You’re here because you’re keen to learn about sustainability and are seeking to add some environmental books to your reading list (or add them to your home library!). This curated list features some of the most important and influential books on the topic of climate change, environment and sustainability.
From climate science and the devastating impacts of global warming through to new design systems and economic thinking, these are the books that have defined the modern environmental movement. We hope they help you understand the realities the planet faces and inspires you to take action to solve some of our most pressing environmental problems. Enjoy!
This pivotal environmental classic by Rachel Carson published in 1962, birthed the modern environmental movement as we know. Carson was the first to bring to the public spotlight the harm that synthetic pesticides and chemicals caused animal species and the environment. Remember, this was at a time when chemicals were being used in food production and other industries to reduce production costs and advance the economy.
There was public outcry after her book was released, leading Congress to investigate the issues Carson had raised. While she faced heavy criticism and opposition from those with vested interests (Big Ag and the chemical industry namely), Congress found in favour, banning the use of DDT and moving forward to create the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Silent Spring is recommended reading for all environmentalists. With millions of copies sold worldwide, this is an environmental book that deserves a spot in any environmental library. It’s a challenging read with chemistry thrown in, but worth the effort.
In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail and Succeed (2005) Pulitzer Prize winning science writer Jared Diamond examines a range of past societies to identify why they either collapsed or continued to thrive. Case studies include: Inuit of Greenland, the Maya, the indigenous people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and many more.
Is there anything that contemporary societies can learn from the disastrous lessons of previous societies? Diamond argues there is much to learn. With the recipe of climate change, overpopulation and political upheaval threatening modern civilisation, perhaps the only way to move forward is to look back. The book prompts people to ask how businesses and our economies impact the environment, and what can be done to solve these issues.
In This Changes Everything, award-winning journalist Naomi Klein and author of the international bestseller The Shock Doctrine, explores the climate crisis and how rejecting neoliberalism and its associated political systems to a more evolved system that considers people and planet may be the only way to save the human species.
In this in-depth book, Klein reveals the extent of climate denialism, how those with vested interests have conspired to block climate policies and environmental programs and how humans will have to embrace radical change within themselves and the systems that govern society if it stands a chance of surviving and thriving. She provides plenty of examples where communities are already making the necessary shifts, the only question is – is yours willing to do the same?
In their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart offers a more sustainable approach to design and manufacture. Rather than seeing production as linear, they encourage an integrated design system based on natural sciences where by circularity and closed loop systems are employed and the concept of waste is eliminated.
The books put forward a design framework characterised by three principles derived from nature: that “everything is a resource for something else” so there is no such thing as waste; that it is manufactured using renewable energy and that it celebrates diversity and creativity.
In others words, instead of cradle to grave, the authors challenge readers to consider cradle to cradle, how to keep materials in circulation for longer and reduce overall impact and waste.
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer explores the moral aspects of consuming animals. Investigating its roots and how it became a part of cultural and personal identity—from Christmas hams and Thanksgiving turkeys right through to Sunday roasts and eating meat pies at footy matches– Foer prompts readers to question their role in the factory farming system and whether a more human food system can be developed.
In a Big Think interview Foer says:
“The United Nations has said that animal agriculture is one of the top two or three causes of every significant environmental problem on the planet. The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Disease Control has said that we need to stop raising animals in the way that we are because it’s making antibiotics less effective… It doesn’t take being an animal lover. I myself am not an animal lover. I don’t particularly care for chickens to be honest, or cows or pigs. But there are some things that are sort of below the line of very basic human decency and the farm system that we have is.”
This classic book by prominent environmentalist Bill McKibben (who went on to co-found the environmental activist group 350.org) has been dubbed the first book about global warming written for a general audience. Published in 1989, and republished with a new introduction and appendix of facts and figures, McKibben’s argument that the survival of the planet rests on a radical shift in the way humans relate to the natural environment is still just as relevant today.
McKibben addresses environmental issues as the greenhouse effect, acid rain, and the depletion of the ozone layer and offers two ways forward: “The Defiant Reflex” (the power of technology to help rectify human-induced environmental problems) or “The Humble Approach” (living modestly and avoiding our need to control the environment). Surely employing both solutions is better?
7. 2040: A Handbook for the Regeneration based on the documentary 2040 by Damon Gameau
The 2040: A Handbook for the Regeneration based on the documentary 2040 book is based on the uplifting documentary film 2040 by award-winning director Damon Gameau. It is a comprehensive lifestyle guide that runs through many sustainability concepts and green products, from transformative economics, regenerative agriculture, green technology, clean energy, circular design, low waste living and much more. This is highly recommended reading for anyone needing positive news and some climate hope.
8. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist by Kate Raworth
Sustainability cannot be achieved without transforming the economic system. Historically, economics have set the tone in shaping public policy based on 19th and 20th century economic models that don’t factor in the health and wellbeing of society, environmental limitations and the planet’s resources. It can be argued that the silliest idea humans have come up with is chasing infinite growth on a finite planet.
In her book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century, economist Kate Raworth seeks to transform the economic system by showing how a universally beneficial economic system can be created to serve society not a concentrated few, which is more collaborative rather than competitive and takes into account societal and environmental considerations. The aim is to restructure the economy based on values so that it meets the needs of people and societies without exhausting the planet’s resources. Her economic model can be best explained with a doughnut diagram where humanity, the environment and the economy are all interdependent. This book is a Financial Times and Sunday Times Best Seller and Forbes Book of the Year and comes highly recommended by many progressive economists and sustainability educators.
9. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells
Written by New York magazine columnist and deputy editor David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming travels through time to provide readers with a preview of the disastrous consequences of global warming if humans don’t take action: food shortages, refugee emergencies, flash floods, worsening droughts and hotter, more frequent fires.
The book avoids the Pollyanna view and instead covers climate catastrophes in the hope that by painting this nightmarish picture, readers will mobilised to make radical changes in their own lives and push for radical economic and political system changes. If you suffer from climate anxiety, avoid this book.
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Title image of 2040 book.