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The Ecologist's top ten eco summer reads

Claire Baylis

29th July, 2010

Seven top environmentalists recommend their reads for the summer, covering everything from psychological thrillers to steady state economics

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (£18.99, Hamish Hamilton)

Recommended by: Franny Armstrong, 10:10 creator and director of The Age of Stupid

‘By far the most powerful book I've read this year is Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, which is a true story of a few days immediately following Hurricane Katrina, when the protagonist was paddling around New Orleans in his canoe, helping pull out survivors and get supplies to people (and dogs) in need. That is, until the powers-that-be decided he was a terrorist and relocated him to their newly constructed Guantanamo-style camp in the submerged city.

You could argue that it's not primarily an environmental book, but I think these kind of stories, of society breaking down after most-likely-caused-by-climate-change extreme weather events, are going to become the iconic ones of our age. And this is the first classic.'


State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures, a report by the Worldwatch Institute (£14.99 from Earthscan)

Recommended by: Jonathon Porritt, environmentalist and writer

‘I've chosen State of the World 2010 because nobody ever mentions reports like this, and the Worldwatch Institute has been producing these reports for years now and they're incredibly useful and always full of extremely informative case studies. They're very good on mixing up the socio-economic and the environmental, and always give a different take on where the world is, from a genuinely global perspective.

This year's report is about consumerism and moving away from cultures of consumerism to cultures of well-being. It is very inspiring. Despite the power that the advertising and marketing industries command, it reminds us that it is possible to challenge the power of consumerism; there are ways in which one can take on this notion of endless year-on-year increases in per capita consumption. It's also very accessible - not just for specialist sustainability geeks like me!'

Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet by Tim Jackson (£14.99, Earthscan) and any of the Collins birds guides.

Recommended by: Tony Juniper, environmental campaigner and Green Party candidate for Cambridge

‘For anybody who's thinking about serious green transformations, it's the economy that has to change. You can't have endless demand increasing at the same time as natural capacities are diminishing and expect to have any kind of a sustainable society.

Prosperity without Growth is a very accessible book - you don't have to be an economist to read it - and it paints a graphic picture of the scale of the challenge and the clear need for macro-economic change, as well as at other levels.

It's also very positive in offering perspectives on what a different kind of economy could be like and puts quite a lot of the present debate into a different context - the discussions about cutting spending and promoting economic growth as a remedy to recession. It helps you realize just how far the current political discussion is from reality, in terms of what needs to happen.

The key message is that we need a different model, a different way of looking at economics beyond the GDP growth obsession that has become ever more intense during the last 60 years. As well as our principle economic measure, growth in GDP has become our principle social and political measure too.

Instead, it's about looking at the general notion of wellbeing and human happiness - we can start to have that as a benchmark of social performance rather than simply how much stuff we're using up. Some of this is quite well trodden ground, but for people who want to get under the skin of some of this stuff, this book is a good place to start.

Also, if you're going away somewhere, I'd recommend getting the local bird book. Whenever I travel, the first thing that goes in my suitcase is the local bird or plant guide - I use the Collins one for trips around Europe. If you can connect into local nature, that's quite inspiring in itself.'

Trustees for Nature, A Memoir by Dr Ted Smith CBE, (£15.95, Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust)

Recommended by: Stephanie Hilborne OBE, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts

‘This is a great book for anyone who is serious about being part of the new era of nature conservation, in which we restore the UK's landscapes and ecosystems.

It's a personal account of the life of one of the founding fathers of nature conservation and starts where he did: in the depths of rural Lincolnshire in the 1920s. It goes on to offer a unique insight into the period post-WWII when he was pivotal in forming a new local movement, The Wildlife Trusts.

His writing brings to life a time of sometimes shocking adversity. What really stood out for me was the part about the aerial spraying of thousands of hectares of young oak woods in the 1960s. But there are also very uplifting stories about the drive and dogged determination that rescued many treasured wildlife sites, now even more special in the context of the declining wider environment.

I wouldn't say it's a book for the beach or for the half-hearted environmentalist. But for anyone who's going to influence this country's new agenda for nature it's an essential read. If we're going to succeed in the future, we'll need the same combination of passion grounded in reality and of drive mixed with humility that's the core of Ted's book - and the man himself.'

