I know a lot of people are holiday shopping right now, and as much as I'm for keeping our budgets down, I know some of us are going to be buying. For those of you who want to pass on a useful message, or just have something to curl up with on those long winter evenings, I'm including my own personal list of best books on peak oil, climate change, economic connections and other issues. It is a long list, so it will come in two parts. The first one (the depressing but useful part ;-)) is books that help us understand the present situation. Next will be books about what we can do about it. This list is necessarily limited (only so much space on the blog) but I think includes a good introductions and more in-depth materials for a lot of areas.
The Best Books About Nearly Everything
This Part I: Books to Help Us Understand Where We Are Now
Peak Oil, Gas, Coal and Related Concerns
The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. By Richard Heinberg, New Society, Canada: 2003. The first book on peak oil, it remains among the very best.
Beyond Oil:The View From Hubbert’s Peak. By Kenneth Deffeyes, Hill and Wang, New York: 2005. This book is quite technical, but also very readable, even funny at times. Its most valuable contribution is the explanation of the mathematics of the Hubbert curve in terms anyone with high school algebra can understand. Useful for those who are not content to take anyone’s word for it.
Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future. By Jeff Goodell, Houghton Mifflin, Boston:2006. As yet there are no books on coal that take into account the information we now have about coal’s peak. But Goodell’s book is an excellent expose of the coal industry, and also the difficulties entailed in relying on coal.
The Long Emergency:Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. By James Howard Kunstler, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York:2005. Kunstler is a brilliant writer, funny, perceptive and furious. His book was the very first to bring together climate change, peak oil and the coming financial crisis, and he has proved enormously prescient.
High Noon for Natural Gas: The New Energy Crisis. By Julian Darley, Chelsea Green, Vermont:2004. This is a surprisingly interesting book that details the difficulties to come in our gas supply.
Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines. By Richard Heinberg, New Society Publishers, Canada: 2007. The fourth of Heinberg’s books in as many years, this one brings together the threads of peak oil with climate change and other crises of depletion to give a more nuanced picture than past books.
Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change By Elizabeth Kolbert, Bloomsbury, New York: 2006. Absolutely fascinating and readable, this book’s only weakness is the lyrical, quiet style of the author, which sometimes seems to understate the terrible news she is giving us. Still, a beautiful, troubling book well worth reading.
Hell and High Water and What We Should Do By Joseph Romm, William Morrow, New York:2007. Romm, former assistant secretary of the Department of Energy offers a bleak assessment of what America can expect facing climate change, and a host of moderately useful policy proposals. This book perhaps most clearly lays out the effects of climate change on the USA, and thus, has the potential power to move people who don’ t believe that climate change applies to them.
Heat: How To Stop the Planet from Burning by George Monbiot. Allen Lane, London: 2007. Monbiot, a journalist with the London Guardian has, I think the clearest view of the problem of any writer. His solutions are often troubling, in part because he buys the old public-private distinction, but he tries to do what no other climate writer dares to – to find a real means of reducing emissions fairly. A superb book.
With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change This respected scientific journalist has done a clear eyed and coherent examination of the reasons that scientists are so much more afraid of climate change than the average person. Reading this book is essential to understanding the issues fully. Highly recommended.
Agriculture and our Food System
Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. Ed. Andrew Kimbrell, Island Press, Washington:2002. There are two versions of this book, one is all essays, the other, much more expensive includes photos. While the essays are enormously valuable, make sure you see a copy of the whole book, complete with images. There are some things that must be seen to be understood. An enormously valuable book.
The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. By Peter Singer and Jim Mason. Rodale Press: 2006. Singer is a Professor of Philosophy, and perhaps most famous as an animal rights activist. While I don’t agree with every one of his arguments, he’s applied the tools of ethics and reason to making good food choices, and in the meantime, reveals a great deal about the evils of our present food system. Don’t let his background in philosophy scare you – Singer and Mason are fun to read and fascinating.
World Hunger: Twelve Myths by Lappe, Collins, Rosset and Esparza. Grove Press, New York:1998. Most of us probably believe in our hearts that we understand hunger. Most of us are wrong. A deeply useful book.
Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply By Vandana Shiva, South End Press, Cambridge:2000. Shiva speaks in the voice of the Global South, describing the horrors of the industrialized food system for those who are its chief victims. Enormously important.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan, Penguin Press, New York:2006. This brilliant and enormously influential book exposes the fast food industry and also the limits of industrial organic agriculture. While Pollan never quite goes far enough to advocate for a real, sustainable agriculture, the book is hugely important, well researched and fun to read to boot.
Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. By Marion Nestle, University of California Press, Berkeley:2002. Nestle’s great revelation is the simple truth – the food industry has enormous power over dietary recommendations, nutrition and health in the US, and we are not being told the truth about our food.
Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. By Peter Menzel and Faith D’Alusio, Material World Books and Ten Speed Press: 2006. This is another book that has to be seen to be understood. The authors photographed families around the world with a week’s worth of food in front of them. The impact of the stories here cannot be over-estimated. Highly recommended.
Economics, Consumption, Poverty
The Overspent American:Why We Want What We Don’t Need. By Juliet Schor, Harper Perennial, New York:1998. Schor puts our present problem of overconsumption in a historical and political context. Very enlightening.
The No-Nonsense Guide to World Poverty by Jeremy Seabrook. New Internationalist, Oxford UK: 2003. British Journalist Seabrook does a better job than anyone I’ve ever seen at explaining the root causes of poverty in the world.
Planet of Slums. By Mike Davis Verso, London:2006. One of the most disturbing books you’ll ever read, this Davis describes what mass urbanization has gotten us all over the world. Unless we change things, this is a vision of the world’s future.
Material World:A Global Family Portrait. By Peter Menzel. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco:1994. Like Hungry Planet by the same author, this book shows, rather than tells us the truth about consumption and inequity, as people from all over the world stand in front of the sum total of their possessions. See also the wonderfully detailed Women in the Material World.
Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America by Barbara Ehrenreich. Henry Holt, New York: 2001. Ehrenreich’s insights into the lives of America’s working poor give us a vision of what most of us face.
Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation by Jonathan Kozol. Crown Publishers, New York: 1995. The best book I know of about what poverty in America really looks like.
Politics and History
The Shock Doctrine By Naomi Klein. Henry Holt, New York:2007. Naomi Klein’s masterpiece describes the destruction of our democracy and the growth of disaster capitalism. An absolute must-read.
Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic by Chalmers Johnson. Henry Holt, New York: 2006. Johnson’s analysis of the economic and military empire we’ve created is well worth reading, as are the other two books in his trilogy.
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. Houghton Mifflin, Boston:2006. Understanding what it was like when we were poor, and in the midst of an environmental disaster before may be essential to understand the future. Very engaging and readable.
The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure by Juliet B. Schor. Basic Books, New York: 1992. One of the most important things we can learn from this is what a high price we’ve paid in leisure time in order to have industrial society.
A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove by Laura Schenone. WW Norton, New York:2003. One of the best books every written about women’s history in America, Schenone ties life in the domestic economy to women’s social history. Very enlightening, enormously readable, good recipes.
Ancient Futures:Learning from Ladakh by Helena Norberg-Hodge. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco:1991. If we are to grasp the limits of industrial society, we must see it from the outside. Norberg-Hodge, who lived in Ladakh has western culture broke over its shores has a remarkably clear-eyed view. Recommended.
Population and Limits
The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update by Meadows Randers and Meadows. Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont: 2004. An important book. What you think you know about this book probably isn’t true.
One With Ninevah: Politics, Consumption and the Human Future by Paul Ehrlich. Island Press, Washington: 2005. Ehrlich may be one of the “old men” but he is also wise and engaging. Worth a read.
Taking Population Out of the Equation by T. Patricia Hynes. Institute Publishing, 1993. Hynes’s critique is essential to understanding the limits of our population discussion.
EcoFeminism By Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies. Zed Books, London: 1993. Don’t let the title scare you – this is an important book, that explores the way ecology and women are tied together.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. Viking, New York: 2005. We need to know what happened when we did this before. Diamond tells us.
New Studies in Archaeology: The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1988. Tainter’s best insight is his description of the ways that complexity limits our choices – fascinating.
Next - hopeful books to fix the problems!