Books I read in 2017

Here are some of the non-fiction books I read in 2017. 


Last year I read about behaviour change, critical thinking, anthropology, and food. The more I learn about these topics, the better equipped I am to think critically about waste related issues. I read some novels as palate cleansers, but won’t include those here. Here are those non-fiction books I enjoyed or learned something from, or that I can remember having read:

7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Stephen R. Covey
I found this one at a little free library and finally read it. The concept of private victories resonated with me because I think there’s much to be gained in those small, personal moments of success in terms of keeping us on a path to lower waste living. I’ve also been mulling the habit of Thinking Win Win. Upon reflection, I realise that some instances I’d considered to be Win-Win outcomes have been Lose-Win where I sacrifice my needs to keep the peace. Something to work on. There is a reason this is a classic.

Fostering Sustainable Behaviour: An Introduction to Community Based Social Behaviour Change
Doug McKenzie-Mohr
Awareness for critical environmental and social issues is usually over-emphasized – awareness is not usually the issue, inaction is. So why don’t we humans do what we’re supposed to when given all the right information? This textbook focuses on how to set up your community change program for success, including how and why to properly investigate barriers to adoption in target audiences. It also offers guidance on selecting appropriately specific and non-divisible behaviours to target for change.

Changeology
Les Robinson
Read this book, especially if you are involved in public behaviour change programs. Robinson makes a strong case that we’ll be more effective by seeking to change the path, not the person. Effective solutions are sticky, leverage existing motivations, and enable the behaviour change. A good companion read to Fostering Sustainable Behaviour, as there are similar concepts at play.

Psychology for a Better World
Niki Harré
A useful read for anyone on a sustainability journey who wonders why others aren’t coming along with them. The author explains that understanding identity is a precursor to identifying shared values between ourselves and others – understand that and you can appeal to their values more specifically and effectively. I reviewed it in more detail in this post where you can also find a link to read the ebook for free.

Weapons of Math Destruction
Cathy O’Neill
Social inequality results in wasted human potential, and unnecessary hardships for some members of society. Some widely applied algorithms are merely baking in biases to systems that affect employment and lending amongst others. The author is a Harvard trained mathematician and former Wall Street quant turned Occupy activist. She now spends her time educating on how mathematical models can insidiously undermine socio-economic fabric, and how to design and administer these more fairly.

Bad Science
Ben Goldacre
In these times of Woo, it’s good to be able to tell good science from quackademic nonsense. Epidemiologist Ben Goldacre pleads for us to save our mistrust for those who really deserve it, and not fall prey to clickbait content that misinterprets science and creates unfounded fears. He gives us the tools to be able to think critically about claims we hear on purported benefits or dangers of everything from vitamins to vaccines. The basics of good study design won’t be new for those who’ve taken any statistics, but still a good and entertaining read with some surprising stories from the medical research front lines.

Weaponised Lies: How to Think Critically in a Post-Truth Era 
Daniel J. Levitin
With fake news and clickbait likely at an all time high, our ability to parse what is real is of the utmost importance. As with Bad Science, much of this won’t be new for anyone who’s taken a stats course,  but the author does a good job of digesting the important stuff into layman’s terms and calling out specific number and word manipulations we should all watch out for.

Poisoned Planet: How Constant Exposure to Man-made Chemicals is Putting Your Life at Risk
Julian Cribb
While slightly hyperbolic in tone, the author usefully takes a macro view of pollutants, since they cycle through ecosystems in a number of ways and none of us can individually detox in the ‘juice cleanse’ sense of the word. According to the author, the accumulation of man-made chemicals is dropping our society’s average IQ by a couple points each generation. Outtake: it’s impossible to contain pollution, it needs to be reduced at the point of production, and precaution must prevail. Personal detox is a myth, so put down the charcoal smoothie and start getting involved in the wider community efforts.

Revolution in a Bottle: How Terracycle Is Eliminating the Idea of Waste
Tom Szaky
It’s the story of Terracycle’s beginnings, from selling worm wee in coke bottles to becoming the world’s largest recycler of soft plastics, recounted by Tom Szaky, the founder. It’s a quick, punchy read and you’ll marvel at his aplomb and enthusiasm for both entrepreneurship and waste reduction.

Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth
Judith D. Schwartz
This curiously titled book is no anti-vegan manifesto. Rather, it’s one journalist’s deep dive into how the soil functions to store water and carbon. There is a good overview of the mechanics of carbon sequestration by plants, a discussion of the importance of mychorrizal fungi in the soil food web and of course, how a look at how herbivores can be used in the management of brittle landscapes.

