Sampling a Bounty of Environmental Books Some of the Season's Best Titles View the Natural World from a Political, Literary, Photographic, or Practical Perspective

Article excerpt

BOOKS about the environment - inspirational as well as instructive - have been around since the writer of Genesis described God's pleasure at the sight of creation. That such books just keep coming is proof of the infinite wonder of nature and of mankind's continued sorting out of what "dominion" over the Earth really means.

The religious analogy is apt, for the natural world figures into the spiritual dimension of many cultures, modern as well as ancient. And in the 20 years between Earth Days I and II - the period during which Love Canal, acid rain, Prince William Sound, global warming, rain forests, nuclear waste, and ozone all entered the popular vocabulary - environmentalism itself has become a religion of sorts for thousands of true believers.

When a subject takes on religious overtones, there is no lack of scribes, be they prophets, psalmists, or polemicists. And 1990 has produced a very full bag of such works, a complete bibliography of which would fill this newspaper. In general, they fall into four categories: political, literary, photographic, and practical. What follows is a sampling of some of the best. POLITICAL

Taken together, three books in particular give a neat and balanced picture of the major environmental problems facing the world today and how to deal with them. The first is Green Rage: Radical Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization, by Christopher Manes (New York: Little, Brown, $18.95). Despite the fierce title and the fact that the author is a member of Earth First! (as well as a Fulbright scholar in medieval literature and a lawyer), the book provides an excellent inside view of today's environmental movement. Tracing the philosophical roots of "deep ecology" - as opposed to mainstream conservation and environmental groups willing to compromise on issues like pollution control - helps the reader understand why many activists risk arrest and physical danger in order to preserve natural resources at the expense of economic development and other human activities.

At the other end of the political spectrum is Trashing the Planet, by Dixy Lee Ray with help from journalist Lou Guzzo (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, $18.95). Dr. Ray, former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and governor of Washington, lambastes environmental activists and their puppets in the media for confusing and frightening the public about complex scientific issues.

Once past the hyperbole ("Environmentalism ... seeks development of a society totally devoid of industry and technology"), the reader gets a good walk-through on the greenhouse effect, acid rain, pesticides, hazardous waste, and nuclear power. In many cases, there are more questions than answers on such issues (certainly two sides to the story), and it is good to have someone with Ray's expertise lay out the questions and puncture some of the less sound assumptions about impending environmental disaster. Her book's subtitle is "How Science Can Help Us Deal with Acid Rain, Depletion of the Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things)," and her answer for the most part is technology. Ray's observation that "a well-tended garden is better than a neglected woodlot" will make the timber barons happy and wilderness enthusiasts grind their teeth. But there can be no arguing with her conclusion that "our responsibility is to be good stewards of the environment."

Neither radical environmentalist Manes nor techno-enthusiast Ray would agree, but there is a more appropriate middle ground, and it is found in In Search of Environmental Excellence: Moving Beyond Blame, by Bruce Piasecki and Peter Asmus (New York: Simon & Schuster, $9.95, paper). The authors trace the historical and more recent abuses of land, air, and water. But they also describe many examples of public and private entities successfully searching for (and finding) solutions to environmental problems. …