Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Hidden Life of Trees, and Other Deeply Flawed Books on Nature

There are some very misleading books, articles and opeds out there, claiming to give you the inside scoop on what nature is really like. Nature is very complex, involves a long learning curve to gain some understanding, and thus many readers prove vulnerable to cherry-picked evidence used to promote skewed points of view. 

Over the years, I've reviewed many of these false characterizations of nature, posted on another website and at Amazon and Goodreads, and reached out to some of the authors and editors. I'd like to think that I've played a role in diminishing the prevalence of one strand of skewed thinking: invasive species denial. I encountered it first in opinion pieces in the NY Times, then came across misleading books like The Rambunctious Garden, Beyond the War On Invasive Species, The New Wild, and Inheritors of the Earth. I also critiqued and reached out to the radio show, You Bet Your Garden, which was pretending that invasive species aren't a problem. 

Interestingly, one strand of invasive species denial springs from a blanket condemnation of pesticides, much as climate change denial is often motivated by a distaste for government. If the solution is objectionable, then deny the problem. Now, I don't like herbicides--Rodale's Organic Gardening Encyclopedia was my bible back when my interest in plants centered around growing food--but their targeted use is critical when dealing with invasive species on any meaningful scale. What works on an organic farm is not fully transferable to a nature preserve. There is an understandable desire for purity in our sullied world. Consider, though, the pragmatism with which we view western medicine and our own bodies. Just because antibiotics are abused by the meat industry doesn't mean we vilify all antibiotics everywhere, or refuse to take them if needed.

One book that's highly misleading is The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. Though it doesn't fit in the category of invasive species denial, it does use similar techniques to manipulate readers. It seems like a gentle book, but has an underlying logic that is not so pretty, as described here in a small excerpt from my review:

A book will garner more interest if it has an applecart to spill and an "Other" to dislike. In this case, the applecart is antiquated views of trees, and the "Others" to look down upon are narrow-minded scientists and commercial foresters. Another common ingredient is to let the reader off the hook by suggesting we as individuals need expend no energy to compensate for all the ways human activity has thrown nature out of balance.

Nearly all of these books are written by non-scientists and reviewed by non-scientists, leaving the public unprotected from any misinformation the books may carry.

Though invasive species denial seems to be fading, Wohlleben's book remains very popular. Many of these books get very high ratings on Amazon and elsewhere. Though the Amazon review section for a book is a useful place to break people's bubbles, I've noticed that the reviews that Amazon labels as "top critical review" are neither the strongest nor the most informative and recommended negative reviews on the site. Here's an example, in which the most highly recommended negative review is buried below others.

2020 has definitively demonstrated just how hard it is for truth to compete. In politics, a preponderance of the misinformation is being generated and consumed by the rightwing, but it's instructive to witness how those who care deeply about nature can also prove vulnerable to false narratives.

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