The best book yet on how to green your lifestyle …makes the whole subject very clear and understandable. Permaculture Magazine UK
“Essential” Friends of the Earth
“Empowering” Cygnus Books
“Invaluable” Environment UK
“Inspirational” Green Parent (UK)
Read it in one sitting and fell in love with it … fun, immediately rewarding, and easy enough to do right this minute, Community Regeneration, Rodale Institute (USA).
Following are excellent in-depth background books on sustainability, climate change, economic growth and related social justice issues. Many are classics. I add books here from time to time.
(click to come to books reviewed below)
Growth, Tim Jackson, 2016.
Debt, David Graeber, 2012.
When the Tide Turns (system sustainability book in Swedish with a review in English), Bengt Bodin, 2014.
What Then Must We Do?, Gar
Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution,
Marjorie Kelly, 2012.
Our Common Wealth, Jonathan Rowe, 2013.
Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save
Civilization, Lester R. Brown, 2009-2010.
The Impact of Inequality, Richard G. Wilkinson, 2005.
Cannibals and Kings,
Marvin Harris, 1977.
Fates of Nations, Paul
Whose Crisis, Whose Future? Susan George, 2010.
Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats, Gwynne Dyer, 2010.
Storms of My
Grandchildren, James Hansen, 2009.
The Politics of Climate Change, Anthony Giddens, 2009.
The Rough Guide to Climate Change, Robert Henson, 2011.
The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, Nicholas Stern, 2007.
Something New Under the Sun: An environmental history of the 20th century, John McNeil, 2000.
Water: A natural history, Alice Outwater, 1996.
Limits to Growth: The 30 year update, Dennis Meadows, et al, 2004.
Heat, George Monbiot, 2006.
The Man Who Planted Trees, Jean Giono.
So Shall We Reap, Colin Tudge, 2003.
Diet for a Small Planet,
The One Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka, 1985.
The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier, 2007.
The Mystery of Capital,
Small Is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher, 1975.
The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, Louis Fischer, 1951.
Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen, 2001.
Silenced Rivers, Patrick Mc Cully 1996.
Environmental Science, Andrew Porteous, 2008.
Way of Lao Tzu (Tao-te ching), Wing-Tsit Chan,
1963. Lao Tzu's essay is remarkable in philosophical
depth and practical applicability to daily life. In
placing nature above all, not only as our single source
but also as our greatest teacher, it provides a
philosophy for human well-being and long term survival
that is sorely needed today. Lao Tzu's insights can help
us get back to our roots, in tune with nature and to
find peace in our daily existence in this constantly
changing world. Full Review by Archie.
Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations,
David Montgomery, 2012. Agriculture erodes the earth
because of plowing. This has led to thousand year cycles
of population growth followed by the decline of their
civilization, after people have starved and fled the
area in search of more fertile land. When the earth lies
fallow, new soil builds from the rock beneath it, but
this takes 500-1000 years. Farmers have known this since
ancient times, but in many places ignored its lessons,
resulting in declining civilizations.
Overshoot, Tom Butler (ed.), 2015. Review by Archie. Reviews by others. Strong,
sometimes overpowering, photos of human society and its
enormous takeover of the Earth. A clear call for
decreasing population and decreasing consumption. The
entire book is viewable online.
Ten Billion, Stephen Emmott, 2013.
Population growth drives a catastrophic extraction of
resources. Though climate change is a crisis, the
population threat is even worse, Guardian
The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a
Crowded World, Joel Bourne, 2015. Review 1. Review 2. National Geographic article. Radio interview 1. Radio interview 2. Farmer
journalist Bourne travels the world looking at the
problems and (few) solutions for feeding more people.
Cannibals and Kings,
Marvin Harris, 1977. An anthropologist’s masterful
account of man’s social evolution from stone age
hunter-gathering clans to modern day capitalistic
societies, interpreted in ecological terms.
Describes how population pressure versus food supply
has always been a problem for humans (just as for
other animals) and how it has formed various aspects
of our culture from war and infanticide to meat
taboos to the formation of despotic empires.