The World Until Yesterday
Jared Diamond
My rule of thumb is to read anything Jared Diamond writes. He delivers yet another thought-provoking book about the long history of human behaviour before the more modern era, and differences between tribes and states. Lots to unpack there.

Originals: How Non-conformists Move the World
Adam Grant
The author’s Malcolm Gladwell-esque writing style is an easy to read and entertaining enough. Not a whole lot of detail stuck so I should probably re-read. He lands some sound points, including the one about the peril of hiring for cultural fit. Down the line this rids a company of important alternative viewpoints that would have helped avoid groupthink. Instead he advocates actively looking for cognitive diversity. Hard to argue with diversity.

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
Dan Ariely
Another book about the irrationality of humans and how silly we humans are. Ariely is a personable writer, who covers similar ground to Daniel Kanehman and his ilk. Entertaining, although I preferred Thinking Fast and Slow.

The End of Plenty
Joel K. Bourne
Agronomist and National Geographic journo Joel K. Bourne asks how we will feed a planet of 9 billion. There are no silver bullets, but some intriguing possibilities are explored. This is an openminded look at various food systems, Malthusian pressures and food history (including the ups and downs of the Green Revolution).

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food
Dan Barber
I listened to this as an audiobook from the library. I’m normally impatient with audiobooks, but Chef Dan Barber weaves a good story. He explores how we can do better and eat more sustainably by learning how and what the land provides, rather than the conventional approach of imposing arbitrary crops on the land.

Quicksand Food (podcast)
Stefan Posthuma
I’m loving this series of interviews with the food producers of the Illawarra region in New South Wales. You’ll hear from cafe owners, organic farmers, leaders of food rescue initiatives, expert baristas and more to get a look at how the wheels of each business turn.

Grown and Gathered
Lentil and Matt
Yes I read cookbooks. Matt and Lentil have created a gorgeous, immersive read that starts with the place – their Victorian farm – and ends with the food. I have returned to this one again and again this year since getting it as a gift for Christmas 2016.

Which would I recommend?

I enjoyed them all, but if pressed would most recommend the 7 Habits, Changeology, Bad Science, Cows Save the Planet, The World Until Yesterday, The End of Plenty, and The Third Plate. Some of the others start to overlap, or the ideas weren’t totally new to what I’ve read before. For more, here I posted a list of 15 books that influenced my outlook on sustainability. In 2018 I’m thinking of backing off from the pop social psychology to reach for more permaculture, Australian history (all 50,000 plus years), and soil related books. Thanks to Amanda for writing this post on her year in books and inspiring me to do the same.

Tell me what books have you read and enjoyed lately?

Lessons in sustainability with off-grid guru Michael Mobbs

Michael Mobbs lives off grid in the heart of Sydney – yes that city of 5 million. I share what I learned at a recent workshop. 


While most of us spend at least few hundred dollars each quarter on household utilities, Michael and his family of four has spent less than $300 a year in energy and water bills for the last 20 years. His property has also captured and processed 2 million litres of sewer water on site.

This has been achieved through a combination of smart system redesign, energy efficient appliances and choice of materials, rather than intense personal sacrifice. To see where he lives, you can visit the Powerhouse Museum’s Ecologic exhibit, which features a replica of his terrace home, or take a house tour when offered. The kitchen (heart of any home I want to live in or visit) is bright, large and dispels any idea that living sustainably means a trade off between function and aesthetics.

I jumped at the opportunity to attend a workshop he was giving at the Barrett Sustainability House in Randwick, hosted by Rhubarb Food Coop. A group of us gathered – some renters, some owners, some renovators – to learn from one of the best. And learn we did. I could’ve listened and asked questions for much longer, and I thoroughly enjoyed the company of all the others present. For me, taking this workshop was less about bills today and more about up-skilling for the future, wherever I might be living. Rates are rising – here is some background. The best thing we can do is require less energy.

We can’t all immediately go off-grid, but there are plenty of low tech, common sense ways to help our homes use less energy and water. Michael covered a number of them (LED lighting, smart pantry layout, magnetic strip cheats’ double glazing’, making electric water heaters more efficient, etc.), but I wanted to share some of the big picture ideas, as he calls them. Here are some of the highlights of my morning with this local legend.

1. Saving water saves greenhouse gases too

When a household is charged for water, we are paying the base rate, i.e. the privilege of being connected, plus a variable rate based on how many litres we pipe in for taking showers, flushing toilets, washing dishes, cooking and so on. But that’s not the whole story. Water also has an energy footprint that is connected to volume.

