Books? You remember them. Anyway here is a growing list of books I (and others) have encountered along the way, charting the environmental movement, from its start in works like Thoreau’s Walden continuing through Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Whole Earth Catalog series of the 70s into the philosophical works of David Abram, and current texts by the likes of 350’s Bill McKibben. Some are even library books. Views expressed by authors and reviewers are not necessarily those of the site’s owner. Wanna contribute? Speak to the boss.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate – Naomi Klein
It did. I’d always regarded myself as somewhat conscientised in terms of climate change – I’m that irritating bloke who rides a bike and only eats veggies and have been that way most of my life – but on reading this book, I realised that I had actually been turning away from the reality of climate change. It was easy to do my bit while averting my eyes from the real crisis unfolding. But when I read this I found that no longer possible. Klein pulls it all together here – you will see how she draws on her earlier work, like No Logo which examined globalisation, the corporatisation of the state and commercialisation of private space – in this all-encompassing review of the drivers of climate change. Every aspect of modern life as determined by runaway capitalism, from the deregulation of the financial environment to the gig economy and the outsourcing of production to the developing world, from energy production to transport, food systems, and race and gender relations is described as both symptom and cause of a globalised world hurtling towards climate collapse. It’s not all bad news though, and Klein is at pains to offer hope, amongst other things describing the inevitable overlap between indigenous peoples’ and environmental rights, and the small glimmers of hope in small victories such alliances have achieved.
I’ve not successfully convinced many people to read this. Perhaps they see the look in my eyes, both fervid and terrified, or perhaps they just turn away because reading this book puts the ball firmly in your own court.
The Dream of the Earth – Thomas Berry
Self-described ‘New Cosmologist’ or ‘eco-theologian’ Thomas Berry published this groundbeaking work in 1988, outlining an intellectual and ethical framework for human communities on planet earth. Berry proposes that the new scientific description of the planet and her inhabitants should be adopted as a kind of new mythology to guide the human project. The scientific view he alludes to arose in early 20th century particle physics, shattering the Newtonian/Cartesian model of discreet subjects and objects, proposing one where subject and object interpenetrate in a dynamic interconnected whole. This work is both profoundly moving and beautifully written. Humans, Berry suggests, are the earth evolved to be aware of itself. There’s a wonderful opportunity right there!
In the introduction, Brian Swimme describes the book’s essays as ‘ … like the invention of the eye to see the earth. They are the remodelling of the ear with which to hear the earth.’ For a period in the mid-90s, if not literally at least figuratively, I carried this book around everywhere.
The Practice of the Wild – Gary Snyder
Former Beat poet and logger turned Buddhist practitioner and ‘defender of the wild’ Gary Snyder writes with force and beauty on the integration of nature and culture. The book, published in 1990, is still held as a seminal text on wilderness. The nine essays were borne from working with ‘people from the outback of Alaska to downtown Manhattan and Tokyo on questions of ecology, endangered species, original societies, East Asian religions, and environmental strategies.’ Observation, philosophy and storytelling are his tools. The wild, he says, ‘often dismissed as savage and chaotic by “civilised” thinkers, is actually impartially, relentlessly, and beautifully formal and free.’ In his essay entitled ‘Tawny Grammar’ Snyder tries and fails to widen the circle of what comprises a text, proposing that languages are like species, that, for instance, poetry is the ‘lion because poetry eats and intensifies natural speech’. It makes some kind of sense, maybe not THAT kind of sense. Also, if you’re into that kind of thing – and you probably should be – he includes a secular grace.
Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature is Thriving in the Age of Extinction – Chris D Thomas
In this slightly heretic book, renowned biologist Chris D Thomas suggests that climate change, while a disaster in many ways, is not only a disaster. He argues that when humans occupy land sensitively, often the immediate plant and animal diversity increases rather than drops. In addition, using his own and others’ research, he details how as the planet’s climate shifts, new ecological niches open up, presenting existing species with new opportunities. He describes this moment as a driver of evolution and speculates that it too may ultimately result in greater diversity. He also notes the many very successful species on our planet, and that their success is a result of an ability to adapt, positing that in a new climate regime many of these and others will continue to thrive as they adapt or perhaps move to higher altitudes or closer to the poles where conditions more closely approximate those of their original homes. He questions the notion of ‘invasive species’, describing how such designation is often made for convenience sake: given a long enough timeline, it becomes increasingly difficult to ascribe native status to most anything. In addition, many endangered species – the Monterey pine for example – are only endangered in their ‘original’ homes but in fact thrive in other places. The example above, in fact, thrives in South Africa where it is forested and has also found a small foothold in the wild.
