Good books

Some things I’ve read and I think everyone else should, too. The beginnings of an eco-libertarian reading list, I guess.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs

Death and Life coverThe visionary urban thinker lays out a philosophy of urban space unmatched to this day. Although Jacobs is generally seen as a figure of the left (she and her family came to Canada from the U.S. so her teenage sons wouldn’t be drafted, and she generally stood against a very corporate idea of “progress”), I see her view of city life as fundamentally conservative.

In Jacobs’ view, government-sponsored urban-renewal megaprojects were bad ideas, overly strict zoning destroyed the potential for lively neighbourhoods, and “slums” were usually inhabited by working poor people slowly bettering themselves. The result of most government attempts to improve urban life has been colossal wastes of money and cities that are much worse off than they’d naturally have been. Expressways, for instance, almost always built with public money and frequently requiring expropriations of private property, have screwed us up for decades, possibly irretrievably.

Jacobs’ other books — especially The Nature of Economies and Systems of Survival — are also important to eco-libertarianism, but if you were only to read one, Death and Life should be it.

Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart

Cradle to Cradle coverMore a design manifesto than a policy book, it nevertheless offers two useful takeaways.

First, even most stuff we habitually put in blue boxes wasn’t designed with recycling in mind and the whole process would be a lot cheaper and greener if it were.

Second, as a consumer, try to avoid buying things that mix biological nutrients (paper, natural fibres) with technical ones (metals, petroleum-based sealants). Separately, the two kinds are relatively easy to recover, reuse or recycle, but when they’re combined (in a drinking box, for instance, or a wool carpet with a plasticky protective coating), the resulting products can usually only be junked when we’re done with them.

The book itself is an example of this way of thinking, printed on a paperlike plastic that is, the authors boast, extremely resistant to water and grime and designed to be readily recycled if and when the time comes.

WorldChanging, edited by Alex Steffen

Worldchanging coverA sourcebook of ideas and profiles and stories based on things that have appeared in the Worldchanging blog. It covers a lot of ground far beyond environmentalism and its not deliberately political, but I love it for its focus on small-scale solutions that involve giving people the tools and training and opportunity to help themselves, from microcredit to how to design a backyard full of native local plants to stoves that change people’s lives in Darfur.

Not something you’d read cover-to-cover, but if you need some inspiration or some reassurance that people really are working on the world’s problems and managing to fix some of them, this is a great book to have by your bedside. Brilliant photographs, too.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan

The Omnivore’s Dilemma coverA vivid account of the many, many compromises involved in producing any food you might eat that you haven’t grown organically on your own land. Pollan lays out the grotesque environmental impact of factory farming by following the river of corn from one U.S. farm through processing and a beef feedlot to a sack of fast food (turns out pretty much everything you get in a typical happy meal is mostly corn on some level).

Then, in the more interesting part of the book, he tries to make sense of organic food, from the factory-like practices needed to produce it on a grand scale to the moral problem of transporting it thousands of miles from congenial growing regions to the homes of the people who will eat it. Trying to eat well and be good is a lot harder than you might think.

The Rebel Sell, Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath

The Rebel Sell cover Potter and Heath write about “positional goods,” which are essentially things you buy so you can be seen displaying them and feel superior doing so. For some people, that means buying a Hummer to appear powerful and conspicuously wealthy; for others, a Smart Car to appear overtly environmentally conscious (a Mini Cooper, if you’ve ever priced one, will help you appear both environmentally conscious andconspicuously wealthy). The writers focus on rebellion — how that iconic Che headshot is selling millions of Third-World T-shirts to faux rebels in big cities, for instance — but the same applies to conspicuous environmentalism.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being seen to be green, or being green because it’s cool among the people you hang out with, but there is a problem when there’s a disconnect between the statement and the reality.

The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler

Long Emergency coverKunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere is an updating of Jane Jacobs that’s a classic in itself, decrying junky architecture and looking at lousy urban planning from the perspective of a country that’s been living with it for 40 years. The Long Emergency is an extension of this thinking, examining what Kunstler thinks will happen to America, and the West generally, as our sources of inexpensive oil dry up.

Kunstler’s writing is engaging and his examples are vivid, but I find him alarmist — he’s actually writing about what would happen if the cheap oil all disappeared at once, rather than being oh-so-gradually choked off, at a pace that would give us time to adjust. He also dismisses more or less out of hand the force of human ingenuity and adaptability.

Despite the flaws I see in it, this one’s worth reading as a reminder that even if we argue about what the effects will be, cheap oil definitely won’t be with us forever. However bad it might be, if we don’t prepare and start making adjustments as soon as is practical, the pain will be much worse than it has to be.

What else belongs on this list?

4 responses to “Good books

  1. David,

    Am shocked that you don’t have The World is Flat up there. A fascinating look at how the net is changing the way we do practically everything. Highly recommend it. Can drag it back to Canada for you if you want.

  2. For Ecological Economics:

    What about Steady State Economics (by Herman Daly) and For the Common Good (by Daly and John Cobb Jnr). There is also an introductory book, Ecological Economics – Principles and Applications – by Herman Daly and Josh Farley, for newcomers to economics.

    On the Libertarian side, my all-time favourite is the Constitution of Liberty by the late Friederich A. von Hayek, a significantly better book than Capitalism and Freedom by the late Milton Friedman.

    Mike Barkusky

  3. Three books which I would strongly recommend on the forthcoming (and increasingly present) energy crisis are:

    The End of Oil (Paul Roberts)
    Twilight in the Desert (Matt Simmons)
    Half Gone (Jeremy Leggett).

    If you would like a historical background to or better understanding of the IPCC negotiations, then try seeking out Leggett’s ‘The Carbon War’ as well.

  4. As an Eco-Libertarian, it’s somwhat of a crime not to include Elizabeth Brubaker’s “Property Rights in the Defence of Nature”

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