The Oil Drum BookCollage - #1 of 3 (Energy, Ecology, Sustainability, Etc.)

A few months ago, we had a 'Quotecollage' of relevant and/or interesting quotes. Each poster could list two. Reader Debbie Cook suggested we do the same idea with books. This post's intent is akin to a 'book-collage' - each poster can list up to 3 books that they have read that they'd recommend for others to learn about the wider boundary issues surrounding energy, resource depletion, sustainability, etc. Basically a reference list for human supply and demand on a full planet.

This will be a three part post - the two Campfires this Wednesday and Saturday p.m. will be for skills/gardening/reference books and novels/fiction meaningful other selections. With no repeats, we might amass quite a reference list as more people add their picks. A brief description of what the book is about, or a quote would be great. My three are below the fold....

I've acquired a book fetish in the past 18 months and have been buying as many books as I can. Perhaps due to my internalization that there are different forms of capital than dollars. I have read only a few but felt it a no brainer to trade $10-$20 in paper for slow decay knowledge, insight, fantasy, entertainment, history, wisdom, etc. In no particular order, here are my 3 recommendations for the 'resource depletion collage':

Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior Geoffrey Miller.

Evolutionary psychology—the compelling science of human nature—has clarified the prehistoric origins of human behavior and influenced many fields ranging from economics to personal relationships. In Spent Geoffrey Miller applies this revolutionary science’s principles to a new domain: the sensual wonderland of marketing and status seeking that we call American consumer culture. Starting with the basic notion that the goods and services we buy unconsciously advertise our biological potential as mates and friends, Miller examines the hidden factors that dictate our choices in everything from lipstick to cars, from the magazines we read to the music we listen to. With humor and insight, Miller analyzes an array of product choices and deciphers what our decisions say about ourselves, giving us access to a new way of understanding—and improving—our behaviors. Like Freakonomics or The Tipping Point, Spent is a bold and revelatory book that illuminates the unseen logic behind the chaos of consumerism and suggests new ways we can become happier consumers and more responsible citizens.

I just read this book. I wish I had written it, as it pertains to much of the material in my Phd thesis. Basically a readable, interesting, referenced book on the evolutionary explanation on why we compete to consume.

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change

This book reads as if it were written yesterday, but in reality was written almost 30 years ago. Bill Catton presented at our Peak Oil and the Environment conference in 2006 and sat in the front row with his wife. He was there for every talk and I got the impression the conference was a validation of sorts of his work. He was thinking and writing about the issues we discuss on TOD 30 years ago. This was one of the few books that caused me to throw in the towel on wall street career. If you are to pick one book to read to introduce/expand your horizons on humans history on planet, carrying capacity, and ecological limits, I would recommend this one..

The Spirit in The Gene: Humanity's Proud Illusion and the Laws of Nature By Reg Morrison

From famines and deforestation to water pollution, global warming, and the rapid rate of extinction of plants and animals--the extent of the global damage wrought by humankind is staggering. Why have we allowed our environment to reach such a crisis? What produced the catastrophic population explosion that so taxes the earth's resources? Reg Morrison's search for answers led him to ponder our species' astonishing evolutionary success. His extraordinary book describes how a spiritual outlook combined with a capacity for rational thought have enabled Homo sapiens to prosper through the millennia. It convincingly depicts these traits as part of our genetic makeup--and as the likely cause of our ultimate downfall against the inexorable laws of nature. The book will change the way readers think about human evolution and the fate of our species. Small bands of apes walked erect on the dangerous plains of East Africa several million years ago. Morrison marvels that they not only survived, but migrated to all corners of the earth and established civilizations. To understand this feat, he takes us back to a critical moment when these hominids developed language and with it the unique ability to think abstractly. He shows how at this same time they began to derive increasing advantage from their growing sense of spirituality. He convincingly depicts spirituality as an evolutionary strategy that helped rescue our ancestors from extinction and drive the species toward global dominance. Morrison concludes that this genetically productive spirituality, which has influenced every aspect of our lives, has led us to overpopulate the world and to devastate our own habitats. Sobering, sometimes chilling, consistently fascinating, his book offers a startling new view of human adaptation running its natural course.

I've read this book thrice. A biologist friend says I won't catch all the insights in it until I've read it 5 times. Its original title was 'Plague Species' but that seemed a bit too doomerish. I have interacted with Reg and he is an amazing fellow. The book is an overview, in different terms, than Cattons book, of humanities history and drivers on planet earth. It is beautiful, but depressing at same time.

Please add your own selections below. This slot is for non-fiction energy/sustainability/systems/future related books. The Campfire threads Wednesday and Saturday will be for practical books and novels/fiction etc....


I don't agree with the split between theory and practice. It's a failure to connect our abstract knowledge with our practical day-to-day lives that's got us into this mess. For example, we all learned in school about conservation of matter and energy and about entropy, but failed to connect that to say "hey that means oil won't last forever" and "maybe windows the size of the whole wall will waste a lot of energy" and so on.

Thus my three books are,

The Complete Handyman, an out-of-print book from the 1940s which tells us everything from making a bookshelf to replacing the acid in a lead-acid battery. Not many books like this exist these days, it's all high-tech, lots of plastics, and/or very specialised, and most books assume the reader is an idiot.

The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, by John Seymour

The Australian Vegetable Garden, which looks at growing fruit and vegetables considering the Australian climate and conditions - rather different from most gardening books which focus on Europe and North America

Kiashu, I have 2 of the 3 books you list. (you can guess which 2).

The delineation between theory and practice isn't a philosophical one, but for readers ease of searching in the future. Please repost your suggestions on the Wednesday thread on 'practical' books.

Thanks Nate and all of you out there. This is exactly what I have been baying at the MOON for.

Seriously, if we are going to get it together we must understand the totality that brings us to this transit in history. From there we are going, or will go into, appropriate action.

Only three? That's tough. For information on the energy industry, I would choose:

Oil 101by Morgan Downey

For gaining understanding of the soil, and growing food:

How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits Than You Ever Thought Possible by John Jeavons

For a real paradigm-shifter that shows that there are lots of seemingly low probability events waiting to shake our world up:

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Lots of honorable mention, including The Long Emergency, Twilight in the Desert, Gusher of Lies, Jeff Rubin's new book, and almost anything by Jared Diamond.

How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits Than You Ever Thought Possible by John Jeavons

Now if he puts out a book on raising waterfowl, it might be titled:

"Jeavons Pair of Ducks"

Perhaps just because of the mood I'm in today, I'll skip past many excellent books which I'm sure others will recommend, and instead suggest:

The Collapse of Chaos, by Stewart & Cohen - there are many books on chaos & complexity, but this one is quite enjoyable and accessible to those who haven't delved into the subject matter. I think it's quite relevant to what we discuss here.

Ubiquity, by Buchanan . - A nice little book on a similar theme which I recently reread. Engagingly discusses the occurrence of scale-invariant self-similarity in many systems, and across disparate kinds of systems. Explores self-organizing criticality and the insight that there are "classes" of systems which seem to obey very similar dynamics; along with the suggestion that such systems can be understood in some deep ways via very simple abstract models. I kinda like this one since it's similar to the way my brain has worked since childhood anyhow.

The Fabric of Reality, by Deutsch - I recommend this one despite the fact that it has no practical purpose per se, because it's a nice introduction to some aspects of the quantum weirdness which demonstrably underlies what we think of as reality. Everyone should be exposed to such ideas a little, if only to perturb their brains a bit and be reminded that the way we usually think about the world isn't the way the world is. Personally, I think he ultimately saws off the branch he's standing on in trying to suggest a computational theory of everything, but the first 2/3 of the book are a very nice mind-blowing primer of the utterly nonintuitive way the universe works. And who knows, it may find its way into your philosophy. It provides an interesting additional reason for considering a probabilistic worldview.

My current three recommendations would be:

1) The Prize - Daniel Yergin.
Reason: This Pulitzer Prize winning book gives a great overview to the history of the oil industry up until the early 1990s. I believe it is very important to understand the context of how we got to where we are today if you are to have any chance of effecting change.

2) The Real Price Of Everything - introduction by Michael Lewis.
Reason: This is a collection of six important texts including the full text of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. The introductions by Michael Lewis are perhaps a little short, but illuminating. The main challenge with the books is not that they are out of date, but that the passage of time does our modern generations no favours in making these books easy to read. However the dedicated reader will find gem after gem of insight and history that reveals much of what is happening in the world today has happened before. For me, reading Adam Smith's description of the Scottish banking crisis that was brought about through lax credit controls, was just priceless (especially since I read it when the recent financial crisis was just developing). For Oil Drummers, Malthus' Essay on Population should be a must read book. Malthus is often derided for being a doomsayer who got it all wrong, but this is an unfair characterisation most often made by people who haven't even read the book.

3) The Myth of the Oil Crisis - Robin Mills.
Reason: I am more than well aware that this is a controversial suggestion on this forum. The book is not perfect, and I don't agree with everything he writes. However it presents a rational counterpoint to what I increasingly see as the accepted dogma of an imminent crisis due to peak oil.

3) The Myth of the Oil Crisis - Robin Mills....
it presents a rational counterpoint to what I increasingly see as the accepted dogma of an imminent crisis due to peak oil.

From - The Myth of the Oil Crisis - Robin Mills:

Book Description...An oil industry insider debunks myths surrounding the black gold and shows that we have plenty of oil left in the ground to keep homes warm and cars running for decades to come.

Non-OPEC peaked in 2004 and many OPEC nations have also peaked. So how does Mills propose that we turn this behemoth of oil decline around? Easy!

"gloomy predictions do not resemble the real world and take no account of human integrity."

Wow, human integrity, now why didn't I think of that. (Integrity? I would have said human ingenuity but then what do I know?) This book ought to be a real doozie! That should show those fools on TOD that we are sitting on oceans of oil and can keep business as usual running for decades to come.

On a more serious note, I have read two of your books Nate, Overshoot and The Spirit in the Gene. I would challenge anyone to read these two books and still spout the nonsense that we have enough oil to keep BAU going for decades to come.

I have also read many of the books recommended by others in this thread. And in my opinion none of them can hold a litht to these two books. They are light years ahead of any other book written on the subject.

The Spirit in the Gene does not deal with peak oil but with peak people. It deals with the devastation of the planet. Morrison, in a chart depicting world human population, puts the collapse of world population somewhere in the mid thirties. Morrison however was only looking at the stress humans were putting on the earth when he drew that chart. The advent of peak oil however, in my opinion anyway, should push that peak forward about two decades.

That is of course unless we really do have enough oil to last for decades to come. In that event we will indeed be able completely destroy the planet before we reach our collapse point. And in that event at least two billion more people would suffer and die as a result.

The only thing worse than peak oil would be no peak oil.

Ron P.

