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From a former New York Times science writer, this urgent call to action—updated for paperback with a new preface and afterword—will empower you to stand up to climate change and environmental pollution by making simple but impactful everyday choices.
With urgency and wit, Tatiana Schlossberg explains that far from being only a distant problem of the natural world created by the fossil fuel industry, climate change is all around us, all the time, lurking everywhere in our convenience-driven society, all without our realizing it.
By examining the unseen and unconscious environmental impacts in four areas-the Internet and technology, food, fashion, and fuel – Schlossberg helps readers better understand why climate change is such a complicated issue, and how it connects all of us: How streaming a movie on Netflix in New York burns coal in Virginia; how eating a hamburger in California might contribute to pollution in the Gulf of Mexico; how buying an inexpensive cashmere sweater in Chicago expands the Mongolian desert; how destroying forests from North Carolina is necessary to generate electricity in England.
Cataloging the complexities and frustrations of our carbon-intensive society with a dry sense of humor, Schlossberg makes the climate crisis and its solutions interesting and relevant to everyone who cares, even a little, about the planet. She empowers readers to think about their stuff and the environment in a new way, helping them make more informed choices when it comes to the future of our world.
Most importantly, this is a book about the power we have as voters and consumers to make sure that the fight against climate change includes all of us and all of our stuff, not just industry groups and politicians. If we have any hope of solving the problem, we all have to do it together.
"A compelling-and illuminating-look at how our daily habits impact the environment."—Vanity Fair
"If you're looking for something to cling to in what often feels like a hopeless conversation, Schlossberg's darkly humorous, knowledge-is-power, eyes-wide-open approach may be just the thing."—Vogue
"Shows how even the smallest decisions can have profound environmental consequences."–The New York Times
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When we think about climate change, melting polar ice caps, hurricanes, or forest fires might be the first things that come to mind. If we think a little longer, we might get all the way to renewable energy, greenhouse gas emissions, or coal. Much lower down on the list, if it comes up at all, is average, everyday, run-of-the-mill stuff, including literal stuff: a pair of jeans, a hamburger, Netflix, an air-conditioner.
But those four things, and many others, should be much higher on the list. In fact, almost everything we do, use, and eat in the United States (and much of the rest of the world) has a lot to do with climate change and the environment, because of the way we use resources, create waste, and emit greenhouse gases without even thinking about it.
That’s why I wanted to write this book: the physical things we interact with every day and lots of our daily activities don’t exist in a vacuum—they’re much more connected to each other, to global climate change, and to each one of us than we think.
The story of climate change—and all of our stuff—is actually a story about everything: science, health, injustice, inequality, national and international politics, the natural world, business, normal life. Climate change affects everyone constantly, but, until very recently, we usually only talked about it for a few days when some natural disaster happened or a particularly scary report by government scientists came out—if then—before we moved on to something else. Really, we should be talking about it all the time. But it’s scary, and even though it’s “an existential crisis facing humanity,” it doesn’t always seem to connect to our lives, so we haven’t talked about it nearly enough.
Let me back up for a second: before I became a climate change and environmental journalist, I understood in broad strokes what climate change was and why it was happening—that transportation, industry, agriculture, and electricity generation all involve processes that result in the emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere, causing the overall surface temperature of the planet to increase. This leads to the melting of the polar ice caps and the rise in sea level, stronger storms, drought, forest fires, flooding, etc. I knew that there were other kinds of pollution that created environmental problems, like ocean plastic and acid rain. But I didn’t seek out too much more information. I didn’t like reading about climate change and its effects—it filled me with dread and made me feel powerless. The problems seemed too big and too inevitable for me to do anything about, so it felt like it was probably best to look away. Intellectually, I recognized that climate change is the most important issue in the world. Pretending it wasn’t happening wouldn’t make it go away, so eventually I thought I should probably learn more about it, and I was lucky that the editors at the New York Times thought I was up to the challenge.
But it also became pretty clear to me as I started reporting and writing about climate change and the environment that there was so much left out of the conversation, including what might make the issues relatable. Plus, articles about climate change can be really boring. Even I think they’re boring! They tend to be incredibly technical or presume that we all have a lot of background knowledge and context, which we don’t necessarily. And that’s too bad, because these issues are actually really interesting. Sure, they’re complicated, but they connect to each other and to us in lots of surprising and fascinating ways.