Although pipes are a more efficient way to get water around town, rather than say bottling water in plastic and trucking it, it still takes a lot of energy to pump water to and from our homes. Potable water comes in, sewer water leaves, and rather unfortunately gets discharged into Sydney Harbour. It follows that Sydney Water is a major user of GHGs. The energy impact doesn’t stop there. In the shower or while washing the dishes, the water is usually 50-70% heated. The more we use, the more energy we use. Luckily there is a less masochistic way to address this than taking cold showers. Retrofit the shower head to use much less water. Aim for a flow rate of 7.5L per minute and you could achieve financial pay back in a matter of months. Not to mention, you’ll be mitigating the amount of sewage flushing into the ocean, and coal being burned on you behalf. Renters can take faucets with them when they leave. If you want a so-easy-why-didn’t-I-think-of-that way to test the flow rate, set a bucket under the tap, capture all of the water that comes out for 10 seconds. Measure how many litres come out, then multiply by 6 and that’s your L/min.

Anyone looking to go further in the water saving realm could either look to Michael’s layered multi-tank water capture and recycling system or communist Hungary (a fellow workshop attendee shared this story of his visit to relatives in Hungary and the rather resourceful way they made every drop count). Both are examples of where water is/was intentionally slowed and recycled as it travels through the home landscape. The latter by using plugs to capture anything obtained from the tap so that if could be manually trafficked to laundry, toilet flushing, etc. In both systems, the sequence of use matches the priority for potable water. Shower and cooking water is reused for clothes washing and toilet flushing. The output from that feeds the garden. Oh and the water comes from the sky, for free. Low tech stuff. I do my own version of this, especially during the summer.

2. Solar: buy the performance, not the hardware

Solar energy is undergoing a boom. Prices are down, installation is up. With that comes the challenge of understanding whether your solar installer is well-qualified. The best will take their cues from permaculture (observe for over shadowing and so on), the middling may simple design an inefficient system where batteries wear our prematurely, and the worst (including some of the largest and longest in the business) might not even manage to connect your panels to the house at all.

Resist the urge to focus on the hardware, says Michael. It doesn’t matter if you invest in the best solar panels in the world if they aren’t compatible with your inverter or commonly these days, your battery. Instead, focus on making sure the system is operating as proposed. Ask for a chart of the projected annual energy production and hold your installer to it. Specifically, negotiate up front to that 10% of the fee will be withheld until several weeks of successful system output. That timeframe should reveal any major issues that can be rectified without hassles like contract disputes and lawsuits.

3. Change is happening very quickly

LED lightbulbs are vastly outperforming CFLs. Try replacing these next time a bulb burns out. Sydney Opera House is doing this and will transition from a 3 month to a 13 year replacement rate!

The cost of solar panels is plummeting too, while output is rapidly improving.

Michael encouraged anyone renovating to future proof their homes by installing additional pipes to facilitate sequenced greywater use, using curved not right angled joints, and generally avoiding ‘baking in’ systematic inefficiencies. Future inhabitants will be able to tap into the design already there without re-renovating and creating tonnes of additional landfill waste.

4. Eat local 

The conversation veered towards food and specifically Michael’s aha moment. He described the moment he realized his home was sustainable, but he wasn’t, after meeting a chef at Google who was passionate about local food. What he learned was that while the average Sydneysider uses 260L of water a day in the home, an average meal consumes 1000L. And most of us eat three times a day and waste significant amounts. Consuming locally grown food not only connects us with the natural limits of our own land, it can save considerable resources.

How can we recognize local food? Short of growing it, the best way is to step outside the supermarket. Consider that labels and packaging may be thought of a way to broker trust between unrelated parties trading through long supply chains. Perhaps that’s one reason it’s hard to shop without packaging in the supermarket –  most of what’s on offer is not in season, and comes from far away. Farmers markets and food co-ops are incredible resources and we will lose them if we don’t use and value them.

5. Saving resources is not always about personal sacrifice

I half expected the workshop to be filled with the kind of lectures my Dad would give us: ‘put on a sweater!’ ‘ where are your slippers?’ ‘close the blinds!’ and so on (side note: Thanks Dad! You prepared me very well for Australian non-insulated homes.) The workshop was not focused on changing personal behaviours, but instead on smart system design, which is basically biomimicry, or in fact permaculture. Taking a shorter shower will have even more impact if you have a shower head that doesn’t waste water in the first place. Fans of Paul Hawken will recognize similar concepts from his book The Ecology of Commerce. He calls it radical resource efficiency. It’s not just about cycling resources for reuse, but reducing the need for those resources, while accomplishing the same or better results. Michael Mobbs’ sustainable home makes radical use of resources to slash his energy and water footprint, and yet he lives in abundance.