I think we passed peak integrity in about 1960 or maybe earlier than that. I wasn't paying much attention before then.

I'm more than happy to read opposing arguments regarding any evidence based belief because inductive logic is subject to error. Unfortunately, I feel more discouraged when I read most arguments against peak oil because they are advanced with hopelessly muddled unconvincing assertions that events will not turn out as predicted by peak oil theorists because of some vague general principle or wish rather than an array of data which contradicts mounting evidence which supports peak oil conclusions.

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
by Sam Harris

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
by Dan Ariely

The Collapse of Complex Societies
by Joseph Tainter

"The End of Sam Harris"

Hummm, as I recall, he makes a case for using torture, then dismantles it, then argues against it...finally, reaching the decision of supporting it via a real humdinger of tortured (pun intended) logic. Good writing and case making but after his previous points it seems he landed in opposition to the lion's share of his own points.

On the lighter side, I'd like to recommend:

"The User Illusion" By Tor Norretranders - a collection of amazing research into cognitive science (for the layman)

"Sleeping With The Devil" By Robert Baer - how our Saudi alignment is one part of the story that sold us a bill of goods

"The Shock Doctrine" Naomi Kline - a bit of history of the world and the US role in it...not pretty, and a bit depressing, but thorough, well documented and shows the many ties with mining, oil and labor. A slam dunk on Milton Friedman and the free market (read unregulated) crowd.

So many to read, so little time....or maybe there'll be lots of time....

"The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight" by Thom Hartmann
I read this back in 1998 and it opened my eyes to the coming Peak Oil crisis. Thom Hartmann wears a lot of hats and is my role model for how to constructively channel ADHD in a most positive way. This is the only Peak Oil book I have read that includes a spiritual perspective and a rather positive call to arms for real action now.

"The Long Emergency" by James Kunstler
This is often referenced here on TOD of course... It was JHK who really convinced me that the age of "happy motoring" is over and we desperately need to redesign our towns & cities to not be car-centric. The book turned me into a weekly reader of his blog. He's like "The Daily Show" for Peak Oiler's...

"Twilight in the Desert" by Matthew Simmons
TOD had opened me up to the world of fellow doomers and intellectuals who understood PO, but it was reading Simmons that I really paused and realized yes the world does have it's head in the sand hiding from what our global oil reserves might be. Simmons introduced me to how truly big Ghawar was and how all fields must peak. This book & subsequent TOD reading convinced me to get serious NOW about living in a sustainable manner. ELP baby, ELP...

these hominids developed language and with it the unique ability to think abstractly

This position isn't sustainable. Maybe our ability to do this (and many other things) recursively (sentences within sentences, etc) is unique, but I'll bet we eventually concede that we just have a slightly bigger stack. I like the writings of Frans de Waal, and for relevance to a difficult future let me choose:

Peacemaking Among Primates By Frans De Waal

We might be only slightly special, but we've certainly done some special things. As an antidote for those who think that humans are unimportant or a nuisance:

The Universe that Discovered Itself By John D. Barrow

My guess is that we'll eventually decide that the probability of intelligent life arising in this universe (the stuff we're in causal contact with) is substantially less than 1, which will certainly have interesting philosophical consequences.

Last, but by no means least:

Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass By Lewis Carroll

This is a great idea Nate. Good to see Catton as a first top pick. As expected many classics mentioned already, sure to be more to come, so I’m going to left field, with three relevant descriptions of past societies, from the uplifting to the terrifying.

Montaillou, The Promised Land of Error, by Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie. 1979. This is serious, excellent, fascinating ethnographic history. It describes life in Montaillou, in Southern France, in the early 1300s. Almost all aspects of peasant life are treated. We even follow some of the characters lives. (The book was made possible by the fact that there was an Inquisition there at that time, and numerous official investigations were carried out.) Out of print but easy to find.

Black Earth: A journey through Russia after the fall by Andrew Meier. 2003. Following Orlov, Russia is often used as an example of empire or state partial collapse. This is an epic tour of Post Soviet Russia, more ambitious than the usual travelogue. Long: 446 dense pages.

The Mountain people, by Colin Turnbull. 1972. This anthropological classic is very well known and gave rise to some controversy. It describes the disintegration through starvation of the Ik.

Re The Mountain People - "some" controversy? The book has been widely considered as so seriously flawed in method that Turnbull's findings carry little value.

Another great idea Nate, like you I am building up my library but am trying to limit myself to only a couple of dozen unread books at a time otherwise would have hundreds:-) I can see that my "to buy list" is going to greatly expand over the next few days. I'll just list one book as already there are several above that i would recommend.

The Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update published about 2004. This as the name states is the update 30 years after the original and the authors intend to provide another update in 2012, on the 40th anniversary of their first book.

TLG30 gives a view of the natural resources available for the world's population and a computer simulation shows several possible 100 year scenarios based on population, food production and waste/pollution showing how many of societies' choices or lack of change will lead to collapse. Also how when problems arise exponentially and in multiples, problems that could theoretically be dealt with one by one can overwhelm the ability to cope.

Note the authors are careful not to state that any one scenario is what will happen and ther are many possibilities.


1. The Unnatural History of the Sea - Prof Callum Roberts

Sorry to mention yet another resource that has already peaked :) but I feel this is possibly the most pressing issue facing us today, even before we lose oil and cheap energy....

I am not a science/techy person, but I was unable to put this book down.

"Marine conservation biologist Roberts presents a devastating account of the effects of fishing on the sea. Once abundant aquatic life has declined to the point where we probably have less than five percent of the total mass of fish that once swam in Europe's seas. Intensive fishing since medieval times has caused this decline gradually over the centuries, so that the fish-deprived sea we currently have, seems normal to today's generations.

Industrial fishing, especially trawling, has virtually eliminated entire habitats, including cod in Canada, oysters in Chesapeake Bay and herring in the North Sea. Now, sophisticated devices such as sonar depth sensors are being used to plunder that last frontier, the deep sea.

Callum's alarming conclusion is that by the year 2048, fisheries for all the fish and shellfish species we exploit today will have collapsed.

He argues persuasively for the establishment of marine reserves—protected areas where fish stocks have a chance to recover. His impressive book, replete with quotations from the reports of early explorers, merchants and travelers describing seas teeming with life that's unimaginable today, is a vivid reminder of what we've lost and a plea to save what is left and help the sea recover some of its earlier bounty."

2. The Unnatural History of the Sea - Prof Callum Roberts

3. The Unnatural History of the Sea - Prof Callum Roberts

Sorry about the 3 being the same, but I really think this book is the best, the saddest and the most compelling history/story I have read in a long long time. I was so taken I called and spoke to Callum a few days back. He is currently in Washington lobbying for further world marine reserves so hopefully by buying his book we help him to get there more often and push for more marine reserves before it is too late!!

I have bought this book many times now as a gift for friends :)


I've read this book too.

It is a fascinating book that sets out very clearly just how systematically humans have destroyed life in the oceans.

Callum Roberts should be in charge of fisheries policy worldwide!

Thanks for the tip, sutski123

Order placed.

On the same topic of ocean depletion, I'm reading a most excellent book called "Bottomfeeder -- How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood" by Taras Grescoe. Beautifully written, and so tragic. I had to put the book down at page 9 and pause for a few days as the news is so disturbing.

There is a Census of Marine Life (CoML) conference in Canada, starting today (Tuesday 26 May)

The European Commission, says more than 80% of Europe's fish stocks are now overfished whereas the global average is 28%. The new European Common Fisheries Policy is due to be completed by 2012 - maybe just too late.

I read an article in The Times yesterday "...Using records of trophy catches in Key West, Florida, researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography showed that between 1956 and 2007 the average weight of fish fell from about 20kg to 2.3kg and that their average length shrank from nearly 2m to 35cm..."

Yes, I am book junkie too and some of my favorites include:

THE EARTH'S BIOSPHERE evolution dynamics and change by Vaclav
Smil The book provides a multidisciplinary discussion of our biosphere and helps to put some scale to its limits.

This book provides an interesting analysis of our current and future transport options under peak oil. He points out that while the US currently has about 575 airports, by 2030 we will be down to about 25. My discussions with Richard Gilbert also helped me to better understand the huge potential power generating capacity available from CSP.

THE BRIDGE AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability by Gus Speth

My top recommendation from the last couple of years is The Ascent of Humanity" by Charles Eisenstein.

Eisenstein's premise is that the basic problem of modern civilization is that we have separated ourselves in a fundamental way from nature and the rest of the universe. That separation gave rise to the cultural narrative we tell about ourselves. This dualism and the tools that sprang from it gave us insulin, but also the Love Canal, and is at the root of the "growth and dominion" meme that has allowed us to destroy the rest of the living planet. Until that basic separation is healed, all attempts to "fix" both overconsumption and overpopulation are doomed to failure.

My second choice is Paul Hawken's book Blessed Unrest.

It describes the largest social movement the world has ever seen: two million or more small, independent local action groups that have formed organically (in just the last five years) in response to local dis-ease in the social and ecological environments. The groups are fully distributed across the entire planet, and carry the value set of sustainability, interdependence and social justice. The movement is totally resilient as a result of its diversity, ubiquity and the lack of any centralizing tendency, so if anything can carry us through the coming changes and plant the seeds for a truly sustainable human presence on the planet, this movement is a prime candidate.

These two books are at the heart of my transformation into an optimistic doomer over the last year.

"The Wump World" by Bill Peet.

Is that your library Nate ? I'm so jealous...

Picking 3 books is impossible, but as there are plenty of good ones already listed I'll just add 3 new ones to the mix :

- "Cradle to Cradle" - McDonough and Braungart

- "The Control of Oil" - John Blair

- "The Sheep Look Up" - John Brunner (in whose footsteps all you doomers tread, knowingly or otherwise)

Is that your library Nate ? I'm so jealous...

heck no! I just googled 'home library' and grabbed that image. My library is boxes, totes and piles strewn around the basement, and about 10 next to my bed. I do have about ~1200 in a storage unit from days of old, if you could see the titles of the 'before' and 'after' collections, you might gain some true insights...;-) (I doubt I'll read "6 Weeks to Washboard Abs" again)

Heh, heh - yes - my bookshelf has changed character over the years too !

For those that want to get to the roots of our current problems then I suggest they take the blue pill and go down the rabbit hole with:

The Technological Society
Jacques Ellul
"The only thing that matters technically is yield, production. This is the law of technique; this yield can only be obtained by the total mobilization of human beings, body and soul, and this implies the exploitation of all human psychic forces." (p. 324).

In finite detail Ellul explains our enslavement and why there is no escape. Why we will destroy everything, including ourselves unless Nature destroys us first. For those that truly understand Ellul then they will have stepped outside of the Matrix and begun to see reality with new eyes.

And Ellul's "law of technique" in action today:

Japan's big guns prepare to rejoin global arms industry.

