• Keep Cool
  • Posts
  • Climate books I enjoyed this year

Climate books I enjoyed this year

KEEPING COOL WITH

Hi folks,

Like me, you may already feel behind on holiday gifting. Or, like me, you like to expand the stack of books on your bedside table that you (really do!) intend to read. Or, also like me, you are simply a voracious reader in all seasons.

Folks often also ask me what I’m reading. What’s informing my work. Today’s newsletter offers a list of climate books I enjoyed this year. Some are perhaps less ‘orthodox’ than the Ministry of the Future-type recommendations you’ve heard before. I also did you the favor of reading many other climate books that I didn’t enjoy, which I omitted. You’re welcome.

SPONSORED BY ROSY SOIL

If you're looking for climate-friendly gifts this holiday season, here's one that hits on multiple levels. Rosy Soil is the perfect gift for green thumbs in your life, whether they have a flourishing outdoor garden or deck out their apartment with plants.

I like Rosy Soil for three reasons:

  1. Carbon-negative: Rosy integrates biochar (one of the leading carbon removal pathways), making it carbon-negative. Rosy is an excellent, additive source of demand for biochar; you're helping catalyze carbon removal with every purchase.

  2. Peat-free: Rosy has no peat in it. Peat is a surface layer of waterlogged organic matter that accumulates in wetlands. Globally, peatlands are one of the largest carbon sinks. Unfortunately, they’re are often mined to add peat to soil or potting mix. Say no to peat in your potting mix!

  3. The homies: Rosy's CEO, Chad Massura, is a good friend of ours.

I stocked up on more Rosy Soil already. Get yours here:

CLIMATE READING LIST

Whether you’re deeply engaged in climate work or are more in the climate-conscious and climate-curious bucket, all of the below should serve you with some new insights, new perspectives, mental models of the world, and an abundant dose of inspiration.

A bit of climate curmudgeonry

OK, framing Wendell Berry as a curmudgeon may not be entirely fair. His writing has offered me some of the most trenchant arguments in favor of why climate work hinges on individuals, not just massive corporates and policy.

Wendell writes eloquently about how the new climate economy (my words) demands a comprehensive reevaluation of the ways we consume, produce, and live. Every mundane detail of how we live and engage in the world requires attention and intention if we want to avoid the world-ending fire (his words).

Alongside those more philosophical topics, specifics he illuminated for me range from the drastic loss of global topsoil in recent decades to an innate distrust of ‘movements’ I long harbored but couldn’t articulate.

Here’s one quote from a collection of his essay, The World-Ending Fire, that I used in an August newsletter. Read the rest of the collection if it speaks to you!

“It is often proposed, nowadays, that if we would only get rid of religion and other leftovers from our primitive past and become enlightened by scientific rationalism, we could invent new values and ethics that are needed to preserve the natural world. The proposal is perfectly reasonable, and perfectly doubtful. It supposes that we could empirically know and rationally understand everything involved, which is exactly the supposition that has underwritten our transgressions against the natural world in the first place.”

Wendell Berry

Systems thinking and complexity

Where we started with Wendell Berry, who writes a lot about complexity (specifically, the dangers of abstracting it away). Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows is a more direct piece of non-fiction that highlights how to navigate the complexity of systems even just a smidge better.

While not inherently about climate, insights from Meadows's book are readily applicable to any and all climate work. If I were to distill one of the primary arguments, it's that a) it's difficult to appreciate all the factors that influence complex systems, and b) it's worthwhile to try.

The book also offers all kinds of beautiful nuggets that tie directly into climate work and climate tech topics we've covered, such as the below passage, which appeared in an April newsletter of mine:

“When you understand the power of system self-organization, you begin to understand why biologists worship biodiversity even more than economists worship technology. The wildly varied stock of DNA, evolved and accumulated over billions of years, is the source of evolutionary potential, just as science libraries and labs and universities where scientists are trained are the source of technological potential. Allowing species to go extinct is a systems crime, just as randomly eliminating all copies of particular science journals or particular kinds of scientists would be.”

Donella Meadows

Who will speak for the trees?

OK. The Overstory by Richard Powers may not re-radicalize you (or radicalize you for the first time). But that’s precisely what Colleen Metelitsa of the DER Task Force said it did to her when she and I discussed how we felt after reading the book on the DER Task Force podcast

An old growth forest – the virtue of which ‘The Overstory’ extolls, in Mt. Rainier National Park (Shutterstock)

The Overstory is a meandering piece of fiction that explores a variety of characters’ relationships with trees. If I put on my literary critic hat, I would say the book felt often overwrought and scattered. But it makes a compelling argument for the need to protect and “pray” (whatever that means to you) to trees, forests, and natural systems in general. It underscores that technological progress is worth little if it doesn’t build on the incredible ‘machines’ that evolution has painstakingly designed over millions of years.

For a taste of the novel, here’s a quote I used in another August newsletter:

“These people need dreams of technological breakthrough. Some new way to pulp poplar into paper while burning slightly fewer hydrocarbons. Some genetically altered cash crop that will build better houses and lift the world’s poor from misery. The home repair they want is just a slightly less wasteful demolition. She could tell them about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enrichens the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, and scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it’s the stuff of poems. If forests were patentable, she’d get an ovation.”

