from The Textbook Letter, Volume 12, Number 1

Reviewing a science book for high-school honors courses

Environmental Science: The Way the World Works
Seventh edition, 2000. 664 pages. ISBN: 0-13-083134-4. Prentice Hall.
(Prentice Hall is a part of Pearson Education, 1 Lake Street, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458.
Pearson Education is a division of Pearson PLC, a British corporation headquartered in London.)

This Is a Fine Textbook, All in All, and I Recommend It

Max G. Rodel

In 1990 I had an opportunity to review the third edition of Environmental Science: The Way the World Works, and my review appeared under the headline "An Ideal Book for Teachers Who Have Activist Leanings" [see note 1, below]. That third edition, I wrote, was strong in its presentation of scientific and technological topics, but I did not like the ideological maneuvers that the writers performed when they dealt with some social and political aspects of environmental problems. I said that the writers tended to give one-sided expositions of controversial issues, I told that their effort to explain overpopulation was weakened by their ideological notions about the "distribution of wealth," and I called attention to some of their prescriptions for environmental activism (such as their directing students to "shame" people who owned exotic pets or who used products derived from endangered species). To me, the writers' obvious willingness to venture beyond the realm of knowledge and into the realm of indoctrination was troubling.

I now have examined the seventh edition, and I have found that it bears little resemblance -- either substantive or superficial -- to the third. This seventh edition is a far better book. Besides providing updated material, it displays superior writing, better balance, and a notably reduced load of ideological dogma.

Chapter 1, "Sustainability, Stewardship, and Sound Science," introduces the book's three central themes. The rest of the book is divided into six parts -- "Ecosystems and How They Work," "The Human Population," "Renewable Resources," "Energy," "Pollution and Prevention" and "Toward a Sustainable Future." Each part comprises two to seven chapters, and the chapters cover all the topics that we commonly find in environmental-science textbooks, such as ecological relationships, population dynamics, soil, water, biodiversity, fossil fuels, nuclear power, pests and pest-control methods, atmospheric pollution, and human-induced alteration of Earth's climate.

The opening page of each chapter shows a list of "Key Issues and Questions," alerting students to particularly important aspects of the material that they will encounter in the body of the chapter. Then, in typical cases, the writers start the chapter's text by presenting a little scene that immediately awakens the students' interest without being overstated or cute. Here, for example, is the ominous beginning of the text of chapter 13:

The Sea Empress, a 147,000-ton tanker, left the Firth of Forth in Scotland in early February, 1996, laden with 131,000 tons of crude oil bound for the Texaco Refinery at Milford Haven, Wales.

Here is the passage that initiates the text of chapter 19:

Danehy Park features four soccer fields, four softball fields, three basketball courts, a baseball diamond, two playgrounds, and a two-mile jogging trail. The 55-acre park, opened in 1990, is located close to a heavily populated area of North Cambridge, Massachusetts . . . An unusual feature of the park is a big red light in the public rest room that warns users to vacate the park if the light goes on.

Or consider the opening sentences of chapter 22:

On Tuesday morning, October 26, 1944, the people of Donora, Pennsylvania (population 13,000), awoke to a dense fog . . . . At first the fog did not seem unusual. Most of Donora's fogs lifted by noon, as the Sun warmed the upper atmosphere and then the land. This one didn't lift for five days.

Do you want to know what happened to the Sea Empress? Do you want to know what activates that big red light in the public rest room at Danehy Park? Do you want to know why that dense fog covered Donora for five days? I did -- and as I read to learn the answers, I was captivated by the writers' narrative flair, by their literate, engaging style, and by their lucid, informative presentations. The quality of the writing in Environmental Science: The Way the World Works is remarkable, and the book is a pleasure to read.

This book is copiously illustrated with photographs, diagrams and charts, and it contains numerous sidebars, but the designers have favored clean layouts and have shunned the use of flashy typographic devices. As a result, Environmental Science: The Way the World Works doesn't have the "video arcade" appearance that I have encountered in some of the other textbooks that I have reviewed.

