Our recommended reads of the year 2019
Our annual roundup of favourite books on environmental and political themes is a good source of last minute Christmas gifts worth giving. A cricketer, a crime fiction writer, great women and some jaw dropping stories all feature.
Belinda Gordon, strategy director (and her daughter Ottilie)
Wilding by Isabella Tree, Picador, 2019
This is a beautiful book about farming smarter rather than harder, about the transformative effect nature can have, not just on our environment but also on our outlook. Isabella Tree owns the Knepp Estate with her husband. After years of working the heavy Sussex clay as hard as possible to try to generate a profit from dairy and then arable farming, the pair are inspired by the work of Frans Vera to allow it to ‘rewild’. Fences are removed, animals, as close to pre-historic herbivores as possible, are introduced (all funded in large part by public money I should point out) and nature allowed to take its course. It is inspiring to hear about the regenerative effect of natural process, but the book is also about our desire to control and manage processes, the need for us to let go of our inner tidiness freak and trust nature to take its course.
A woman’s work by Harriet Harman, Penguin, 2018
It is not environmental, but another memorable book I read this year was Harriet Harman’s autobiography. She may not always grab the headlines but this book demonstrates the enormous amount she has achieved over the years by pushing for change to enhance, particularly women’s, lives. Many things that have been vital to me but which I have taken for granted, such as paid maternity leave and childcare provision, were actually hard won victories for Harman and her fellow campaigners. This book demonstrates how politics, largely the preserve of men when Harman was elected in the 80s, has changed over my lifetime. There is still a way to go but this book shows how solid, hard work can make change happen.
Great women who saved the planet by Kate Pankhurst, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, February 2020
Although this won’t be out in time for Christmas, we were given the chance to review the latest children’s book from Kate Pankhurst. With engaging drawings and graphics, it profiles women from around the world who have, often despite very difficult circumstances, had a positive impact on the environment. My daughter Ottilie (age 7) said: “The book was interesting and inspiring. I read the whole of it in one go! I have read a book about Wangari Maathai and I was Jane Goodall when we had to go to school dressed as our hero, so I was pleased both of them are in the book. But there were lots of women I didn’t know about who have done amazing things – I particularly liked reading about Daphne Sheldrick who saved lots of elephants and Eugenie Clark who was an expert on sharks. Isatou Ceesay from The Gambia sounds really amazing. She helped stop plastic pollution by showing women how to weave plastic into handbags they could sell. The Gambia has now banned plastic bags.” This is a lovely book that shines a light on some lesser known women who have done extraordinary things to help protect the planet. Definitely one for the aspiring change maker.
Imogen Cripps, policy assistant
Findings by Kathleen Jamie, Sort Of Books, 2005
Findings is a collection of eleven essays in which the author recounts her experiences living in and travelling across Scotland. From beached whales and gannet skulls to an examination of why we demonise the dark in ‘Darkness and Light’, Jamie’s unbounded curiosity and meticulous observation of the natural world has encouraged me to be more sensitive to my own surroundings, whilst accounts of rugged Scottish landscapes have provided a much needed and comforting antidote to busy city life. However, throughout these seemingly untouched lands, traces of human society are never far to be found, and beyond the beautiful imagery in this book is a clear reminder of what we must work hard to conserve. The alternative offered by Jamie provides ample incentive to act: “they say the day is coming – it may already be here – when there will be no wild creatures…when no species on the planet will be able to further itself without reference or negotiation with us.”
Jonathan Ritson, policy analyst
Undermining the central line by Ruth Rendell and Colin Ward, Chatto & Windus, 1989
In a seemingly unlikely collaboration between the anarchist architect and town planner, Colin Ward, and crime fiction writer, Ruth Rendell, Undermining the central line maps out a future where decision making takes place at a scale where people can have real influence. Drawing on the example of Switzerland’s cantons, Ward and Rendell map out future communities where work, education, leisure and, perhaps most importantly, power are decentralised, leading to a reinvigoration of rural areas. Thirty years later their work is still relevant as we grapple with local and national decisions about how we deal with the climate and biodiversity crisis without leaving communities behind or ignoring their needs in the process.
Beyond a boundary by C L R James, Hutchinson, 1963
“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”
It is rare that a book manages to cover such important issues as the legacy of British colonialism and race and class in sport whilst also serving as a treatise on the development of batting and bowling theory in cricket. Also serving as an autobiography for the anti-colonial author and journalist, C L R James, Beyond a boundary is quite rightly considered as one of the best books ever written about cricket. If you want to learn about the incredible batting achievements of W G Grace whilst also gaining an understanding of how Trinidadians campaigned for independence and equality, this is the book for you.
Shaun Spiers, executive director
Green and prosperous land: a blueprint for rescuing the British countryside by Dieter Helm, William Collins, 2019
This was my green read of the year. Engagingly written and certainly not lacking in intellectual confidence, it sets out very clearly why the countryside needs rescuing and how to do it. There’s much to argue with – my copy is full of marginal scribbles – but the central case seems to me to be overwhelmingly correct. In particular, it is refreshing to read an argument from the polluter pays principle that really means it: if polluters had to pay for the harm they do, the world would be a much better place.
The case for the Green New Deal by Ann Pettifor, Verso Books, 2019
This lost salience on election day. Extremely radical and predicated on a new international economic order, it is unlikely to provide a blueprint for the new government. However, the Green New Deal, in various versions, is now an international concept and the new government could certainly borrow some of its thinking.
The fifth risk by Michael Lewis, Allen Lane, 2018
Finally, this book by Michael Lewis consists of 200 pages of jaw dropping stories about how the Trump administration has ignored or undermined the US agencies that keep its citizens safe. Whether the work concerns climate change, nuclear safety, weather reporting or a host of other areas, it is viewed as suspect because the state is suspect. It gives an insight into what could happen if our anti-state ideologues around the ultra-liberal think tanks ever got close to real power.