Richard Powers

Is anything truly ‘wild’ anymore?

Does true ‘wildness’ exist anywhere in the world anymore? That’s a potent question that Emma Marris explores in her book, Wild Souls.

Ranging from investigations around the ethics of managing and killing invasive species in favor of ‘native’ species to philosophical discussions around whether any ecosystem on Earth is still 100% ‘wild’ at this point, I think this is an essential book for anyone interested in the burgeoning topic of biodiversity that we engaged with readily in this newsletter this year. When we talk about protecting biodiversity, what does that really mean? What is a ‘native’ species? One that’s inhabited an ecosystem for 5,000 years? 5 million? 500?

‘Wild Souls’ plunges us into the ethics and philosophy of what beings are truly ‘wild’ in a world that is influenced endlessly by humans (Shutterstock)

Here’s an excerpt I enjoyed from the book to give you an idea of what Marris has on offer:

“To make good environmental decisions, we must stop focusing on trying to remove or undo human influence, on turning back time or freezing the non-human world in amber. We must instead acknowledge the extent to which we have influenced our current world and take some responsibility for its future trajectory. Given that we actively use at least half the Earth’s land for our own ends and actively manage many of our protected areas… I suggest that our global garden is and should be ‘rambunctious’ because we must always leave room for the autonomy of non-humans. We should not seek to carefully control every plant and animal on the planet. We couldn’t even if we wanted to.”

Emma Marris

What even is ‘The Grid’?

I recommended this book around this time last year, but it stands the test of time and I consistently meet other climate practitioners who feel the same way I do about it. 

When people used to say “the grid,” I used to draw a blank. Admittedly, I often pretended to know what they were talking about. After all, we see the grid daily; we’re surrounded by above-the-ground poles and wires that move electrons around and enable everything electricity-driven in our lives. 

When I needed a primer on what “the grid” really is all about, I picked up The Grid by Gretchen Bakke. It does an excellent job weaving in history, challenges in the present day, and a vision for the necessary future evolution of the grid for the energy transition. I recommend it if you’ve ever read one of the myriad articles about the importance of building more transmission or mused about the cost of upgrading the distribution grid as AI and EVs supercharge load growth and wanted to go deeper.

Here’s a glimpse into the types of stuff you can learn by reading this book:

“...On August 14, 2003, eighteen months after Davis-Besse was shut down for repair, the largest blackout in our nation’s history, and the third-largest ever in the world, swept across the eastern half of the United States and parts of Canada, blacking out eight states and 50 million people for two days. So thorough and so vast was the cascading blackout that it shows as a visible dip on America’s GDP for that year. The blackout, which covered 93,000 square miles, accounted for $6B of lost business revenue. If ever it was in doubt, the 2003 blackout proved that at its core America’s economy is inexorably, indubitably electric.”

Gretchen Bakke

Coal in your stocking?

Know thy enemy. Even as emissions are down year over year in countries like the U.S., global coal production, consumption, and seaborne volumes are all still at all-time highs in 2023.

What an open pit coal mine looks like. (Shutterstock)

In many ways, getting a better understanding of the history of coal across the 19th and 20th centuries helps inform how we think about navigating the energy transition in the 21st century. 

If you're looking to bone up on this type of historical perspective, Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese is perfect for you. You'll encounter nuggets like this one, in which an American theologian extolls the virtues of America's coal reserves:  

...scattered by the hand of the Creator with very judicious care, as precious seed, buried long... destined to spring up at last, & bring forth a glorious harvest."

Barbara Freese

Hundreds of years ago, countries with access to coal reserves had a massive advantage when industrializing. Coal is a much more energy-dense fuel than wood – which people relied on for energy generation on previously – and it's perfect for generating the heat for various industrial processes, like steelmaking. 

Said differently, not only does a historical perspective on coal help explain how we got to 422 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere in the first place, but (at least for me) it unlocked a better understanding of why some countries are highly developed and why others are not. From that perspective, it's easier to understand why countries like China are still building coal mines and power plants almost daily. 

What’s my role in all this?

Here’s a final honorable mention, as this was a more recent read of mine. Inconspicuous Consumption by Tatianna Schlossberg is a fun, sobering, approachable read that addresses a question I often don’t, namely how individual people like you and me can think about and address our own climate impact. Where Schlossberg is at her best is when she’s pulling on threads – like methane-belching cashmere goats in Mongolia – that other climate analysts and authors miss.

The Mongolian cashmere goat; an ‘inconspicuous’ agent of climate change (Shutterstock)

“…All of these problems are connected… the lives we live in one place… are not separate and distinct from the lives in another. These are problems we all share. The dust from desertification from cashmere goat grazing and climate change and the coal pollution from factories making clothing from that cashmere blow over to the US in a karmic windstorm. It makes people sick in Los Angeles and Beijing; it makes a nomad settle in the city; it makes the world warmer. It’s all part of the same problem, and it’s not just cashmere. It’s everything we wear and how we use it.”

Tatianna Schlossberg

Pick this one up if you want to read about global warming drivers you otherwise wouldn’t and if you’re ready to take on some more personal responsibility for addressing climate change. Not that I’d ever be the one to tell you it’s your job to do so. But hey, it can be empowering.

Happy reading.

– Nick