Environmental Books

Best Conservation Books of 2021

recommended by Charlotte Smith

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake

WINNER 2021 Wainwright Prize for global conservation

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures
by Merlin Sheldrake

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Many of us are increasingly alarmed at the damage human beings have done—and continue to do—to the natural world and would love to be better informed about what we need to do to protect our precious environment. Fortunately, every year, the Wainwright Prize picks out the best writing on global conservation—books that are not only informative but highly readable. Here, British journalist Charlotte Smith, chair of the judging panel, talks us through the books that made the 2021 shortlist and why it's worth reading all of them.

Interview by Sophie Roell

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake

WINNER 2021 Wainwright Prize for global conservation

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures
by Merlin Sheldrake

Read

We’re talking about the best books written about ‘global conservation’ in the past year, all shortlisted for the 2021 Wainwright Prize. Could you start by telling me a bit about what that means—is it referring to conservation of our environment? What does it cover?

I think it’s deliberately wide. Yes, it’s conservation of the environment or conservation of a more particular thing. It suggests it’s not ‘Here are some quite boring, improving books that you should read!!’ I’m really hoping that people will see that the books on the shortlist are really good reads about a really important topic, rather than lectures designed to make you feel even more depressed about the state of the world.

I suppose 10 years ago, I might have thought of conservation as a niche subject for somebody who’s focusing on it. But now, it’s very much front and center and vital that we all understand these issues. I looked at last year’s shortlist as well as this year’s. These are all fantastic, informative, interesting books that we need to read.

I’m glad you say that because I worry that people will think, ‘Oh, God, this looks like hard work’. Yes, it’s a serious subject. And yes, there are points in these books where you will feel despair. But there are also points in all these books where you will feel hope and you will feel that you can do something. They are just fundamentally good books.

Let’s go through the books individually and you can tell me what you liked about each of them. The first one is by David Attenborough, and it’s called A Life on Our Planet. It’s a witness statement, a memoir of sorts, and a vision for the future. His general take, I guess, is that it’s all pretty catastrophic, but we can still save the world?

Yes, exactly. It’s really powerful, partly because he starts as a child. The first bit is about when he was 11 and, when he finishes the book, he’s 94. My own father is 90 so I’m aware, in a really visceral sense, of just how much they’ve seen in their lives. When I talk to my dad, it’s like a history lesson sometimes and you can’t quite believe he was there for it. You get the same feeling with this book with Sir David Attenborough. He just writes so well, and so clearly, about what it was and what it is.

Then the second part of the book is ‘That’s the problem. Those are my memories. This is the mess we’ve got ourselves into—and here’s what we can do about it.’ So it is a hopeful book, in the end.

I should say that the book is written with somebody else, Jonnie Hughes. I feel sorry for Jonnie Hughes because it’s by Sir David Attenborough. We should mention Johnnie because Sir David does say, ‘Look, I didn’t do this on my own.’

I often look at Amazon reviews because they can give a feel for what a range of people say about a book. One of them wrote about A Life on Our Planet, “everyone on this planet should read this book” so they were obviously struck quite forcefully by it.

Yes, this book is really accessible. It’s very readable. I think it’s because both Sir David and Johnnie write TV scripts. A TV script is quite sparse in comparison with writing a novel or a book, you have a lot fewer words. It really benefits from that because it’s readable and clear. I really liked it.

Next of the conservation books on the 2021 Wainwright Prize shortlist is a bit more specific in its focus. This is Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, by British biologist Merlin Sheldrake. That’s quite a statement.

This is an amazing book. It opened up a whole new world that I knew nothing about. Well, I knew a bit because some farmers do talk about the fungal roots beneath the soil, but I didn’t know enough. It’s really interesting. It’s a complex subject and he does navigate through it deftly. The book is fairly accessible, I’d say, and utterly absorbing.

And the general theme is that fungi are not just mushrooms we might have for dinner—they’re much, much broader, and absolutely vital to all sorts of things?

