23 December 2005

The Green Skeptic's Best Books of 2005

Friends and acquaintances are always asking me to recommend books, so I thought now would be a good time to make a list of the best books I've read this year and post it here. While not all of these titles were published this year, I read them in 2005 and recommend to you.


The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, Thomas Friedman. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times and this book was a revelation for him. It is an enthusiast's take on globalization, a bit starry eyed at times, but recommended for his assessment of the effects of globalization on everyday life and how we can adapt to such change. If you only read one book from this list: this is the one to read.

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, Jeffrey D. Sachs. Economist Sacks has been on the front lines of major economic change in many developing countries, from Bolivia to the former Soviet Union. Here he offers a prescription for how we can and why we must attack extreme poverty in the 21st Century. He postulates that this is the central issue facing our generation.

Boundaries, Maya Lin. A chronicle of how one artist thinks about her work that will change the way you think about her work. I've been a big fan of hers ever since the early days and have gone out of my way to see her work wherever I can. In this book, designed by the author, Lin proves she is a thoughtful and engaging a writer as she is an artist.

Red Sky in the Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment, James Gustave Speth. Speth is dean of the Yale School of Forestry and co-founder of Natural Resources Defense Council. His analysis of the current environmental situation is dead-on, as is his thinking about where to go from here. Read this as a companion piece to "The Death of Environmentalism," which is still available through The Breakthrough Institute.

Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade, Pietra Rivoli. If you've ever wondered after the origins of your clothing, this book is for you. If you harbor any doubt that the global economy is a fact of life or that we're all irrevocably connected to one another, read this lively, short book to disabuse you of these notions.

The Spice Islands Voyage, Tim Severin. I read this while on a trip through eastern Indonesia and found Severin's grasp of the natural world exactly as I found it. The book is intriguing and engaging. It's the tale of his re-creation of Alfred Lord Wallace's adventure, including the building of a boat similar to Wallace's, and what he found there, both changed and unchanged in over 100 years. Wallace, some of you will recall, simultaneously developed an evolutionary theory that prompted Darwin to complete his work.

Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival, Carl Safina. Safina, a MacArthur and Pew Fellow who runs the Blue Ocean Institute, follows the remarkable flight of the Albatross as it struggles to survive under extreme conditions. Along the way, Safina makes a compelling case for why our oceans need the attention of global conservationists -- and he tells a great story.

The Millennium Development Goals and Conservation: Managing Nature's Wealth for Society's Health, edited by Dilys Rose. This report makes clear, in simple and direct language, the connections between conservation, development, and poverty. A must read for anyone with delusions of siloed grandeur.

The David Suzuki Reader, David Suzuki. A lifetime of writings from this important activist and thinker, whose perspective on global issues, science, and ethics are informed by his deep concern for the world, as well as his training and background as a geneticist.

Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, George Lakoff. Wanna understand why the right and left can't get along? Or why the Red States and Blue States are as polarized as they are? Lakoff provides some answers to these and other nagging questions, as well as a perspective on what can be done about it.

Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows. The controversial book updated to include revised scenarios for unchecked growth on our finite planet. Regardless of your position on natural resource use, it's hard to ignore this book's warnings on climate, water quality and scarcity, oil and forestry -- unless you're an ostrich.

The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, Daniel Yergin. This book is still, over a decade later, the seminal history of the oil business. And a remarkable story it is. Worth reading (or reading again) if you want to understand why this is the most powerful and influential industry on earth.

Nature's Keepers: The Remarkable Story of How The Nature Conservancy Became the Largest Environmental Organization in the World, Bill Birchard. Business writer Birchard looks into TNC's inner workings and history through the stories of some of its remarkable individuals. This is a frank look at how one of the big conservation organization operates, innovates, and manages change. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years.)


Genius Loci, Alison Hawthorne Deming. The third book of poetry by one of our best -- who happens to be a friend and mentor of mine. The title poem is as engaged with the world as contemporary poetry gets. Why this book has slipped off the critical radar is beyond me. A brilliant book by a poet in top form.

Riverfall, Simmons Buntin. First book of poetry by my editor at Terrain, the online Journal of the Natural and Built Environments. Published in the UK, but available through Amazon and others, this is a clear-eyed work of approachable, lyrical poetry. Check out especially his poem written as Darwin writing to his sister.

Various Modes of Departure, by Deborah Fries. A first book of strong, discursive and authoritative poetry ranging in the intersection between lives lived, remembered and forgotten. She writes with an elegant intelligence and grace.

Pyx, Corrine Lee. A first book and National Poetry Series selection discovered by Pattiann Rogers. Lee balances the sacred and profane, and finds the poetic in the everyday without once getting either sentimental or solipsistic. Her inventive music and use of language belies a readability that is encouraging in a world of poetry written for academe.


Snow, Orhan Pamuk. This novel is perhaps the Turkish writer's most accessible in translation. It follows a poet as he faces the challenges of being an exile returning to a country and a culture that is caught been Europe and a hard place. A timely read with Pamuk's recent trials for "defaming Turkey" by speaking out against the atrocities inflicted by the Turks on the Armenians during WWI. He's likely to win the Nobel for Literature one day, hopefully before he's assassinated by a zealot.

The Life of Pi, Yann Martel. I can't remember whether I read this in 2005 or earlier, but I'll recommend it anyway as one of the handful of excellent novels I've read in the past decade or more. Martel explores the interstices of story, truth and faith in a most fascinating way. You won't forget this story, regardless of which version you believe in the end.

The Fifth Book of Peace, Maxine Hong Kingston. A sequel to her delightful novel of 20 years ago, Tripmaster Monkey, which follows the earlier book's main character Wittman Ah Sing on his adventures in the counter-culture world of late-sixties Hawaii. This is the book Kingston was writing at the time of the Berkeley Hills fires that destroyed all of her possessions, including all copies of the novel. She recreates it here and mingles it with a narrative exploration of personal loss, disaster, perseverance and a call for peace in the world.

This list is not all the books I read in 2005, but it's the best. Please feel free to offer suggestions for books I may have missed. (There's a few still on my "to read" list, including Collapse by Jared Diamond and Europe Central by my old pal William Vollmann.) Happy reading!

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