A Book is a Weapon: Your Summer Sustainability Reading List

By: Kristin Edwards

Even though the school year may be over, the need to defend our planet and its peoples is not. While most student organizing has likely ceased until the fall, you can remain involved in the movement through the summer months in a variety of ways. One of those is to continue to educate yourself about the sustainability movement and its history, the theoretical foundations of its goals, and issues currently facing the world today. For this purpose, presented here is a list of ten books you will hopefully find interesting, enlightening, and filled with tools and knowledge for you to take forward into your next year of activism.

I recommend beginning your reading with this excellent TED article, which seeks to answer the question: “Why do protest camps set up libraries?” It explores the idea of a protest library as a symbol of community and free exchange of thought as well as representing the morals of a movement.

If any of these titles pique your interest, don’t forget to explore sustainable and often inexpensive reading options, such as e-books, used books, and library books!

Broad Reading – Ideas and Global Issues

1. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher
1973, Reprint by HarperCollins Publishers

This 1973 classic by economist E. F. Schumacher has been read for years as a guide to creating a sustainable economy that supports the needs of communities over those of corporations. The most recent reprint contains a foreword by Bill McKibben, which examines Schumacher’s ideas in the context of the growing threat of global climate change. Schumacher’s arguments are accessible to both students of economics and newcomers to the field, and his message of ending excessive consumption remains relevant to all who are concerned about the future of our planet.

2. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by Michael Braungart and William McDonough
2002, North Point Press

Michael Braungart and William McDonough, a chemist and an architect respectively, present their vision for a paradigm shift in how we manage resource use and waste production. Traditionally, resources are turned into products, which are either disposed of or partially recycled into “inferior” products after their use. Braungart and McDonough propose a “cradle to cradle” method of production, in which products are designed to be recycled and reused in such a way as to eventually close the production loop. They begin this mission with their own book, which is produced from minimal-impact materials that can be recycled – and it’s waterproof to boot.

3. Our Backyard: A Quest for Environmental Justice, Edited by Gerald R. Visgilio and Diana M. Whitelaw
2003, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

This collection of essays, edited by Gerald R. Visgilio and Diana M. Whitelaw, comes from a wide variety of environmental activists and scholars, and attempts to encompass the issues facing the environmental movement now as well as ones we will face in the future. The book focuses most on those issues facing poor and minority communities and the political and social aspects of their struggle for environmental justice. Some of the other topics addressed include the future of environmental research and what may happen to the sustainability movement in a highly conservative administration, something that is more relevant today than when it was written.

4. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway
2010, Bloomsbury Press

It’s comforting to assume that every scientist is working towards the pure goals of discovery and improving human life, but as Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway show, all types of people are susceptible to the lures of power and money. Merchants of Doubt tells the story of a group of high-ranked scientists that systematically misled the public on issues of global warming, carcinogens, and effects of pollution. Oreskes and Conway show definitively that the science on these issues is settled, the dissenters being influenced by industry and politics and not by sound inquiry or data analysis. While exposing one group of deceivers, this book is also a reminder to think critically about the information we are presented, even when it comes from scientists, and to look deeper into the motivations of those who seek to profit from doubt.

5. Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans by Captain Charles Moore with Cassandra Phillips
2011, Avery, a member of the Penguin Group

This first-person account from a sailing captain details the discovery of what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre of plastic debris found in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Captain Charles Moore writes in a loose style, skipping through time as he shares the story of his findings and his delve into the world of ocean activism. Moore addresses not only the surface level of the issue of plastic in our oceans, but also the science behind the negative effects of plastics on humans and on marine life, on the macro scale and the physiological one. This book is ultimately a call to action, to change the way we use and think about plastic, as well as the way we interact with our oceans.

California – History and Struggle at Home

6. Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream by Char Miller
2016, Trinity University Press

Char Miller, an environmental historian, details the history of California’s development and land-management decisions, touching on how policies came to be in place as well as the effects they are having on California’s ecosystems. By using the complex and sometimes bewildering history of our state, Miller makes the argument for considering the past as a tool for making future sustainability decisions and avoiding the sometimes disastrous mistakes of our predecessors. Miller’s book journeys through the state, addressing each region and ecosystem in turn and providing an understanding not only of the physical reality of each place, but also how it go to be that way.

7. Defending Giants: The Redwood Wars and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics by Darren Frederick Speece
2017, University of Washington Press

Speece’s detailed and moving history of the Redwood Wars on the North Coast of California also serves as a history of the broader environmental movement, in which escalating tensions between locals, activists, and corporations brought environmental politics into the Oval Office and onto the national stage. The Redwood Wars were fought not only by environmental activists, but also by locals who saw their economy changing as multinational corporations moved into their areas and stripped them of jobs and resources. Speece’s account is not only a testimony to the passion of activists and the grandeur of nature, but also an example of how the ability to find overlapping interests can be the key to success for sustainability campaigns.

Somewhere in America – Stories of Other Communities

8. Polluted Promises: Environmental Racism and the Search for Justice in a Southern Town by Melissa Checker
2005, New York University Press

This book by Melissa Checker tells the story of Hyde Park in Augusta, Georgia, whose African-American community stood up to the polluting industries surrounding their neighborhood and called out their situation for what it was: environmental racism. People in this neighborhood had suffered from debilitating medical conditions for years, caused by the pollution from chemical dumping that suffused their lives, but were excluded from any say in how their community was developed and what industries were allowed to set up shop there. Checker’s account comes from over a year of experience volunteering and organizing with the Hyde Park community, and her writing is filled with affection for her subjects and a clear understanding of their struggle against injustice.

9. A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout by Carl Safina
2011, Crown Publishers

Carl Safina is well-known as a powerful and touching environmental writer, and his account of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster is no different. Safina travelled to the Gulf Coast and conducted countless interviews for this book, which addresses not only the carelessness of the oil industry that allowed this to happen, but the lack of preparedness by state and federal governments to deal with an environmental disaster of this scale. Written not long after the incident, Safina nevertheless includes an assessment of the myriad negative effects from the spill and is able to give a retrospective on both his and the media’s initial responses to the event.

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