IT WAS TOO MUCH of a challenge for some of our board members and staff to select the title of only one environmental classic that most influenced them, as well as only one contemporary book they would highly recommend. In fact, Marcia Ruby, Alternatives’ long-time production co-ordinator, chose to do something else. Read on to learn about our picks and why they are important to us.
The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics,
Vandana Shiva, 1991.
Shiva’s passionate discussion of India’s “miracle seed” revolution first pushed me to question the role of science and the definition of development. It drew my attention to the intertwined issues of equity and corporate control that underlie so many of the world’s persistent environmental concerns.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan, 2006. Pollan is a storyteller. His book is significant not only because of the information it provides, but perhaps more importantly, because of his incredible ability to engage an unusually large and diverse group of readers without compromising sound research and incisive critique.
It wasn’t until I read Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability (1993) that I really grasped the conflict between an economy based on growth and a planet with finite resources. That changed everything.
Last year, I came across How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (2008) by Hervé Kempf, Le Monde’s environmental editor. He puts forward the notion that the only way to avert ecological crisis is to curb the excess of the world’s economic elite. Controversial? Yes. Possible? Maybe. Necessary? Absolutely.
Along with eloquently capturing the terrifying extent of humankind’s negative impact on our natural environment, Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature (1989) moved me to think about our psychological dependence on “nature.” His final words drive home the point: “The comfort we need is inhuman.”
The lyrical presentation of various cultures’ wonder and respect for their natural surroundings in David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous (1996) added new depth to my perception and experience of the non-human world.
"Big Yellow Taxi", Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon, 1970. It was music that inspired me. Joni’s classic ignited my youthful sense of environmental injustice with her own scathing sentiment, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Years later, I found myself in a community battle to protect 26 houses and a four-block urban forest from destruction. A Kitchener-Waterloo insurance firm wiped out the forest, demolished 14 of the houses, and has had increased convenient parking for nine years now.
“The Revolution Starts Now,” Steve Earle, The Revolution Starts … Now, 2004.
The fearless Texas troubadour produced (in record time) this entire album as a call for action and democracy just prior to former president Bush’s second election. But lyrics from the title song contain sentiments that environmentalists have been promoting for years: “Yeah the revolution starts now / In your own back yard / In your own hometown / So what you doin’ standin’ around? / Just follow your heart / The revolution starts now … .” It has a humble, albeit rocking, delivery. Every stanza is rich with the inclusive inspiration needed to march every living soul into turning the world around. You’ve got to listen to it. It’s my anthem.
Founding editor Professor emeritus, Environmental and Resource Studies,
Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario
Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, Ernst Von Weizsäcker, Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, 1997. Hopeful in the face of constraints, this book is filled with concrete examples of changes that had already been put in place (mostly in Europe) at the time of its publication. It is a little young to be a classic, but it did push me to rethink things even more than Lovins’ Soft Energy Paths (1976) did.
Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster, Peter Victor, 2008. The world is having increasing difficulty maintaining economic growth and will be challenged to continue growing in the face of future limits on energy use. As a result, we need to think about how we can keep society functioning soundly and fairly without rapid economic growth.
Board of directors Professor emerita, Environment and Resource Studies,
University of Waterloo
Toward a Steady-State Economy, Herman E. Daly, ed., 1973. This collection of articles by the likes of Kenneth Boulding, E.F. Schumacher, William Ophuls, John Holdren and other equally notable authors framed “environmental issues” in a way that made clear both their complexity and inextricability. For me, it opened the door to 35 years of productive thinking and questioning.
Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World, Brian Walker and David Salt, 2006. Building on Buzz Holling’s insights about the evolutionary patterns of natural and human systems, a very bright group of international scholars developed new ways of conceptualizing the challenges of complexity and uncertainty. This book is an excellent distillation of the fruits of their work.
Chair, editorial board Professor, Environment and Resource Studies,
University of Waterloo
Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell, 1938.
The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Karl Polanyi, 1944. Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: The Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, Thomas Berger, 1977.
Picking one environmental classic is too hard, especially when “environment” depends mostly on our behaviour. These old ones are about honesty, sociability and ties to the land – still good places to start.
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