly Fishing Stories by Women
Edited by Holly Morris
Seal Press; $22.95

In the territorial world of gender expectations and often unjust social guidelines, here is a group of women who tie flies, wade into roaring streams from New York to Montana to Mongolia, and cast without invitation. Even more audacious is the fact that they dare to write of the perennial attraction and mystery of fly fishing movingly enough to claim a share in a "grand and magical literary tradition" dominated by men.

And a long domination it's been, laments Seattle-based editor Morris, who says this is the first woman's book on fly fishing since the nun Dame Juliana Berners penned her Treatise of Fishing With an Angle back in 1421.

Up to their armpits in icy waters, these mothers, daughters, wives, and career women manage to express what Virginia Woolf referred to as "moments of being," explained by Morris as "those privileged moments when cosmic truth is perceived in a flash of intuition." With both humor and drama they reveal what they've discovered in the sport's blend of the physical and spiritual.

They also tell of a quest for identity, personal fulfillment, and tolerance. Pam Houston, in "The Company of Men," notes her "familiar and demented excitement to be back at the mercy of a bunch of lunatic outdoorsmen, a stubborn novice with something intangible to prove." Gretchen Legler, in "Fishergirl," struggles for recognition as a lesbian, questioning to what extent she must sacrifice herself at the expense of others. Jennifer Smith, in "Cheeseballs and Emergers," is "willing to do this because I discovered something about myself, something I did not realize I needed to know."

And, of course, readers will come face to face with what is said to be the most significant difference between men and women anglers: women don't lie about the size of their catch. For these writers, fly- fishing is more than an extension of the battle between estrogen and testosterone, competing for which biological function reels in more trout. It is also about a rare intimacy that develops between a human being and the environment, a certain "streamside solitude" from which self-awareness and love are born.

reviewed by Emily Gilels


The Stork and the Plow: The Equity Answer to the Human Dilemma
by Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, and Gretchen Daily
G. P. Putnam's, $30 The "population bomb" is as dangerous today as when Paul Ehrlich published his shocking book of that title in 1968, he and his collaborators warn. While they concede that the "green revolution" and some successful population-control programs did give us a reprieve from that book's grimmest prophecies, no new food miracles are in sight (crop yields worldwide have leveled off) and there will be 6 billion people to feed by 1999.Consequently, revolutionary changes are needed in all countries if the plow is to keep up with the stork. The "equity answer" is crucial, because without a fairer distribution of resources, they contend, the hyperconsuming rich nations will continue to pollute and bulldoze, while the poor ones will have to ravage the land merely to survive. "The developed nations account for the overwhelming majority of global environmental disruption. . . . The [environmental] impact of the average U.S. citizen in 1991 was about. . . 70 times that of a Bangladeshi." Their most telling and ironic example of the disparity is the spectacle of gas-guzzling cars smogging the air in some nations while peasants who can't afford fuel in others keep slashing their dwindling forests merely to cook.

Sexism is the second major equity issue because women deprived of equal rights, education, and capital often lack the knowledge or authority to determine family size. Increased gender and economic equity and population stabiilization can be mutually reinforcing. When women gain status the birth rate drops, whether in developed lands, or less developed places such as Barbados or the Indian state of Kerala.

The authors' reports of these successes contrast sadly with the situation in Haiti and Rwanda, whose tragic examples of overpopulation and environmental abuse demonstrate the folly of policymaking that dwells on "political" or "ethnic" issues while ignoring the twin crises of poverty and environmental degradation: "More than two-thirds of the people [in Haiti] are trying to scratch out a living on slopes that were largely denuded of soil by tropical rains after deforestation. The amount of arable land has declined by 40 percent since 1950. . . . Small wonder over a million Haitians . . . have become ecological refugees."

The clear arguments and solid data in this valuable study should give pause to those who deny that a population crisis even exists. Far less certain is whether the book's plea for equity will be heeded in a systemically unjust global economy.

reviewed by Bob Schildgen


New From Sierra Club Books

Creative Energy: Bearing Witness for the Earth by Thomas Berry. An eloquent call for humanity to embrace the sacredness and mystery of creation.

All the World Over: Notes from Alaska by John Muir. Sierra Club founder's exploration of an unspoiled wilderness.

The Sierra Club Wetlands Reader: A Literary Companion edited by Sam Wilson and Tom Moritz. The literature and science of North America's wetlands by some of its greatest observers, including Aldo Leopold, Mark Twain, and John Wesley Powell.

Mirage: The False Promise of Desert Agriculture by Russell Clemings. A shocking account of how desert irrigation destroys the environment.

American Nature Writing: 1996 edited by John A. Murray. The finest nature writing. Third in an acclaimed series.


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