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Ecovillages Around the World: 20 Regenerative Designs for Sustainable Communities edited by Frederica Miller

As a conservation biologist I see ecovillages as an example for all of us. We need to reduce our impact on the Earth, and these communities are doing that well. This book looked like it would provide good examples to show my students how they could reduce their impact as well.  However, I would have liked more detail to help others start their own community, or give people ideas for ways to reduce their individual impact on the Earth.

Ecovillages Around the World: 20 Regenerative Designs for Sustainable Communities edited by Frederica Miller is the fifth book in a series. Each of the four previous books focused on one of four keys to designing sustainable communities: social, ecological, economic, and worldview.

This one includes examples of ecovillages that range from ones that are just developing to ones that have been around for decades, and from more typical community designs focused mostly on efficient housing to communities that include sustainable housing, shared spaces and vehicles, gardens, forests, and more.

The book started with a description of what elements comprise an ecovillage and several pages dedicated to each community highlighting these same elements. Differences were observed between the communities. Each had their particular spiritual focus supporting their community. Many had shared economies, and some even had their own monetary system. The communities shared the common themes of having master plans to drive the community design, the desire to use more sustainable, and often low-cost, housing options. Many had shared items and spaces that not everyone needed to own individually, such as cars and kitchens. There were sustainable farming practices, sustainable waste disposal systems, and sustainable power generation was practiced. There was not much detail though for each community and how the people began their community with these systems.

The book had the potential to show people how to create a sustainable community by providing more detail and highlighting the way the communities combined the four keys for sustainable design they mention. The four keys were not mentioned specifically in the sections on communities though, and the detail provided in each section was not enough to help people understand how to start their own ecovillage based on the examples of others.

After the 20 ecovillage sections there is a section with the biographies for each person who wrote about one of the communities. This seemed out of place. At that point in the book I could not remember the details of the community each person came from to be able to place them in the life of that community.  It would have been nice to have each of the author’s biographies with the section they wrote.

Following the biographies is information on Gaia education.  This also seemed out of place. Designing sustainable communities is part of this education, and there are specific programs for learning different elements, even ones that lead to graduate degrees.  This focus on education at the end did not flow from the focus on the 20 ecovillages though.

Overall, I thought the topic for the book was a great idea, and it had good potential, but it didn’t provide the information I expected to help others adopt more sustainable practices.

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Book Review: Back from the Brink by Nancy F. Castaldo

Back from the Brink, by Nancy F. Castaldo, is a collection of stories for older kids (10 – 12 years old) about animals that have come very close to extinction.  Due to efforts from conservation researchers and passionate individuals who want to see these species survive, their populations have increased again.  I recommend this book for students who are interested in conservation and learning about how researchers help save species that are on the verge of extinction.  It would make an excellent addition to a school library.

The book starts with an introduction to the legislation that helps protect species, including the Endangered Species Act.  It is then divided into chapters that cover seven different species that have faced extinction: whooping cranes, wolves, bald eagles, Galapagos tortoises, California condors, American alligators, and American bison. The chapters discuss causes of population decline from issues such as hunting, poisoning, habitat loss, and competition from invasive species.  Castaldo follows that with information on how the populations were turned around and brought back from the brink through hard work by passionate individuals. The book ends with child-appropriate ideas to help save species.

The beginning and ending of each chapter is written in first person, recounting Castaldo’s visit to see the species of focus and where they live now.  The use of first person was an interesting choice. I think it will help students get the feel for actually being there and seeing these species.

The book is also filled with a lot of wonderful pictures of the animals.  Images that help support the information discussed in the text are also included, such as what a hacking tower looks like, which is used to fledge bald eagles, and what crane puppets look like, which are used to prevent chicks from imprinting on humans.

