Reading Diary: Five books on the environment

I read these five books over about the last year or so and they all represent something I really look for in books on complex subjects -- for the most part, they concentrate on things individual people can actually do to make a difference. In this case, a difference in the future of the planet.

Whether it's where you live, what you eat, what you buy or how you get around, the choice is ours. Each of us, me and you, can make choices that, in the aggregate, can make a difference.

Mark Bittman's Food Matters and Betty Fussell's Raising Steaks are at least as much about food and food culture as about the environment. But at their core, they're both really environmentally engaged works -- about how our food choices affect the environment, especially our globalized, meat-obsessed culture. Both are very thought-provoking and will definitely make you think about how you eat. Bittman's book certainly did in our family.

Jeff Rubin's Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller may seem more like a book on economics rather than the environment. But really it's about how our obsession with oil is central to the future of our collective global society. His core concern is how the inevitably rising cost of oil as we reach and pass peak oil is going to transform our society.

Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff and David Owen's Green Metropolis are probably most explicitly about the environment of the bunch under review here. Leonard's is about our obsession with stuff and the economic, environmental and social toll that obsession takes on us. From e-waste to stretched global supply chains to inhumane labour conditions in the developing world, it's all there. Leonard makes a passionate and convincing case for consuming less and being more mindful about the source of what we do buy.

David Owen's Green Metropolis was probably my favourite of the books here. It's certainly the one that's made me the most insufferable. His thesis is basically very simple. Manhattan is the most environmentally friendly community on the planet. And that's because of population density. Where you have density you also have incredible efficiency. The more we can get people out of their cars and into public transportation or, even better, walking or cycling, the better our collective future will be. And forget all those hybrids and mini smart cars, those just make sprawl cheaper. It's all about reducing the miles driven, not the miles per gallon. Or kilometres and litres, for us Canadians.

The subtle aspects of these books (stealth environmentalists?) can be valuable in getting the message across. You think you're reading about where to find the best steaks but you're also reading about the environmental impact of the meat industry.

Now, I don't completely agree with every word in every book and I'm sure experts in the particular areas that each represent might have significant problems with some of their points, but for me the overall message of considering these books together does add a lot to the experience and certainly gave me an awful lot of food for thought.

I'd certainly recommend all of these books for anyone who wants to engage with environmental issues, particularly the Owen, Leonard and Rubin books. Those three, taken as a trilogy of sorts, form a powerful course on sustainability. All three certainly fit in any public library with perhaps only the Bittman not really fitting in an academic setting. Middle school or high school audiences could also benefit from all of them, perhaps with young people being the best audience for these kinds of ideas about the future.

Owen, David. Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability. New York: Riverhead, 2010. 368pp. ISBN-13: 978-1594484841

Leonard, Annie. The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health-and a Vision for Change. New York: Free Press, 2010. 352pp. ISBN-13: 978-1439125663

Rubin, Jeff. Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization. New York: Random House, 2009. 304pp. ISBN-13: 978-1400068500

Fussell, Betty. Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef. New York: Mariner, 2009. 416pp. ISBN-13: 978-0547247694

Bittman, Mark. Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More Than 75 Recipes. New York: Simon & Shuster, 2009. 326pp. ISBN-13: 978-1416575658


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