Thursday, 1 November 2012

The ten most influential . . .

Over the past few months, New Scientist magazine has been conducting a poll of its readers to find the ten most influential popular science books. They published the results a few weeks ago, printing them in rank order of the voting. I'm going to list them here chronologically by date of first publication, which I think is more illuminating - I give the rank ordering in square brackets next to the title:

[9] An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Malthus (1798)
This highly controversial work examined the possibility of humans outstripping natural resources.

[1] On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
Darwin's hugely influential book, which introduced what Richard Dawkins dubbed "arguably the most important idea ever", was selected by more than 90 per cent of voters.

[5] Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
Fifty years on, Carson's exposé of the impact of chemical pesticides continues to have a profound impact.

[6] The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris (1967)
One of the first books to portray humans as the animals that we are, The Naked Ape caused quite a stir when it was first released.

[4] The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)
An account of the discovery of DNA's double helix by one of the Nobel winners behind the breakthrough.

[10] The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski (1973)
The work celebrates human ingenuity, from the early use of tools to breakthroughs in modern science.

[3] The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)
Taking evolutionary theory to a new level, Dawkins argued that individual organisms are "survival machines" for the genes that they carry. The book also introduced a now familiar cultural idea: the meme.

[8] Gaia by James Lovelock (1979)
Lovelock's book introduced the Gaia hypothesis - that everything on and of the Earth is an interconnected, evolving and self-regulating system.

[7] Chaos by James Gleick (1987)
This finalist for the Pulitzer prize was the first popular science book to tackle the emerging field of chaos theory, and helped kick-start the subject across many fields.

[2] A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)
Perhaps the world's best known book on cosmology - by its best known physicist - this modern classic tackles the big questions of the universe.

I didn't take part in the poll, but I agree with the 'wisdom of the crowd' that came up with these ten books. The earliest, by Thomas Malthus, is still cited today in concerns about global population. Darwin's theory of evolution changed fundamentally the way we understand ourselves as part of the natural world. Rachel Carson's book, published when I was a teenager, had an impact within the span of my young adulthood . . .  and so on.

This list has set me thinking about what would be the ten most important books about sustainability? I'm thinking of a reading list - ten books you should read if you want to get your head around the wider sustainability agenda.

And in fact, I'd start with one from the New Scientist list - James Lovelock's Gaia. This is key to understanding to deep interdependence of all life on Earth - everything we do affects everything else.

Then I'd go for Jared Diamond's book, Collapse - a historical survey and analysis of societal collapses to which environmental problems contribute.

And then Al Gore's work An Inconvenient Truth - either the book or the film (watch online). It's not perfect, but it sets the issues out clearly and understandably.

Something from the Transition movement - maybe the first Transition movie (In Transition 1.0) or the Transition Handbook.

The list needs something on economics - maybe several somethings.

Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, How Much is Enough? The Love of Money and the Case for the Good Life. The story of how we 'came to be ensnared by the dream of progress without purpose, riches without end.'

Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth (available in paperback or as a free downloadable PDF). Arguing that ‘prosperity – in any meaningful sense of the word – transcends material concerns’, the book summarises the evidence showing that, beyond a certain point, growth does not increase human well-being.

And we need something that goes beyond the technical, that takes human, social, psychological, spiritual concerns into account. Alastair McIntosh's book Hell and High Water: climate change, hope and the human condition.

Only three more to go - the choices are difficult now.

We need to look at solutions as well as analysis of problems, so something on permaculture. The big, technical manual is Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual: a permaculture handbook for Britain and other temperate climates. If you'd prefer to start with something more immediately accessible, try Looby Macnamara’s People and permaculture: caring and designing for ourselves, each other and the planet.  (I'm offering these as alternative ways into permaculture, so I'm counting them as only one choice in my ten!)

Probably good to have a human-scale personal account of living with less - how to start to inhabit the interstices of our present society in a new way. There are several of these around now. Try Mark Boyle's The Moneyless Man: a year of freeconomic living. The book documents his first moneyless year, including many of the practical and philosophical challenges he faced. The author’s proceeds go to the Freeconomy Trust, towards purchasing land for the foundation of the Freeconomy Community.

And this leads me to my tenth recommendation, and it's a novel . . . or to be more precise, it's a trilogy of novels . . . well, I made this rule of ten, so I can choose to stretch it! It's the Science in the Capital trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. The three books are Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). Set in Washington DC in the very near future, the series explores the consequences of climate change, both on a global level and as it affects the main characters. Buddhist philosophy s an approach to adverse change is a recurring theme in the trilogy, as are issues of economic justice for the urban poor in our affluent societies.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this Pam. At Sheffield Central Meeting we have been having a series of meetings to watch and discuss the DVD of your Swarthmore Lecture, and to develop some proposals for how we can continue to develop our commitment to becoming a low-carbon community. I have written about it on the Sheffield Quakers blog at: