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The latest crop of environmental books covers a wide range of subjects and perspectives: a politician makes the case for the electoral appeal of climate policies; an activist writes of the struggle to stay hopeful as the climate crisis deepens; and a journalist investigates the dark side of human waste.
But first there is The Last Drop: Solving the World’s Water Crisis (Picador, £20), by environmental writer, Tim Smedley. Water scarcity is one of the most critical yet confusing environmental problems. Human bungling, not a lack of actual water, has long been the root cause of the dilemma in many parts of the world.
However, as Smedley reports, this mismanagement is now being compounded by changes in the water cycle driven by global warming. Centuries of experience in managing water supplies is being up-ended by the rising frequency and intensity of both droughts and floods. Cities across the world are being bombarded by “rain bombs” dumping a month’s worth of rain in a day, and sometimes more.
His absorbing first-person account takes readers on a global tour of the many solutions available. He finds a “beaver boom” in Britain, where programmes to reintroduce the dam-building creatures have shown they are surprisingly good at water storage and flood reduction. Elsewhere, authorities hope that covering critical dam reservoirs with floating panels could curb evaporation losses and in theory generate as much power as some dams produce themselves.
Water is far from the only widening environmental problem, as journalist Oliver Franklin-Wallis reveals in Wasteland: The Dirty Truth About What We Throw Away, Where It Goes, and Why It Matters (Simon & Schuster £20/Hachette $30).
This is another book offering a first-hand, reported account of a sprawling global environmental conundrum: the waste piling up in the world’s sewers, landfills, dumpsters and nuclear stores. It exposes some familiar plights, such as the life of the Indian waste-picker and the trail that western charity shop donations take to African landfill sites.
But Franklin-Wallis also makes an important case for tighter, smarter regulation in a world where individual “litterbugs” are blamed for a packaging waste problem caused by companies that have successfully dodged full responsibility after decades of lavishly funded lobbying effort.
It’s precisely this sort of behaviour that led US activist and humourist, Andrew Boyd to write I Want a Better Catastrophe: Navigating the Climate Crisis with Grief, Hope, and Gallows Humour (New Society Publishers, £17.99). This is not a book for readers seeking the latest economic or financial climate policy analysis. But it does speak to a rising sense of despair about the world’s collective failure to rapidly implement the many options for cutting carbon emissions and curbing wildlife loss that have been well understood for decades.
There are, it needs to be said, some good jokes here. But Boyd also includes conversations with a series of “hopers and doomers”: a scientist convinced that abrupt climate change will result in near-term human extinction; a Buddhist teacher who counsels “sorrow is not a feeling we should try to escape from”. A professor of plant ecology who believes that plants, the great “carbon specialists”, could lead us out of the climate mess.
Ultimately, his message is that the battle is far from over. He concludes by confessing to both optimism and pessimism about the uncertain future that lies ahead, “still anguished by how much we’re likely to lose but still striving to lose as little of it as possible”.
The world, as he writes, is still beautiful “and now is when we are all needed most”. The same sense of optimism infuses the distinctly more practical and highly readable political memoir Breathe: Tackling the Climate Emergency (Hutchinson Heinemann, £16.99) by London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan.
Khan admits on page 10 that he is no life-long environmentalist. As a lawyer he drove a gas-guzzling Land Rover and he voted for a new third runway at Heathrow as a Labour MP. But the discovery that he suffered adult onset asthma alerted him to the toxic air too many Londoners were breathing.
Determined to fix the problem after being elected to the mayor’s office in 2016, he brought in a series of often contentious measures such as a groundbreaking Ultra-Low Emission Zone, where a fee is charged for driving the most polluting vehicles. There has been a 90 per cent reduction in the number of Londoners living in areas that exceed legal limits for nitrogen dioxide, he writes. Khan is now determined to expand the zone to include all London boroughs from August 29.
Readers wanting to know about the inner life of one of London’s most successful leaders may be disappointed. But for those wanting evidence that climate policies need not be the political kryptonite so many politicians fear, Khan’s book makes a convincing — and uplifting — case.
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