"A ruling party MP said that the greatest significance would be the conversion of Japan's robotics industry from civilian to military use as the world's defence spending is directed to remote-control hardware, such as drone aircraft.

Lifting or toning-down the 33-year old embargo would unleash some of the world's most advanced heavy engineering companies into the international weapons market, one of the few areas of manufacturing where Japan's immense technical resources have, for purely political reasons, not produced a dominant global player."

"Technique" is controlled by no man, no government, no ideology and no religion, it is a law unto itself and is incorruptible, unstoppable. It controls everything, including us and overrides our will, our desires, our wishes and our humanity with its own deterministic programme.

Don't understand? Then you need to read the book :)

May not be the time or the place for it, but the Buddha would like to humbly disagree with you.

Well wait, maybe it is the right time...I'd like to recommend a life changing book:

Buddha by Karen Armstrong

I apologize if some disapprove of religion seeping into the discussion. It was as big a life changer for me as the issues of peak everything. Helped quite a bit too.

Here, here! Good suggestion! I have studied buddhism for years; but, you only have to study Buddha's Four Noble Truths for our world to understand and adapt to peak everything. In a nutshell,

#1 Suffering is a part of being human.
#2 Suffering is a result of craving for pleasure, avoiding pain or ignorance of all of the above.
#3 Suffering will be reduced when we reduce our cravings, avoidance and ignorance.
#4 We reduce our suffering by applying the right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Those principles permeate every discussion on this subject. This is not about religion. This is an easily verifiable understanding of the human condition.

THE TECHNOLOGICAL SOCIETY, by Jacques Ellul is a profound book. Originally published in France in 1954, it wasn't published in English until 1964, by Knopf, who wrote that publishing it was "one of the most difficult editorial tasks Alfred A. Knopf Inc. has ever undertaken." I read it in 1971, but really had to read it twice to get most of it. Since then I've dipped back into it from time to time. Not an easy read, but worth the work.

@ all TODers: Thanks for all these wonderful suggestions!

Jacques Ellul is a must read for everyone, especially folks on TOD. Readers here are already well aware of the numerous factors that 'determine' us (biological imperatives, etc.), and very often tend to have what I consider reductionist and deterministic thinking. Ellul's writings provide an alternative narrative to the gloomy "we're f***ed anyway/we can't change" attitude, one which breaks the totalitarian grip of any form of determinism.
Way ahead of his time in his analysis of technology, mass media and propaganda; and in his ideas on Christianity and anarchy.

Catton's 'Overshoot' is an absolute must. It's the kind of book where there's no point in underlining anything because you have to underline everything. Ditto 'The Spirit in the Gene'. Haven't read Miller's 'Spent' yet.

Perhaps the real high-end classic is Georgescu-Roegen's 'The Entropy Law and the Economic Process'. If that's too hard going, there's a kind of lite version called 'Entropy: a new world view' by Jeremy Rifkin (out of print but available second-hand).

Not to mention Garrett Hardin's 'Living Within Limits'. Of which I possess two copies, since the first almost fell apart from all-too-frequent reading.

And 'The Black Swan'. Of course posters at TOD were discussing Taleb at a time when the mass media were still bullshitting on about the 'growth potential' of Western economies.

Way back in ... 2006. The past is a foreign country -- even if it's only three years ago.

I would add to the list Plan B 3.0 by Lester Brown. I am doing this from memory, but he covers a number of issues related to overconsumption of renewable resources and consumption of non-renewable resources. Overfishing of the oceans, overharvesting of timber, overextracting water from underground aquifers, and of course non-renewables like minerals and oil. He discusses all of these things without becoming doomerish - he believes that we still have time if society were to take decisive actions.

Better, imho, is Pat Murphy's "Plan C." It minces no words about the depth of our current predicament with much attention to PO as well as GW...The C of the title is for "Curtailment" drastically and urgently cutting back on everything.

Ecological Debt by Simms introduced me to the idea of Contraction and Convergence.

For a true classic, there is always the Tao Te Ching of Lao-tzu.

Chaos: Making a New Science - Glieck
An excellent introduction, and all you really need to read as a layperson. Understanding Chaos Theory (even at the elementary level I do) informs how I see everything in the world around me. It is something that can help one make the intuitive leaps that strict logic/mathematics require to leap forward.

Perhaps more importantly, like Taleb's work (in fact Mandelbrot is his mentor and Chaos the foundation of his work, unless I miss my mark), it allows you to develop a feel for likelihood of future events. In a sense, you can learn to "see" where chaos might be lurking.

Collapse - Diamond
Much-discussed here.

The Natural Way of Farming - Fukuoka
This is now an integral part of permaculture, but can also stand as distinct, pre-dating permaculture by decades.


Thanks Nate for this post. It falls into the realm of "be careful what you wish for." So many haves and have nots have been mentioned. I thought I would post 3 that are not likely to be listed here but are a snap shot of my brain at different points in my life:

The Greening of America by Charles Reich (1970). I don't know if it is still in print but one I read in high school and recently pulled out of a box in my attic. It is a reminder of the 60's revolution that lost its steam.

The River Why by David James Duncan (1983). It is a novel that is being made into a movie about "The love of a man for the wilderness, and for a beautiful woman who comes to share it with him."

The $64 Tomato by William Alexander (2006): "How one man nearly lost his sanity, spent a fortune, and endured an existential crisis in the quest for the perfect garden." We all need a little humor as we turn our attention to the garden.

Overshoot is top of my list too.


The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers by Robert L. Heilbroner

Fantastic overview of how we got here.

#3 The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff

Also for anyone who has not already read it this is a must read article;

Why Socialism?
by Albert Einstein

"For example, most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

But historic tradition is, so to speak, of yesterday; nowhere have we really overcome what Thorstein Veblen called "the predatory phase" of human development. The observable economic facts belong to that phase and even such laws as we can derive from them are not applicable to other phases. Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future."

There are so many to chose from (I'm like Nate - a book junky - we probably have 3-5k in our home library. The living room has one wall of books, my wife's office has a wall of books and my office has three walls of books). Anyway, here are three obscure ones.

The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point by Philip Slater, 1970

Does It Matter: Essays on Man's Relation to Materiality by Alan Watts, 1968

Getting Back Together by Robert Houriet, 1971. I loved this book. It is about his journey around the US to various communes and alternative communities and how it impacted him personally. Although I personally saw too many failures around here, I still think groups living together is the future.


There are so many to chose from (I'm like Nate - a book junky - we probably have 3-5k in our home library. The living room has one wall of books, my wife's office has a wall of books and my office has three walls of books).

And I'm also similar. I have probably three or four hundred books packed away in boxes, ready for the ever just-over-the-horizon move to a new house (currently living back at home in a 3*3M room), plus another hundred or so in filing cabinets under the computer desk, plus a good 200 on my Amazon wish list. Plus all my DVD's!
My partner even built and varnished a bookcase for me for my birthday this year! She knows what I like! :D

I have a lot of books by now, mostly related to food production and self-sufficiency, so I may post at the upcoming campfires.

In terms of depletion and sustainability, I would have to list

"A Short History of Progress" by Ronald Wright
A very easy read, in a compelling style. Really brings home the notion of collapse and progress traps. An excellent introduction for people unfamiliar with the topic, and still engaging to those who are. I hadn't seen anyone else list this one yet.

"Jayber Crow" by Wendell Berry
Technically this is a work of fiction, however for me this was more a perspective on life and on a different way of living. If you have a bit of a 'good old days' streak in you and long for a simpler/different time, then you will probably appreciate this book.

My remaining vote would be for "Collapse" (Tainter) or "The Long Emergency" (Kunstler), which others have described.


"A Short History of Progress" by Ronald Wright
A very easy read, in a compelling style. Really brings home the notion of collapse and progress traps. An excellent introduction for people unfamiliar with the topic, and still engaging to those who are. I hadn't seen anyone else list this one yet.

You might also enjoy "The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics" by Christopher Lasch. It is a sweeping survey of intellectual history, and end up with a generally critical, skeptical view of "progress".

30's: After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley - a hilarious book. Note the contrast between Mr Propter's near sustainable life style and the William Randolph Hearst character

50's: The Next Million Years by Charles Galton Darwin- life may go on

May 2009: Fool's Gold by Gillian Tett - a detailed history of the current economic crisis by a prize winning British financial writer.

My top three have already been mentioned, but here's one that could fit in #4-#10 somewhere:

Muddling Toward Frugality by Warren Johnson.

It was published in 1978 and is as thoughtful and prescient as anything I have read. Also short and easy. Johnson could have easily interchanged Frugality with Sustainability, but it just wasn't a catch-word in 1978. A few used copies are still available.

Muddling Toward Frugality was an interesting read. Johnson's point is that we are not going to get to where we must be via a neat and well-planned program; it is all going to be extremely "messy" and "sub-optimal". Nevertheless, we can still get more or less where we need to be, more or less, sooner or later, somehow.

Many great choices so far! How amazing is it to get a recommendation of knowledge etc. from a stranger via the internet and make a few clicks, debit some money from the bank account and the books arrive at your door in a few days...

Yes, in so many ways life is great! Especially for us biblioholics!

For others who have the book collecting disease, check out IMHO, the best free book swap out there on the web. It's sort of like a Craig's list "no stings attached" listing for books... ;-)

"The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman did an amazing job of detailing our predicaments regarding social complexity, resources and the unexpected in a way that is extremely compelling and fun to read. If I had to give a book to someone about our situation who I knew would be highly resistant, this is the one I'd give them:

Richard Heinberg's "The Party's Over" is an outstanding review of the peak oil, limits to growth and overshoot literature.

Herman Daly's "Beyond Growth" is an accessible critique of neoclassical economics.

How we can Save the Planet, Mayer Hillman -
Not about peak oil so much as climate change, but this made me realise that technology wasn't likely to be an easy out, and that local everything was the most probable outcome.

Transition Handbook, Rob Hopkins -
What does local everything look like? What did it used to look like? It's also a reference book, but it has quite a bit of history in it. How to look forward to the future.

Akenfield, Ronald Blythe-
What did one example of local really look like? Life in a Suffolk village 1900-1960. How not to form utopian images of local everything.

Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy

This was the book that initially got me fired up about sustainability. Ostensibly a science fiction book, this story starts to paint a picture of an alternate future that needs to stand against the current projections and techno-fixes.

The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi

The most lucid book I have ever read on economic history, including explanations of the history and effects of the commodification of money, land and labor, why social responses were needed, how the utopian vision of the self-regulating market had to be legislated into existence, how America overcame the constraints through abundandant free land and labor, etc. I can't say enough about this book.

Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison et. al

The encyclopedia of how to fix the world, soup to nuts.

