Tag Archives: climate change

“Walden Warming – Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods” by Richard Primack

Henry David Thoreau has been part of my life for a long time. My mother quoted him. So did my minister. We read some of his writing in high school, more in college. And I am a New Englander. Walden Pond is located in woods just like those I played and camped in as a child. But until I read this book, I never thought about the impact of global warming on Walden Pond, and on “my” woods.

Dr. Richard Primack is an academic botanist with decades of research experience, but his work around Walden Pond began only about ten years ago. Looking for an “angle” from which to study the impact of climate change on plants, Primack learned that Thoreau, most commonly thought of as an author and philosopher, was a dedicated naturalist who kept detailed records about the plants and animals around him. The crucial pieces of data related to dates – when did the winter ice leave Walden Pont, when did plants leaf out, blossom and set fruit? Having an “old” data set allows for comparison with present conditions. Yes, it can be documented that climate change is having an impact on plants. (And so are many other actions, especially development.)

Primack moved on from plants to insects, using data from Thoreau and other early naturalists. When he ran out of records, he turned to the world’s great insect collections, reading the dates on specimens, from which emergence data can be construed.

Primack repeatedly referred to “analyzing” data, but didn’t really say how. I assume he looked for statistical correlations, but wonder if he also engaged in mathematical modeling, to me a mysterious but potentially useful “black box” endeavor. 

Primack also studied climate impact on birds, bees, butterflies, fish and frogs. Only a person with tremendous energy and a steady supply of graduate students could cover so much physical and intellectual territory.

I was totally taken by surprise when Primack discussed the impact of climate change on humans by analyzing data from the Boston Marathon! 

His last chapter, on solutions to global warming, wasn’t really needed. So many people are addressing that topic. But I would say Primack is entitled to hold forth, since he produced so much well written discussion in Walden Warming. His ideas about introducing southern wild plant species to New England are intriguing.

This book, which I highly recommend, is right on the line between “popular” and “scientific”. I hope Primack continues to write in both veins, since he has valuable information to impart.


“Cities are Good for You – the Genius of the Metropolis” by Leo Hollis, part 2.

Yes, I finished this book! See my first review, dated August 9, 2013.

Hollis believes cities are more likely to save us from environmental destruction/climate change than rural approaches. I agree with him on this. Living out in the country and “off the grid” either involves a standard of living most of us wouldn’t accept, or use of all kinds of high tech gadgetry (solar panels, batteries, wind turbines, etc.) that are produced elsewhere, always at some environmental cost. And you have to own a car. Cities allow for many efficiencies, most notably that one may have a well developed social life close at hand, just because there are so many people around.

(Memory… When I went to college, I was surprised how much I enjoyed living in a dorm, and having friends – both close and casual – nearby. As a child in suburbia, I found it hard to get together with friends. A college campus is often more like a city than a suburb, despite all that grass.)

That said, I should make it clear that Hollis is ambivalent about cities, frequently citing situations gone wrong (riots, slums…) as well as examples of smart growth and strong communities. But he considers it inevitable that the human future will be largely urban. He can’t decide if cities are “organic” and sometimes self correcting, or if they must (at least some of the time) be organized from the top down.

Hollis cites so many other authors that you could spend months checking them all out. Two who intrigued me were Colin Beavan (No Impact Man) and Donald Shoup (The High Cost of Free Parking).

Beavan (and family) tried to live city life with “no impact”. He even turned off the electricity in his apartment. Ridiculous… Candles are too dangerous. He charged his computer elsewhere. How did he do laundry? And this was a one year experiment! Interesting, but not significant (to me). Doesn’t mean I won’t read it…

Shoup’s book about parking interests me much more! Hollis says he argues that parking should never be free. This issue is close to my heart. I work on a college campus. I know what parking costs – it is not free, ANYWHERE. Free parking on a college campus sends the wrong message – use your car, don’t worry about the impact. I feel like I’m seeing (once again) something I remember from the early days of recycling. Why was the “container industry” allowed to introduce the aluminum can without taking responsibility for its disposal?? Individuals and municipalities and campuses struggled so hard to deal with single use cans, while the “container industry” got rich. Whether we talk about solid waste or parking, each technology needs to be viewed as a whole process, not a one-way dash towards profit and convenience. 

However did Hollis miss John Francis (Planetwalker)??

Hollis suggests that cities (especially megacities like London or NYC or Hong Kong) will soon be more important than countries. Might this decrease the likelihood of war? In this case, what will global citizenship mean? Do I want to live in a megacity? NO! But what about my sons?

I recommend this book to people interested in the near future, climate change and planning/development. With all the talk currently heard about resilience and adaptation, that’s a lot of people.