If you can ignore the feint whiff of ‘climate denier’, the book is both compelling and hopeful in parts, but I still find Thomas a little soft on humans, both in our role as the cause of climate change and in our responsibility to address it. The story of nature may well be a story of change, but I don’t think this should absolve us of our responsibilities. Or perhaps he’s just being provocative …
Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm – Isabella Tree
Reviewed by Janine Stephen
There are over 30 words for mud in the old Sussex dialect, says Isabella Tree, and many murky consistencies – slurry, gubber, pug and smeery – can be found on Knepp Estate, a place likely blessed with more turtle doves per acre than anywhere else in England. It was not always so. A brutal, yet unprofitable, dairy and crop farming regime had long ruled on Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell’s inherited land, no matter the tonnes of fertiliser or technological advances thrown at it. It was when they gave it up and initiated an unconventional restoration project that beleaguered creatures started to turn up in numbers, from nightingales to slow-worms and dung beetles. For all that its owners live in a castle and have been able to cultivate connections amongst Europe’s conservation establishment, Wilding is a down-to-earth volume. An unexpected bestseller, its strengths are eloquent depth of research and documented change over a relatively short period of time. This success is achieved in part through something all can do: let go. Wilding argues for ‘self-willed ecological processes’, or allowing nature to take back control. The restoration process is accelerated through the ‘release’ of large mammals such as rooting Tamworth pigs and longhorn cattle, plus the orchestrated return of wetlands. Tree is convincing on many ideas, from shifting baseline syndrome (how generations forget the richness of biodiversity that was once normal) to the need for interlocking, messy natural systems (species need the scrubby, in-between zones at various life cycle stages; conserving static zones that conform to false memories of what nature “should look like” is counterproductive). She’s fascinating on the British mania for controlled natural spaces and bureaucracy. There is no sense of hectoring or shaming: just delight in how even rewilding the soil under our feet could “be a crucial weapon against rising levels of CO2”. And the uncomplicated joy of Knepp’s soaring species lists is infectious.
Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world – David Abram
This was the book that filled the space left by the Thomas Berry’s Dream of the Earth when I stopped thinking about this sort of thing for some years. Abram, who calls himself a cultural ecologist and situates his work in the lineage of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, has an extraordinary gift for language, and he uses it to great effect in his critique of that very language. This book posits that since the evolution of written langauge, particularly phonetic alphabets like the Roman, humans have been beguiled by the written word as they have turned away from the natural world. The results, he claims, are nothing short of disastrous. Abram argues very eloquently for a re-establishment of that enchantment with the natural world, born of a close observation and the nurturing of a reciprocal relationship with this ‘ambiguous’ nature. He proposes the animal body as the chief instrument of our knowing, rather than the intellect. I can’t argue for him, you have to read it yourself. It’s a treat. Bonus: Abram is a sleight-of-hand magician too.
It’s a common misreading of his work that Abram regrets the invention of written language, phonetic alphabets in particular. The truth is rather that he is fully aware, perhaps in awe, of written language’s ability to conjure up images, feelings and ideas with only a few black marks on a page. Writing, he holds, is a very powerful magic, and it is one he employs to great effect.
Becoming Animal: an earthly cosmology – David Abram
In this collection of essays, Abram essentially puts into practice what he has theorised about in the earlier book. The result is a series of self-contained chapters which describe in beautiful, sensual detail the nature of things like shadow and birdsong. It is not merely descriptive, although acutely perceptive in that way, but what he really gets at is our ‘reciprocal’ participation in that process of perception, and by implication, the equal participation by what it is we perceive in that encounter. In one chapter he describes an experiment where he stands facing the horizon at sunrise and tracks the movement of his shadow from where it moves towards him as the sun gets up, as it is drawn under and absorbed into him as the sun passes overhead, and how it once more joins the darkness at the horizon as the sun drops in the west. Don’t worry! He does take a lunch break and this too is related in mouthwatering detail. There’s even a chapter on shapeshifting, and I won’t say any more than to say I thought differently about such things afterwards. Abram’s philosophy is not only rooted in the west, and we read here of his encounters with traditional healers and shamen in places as exotic as Nepal and Bali, as well as extraordinary encounters with non-humans in wild places.
