Over the course of my personal study on the matters of zero waste, environmentalism, and technology, I’ve read books and articles, watched films, and kept up with current events. I’ve read and watched some terrifically powerful stuff over the years – just as I’ve read and watched some crap, too. I’ve decided to look back at what I found to be the most useful stuff and organize it into some tongue-in-cheek semblance of a study course. I’m still learning, though, so keep an eye out for additions.
Introductory reading that focuses on the personal, domestic, and immediate; these are topics more familiar to the acolyte reader, or they are concepts that build an ethical foundation for further questioning and understanding more advanced material.
Introduction – 100
- Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson
This was the book that set me down the path of this whole thing, turning my interest in penny-pinching DIY into a lifestyle. It lacks political or scientific insights, but it’s still a good how-to.
- Plastic: A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel
A solid introduction to the problem of plastic, its uses, its life cycle, and the catastrophic damage its wrought.
- No Impact Man by Colin Beavan
I prefer the book over the film by quite a bit, but if all you’ve got time for is the film, then it’s still worth watching. It’s part how-to, part memoir, and near the end it starts to think a little more along philosophical lines.
- Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good by Heather Menzies
A good introductory text on the subject of land use rights and the history of a concept called “enclosure”, where peoples (usually subsistence farmers) who have no capitalist understanding of land ownership are forced off their land by people who do.
- This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
While this is touted as a deep, invigorating survey of climate change and its political roots, I found this to be more of an introductory book than anything else – so it should be read early. It provides a good foundation for the rest of the material covered.
200: Energy, Biosphere, and Money
With the basics understood, we can move onto more specific issues that have wide-ranging implications for the environment and food systems. Here, we move away from the present and immediate and begin to take a look at history and how where we’ve been informs where we are now.
Energy – 200
- The Energy of Slaves by Andrew Nikiforuk
A fascinating exploration of not just the metaphor of fossil-fuels-as-slaves, but of the very real implications of oil’s displacement of human and animal labor, and what that labor has historically allowed powerful nations to accomplish.
- The Party’s Over by Richard Heinberg
A book from 2005 (published, mind, before the current glut of eco-concern books) that takes the cheap energy concept to task and talks about the ugly, and likely violent, death throes of fossil fuels.
- The Efficiency Trap by Steve Hallett
This books is essentially the Jevons Paradox for the environmentally-conscious. The history and statistics it presents are difficult to accept, but the Paradox almost always holds true, and it’s an important rule to keep in mind when reading anything concerning energy, whether its touted to be sustainable or not.
Biosphere – 210
- FLOW: For Love of Water
A free documentary concerning the issue of water rights.
- Sea the Truth
A free documentary concerning the collapse of fish populations in the world’s oceans.
- A Farm for the Future
A free documentary concerning the impact of fossil fuels on food systems in much of the West, and how to combat its deep instabilities.
- The Great Nutrient Collapse by Helene Bottemiller Evich of Politico
As atmospheric CO2 levels rise, about 95% of the world’s plants respond by producing more sugars and carbohydrates, and become less nutrient. This article hints at the myriad unexpected ways that climate change is damaging the earth in ways catastrophic to sustaining large human populations – and the kinds of hostility researchers face when trying to study these previously unknown dimensions to biosphere collapse.
Money – 220
- Maxed Out
A free documentary concerning the rise of credit and debt in America.
- The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
A classic work of historical fiction. Sinclair gives an important glimpse into the lives of the immigrant workers who powered the industrial revolution in America, and the financial woes they’re beset by. A harrowing story of institutionalized poverty in a wealthy, industrialized nation.
- The Economy Is Like A Circus by Gail Tverberg
Gail talks about the basics of how economies in general, and the American economy in specific, works.
300: Technology, Politics, and a Deeper Look at Energy and Economies
Alongside deeper, messier analyses of modern capitalism, banking, peak oil, and “clean” energy, all of which now merge into a single conglomeration of interrelated issues, we now move to tackle a bigger, riskier concept: industrial technology as a whole.
Energy and Economy – 300
- Elephants in the Room Regarding Energy and the Economy by Gail Tverberg
A presentation given at the New Narratives of Sustainability and Energy talk in Brussels. Gail, a professional actuary, has been studying the peak oil phenomenon for over a decade and gave this presentation about “why we should be concerned about low oil prices”.
- Why Energy-Economy Models Produce Overly Optimistic Indications by Gail Tverberg
Tverberg explains, with academic rigor, how dissipative systems theory applies to both economies and energy production, and how externalities are manufactured to create unrealistically optimistic forecasts.
- Intermittent Renewables Can’t Favorably Transform Grid Electricity by Gail Tverberg
A thorough explanation of why intermittent energy production methods – aka “renewables” – are incompatible with the electrical grid as it currently exists.
- The Ascent of Money
A multi-part documentary some 5 hours long about the origins of modern capitalism, credit, bonds, and how boom and bust cycles are inescapable in a capitalist framework.
