We are constantly being bombarded with dire warnings about the environmental and climate emergency. Act now, we are told, or face an unprecedented global catastrophe. But while the solutions proposed – solar panels, heat pumps, eating less meat – are no doubt necessary, they are for the most part unimaginative and uninspiring – and isolated from a wider system of beliefs whereby they might acquire genuine meaning.
The following five books offer an alternative perspective. In contrast to the simplistic idea that all we need to do is implement a set of technological and lifestyle changes, they offer a new way of understanding and relating to nature.
Gaia by James Lovelock (1979)
In his 1979 book, James Lovelock offers an entirely new understanding of the earth as not just a planet on which life has evolved, but a self-regulating system capable of correcting any significant fluctuations that tend towards making it uninhabitable, such as increases or decreases in global temperatures or ocean salinity.
Lovelock shows, for example, how the environment has contributed to driving down atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to compensate for a steadily warming sun. This has kept global temperatures in a habitable range.
Ultimately though, the importance of Gaia lies not just in its bold scientific claims, but in the way it opens up the possibility of bringing together science and spirituality, the true and the meaningful. What does being a part of Gaia mean for us?
Should Trees Have Standing? by Christopher D. Stone (1972)
No law, Christopher Stone claims, can be created until we begin to challenge its non-existence. And just as it was once “unthinkable” for corporations to be given the same rights as people, the same is true today of living beings and ecosystems. Nature itself has no rights, only the people that own it or use it. Against this, Stone argues that certain natural entities – trees, forests, rivers – should be treated as people and granted “rights”.
This radical idea is increasingly being implemented. In 2008 and 2009, Ecuador and Bolivia became the first countries in the world to recognise nature as a legal person in their constitutions. And in 2017, New Zealand recognised the legal personhood of the Whanganui River.
Developing these insights in the 2010 edition of the book, Stone asks if the climate should also be granted legal standing. He sees this as problematic but not impossible, though it would require a legal system that goes beyond the current nation-state structure.
Biomimicry by Janine Benyus (1997)
Few would deny that technology will play a major role in achieving sustainability. But for the most part, we concentrate on individual technologies – such as electric vehicles or biodegradable packaging – without pausing to rethink technology as a whole. A significant exception to this is Janine Benyus, who argues that sustainability calls for an entirely different approach: innovation inspired by nature, or “biomimicry”.
The book explores the practice of imitating nature to solve human design challenges and offers many case studies showing how biomimicry can apply to almost every field of innovation – from solar energy generation based on natural photosynthesis to cereal farming modelled on the native Kansas prairie.
But perhaps the deepest significance of the book is the way it calls on us to view nature not just as something we learn about, but also as something we learn from. And in that case, we must cease to think of ourselves as the sole possessors of intelligence and knowledge and instead also come to recognise the genius of nature.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)
Like Benyus, Robin Wall Kimmerer thinks nature has a lot to teach us. But whereas Benyus focuses on technological innovation, Kimmerer is interested in broader lessons.
The overarching theme of the book is how to “braid” together indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge, a project that the author, as a citizen of the Potawatomi nation and a professional biologist, has devoted much of her life to.
Kimmerer’s most brilliant example is sweetgrass itself – an aromatic plant used in indigenous medicine and basketry. Whereas Kimmerer’s biologist colleagues presumed that harvesting sweetgrass always harms it, a biology student of hers designed a careful experiment proving something the Potawatomi had long since known: harvesting sweetgrass actually stimulates vigorous growth.
What these plants teach us, then, is that humans are not outside nature, but a part of nature – and with the right approaches we can enable other species to flourish alongside our own.
The Climate of History in a Planetary Age by Dipesh Chakrabarty (2021)
Addressing the meaning of climate change through the lens of history, Dipesh Chakrabarty proposes a fundamental shift from thinking about “global” to “planetary” climate change.
Chakrabarty argues that while the world is busy solving a “global” problem, we forget to ask what the “global” means for us today. The “global”, he explains, is essentially a human-centric idea, intrinsically linked to postwar globalisation and modernisation. The “planet”, by contrast, decentres this human-centric idea, allowing nonhuman perspectives and interests to be taken into account. Most importantly, it raises the possibility of discovering new universal values.
Chakrabarty also emphasises that the acceleration of global warming is tightly linked to the anti-colonialist modernising movements of the mid-20th century, such as Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward. This was an economic and social programme aimed to bring China up to speed with the Western world through intensive industrialisation and technological advancement. Chakrabarty argues that it is only by overcoming our obsession with constant growth and development that we can rise to the challenge of ensuring planetary sustainability.