6. While we’re still on the grid, there are better energy suppliers

We had a group discussion about energy providers. On moving to Sydney, I chose to go with Powershop based on this Australian focused Greenpeace electricity guide. I can contribute a bit more and fund green and community energy projects, or just pay the regular rates and know that I’m supporting a better company. They also provide a tracking app and benchmarks to let you know whether you’re doing better of worse than the average for a similar sized household. If you’re in NSW and want to switch to Powershop, use this link to get $75 credit on your first bill (I’ll get a credit too).

Low bills and life skills

When we think of saving, there are grim cultural connotations of pain and sacrifice. And yet when we save money on energy, we have the capacity to invest in other areas of our lives. We can eat well, save for the future, take a job for the right reasons not for the money and spend more time with loved ones. None of us benefit from spending too much on inputs that flow rapidly in and then out of our homes as a result of endemic poor design. While some of us will be able to afford the high cost of energy as rates rise, pensioners, students and others on fixed or low incomes will feel the pinch rather strongly. I want low bills for me, and for everyone else too. For more inspiration, please check out Michael’s blog. If you have the chance to meet him or tour his home, consider it an excellent investment in the future.

Delayed influence and the power of consistent persistence

If helping others to adopt more sustainable lifestyles isn’t working out that well for you, maybe behavioural psychology can help.


In spite of good intentions, our efforts to influence others can easily go awry. The passionate among us are prone to argue, spew facts, feel rejected, become dejected, and even give up in the face of resistance by those who don’t share our enthusiasm. With the exception of the giving up part, this has been me at one point or another.

One reason that we have trouble influencing others is that people react differently to the same information. To understand why, we’ll need a primer in identity constructs.

Identities > facts

Facts served cold are unlikely to change behaviour. More often, when we receive new information, it is simply processed through our existing world view, explains Niki Harré in her book Psychology for a Better World. The book is aimed at those of us who want to encourage others to adopt more responsible lifestyle habits in our home, work or social groups.

You see, we humans also have a propensity to seek out information that validates our pre-existing beliefs, and ignore the rest, and this means identities are reinforced rather than routinely challenged.

Acknowledging differences in identities is undoubtably a better place to start than dismissing everyone who disagrees with you as a crackpot. If you don’t understand what someone believes themselves to be, you’ll be overlooking the barriers they face to change.

First, a mindset shift.

Perhaps the most important thing to do before attempting to influence others is to change your own mindset. Harré emphasizes that it’s crucial not to expect quick wins in situations where we need to reach people with different and conflicting identities.

Instead, persistence and consistency are key, because initial resistance by others to an idea is less about the validity of the proposed idea, and more about the identity of the person making the suggestion. The medium is the message.

How to influence someone’s behaviour

There are a number of persuasion strategies we can use without attempting to directly change someone else’s identity.

Find or create a new common identity. An example is when people of all stripes come together for the conservation of a special place, like a local beach.

Choose a messenger the audience can relate to. We react to the same information differently depending on the source. I.e. if Sea Shepherd announced that whaling was no longer an issue, I would be more likely to consider it to be true than if the statement had come from the Japanese government because of the historic positions of both. If you are a sustainability program manager, this trojan horse method is worth considering when picking the right ambassador to achieve your campaign goals.

Create the conditions for delayed influence. If you’re trying to get your workplace to stop using single use coffee pods in the staff room, or to convince your roommate to start recycling, chances are you’ve already blown your cover as and they think of you as an eco-warrier type. It’s an identity clash – what to do? In this case, Harré suggests the following:

  • Persist. Negative initial reactions from others are inevitable, but studies show that resistance weakens over time once the brain takes time to process new ideas. In advertising, the saying goes ‘familiarity breeds trust’. If you accept the likelihood of initial friction, you might be better mentally prepared to keep going.
  • Be consistent. Inconsistency in your message over time makes it easier for others to dismiss your point of view. It’s never a bad idea to live in alignment with the beliefs you espouse, and especially so when you’re trying to influence a group with different views to yours.
  • Focus on the facts, not opinion. If you can show someone that sea levels are objectively rising, you are focusing on something more less challenging to their existing identity than the causes behind sea level rise. As chapter chair for Surfrider, volunteers who were comfortable turning up to meetings or beach cleanups still felt compelled to clarify for me that they weren’t ‘an activist’.  While the label was a siren call for those already dedicated to the cause, it was limiting reach to those just beyond, whom we needed to grow the reach of the group. So instead of inviting someone to ‘become an activist’, chapter comms focused on communicating shared love of coastal places, and the very tangible fact of beach pollution.
  • Be a role model, find allies. By being consistent, factual and persistent in your goal for sustainability, you build a bridge for others to ally with you. Your actions are a beacon to others who may not feel comfortable starting , but would readily join in.