There’s a whole thing called the ‘wood wide web.’ The illustrations in the book are lovely and there’s a fantastic diagram of a tree and it’s got all these roots that go down and have a symbiotic relationship with these fungal things. I’m really simplifying this—if Merlin reads this, he’ll have a fit—but basically, the fungi and the roots of the tree have a symbiotic relationship and they then ‘communicate’ with other trees.

So yes, there is more to mushrooms than you ever thought possible.

Let’s go on to the other book on the shortlist which is also very focused. This is Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs, which is all about whales.

This is beautifully written, really elegant. It’s a disquieting book, I would say. It made me think about whales a lot in a way that I hadn’t before. It’s compelling. There is a lot of information and it’s quite dense in part, but it’s clearly expressed.

“We’ve done a lot of talking and not a lot of doing”

Some of the things you read are shocking, some are absolutely fascinating. There’s a world in a whale’s stomach—they found plant pots and all sorts of things. Again, a little bit like Entangled Life, it’s about the interconnectedness of things. The book talks about a whale fall, which is when a whale dies and it falls to the bottom of the sea, and the process of that, but also about all the other things that happen that rely on that whale being there and dying. It’s about the interconnections in nature that you just don’t really think about. If they’re mucked up, we then have to think about them because we’ve broken something.

And is it looking at all aspects of whales?

Yes, from hunting them, to where they are now, to eating them to not eating them. It’s amazing.

Let’s move on to the next book, Islands of Abandonment, about places like Chernobyl which humans have left behind. This is by the author and journalist Cal Flyn, who also happens to be our deputy editor.

This is so beautifully written, it’s poetic. She takes us to a variety of places that we have, frankly, mucked up and then abandoned, or just abandoned. So, Chernobyl where we mucked it up and then ran away; Detroit where the economy collapsed, and there are just all these empty properties; Scottish slag heaps, ‘bings’ they call them, and they’re made from ‘blaes’ which are small bits of shale gravel; a Scottish island where the last people left in 1974, leaving their cattle behind.

She then charts what happened next, how nature recovers and copes and, in some cases, invents something else, something that will put up with radiation, say. She doesn’t let us off. There’s no suggestion that ‘it’s okay, whatever we do, nature will survive it.’ You do realize it’s very bad, but it’s a beautiful book.

Let’s go on to Net Zero: How We Stop Causing Climate Change. This is by an economist, Dieter Helm. I noticed last year you had a practical, here’s-what-to-do book about climate change as well. What’s this one about?

The book is kind of ‘here’s the problem, here is how we got ourselves into this mess and here is Professor Dieter Helm’s idea of how we get ourselves out of it.’ We’re coming up to COP26 and he gives fairly short shrift to all the international efforts that we’ve made so far and says, ‘Here is what the UK could just get on and do.’

At the moment, we’re not counting the true cost of pollution. The person or the company that created it doesn’t pay for it. We’re also not counting properly the amount of emissions that we create offshore, which is pertinent at a time of free trade deals. We say, ‘It’s okay. We’re not growing chickens (or whatever it might be), we’re importing them. We can discount all those emissions because they happen in Australia. His point is, ‘yes, but they only happen because of us, so we should count them.’ I’m no economist, but it’s very readable and very clear, and quite angry. He is not happy. There’s a real sense of ‘Argh!’ throughout it.

Do you feel personally empowered after reading the book, ‘I’m going to do this, this and that’ or is it more at the level of what our governments should do?

It’s more at the level of policy and the bigger picture. There’s a whole set of conclusions and he talks about having to go electric and the electric future, for example. There’s certainly stuff you can do. He’s not going to take any shilly-shallying; I don’t think he’d have much time for ‘Hang on I just need to…’ He’d say, ‘No! You don’t. You just need to get on with it.’

We’re not at the final book on the best conservation books of 2021 shortlist. This is Under a White Sky by environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her previous book, The Sixth Extinction. What’s this one about?

