Ten Views of Sustainability: A Reading List

With my latest book, The Shape of Green, coming out this summer, a colleague asked me to compile a list of other sustainability-related books I would recommend. Since the usual suspects—Silent Spring, The Ecology of Commerce, Biomimicry, and Cradle to Cradle, etc.—are so well known, there’s no need to repeat them here. Instead, I’ll focus on a more personal list of favorites that have influenced my thinking on sustainability. Below are ten compelling reads that, in their own ways, expand the sustainability dialogue.

The Wooing of Earth, René Dubos (1980). The man who coined the phrase, “Think globally, act locally,” explains that it is not the ethics of environmentalism but, rather, the “visceral and spiritual” power of nature that moves people to action. Ecology and humanism must unite.

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, E. O. Wilson (1999). The famed father of sociobiology declares that sustainability is impossible without breaking down the barriers between the arts and sciences: “Until that fundamental divide is closed or at least reconciled in some congenial manner, the relation between man and the living world will remain problematic.”

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, David Abram (1997). We tend to speak of “the environment” in the singular, as if it’s one homogeneous space, rather than an endless variety of peaks and plains, hills and haddocks. Abram meditates beautifully on how the values of indigenous peoples grew out of the specificity of place—how each worldview evolved from a particular view of the world.

The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson (1965). Where Silent Spring was her call to arms, The Sense of Wonder is Carson’s reverie on the joys of immersing oneself in nature. Presaging The Last Child in the Woods by forty years, she writes that such immersion is essential for early education—and for lifelong wisdom.

The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, Fritjof Capra (1997). An eloquent introduction to “deep ecology”: “The more we study the major problems of our time, the more we come to realize that they cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and interdependent.”

Human Nature: A Blueprint for Managing the Earth—By People, For People, James Trefil (2005). A physicist defies conventional wisdom about the environment and celebrates new scientific breakthroughs that promise to solve the challenge of sustainability—by putting people first.

The World Without Us, Alan Weisman (2007). A powerful thought experiment in what would happen if humanity suddenly disappeared. Step by step, Weisman shows how quickly nature would fill the void, which forces us to ask what sustainability is intended to protect—all of the earth, or just us?

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson (2010). Comparing innovation to evolution, Johnson shows how some environments—coral reefs, cities, the World Wide Web—are naturally more conducive to creativity than others are.

Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace, Vandana Shiva (2006). Shiva’s insightful criticism of economic globalization demonstrates how its practices could be antithetical to sustainability.

One World: The Ethics of Globalization, Peter Singer (2004). In the age of global warming, Singer argues, managing natural resources must transcend political boundaries and nation states.

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