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On Science

Alarms, ideas to help save a damaged world

Feeding the Fire: The Lost History and Uncertain Future of Mankind’s Energy Addiction
By Mark E. Eberhart
Harmony, 283 pp., $24

When the Rivers Run Dry: Water — The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century
By Fred Pearce
Beacon, 324 pp., illustrated, paperback, $16

Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning
By George Monbiot
South End, 276 pp., $22

The World Without Us
By Alan Weisman
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, 324 pp., illustrated, $24.95

As a 6-year-old boy, Mark Eberhart poured a cup of gasoline in a gallon can, made an igniter with steel wool, wires, and a 9-volt battery, and stepped back. "The results," he says, "were both spectacular and unexpected."

The can twanged and whooshed, and a geyser of flame began to shoot at regular intervals into his parents' garage. His mother rushed out, kicked over the flaming can, and started playing what Eberhart calls "a potentially hazardous round of hopscotch."

Fortunately no damage was done. But Eberhart, now a professor at the Colorado School of Mines , continues to be captivated by energy: what it is, how humans have used it in the past, and how we might use it more intelligently in the future. His new book, "Feeding the Fire ," explores all three questions. It is at once a concise, agreeable primer on thermodynamics, an indictment of our current energy policies, and an appeal to "use our amazing imaginations to envision and realize a world where energy is used responsibly." Eberhart's prescription is a "Thinking Man's Energy Diet," a thin selection of policies to make the United States energy independent by 2035.

Will anyone pay attention? One thing is for sure: Eberhart is not the only science writer ringing the alarm bells this summer. Former New Scientist editor Fred Pearce writes a relentless, almost desperate assessment of the dwindling supplies of the world's fresh water in "When the Rivers Run Dry," now available in paperback. Pearce claims that more than a billion people have already lost access to clean drinking water , and argues that "the twentieth- century view that the world can feed itself only by artificial irrigation of huge areas of the developing world will . . . have to go. It is hubris we cannot afford."

British columnist George Monbiot's "Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning" presents a dizzying array of bad news about the climate and a formula for how to reduce carbon emissions 90 percent by 2030, a more rigorous and exhaustive energy diet than Eberhart's. Among other things, Monbiot urges abstaining from air travel and redesigning new power stations to remove and capture emitted carbon.

"Heat" is funny and fully aware of its own self-delusions. "I might be deeply afraid of the impending disaster," Monbiot writes, "but I am also confident that . . . it will not apply to me." Like Eberhart, he understands that any campaign for a renewable and sustainable energy future is really a campaign against ourselves and the ways we choose to live our lives.

But it's summertime, and wouldn't it be more fun to read about an adolescent wizard vanquishing evil than the various evils we Muggles are perpetrating against our planet?

If you can stomach only one end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it story this summer, none is more audacious or interesting than Alan Weisman's "The World Without Us." Weisman doesn't bother with imagining what will happen if global temperatures continue to rise or Lake Powell dries up -- he simply imagines the earth with all its humans instantly vaporized.

Predictably enough, "The World Without Us" contains plenty of images of dams giving way beneath tons of silt, unattended nuclear power plants melting down, and the Statue of Liberty oxidizing gently at the bottom of New York Harbor. But this book is much more than a science fiction tour of the hypothetical. Weisman has an extraordinarily farsighted point of view, and he is actually at his best when exploring the past, tracing the world as it was before Homo sapiens to extrapolate what it might be like after Homo sapiens.

"The World Without Us" is ultimately a beautiful and passionate jeremiad against deforestation, climate change, and pollution. Songbirds fly into cellular towers; 10 million square miles of plastic trash spin slowly in a gyre in the western Pacific. But because Weisman continually brings his discussions back to his central question -- what if we suddenly disappeared? -- the book manages to be both dismaying and whimsical at once, and he skirts the twin traps of so many environmental books: He neither overwhelms a reader with hopelessness, nor comes across as a Cassandra shrieking into the void.

And appropriately enough for a summer book, "The World Without Us" is also a nice reminder of how relatively trivial one's personal problems are. After all, of what consequence is a missed appointment or a summer cold when, in a few hundred thousand years, all that's left of humanity will be some corroded bronze sculptures and a few dozen electromagnetic signals winging out into intergalactic space?

"The World Without Us" resets our sense of ourselves and enlarges our perspective. In the end, that's what a good book, in any season, ought to do.

Anthony Doerr is the author of "The Shell Collector" and "About Grace."

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