These are more books that are helping me to figure out what the potential scenarios for the future might be given how the world and people are structured, rather than how to cope with such a future.

Without hot air by David McKay. What makes this a great book is the way that it's based on using order-of-magnitude numbers for the entire energy usage. Some of the estimates are likely to be significantly off, just because there's so many of them, but it puts the onus on the reader who disagrees to come up with their own numbers and see if that changes the conclusions (rather than say "I can't see any reason why blah, and I'm sure that the idea that bah is necessary shows lack of faith in capitalism by the author").

I've been trying to remember/google the name of a book I bought when it came out about ten years ago on how to do back-of-the-envelope estimates. (It had penguins on the cover because one of the examples was about how much energy it would take to tow an iceberg to New York.) It wasn't that there's anything terribly hard about that, but it just did lots of examples showing tricks like producing "semi-independent" estimates via different basic quantities and checking that they matched, knowing what to neglect, etc, and it's hghtly recommended if your "education/training" so far has never involved this.

The final recommendation is "Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism" by Akerlof and Schiller. It's a bit more about how people as a group actually do react to "incentives" rather than how classical economics thinks they ought to react. I find it good as a baseline when considering proposals that involve "giving" people economic incentives to acheive some goal, wher the incentives which often make sense in classical economics don't align with human psychology.

I think the name of the book is "Consider a Spherical Cow". If I recall correctly, there was a followup to that, but I can't think of the name, probably something like "Consider a Square Cow"

One book that I recommend is "Small is Beautiful" An excellent introduction to a different way of thinking about economics.


Thanks for the plug! The author, title, and URL are David MacKay, "Sustainable Energy - without the hot air", and
The whole book is available free online.
David MacKay

As summer is approaching I would like to suggest three "beach books" which are generally in the theme of the Oil Drum web site, as there still seems to be enough petroleum to get to the beach. The first two are books by two long time adventure travel writers -- Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux (a trip overland across Africa), and The Ukimwi Road, from Kenya to Zimbabwe, by Dervla Murphy. Both of these writers have many travel books and I think these two are some of their best; they definitely describe worlds without the benefits of cheap oil, the rule of law, good Internet connections and other benefits many of us take for granted.

Third would be Kunstler's recent book, A World Made by Hand, which if not a classic for all time, is a fun read.

Hi Timetobike,

Dervla Murphy is in a class by herself - what an extraordinary lady! Her first book "From Ireland to India by Bicycle" is a true classic. I have recommended this book to many friends who don't even own a bike - everyone loved the book.

I have most of her books and have read about half of them - when I want to get my mind into different place I turn to Dervla.

Three cheers for Mr Hagens for this idea.My favorite thre have already been mentioned several times over,but these are extraordinarily good:
Richard Dawkin's The Blind Watch Maker .Unless you are a biologist,you may THINK YOU UNDERSTAND EVOLUTION.The odds are pretty high,actually, that you don't,even though you "get it" in a general way.It's a little dry in places,but accessible to the layman and an incredible all around read.

Anything by EO Wilson,but Consilience and the Future of Life are probably the best place to start.Wilson is THE founding father of the field of evolutionary biology,and it's most respected elder statesman.Need I say more?

Farmers of Forty Centuries by FH King now available free online.You can take this one to the bank as the granddaddy of every thing to do with sustainable agriculture,although there are good earlier books.
Go to fhkingstudentsforsustainable agriculture for more background.

Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate And The Way the Mind Works Are two more books that I can't bear to see left off this list.

I can't remember immediately who wrote it but The Lucifer Principle is also a notable eye opener full of brilliant insights regarding our current situation and how it came to be.It is worth the purchase price for the bibliography alone,as it contains dozens of books of the sort we are looking for and at.Sorry about running over!

I can't remember immediately who wrote it but The Lucifer Principle is also a notable eye opener full of brilliant insights regarding our current situation and how it came to be.

The author is Howard Bloom. This is one of the few books that I have read twice.
The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History

I also loved "The Blank Slate" but "How the Mind Works" was one book I just could not get through though I tried very hard.

Ron P.

I felt exactly the same with the two Steven Pinker books.


Thanks for recommending TLP -- though I'd never heard of it before.

Read thru the first pages at Amazon and placed order straight away.

I've been building a non-fiction book list of energy, ecology, topsoil, water, evolution, environment, infrastructure, agriculture, violence, climate change, collapse, critical thinking, etc library for 40 years:

If I had to pick just three books, they'd be:

Walter Youngquist's "Geodestinies: The Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations & Individuals" because it best explains the predicament we're in and how we got there to future generations.

John Perlin's "A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization". My favorite book about resource depletion.

Peter Ward explains how our carbon habit could lead to our extinction (and perhaps 95% of all other species) in "Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future".

Apologies to Albert Bartlett, Garrett Hardin, David Pimentel, Charles Hall, Joel Bakan, Steven LeBlanc, David Montgomery, John Opie, etc.

Alice Friedemann

On another board there was a comment that Richad Duncan has seen the manuscript of GeoDestinies 2nd Ed. by Dr. Youngquist. I hope that it is published soon.

Yes, he quotes from it here.

Due to be published on May 30, according to Amazon UK:

Publisher: Education Research Assoc; 2 edition (30 May 2009)

I will second the recommendation of "Geodestinies" which is probably the best book ever written on resource depletion. I would say that that "Geodestinies" is a must read for anyone. Also, this book is highly praised by almost every reviewer on Amazon.

I am glad to see that a few used copies are available at Amazon, but I am shocked at the prices. A second printing is badly needed.

If your a sceptic

"The Book of the Damned"
"New Lands"

by Charles Fort. This should cure your trying to prove anything "There will be facts"

"Our Enemy, The State"

by Albert Nock. This should cure political solutions.

"Our Enemy, The State"

by Albert Nock.

I just started reading the first chapter on the net and was amazed that it was written in the 1930's. Going to have to go to the library and see if i can find a copy to read at my leisure in the evenings.

Many of those already mentioned are high on my list, so here are three I have not seen listed that I found interesting and influential.

1. Machinery's Handbook (Any Edition)
One of my major reference books for information on the abilities and limits of technology. (and I love metal working as a hobby)

2. The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich copyright 1968
One of the original overpopulation books that has affected my thinking and outlook for the last 40+ years.

3. Elephant's in the Volkswagen by Lindsay Grant copyright 1992
Another excellent book on the effects of overpopulation on resources and civilization.

4. Outgrowing the Earth by Lester Brown copyright 2004
A good book on the present and future problems trying to feed our overpopulated planet.

Guess that's 4, but I wouldn't know which to drop off the list. Sorry.

Neither marketing nor shopping has anything whatsoever to do with evolution. What complete twaddle. And the whole premise of "evolutionary psychology" is a sophomoric misinterpretation of what evolution is. Evolution works by fitting organisms to environments, not by the supposed "struggle" to reproduce.

And, while we're at it, there is also no such thing as a "consumer." That's capitalism's Procrustean word for "product user."

Neither is there "consumer culture." That concept is an empty tautology and a slur on ordinary human beings.

Mr Dawson,I doubt very seriously that you have finished a real college biology course(not the "survey"course for english lit majors),or that if you have,you have actually read a book by any biology professor written in the last 15 years or so.You could get started with Darwin and finish up with the Pinker books I reccomend above,or any of the other books on evolutionary psychology mentioned in this article.Sorry about the sharp tone,but you said "twaddle"first.A good many of these books are the work of mainstream scientists holding chairs at elite universities.

Evolution works by fitting organisms to environments, not by the supposed "struggle" to reproduce.

That is about the dumbest thing I have read in awhile. The struggle is to survive to reproductive age. And, the fittest survive, the unfit simply do not survive. And evolution does not fit anything to anything. Evolution does not do anything at all, it is the result of organisms evolving to fit their environment. As Richard Dawkins put it, "Natural selection is a process, evolution is history"

I agree with Old Farmer, it appears you know absolutely nothing about evolution.

Ron P.

You people treat personal evolutionary "success" as a major motive of individual human behavior, and then tell me I'm ignorant? That's funny!

Evolution certainly does nothing, and whatever "fits" it produces are results, not motives.

Meanwhile, there are two possible reasons evolutionary psychology is taken seriously as "major universities." One is that is explains something. The other is that is a source of laughable Social Darwinist just-so stories for a society that wants desperately to make excuses for our power structure.

Meanwhile, except in limited areas, it is simply unscientific to refer to product-users as "consumers." And everybody wants to get laid, so WTF does any part of "consumer behavior" possibly have to do with human evolution, whatever that is? If anything, the entire corporate marketing regime is working to ensure the extinction of our genome from the planet.

Mr Dawson

Do you think Harvard might qualify as a "major university"? EO Wilson and Steven Pinker are both on the faculty there.Richard Dawkins spent his career at Oxford.Ever heard of Oxford?

Since this seems to be new turf for you,I will try to present an example that might give you a glimmer.I assume you know something about sexual selection,such as the toughest bulls and stud horses getting all the you know what.

You may also know that females select thier mates based on the size and qualities of the territories they possess,or the quality of thier plumage,or the beauty and vigor of thier song etc.

Still with me?

Now be honest,have you ever seen a really hot cheerleader out on a date in a ratty old pickup truck?
If you want a "hot young blossom"(Twain,Mark) you gotta have the bait,and alligator shirts and Corvettes work a damn sight better than old pickup trucks and smelly rotten sneakers.Of course an attractive body and pleasant personality also can win the ladies hand,but every thing else held equal....the goods get the lady-most of the time."Momma always told me it's as easy to love a rich man as a poor man."(unknown?)

Now be honest-don't you suppose every horny young man with an iq over 70 understands this and does his best to dress as well,smell as good,and look as prosperous as possible in order to enhance his chances of getting laid? Getting laid in the normal course of affairs leads to the pitty pitty patter of little bitty feet,right?

Now just where do you get Corvettes and snazzy clothes,and who advertises both products for all the budget will stand with hardly ever an ad that fails to include a blatant sexual comeon?

If buying clothes and cars is not consumer behavior,I am at a loss as to just what consumer behavior might be.

I don't know what personal evolutionary success means to you,but to me it means leaving behind a new generation to take my place,and I do truly believe that this drive to reproduce is indeed a major motive of the individual behavior of most humans.Some people might go so far as to say that it is the major motive of MOST human behavior.I suspect that they are correct.

Field Guides are my closest guarded books. Got the need to know what it is and how it is interconnected to everything else.

Energy/Peak oil. Anything by H. T. Odum. "A Prosperous way Down" provides a detailed understanding of the problem and offers ecologically based solutions which will be critical to our future.

To address the problem of duality which many here agree is the root of many of our problems, i suggest Joseph Campbell's, "Reflections on the Art of living." Also, just so we don't get lazy in our ruminations Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass. Get the original 1850's versions before he went back and edited and rewrote.

