These are my top 10 popular environmental books for 2015. All the topics are covered, from environmental ethics and philosophy, to the economics and politics of environmentalist action (and inaction), to the roles of personal responsibility in ensuring sustainability. Personal reviews available on request!
See the rest of this year’s book recommendations here!
The biosphere — the Earth’s thin layer of life — dates from nearly four billion years ago, when the first simple organisms appeared. Many species have exerted enormous influence on the biosphere’s character and productivity, but none has transformed the Earth in so many ways and on such a scale as Homo sapiens. In Harvesting the Biosphere, Vaclav Smil offers an interdisciplinary and quantitative account of human claims on the biosphere’s stores of living matter, from prehistory to the present day. Smil examines all harvests — from prehistoric man’s hunting of megafauna to modern crop production — and all uses of harvested biomass, including energy, food, and raw materials. Without harvesting of the biomass, Smil points out, there would be no story of human evolution and advancing civilization; but at the same time, the increasing extent and intensity of present-day biomass harvests are changing the very foundations of civilization’s well-being.
McDonald’s promises to use only beef, coffee, fish, chicken, and cooking oil obtained from sustainable sources. Coca-Cola promises to achieve water neutrality. Unilever seeks to achieve 100 percent sustainable agricultural sourcing by 2020. Walmart has pledged to become carbon neutral. Big-brand companies seem to be making commitments that go beyond the usual “greenwashing” efforts undertaken largely for public-relations purposes. In Eco-Business, Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister examine this new corporate embrace of sustainability, its actual accomplishments, and the consequences for the environment.
Sachs offers readers, students, activists, environmentalists, and policy makers the tools, metrics, and practical pathways they need to achieve Sustainable Development Goals. Far more than a rhetorical exercise, this book is designed to inform, inspire, and spur action. Based on Sachs’s twelve years as director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, his thirteen years advising the United Nations secretary-general on the Millennium Development Goals, and his recent presentation of these ideas in a popular online course, The Age of Sustainable Development is a landmark publication and clarion call for all who care about our planet and global justice.
In Back to the Garden, James H. S. McGregor argues that the environmental crisis the world faces today is a result of Western society’s abandonment of the “First Nature” principle—of the harmonious interrelationship of human communities and the natural world. This essential work offers a new understanding of environmental accountability while proposing that recovering the original vision of ourselves, not as antagonists of nature but as cultivators of a biological world to which we innately belong, is possible through proven techniques of the past. Much has been lost, the landscape has been degraded, and traditional knowledge has died away. But there is still much that can be recovered, studied, and reimagined.
While economists, philosophers, and ecologists argue about what in nature is valuable, and why, Norton here offers an action-oriented, pragmatic response to the disconnect between public and academic discourse around sustainability. Looking to the arenas in which decisions are made—and the problems that are driving these decisions—Norton reveals that the path to sustainability cannot be guided by fixed, utopian objectives projected into the future; sustainability will instead be achieved through experimentation, incremental learning, and adaptive management. Drawing inspiration from Aldo Leopold’s famed metaphor of “thinking like a mountain” for a spatially explicit, pluralistic approach to evaluating environmental change, Norton replaces theory-dependent definitions with a new decision-making process guided by deliberation and negotiation across science and philosophy, encompassing all stakeholders and activists and seeking to protect as many values as possible. Looking across scales to today’s global problems, Norton urges us to learn to think like a planet.
Nature no longer exists apart from humanity. Henceforth, the world we will inhabit is the one we have made. Geologists have called this new planetary epoch the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans. The geological strata we are now creating record industrial emissions, industrial-scale crop pollens, and the disappearance of species driven to extinction. Climate change is planetary engineering without design. These facts of the Anthropocene are scientific, but its shape and meaning are questions for politics―a politics that does not yet exist. After Nature develops a politics for this post-natural world.
All too frequently, inaction on climate change is blamed on its potential harm to the economy. Pollin shows greening the economy is not only possible but necessary: global economic growth depends on it.
In Peak Oil, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson takes readers deep inside the world of “peakists,” showing how their hopes and fears about the postcarbon future led them to prepare for the social breakdown they foresee—all of which are fervently discussed and debated via websites, online forums, videos, and novels. By exploring the worldview of peakists, and the unexpected way that the fear of peak oil and climate change transformed many members of this left-leaning group into survivalists, Schneider-Mayerson builds a larger analysis of the rise of libertarianism, the role of oil in modern life, the political impact of digital technologies, the racial and gender dynamics of post-apocalyptic fantasies, and the social organization of environmental denial.
Yes, the world faces substantial environmental challenges — climate change, pollution, and extinction. But the surprisingly good news is that we have solutions to these problems. In the past 50 years, a remarkable number of environmental problems have been solved, while substantial progress is ongoing on others. The Optimistic Environmentalist chronicles these remarkable success stories. Endangered species — from bald eagles to gray whales — pulled back from the precipice of extinction. Thousands of new parks, protecting billions of hectares of land and water. The salvation of the ozone layer, vital to life on Earth. The exponential growth of renewable energy powered by wind, water, and sun. The race to be the greenest city in the world. Remarkable strides in cleaning up the air we breathe and the water we drink. The banning of dozens of the world’s most toxic chemicals. A circular economy where waste is a thing of the past. Past successes pave the way for even greater achievements in the future.
Vogel argues provocatively that environmental philosophy, in its ethics, should no longer draw a distinction between the natural and the artificial and, in its politics, should abandon the idea that something beyond human practices (such as “nature”) can serve as a standard determining what those practices ought to be. The appeal to nature distinct from the built environment, he contends, may be not merely unhelpful to environmental thinking but in itself harmful to that thinking. The question for environmental philosophy is not “how can we save nature?” but rather “what environment should we inhabit, and what practices should we engage in to help build it?”