If you were expecting a book called “Environment” to include an inspiring exploration of how trees communicate, poetic scenes of dolphins swimming gracefully through a blue ocean or an examination of sparkling lakes in gorgeous national parks, you’d be in for a downer surprise. The environmental overview that is Environment by Rolf Halden is instead—as the plastic bottle floating on the cover indicates—an important look at the unsettling reality of our everyday human environment, which is becoming more toxic by the minute. Halden writes with urgency about an impressive number of serious issues for a small, 130-page book, including problems posed by population growth, water pollution, plastic, animal agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions, radioactive waste, and so much more.
Environment is one book of many that have been published by Bloomsbury as part of its Object Lessons series about the hidden lives of ordinary things. Other books in the series include “Remote Control,” “Driver’s License,” “Bread,” and “Password”—concepts seemingly so mundane and specific that a book about the entirety of the environment feels out of place. But Rolf Halden is up to the challenge. Halden is the Director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering as well as the Senior Sustainability Scientist at the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Throughout the book, he weaves together his present-day scientific expertise with his personal experiences growing up in Germany, where he worked various construction jobs and was frequently subjected to toxicity with no protection or knowledge about it.
The book begins with an account of how humans came into being and a reflection of how random and incredible it is that this ever happened. “The odds of being alive are so incredibly slim,” Halden writes. “Humble beginnings some 3.8 billion years ago on a rocky planet that, ejected by the Big Bang, found its place just right in a Goldilocks distance from the sun, a location perfectly suitable for the miracle we call life.” Halden explains how the planet started with a limited chemical inventory, then hosted a variety of physical-chemical reactions and electrical discharges that eventually gave way to the first proteins, which soon led to cellular life. When humans emerge from this painstakingly slow, random experimentation, they are clearly part of—and not separate from—these environmental origins. This is a point Halden drives home throughout the book. He argues that boundaries between us and the environment do not exist: “The concept of self and the surrounding environment is a cherished delusion,” he writes in the opening. “We and the environment are one and the same.”
While not essential, readers might get more out of Environment if they already have a good understanding of scientific concepts and remember their periodic table. Descriptions of amino acids combining to form stacks of sheets and references to fluorinated chemicals presume the reader doesn’t need a general science primer. It’s been a while since high school chemistry and biology for this non-scientist reader, which made some descriptions difficult to pay attention to. But Halden does his best to break it down, sometimes with endearing explanations like: “Imagine you are the element missing just one single additional electron to go from longing and despair to blissful nirvana. That’s how halogens feel and act.”
While Environment is ultimately a scientific account intertwined with personal narrative, Halden is not without opinions. There are a few times when the tone feels judgmental and off-putting—such as phrases that feel condescending, like “the air we breathe in our elected prisons of luxury and misery,” or excessive, as in “the landfill that our bodies and babies have become.” But it’s understandable how someone so immersed in the reality of environmental degradation would feel frustrated with individual actions as well as systemic obstacles. We all make decisions every day that impact the environment—shouldn’t we be judged for them? (And comparing babies to landfills certainly gets a point across.)
Ultimately, Halden addresses a wide array of environmental issues and brilliantly shows how one affects the next. Some chapters are especially impactful, including “From Tobacco to Teflon Babies,” “Plastic Hangover,” and “The High Price of Meat.” Halden offers the reader an inside look into scientific investigation in “The High Price of Meat,” which details how his team at Johns Hopkins University conducted a study of American agricultural practices for the Pew Charitable Trust in 2005. Halden writes about his “eye-opening experience” of discovering that family farms “had been replaced with industrialized efficiency to mercilessly extract short-term gains at significant costs to ecosystem integrity and human health.” He doesn’t shy away from the frustrations of scientific research, either. The results of this study were delivered to Congress over a decade ago by the non-partisan Pew Commission, but there has been, in the words of the principal investigator, “an appalling lack of progress.”
The biggest takeaway from Environment is its main argument: humans and the environment are one and the same, and it’s imperative to the health of both that humans understand the relationship this way. Halden refers to the planet as “bubble Earth” because the environment is not separate from us; it contains us. It is around us and part of us and inside us. Whatever we put into the environment inevitably and literally becomes part of our own bodies. These are difficult truths to digest, but acknowledgment of a problem is the first step to caring about it, and care is what we need to pursue the actionable steps we need to survive. (Gratitude for the painstakingly slow environmental processes that gave us the rare chance to exist might be good to have, too.) For those wishing to learn more about environmental issues and what humans can do to positively impact them, reading Environment is the perfect place to start.
Lillie Gardner is a writer based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her work has been published in Quail Bell Magazine, Delmarva Review, Long River Review and more. She’s also an essays reader for Hippocampus Magazine and a contributor at Feminist Book Club.