I also noticed that it was really hard to bring climate change down to scale, to make sense of it within the context of our own lives, and to get a sense of how our habits and the products we use affect the environment. I started thinking: What kinds of things am I doing or buying without thinking about where they come from or what kind of impact they have? How have our habits and our expectations changed over time, maybe generating more waste or encouraging more consumption? What do I notice myself and other people doing that seems wasteful but appears to happen without a second thought?
I thought about how watching TV and movies is so different now from when I was little, when a show was on once a week, and if you missed it, the best you could hope for was a rerun someday. Now, I can watch a whole series in one sitting on my laptop, and streaming online videos is something that many of us probably take for granted. Maybe we think about the electricity needed to power our laptop, but we probably don’t consider that going online itself uses electricity, which often comes from fossil fuels. In the US, we still get about one-third of our electricity from coal, so streaming your online video may be coal-powered; the by-product of burning that coal is coal ash, one of the largest industrial solid-waste streams in the country, which is largely under-regulated and can end up polluting groundwater, streams, lakes, and rivers across the country.1 As crazy as this might sound, it means that watching your favorite episode of The Office might come at the expense of clean water for someone else.
I thought about cotton. Sometimes, we hear about how drought and irrigation for agriculture create environmental problems or freshwater shortages, but we don’t always hear those same things about cotton, even though it’s also a plant. Cotton has to be grown somewhere, and depending on where it comes from, as many as 2,000 gallons of water could have been used to grow one kilogram of it, and up to 2,900 gallons could have been used to make it into a pair of blue jeans, possibly affecting someone’s water supply somewhere, maybe that of a villager in Uzbekistan.2
If you’ve ever looked at a guide about how to reduce your carbon footprint, you’ve probably read that cutting red meat out of your diet is a pretty effective way to do so.3 But maybe there are problems that agriculture poses beyond just greenhouse gas emissions, I thought. Turns out, there are: in the US, the majority of cows mostly eat feed derived from corn and soybeans, and the way we grow those crops also causes massive amounts of water pollution—in rivers, lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, and rural drinking supplies.
For the most part, these aren’t the kinds of environmental problems we hear about, but they help us understand the broader scope of the issue once we learn about them. As I began to learn more about the many aspects of climate change, I saw that these discrete threads are all actually part of a giant tapestry telling a story about pollution and waste and also about people and culture and history. It didn’t make me feel less alarmed, but I did start to feel less anxious and scared. I started to feel that I understood what was happening in the world, that I could evaluate what politicians and scientists and business leaders were saying, and I found that I felt like a more informed and more responsible citizen.
Unfortunately, knowledge doesn’t necessarily change our very real feelings of powerlessness. While we know what needs to happen to mitigate the effects of climate change (halting greenhouse gas emissions now and hopefully sucking some more out from the atmosphere), actually getting there is really hard, because greenhouse gas emissions are involved in almost everything we do and a certain amount of warming and change is unavoidable at this point. Few people have offered understandable solutions. We aren’t told very much about either these solutions’ effectiveness or the actual effort or expense involved in making them happen. Instead, we hear a lot about smaller-scale fixes that play to our individual desire to have an impact while the larger systemic problems are often left unexplained and unsolved. Most of us know that plastic bottles are wasteful and that we should drink from reusable ones instead. Or we are often told that we need to get all of our electricity from renewable sources within the next decade or so, which would require a major retooling of the economy, a transformation of the electrical grid, and developments in battery technology, but those undertakings are often treated as an afterthought. Somehow, it seems like these two options are given the same amount of consideration and attention. (Actually, the plastic bottle one probably gets more attention, which may be because it has a solution that’s more personally achievable and directly gratifying. Rewiring the electrical grid is not something that you or I could do alone.) We focus on the little things in the hope that they matter, so we can feel like we at least did something when the apocalypse comes. In the aggregate, these little things can matter. But it’s not really about using a plastic bottle or not using a plastic bottle (don’t think I’m letting you off the hook for your personal habits, though: we used more than 56 billion plastic bottles in the US in 20184 and we mostly don’t need to), or sipping from a paper straw or a plastic one.* It’s much bigger than those things. It’s a global problem in the most literal meaning of that word.
