Essential Reads

A Community Guide to Environmental Health
Jeff Conant and Pam Fadem
Hesperian, 2008, $28

A Community Guide to Environmental Health extends three decades of work by Berkeley’s Hesperian Foundation, publisher of Where There Is No Doctor: a Village Healthcare Handbook. To call Where There Is No Doctor a classic is understating the case–according to the World Health Organization it is the most widely used health manual in the world, now in print in at least 75 languages (the most recent being Karakalpak, the language of Uzbekistan).

The new guide follows the same heavily illustrated and simply stated format, starting with an explanation of environmental health: “If our food, water, and air are contaminated, they can make us sick. If we are not careful about how we use the air, water, and land, we can make ourselves and the world around us sick. By protecting our environment, we protect our health.”

The guide gives equal attention to the big picture and to important details (headings include “Corporate control is bad for our health” as well as “Diarrhea diseases”). Topics range from water supplies and sanitation to watershed protection and tree planting, through community food security and sustainable farming practices (with cautionary chapters called “The False Promise of Genetically Engineered Foods” and “Pesticides are Poison”). Toxic chemicals, health impacts of the mining and oil industries, and clean energy sources are also covered. Each topic includes an instructive true story and directions for a group activity aimed at increasing community awareness and involvement with the issue at hand. While much of the emphasis is on rural village life, urban communities are included when they fit the topic–for example, the story of the People’s Grocery of Oakland illustrates efforts toward food security.

Beyond its intended use as a public health resource for the poorest ninety percent of the world’s population, A Community Guide to Environmental Health offers lessons for the privileged rest of us. First, this book will remind you how unspeakably wealthy we are. Second, environmental health is about the effects of how we live, and in wealthy countries we can make choices that matter to everyone. Third, by showing what is necessary for healthy communities and a healthy environment, this book lets us see clearly what is unsustainable in our own practices–see the chapter on toilets, for example–and provides a starting point for creative reinvention. Let’s do it. I want that compost. –Gina Covina

Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front
Sharon Astyk
New Society Publishers, 2008, $18.95

No matter how much you’ve already heard about peak oil, climate change, and the bankruptcy of our institutions, read this book. Sharon Astyk’s very personal perspective not only offers a fresh analysis of our situation but provides energetic encouragement for hundreds of things we can do now to build sustainable communities and improve our odds on survival. Depletion and Abundance is an antidote to the immobilizing panic or retreat into denial that often follows our glimpses of the stark dark truth.

The book weaves Astyk’s astute critique of the industrialization of almost everything with stories of her family’s adventurous attempt to reduce their energy footprint by ninety percent. Substantive quotes from many authors deepen the intellectual overview, while perky sidebars offer practical tips (“Put up a clothesline!”). After reading Astyk’s take on technological “solutions,” I regretfully concur: “We absolutely must get over the notion that the process of preparing for the long emergency is the process of purchasing a totally different infrastructure.”

So how do we prepare? “Much of my advice in this book can be summed up as ‘go home and stay there,’” Astyk says, adding that the average American moves every five years. Building cooperative communities, local economies, and especially localizing our food supplies figure large in Astyk’s priorities. “We cannot simultaneously call for an end to multinational monoliths and also pay them to do something as basic as feed us,” she says. Practical ideas abound for getting more involved with our food sources, whether we’re urban apartment dwellers or rural gardeners. Astyk makes growing and saving food sound noble and patriotic: “Food preservation and food production are keys to democracy.”

Astyk concludes by reminding us that “virtually all Americans command power and wealth unimaginable to most of the people in the world,” and that with power comes responsibility. She challenges us all to change our lives now. “Peak Oil and Climate Change are about justice, plain and simple. They are about fairness, morality, and integrity–we in the rich world have chosen to steal from the poor in our own country and other nations, and from our children and grandchildren, and we need to stop it right now.” It’s a rousing sermon from a Jewish mother who knows what’s good for us. And when the book is over, you know not only that’s she’s right, but that this new life before us holds the potential to be much more satisfying, even with its deprivations, than the old way ever could be. –Gina Covina

Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine
Marion Nestle
University of California Press, 2008, $18.95

Public health and sociology professor Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and Safe Food, is at it again, this time telling the tale of the largest recall to date in her latest book, Pet Food Politics. In early 2007, dogs and cats were sickened from food and later died, prompting officials to strip shelves of pet foods, an action that soon kicked off a string of recalls for other items such as toys, toothpaste, and candy.

Nestle traces the tainted pet food back to its source: melamine, added in China to pet foods to raise the protein content (and to powdered and fresh milk for the same reason, resulting in the recent deaths and sickening of infants, which has resulted in another enormous recall). Why do European and North American companies source protein for their foods from China? Nestle unveils dirty tales of animal and human food production, suggesting we always ask where our food comes from.