‘This is a book about becoming a two-legged animal, entirely a part of the animate world whose life swells within and unfolds all around us. It seeks a new way of speaking, one that enacts our interbeing with the earth rather than blinding us to it. A language that stirs a new humility in relation to other earthborn beings, whether spiders or obsidian outcrops or spruce limbs bent low by the clumped snow. A style of speech that opens our senses to the sensuous in all its multiform strangeness’ writes Abram himself.
Falter: has the human game begun to play itself out? – Bill McKibben
In unsparing detail and at unimaginable scale, McKibben’s description of the changes wrought on our planet by humans opens the book. The familiar takedown of Trump’s America and arch-villians the Koch brothers follows. Steven Pinker’s spin on life in the 21st century Enlightenment Now is a regular touchstone for McKibben, reflecting his somewhat dimmer view. The game, he suggests, is beginning to play itself out. Having described in mortifying detail the amount of leverage wielded by just a few people and the fossil fuel industry over the planet, McKibben changes his focus to big tech and the amount of leverage held again by just a few people who seem hellbent on a tech-heavy, contactless future where a genetically-enhanced overclass lives a longer, better life. So, not only is the game playing itself out, but it may not be human for much longer. Inherent to being human, suggests the author, is the making of meaning and fostering of relationship, both of which are annulled by this would-be future. But, he is, McKibben insists after that double whammy, hopeful, and he is hopeful because of the invention and advancement of the PV cell and lithium ion battery coupled with humans’ ability for organisation and non-violent protest. Phew!
There is some resignation, even some humour, in the tone of the book, as if McKibben is glad he’s on the homestretch and the baton has been passed. It’s not a baton I take easily.
The Next Whole Earth Catalog – edited by Stewart Brand
The Whole Earth Catalog described itself as ‘access to tools’, and, in a sense, it was Google before Google. Beginning in the 60s, Stanford-educated countercultural figure Stewart Brand began publishing several times a year this exhaustive collection of reviews, essays and, erm, tools. In its pages you could find help growing food, building homes, ‘organising’, or just about anything else connected to surviving in the world, all with a feint whiff of counterculture. My edition, for example, contains a beautiful short essay on the ethics of borrowing tools (If you break something, replace it with something better, it suggests, Are you listening, studiomates?). The story goes that, blitzed on Owsley’s finest, atop a building in San Francisco’s North Beach, Brand found himself acutely aware of the curve of the earth’s surface, and was struck by how the image of our spherical planet suspended in space was both intimate and vulnerable. He campaigned NASA to release such an iconic image, which they eventually did (thanks or no thanks to his petitioning), and astronaut Bill Anders’ 1968 Earthrise from then would always grace the cover of the Catalog. Brand would go on to help establish the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (The WELL) which was essentially the first online community, and publish other iconic works like CoEvolution Quarterly.
Brand has complicated his legacy by his more recent ‘ecopragmatist’ approach, coming out in favour of nuclear energy and GMO’s, but this publication was an important part of the path leading from from Thoreau and Muir, through Rachel Carson to Earth Day in 1970, which is largely held to have birthed the modern environmental movement.
Thanissara is a Buddhist teacher and activist who ordained as a nun under the master Ajahn Chah, spending 12 years in monastic life, and helping to establish the Chithurst and Amaravati monasteries in the UK. After disrobing, she and her husband (a former monk) became frequent teachers at KZN’s Buddhist Retreat Centre and subsequently established the Dharmagiri Insight Meditation Centre outside Underberg. They have since settled in the US. Here Thanissara brings her personal experience of monastic and lay life in the Buddhist tradition, a deep knowledge of this tradition and her knowledge of psychology (she has a Master’s degree in Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy) to bear on the environmental crisis. She identifies a patriarchy in our own wounded psyches, in Buddhism as much as any other religious traditions, and in our relationships with other humans and the planet around us. She argues that a failure to integrate the feminine at each of these levels is what ultimately leads to the degradation of the planet. Her fairly merciless description of the patriarchy in Buddhist practice and tradition is balanced by a re-telling of the Buddha’s life in which he is revealed as a social revolutionary figure. She suggests that within the tradition is a practice deeply engaged with the world, not one centred on a transcendent practice which would have us separate ourselves from our deeply animal nature and radical interdependence with all beings.
While there is a fairly straight line to draw between Eastern wisdom traditions and modern ecology or environmentalism, Thanissara moves this beyond an often lazy reliance on ideas about interdependence and oneness into something much more current and urgent. She is as well-versed in modern identity politics as she is in the history of an ancient tradition, and her voice is at the forefront of protest by faith-based organisations. The title is both a call to arms and an intimation that the time and place for a contemplative, transcendent practice is over.