Environment/Nature

Summer reading list

2019-06-28 10.17.18

The FT’s Weekend Edition this past Saturday had its annual compendium of summer reading, put together by its editors. It’s always fun to go through these sorts of list to see if there anything surprising on this list–something that catches our eye as being potentially interesting and, perhaps, even useful. In fiction, predictably, the answer is no–we’re still assured that Ian McEwan “maintains his status as a master of fiction.” Sigh. And across the usual list of categories, there are undoubtedly some useful books–some of the books on robotics look timely–but there is a depressing sameness to the list. Even the venerable Martin Wolf, who is usually required reading, comes up with a list that fails to impress this time around.

Why is this, I wonder? It’s the same kind of list the FT publishes every year, just like other publications. But perhaps that’s the exact problem–it’s the same list, pretty much, the same old stuff. We’ve got the usual economics books on things like austerity and the financial crisis, business books on gender and leadership, some potentially interesting history titles, a whole raft of books on art and architecture and travel, even some books on health and on sport. All worthy, no doubt. But not one on the climate crisis, or environmental issues in general, not even in the Science category. Crisis, what crisis?

Well, maybe that’s because this is a Summer reading list, when we’re all supposed to be at the beach reading mysteries. But somehow I don’t think the FT editors think of this list as the equivalent of beach reading. And yet to miss, or outright ignore, recent books on climate seems more than an accident. Maybe they just find them too depressing. And depressing they are, frankly. But still, you have to wonder–do these people really feel so removed from what is coming along, both sooner and with greater magnitude than expected, that they just don’t feel this is worth bothering about? That they will be unaffected, and therefore safe, no matter what? This is a problem–when the world’s leading financial newspaper can’t be bothered to include as many books on climate as it does on Sport in its recommended reading list, you have to wonder what’s going on.

So, to redress this imbalance, here’s a short list in no particular order of relatively recent titles that might make you start thinking about moving somewhere with higher ground and a longer growing season. It’s a highly arbitrary list, since it’s just stuff that I have read–but it is all stuff that I have read, and can therefore attest to. There’s more, certainly, but you’re on your own in that respect.

Climate:

The Uninhabitable Earth (2019)–David Wallace-Wells. The climate book of the year, at least until Bill McKibben’s next book. Wallace-Wells makes no bones about admitting he’s a journalist, not a scientist, and that he came late to understanding what’s going on. Which may, in part, account for the frequent apocalyptic tone of the book. W-W has been accused of scare-mongering. His response is that it’s the science that’s scaremongering, and he shows every sign of being correct. Anyone who still thinks we have the luxury of thinking “2050” for our climate time frame needs to read this book. W-W takes us, chapter by chapter through the bad news emerging from, well, just about everywhere–the Arctic, the oceans, you name it. Necessary reading.

Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming (2014)–MacKenzie Funk. A bit dated, but still a useful tool for assessing who is making money, already, from climate change. Like the W-W book, it’s not happy reading, but for an entirely different reason. Every crisis is an opportunity, or something. How about private fire departments–who will only come and save your burning home if you contract them to do so? Think Trump’s Wall is a bad idea? Check out what’s going on in Assam to keep out the Bangladeshis. Useful information.

Rising–Elizabeth Rush (2018); Travels in the Anthropocene, Gaia Vince (2014).

The thing about climate impacts is that they’re invariably local. We think of broad societal impacts, because it’s difficult to granulate impacts down to something we can touch and feel. Both of these books, however, do a masterful job of doing just that. Rush’s book is a travel around parts of the US that have already been affected by rising sea levels–the chapters on the effects of Hurricane Sandy in Staten Island, and the slow but steady loss of land on the Louisiana Coast, are riveting, and not in a good way. Vince’s book is broader both in scope and geographic range, but has the same impact–what is climate change doing to some particular locale, and how are residents of those areas dealing with these impacts. Some of these situations are potentially more positive and optimistic than others–all are worrisome.