The book has a lot of detail, so it is long, as would be expected for older kids.  I do not recommend it for bedtime reading. The longest chapter is 30 pages. It is ideal for independent reading, reading for research projects, and for stretches of time when you can sit down for a while to read a chapter with your child.  I read this book with my daughter during the time between her brother’s bedtime and when she goes to bed about an hour later, reading just one chapter each night. It led to some great discussions about conservation. One night after we finished the chapter on whooping cranes I told her I was excited because the chapter the next night was going to be on wolves.  She was not happy. She told me she did not like wolves, but couldn’t elaborate on why. I pulled out my phone and showed her the video by Sustainable Human about how wolf reintroduction has had a wonderful impact on the environment in Yellowstone National Park.  She seemed more interested after watching it. When we went to read that chapter the following night she was excited and really engaged in the story of the wolves and the pictures in the chapter. I was glad to see her more interested in wolves and why it is important to save them.

Overall, I thought this was a great book to help students understand how species conservation has worked for these species, and the hard work involved in conserving a species.  Hearing these stories may help budding conservationists envision a future where they could do the same.

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Book Review: Lion Hearted: The Life and Death of Cecil & the Future of Africa’s Big Cats by Andrew Loveridge

In Lion Hearted: The Life and Death of Cecil & the Future of Africa’s Big Cats, lion researcher Andrew Loveridge recounts his work studying prides of lions living in Zimbabwe. From his initial research on jackals, to the inception and evolution of the lion research project to assess the impact hunting has on lion populations, this is a great exploration of Loveridge’s work over the years. I highly recommend it to lion lovers and wildlife enthusiasts. I caution readers not to be misled by the title though. Do not read this book expecting all of it to focus on Cecil. Cecil is introduced in the prologue, but he is not mentioned again until page 191. This book is more about Loveridge’s lion research, which is fascinating. It has made me reconsider what I thought I knew about lion conservation and the role hunters play in it.

Lion hunting is legal in Zimbabwe when you have the right permit. This is made clear right from the beginning. Lion hunts bring in a lot of money. Unfortunately, the distribution of the money to locals to support the economy and relieve the impacts of lions living and hunting around their communities, does not often happen. Conservation organizations do not see much, if any, of that money either. Which raises the question of whether hunting really does help conserve animals. During his research, Loveridge lost many of his study animals to hunters and the impact of their death was felt deeply. “To the hunter, no matter how exciting the hunt, this is just another lion. He would have no idea, as we did, of this animal’s amazing life story” (p. 88).

Loveridge discusses his time exploring the trophy hunting industry while attending a hunting conference in the United States where he hoped to persuade hunters of the importance of saving lions. “As much as conservation is promoted, the industry is really about business and money, and the buying and selling of animals. It is a hugely lucrative industry that believes its own propaganda on the primacy of hunting in conservation. It does not want to change” (p.100).

The show involved in conducting lion hunts was not something I had considered previously, from getting a hunter to purchase a hunt at large hunting shows to the reality of a hunt. “It seems obscene that an animal should die just to bolster the ego of a rich Westerner who wishes to adorn his home with a woodenly taxidermied replica of a creature that was once lithe and vibrant. Lion hunting is not particularly challenging or dangerous. Big cats are commonly shot by luring them with bait and shooting while they feed” (p. 243-244). The people who guide the hunters to the lions help play it up for them and celebrate kills. Videos can be made as well. But can hunters who shoot a lion that is eating really feel like they have accomplished an heroic kill?

Loveridge emphasized the impact of the loss of a lion on its pride throughout the book. Whether it is a male or a female it can be huge. When males are killed the group of females are left open to a take-over by another male. When a new male arrives it kills all the young lions in a pride. Frequent turn-over of the male lions due to hunting creates a situation where it is really hard to raise young lions to maturity and can cause prides to shrink as older lions die.

There were several aspects of the book that I found distracting, in addition to the focus on Cecil in the title. The book starts with some attention grabbing stories about the immense force of lions and crocodiles and the terror they can cause, which seemed out of place considering the focus on lion conservation. It made me wonder if the intent was to draw in readers by playing into the public’s interest in ferocious beasts. Later stories, discussed within the context of lion behavior when lions move close to villages, melded well with Loveridge’s research, and showed their force without playing into the ferocious beast mentality. These stories were not as distracting since they flowed with the context of the book.

