Reading Sustainability

A few years ago S&S published a reading list of books that would provide a good introduction to the way we think about sustainability. Since then volumes have been added to the literature on sustainability.  So we’re taking the chance now to update that list with some of the more notable titles published since we put together our first list (and some older ones we missed the last time!).  All of the recommendations come from S&S board members and graduate fellows.  We hope you enjoy!

This Changes Everything: Naomi Klein’s new book taking capitalism to task for causing, and exacerbating, the climate crisis.  Very critical of capitalism but hopeful for the role that social movements have in generating solutions to climate change.

The Conservationist: Fiction from a Nobel laureate about a farmer in South Africa whose life is quickly spiraling out of control.  It’s a moving reminder that, in the wake of climate change, not even our land will remain reliably the same.

Thinking Fast and Slow: Another contribution from a Nobel laureate (this time in economics) that examines how our cognitive biases influence the decisions we make.  A great examination of the limits of the ‘rational economic actor.’

Doctored: An Insider’s look at the healthcare system and the challenges it faces.  Based on the experience of an attending cardiologist it exposes some of the unseen, and unsavory ways that doctor’s perverse incentives drive healthcare decisions.

Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing: A progressive polemic against the economics orthodoxy on valuation of environment, health, and other generally hard-to-value-but-clearly-valuable things in life.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea: Perhaps not a standard member of sustainability reading lists this is an illustration of life in North Korea told through the lives of six or so different people (all of whom eventually defected, it should be said). We include it here because it has something intrinsic to do with economics, development, and governance. Really illuminating.

A Sand County Almanac: A classic (that we’ve discussed on the podcast but somehow forgot on our last list) and a good meditation on the inherent value of “undeveloped” nature in our lives.

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water: Another classic that was left off the last list this is a good exploration of the link between water and development on a grand scale, and the political economy of limited resources in general.  A grounding in the way we think about issues that are only becoming more relevant.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty: This lengthy book is a steady reminder that little can be accomplished without careful attention to the economic and political institutions of nations.

The Social Animal: Another examination of individual decision making and behavior.  In particular, how human’s history as and need to be social creature’s shapes behavior.

Ant Hill: A rare work of fiction from one of the most celebrated biologists since Charles Darwin.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez: Continuing to be contrary, we’ll finish by recommending a non-fiction work by one of America’s greatest writers (and another Nobel laureate) of fiction detailing an ecological survey trip to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming: written by two historians of science who revealed that self-interests of several lobbyists and politicized scientists have hindered public awareness and action with regards to global warming despite overwhelming consensus to the contrary in the scientific community.

Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes: an eye-opening history of how allergic disease, the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States, has shaped American culture and landscape. Gregg Mitman shows that despite advances in biomedicine, the burden of allergies will loom large in the future, lest we revamp our engagement with the environment.

Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan: a powerful chronicle of industrialization and toxic pollution in the Japanese archipelago, as poison from mines, factory sites and chemically overworked rice paddies permeated into porous human bodies and wrought human catastrophes.

Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed AmericaAn American epic of science, politics, race, honor, high society, and the Mississippi River, Rising Tide tells the riveting and nearly forgotten story of the greatest natural disaster this country has ever known — the Mississippi flood of 1927. The river inundated the homes of nearly one million people, helped elect Huey Long governor and made Herbert Hoover president, drove hundreds of thousands of blacks north, and transformed American society and politics forever.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness: Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler lay out the policy implications for “choice architecture,” or how choices can be positioned intentionally to promote a “better” choice over alternative choices – though such “improvement” of choice architecture could be construed as paternalistic.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End: Inspired in part by the difficult decisions surrounding his father’s treatment for and eventual death from brain cancer, Atul Gawande explores the current limitations of end-of-life care and proposes ideas for how medicine can make the process of dying more humane.

These eighteen books include some that are often associated with sustainability and a number that are not typically included on lists of this nature.  Each of them has helped shape the thinking of at least one of us here at S&S though.  We hope you’ll find them equally interesting and provoking.


Image Credit: Kevin Eng via Wikimedia Commons


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