Population growth has forced the development of new
intensified technologies to feed the population, but
all forms of intensified food production deplete the
natural resource base, so in the long run, living
standards are reduced. Oil and coal have given some
of humanity a higher standard, but this is only
temporary as long as the oil lasts. Two conclusions
from reading this book are: First, to secure our
become society’s primary objective today, even more
important than renewable energy. Second, population and
consumption must both decrease radically to prevent
further destruction of resources. A fascinating
book! Cannibals and
When the Tide Turns,
Bengt Bodin, 2014. This book in Swedish with the title
"När vinden vänder" explains (more clearly
than I have seen in any book in English) just how
limited are the planet's plant-growing resources in
relation to the existing population, and the
impossibility of replacing gasoline, diesel and jet
fuels with biofuels: there simply is not enough land
to grow them. Research agronomist Bengt Bodin makes
the further point that our industrialized society is
not only limited by energy but by nature's ability to
absorb our waste products, which instead of breaking
down to become part of new plant life, accumulate and
harm our health as well as the health of the planet's
ecosystems. Full review
and summary in English.
Climate Wars: The fight for survival as the world overheats, Gwynne Dyer, 2010. An excellent overview of the climate change situation (updated through Copenhagen 2009), along with the author’s interviews with leading politicians, military advisors and government planners, who are preparing for the resource conflicts that are now being aggravated by climate change. Includes scenarios that help us visualize how future politics in the world might play out. Climate Wars-full review.
Storms of My Grandchildren, James Hansen, 2009. One of the most authoritative descriptions and analyses of climate change and its implications by one of the world’s leading climate scientists. Besides climate change science, Hansen describes his problems with what can only be called censurship in an effort to downplay the seriousness of climate change by various American political administrations during the 1980’s, 1990’s and 2000. Storms of My Grandchildren: full review.
Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Lester R. Brown, 2009-10. (See also his more recent book Full Planet, Empty Plates 2012 and its accompanying film and presentation) This excellent book concisely describes and analyses the world’s major problems (energy, water, air, food production, soil loss, deforestation, desertification, overfishing, climate change, etc.) and then outlines solutions, area by area, for solving them using existing technology. After convincing us of the seriousness of these problems and that business-as-usual, free market economics will not implement the solutions quickly enough, Brown proposes a global-wide mass mobilization of capital and human energy of the kind that usually only occurs during wartime or after catastrophic events. The key tools needed for this are regulation (for example, bans on cutting down forest), removal of tax subsidies (to oil, to water, to agrobusiness, to airlines, to fishing, etc.), removal of trade barriers (that work like subsidies to keep the price of resources artificially low) and taxes on critical resources (carbon dioxide, gasoline/petrol, etc.). Such policy tools require political decisions at all levels to implement, so our important part is to support and vote for the necessary policies, even though many cheap things such as transportation and food are going to become more expensive. What is the alternative? “Business as usual” leads to continuing destruction of our resource base, hunger, disease and political instability, eventually to what many call collapse. Better to pull in our belts now while we still have our strength, economic institutions and political organization. And that is what Lester Brown argues so well for and why he gives us hope. Hope, that is, if we use our power of choice to vote for the needed regulations and tax increases now.
Politics of Climate Change,
Anthony Giddens, 2009. This book offers to the climate
change solution discussion the considerable informed
experience of a renowned social scientist, political
adviser and modern thinker. The short summary of this
book is that national carbon taxes are the way to
go, not carbon trading based on big
international agreements like
The Rough Guide to Climate Change, Robert Henson, 2011-14. A very thorough guided tour of this enormous and complex scientific field, well organized and well told. Presents in lay language the major climate theories and their background as well as hundreds of minor issues along with related and unanswered questions. By providing historical background on the scientific research and thinking concerning these issues, Henson helps us understand the complexity and why it took so long for science to come to general agreement that the climate is warming and that mankind is behind most of the change. Good graphs depict earth’s climate history. Excellent diagrams show how climate mechanisms work. Photographs and maps make climate change concrete and real. Having read this book, I am determined more than ever to reduce my impact; I am also a little more humble, both as a human being and as an “earthling”, for the planet is very big and I am very small.