Part One, which deals with ecosystems and consists of five chapters, is particularly fine, and its final chapter -- "Ecosystems and Evolutionary Change" -- is a jewel. Early in the chapter, the writers show us that natural selection, mediated by environmental pressures, is much like the artificial selection that humans practice in the breeding of domesticated animals. Then they explain such concepts as adaptation, genetic variation, the gene pool, mutation, speciation and extinction. Their explanations of how genes are passed from one generation to another, of how genes that promote survival are favored in successive generations, and of how natural selection leads to changes in species and in ecosystems are clear and vivid. Furthermore, the chapter has a good discussion of plate tectonics. Here the writers show that continental drift affords a reasonable and understandable mechanism for long-term, global environmental changes which doubtless have driven much of the organic evolution that has taken place over the eons. This fusion of biology with geology is top-drawer material. The chapter concludes with a section called "Stewardship of Life," in which the writers connect evolutionary biology with the concept of sustainability: If an ecosystem is to endure indefinitely, they say, its biodiversity must endure too -- and this can happen only if the gene pools of the species that participate in the ecosystem are preserved, so that all those species will be able to retain the stores of genetic variation that will make future adaptations possible. The treatment of biological evolution in Environmental Science: The Way the World Works is the best that I have encountered in an environmental-science textbook.

The principal weakness of Environmental Science: The Way the World Works is that the writers continue to display, in some places, their propensity for ideological rhetoric. They exercise more restraint than they did in the third edition -- but even so, their sections about population, wealth and food resources smell slightly of the notion that I have to be my brother's keeper, and the sidebar on page 491, titled "Environmental Justice and Hazardous Waste" really stinks. In that sidebar, the writers endorse the fashionable notion of "environmental racism" -- the notion that, because of some racist conspiracy, waste-disposal sites typically are located in places that are inhabited chiefly by "people of color" (i.e., blacks, Latinos or American Indians). That notion is bogus. Here is what I wrote about it in 1995, in my review of another textbook [note 2] whose writers promoted "environmental racism" fables:

"Environmental racism" makes a good story that can stir the emotions of ignorant audiences, but it is nothing more than that: a story. There is no doubt that dirty industries are unusually common in (or near) black or Hispanic communities, but this doesn't mean that white racists have deliberately sought this result; nor have the promoters of "environmental racism" produced any evidence to support such an idea. If we recall how the distribution of industrial plants or waste-disposal sites is influenced by land costs, by transportation facilities, and by the political power or political impotence of local residents, we needn't invoke a special "environmental racist" conspiracy to explain why dirty industrial operations are often found in communities of people who are poor and powerless. The inventors of "environmental racism" are in the business of using dubious "studies" and outlandish claims to confuse correlation with causation.

Please! Spare us any more of this politically correct stuff about "environmental justice" and "environmental racism"! Let's just recognize that hazardous-waste sites are installed where land is available at an acceptable price and where transportation routes are convenient. Let's leave the stuff about oppressed "people of color" in the dustbin, where it belongs.

I am happy to observe that such lapses as the "environmental justice" sidebar don't occur often in this seventh edition of Environmental Science: The Way the World Works, and I've been impressed by the writers' overall success in avoiding one-sided advocacy and in treating social issues in an even-handed way. I especially like the sidebar "Defining Hazardous," on page 496, where the writers explain that, in a waste-management context, it is hard to form any consensus about what the terms hazardous and toxic should mean. Many different standards can be advanced for deciding whether a waste material is hazardous or toxic, and the various standards involve vastly different biomedical criteria -- from obvious, gross disease to tiny chromosomal alterations that have no apparent effect on human health.

I also like the writers' forthright descriptions of some of the environmental disasters that arose from agricultural and industrial practices espoused by the Soviet Union and its captive states. Here is a part of the sidebar "A Toxic Wasteland," on page 494:

Now that the shrouds of secrecy have been lifted from the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe and the republics of the former U.S.S.R., it is apparent that central planning has been responsible for the worst kinds of environmental pollution imaginable. Pollutants were emitted from the stacks of industry and power plants with no controls, ruining thousands of square miles of forests and creating untold health problems; untreated sewage from cities fouled the rivers, destroying fish and rendering the water unfit even for industrial uses; heavy metals and toxic chemicals were poured untreated into the Baltic Sea, turning the bottom into a marine desert . . . .

It is refreshing to think that at least some of the students in our schools will learn those facts about the "workers' paradise" that socialism created in the Soviet empire.

All in all, the seventh edition of Environmental Science: The Way the World Works is a fine textbook -- superbly written and very readable. I recommend it highly.


  1. See The Textbook Letter, Vol. 1, No. 3. [return to text]

  2. The book was Environmental Science: A Global Concern, issued by Wm. C. Brown Publishers. My review ran in TTL, Vol. 6, Number 2. [return to text]

Max G. Rodel is a chemist, now retired. He is an expert on the chemistry of natural aquatic systems and on the behavior of pollutants in such systems, and he has worked as a consulting environmental scientist and as a registered environmental assessor in the state of California.


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