Although the book at times reads like an extended newspaper article, complete with charts, lists, and graphs, this is investigative journalism at its best. Contaminated pet foods are the early sign of risks associated with the escalating globalization of our food supply. Multinational processed food systems are having impacts on human health, and it took the deaths of almost 3,000 pets and a $24 million class action suit to put the issue on our plates. There has never been a better time to eat local. –Mary Vance

The Compassionate Carnivore
Catherine Friend
Da Capo Press, 2008, $24

Hit by a Farm author Catherine Friend explores meat-eating from many angles: how much meat Americans eat (outlandishly much, 200 pounds per year or around thirty animals, depending upon species), the environmental and health impacts of grass-fed vs. grain-fed, the short, bad life of the vast majority of animals raised for food, the horrifying amount of meat that is wasted, and the uselessness of conscience-stricken eating. Friend does not believe in guilt, and she wants to continue eating meat. Here she offers a program of clear choices and gives you the information you need to make them.

Likening the American consumer to baby birds being fed processed food by Big Bucks Factory Farm, she points out that your buying choices signal your inattention and acceptance. She explains how externality works: Big Bucks won’t pay for your resultant diabetes or cancers, and the animals born to the factory farming system are the ones who pay the biggest price for cheap meat. She does not overwhelm the reader with horror stories or grim lectures, using stats instead to make her points.

Subtitled How to Keep Animals Happy, Save Old MacDonald’s Farm, Reduce Your Hoofprint, and Still Eat Meat, Friend gives you the tools to do just that. You’ll appreciate her humor and on-the-ground knowledge as she relates incidents at her farm, where she and her partner provide grass-fed lamb to eager consumers. If you’ve avoided reading this century’s versions of The Jungle, fearing nightmares, this is the book for you. It will help you understand the importance of your food choices to humans and animals alike. —Linnea Due

Gifting Teens With Green

By Rachel Aronowitz

For the last five years, I’ve worked as a librarian specializing in teen literature. Sadly, the rate at which publishers are putting out books aimed at teen audiences about vampires and magical prep school antics vastly outpaces their production of books about global warming, environmental activism, endangered species, or ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle. However, I’ve come across a few gems that don’t hit you over the head with their environmental theme while maintaining a strong enough teen or tween appeal to keep the kids reading. Here are some that got me excited enough to accost the teens that wander into the San Francisco Public Library.


Carl Hiassen
Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2005, $8.99

Carl Hiassen always makes me laugh out loud. I admire his believable and strong-willed young characters and I can’t stop hearing lines out of a Jimmy Buffett song when I enter his Florida Keys literary world. Flush is about a brother and sister who must solve a mystery to save their father while stopping the owner of a floating casino from dumping polluted water. I also highly recommend Hoot by the same author.

Teen, Inc.
Stefan Petrucha
Walker Books for Young Readers, 2007, $16.95

Fourteen-year-old Jaiden is one of the wittiest narrators to come along in a while, and is the first teen character that has to deal with the odd problems that come with being adopted not by parents, but by a large corporation. He lives in a high-rise office building, eats in the company cafeteria, and parenting decisions are made at board meetings using Power Point presentations. In this serious but often hilarious read, Jaiden must fight against his parent—NECorp—when he realizes that the company is knowingly contaminating the local water supply with mercury, and the father of the girl he likes is leading the protest against it. Follow Jaiden in this fast-paced and very original action adventure.

Graphic Novel

Thoreau’s Walden
John Porcellino
Hyperion Books, 2008, $16.99

I first became aware of Porcellino’s work through his excellent King-Cat Comics series. He is in top form with his first full-length graphic novel. His simple drawings are a perfect match to the timeless wisdom expressed in Thoreau’s writing. This is a great introduction to Thoreau’s ideas about simple living, environmentalism, and vegetarianism for teenagers who are disgusted by the words “classic literature.”


Generation Green: The Ultimate Teen Guide to Living an Eco-Friendly Life
Linda and Tosh Sivertsen
Simon and Schuster, 2008, $10.99

This book occasionally tries too hard to be hip—and any teen can see right through an adult trying to be cool. However, it’s easy to look beyond this detriment because Generation Green gives a much needed overview of how easy it is for young people to widen their environmental consciousness. The mother and son writing team give concrete examples of how teenagers can save energy and think about their effect on the environment. Got a cell phone? Switch to a solar charger.

MySpace/OurPlanet: Change Is Possible
by the MySpace community with Jeca Taudte, foreword by Tom Anderson
HarperTeen, 2008, $12.99

MySpace is still a huge draw for the younger set and so is this new title with its hand-drawn cover and forward by everyone’s first Myspace “friend,” Tom. Tom reminds us that the environment is the biggest issue facing our generation so we should take it seriously, but that change is possible. Suggestions are culled from real Myspace users, which makes it read like something between a blog and a book, a combination that makes it fly off the shelf.

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