Some environmental books

I gave a couple of environmental talks in Texas over the weekend, which have since been published on the web. One on sustainability in general. The other on climate change, science and politics.

To prepare for them and before and since, I read a bunch of environmental books, that I’ll discuss below.


I gave a couple of environmental talks in Texas over the weekend, which have since been published on the web. One on sustainability in general. The other on climate change, science and politics.

To prepare for them and before and since, I read a bunch of environmental books, that I’ll discuss below.

Derrick Jensen, ‘Endgame’. Recommend this very highly. I came away with great respect for Jensen. It was just refreshing. I don’t agree with everything – I suppose I hope that he’s wrong about civilization being inherently unsustainable more than knowing that he is – but I agree with most, and I just found him to be honest, ethical, and serious throughout.

Chris Turner, ‘Geography of Hope’. Interesting reporting on alternative technologies in different parts of the world. Chris is a little breathless, I think too enthusiastic (though he acknowledges that his enthusiasm is strategic, because what’s needed is some breathless enthusiasm) and his framework is ‘Natural Capitalism’ by Hawken and Lovins (which I’ll also mention below), a framework I disagree with for various reasons. He also does an unfair and unhelpful swipe at Cuba, suggesting that their organic urban agriculture miracle occurred because it’s a dictatorship (as opposed to because their social process enabled them to accomplish things that capitalist societies cannot). But I like his style and I can recommend the book.

Paul Hawken and Amory & Hunter Lovins, ‘Natural Capitalism’. The idea here is that thinking only of financial and manufacturing capital and not of social and natural capital is a mistake. ‘Natural capitalism’ would value natural capital as capital and treat it that way, not as income to be spent. Interesting technology again. But my several problems are as follows. First, if the entire infrastructure created for the automobile is unsustainable, and I think it is, then even vastly more efficient cars are still an error, compared to more collective solutions such as rail and changes to urban form. Second, trying to put monetary value on what are called ‘ecosystem services’ invites tradeoffs for things that cannot be traded off. Jensen actually makes this point well – bringing something into the money economy almost certainly guarantees its doom. The authors of ‘Natural Capitalism’ don’t do too much such valuation, but the framework invites such exercises. Third, the pun of ‘natural capitalism’ implies there’s something natural about capitalism, and capitalism usually implies not just markets, but private ownership of the means of production and hierarchical class society. I can’t accept such things as natural.

David Suzuki and Holly Dressel, ‘Good News for a Change’. Good green technology stuff again.

James Howard Kunstler, ‘The Long Emergency’. Interesting work about how America’s suburban and industrial infrastructure depends on oil, how oil will run out before too long, and all the problems that will result. Kunstler says repeatedly that he isn’t prescribing, but predicting the future. But I disagree with this attitude towards the future. The one thing about the future that we like is that it is at least partly up for decision. Kunstler would probably answer that it is part of delusional fantasies to think we can decide on the future, which is true of some parts of the future but not of others. Kunstler also combines what I think is interesting technological and economic analysis with very conventional and I think off-base geopolitical and domestic political analysis. He doesn’t understand the motivations or the politics or the history of the people the US is fighting and killing in massive numbers in West Asia, nor very important elements of immigration in the US, nor very important racial and economic problems in the US. His analysis of these matters seems to rely on stereotypes, and I’d hoped for better from a contrarian. It’s almost enough to make me not want to recommend the book – but several parts of several chapters (especially chapters 1, 2, and 7) should be read regardless of the weaknesses of the other chapters. I’m prepared to elaborate on this, because separating where he’s right from where he’s wrong is, I think, important and worthwhile.

McDonough and Braungart, ‘Cradle to Cradle’. I really enjoyed this. The idea is that we redesign our industrial system to have no waste. Everything is designed to be re-used or re-incorporated into other products, indefinitely. If they are right and what they say can be done, then perhaps civilization isn’t inherently unsustainable. They are pretty agnostic about what kind of social system would accompany this technological revolution (they don’t seem to endorse capitalism, natural or otherwise, for example) but I really like their technology and their approach to it. Several of the others I’ve read (Jensen and Kunstler, for example) would probably say that ‘Cradle to Cradle’ can’t work.

I think there are others but I can’t remember them. There are also several more on my list that I’ll be reading too.

Author: Justin Podur

Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.