It’s about everything we use: what it’s made of, how it’s made, how we use it, what happens when we throw it away. I hope I can help you understand how complicated this stuff is—if something sounds simple, it probably isn’t. There are tradeoffs and consequences for almost everything we buy and use and eat, and if you hear about a policy or a product that sounds like a silver bullet, you’re probably not getting the full story.
In this book, I focused on four areas—the Internet and technology, food, fashion, and fuel—that we interact with every day, because, whether you think about it or not, the lives we’re all living have something to do with climate change and the environment.
Maybe you don’t think it’s helpful to hear how big the problem is and how we’re making it worse without thinking about it. I agree: the size of the problem and the narrative of personal responsibility is destructive! It makes us feel guilty about everything we do, even though we had no idea and weren’t in charge of setting up the cattle industry! It shouldn’t be the consumer’s responsibility to find out which type of fish is okay to eat, or which inexpensive cashmere sweater is okay to buy (which is not to say you should eat fish and wear cheap cashmere with abandon). Instead, it should be up to the company to produce cashmere responsibly or not to catch and sell fish that shouldn’t be caught and sold, since the companies making money from these activities are the experts (theoretically) who control how the product is made. That’s a change that we can demand companies make. We don’t have to buy their products if they are unwilling to at least tell us where they came from.
It may sound cheesy, but as I went through the five stages of environmental grief—denial, anger, trying to use less plastic, depression, determination—while writing this book, I came to realize in a new and powerful way that, in the end, we’re not powerless. In this country, we can vote. And that can work. In 1969, pollution in the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire for the thirteenth time because of the oil and industrial waste that were being dumped into the river, and there was also a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California. The next year, activists and politicians organized the first Earth Day, which brought 20 million Americans to the metaphorical and physical streets. One of their goals was to get people to base their vote on one issue: the environment. In the 1970 election, some of those same activists, part of Environmental Action, targeted twelve members of Congress with the worst environmental voting records, nicknaming them the “Dirty Dozen.” When seven of the twelve lost, the impact went way beyond those seven elections. It sent a message to all the other lawmakers and led directly to the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, two of the most consequential and effective pieces of environmental legislation in history.5 And it is starting to happen again: as of this writing, after the 2018 midterm election, several newly elected members of the House of Representatives, many of them young women of color, along with some senators, made the passage of a Green New Deal, an actual set of policies to combat climate change, among their first priorities.6
No matter what happens, we are going to have to continue to fight to make a difference. The changes we need are big and complicated, and a lot of special interests are aligned against progress, so these new elected officials might not be able to make them happen right away—we might not change the entire electrical grid in one session of Congress—but that’s no reason not to start. Making even small changes will definitely be much better than where we are. And better might not be perfect, but better is good.
As citizens, we have a responsibility to put environmentally progressive leaders in office. But it doesn’t—it can’t—end there. We have to know enough to make sense of what they’re offering, to know if it’s actually what needs to get done, and to hold them accountable for their actions. If we want to have clean electricity, grow food, manufacture goods, and get around responsibly, we have to understand what it will take to get there and we have to make it happen. Creating a context to understand those issues is what I’ve tried to do in this book, mainly by talking about our stuff. It’s up to us to create a country that takes seriously its obligations to the planet, to each other, and to the people who will be born into a world that looks different than ours has for the last 10,000 years or so. If we aren’t paying attention, others with destructive intentions or different motivations might make the decisions for us.
Essentially, what I’m describing is hard work with possibly limited success for the rest of your life. But we have to do it, and at least we will have the satisfaction of knowing we made things better. I hope this book can help, because if we don’t get started now, the world ends and the rats take over.
Come on, it will be fun (?).
Technology and the Internet
People often seem surprised to hear that the Internet has any kind of environmental impact at all. I have a feeling that’s because the inner workings are invisible, but the Internet has a physical infrastructure, made up of wires and cables, servers and routers. It needs electricity to work, and it is switched on and running all the time.
We don’t need to understand how the Internet (and even our computers and cell phones) works in order to use it. We know that it works, but since we don’t see how it works, we make all kinds of assumptions, like that it’s efficient and logical. But it’s not.
