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enlightening eco-lit

Don’t read Confessions of an Eco-Sinner if you love chocolate, ice cream or burgers. Fred Pearce will ruin your care-free consuming ways, but he may help control your waistlines and your waste.

Pearce spent a year tracking down the origins of his stuff, uncovering the hidden worlds that sustain us consumers. He goes to the source of his shirt's cotton, the coffee in his cupboard and the prawns in his curry in an effort to “find out whether I should be ashamed of my purchases and their impact on the planet, or whether I should be proud to have contributed to some local economy or given a leg up to some hard-pressed community.”

Confessions is as much a history lesson as an eco-lesson, but that’s not to say it isn’t as gripping as a Stephen King classic – if anything it’s a little bit scarier because it’s real. Yes, it feels like a text book complete with an index, and yes, some parts are a bit too detailed for my liking, but once you skim to sections that interest you, Pearce provides a plethora of fascinating facts.

On his journey, he discovers African farmers have to pollinate their vanilla by hand, since bees don’t populate the area. He links eating ice cream to accelerating rain-forest destruction, and explains why the banana – a sterile, seedless “mutant” as he calls it – could be on the verge of extinction.

It takes 40 gallons of water to grow enough wheat to produce a slice of toast, but it takes nearly 3,000 gallons to make a hamburger. So you can only imagine how much water it takes to make a Big Mac and fries.

But Pearce isn’t an environmental Eeyore. The last couple of chapters are full of eco-optimism for the future. Pearce talks about the importance of cities turning green, and cites cities that have already taken steps toward cleaner quarters.

“At the new $40 million home of Melbourne’s city council in Australia, hanging gardens and water fountains cool the air, wind turbines and solar cells generate most of the electricity, and rooftop rainwater collectors supply most of its water.”

“In San Diego garbage trucks run on methane extracted from the landfills they deliver to. … In Germany, they are greening the roofs of their high-rises to grow good, encourage birdlife, collect rainfall, and cool the street below.”

Developing worlds are also working hard to keep up. The city of Curitiba in Brazil has created bus-only roads, and recruited poor people to recycle garbage in exchange for food and bus passes.

He sends an encouraging message that change is possible and doesn't have to come with massive sacrifice – just a different way of thinking. “For the past century planners have designed cities as if resources like land, fuel, water, and concrete were unlimited, and as if waste was something to be dumped as cheaply and as distantly as possible. Cities need a new metabolism, conserving their resources, cutting our carbon-based energy sources, and mining their trash.”

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“enlightening eco-lit”