Lastly, every good library should have a few papers which summarize important stuff. My number 1 recommendation. Damn important stuff.

Echo your thoughts wrt HT Odum. Specifically;

In some ways the most worrying text because it takes a broad ecological perspective (Odum's 'macroscope') and challenges the ability of renewable energy to substitute for non-renewables because of the more diffuse form of current solar energy vs concentrated solar energy stored in FF's. The concept of emergy is controversial but thought provoking.


Daniel Dennett: Breaking the Spell

I often see the role of religion in post-peak society debated here on TOD, but haven't seen Dennett mentioned at all, which I think is a shame. Breaking the Spell is not an anti-religion book; rather, it is a stock-taking of what we know and don't know about religion, and a call for investigation. This review on Amazon UK describes the book rather thouroughly and well, although it should also be mentioned that BtS is a much easier read than some of Dennett's other books, e.g. Consciousness Explained, which can be heavy going at times.

Richard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene

Easily the best "popular science" book I've read, and I've been through a few. Wonderful introduction to evolutionary biology, but it doesn't stop there: It goes on to consider cultural "evolution" - introducing the meme concept (which has since become popular and controversial) in the process. The 1989(?) and later editions have additional chapters discussing game theory and under which conditions social cooperation may spontaneously emerge. Required reading! Its "sequel" The Extended Phenotype is perhaps even better, but rather more demanding. But that was "Peak Dawkins"; his writing went downhill after that...

KODE, good choices - I would add Dawkins' "The God Delusion" and "God, the Failed Hypothesis" by Stenger & Hitchens.

Choosing only three books is nigh impossible.

However I'll choose three that are antithetical to compartmentalized thinking. They all explore how knowledge and reality are composed of myriad overlapping and interconnected webs. They fall more into the category of "Etc.."

They all force us to examine in some way, that which is counterintuitive, that the whole is greater and has emergent properties that are not predictable by analysing its individual components.

One open triangle connected to another open triangle connects four triangles into the structure of a tetrahedron. Unfortunately if you break one of the struts it loses its tensional integrity and it's inherent strength and falls apart.

So here are my three choices:

SYNERGETICS Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking
by R. Buckminster Fuller

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by E. O. Wilson.

Linked: the new science of networks
By Albert-László Barabási


How about:

1. Beyond Civilization, by Daniel Quinn, a book that's forced me to question what it means to save the world.

2. Ishmael trilogy (Ishmael, Story of B, My Ishmael), also by Daniel Quinn, a series of three books (alright, I cheated) that forced me to question my place in the world.

3. Energy and Resource Quality: The Ecology of the Economic Process, by Charles A.S. Hall, Cutler Cleveland and Robert Kauffman. An academic text that took a solid first step towards tying the monetary economy to the material and energy economies.

Now back to comprehensive exams...


Quinn's work hit me like a brick. I still wear a small ammonite fossil as a talisman, due to its role in "The Story of B". Destiny will take care of itself...

If destiny will take care of itself, why are we bothering with The Oil Drum?

How much have you seen me around here lately? I've even stopped reading TAE...

Personal answers don't necessarily translate to planetary answers. Would that it was so...

Most personal answers to existential questions have at least some resonance beyond the individual who formulates them. Some extraordinary individuals, in extraordinary circumstances who come up with extraordinary answers, may see those answers go planetary. The personal answers of individuals like Gandhi or Joseph Vissarionvich Djvugashvili have had profound planetary influence, yours and mine perhaps not so much. The coolest thing about the Internet though is the planetary reach it has given to the purely personal -- it has given us all a taste of the "extraordinary circumstances" I mentioned above.

Nate Hagens asks,

"If destiny will take care of itself, why are we bothering with The Oil Drum?"

Nate, I have tried to tell you that humans are addicted to games, challenges and puzzles!

We still play chess, even though computers can do it better, we still race horses even though horses are seldom used for work in the modern world, we still sail boats even though there are few workboats powered by sail...I thought about this the other day while watching the Indy 500...if history holds we will still race automobiles even after the working automobile is long dead from the highway...and we will still love to argue and reason and try to out think each on forums like TOD, even if destiny does indeed take care of itself! :-)

Excellent idea for a thread, Nate, and excellent book choices so far. I would add to the Tainter/Quinn angle:

Derrick Jensen's Endgame Volume 1 & Volume 2
Arnold Joseph Toynbee's A Study of History Volume 1 & Volume 2(now only appears to be available as abridged 2 volume set, though originally this was TWELVE volumes....)

Both these really count as single books, just very, very long (especially Toynbee...)

Can I add a video? For anybody who has not yet heard of it: A History of Oil by UK politcomedian Rob Newman. Oldie, but pure gold...

Edit 2:
Another video: The Lorax

The Lorax...

That was better,
than all of the books,
put together.

And Dr. Geisel, was wiser
Than that greedy ole miser.

Who had kept one last seed.
He never thought he would need.

Till everything had died,
because of his greed...

The lesson here,
please give it some thought
Is not to do what we want,
but to do what we ought!

Great idea for a post. I'm somewhat behind on my Peak Oil reading, but I'm getting lots of good ideas for my book queue. Keeping in mind the gaps in my past reading here are three significant books I've read, and I'll try to mix things up by suggesting something different.

First two sci-fi books.
Earth, by David Brin from 1990
Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach from 1975
They're somewhat old, but I read both in the last few years. Knowing how fast technology changes, these two books have held up very well to the ages. The world envisioned in both books is hopelessly upbeat in light of recent events, but it's still nice to dream about what might have been.

In Earth, the planet is devastated by global warming, resource depletion and UV irradiation. Somehow the people broke the power of the bankers, created an eco-UN to resettle billions and kept some kind of complex society running. The ozone layer turned out to be not so much a problem, and story goes off on an unlikely tangent about a mini black hole and the hard Gaia hypothesis, but it's all for fun.

Ecotopia, being released in 1975, has a direct link back to the 60's and California hippies. Some of the details are too optimistic even in light of the lower population and consumption in the 70's, but it still makes for a good story.

The Long Emergency is an obvious choice, but I read it shortly after learning about Peak Oil, and it motivated me to get off my duff. Kunstler does come off as an old crank who's prone to hyperbole, but many of his observations are spot-on.

The Dominant Animal is in my reading queue based on reviews, and it sounds similar to Nate's three selections. How does it compare to these three?

Hi dwcal, I recently finished "The Dominant Animal" - I enjoyed the book.

Three nonfiction books? Thanks to all those who have already mentioned a bunch of really great picks. Here's my first, and I'll bet it's one that almost no one here has even heard of:

Privileged Goods: Commoditization and its Impact on Environment and Society, by Jack Manno. Boca Raton: Lewis Publishers, 2000. 267 pages, index, references.

This is a book, perhaps the book, to read if you are going to read one textbook on ecological economics and are willing to read something academic that explains how we got to where we are and what needs to change. It does not require any special knowledge of economics but it is an academic book requiring careful reading. The first two chapters explain the book's basic thesis but you can go on from there. It doesn't explain everything about ecological economics, but it explains a critical problem with our economy in a way that a non-expert can appreciate.

He explains what a commodity is, what sorts of things make useful commodities, and what the effects of commoditzation are. Commercial fertilizers, Barbie dolls, mass-marketed drugs, and junk bonds on the one hand make good commodities; knowledge of the soil, direct child led-interaction, knowledge of nutrition, and personal loans fulfill the same kind of needs, but don't make good commodities. Read the book to find out why.

"Human attention is among the most powerful natural forces in the universe. When an individual decides to turn his or her attention to understanding something,l accomplishing something, changing something, the resources available to that individual are mobilized, and the world begins to change." -- p. 1

"A commodity is an object outside of oneself, a thing that by its qualities satisfied human wants of one sort or another. . . . All other, noncommercial possibilities for satisfying human wans and needs -- common goods and services that involve interpersonal relationship or relationships between a particular place or ecosystem and the people who live on and in it -- that can't easily be bought and sold will not receive anywhere near the same amount of time, attention, and resources invested. This simple fact has dramatic ecological and social consequences." (p. 21, emphasis in original)

It's easiest to get this through a library. It is an academic book and is overpriced (retail about $100, you can probably get a used copy for somewhat less).

Good thread, very fine books, I've read a few of them.
It is good to know what we are talking about when one talks about animals, so:
Pierre-Paul Grassé Traité de Zoologie 35 vols. There is a short, two-volume Precis de Zoologie

Willpower! And what could be better than Nobel Prize winner Ramón y Cajal Los Tónicos de la voluntad (Tonics of Will) also known as Advice to a Young Investigator
José Antonio Marina, El misterio de la voluntad perdida, Barcelona, Anagrama, 1997 The Mistery of Willpower Loss.

As I watch the changes in the world around me I am more and more fascinated with mass movements -- the swarm behavior of humans if you will. My interest in history has turned out to be more useful when attempting to predict the future than all of the mathematics and science I have studied. I expect even Hari Seldon would admit the same.

Any discussion of our oil depleted future must address the human as well as the geologic realities. And predicting what humans will do is much more difficult than estimating how much oil can be produced. So here's what I would recommend reading to gain a little humility about our ability to predict things:

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles MacKay

This book is primarily about financial manias but has lessons for anyone interested in mass behavior. And it is my belief that "Peak Oil" is going to have a tough time competing for attention as the current economic crisis deepens. Mostly this book is a reminder that groups of people do crazy, unreasonable things from time to time. Which makes it that much harder to predict what the future holds.

The Great Crash by John Kenneth Galbraith

No book could be more topical for those interested in the current economic crisis. The sense of deja vu while reading this book is haunting as Galbraith, in his smart and iconoclastic way, leads you through the mistakes that leaders made back then and are making again today.

Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

If you thought humans adapted to new situations in a linear fashion, think again. Our species is subject to the same swarming behavior that makes gigantic schools of fish turn on a dime. Gladwell deconstructs this behavior and shows how certain personality types are key in causing the greater mass of people to adopt a new behavior. Pretty relevant stuff to our discussion.

The Organic Gardening Catalogue - no-nonsense resource for those who want to get dirt under their fingernails

The Universe - John Gribben - reminds us why this peak oil stuff doesn't matter in the great scheme of things

The Cat in the Hat - ditto

Incidentally Oldfarmermac and others, please don't glorify the Dawkins Delusion. He's a miserable owd bugger who has been conducting a campaign against his misperceptions of other people's understanding of Darwinism for too long now. Someone else's quote and I can't remember it exactly but goodness he's an old bore. Get your evolutionary theory from Darwin himself, or a real scientist.

Bugmeister,I have read Darwin.Actually if I have had a lifes work,it has been to read anything and every thing that might explain why I exist,and whether/if there is any rhyme or reason in our existence.I can find nothing in Dawkins that cannot be easily reconciled with Darwin,given the time frame and progress in biology.