Under a White Sky is all about our attempt to control nature and then repair the impact of what we’ve done. It’s a book about solving the problems created by the people trying to solve the problems, as somebody rather neatly put it. It is really fascinating. It’s the law of unintended consequences: ‘We’ve got a problem with this. So we’ll dam it and we’ll reroute the river this way.’ And then, ‘Oh, hang on, all these rare fish are dying because we’ve stolen their water.’ And then we create a completely false place for them to live to survive. There’s a really nice bit, when she’s in Death Valley in the United States. She is staying in Las Vegas that night, at the hotel with the Eiffel Tower outside, Paris Las Vegas. And she says, ‘I’m in my fake French room, and I’m looking at the fake Eiffel Tower. I could go down to the fake French bar. Maybe this is how those fish feel. They’re in this completely fake environment, to try and keep them alive because we were doing something else and mucked up their actual habitat.’

Is there a part of it about coral reefs?

There is, with a British academic who was working in the States, in Hawaii. I noticed in the acknowledgements that she died. She discovered that for some reason—they don’t really know why—some types of coral are surviving. In a rather pragmatic way, they’re trying to breed that type of coral because they’re not convinced that we’ll get our act together.

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It’s a really interesting look—as all these books are—at what we’ve done when we weren’t trying to do it. Like Fathoms: nobody set out to rid the world of whales, and all the things that depend on whales being there. Nobody set out to upset a very complicated fungal system that we didn’t know was there. But our efforts have an impact and that’s what these books are about.

You said at the beginning that the books do give hope. Is Kolbert’s book also hopeful?

It’s probably more downbeat, I would say. All of the books do have hope, but with a lot of them you feel the author’s frustration. All of them are, in their different ways, experts on what they’re talking about. You feel the complexity of the solution because the problem is so complex now that the solutions are complex. As Dieter Helm would point out, we’ve done a lot of talking and not a lot of doing.

I love what you mentioned last year, that one of the reasons you wanted to judge this prize was the books would teach you things you didn’t know. Reading these books is a great way of doing it.

I’m not an environmental journalist, but I do do countryside journalism and the depth of my ignorance shocks me. I didn’t know anything about fungi or whales, I didn’t know about Islands of Abandonment. I knew a bit more about Net Zero because I’ve interviewed Dieter Helm. But there is that moment when you just think, ‘Wow, everyone should know this.’ I was reading the whales book, Fathoms, on holiday. And I kept saying, ‘Oh, did you know?’ and reading it out loud. All these books are a little bit like that, there are bits when you will find yourself quoting them in a slightly irritating way to your friends and family because all the stuff in them is so interesting.

We’ve got the meeting tomorrow when we’ve got to pick the winner and I have no idea which one will win. I’d really like everyone to read the shortlist and not just the winner. Whichever book wins, there will be others which could have/should have. They are all weirdly hopeful and well worth reading.

The winner of The Wainwright Prize, sponsored by James Cropper, was announced on Tuesday September 7th.

Part of our best books of 2021 series.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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Charlotte Smith

Charlotte Smith

Charlotte Smith is a journalist, television presenter and conference host. She has been presenting programmes about rural Britain on TV and radio for more than two decades. She is one of the main presenters of Radio 4’s Farming Today and a regular on Countryfile on BBC 1. As the child of librarians, Charlotte is a lifelong book lover, and is rarely happier than when  in the quiet carriage of a train with no phone or wifi connection, and a good book on the go. Charlotte is the chair of the 2020 Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing’s new Global Conservation Prize.

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Charlotte Smith

Charlotte Smith

Charlotte Smith is a journalist, television presenter and conference host. She has been presenting programmes about rural Britain on TV and radio for more than two decades. She is one of the main presenters of Radio 4’s Farming Today and a regular on Countryfile on BBC 1. As the child of librarians, Charlotte is a lifelong book lover, and is rarely happier than when  in the quiet carriage of a train with no phone or wifi connection, and a good book on the go. Charlotte is the chair of the 2020 Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing’s new Global Conservation Prize.