The Economics of Climate Change—The Stern Review, Nicholas Stern, 2007. When a world class economist says we need to get moving on climate solutions, you listen. This monumental, extremely well organized, thorough and detailed work describes (based on IPCC reports) what will happen as the climate warms in terms of food, health, poverty, water, land, environment, migration, conflict, etc, and analyzes governmental measures to lessen climate change (carbon trading, taxation, etc). Highly technical in parts, but full of summaries, research results and a wealth of relevant information gathered into one place. Available free online, including a 27 page Executive Summary.
Under the Sun: An environmental history of the 20th
A natural history, Alice
Outwater, 1996. If I were going to recommend only one
background book on the environment, this would be it.
It is a beautifully told history of the environmental
Limits to Growth—The 30 year update, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Donella Meadows, 2004. Three system scientists at MIT build a complex computer model of humanity's total resource usage and project the world economy into the future to see what may happen under differing assumptions. They gather data, study the interactions, follow new research and refine the model for over 30 years. The key conclusion: humanity has already surpassed the sustainable physical limits of this planet and is still able to expand only by consuming the planet’s capital of farmland, forest, fish, minerals and fresh water, etc. In the future, humanity will have to spend an ever-increasing share of its money to obtain energy, metals, chemicals, water, etc and on environmental cleanup and health. This will leave less and less money available for investment in new technology and production facilities and, eventually, for food production. Long time lags and many interdependencies mean that we do not see that we have overshot the planet’s limits. Instead we use up important resources to the point of scarcity, extinction and in some cases permanent destruction (such as soil erosion, salt-drenched land, permanently polluted groundwater and lost species), then go into dramatic population decline caused by disease, lack of food, poor health care and a polluted environment. These studies are broad, thorough and sobering in their conclusions. You can download a roughly ten-page summary of their work at http://www.mnforsustain.org/meadows_limits_to_growth_30_year_update_2004.htm.
Diamond, 2005. The compelling story of how a number of
earlier human societies collapsed due in part to
climate change and environmental degradation, with
parallels drawn to current places on the globe where
people’s livelihoods are threatened today by exhausted
resources, overpopulation, climate and/or
environmental damage. Multidisciplinary researcher
Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter,
1990. Examining many historical examples of collapsed
societies, Tainter presents the (new) theory that
collapse depended on the decreasing value of
increasing complexity, to a point where the complexity
becomes an overhead burden whose expense cannot be
supported by the outlying provinces that provide basic
food and resources to the central society.
Environmental History, Alf Hornborg, J.R.
McNeill, Joan Martinez-Alier (editors), 2007.
Anthology with a examples of society-driven
environmental change. Presents different theories to
explain how and why the society was driven to develop
in the way it did, with the environmental effects that
then occurred. One general theme is of the central
state such as Rome commandeering resources from
peripheral colonies, a theme that has persisted to our
day in the unsymmetrical (and unfair)
developed-developing nations relationships.
Heat, George Monbiot, 2006. This book argues for a 90 percent reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2030 (for the UK specifically, but also for other countries), significantly more ambitious than the current UK, European Union or Kyoto goals—a reduction the author believes necessary to avoid human catastrophe on the planet. Monbiot first convinces us (if we need convincing!) that global warming is in fact a fact, that it is largely man-made, that rising sea levels will destroy farmland and groundwater and flood cities, and that these problems are already here. To stop global warming, we must act now and forcefully to reduce energy usage and emissions. A key method is world-wide rationing of energy and carbon emissions based on equal shares for all humans on the planet, with national governments implementing the rations, for example, by individual and industry rations that are applied to and accounted for on the individual’s home energy and electricity bills. Monbiot then critically and practically analyzes the possibilities for carbon reductions for major categories of energy production and use (such as home heating, appliances, automobiles, air travel, etc.), and suggests the most likely and least painful ways of achieving a 90 percent reduction. For air travel, he can find none except less travel. By laying many previously proposed solutions to rest, often with simple calculations, Monbiot forces us to see that we cannot hope to continue to lead our lives as we have up till now. The major projects that will need to be legislated and implemented are, among other things: rationing (to reduce consumption compared to today), energy efficiency and carbon sequestration—they will not come by themselves or through voluntary action. Monbiot thus puts the responsibility on us to elect politicians who will give us this bitter medicine that we need but have been hoping to avoid. The sooner, the better, he concludes, for our newborn children are depending upon us.
