We began our summer reads feature yesterday, with recommendations from Green Alliance’s staff, trustees, associates and colleagues, for books to take you on a mind expanding journey this holiday season, without having to move from your deckchair. From life in a tower block in Mumbai to cycling the American open road, contemplating the history of humanity and ways to make your vegetable garden pretty along the way.
Today’s recommendations complete the list, providing a rich selection which approaches the subject of sustainability from a variety of different, and sometimes unexpected, angles.
What titles would you add to the list and why?
Tell us @GreenAllianceUK #summergreenreads and we’ll update this post with suggestions we receive.
Dame Fiona Reynolds
Green Alliance trustee
I have always enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver’s books, so I picked this one up without realising it was her ‘green’ novel. Flight Behaviour describes the (fictional) moment when millions of migrating Monarch butterflies unexpectedly land up in a remote valley many thousands of miles from their usual destination, and the impact this has on the community and young, unhappily married Dellarobia in particular. It’s moving, thought-provoking and a good read.
I’m also delighted that Robert Macfarlane’s third book The old ways is out in paperback. I loved the first two, Mountains of the mind and The wild places, but this one is the best so far. Robert writes so beautifully about nature and its spiritual value, in this book from the perspective of a long walk across England. If, like me, you can’t have enough of his writing, just out in hardback is Holloway, a beautiful, moving short tribute to Roger Deakin that Macfarlane co-wrote with friends who were also mourning Deakins’ death. It makes you want to go out and lie in a hollow way yourself.
Finally I was delighted to see that Little Toller Books has decided to re-issue WG Hoskins’s The making of the English landscape, with a new introduction by William Boyd. This book, first published in 1955 and never out of print since, revolutionised the way we look at and understand landscape. I have a first edition and one of almost every edition published since. My shelves are groaning but I can’t get enough of it; it was the source of my campaigning inspiration. Woops, almost forgot the Mindfulness series published by Ivy Press. The art of mindful walking by Adam Ford and Einstein and the art of mindful cycling by Ben Irvine bring you up short in the need to stop rushing and take life at a pace where you can appreciate the beauty of small things. I gather Mindfulness and the natural world is coming soon. I can’t wait.
This year saw the publication of one of the best popular books written to date about climate change: The burning question by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark. Its analysis that we have to leave a lot of fossil fuel unburned in the ground if are to have a hope of avoiding dangerous climate change is spot on. However, I did find it a little disappointing on how to meet the huge political challenge of achieving this given the vested interests involved and our high carbon dependence.
One of the big political events of the past year was the US election. Obama did well to get re-elected, but the real star was pollster Nate Silver, who called the result incredibly accurately. He explains how in the highly readable The signal and the noise (apparently it’s all about using Bayesian statistics). Knowing that, however, doesn’t tell you why little more than half of the US electorate actually turned out to vote (only slightly worse that the British 2010 election). For an excellent discussion of the causes and consequences of our disenchantment with formal party politics, I can recommend Colin Hay’s Why we hate politics. Hay argues that a combination of technocratic management and globalisation has depoliticised large areas of public life and turned people onto new forms of political participation, including environmentalism.
Given recent shenanigans involving security agencies and internet snooping, my last recommendation is Who owns the future? Written by Jaron Lanier, the dreadlocked computer scientist who coined the term ‘virtual reality’, the book argues that we are failing to assert our property rights to our personal data, which we give away for free through social media. Lanier says if we demand small “nanopayments” for our information we could transform the internet economy. It’s a fascinating read, but a bit too much in love markets and technology. The last few weeks have taught us that if powerful forces really want your data, there is little you can do about it.
As the economics profession continues to come to terms with its failures during the financial crisis, I am naturally drawn to books that both challenge the orthodoxy in some way and offer some usable alternatives. There are plenty of people able to do the former; far fewer are convincing on the latter. Two notable exceptions are Nate Silver and Mariana Mazzucato.
As someone who has personal experience of the failures of economic forecasting during the financial crisis, I concur with Nate Silver’s view that we often know far less than we think. But Silver doesn’t just throw his hands up in despair. He has practical ideas on how to deal with this problem in his book The signal and the noise. What most impresses me is his ability to popularise Bayesian techniques for forecasting. Oh yes, and he also did rather well in predicting the outcome of the last US presidential election.
In The entrepreneurial state, Mariana Mazzucato challenges the notion that the state is some bureaucratic monster that stifles private sector innovation. Instead she writes powerfully that the state often does the early stage risky innovation, only for the private sector to come in later and reap the rewards. The book contains some genuinely surprising examples that make the central argument more convincing. Finally, not a book about economics, but a wonderfully evocative account of some great journeys on foot is The old ways by Robert Macfarlane. It is one of those books that makes you realise the opportunity cost of your daily commute to the office (so there was an economics hook after all). On a recent walk along the South Downs, I enjoyed spooking my kids with his ghostly account of a night spent at Chanctonbury ring.
Though I’m currently enjoying The burning question by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark, I think I’ll stick to the political world for my choices for the Kindle by the beach (or, of course, the second hand edition in the yurt). Yesterday, Matthew Spencer chose Team of rivals. Unfortunately, history wrote a sequel. After the mess of Reconstruction, the rights won in the civil war were slowly chipped away by the Jim Crow laws. Attempts were made in the ‘30s and ‘40s to (re)introduce civil rights for African Americans and while it was seen as economically, socially and morally obvious to most Americans, a few always held back progress. Robert A Caro’s several volume biography The years of Lyndon Johnson, shows the Washington-centred perspective of how well organised public campaigning from African Americans made civil rights an issue which both the Democratic and Republican leadership went from ignoring to competing to be the leader of. Whenever you feel frustrated at how long it’s been since the first step of the Rio conference to tackle climate change, think of the century it took from Lincoln to the Civil Rights Act.
Too big to fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin shows what a great writer can do with headlines. From the bailouts of the Fannies to a climatic cameo from Alistair Darling when he blocked the British purchase of Lehman, this book had access to the boardrooms, Oval Offices and kitchens where the decisions were made around the financial crisis. Alongside Imperial life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Race of a lifetime: how Obama won the White House by Mark Halperin, it’s an example of how great books can be made of stories still in the news. Next up the story of the great binding climate deal of Paris 2015?
Finally, the Danes have Borgen, Americans have Josiah Bartlet. We have Malcolm Tucker and Jim Hacker. British politicians have always (or, at least, since Hogarth) been portrayed as evil or dumb or both. That’s why my last choice is a bit of a cheat as it’s a playscript. Without judgement, This House by James Graham shows how hard it is just to govern, or to oppose, in an era that saw the end of the post war consensus and the return of old bitter divisions. It has MPs from all sides dropping dead from exhaustion, attempting suicide and trying hard to figure out what the right thing to do actually is. But for anyone who fears dramatic licence, an MP recently told me stories from the era which make This House read like Peppa Pig.