Top reads for the summer – part 1
If you haven’t yet decided what should be at the top of your summer reading pile, we’ve gathered some inspiration here in two posts.
Nine leading contributors to the blog, Green Alliance staff, associates and trustees have given us their top recommendations of the books they’ve enjoyed over the past year. We asked for books with a sustainability theme, but not necessarily explicitly so
Together they make up a great list of suggestions, covering both fiction and non-fiction, economics, mindful cycling, politics and creative vegetable growing. And some, like Nate Silver’s The signal and the noise and Robert Macfarlane’s The old ways crop up more than once. Look out for Part 2 tomorrow.
director, Green Alliance
I find myself reading many more books about how social and political change happens than about sustainability, and one of the highlights of my year was reading the stunning tour de horizon of 20th century politics from the historian Tony Judt. Ill fares the land is an explanation of the evolution and decline of social democracy in Europe, inspired by and dedicated to his teenage children and written with the lucidity and passion of a man who knew he only had months to live.
Team of rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin is the basis for Stephen Spielberg film ‘Lincoln’, and comes recommended by both Barack Obama and Sir Alex Ferguson. Set against the backdrop of the struggle over slavery between southern and northern states, it is a riveting account of his rise from poor backwoodsman to Republican president, and the political intrigue and personal stories of the people he beat, and then made his allies. Most people couldn’t believe then that slavery would ever end because of its centrality to the American economy, just as it’s hard to believe now that we’ll be able to kick our dependence on fossil fuels, but the political courage of Lincoln and his compatriots and his eloquent speeches are an inspiration.
Here comes everyone is written by Clay Shirky, an American IT thinker on a mission to explain why online communication really is revolutionary. He explains both the maths and the sociology of phenomena such as Wikipedia, and reminds us how online communication can both create and destroy economic and social value. The recent scandal over the ubiquitous state spying on citizen communications may make his interpretation of the organising power of social media feel a little optimistic, but his ‘publish then filter’ maxim for the new hierarchy of communication also works for the security services: “you publish, we filter”.
Finally I commend an outstanding novel if you want a cheap, no-flight escape to India. Last man in the tower, by Aravind Adiga, also the author of White Tiger, is a wonderful portrayal of life in a tower block in Mumbai, and the story of the personal cost to our stubborn hero, who resists its redevelopment.
I’m endlessly fascinated by the role that energy plays in our history and society. It seems to me to be the rarely discussed question at the heart of the climate crisis. So I’m tempted to recommend Howard Odum’s classic Environment, power and society, which was written in 1971 but recently reworked and republished. It explains anything you’d ever want to know about the energy system in the natural and human worlds. But since its four hundred-odd pages are chock-full of equations, footnotes and diagrams, you’d never believe me if I said it was perfect poolside reading. Instead I’ll recommend a lighter read on the same theme. Children of the sun, by Alfred Crosby, describes itself as ‘a history of humanity’s unappeasable appetite for energy’ and that’s exactly what it is. A whistlestop tour of the history of energy, it is lively and engaging. And while I didn’t agree with every word of its over-simplistic narrative, it will make you think: about whale blubber, Phileas Fogg, cavemen and space flight, among other things.
Second, a political provocation. Deborah Mattinson’s book Talking to a brick wall is not an obvious green set text. But Mattinson, public opinion guru and until recently a Green Alliance trustee, writes persuasively about how people perceive politics and government. She confirms what we already know – that there’s a mile-wide gulf between the language of environmentalism and the swing voters of Harlow. There’s a deeper message too; what Mattinson describes as ‘Peter Pan syndrome’, in which politicians tell people what they want to hear (you can have lower taxes and better public services) and so voters never grow up. Sound familiar?
Last, and most definitely holiday reading, but equally insightful, is The carbon cycle, Kate Rawles’s account of her 4,500 mile cycle through George W Bush’s America, fearlessly dodging enormous trucks and grizzly bears and, even more fearlessly, talking to Americans about climate change. It’s honest, thought-provoking and, let’s face it, exhausting. You’ll feel as if you’ve earned a beer by the pool just by reading about all that cycling.
I had a strangely enjoyably apocalyptic summer last year reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Douglas Coupland’s Generation A, two of the best novels ever written on environmental limits and risks (although I’ll admit that it is not the most competitive of categories). As someone surfing the border between generations X and Y I’ve always been a huge fan of Coupland. And while he is often cited as a pop culture novelist, many of his best novels have a fundamental connection to the environment and mankind’s relationship with it.
I also tend to indulge in a bit of a busman’s holiday each year and catch up on the environmental books I should have read in the previous 11 months. I’ve just read Mark Lynas’s The God Species, which is an excellent take on the technocentric school of environmental thought. I still refer back to George Monbiot’s Heat a fair bit. and while I don’t agree with all of it, you’d struggle to find a better take on the meaning of the transition to a low carbon economy.
Green Alliance associate
I always like a bit of holiday science history. Periodic tales by Hugh Aldersey-Williams brings the elements to life. I first dipped into it to help my son with his chemistry revision and found vivid tales of discovery that made us both hungry to learn more, unlike his extraordinarily dull text books. Human exploitation of the Earth’s riches has shaped our culture and profoundly affected our environment, but it is the people behind the discoveries that provide the most stimulation in this flowing and fascinating book. The title of Tony Juniper’s What has nature ever done for us? speaks to my continuing quest for ways to explain how the physical environment underpins economic activity. Tony does not disappoint with some good vignettes and compelling numbers. Never heavy or preachy, it is an ecological book to enlighten and embolden rather than depress.
For something with more pictures, I’d recommend the book from the Imperial War Museum exhibition of the same title: A family in wartime, by Maureen Waller. A fantastic bit of social history, the exhibition featured the lives of the Allpresses, a family of ten living in south east London during the Second World War. Accompanied by great illustrations and photos, it gives a clear sense of what it was like to live day to day with danger, physical privation and a government continually issuing fierce edicts about how to conduct their lives. Even more pictures in Creative vegetable gardening by Joy Larkcom, absolutely the best book on ‘grow your own’ since it turns veg into art. Anyone can grow lettuces, but not everyone can grow them prettily. Start planning next year’s plot now.
Two downers to start with, from Zizek and Glaser.
“There is a wonderful expression in Persian”, Slavoj Zizek’s latest work The year of dreaming dangerously begins, “war nam nihadan, which means to murder somebody, bury his body, then grow flowers over the body to conceal it.”
I spent a week with Zizek in the mountains last year. His impulse may be contrarian. He’s heavy on the Hegel. But there are moments like this, with its image, to my mind emblematic of the role of some of the sustainability movement in disguising the systemic failures of business, where he can quietly disembowel you.
Eliane Glaser’s Get Real doesn’t pull its punches either (the last two chapters, to give a clue, are headed “Baloney” and “Greenwash”). Its most devastating moment? The original meaning of the word “ideology”. Imagine a darkened room, Glaser instructs us, the windows blackened out with dark paper. Now make a small hole in the paper. On the wall opposite there will appear an image of the world outside, but upside down. This is the camera obscura effect. For Marx, Glaser tells us, this was the function of ideology, to present the world in an inverted form. It is through the exercise of ideology, for example, that a regime whose functional power derives from military force or coercion, might be hailed as the haven of the free.
The antidote to Glaser and Zizek? Still prescient, thirty five years after publication, EF Schumacher’s Good Work. Nowhere is there a clearer distillation of the things to focus on.