The Internet wasn’t originally designed to do what we now use it for: shopping, watching movies, social networking, ripping each other apart, hacking each other’s elections, etc., etc.,—average, everyday stuff. Those capabilities were added on to an existing design that had been cobbled together to enable different possibilities, mostly allowing government officials to talk to each other. Much of the “design” of the Internet, it turns out, happened as a workaround.
On the one hand, the ease of using the Internet has made technology completely accessible, allowing people all over the world to have information that never would have reached them before, or talk to each other, collaborate, discover, create, and find new solutions to old problems. On the other hand, it allows us to be completely separate, at least intellectually, from the things we are using and the processes by which they are made and operate.
And that includes electricity.
The Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) sector, which includes our devices, data centers (where the information is stored), and network transmission, uses about 1 percent of all the electricity generated around the world and contributes somewhere around 2 or 3 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions, just a little more than air travel and about the same as the shipping industry.1 The ICT sector is projected to reach nearly 21 percent of global electricity demand by 2030, though in the best-case scenario, it only gets to 8 percent. Either way, that’s not nothing.2
Why does the Internet need electricity? Explaining that will require a quick detour into the history of the Internet, because we need to know a little bit about how it works and where it is, physically, to understand. Once we know that, we’ll have a better sense of the importance of data centers and cloud computing, and you can go from being someone who pretends to understand what those things are to someone who actually does. I want to explore why data centers use as much energy as they do (a lot of which has to do with our behavior and what we want to use the Internet for). Understanding how the Internet works and the different things it has made possible will also help to explain the energy and resource use around online shopping, and if it’s better or worse for the environment than going to a store. And cryptocurrency will be explored because it’s 2019 and if I didn’t write about cryptocurrency, everyone would ask me why, but also because it’s interesting. However, I do think the conversation around cryptocurrencies and their energy use has been distracting, in my humble-and-slightly-nervous-that-cryptocurrency-enthusiasts-will-come-after-me opinion.
And it’s not just the Internet that has an environmental impact. Your computer, cell phone, and other devices all take a significant toll on the environment. You may have read articles about labor practices in factories where computers and phones are made, and the problems these factories cause for workers, which is important. But the impact is much larger than that: the resources used to make these devices are extracted from the earth in ways that can cause significant damage; toxic chemicals, especially cleaning agents, are used in production and can get into the environment and create health problems for workers and people living around factories or former production sites. And we use the devices in wasteful ways: about three out of four of our devices use electricity when they’re off or not being used.3 Then there’s what happens to our devices when we are done with them. Electronic devices are supposed to be recycled, but around the world, as much as 90 percent of electronic waste is improperly recycled or disposed of.4 Even if you “recycle” your old computer, that might not get done properly. Instead, it might sit in a landfill, where it can leach toxic chemicals. Or it could be (often illegally) shipped to developing countries where it may be “informally recycled”: smashed, burned, or otherwise destroyed. (FYI, burning plastic is not good for people or the planet.) The precious metals it contains may be taken out by hand and with significant health and environmental consequences.
Just because you keep me honest: I wrote this book on a computer and did a lot of my research on the Internet, so we’re all in this together. We’re going to learn more and understand more and hopefully make some better choices together. Join me as I thrust my qualms and anxieties about modern technology (not privacy-related like everyone else’s!) onto you.
The Physical Internet
Follow a string of telephone poles for long enough and you will find the Internet. You don’t really need to know what you’re looking for—a sign will tell you that you’re there. It will be somewhere on a fiber cable route, and it will instruct you not to dig anywhere near where you’re standing and possibly indicate something about communications and the United States.
I knew that these fiber cable routes and signs existed because of the research I had done for this book, but I was still surprised when I saw one in the wild.
I happened to be cross-country skiing by myself at the time (an activity that my skill level suggests I should not do alone) and I fell. This was in December 2017 in west-central Colorado, when the mountains had seen very little snow. There was about an inch and a half of hard pack snow (aka ice), and the mountains were brown, their scrubby trees poking scraggily out of the soil. The track where I happened to be skiing was a white streak through the desert, not the snowy winter wonderland I had imagined when I was tricked into going skiing.
