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.

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?

Read, recommend, repeat: good books for green minds

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
Paul Hawken
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
Naomi Klein
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.

Plastic Ocean
Charles Moore
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
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.

Lean In
Sheryl Sandberg
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.

Jared Diamond
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
Daniel Kahneman
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
Michael Pollan
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
Sandor Katz
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.

Giulia Enders
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
Clare Press 
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.