And since we’re on the Anthropocene:

The Shock of the Anthropocene (2016)–Achristophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz; The Living Planet (2018)–Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin. The Anthropocene is such an interesting concept, and sorting it out is pretty essential for living on the planet in the future. There’s no question stuff is happening, but what, exactly? How do we know? How do we measure it? The Lewis/Maslin book is particularly good on this–I didn’t know, for example, that in order for there to be a geological classification as a period, there needs to be a manifestation in the fossil record. So what is it for the Anthropocene? Choices abound (although I believe they have finally picked the beginning of the nuclear era.) A nice, lively read. The Bonneuil/Fressoz volme is interesting as well, but for a slightly different reason–it turns out people have been thinking about this for a long time. And, like the Lewis/Maslin book, it has a good summary of how we got to where we are. Both highly recommended.

Which naturally leads to economics. There’s a lot of work out there on re-thinking some of our fundamental assumptions about economics, and I don’t pretend to have any mastery of any of it. But these were interesting, I thought:

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist (2017)-Kate Raworth. Suppose you were trying to design an economic system that actually reflected the limits of the earth’s biosphere? This is what you might end up with. Lively and entertaining, but also full of invaluable insights about what is wrong with how we still think economically, and how to fix it. Required reading, really.

Prosperity Without Growth (2017: 2nd edition)–Tim Jackson. A bit more like a traditional economics book, Jackson’s is the latest in what seems like decades’ worth of thinking about how to deal with the growth problem–going back to Herman Daly and John Cobb in the 1970s and 1980s. This is solid economics, leavened with a fair amount of sensible thinking about sustainability. Sensible thinking on Sustainability is rare, and should be rewarded.

Natural Capital (2015)–Dieter Helm. Helm is a widely respected economist who has turned his attention to, basically, what do we do about Natural Capital. How does it fit into our economic system, how do we assess it, how do we use it? And, perhaps of most concern to Helm, how can we continue to have an economy that generates growth given the physical constraints that natural capital can present. This will probably become the basic text for thinking about all of this. (Helm has a more recent book on natural capital in the UK--Green and Prosperous Land (2019) but I haven’t read it yet. It’s on the pile, though.

Note that the interesting issue for all these books is the question of growth–can it continue, and in what form. Important stuff.

And some miscellany:

Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist (2018)–Paul Kingsnorth. Kingsnorth is one of the founders of The Dark Mountain Project, a group of artists, philosophers and scientists who are engaged in trying to retell stories. Our civilization, and all its systems, embody certain narratives–how can we change that narrative to more accurately reflect what humans are actually doing to the planet. Several years ago Kingsnorth basically gave up–he now lives in the middle or rural Ireland, growing his own food, home schooling his kids. Has he become a survivalist? In a way, yet. Here he recounts his journey to, and justification for, his withdrawal.

No Is Not enough (2017)–Naomi Klein. All fo Klein is worth reading, particularly The Shock Doctrine, in which she provides a sensible but outraged discussion of disaster capitalism–what we saw in spades in Puerto Rico two years ago. This is her most recent book, about dealing with the climate crisis under Trump. She has another one coming out this year, apparently, probably about the same thing. Well-managed and articulate rage.

And on Wendell Berry:

The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry (2018)–ed. By Paul Kingsnorth. Berry deserves his own section. He is not well known outside the US, but there he is something of an environmental legend, and as has influenced hundreds of writers, thinkers and scientists. The novelist Ken Kesey once referred to him as “the Sargent York charging unnatural odds across our no-mans land of ecology.” This would have been 1971, and people talked like that then. Still, it is hard to minimize Berry’s influence on modern American thought. He is a novelist, essayist and poet, and a working farmer in Kentucky, where most of his fiction is set. More to the point, he has written deeply sensible things about the state of modern agriculture–and, by inference, the state of modern life, ins economy and its politics. Among other things, Berry believes that we have, in our modern economy, lost sight of the concept of limits–and we need to bring this back, A handy introduction for UK (and other) readers is the one-volume collection of essays edited by (the same) Paul Kingsnorth. These essays, more anything else on this list, are required reading.

Happy reading!

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