Our recommended reads of the year
In case you’re stuck for some last minute ideas for reading matter this holiday (once you’ve finished the latest GCHQ puzzle book of course) we’ve had a recommendation whip round at Green Alliance to help you. Here is a selection of the books our staff have enjoyed reading this year, with at least a hint of environmental relevance:
James Elliott, policy adviser
My unusual suspect is the Mortal Engines quartet by Phillip Reeve which has just been made into a film. Although marketed at teenagers it was not initially intended only for that audience. While not about the environment, the world Reeve creates in these books is full of metaphors that relate to the environmental tensions we face. The stories take place in a distant future, long after the world as we know it has been destroyed by the ‘sixty minute war’. It raises really interesting questions about what we value and need and the kind of world we want to live in, and about what sacrifices and compromises we are prepared to make to protect the environment. These books don’t have the answers, but reading them is a very enjoyable way to ponder the questions.
Belinda Gordon, strategy director
I’m currently reading The Overstory by Richard Powers: fiction with trees as the key characters in the stories. It’s beautiful and gripping.
The Fight for Beauty by Fiona Reynolds [unashamed plug for our chair!] is an engaging history of the conservation movement, as well as an inspiring read that re-ignited my passion for the countryside. It was so good I bought it for a friend who is new to the sector.
Melissa Petersen, policy assistant
The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by J Drew Lanham is an authentic and touching memoir of an African American naturalist from the south, a voice that is, in many ways, unaccounted for in the environmental sector. Being of African American descent, the memoir connected with me personally and propelled me to explore how minorities connect with nature today. As the world combats climate change and makes amends with the natural environment, the author presents a unique lens with hopes that “…others who look like me, who grew up like me or maybe didn’t grow up like me have an opportunity to understand that land matters, that nature matters.”
Dustin Benton, policy director
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver is a genuinely engrossing story about climate change, which is a hard task given the frankly depressing subject. I read it a little while ago, but was reminded of it by the recent news that monarch butterflies (the subject of the book) may well go extinct in the west of the US: another sign that climate change is moving from hypothetical to actual. The book is more descriptive than didactic, and is as much about how family and community shape people’s choices as how nature does, which must be the right approach to addressing climate change in an age of political polarisation.
Patrick Killoran, policy assistant
Environmental degradation is often portrayed as the cause of civilizational collapse, perhaps most famously on Easter Island. In The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter puts forward a unifying theory of collapse, drawing on examples from the Western Roman Empire to the Mayans, in which he paints environmental degradation as a symptom of an inability to maintain complexity.
Shaun Spiers, executive director
Nicholas Crane’s You Are Here: a Brief Guide to the world is a succinct and sparkling defence of the study of geography. This he defines as “the science that describes the planet we inhabit”, which covers pretty much everything. There is plenty in the book about climate change, population growth and the loss of nature, and a recognition that resolving the problems we face “will require radically new models of politics and business”. But it is fundamentally optimistic. There is a particularly fascinating section on GIS (Geographical Information Systems), “so vast and versatile that there is scarcely a facet of modern existence that is untouched by it”. The question is, “will GIS merely consolidate existing power relationships? Or can it be harnessed more positively to empower marginalised communities?”
Tony Juniper’s Rainforest is a reminder that you cannot tackle environmental problems without also tackling issues of social and economic justice. It is also an inspiring memoir of 30 years’ campaigning: insider, outsider, investigations and stunts. I particularly liked the story of Friends of the Earth’s ‘ethical shoplifting’, removing mahogany furniture from high street shops and “taking it to the local police station, where we would say we had reason to believe the timber had been illegally extracted from indigenous reserves in the Amazon.”
Finally, [another unashamed plug] my own How to Build Houses and Save the Countryside, published this year, proposes various (sensible and far sighted) measures to address the housing crisis without trashing the environment, but notes that, for as long as Brexit dominates the political agenda, “it will be hard for any government to make housing the priority it needs to be.” The housing crisis looks set to remain something politicians talk about a lot, but do relatively little to address.