from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1995

Reviewing a science book for high-school honors courses

Environmental Science: Working with the Earth
1995. 540 pages + appendices. ISBN: 0-534-21588-2.
Wadsworth Publishing Company, 10 Davis Drive, Belmont, California 94002.
(Wadsworth is a part of International Thomson Publishing Inc.)

Editor's Introduction -- The textbook that is reviewed here is a fifth edition. Earlier editions, the last of which was dated in 1993, carried the title Environmental Science: Sustaining the Earth. Two reviews of the 1993 version ran in The Textbook Letter for January-February 1993.
Students Will Love
This Fine Textbook

David A. Cobb

The previous edition of Environmental Science, issued in 1993, fared well when it was reviewed by Claudia Luke and by Max Rodel in The Textbook Letter. Luke recommended it "for its enjoyable style, for its ability to engage and inform the student, and for its capacity to provoke thought about the difficult environmental problems that we face today." Rodel recommended it too, concluding that it had "much to offer the student who is interested in the eclectic discipline of environmental science."

Both of those reviewers, however, expressed some reservations. Luke said that the book's author, G. Tyler Miller, Jr., continually promoted his own environmental philosophy, even though Environmental Science was supposed to be a textbook rather than a manifesto. She also cited a number of conceptual errors in Miller's treatment of basic biology. Rodel said that the book preached a way of life, and he remarked that the views which Miller espoused as "politically correct" were sometimes contradictory. (In recalling those comments, it is helpful to know that Luke is a superbly educated biologist who possesses an unusually keen sense of scientific objectivity and rigor, while Rodel is not only a scientist but also a dedicated student of human nature. Rodel's view of the world is definitely conservative, and his PC-detector is particularly sensitive.)

I don't know whether Luke and Rodel would be entirely satisfied with the 1995 version, but I observe that many (if not all) of the mistaken passages that marred the 1993 book have been changed. This is impressive. Over the years, I have reviewed successive editions of various science textbooks, and I have grown accustomed to the idea that some writers (or publishers) ignore even the simplest and most reasonable suggestions for improving their books and making them more accurate. I am not referring to matters of philosophy. I am referring to plain errors of fact and obvious misprints that persist in edition after edition, indicating that the publisher has chosen not to clean up a sloppy product.

That is not the case here, for the 1995 version of Environmental Science has benefited from a clear effort to address criticisms and make substantive improvements. These improvements -- combined with evidence that this book was written by a real and dedicated individual, rather than by a committee convened in the publisher's basement -- give me the feeling that G. Tyler Miller, Jr., actually exists. Indeed, there is a feature article (on pages 511 and 512) that purports to be Miller's own account of his own way of life. I believe it. Hi there, Ty! How are things going in Eco-Lair?

Eco-Lair is Miller's house. Miller is a conservationist who seems to practice what he preaches. Deep in a woodland somewhere, he and his wife, Peggy, dwell in a structure that they created by building a wooden frame around a renovated bus. The house is passively heated and cooled (except when a small air-conditioner is activated during thermal or pollen emergencies). Photographs show us the structure's natural-wood exterior, thermal panels, and interior wood paneling that glows beautifully. The inside of Eco-Lair looks as cozy as all get-out, and I can picture Miller kneeling in his back-saver chair as he works late into the evening. I can even see Peggy, in her Birkenstocks, padding across the (all-wool) carpet to bring him a mug of tea.

We read that Eco-Lair's two inhabitants save their bottles, crush their cans, drive a tiny car, practice "organic" gardening, and rely on "recycled toilet paper." (That phrase does not mean what it seems to mean; it is Miller's name for toilet paper made from post-consumer paper waste.) Ty and Peggy are not strict vegetarians yet, but they are feeling guilty about this. And the sooner they can buy a car that burns hydrogen, the happier they'll be.

Am I making fun of these folks? Not a bit. Can you imagine how our environment would be improved if many of us followed their example? They appear to be doing a fine job of living in a sustainable way and of treading as lightly as they can on our planet -- and these are precisely the approaches that Miller advocates in his book. We don't have to seek perfection; rather, we have to consider the environmental consequences of our actions, and we must take preventive or corrective steps wherever we can.

Environmental Science has five major parts. Part I offers a chapter about environmental problems and their causes, then a chapter about cultural matters, world views and ethics. Part II introduces basic ideas about resources, then surveys ecosystems, human populations and population-control efforts, environmental economics, and topics related to human health. Part III considers abiotic resources and includes sections about global warming and the loss of stratospheric ozone. Part IV examines living resources and biodiversity (with a chapter on pesticides and pest control), and Part V considers energy resources. There are several appendices as well, including a discussion of how to introduce conservation into daily living, a good list of "Further Readings," a detailed glossary, and a detailed index that could only have been created by a modern word-processing program.

Every chapter of Environmental Science contains plenty of factual material that is scientifically sound and is presented well, and every chapter challenges students to examine their assumptions about the natural world and to consider how their personal behavior affects our environment. Every chapter ends with set of "Critical Thinking" questions that almost always require real thinking; very few of them can be answered by merely recalling facts from the text.

The book is replete with case studies, with descriptions of real-life environmental problems and possible solutions, and with guest essays (including a few that contravene Miller's own views). Some of the guest essays are especially laudable:

Students will also be enlightened by the sidebar that describes anti-environmental organizations, disclosing that one of these is funded, in part, by the "Moonie" cult. Another especially valuable item in Environmental Science is Miller's discussion of gross national product and of the popular, government-sponsored illusion that a rising GNP means that we are well-off.


I think that students will love this book for its sincerity. Most high-school juniors or seniors have reached a stage in their lives when they can recognize the difference between practice and pretense, though they have not quite mastered the double-think that enables an adult who owns three television sets, three cars and a 4,000-square-foot house to keep a straight face as he recycles his newspapers.

If a teacher tries to use this book in a course that consists wholly of lectures, the results will probably be disappointing. I recommend using an inquiry-learning approach: Different groups of students could focus on the most important ideas under study, and the groups could report their findings to the rest of the class in periodic seminars. Examinations would focus on ways of putting the major ideas into practice locally. Now and then, the teacher could arrange a good debate, a "town meeting" about an environmental issue, or some other instructive event -- perhaps even an analytical discussion of the birth-control-education activities that have worked so well in Thailand, where young people compete in condom-blowing contests, clinics offer free vasectomies on the king's birthday, and the police hand out condoms on New Year's Eve (now known as "Cops and Rubbers Day"). The Thai program is described on page 130 of Environmental Science.

G. Tyler Miller, Jr., has produced a fine textbook, and I recommend it. If students who use this book do not have a lot of fun while they also learn a great deal about the theory and practice of environmental science, then the fault will lie with the teacher.

David A. Cobb, an ecologist, is a project manager with the research-and-development unit of the Bechtel Corporation (in San Francisco). His professional interests include agricultural ecology, the bioremediation of soils and sediments, and the planning and design of integrated industrial complexes. With his wife, Diane, he runs a commercial vineyard (in Occidental, California) that produces wine grapes.


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