The point of all of this is that if it had snowed more—if there were more than an inch of snow on the ground—it might not have hurt as much when I fell, and I may not have decided to lie in the “snow” for ten minutes. And if I hadn’t been lying there, I might not have noticed the sign pointing out the Internet, which, if it had snowed more by the end of December, would have been buried in the snowdrift that the Rocky Mountain region has come to expect from midwinter.
(By January 4, 2018, when I started writing this section of the book, about a week after this fun excursion, the Colorado statewide snowpack was about half of what it normally is by that date. Warm temperatures—a monthly average temperature of 45.5 degrees Fahrenheit, 7 degrees above normal1—had also caused whatever snow had fallen by then to melt. The volume of water in the snowpack, which represents an important drinking water supply for much of the West, is projected to decline by up to 60 percent in the next thirty years2—on top of the 20 percent we’ve already lost since 1915—depending on how much we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.3)
Instead, I saw signs proclaiming the presence of the Internet poking out of a trail, winding hundreds of feet above a river, beneath a proud parade of telephone poles, leashed by wires, that stretched into the desert.
There are a few clues that this sign means the Internet is here (it doesn’t say THIS IS THE INTERNET on it, unfortunately). The words “fiber cable route” are one clue; that it belongs to US West Communications is another. (US West Communications doesn’t exist anymore—it was bought by Qwest Communications International in 2000,4 and that company merged with CenturyLink, a global telecommunications company based in Louisiana, in 2011.)5
But the biggest clue of all is the sign’s position beneath the telephone lines. In the United States, most fiber cable routes, which carry both Internet and television signals, follow telephone lines. These telephone lines, which stretch out in a webbed, cross-country network, for the most part, aren’t random—many follow the routes of telegraph wires that preceded them. Telegraph wires followed the railroad lines and vice versa.6 Sometimes they follow highways, which are another important physical network, but railroads were the first formal and government-subsidized network, so that’s why I’m focusing on them.
Railroad lines, unlike the highways, were not planned strategically—they are haphazard and were cobbled together by competing companies to connect places and people that, at the time, did not necessarily need to be connected. Railroads often followed the path of least resistance—routes that offered the most even grade across the country, rather than those that made the most sense. That’s why Council Bluffs, Iowa, became Union Pacific’s starting point for the first “transcontinental” railroad—the path out of there followed a uniform grade along the 42nd parallel across the Great Plains.7 Since the federal government was subsidizing the land purchases and securing the rights of way for the railroad companies, it was relatively irrelevant which routes they took or how many paths from St. Louis to San Francisco were created, since money was no object. Railroads literally shaped the West as we know it. There are cities that sprung up in one place or another because that was where the railroad was—like Billings, Montana, and Spokane, Washington. Railroads collapsed space and time, allowing people and goods and information to travel farther and faster, realigning people’s conceptions of what was feasible and what was convenient (much like the Internet). But most of all this was a physical demonstration of American expansionism by giving white settlers easy access to the West, and of Gilded Age excess (since many of the railroads that were built were unnecessary). The construction of the railroad was a corrupt process, generating wealth for the few at the expense of the many, which we call capitalism. (These big ideas about railroads largely come from historian Richard White’s incredible book Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.)
When telegraph lines were beginning to be installed across the country in the nineteenth century, telegraph companies realized it would be more efficient to install their wires alongside railroad tracks, in part because they took the easiest routes across the country, but more importantly because it was easier to secure easements from one entity—a railroad company—than piecemeal landholders in every state from New York to California. Railroad companies were only too happy to have the telegraph cables lining their routes—they generated passive income for the companies, and they helped station managers communicate better about which trains were where at any given time, helping them to avoid accidents.8 As westward expansion continued, the telegraph lines sometimes preceded the railroad construction, which allowed the companies to communicate with the outposts of the possible network, places where they were considering laying down track.
When telephones replaced telegrams, telephone companies used and expanded the paths that had already been worn across the continent. Once the interstate highway system was built, telephone companies (which also installed cable for television) did the same thing there, too.
