Fifty Books To Change The World

2010•01•29 Juliette Jowit The Observer

From an elegy to natural land to a tirade against fast food, a list of the “top” sustainability books is aiming to give a little romance and verve to a category sometimes seen as worthy but dull.

The 50 titles range from warnings of destruction — Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and George Monbiot’s Heat — to a wide variety of suggested solutions. Some look for understanding in history — Jared Diamond’s Collapse — others in philosophy, like EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. But many focus on the capitalist economy, from Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965 to Nicholas Stern’s influential report, The Economics of Climate Change, in 2007.

The improvements put forward range from modelling the economy on nature — Janine M Benyus’s Biomimicry — to using the current economic system to protect the natural world, as in Jonathon Porritt’s Capitalism As If the World Matters.

On the way, The Top 50 Sustainability Books pamphlet, published by the University of Cambridge’s Programme for Sustainability Leadership (CPSL), tracks different numerous trends in thinking, from Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb to John Elkington’s Cannibals With Forks, which argues for a triple bottom-line in business that puts environment and social equality on an equal footing with profit. The growth in concern about climate change is prominent, while Elizabeth C Economy’s focuses on China in The River Runs Black.

In her introduction, CPSL director Polly Courtice says the list – chosen by their predominantly corporate alumni – is intended be “a collection of some of the world’s best analyses of the global social, environmental and ethical challenges we face and the creative solutions needed to tackle them.”

Inevitably, with any attempt to define a “best of” list, there will be criticisms. Most obviously the titles appear to reflect the alumni – dominated by men from rich northern hemisphere countries with just ten women appearing among 61 authors. Also the selected books mostly advocate reforming or changing the current system, to the exclusion of more imaginative offerings, Voltaire’s Candide, for example.

Others might argue the list is too modern, with nothing older than Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac in 1949, and no Thomas Malthus or Charles Darwin or that it is too dry, preferring commission reports to, say, the academic passion of EO Wilson or the Romantic poets.

Tom Burke, the veteran environmentalist, argues there are a number of important books missing, such as the Only One Earth by Barbara Ward and Renee Dubos.

“Others that really mattered are The Global 2000 report, commissioned by President Jimmy Carter in 1977, which makes chilling reading when you realise how much we already understood then,” he said.

“Ivan Illich is missing completely and was better than Schumacher, so is Barry Commoner who really put technology into the equations for the first time. I would also have included the Blueprint for Survival which really kicked off the whole process of thinking about sustainable development. Jonathan Schell’s ‘The Fate of the Earth’, describing the consequences of nuclear war, should also be on the list, not the least because it was written by someone who could write.”

But the Skeptical Environmentalist, the critical book by Bjorn Lomborg should “definitely not” be on the list, said Burke. “It is a confidence trick in which none of what he says stands up to informed examination.”

You can download the full list of Top 50 Sustainability Books here.


This article was originally published on on 27 January 2010.

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Juliette Jowit

Environment EditorThe Observer

Juliette Jowit is the Observer’s environment editor.