04/17/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Common Sense and Hope for the Future: A Boy, A Mountain, and the Spirit of Thomas Paine

In President Obama's State of the Union address on January 27th, he made a national commitment to turning around climate change and saving our planet for future generations. Now it is up to Congress to act on pending clean energy legislation and for us to push them to do it. Two recent books illustrate, in very different ways, why.

Clean Energy, Common Sense: An American Call to Action on Global Climate Change by Frances Beinecke offers a solid explanation of both the gravity of the problem of fossil fuel-induced climate change and the viability of solutions through alternative energy sources, energy efficiency, and green manufacturing. Deliberately invoking the spirit of Thomas Paine, another American who called for necessary change by providing a concrete action plan, Beinecke lays out in compelling, easy to understand, and detailed prose the facts of climate change and a solid plan for what we as a nation can do in response. Beinecke, like Paine before her, holds out hope for the future.

John D'Agata's powerful new book, About A Mountain, tells the story of what happens when the future is not planned for but gambled with, and when dreams are built not on solid foundation but on false promises. About A Mountain is an intertwining of many stories, including one about Yucca Mountain, one about Las Vegas ninety miles to the south, and one about a boy who killed himself at age sixteen. The history of Yucca Mountain, both physically and as a potential repository for all of the United States' nuclear waste, is fascinating. Yucca was chosen to be the nuclear waste depot of the 21st century despite its obvious and dangerous drawbacks, and then plans were made for everything from containers of the waste (which proved in testing to be unreliable) to signs along the perimeter designed to discourage generations 10,000 years in the future from messing with the nuclear waste buried at Yucca: reproductions of Edvard Munch's The Scream were to be used as a deterrent. Those signs will not be necessary: President Obama has officially terminated Yucca's designation as a nuclear waste depot and after reading D'Agata's book, I understand why.

The picture that D'Agata paints of Las Vegas is vivid but disheartening. It is a city teeming with tourists and flashy with lights, and it is a city of disposable buildings, fake lawns, and hard times. D'Agata sets forth documented research about the troubled city, a city built without adequate long term environmental or social planning, a city whose water usage far exceeds supply, a city gluttonous for energy with its thousands of bright lights and its acres of indoor climate control, and a city with among the highest national rates of suicides, smokers, teenage drug users, high school dropouts, household bankruptcies, and divorces.

The most heartbreaking of D'Agata's stories is the one about Levi Presley, the sixteen-year old boy who in 2002 leapt to his death from the top of Las Vegas' tallest building. Growing up in a city built on dreams, Levi ran out of hope. How could this happen? D'Agata connects the hopelessness of the boy with the fears felt by Las Vegans at the time, fears of economic impotency, of an accident at Yucca leading to annihilation by nuclear waste, and of water running out, once and for all. Las Vegans feared for their future.

I can't help but connect the troubled state of Las Vegas with the troubled state of the world, a world where one billion people do not have access to clean water, and a world battling climate change and facing worldwide economic stress. We are right to be fearful of the future but we should not lose hope. There are solutions and we can implement them, with will and determination.

Clean Energy, Common Sense offers solutions to both the climate change crisis and the economic crisis, solutions that emphasize U.S.-based design and production of clean energy and of green products, everything from cars to windows, and solutions that are applicable everywhere from Vegas to Des Moines, New York to L.A. The program offered in Clean Energy, Common Sense is based not on empty dreaming but on science, economics, and America's can-do spirit. The inter-linking stories provided by D'Agata in About a Mountain underscore why we need to commit ourselves to the program: to bring back hope for the future, for ourselves and for our children, for our country and for our earth.

Both books reviewed here were gifts to me from the publishers and I worked on coastal pollution issues at NRDC, the organization where Frances Beinecke now serves as president.