As far as Dawkins being a real scientist is concerned,all I can say is that apparently you know nothing whatsoever about the man.Why don't you look up his bio at wikipedia?

Now we tread on sacred and delicate ground when we enter into discussions of religion,but sometimes it seems to be necessary.My entire family believes that if they live right,having professed thier belief in the King James Bible as divinely inspired by God Himself,and having duly sworn eternal obesiance to the Father, the Son,AND The Holy Ghost,that one day they will arise from the dead,young,healthy,and maybe even horny,although they never actually mention sex.God, the Bible, and our preacher,who is a fine man who has apparently never seriously read but one book- The Book-assure them that this is so.All my immediate ancestors to the limits of our knowledge believed the same things.Virtually 100 percent of the people I grew up with believed these things to be as certain as old age.

I do not intend to do anything to disillusion them,as thier faith is a great comfort to them,and the Christian ethics system is imo equal to any and decidedly superior to most.

I actually had to google the dawkins delusion to see what it is,it is that far out of the mainstream of biology.What it is is of a piece with intelligent design,a political movement to teach religion under the guise of science in the public schools. You can sum Dawkin's position in regards to religion up in one line,not Dawkin's originally but probably the simplest description of his position.It goes more or less like this.When an individual suffers from a delusion,he is said to be insane,but when many people suffer from the same delusion,they are described not as insane but religous.

I do not question your beliefs,as I cannot disprove them,and it is certainly a fact that Darwin himself was a believer.Never the less there is nothing to be gained by positing a god as the source of life,as it simply shoves the horizon back to the next question,which is who made god.There is on the other hand much to be lost,witness the slow to non existent progress of civilization during the thousand or so years that the church controlled our minds up until the Enlightenment.

As a matter of fact I spent a good many years trying to reconcile the obvious truths of the physical sciences with the Baptist paradigm taught to me as a little kid.It is very hard to abandon the most cherished beliefs of your culture,but I eventually settled on science for thinking and explaining,and religion for guidance in my relations with my fellow men.So I think like a godless heathen,but I live like most Baptists.We sin all week,regret it on Sunday morning,rest up Sunday evening,and get started again early Monday morning.

I realize that I might have ,maybe definitely would have been happier had I never been down this road,but somebody sold my parents a set of the World Book Encyclopedia around the time I was in the fifth or sixth grade,and I finished it up more or less straight thru pretty quick. They most certainly never would have allowed it in our home,much less sacrificed to pay for it,if they had any knowledge of it's contents.

It is often said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.I would add that too much knowledge can be a far more dangerous thing,meaning of course dangerous to peace of mind,marital bliss,etc.I have been known to refer to this observation as Mac's Corollary,although it is almost certainly something retrieved from the memory warehouse minus it's certificate of origin.

It may be that you have traveled a similar path and accepted Darwin and still maintained your faith in God as you percieve Him,or Her.

I simply could not find the evidence necessary to do so.Somewhere along the way,I ran into story along the lines of this one.A team of doctors,thier transportation and supplies paid for by a church,are working frantically to save as many little kids as they can during a famine,knowing that a timely rain would save the lives of 50,000 Ibo babies-and knowing that God was not going to send that rain.It doesn't really matter if this story is true,although I believe it is,or if the one that finally broke the back of my belief,which I cannot even remember,is true.

"I simply could not find the evidence necessary to do so.Somewhere along the way,I ran into story along the lines of this one.A team of doctors,thier transportation and supplies paid for by a church,are working frantically to save as many little kids as they can during a famine,knowing that a timely rain would save the lives of 50,000 Ibo babies-and knowing that God was not going to send that rain.It doesn't really matter if this story is true,although I believe it is,or if the one that finally broke the back of my belief,which I cannot even remember,is true."

It seems you simply can't come to grips with the problem that there is Good and Evil in this world.

The good part is that it seems you think God to be Good. The bad part is that you don't believe in God.

By the way, to blame the Christian religion for "slow or non progress" for a thousand years until the Enligthenment, does not reflect the facts.

And the advantage of having God at the origin of the Universe is that you don't have to look any further. Science, by definition, certainly cannot never arrive to the Cause of all causes. So, by your own reasoning, "there is nothing to be gained" by Science either....


Actually I do believe that reigion has many positive attributes,and can be and has been of inestimable value to both individuals and societies in many cases.Whether religion is a net gain for humanity depends on the time and place as far as I can see.In times gone by it probably had more survival value than it does today,but otoh,maybe we would still be living in very small groups as hunters gatherers w/o it.(Some believe that religion is the glue that allows leaders to maintain control of large groups of people.)THAT would solve nearly all the problems would it not?

As to whether I believe in "good and evil",in my belly I do,and I recoil from unnecessary suffering,etc.Philosophically it seems to me that good and evil are human constructs,and that "sharks and minnows"is a construction with far greater explanatory powers.When my hounds chase rabbits, they do so with happy goofy grins and joyous howls and furiously wagging tails,but I expect that the rabbits ,if they were capable of expressing thier emotions would picture them as Vikings demons or worse.

Now as to whether there is anything to be gained from science,it does seem to me that evolutionary biology offers us a better understanding of who we are than religion,but that is just my personal opinion.The leaders of the various religions have most certainly displayed an astounding aptitude for practical psychology,so maybe they know more than the scientists.

Now as to whether science has anything further to offer I humbly submit that it makes this dialogue possible.

Leaders of religions are perhaps no different than leaders of political parties, etc... And I for one wouldn't equate an aptitude for practical psychology with "knowing more than the scientists", but I also reject that the notion "the scientists" are some elite group who "know more". Know more what/than whom?

The eater and the being eaten comparison doesn't even come close to the Good and Evil problem I was hinting at. Of course "being eaten" is pretty bad for the poor minnow as it terminates its existence. But if per your approach a pedofile who preys on innocent children is merely a "human construct" and not some inherent disorder, I think you have lost all sense of morality.

And that would be no surprise to me because it seems a logical outcome of believing in "evolutionary biology" that humans are thus merely evolved beasts. It never has and never will teach morality whereas religion will just do that.

If there are any pedophiles in this nieghborhood,they better lay low and keep very very quiet,or they will simply disappear.Some of the guys that will help will believe they are doing God's work,but as far as I personally am concerned,the universe won't miss them,and as I said before,unnecessary suffering is something I INTENSELY dislike.Otoh,I adore little kids.

Scotts Irish Old Testament Baptist hillbillies do indeed still live by the old rules in many places in the the mountians of the southeast,and one of the strongest of all of our taboos is the prohibition of informing.Nobody would say a thing,not that more than a small handful would know anything anyway,and there are miles and miles of deep woods and backroads.The local preachers will have no trouble finding the chapter and verse necessary to justify helping such a character along to his ultimate destination.If God himself intends that such a person should burn in everlasting fire forever,given the length of the sentence with no possibility of parole and no time off for good behavior,then surely it must be at most only a very minor offense to deliver the prisoner to the jailer a few lousy years ahead of schedule.

You are correct in saying that evolutionary biology does not teach morality,but it does throw some light on the subject.

As far as humans being evolved "beasts",that term is also a construct that implies superiority on our part to other animals.

Any further discussion will be pointless since you obviously do not believe in evolution,and I
don't believe in God in any sense of the term that would mean anything to you.Nether of us has a snowballs chance on a red hot stove of convincing the other.

Responding in reverse order:

Probably pointless to continue this indeed. One believes only what one wants to.

The very term "evolution" implies superiority, no matter how you want to slice it.

I don't know what light evolutionary biology could throw on the issue of Good and Evil.

The "don't tell" behavior is common to all close-knit communities. Nothing special there for hillbillie baptists. The Christian, unlike in any other religion, is faced with the dilemma to abide by laws of society (and should therefore contribute to "deliver the convict to the jailer") but he should also forgive any who "are indebted" to him.

It's good that you don't like unnecessary suffering. But how would you have gotten that sentiment from "evolutionary biology"? And would the universe miss you?

The universe will not miss me.A few individuals will remember me for a few years,and I will entirely forgotten,unless maybe some day some curious person pulls a copy of this exchange from a dusty library stack,in the course of researching the history of peak oil perhaps,and wonders,briefly,who I -and you- might have been.

Evolutionary psychology holds that since we ARE our genes,in roughly the same sense that a chicken is the egg and the egg is the chicken,that when we look after our children we are in essence looking after ourselves.Our closest kin are our children and our parents,with whom we share the maximum number of genes.The closer kin you are to someone the more genes you share with them.This is why ,in terms of evolutionary biology,we take care of our families first.Folk wisdom expresses this same behavior as"blood is thicker than water."Our children mean more to us than our nephews and nieces but our nephews and nieces mean more to us than the nieghbors kids.

That does not mean that the survival advantage of group cooperation is limited to our known blood relatives.It extends to working with or helping any other individuals that we recognize as "us"as opposed to "them".The concept extends all the way out to helping even complete strangers as the brain is flexible and it is not uncommon to hear about someone risking thier life to help strangers,except when the stranger is very strongly perceived as "them".So a soldier on the battle field in the same uniform is "us",and many troops risk thier lives to save others for no more reason than this.A civilian caught on the field will elicit a lesser response than a comrade,but he stands some chance of rescue just the same.An enemy troop's chance of rescue is slim,but not zero,because some individuals will respond to him as an "us"-a human being-more strongly than as a "them"-the enemy who wants to kill"us",enslave our children,and ravish our women.And replace our genes with thiers.

The impulse to help another human is never zero because we share some genes with all other humans.So I can respond to little kids by wanting to protect them even though they are not my own kids.I can respond to someone who deliberately harms little kids as a "them" by getting rid of them just as I would get rid of a vicious dog.

Some poeple go so far as to extend this theory as the explaination of the love of nature.They could be correct,as we share a most of our genes with all the "higher" animals,and some with even the "low" life forms.

Incidentally when a biologist talks about higher and lower forms,the terms are descriptive of the time frame and lineage involved in the evolution of the organism,and do NOT mean that a chimp is inherently superior to say a dog perhaps.In terms of evolution you and I are leaves or twigs at the end of branches that are high up on the "evolutionary tree"simply because the YOUNGEST BRANCHES are DEPICTED as generally near the top of the tree.That does not mean that a twig at the outer end of a lower limb is in any way inferior to a twig near the top.It is the newest and latest model on that particular branch,and may very well possess features far superior to some other organism 'higher"up.It might also still be around and reproducing millions of years from now when the entire top of the tree is extinct.The tip of every twig is a new and evolving organism.

I have done the best I can to try to explain a this complicated subject in a few words when entire books are better suited to the task.Furthermore I am not a fully trained biologist and my formal training in psychology consists of only a couple of semester as an undergrad a LONG time ago,so there may well be errors in this summary-but not big ones imo..I have read widely in this field because reading is my thing and I am fortunate enough to be able to pursue it.