Politics – 310
- Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
A long survey of how societies and civilizations have historically suffered collapse, guiding the reader through what we know of their socio-economic, political, and environmental circumstances. He also discusses societies that managed to avoid collapse. The political implications here are tough, but important, to swallow for the modern reader.
- How Civilization Started by John Lanchester of The New Yorker
Lanchester writes about the birth of the nation-state after the development of sedentary agriculture – the cultivation of cereal grains specifically. Stratified, hierarchical societies marked by the presence of a clear division of labor and the ability to wage war are a relatively recent development in human history, and their creation may actually be one of the worst decisions we ever collectively made.
- Ian Welsh on ‘The Role of Character and Ideology in Prosperity’
Ian Welsh is a long-time blogger and political writer whose work has appeared on HuffPost and Truthout, among other places, and has earned millions of views. This link is a compendium of his articles on political ideology, and concepts of character and how they play vital roles in shaping what people in any given society (Western society in particular) think of as right, wrong, just, and what they even think of as being possible.
Technology – 320
- America has become so anti-innovation – it’s economic suicide by Ben Tarnoff of The Guardian
Using the Juicero as an example, Tarnoff more broadly explains the nature of technological innovation in a capitalist society and why the two aren’t actually complementary in practice.
- Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences by Edward Tenner
A compelling survey of post-industrial technological advances that have not only failed to deliver on the promise of innovation, but have at times made the problems they were devised to solve categorically worse. While the author manages to escape his own book without questioning the notion of technological progress, the sheer amount of evidence he provides makes the philosophical implications undeniable for the reader.
- Get your loved ones off Facebook. by Salim Virani
Not gonna lie, I want everyone off Facebook, and I want them to stop giving FB their information. To me, what they’re doing is tantamount to human trafficking, and abetting human trafficking. But this is not quite about that: the author works in the tech and marketing industries, and in this piece he outlines in stark, harrowing detail the ways in which flimsy legal protections such as Terms of Service or Privacy Policies are bent, twisted, and broken, and all the ways in which digital technology compromises the security of every human society on Earth that has adopted its use. A solid lesson in distrust.
- THE FUTURE DOES NOT COMPUTE by Stephen L. Talbot
Published in 1995, Talbot offers a scathing critique of the internet, and accurately predicts many of the dystopian directions government and big business are now designing it to go in. He talks about many of the psychological and emotional drawbacks of using this technology, many of which researchers are only just beginning to wise up to. From the back cover:
The Net is the most powerful invitation to remain asleep we have ever faced. Contrary to the usual view, it dwarfs television in its power to induce passivity, to scatter our minds, to destroy our imaginations, and to make us forget our humanity.
- The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World by Christina Crook
The cover makes this book look like part-memoir, part self-help, but much of it is denser and more deeply philosophical than it appears at first glance. Crook is deeply skeptical of the ever-present glow of screens in our lives, the vying of our attention by social media, advertisers, and all manner of brand-pushers online, and urges the reader to think seriously and critically about what it means to be human – happy, healthy, and as nature designed – in the technological age.
400: Philosophy and the Future
Having familiarized ourselves with where we’ve come from and where we are, we can now take a look at where we’re headed, before returning to the personal, domestic, and immediate. We’ve come full circle – it’s possible now to look at our lives and relationships with different eyes, and begin to ask ourselves the hard questions of what this all means to us, Man the Animal. Previous categories break down and all we’re left with is the philosophical, because at the end of the day, all that matters is the choices available, and the decisions we make regarding them.
Philosophy – 400
- Accelerationism: how a fringe philosophy predicted the future we live in by Andy Beckett
A survey of the history of Accelerationism, once coined by a forgotten sci-fi author, and now providing the hidden philosophical foundations of the likes of Silicon Valley and the New Right.
- Apocalypse by Roy Scranton
Scranton, an Iraqi veteran turned writer talks briefly here about the history of the word “apocalypse”, and what it means to try and make predictions based on incomplete data and flawed human reasoning.
- After Progress: Reason and Religion at the End of the Industrial Age by John Michael Greer
Similar to Dark Age America, After Progress draws broader conclusions about the myth of progress, and what we might do in the face of decline.
- Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth
A powerful read by a powerful writer on his life out in the wildernesses of the world, his years spent in the environmental movement, and his realization that environmentalism is just as hypocritical as any other broken movement, and just how powerless it is to stop the coming catastrophes since it decided that “sustainability” was the end goal. Read an earlier essay on the same themes at Orion Magazine.
The Future – 410
- Tending the Digital Commons: A Small Ethics toward the Future by Alan Jacobs
Jacobs asserts that maintaining the integrity of the digital commons, far away from the institutionalized e-giants of social networking, is the only hope the internet has in providing the next generation of users with good information, good skills, and healthier digital communities.
- Dark Age America by John Michael Greer
Dark Age America is a book that details what the future of America might look like in the next 200 years, basing that on the political, economic, and cultural climate of today, and comparing that with other nations and civilizations throughout history. He comes to some unpleasant conclusions.