The social isolation response to the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetimes. Perhaps not since the economic depression of the 1930s and World War II has the human family found itself so singularly engaged with shared global issues.
In any case, for fellow shut-in environmentalists facing weeks of relative isolation, I have compiled an ecology reading list. There are over a million ecology books in print, and sorting through them might be a challenge. I’ve included some of the essential classics in the field. In my estimation, every ecologist and/or environmentalist would benefit by being aware of the information in these books.
The first book is no book
Spend some time in the wildness. The best way to learn about nature is to feel, observe, smell, taste, hear and contemplate the habitats, processes, and patterns of wild systems and other wild beings.
We live inside a biosphere. Not just “on” Earth, but in Earth’s living biophysical systems, embedded parts of a living web. Any effort to understand the relationship between human enterprise and nature will benefit from a deep, direct experience and appreciation for our naturalness and our interdependence with other beings, communities, and systems of nature.
A reciprocity with nature cannot start with intellectualizations, but with the experience of being a naturally evolved life form in a co-evolving ecosystem, fed by a solar energy stream, made manifest with material transformation, nutrients, and biological processes. This deep experience means paying attention, observing, and feeling our ecosystem as it pays attention to us, observes, and feels us.
Even in a city, you can find opportunities to be a student of wild nature. Take walks. Sit by the water. Observe. Watch other creatures. Experience how entities grow and how communities form. Sense the experience of being a part of a living system.
An essential dozen ecology books
1. Silent Spring – Rachel Carson
This book launched the modern environmental movement. Carson documented the environmental and human health impact of pesticides, reframed the idea of scientific progress, and changed the course of history. After Silent Spring, chemical companies no longer enjoyed a free pass to introduce toxins into the environment. “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature,” Carson wrote. “The more clearly we focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
2. Limits to Growth – Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, J. Randers, W. Behrens,
This book clearly showed that human numbers, consumption, and economy cannot grow forever. The researchers tracked industrialisation, population, food, energy, material resources, and pollution through 1970, projected out to 2100, and predicted that the early stages of global collapse would appear about now, early in the 21st century. Our current crises and many studies since confirm: They nailed it.
3. Steady State Economics – Herman Daly
Daly, a World Bank senior economist, examines the economic restructuring necessary to live on a finite planet. He corrects the errors of classic economics by showing that a human economy is a subsystem embedded in a finite, fragile ecosystem, maintained by extracting limited resources and exporting waste. A steady state economy accounts for the limits of both resources and waste. Here is Daly’s summary essay in Solutions Journal: “From a Failed Growth Economy to a Steady-State Economy.”
4. The Violence of the Green Revolution – Vandana Shiva
The physicist, ecologist, and food sovereignty advocate, exposes the mistakes of industrial agriculture and champions localized, community-scale food security. Chemical and fossil-fuel based agriculture has poisoned and depleted soils, led to social injustice and violence, and caused ecological scarcity. Shiva exposes the links between ecological destruction and poverty.
5. Mind and Nature – Gregory Bateson
My all-time favorite ecology book, playfully but rigorously exploring complexity, co-evolution, a living systems language, and knowledge itself. “The major problems in the world,” writes Bateson, “are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.”
In Bateson’s world, all mental divisions of nature are arbitrary. We only witness relationships, not things in themselves. Bateson links our mental process with evolutionary process and urges ecologists to see those patterns that connect the apparent parts of the whole.
6. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World – Andrea Wulf
A scientific adventure story that follows Prussian naturalist Humboldt (1769-1859) as he falls in love with the natural world, travels across oceans, and through the Western Hemisphere. Humbolt breaks away from conventional European science to discover a vision of nature as a magical, interconnected system. Humbolt’s work has influenced scientists and ecologists for two centuries, and Wulf’s inspired prose feels like a magical sea voyage itself.
7. Overshoot – William Catton
Humanity’s overshoot of Earth’s capacity is fundamental to all other ecological crises: global heating, biodiversity collapse, toxins, soil loss, pandemics, starvation, and even violent conflict. Catton examines this root cause and shows that we cannot solve our ecological challenges without addressing overshoot.