Remember Pogo, and that "We have met the enemy,and they is us."
Hope I got it right.

"Our children mean more to us than our nephews and nieces but our nephews and nieces mean more to us than the nieghbors kids.

That does not mean that the survival advantage of group cooperation is limited to our known blood relatives.It extends to working with or helping any other individuals that we recognize as "us"as opposed to "them"."

The second sentence undermines the first one and your argument that our affections are entirely "gene-based". Why do people love dogs?

Let's keep it simple: Superior just means higher.

You qoute back three sentences in two paragraphs and I am unable determine exactly why you say my second sentence contradicts the first one.

As I said I cannot lucidly explain this rather involved subject in a couple of paragraphs;all
I can do is try to give you an very limited insight into it.If you want to understand it,you will have to put some serious effort into it.

Dogs are on our "us" list is the short answer.

Words mean very specific things in the sciences, and the meanings are very often radically different from the meaning of the same word in ordinary usage.

"Evolution is just a theory" is a so called rebuttal of evolutionary theory frequently heard and repeated by people who don't believe in it.They think the "theory" of evolution is analogous to say the theory that ufos(which BY DEFINITION MUST EXIST,since they are frequently seen by reputable observers) are flying saucers full of little green men.This every day language"theory" is entirely unsupported by ANY OBSERVABLE facts. You might believe in the crashed saucers supposedly in the possession of the military,but you can't show them to me so they are not evidence.

Otoh,evolutionary theory is supported by the work of generations of scientists all over the world,and the fastest route to the top for any one of them is either a new discovery or finding a good proof of error in AN ACCEPTED THEORY.

Since it stand up to this constant scrutiny,we can be sure that if it is not absolutely correct,it is at least far closer to correct than any other HYPOTHESIS regarding the origin and variety of life.

There will be additions and modifications to evolutionary theory,but they will strengthen it rather than otherwise.

These aren't necessarily my top three, but they are three that haven't been mentioned yet...

Diamond's Collapse has been mentioned, but just as interesting is his earlier book, about why our society arose in the first place. Why did Europe conquer the New World, rather than the other way around?

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Explaining what William McNeill called "The Rise of the West" has become the central problem in the study of global history. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond presents the biologist's answer: geography, demography, and ecological happenstance.

Stoneleigh wrote a great synopsis/review of this one a couple of years ago:

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization by Thomas Homer-Dixon

With easy-to-understand terminology and a mountain of research, Toronto author Homer-Dixon (The Ingenuity Gap) faces down imminent, unavoidable and catastrophic threats to modern civilization, keeping a wary eye on mankind's chances to adapt. Methodically illustrating how the modern world is doomed to suffer a large-scale breakdown, Homer-Dixon enumerates the "tectonic stresses" on civilization-population growth disparities, energy scarcity, environmental damage, and economic instabilities-and the "multipliers"-increasing global connectivity and small groups' ability to enact destruction-that help propel them. Woven throughout are well-illustrated comparisons between the current state of industrialized nations-especially the U.S.-with the unsustainable complexities, and subsequent downfall, of the Roman Empire.

And this was a book I read as a child, that was fundamental in forming my worldview. It's a bit dated now in some ways, but still very influential and worth a look:

The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig: Riddles of Food and Culture, by Marvin Harris

A prolific writer, he was highly influential in the development of cultural materialism. In his work he combined Karl Marx's emphasis on the forces of production with Malthus's insights on the impact of demographic factors on other parts of the sociocultural system. (from Wikipedia)

I liked Marvin Harris' Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches", from back in the mists of time, bibliographically speaking.

Energy, work, and biology foundations:

Morowitz, Harold J., (1968). Energy Flow in Biology, Acdemic Press, New York.

Morowitz originated the deep analysis of how energy flow through a system acts to organize that system. This is truly seminal work in explaining how organization emerges (self-organization depends on the availability of the right kinds of energy) and is the basis for understanding evolution as a progressive complexification so long as energy flows through the system.

Schneider, Eric D. & Sagan, Dorion, (2005). Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Schneider & Sagan extend Morowitz's thesis and expand the relationship between living systems as dissipative structures always needing to increase entropy in their environment in order to continue living and reproducing. By extension, what humans are doing in finding new ways to expend energy is actually right in order with these principles. Humans are naturally wasteful until some form of feedback control moderates their excesses.

Psychological foundations:

Sternberg, Robert J. (ed.) (1990). Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Sternberg edited this illuminating volume to explore the nature and psychological basis of wisdom. Wisdom is sorely absent in human affairs, especially as they pertain to wasteful and globe damaging behaviors. This is the missing element in controlling our profligate increasing in entropy in the Earth environment.

If anyone is interested in a wide range of books along these lines, I have prepared a bibliography at:

I spend no small amount of time discussing the issues arising from the convergence of inadequate wisdom (sapience) and energy flow at Question Everything


Thanks for the suggestions. I frequently ask my students to chart what they consider to be the increase in technical knowledge and power over the last hundred years. Usually the come up with some kind of exponential upward curve.

Then I ask them to chart what they think was the increase in wisdom over the last century. Those who accept the challenge usually produce a flat line or one that linearly and gradually rises or even falls.

This is my way of suggesting that, while technical knowledge and power isn't necessarily an evil in itself, when power far exceeds wisdom or maturity, you generally run in to problems.

We all know this, of course. It is why we don't generally hand live chainsaws to four year olds. But that is essentially done for ourselves--place in our hands powers over others and the world that are far beyond our wisdom to wield them without destroying ourselves and the world.

Pigs For the Ancestors
This influential work is the most important and widely cited book ever published in ecological anthropology. It is a classic case study of human ecology in a tribal society, the role of culture (especially ritual) in local and regional resource management, negative feedback, and the application of systems theory to an anthropological population. It is considered a major work of theory, yet it is also empirically grounded in Rappaport's meticulous collection of quantitative and qualitative data on such "material" matters as diet and energy expenditure, as well as such mental-cognitive domains as myth and folk taxonomies.

The Happiness Hypothesis
I loved this book. The basic theme is one oft repeated on theoildrum - that people make decisions with their guts and then use their brains to rationalize those decisions. I've just also bought Jonah Lehrer "How We Decide" but have yet to open it.

Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, and Ethics

One of my first intros to topics on sustainability - from amazon:

Valuing the Earth collects more than twenty classic and recent essays that broaden economic thinking by setting the economy in its proper ecological and ethical context. They vividly demonstrate that, contrary to current macroeconomic preoccupations, continued growth on a planet of finite resources cannot be physically or economically sustained and is morally undesirable.

Among the issues addressed are population growth, resource use, pollution, theology (east and west), energy, and economic growth. Their common theme is the notion, popular with classical economists from Malthus to Mill, that an economic stationary state is more healthful to life on earth than unlimited growth. A number of essays in the first edition have become classics and have been retained for this edition, which adds six new essays.

Economics, Ecology, Ethics. Essays Toward A Steady-State Economy Edited by Herman E. Daly
Compiled in 1980 includes essays by Daly, Garrett Hardin (Tragedy of the Commons), Georgescu-Roegen, Kenneth Boulding and more.

A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold

The Lorax

I don't read much. Can't see.

A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman.

It gives a good sense of where we are headed if we aren't careful!

Tuchman's "March of Folly" is also an essential corrective for anyone who still mistakenly attaches too much hope or respect to those in positions of high authority.

These three are followups-books suggested by the other suggestions.

For the talk of fish and fishing on TOD today, and The River Why,

A River Runs Through It--Norman Maclean.
"All there is to thinking" he said, "is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren't noticing which makes you see something that isn't even visible."

For what might have been and the world can save itself,

It's a Wonderful Life--Stephen Gould
Life marches on, evolutionary history, and bilateral symmetry isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Finally, for the least appreciated and perhaps greatest biome,

Grassland--Richard Manning.
A blend of biology, natural history, and the history of the North American grassland.

I have to echo the others here have said (a) great idea for a thread (b)what an interesting selection of books and (c)it's so hard to choose only three! But here goes:

The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler
Everyday when I read the news, listen to people and read TOD, I am astounded that I do not hear a single thing today that was not discussed by Alvin Toffler in 1980, from gay marriage to the collapse of GM, from resource depletion to relocalization, from currency bubbles to the collapse of the banking system. We are just now getting to where he was 29 years ago.

Modern historical and social philosophies
by Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin
A librarian gave me this book, a little paperback, saying that I had been the only person to ever check it out of the library! I had checked it out about 6 times.

It is hard to find, a collection and examination of historical theories from Nikolay Danilevsky to Oswald Spengler's "Decline of the West", from Arnold Toynbee to F.S.C. Northrop to Albert Schweitzer to Pitirim Sorokin himself. The book exposed me to the cyclical philosophies of history, to the aesthetic forces that are manifested in various types and various stages of a cultures history, and the idea of a cultural destiny that shapes in ways both great and small the very core of a cultures belief, desire and even it's look and sound. It began a journey for me that will last until I die.

Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area by Harry Caudill

Caudill's book is a ground level look at a world that is easy to romanticise, but very difficult to live, the world of rural and poor Kentucky. I was raised in Kentucky and still live here, and often wondered "why do we persist in staying so poor?" Caudill examines how the poverty of Appalachia came to be and why it is so hard to get it to change. Caudill indicates that poverty is as much a cultural and aesthetic issue as it is an economic one. For those who would extoll the virtues of "simplicity" and low consumption, please consider the lives of people who were born into it and have spent their lives there. PLEASE think about the implications of driving the world backward to this level. It may have to happen, but please think about it honestly and openly. Caudill will leave you with many hard questions to answer.

So that's my three, and as runner up and a work of fiction (or is it?) "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert Pirzig. His "Metaphysics of Quality" is an astounding intellectual idea, still virtually undiscovered by most thinkers. That will change.


Out I think Toffler wrote another book Future Shock which in the long ago and far away,I read like a drowning man sucks air.I can't put my hands on it,probably loaned it one time too many.I 'm glad you reminded me so I could mention it here,now I gotta hunt up a copy of the Third Wave,which I somehow missed.

"PLEASE think about the implications of driving the world backward to this level"
yes, that level is life on the edge of a knife, no slack in any ones rope. conditions that seriously test ones morality .
I myself suffered from this fantasy when i was younger and smoking lots of dope. "it'll be great no one will have to work we'll eat freash from our permaculture garden we can all sit around and make handi crafts and practise natural medicine."
i wasnt quite this deluded but you get the idea
one book that opened my eyes was "FIREFOX" series documenting life in Appalachia in early 20th century. interviews with the old timers who grew up then ,they document all the various skills with photos, unbelievable really.
sustainability is a very radical idea

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilizationby Thomas Homer-Dixon.