And the railroad companies benefited in other ways, adapting to a changing transportation and communication situation. In 1972, the Southern Pacific Railroad, which previously operated telegraph wires along its tracks, decided to use the existing communication lines for long-distance dialing. By the middle of the decade, it was selling time on its private microwave communication lines to individual customers. That became Sprint, which was an acronym for Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Network Telecommunications. In 1988, Philip Anschutz, an American businessman and owner of Coachella, bought the Southern Pacific Railroad company and negotiated the right to lay fiber along the SP tracks (and those of other railroad companies). With another of his companies, Qwest Communications, he began installing fiber and switches for the company’s own use. In 2000, he bought US West Communications, the owner of my sign, the one I had seen while sprawled on the ice-covered ground in a fit of self-pity/loathing.
- "Focusing on food, fashion, technology and fuel, she shows how even the smallest decisions can have profound environmental consequences."—New York Times
- "A compelling—and illuminating—look at how our daily habits impact the environment...[Schlossberg's] wry, sometimes self-deprecating humor makes the depth of research and information provided throughout the book go down easy."—VanityFair
- "Inconspicuous Consumption is scary informative—in both senses—but also oddly enjoyable, filled with salty jokes and fun (or not so fun) facts...If you're looking for something to cling to in what often feels like a hopeless conversation, Schlossberg's darkly humorous, knowledge-is-power, eyes-wide-open approach may be just the thing."—Vogue
"To solve the climate crisis, it is crucial that we address the
problems in the way our democracy is functioning. In her illuminating book, Inconspicuous Consumption, Tatiana Schlossberg does just that by exploring how individuals, corporations, and governments are all contributing to this crisis, and how we need to work together to help fix it."—Former Vice President Al Gore
- "Entertaining and eye-opening...the sharp, well written book doesn't read like an admonishment; instead it's a call to action that reminds us all of our responsibility and capability to change the world."—Town & Country
- "The author breaks complex issues down to be understandable to the lay reader, while her humor and wit ensure that readers will close the book feeling energized rather than hopeless."—Booklist (starred review)
- "Readers will find solace, humor and a route to feeling empowered with possibilities for positive change, rather than drained by an accumulation of bad news."—Society of Environmental Journalists' Judges for the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award
- "The subject of climate change is inescapable, as it should be, but too few stories focus on one's everyday impact upon the environment. In Inconspicuous Consumption, former New York Times science writer Tatiana Schlossberg breaks down exactly how everyday activities - watching Netflix, eating a burger, turning on the light - impact the environment."—Bustle
- "How many chances do we get each day to make a meaningful difference for Earth? Plenty, says environmental writer Tatiana Schlossberg. Can we eradicate ecodespair? With knowledge, context, and applicable insight, yes, absolutely. Moreover, as thoughtful citizens we can begin to reverse ecodystopia to utopia. Inconspicuous Consumption is smart, funny, and helpful, and this is everything because our Earth deserves our full attention."—Min Jin Lee, author of Free Food for Millionairesand Pachinko, finalist for the National Book Award
- "Schlossberg adeptly guides readers toward understanding the unlikely implications of how the manufacture of everyday acquisitions...exact environmental and human costs. Beyond individual choices, though, Schlossberg's sophisticated understanding of the world's complexity and her conversational style rally readers to vigilance about corporate and governmental oversight in this small world."—The National Book Review
- "An approachable, lighthearted tally of our more pernicious environmental impacts, rich with historical context. For all its aversion to the reductionist notion of an ecofriendly lifestyle in the twenty-first century, this book delivers on actionable data for the ecoconscious consumer and climate activist."—Kim Cobb, professor, earth and atmospheric sciences,Georgia Institute of Technology
- "Schlossberg brings a variety of current conversations on environment together in down-to-earth, easily understood terms. Avoiding dense technical language and writing in a highly personalized style laced with humor and asides, the author provides much-needed clarifications about climate change and pollution that not only empower average consumers with the ability to act and make informed decisions, but also encourage and inspire that action. If fighting climate change can be engaging, fun, and fulfilling, this is the road map."—Kirkus
- "[A] straightforward, accessible look at the environmental impact of consumer habits...With insight and urgency, Schlossberg prods readers to think more deeply...[and] delivers an intriguing and educational narrative."—Publishers Weekly
- "With this call for mass action [Schlossberg] presents valuable information that could help readers make more sustainable choices in their lives."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Mar 29, 2022
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing