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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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?