I didn't like this book the first time I read it. But as I read other books, I kept thinking, "Thomas Homer-Dixon said that better. And he related it to our other big problems, in context." It was a much better book the second time I read it, and even better the third time. :-)

Permaculture: A Designers' Manual by Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay.

Especially read the sections influenced by David Holmgren, on community sustainability. You can't be "self sufficient"; it's a nonsense. Humans are social animals.

Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World by John Sterman.

A textbook, yes. But study it and you will have some useful tools for computer-aided thinking about the "boundary issues" we are facing.

And (sorry -- but it's more like light relief) Wonderful Life, for an idea about what's in store for our successors.

A few books I have read recently that offer new perspectives are:

The origin of wealth - by Eric Beinhocker. It offers a biological view of economies, as complex adaptive systems, and critiques conventional economist's views. Its an attempt to bring economics into line with the scientific thinking of the last 80 or so years.

A theory of everything - by Ken Wilber. It is a perception altering book and offers an integrated framework for understanding and analyzing anything.

The future of money - by Bernard Lietaer. Analyzes the flaws with fiat currencies and advocates the use of complimentary currencies. It provides a very well informed glimpse into what our economic future might look like.

All of these have in some way shaped my current understandings and offer visions and tools for a better future.

The future of money - by Bernard Lietaer: Epic, but almost impossible to find, particularly in the US.

Joseph Tainter's "Collapse of Complex Societies" opened up a whole new way of thinking for me. Much better than Jared Diamond's book. Tainter explains why and how some societies respond positively to challenges (like environmental challenges or energy challenges), why other societies fail to respond, and at exactly what point a society in the first group tips over into becoming a society in the second group.

Tainter's conclusions about modern society are superficially upbeat, but if you follow his argument through the book it dawns on you (well it dawned on me) that fundamentally we're in a very bad way indeed.

Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. I first read it when I was 7, and have returned to it again over the years. Anyone who would like to be rich, I recommend should read this book, it worked for me.

Metaman by Gregory Stock. His hypothesis is a mind-blowing synthesis of James Lovelock's Gaia theory and the Matrix. All the biological systems of the earth are connected in one giant earth system; and the electrical systems, pipes, infrastructure connecting the earth together is all part of the Earth meta-organism's evolution. A fantastic book if you are open minded and prepared to have your worldview challenged.

The Web of Life by Fritjof Capra. For anyone who enjoyed James Gleick's Chaos, this is a great follow-up - a deeper dive into the world of complex systems. It changed the way I think about the Nature of the world.

I also agree with the previous recommendations of Daniel Quinn's Ishmael. It should be compulsory reading in schools, as should The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.


I would like to recommend:

1) PLAN C, by: Pat Murphy

And, for those who want nice explanations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics:
2) THE SECOND LAW by: P.W. Atkins (Scientific American Library)

3) The Refrigerator and the Universe: Understanding the Laws of Energy
by: Martin Goldstein and Inge F. Goldstein

I can't recommend this book as I just ordered it today, but I like Wranghams other books:

Catching Fire

“The extra energy gave the first cooks biological advantages. They survived and reproduced better than before. Their genes spread. Their bodies responded by biologically adapting to cooked food, shaped by natural selection to take maximum advantage of the new diet. There were changes in anatomy, physiology, ecology, life history, psychology and society.” Put simply, Mr. Wrangham writes that eating cooked food — whether meat or plants or both —made digestion easier, and thus our guts could grow smaller. The energy that we formerly spent on digestion (and digestion requires far more energy than you might imagine) was freed up, enabling our brains, which also consume enormous amounts of energy, to grow larger. The warmth provided by fire enabled us to shed our body hair, so we could run farther and hunt more without overheating. Because we stopped eating on the spot as we foraged and instead gathered around a fire, we had to learn to socialize, and our temperaments grew calmer.

So we're "fire symbiotes" in much the same way that termites are symbiotic with the cellulose-digesting protozoa in their gut.

I realize this strains the current definition of symbiosis, but it works for me. Homo incendius?

My 3 books are:
Direct Use of the Sun's Energy, by Farrington Daniels, an early work on Solar and its applications, everything from refrigerating, to cooking, to distilling, etc.
Published 1964. Daniels was apparently connected in some way with the Manhattan Project, and it appears he converted to solar.
The second would be the collected works of David Gingery, a machinist and inventor who has put out such wonderful small books as Building your own metal lathe, building a charcoal foundry/forge, building your own sheet metal brake, etc. Unfortunately, these have not been bound into a single volume yet.
The last would be the Urantia Book, published 1955, which is the granddaddy of cosmology and esoterics. A series of 200 papers, authorless, on the nature of the Universe, and our place in it. Having read it on and off for 30 some years now, I am still amazed at it. It's one of those books where the authorship is less important than the concepts one gets from reading it. It's where I escape when doomerism gets too doomerish.

BTW, I've started a small lending library of some of the other great books I've found, and suggest you might consider doing that for your area. An old listing of some of the books I've collected can be found at Or at least used to be there. I'll certainly lend these to locals who are interested.

Nice. It also suggests that once we figured out how to burn it, we were biologically predisposed to burn fossil fuels. Burning seems something people have turned to as an answer to difficult situations over and over again--burning books, burning trash, burning ffs...Early (and many modern tribal) humans apparently burned vast forests and prairies to flush out game and alter the habitat.

So many books, how to mention just a few?

Thinking in terms of non-fiction, here are a few (not an exhaustive list) "theory-oriented" books that deeply influenced my thinking:

Small is Beautiful by EF Schumacher. This was the book that caused me to re-think my (at the time) technophillia, and to realize that the latest and greatest and bigger high-tech wasn't necessarilly so great after all, that there was more to be said for smaller and more simple than the dominant culture acknowledged.

The Breakdown of Nations by Leopold Kohr. This does for politics what Schumacher did for technology. Kohr made me re-think and start to fundamentally question the prevailing notion that large imperialst nation states are a good thing.

The Evolution of Cooperation by Axlerod. This caused me to challenge the notion that competition - "nature red in touth in claw" - is the ultimate and inevitable organizing principle in both nature and in human societies. Axlerod demonstrated that cooperation emerges naturally and is a winning strategy.

The Limits to Growth by Meadows et al. This opened my eyes to what now seems to be utterly obvious and is playing out in real life: you can't have infinite growth on a finite planet.

Farmers of Forty Centuries by King. There have been lots of books making the case for organic agricultural & horticultural methods, but nothing speaks louder and more eloquently than the success of a major chunk of the world's population in sustaining themselves and their civilizations over the course of four thousand years. I found this to be a more convincing case than anything written by Rodale, et al.

John Michael Greer has a interesting review of "Small is Beautiful" on his latest post. Give it a read. Read it many many years ago and agree this book is a classic for understanding our situation.

Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture. J. Russel Smith

Towards a Sustainable Economy (The need for fundamental change)Ted Trainer

Trainer, unlike Herman Daily, understand that capital markets cannot be tranformed into an effective tool for an economy which is trying to create sustainable wealth.

Unto this Last John Ruskin

This book is more about the social injustice engendered by capitalism than about sustainability, although Ruskin understands very well that endless accumulation of wealth as the primary economic goal is desctructive. A representitive quote:

The real science of political economy, which has yet to be distinguished from the bastard science, as medicine from witchcraft, and astronomy from astrology, is that which teaches nations to desire and labour for the things that lead to life: and which teaches them to scorn and destroy the things that lead to destruction. And if, in a state of infancy, they supposed indifferent things, such as excrescences of shell-fish, and pieces of blue and red stone, to be valuable, and spent large measures of the labour which ought to be employed for the extension and ennobling of life, in diving or digging for them, and cutting them into various shapes,or if, in the same state of infancy, they imagine precious and beneficent things, such as air, light, and cleanliness, to be valueless,-or if, finally, they imagine the conditions of their own existence, by which alone they can truly possess or use anything, such, for instance, as peace, trust, and love, to be prudently exchangeable, when the markets offer, for gold, iron, or excresrences of shells -- the great and only science of Political Economy teaches them, in all these cases, what is vanity, and what substance; and how the service of Death, the lord of Waste, and of eternal emptiness, differs from the service of Wisdom, the lady of Saving, and of eternal fulness; she who has said, "I will cause those that love me to inherit SUBSTANCE; and I will FILL their treasures."

I haven't a copy of this nor did I ever re-read it, but it sowed seed crystals in my thoughts. Can't really say I recommend it as the insights it triggered off are now commonplace. Just checked Amazon to see if it was still around. What's with the pricing?
Human Scale (Paperback)
by Kirkpatrick Sale (Author)
2 new from $82.70 16 used from $3.62

Three other titles to add to the list:

The Long Descent by J Michael Greer (2008)
I found the concept of episodic contractions (catabolic collapse) to fit well with my perspectives (as well as other past collapses of large complex civilizations). Seems like we have made good headway into the first step down.

The Systems Approach and Its Enemies
C. West Churchman, 1979
Takes a more philosophical look at systems approaches to addressing complex human problems. The author has interesting insights into how systems thinking (and by extension logic and scientific thinking) applied to influence politics, religion or social issues can end up being "flipped". For example a systems approach to politics (i.e. aiming to influence politics via logical systems approaches) can be effectively absorbed by the political system to become a political approach to systems (for example "greenwashing").

Our Ecological Footprint
Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, 1996
I saw a presentation by Bill Rees about 2 decades ago, when he was developing the ecological footprint concept, and it left a lasting impression on me. He showed that we would need two additional earth-like planets (unoccupied by people of course) to sustain a North American lifestyle for everyone (back when we had 5.8 billion people...).

I think it's more like six earths now. Check

On a similar vein, but more detailed is Radical Simplicity.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams, 1979
1) Explores the trichotomy of the dualism between what we foolishly think is our place in the Universe and the reality of the actual place against the monism of the 'Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, ....'
2) Don't worry, improbability will save (a few of)us

Only one?

Maybe I missed it above - but has anybody read and could comment?
Mentioned by Satyajit Das recently

Mancur Olson the American economist, in his books (The Logic of Collective Action and The Rise and Decline of Nations), speculated that small distributional coalitions tend to form over time in developed nations and influence policies in their favor through intensive, well funded lobbying. The policies result in benefits for the coalitions and its members but large costs borne by the rest of population.

Certainly true of crop biotechnology when I was up close to that industry a while ago.

I posted a long list of books by mistake and the whole post was simply deleted. Why couldn't you have just shortened it?

Nothing was deleted. Are you sure it wasn't the other thread?

Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner
This is how the destruction actually works.

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin
A glimpse of the connection to the real world we lost so long ago.

The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides
Written 431 BCE, never gets old. Human nature is a durable, constant factor.

Can we take hope? Sure, if you like; but change – dire, unpredictable, severe – is upon us regardless.