If I go missing, look for me at a used bookstore, in the non-fiction section.
I was lucky to grow up in a house with overflowing bookshelves in every room, and parents who encouraged me and my siblings to become readers. On our bookshelves you’d find everything from Martha Stewart to D.H. Lawrence and The Economist to Cosmo.
While I love all books, I reach for non-fiction the most. I enjoy finishing a book feeling like I know more about myself or the world around me.
Fifteen books that influenced my outlook on sustainability
I offer you a summary of the non-fiction books I find myself repeatedly referencing, recommending or rereading. Environmental issues are rooted in the social, the economic, the scientific and the cultural, and my list reflects this.
The Ecology of Commerce
Hawken makes a convincing and rational argument for building natural capital into the existing economic model of capitalism. He posits that capitalism isn’t the enemy, false capitalism is. We can operate within the laws of nature to create a circular, rather than extractive economy. In other words, Zero Waste. Anything Hawken writes should be considered required reading.
This Changes Everything
Klein is the ultimate hubris-buster and critic of capitalism. She debunks the wishful thinking that geo-engineering, offsetting or wealthy entrepreneurs will save us from climate change. It’s a difficult read that challenges us to question whether the thinking that got us into this mess is realistically going to get us out of it. It’s not all gloomy though – her point about fertility as a primary measure of health resonated with me and inspires me to think about how I can not only do less harm, but perform restorative activities too.
I first learned of the Great Pacific Ocean patch in 2008 after watching a Vice documentary starring the Captain himself. His book is rich with information about the toxicity, prevalence, and ubiquity of chemicals in plastics as well as in our environment.
The Serpent and the Rainbow
Wade Davis, the anthropologist and Canadian treasure, explores the ethnosphere in The Serpent and the Rainbow. It reads like fiction – you will find it difficult to believe his mind boggling tales of Voodoo and Zombies. Why does this matter? It speaks to the need for culturally sensitive and appropriate approaches to sustainability. All of his books are fascinating, and he is a wonderful storyteller should you get the chance to hear him speak.
Black Like Me
John Howard Griffin
A deeply affecting and true account of a white man going undercover (in plain sight, by his own account) as a black man in the divided American south of 1961. This work more than anything has helped me to understand the concept of privilege and systemic bias.
If we want to address inequality, gendered or otherwise, we have to acknowledge our own biases, and those that are built into the system. The meritocracy is a nice idea, until you see how that concept has been used to justify the status quo. Don’t skip this one because you think you know what it says – that would only serve to illustrate Sandberg’s point.
What happens when closed system loses equilibrium? Collapse. Jared Diamond looks at societies that imploded when resources were overexploited. Culture isn’t possible when our environments can no longer support it. Sobering, because I like culture and society very much and would like to keep them. Especially dinner parties and holidays.
1491 & 1493
Charles C. Mann
Our idea of ‘unspoilt wilderness’ is a Western construct that overlooks that we humans have been shaping our surroundings for eons. Without me knowing it, this book was preparing me for the permaculture principle ‘everything gardens’. The setting is pre and post Columbus exchange. 1493 is the sequel.
The Black Swan
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
A challenging read about risk and our human tendency to believe we can predict the future. Spoiler alert: we can’t. Taleb tells us to build robustness and failsafes to prepare for things we cannot predict. Sounds reasonable. Let’s build earthquake-proof buildings to prepare for earthquakes in fault zones. No! Earthquakes are known unknowns silly. Taleb is referring to unknown unknowns, which is what makes the book a brain stretcher. You can’t predict what you can’t think to predict, but you should not be so arrogant as to think that something you can’t predict could never happen. Got it? Good. The book is essentially a heavy duty supporting argument for the precautionary principle.
Thinking Fast and Slow
Kahneman says what I’ve been saying ever since my first economics class at university – humans are irrational and lazy. Only he has the evidence to prove it. Our brains have fast and slow thinking modes, and we’re not always in the right gear at the right time. Dismissing or working against human behaviour is like paddling upstream with a hungry bear chasing you. A must read for those interested in communicating critical information with the intended effect.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Intensive agriculture, factory farms, and declining human health – it’s all intertwined. Some would say you ‘can’t be an environmentalist and still eat meat‘, but avoiding meat alone won’t put us back in black, and Pollan explores why. The setting is the United States, but with the consolidation of farms happening around the world, and politicians continue to say yes to free trade deals, it’s going to become more true for other countries.
The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating
Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon
A self-explanatory premise and a satisfying journey. The narrative alternates between the two authors (a couple) as they navigate a year of local eating. This book added another layer to my own understanding of food ethics. It also made my heart burst with gratitude to be able to live in Vancouver, with access to possibly the best food in the world.
The Art of Fermentation
I’m ever grateful to myself for impulse buying this beautiful red hardcover. It currently lives in Canada with my sister-in-law, and I miss it dearly. Katz’s writing style and explanations of the history of fermentation and methods gave me the confidence and the cultural rationale to start fermenting foods at home. It’s been going gangbusters ever since.
A delightful book about the human digestive system, written by a German medical doctor. Rather than taking an academic approach, she writes with a winning blend of fact, wit and charm. Goofy illustrations throughout make it appealing even to those who aren’t big readers.
Wardrobe Crisis: How we went from Sunday Best to Fast Fashion
Who makes your clothes? And what does that have to do with the environment? Why do we care so much about clothing anyway? Australian fashion journo Clare Press takes a peek behind the curtain of one of the most polluting industries on Earth to ask, why did we go from Sunday best to fast fashion? And what did we lose along the way? Whether we consider ourselves fashionistas or utilitarians, we all ‘consume’ clothing, and how we do so matters for the environment and from a human rights standpoint.
Enjoy, and I’d love to hear your own most recommended.