Solar by Ian McEwan (£18.99, Jonathan Cape Ltd)

The Rapture by Liz Jensen (£7.99, Bloomsbury)

The Moneyless Man by Mark Boyle (£10.99, Oneworld Publications)

Recommended by: Andy Atkins, executive director of Friends of the Earth

‘At the moment I'm half way through Ian McEwan's Solar. It's a tale which unpicks the last threads of the chaotic personal life of a renowned physics professor, whilst also weaving in an exploration of solutions to global warming - all interlaced with dark comedy on mankind's biggest challenge, and written with so many twists there's no telling how it's going to end.

I'm heading to Wales for my summer break this year and will be taking a stack of holiday reading to plough through on those miles of unspoilt beaches. In the pile will be a good thriller - The Rapture by Liz Jensen, a fascinating writer who I met at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen last December.

Set in a near future where climate change has already taken a devastating toll, it centres on a disturbed young girl, and the psychologist who's been chosen to treat her terrifying visions of climate apocalypse. But then Dr Fox begins to wonder whether her patient, Bethany, is causing the disasters rather than predicting them - and I'll be burning through the pages to find out.

Exploring climate change through popular fiction allows people to think creatively about the issue and what it means for us as individuals, and for society as a whole. I've noticed more and more novels about climate change on the book stands - evidence of just how much these issues are permeating mainstream consciousness.

To get me back into gear for work and leave me brimming with inspiration I'll be reading The Moneyless Man. It's the real-life story of Mark Boyle who decided to give up money - credit cards, bank account, cash, the lot - and to thrive without it. His story shows the power of a change one man can make, and that we can all make, if we stand up for what we believe is right.'

 

 

Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash by Fred Pearce (£11.99, Eden Project Books) 

Animate Earth: Science, Intuition And Gaia by Stephan Harding (£12.95, Green Books)

Recommended by: Colin Tudge, biologist and writer

‘It's often been said that the trouble with the world is that "they" - as in all these people in other countries - are breeding too fast and that population growth is the cause of all our troubles. What Fred points out - and as the UN now makes very clear - is that although the absolute number is still increasing, the percentage rate of increase is falling off. So by 2050, on present projections, the percentage rate of increase will have fallen to zero, which is the same as saying the numbers should stabilise. And they will stabilise at around nine billion.

So if the projections are right then nine billion is as bad as it's going to get. And that's huge news - the best ecological news anyone's ever had. Now, in terms of feeding people, the official line is that we've got to double our food production by 2050 to keep pace with the rising numbers. But if the present world population is about 6.8billion, why do we need to double?

The other book I'd recommend is Animate Earth by Stephan Harding. Stephan is a good biologist, a good naturalist - he knows of what he speaks. But he recognises, as a lot of biologists don't seem to, that science definitely has its limitations and doesn't exhaustively explain how the world is. He gives probably the best, most detailed account of Jim Lovelock's Gaia theory that you're ever likely to encounter.

It's a different way of looking at the way the universe is and stresses the cooperativeness of nature, which is the antithesis of the neo-Darwinian focus on competition. It's very timely because, for example, the whole economy, the global market is based on the idea of maximum competition - something I've heard defended on the grounds that it's a ‘natural' thing. But we can just as well see the world as a huge cooperative. We each have to fight our own corner but the end result has to be cooperative or the whole thing falls apart.'

Fred Pearce - the Climate FilesThe Climate Files: The Battle for the Truth About Global Warming by Fred Pearce (£11.99, Guardian Books) 

Recommended by: Mark Anslow, editor of the Ecologist

'The so-called 'Climategate' scandal resulting from the leaked University of East Anglia emails may be perhaps the only one of the myriad events that have the '-gate' suffix tacked onto them to be more significant than than its original namesake, Watergate.

After all, while Nixon may have been a bit naughty, the political fallout that followed did not put the lives of thousands and the stability of the planet's climate in peril.

What Fred Pearce has produced in The Climate Files is an absolutely rigorous and thorough dissection of what the hacked emails mean, what they don't mean, and what impact that should have, which nevertheless reads like a page-turning thriller. It's probably about as un-put-down-able as an academic hoo-hah will ever get.

Pearce pulls no punches: when he sees climate scientists acting petulantly or unprofessionally, he says so; when the science is weak he points it out; and when the climate sceptics have a point, he hands it to them.

But his defence of the core science behind climate change - particularly in his brilliant last chapter - is exactly what anyone who has been concerned about the leaked emails should read.'

Claire Baylis is a freelance journalist

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