Faculty Favorites: Environmental Books to Read and Teach in 2020

Each semester we here at Edge Effects invite some of our favorite scholars to recommend environmental books that they are excited to teach and share. This semester’s list features work that challenges conventional environmental narratives, whether about nuclear power, real estate speculation, or water scarcity. We hope you enjoy the recommendations below.

For more reading suggestions, peruse the rest of our recommendations.

Deborah Blum, Director, Knight Science Journalism program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Recommendation: Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham (Simon and Schuster, 2019)

the yellow cover of midnight in chernobylI have so many good things to say about this book. I could dwell on the writing (it’s terrifyingly well told) or the research (it’s meticulous and full of fascinating detail). But I’d like to focus here on the way the author frames his tale. This is not an anti-nuclear screed of a story, but a morality tale. It lays out in devastating detail the collision course between technological human hubris and a technology so potent that our best hope is to manage it with humility. It’s a perspective that we can—and I think should—apply to the many far-ranging decisions we make about scientific advances and their applications. And in this compelling narrative, as it moves from scientists to soldiers, from tunnels to boardrooms to home kitchens adrift in radiation, offers the perfect backdrop for those essential questions.

Catherine De Almeida, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, University of Washington

Recommendation: Designing America’s Waste Landscapes by Mira Engler (John Hopkins University Press, 2004)

the cover of designing america's waste landscapesWe often think of waste as a material byproduct: scraps, leftovers, or discards. Waste also manifests spatially (landfills, brownfield sites, vacant lots, etc.) and socio-politically (landfills are typically sited in marginalized communities). I deeply look forward to discussions in my “Waste Ecologies” research seminar and my landscape architecture design studios after I assign the first chapter. Mira Engler disputes ubiquitous definitions of waste, provoking an expanded and diverse understanding of its history, complexity, and correlation with cultural values (see Kevin Lynch’s Wasting Away for more on this). She argues that negative perceptions of waste prevent us from engaging with it creatively and effectively, for example, designers green and camouflage waste landscapes. By challenging the ways these landscapes (and their pasts, present, and futures) are verbally and visually described, she shifts our mindset to one of opportunity. A must read for any scholar or student interested in exploring the potentials for reimagining the different scales and systems, spaces and materials, communities, infrastructures, and industries that create and are impacted by waste.

Sara B. Pritchard, Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University

Recommendation: The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Fight to Protect the Arctic and Save the Planet from Climate Change, by Sheila Watt-Cloutier (University of Minnesota Press, 2018)

the cover of the right to be cold“The world I was born into has changed forever.” So begins Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s fascinating memoir, The Right to Be Cold. Inuit, from northern Québec, Watt-Cloutier is an inspiring Indigenous, environmental, and human rights advocate who helped link climate change to human rights. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Readers most interested in environmental issues will particularly appreciate her chapters on persistent organic pollutants, hunting, and “the right to be cold” in the polar north. However, as she argues, these concerns are inseparable from those of Indigenous and human rights. Moreover, the Arctic is a “barometer” or “sentinel” of the entire planet. As Watt-Cloutier writes, “If we cannot save the frozen Arctic, how can we hope to save the rest of the world?” I am looking forward to teaching this book in my environmental ethics course this spring.

Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Bard College

Recommendation: Cultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt, by Jessica Barnes (Duke University Press, 2014)

the cover of cultivating the nileOne of my favorite things to do when teaching Cultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt by Jessica Barnes is to have students diagram the stages that different drainage systems have passed through in Egypt. This works so well because Barnes vividly tracks the relationship between the material processes through which excess water is made to leave farmers’ fields (which shifted from above ground to subsurface drainage) and the transfer of authority from farmer to government-sanctioned expert. Throughout the book, Barnes shows how the marrying of STS with historically and ethnographically grounded analysis of a Middle East context can contribute to understandings of environment, infrastructure and power, beyond the region and across disciplines. She challenges the overdetermining trope of the Middle East as water scarce, which continues to shape both regional politics and foreign approaches to the Middle East and North Africa, pushing us to think of water as something daily produced rather than natural.

Jerry Zee, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of California Santa Cruz

Recommendation: Concrete Dreams: Practice, Value, and Built Environments in Post-Crisis Buenos Aires, by Nicholas D’Avella (Duke University Press, 2019)

the cover of concrete dreamsIn Nicholas D’Avella’s Concrete Dreams, Buenos Aires’s built environment comes alive in the quotidian practices in which crisis is lived as a recurrent national condition. It teaches me to think about value not as a measure of the political but as the process through which it takes shape. He tracks a diverse set of practices of engagement with buildings in the aftermath of a financial crisis in an Argentina where spectacular economic distress shapes the rhythms and shapes of the city, as well as the dreams that residents dare to dream when “crisis” is not an end to time but punctuates its convulsive national continuation. In dramas of bricks, foreign exchange, and attentions to sunlight entering a room at just the right angle, D’Avella opens the dead futures of real estate speculation into an uneven terrain of minor and non-innocent alternatives that trouble the timelines of an economy looking always forward to its next bust. In the meantime, he demands that the built environments around us require care, imagination, and modes of engagement that dream without the fantasy of escape.