The Man Who Planted Trees, Jean Giono (circa 1955). Inspirational modern fable of how one person’s faithful action, a little every day, made a truly big difference in the world. Great for children as well as adults!
So Shall We Reap, Colin Tudge, 2003. This is an extensive, systematic and detailed analysis of human food production methods and their consequences by an experienced and very concerned British agricultural journalist and biologist. Thought provoking and full of detailed background information, it provides an encouraging, practical vision for future farming and eating habits, based on solid scientific and agronomical experience as well as on common sense. Tudge describes agriculture’s history as going from local craftsmanship rooted in practical experience and the biology of the earth to large-scale corporate business, rooted in money. He explains the efficiency and robustness of mixed animal and crop farms (as in the family farm) and of traditional diets that are high in grains, fruits and vegetables, and low in meat. He proposes such diets and farming practice as our way to guarantee human well being long into the future. Highly critical (with a well-founded case) of agrobusiness.
Masanobu Fukuoka, 1985. Biochemist
of Capital, Hernando
Small Is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher, 1975. Economist and fellow human Schumacher reflects deeply on the seemingly efficient globalized economy and compares it to the efficiency of small-scale, local activity to meet our needs and satisfy our hearts, given that we have other values than just money and cheap goods. Schumacher inspires us to reflect on how we live and what we are doing with our lives.
The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, Louis Fischer, 1951, or Non-Violent Resistance, M. Gandhi, and/or other books by and about M. K. Gandhi, describing his life of service improving the lot of his fellow man. A man of awesome integrity, he taught by example, practicing what he preached. Key values he taught were the search for truth, freedom, and peaceful resolution of conflict through respect for the other person’s needs.
The Impact of Inequality, Richard G. Wilkinson, 2005. (See also Wilkinson's more recent book The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone, 2010, together with Kate Pickering, with the same basic message.) Social epidemiologist Wilkinson asks, “Why do societies with large inequalities have worse health and shorter lives?” Bringing together research from around the world, Wilkinson first convinces us that the more equal societies really do have better health. For example, the people living in the state of Kerala, India, known for their egalitarian state, have a life expectancy only slightly less than Americans, despite an average annual income per capita of no more than about $1000. We learn that it is relative income, not absolute, that affects health and our physical biology, through the mechanism of stress caused by low status and low self-esteem. Wilkinson develops his health thesis carefully and slowly, and along the way we find out that equality generates not only better health in a society, but also less violence, more trust, more involvement and generally a more cohesive community. He is really interested in the larger question, why is modern society such a material success and yet a social failure? Everywhere he looks, he finds the key to be inequality, and the underlying cause to be man’s social nature and need for belonging and respect. In his last chapter, Wilkinson touches on the implications of these results for worldwide peace, prosperity and being able to come to agreement on environmental issues. Full of statistics and written for public health professionals, it is fully understandable to laymen.
Amartya Sen, 2001, Nobel Prize winner in Economics
1998. This treatise on development economics seeks to
use theory to find answers to very practical human
economic problems. Sen’s main message: development is
not simply a question of a raised national average
income, it is a question of raising human welfare on a
variety of fronts (health, education, work
opportunities, etc) and of raising these for all
members of society, not just raising the national
average (which may hide wide disparities between the
rich and the poor, men and women, different
geographical regions, different ethnic groups, etc).