Many chapters also started with one story, and then told another story or two before coming back to finish the first story and end the chapter. I found this a little confusing for two reasons. First, as a mom I cannot always read a whole chapter in one sitting, so by the time I get to the end of the chapter I needed to review some of the material from the beginning of the chapter to refresh my memory. This was also distracting because there are a lot of lions that Loveridge has studied, over 700, and many people who have worked with him, so remembering all the names and relations gets confusing if you break up a story with another story.

The book ends with the details of Cecil’s death, clarifying multiple points the media got wrong, and analyzing why the death of that lion, as opposed to many previous lions, received so much attention. Loveridge even questions how Cecil’s name contributed to this. It made me wonder about the similarities between Cecil’s death and that of Harambe the following year at the Cincinnati Zoo. When the death of an animal causes so much outrage, we need to harness that energy to save the animals still living in the wild that need help now. For lions, Loveridge suggests it may come down to reducing human-wildlife conflicts and ensuring lions have access to enough uninhabited areas, and areas that are unobstructed so they can travel between those open spaces.

Overall, I found the book to be very interesting. I learned a lot about lion behavior, as well as lion hunting and the trophy hunting industry. I encourage you to read the book and find your own way to get involved in lion conservation. Visit the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit website to learn more about Loveridge and other conservation work they are doing.

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Book Review: I am Jane Goodall by Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer has written a child-friendly account of Dr. Jane Goodall as she grew up and began her research on chimpanzees in I am Jane Goodall.  I recommend this book for budding environmentalists.  It shows kids the importance of caring for the Earth and the need to work with others to advance conservation efforts.  It also demonstrates that passions can turn into careers. If you have a young environmentalist in your home this could be a good addition to their library.

The book starts with Jane’s first birthday, then gives a humorous glimpse of trouble she got into as a child due to her curiosity and passion for nature.  All kids experience this type of youthful naivete as they explore their world that would cause parents to want to pull their hair out, like Jane providing worms a cozy home on her bed.

As Jane grows up, the importance of hard work to achieve a goal is demonstrated.  She surmounted obstacles to get to Africa. She overcame discrimination as a woman in a male-dominated field.  Then, finally, with a lot of patience she was able to get close to chimpanzees in the wild. She was able to observe them for extended periods of time noticing their individual behaviors, and the similarities to human behavior.   

My kids, ages four and six, were not initially interested in the book.  As I began reading they were quickly drawn into the life of Jane Goodall as a child, from her attachment to her stuffed chimpanzee toy Jubilee, to the games she played, her innocent mischievousness, and her excitement for animals and reading.  These are common elements in their daily lives. By the end of the book my kids were glad we read it. We had a passionate discussion about threatened animals and what they could do to help.

I found the book entertaining and inspiring.  It is intriguing to hear how prominent figures in conservation discovered their field.  It is also useful to see an example of how they overcame obstacles that people in conservation still face today – lack of money, controversy about the way to do research, etc.

The illustrations by Christopher Eliopoulous are cute.  They have a comic feel with text bubbles depicting what Jane would have said in different situations.  Jane is depicted as a short girl throughout the book that does not appear to age though, which led to questions from my daughter about why she wasn’t getting older as she started doing research on chimpanzees.  

The book ends with pictures of Jane through the years, and a timeline of major events in her life.  She continues to be an inspiration to care for the Earth through her work at the Jane Goodall Institute.  The book mentions her Roots & Shoots program as well, which connects kids around the world and engages them in projects to help save the Earth, animals, and people in need.  It is a good reminder of all the ways we can help, and can be a discussion stimulus to encourage kids to relate their own actions to conservation efforts.

This book is from a series of books Meltzer and Eliopoulous are creating for Scholastic called Ordinary People Change the World.  If you enjoy this one, check out some of the other ones in the series too.

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