When we understand how identities shape behaviour, and some strategies for working with instead of against them, we are better equipped to win someone over to a sustainable behaviour.

Psychology for a Better World is full of useful insights into how we can better communicate messages of sustainability. If you’d like to read the full book, it’s available for free online download here.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

fail to prepare

Living low waste might seem to be, from the outside, all about going without, exercising iron clad willpower, and generally living a spartan lifestyle.

Willpower is contextual, and changing a habit with brute force just doesn’t work for me. Which is a fancy way of saying, I don’t have a special amount of willpower. I just try to structure my day to day decisions to reinforce my overarching intentions for life.

Restructure your decisions ahead of time

One of my favourite ways to teach myself a habit is to look at ways I am repeatedly making the same decision (and struggling every time) to see if I can restructure and automate it with a healthy default.

We only have so many decisions in us in a day before we get decision fatigue.

This is the insight behind a work uniform. But here’s another example:

I sometimes go for a run in the morning before work. I want the endorphins and I love the energy it gives me through the day. But left to my own devices, I will often vacillate between getting up and going, and just lazing in bed until I don’t have enough time.

My simple automation is to set out my running clothes the night before – right down to my socks and undies. In doing so, I am committing, even in a small way, to following through with my run. This also makes the morning an overall smooth operation. No rummaging through my drawers to track down my sports bra or a pair of socks. There is nothing to derail me.

Rather than deciding whether or not to run, I’m deciding how far and in which direction.

A simple change to my surroundings helps me make the decision my higher self actually wants.

It’s the same thing with Zero Waste living. In the preparation, I am setting an intention and a commitment to a future behaviour. It’s a Zero Waste asana. It’s also creating an environment that supports my intention and sets me up for success.

Normalize low waste living.

Since the trash we produce has so much to do with our eating habits here are a few examples of how I set myself up for Zero Waste in the kitchen:

I make real food, at home // Making my own food is empowering and my absolute favourite way to practice creativity. Michael Pollan tells us to eat whatever we want, as long as we make it ourselves, which I take as permission to make and eat pie. He says this in the context of nutrition and eating habits (I can only make so much pie), but it’s also relevant to reducing household waste. In my own kitchen, I reduce, reuse, compost, recycle, etc. This means that if I made it, I know how it was made, and what was wasted (or not) in the process.

blackberry pie

I shop in bulk // To automate cooking at home as my normal, I shop in bulk at any of the bulk whole food stores where I live. I stock up on seeds, nuts, beans, grains and other ingredients that can be made into a wide variety of dishes. I don’t have to channel my energy into avoiding processed foods or not eating out. Instead I cultivate joy in cooking and eating food that I make myself.

I hide my trash bin // A typical kitchen has a large garbage bin front and centre. Sometimes these are even battery operated, freeing us from the burden of lifting the lid ourselves. This teaches us to use it as the first choice. What if it was the last choice? What would happen if you gave more physical space and prominence to your compost and recycling bins? You’d remember to use them first, I guarantee it. By creating an environment where it is physically more difficult to throw things away, I throw less away.

I surround myself with fresh, local, organic fruit and veg // I order a weekly box from a fellow who is running a small business delivering farm-direct local organic produce, or I hit the farmers markets. This means I’m choosing from seasonal bounty by default. Bonus – no fruit stickers to deal with. Second bonus, I don’t waste time at the supermarket looking for organic or Australian grown produce from amongst it all. The less I shop at supermarkets, the less I expose myself to packaged foods. Since produce comes in its own biodegradable and usually edible packaging, the more of it I keep on hand the less often I turn to packaged foods and the less packaging waste I make.
trio-of-veg I follow plant-based foodies online // Say what you will about the authenticity of social media, I still find that visual inspiration keeps me hungry for healthy, fresh food. I purposely seek out veggie Instagrammers to inspire me in exploring meat-free meals and thinking about new flavour combos.

I keep a ‘to eat’ list // I’m prone to overbuying, which can lead to food waste. So I write down a list of things I have on hand as a reminder of what I should plan my meals around.

Willpower is overrated.

If you want to reshape your life, reimagine your environment.

Living low waste can be so much more about abundance of the good than deprivation or extreme willpower. The good crowds out the bad, and becomes normal. What you’ll end up giving up will ultimately become irrelevant to your lifestyle anyway. Living without making so much trash will start to feel effortless.

If you are looking to start living low waste, start by creating environments that inspire instead of restrict. You’ll be more likely to succeed and more likely to enjoy the process.