Bringing together the research of many others as well
as his own, Sen analyzes a whole spectrum of issues
from statistical measures of welfare, to equality and
fairness constraints that do not exist in law but are
imposed by tradition and culture. Key points are that
population growth stops when women have the freedom to
decide to work or have children, that famine is not
the result of crop failure but of lack of sharing and
never occurs in a democracy, and that the South East
Asian economic boom was based on the earlier provision
of public education and healthcare for everyone. The
theme underlying this work is that we all want freedom
to pursue our life dreams. Some of this
freedom/capability can be created by raised income,
other is created by laws such as the right to vote or
own property, and still other by health and
educational programs, labor laws, and so on. Sen
discusses where the economic marketplace is a useful
mechanism and where it fails to solve the problem,
thus advising politicians to think in broader terms
than simple economic growth. This book is very
philosophical and not easily read (it was written for
economists) but its message of directing developmental
programs toward greater practical freedom and
opportunity for those who lack—and not just greater
GNP—is clear and simple and can be understood by all.
Some of these ideas may be applicable to disadvantaged
minority groups in industrialized countries. Compare
Sen’s ideas with those of Collier (The Bottom Billion) and
Gaia, 2000 and The Ages of Gaia, 1988, James Lovelock. These well known books by renowned scientist Lovelock tell the two billion year story of life on planet Earth, evolving and maintaining itself as an interdependent whole. He describes how the plants came first, when there was no oxygen, and provided the atmospheric oxygen that allowed animals to evolve—and many other ecological, chemical and system interdependencies.
Silenced Rivers, Patrick Mc Cully 1996 and 2001. This comprehensive, popular description of modern large dams and their ecological and social consequences is an excellent critical introduction to large dams and water supply systems. The book overviews the problems and limitations of large dams and their accompanying reservoirs, irrigation systems, flood control components and power generation equipment. It includes dam construction types, a short history of dams and other traditional water supply methods, dam safety, displaced people, ecological disruption (to fishing, farming, water supply, transportation and river delta economics) as well as the economics and power politics of large dam projects. Using a broad array of case histories, both in developed and developing countries, the author makes a strong case against large dams, with key arguments being: dams are of dubious economic value (partly supported by the fact that few large dams are privately financed), that dam value is short-lived and unsustainable, that dams generally use public lands, rivers and finances to enrich the few at the expense of the general public, with particular hardship to the people displaced by the dam reservoir, and that the disruption of human communities all along the river basin affected is unfair and inexcusable in a modern democracy (that such dams are built at all, Mc Cully argues, is due to personal political motives, corruption, pork-barrelling, old-boy networks and powerful lobbies—all indications of democracy not working). We learn for example, that dams seldom provide irrigation and water for all the small farmers and communities promised—the water goes mainly to large farmers with influence. Similarly, electricity is often much less than promised and often sold at subsidized rates to large industries. Silt accumulation behind a dam limits its useful life to 25-100 years. Arid land that is turned into highly productive farmland lasts similarly only for a few decades before being destroyed by salt build-up from the irrigation water. In summary, both water and power can be obtained by other means (often smaller scale) more economically, more sustainably, more equitably and with far less disruption to human and natural systems. This book gives the case against large dams—Mc Cully leaves to others the telling of the positive use of dams (for example, small dams) and provides extensive, footnoted references for the reader who wants to delve deeper. A shorter, more accessible account of dams and waterways is given in Water: a natural history by Alice Outwater.
Dictionary of Environmental Science and Technology, Andrew Porteous, 2008 and 2000. This comprehensive, detailed and educational work explains a large number of commonly encountered environmental terms and issues, including many chemical names, in both layman’s language and technically. Full of illustrations, diagrams and data. Gives solid technical description, background, and examples for each term, as well as explanation of and key data for understanding and working with the concept. Non-technical readers will find clear, practical explanations. Technical readers will find that plus a wealth of data, industrial practice and detailed description of processes.