HOW TO SAVE THE WORLD READING LIST

.In Beyond Civilization, Daniel Quinn says:

People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea than now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate them. Don’t preach. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.


When presenting a new idea, you don’t have to have all the answers. It’s better to say ‘I don’t know’ than to fake it. Make people formulate their own questions. Don’t take on the responsibility of figuring out what their difficulty is. We each internalize information differently. If you don’t understand a question, keep insisting they explain it until it’s clear. Nine times out of ten they’ll supply the answer themselves.


Above all, listen. Your close attention is sometimes more important than your articulateness in winning converts. And learning is always a good thing.


When I’ve talked to people about the ideas I’ve presented in this blog, I get the sense that maybe 10% really understand and appreciate what I’m saying. Perhaps another 40% are ready to listen and want to believe, but either my inarticulateness or their internalization mechanism garbles the message. After all, saving the world (or, as one recent commenter ‘geo’ put it more accurately “changing how humans live so we as a species can continue to survive”) is not easy or obvious, or we’d all be busy doing it. This reading list is for that 40%, in the hope that better writers than I can convey more clearly and compellingly what we need to do and why. The remaining 50%, I suspect, are not ready. Five years ago someone gave me The Spell of the Sensuous and I gave up after five pages — I just wasn’t ready.

Here’s the list — 56 books and articles that forever changed my worldview, and my purpose for living::

What Life was Really Like Before Civilization: Revisionist History

  • Full House, by the late Stephen J. Gould. The presence of man on Earth was a random occurrence, and after the next Extinction Event life on the planet is likely to evolve differently. We are not the Crown of Creation.
  • The Wealth of Man by Peter Jay. The life of pre-historic man was easy, idyllic, and very pleasant. Hunt big slow game an hour a day, relax and enjoy the rest.
  • The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, (online) essay by Jared Diamond Why the adoption of agriculture was ‘a catastrophe from which we have never recovered’.
  • Original Affluence, by Marshall Sahlins. If you wanted to defend a new society that featured rigid hierarchy, agonizingly hard work, suffering, frequent starvation and slavery, wouldn’t you try to portray the alternative life as ‘short, nasty and brutish’?
  • Extinction, by Michael Boulter. Our planet’s history is one of cycles punctuated by massive extinctions and new beginnings. Our only choice is whether to end this one sooner (a century) or later (several millennia).
  • The Axemaker’s Gift by James Burke and Robert Ornstein. How innovativeness has been increasingly corrupted to concentrate and retain power, instead of making the world better.

What’s Going On Under our Noses: The Real News

  • The Unconscious Civilization, by John Ralston Saul. How and why we’ve become helpless slaves of the political and economic system we built.
  • Ockham’s Razor, by Wade Rowland. What’s wrong with our modern values, and where to look for new ones.
  • People Before Profit, by Charles Derber — How rampant corporatism ravaged the vast majority of people worldwide in the 1800s, and is doing so again.
  • State of the World, by WorldWatch Institute, The 7 trends that most threaten eco-collapse: population growth, rising temperature, falling water tables, shrinking cropland per person, collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests, and the extinction of plant and animal species.
  • World Scientists’ Warning (online), by the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished. A great change in our stewardship of the Earth and life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”
  • Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry. “We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.”
  • The Future of Freedom, by Fareed Zakaria Why we can’t change another country’s culture from outside it.
  • The New Rules of the World, by John Pilger An accurate, devastating portrait of the world in 2003.
  • The Demon in the Freezer, by Richard Preston. How vulnerable we all are to individual acts of terror, chaos and sabotage.
  • Against the Grain, by Richard Manning. How grain monoculture evolved, and how it’s ruining the Earth.
  • Population Projections, by US Census Bureau. They’re no longer assuring us that US and Global Population will level out at 300 million and 9 billion. Would you believe 1 billion and 12 billion by the end of the century, and still rising?
  • Global Warming, by NOAA. An online synopsis of US scientists’ consensus on the causes and consequences of global warming.
  • This Overheating World – Worried? Us? (online essay) by Bill McKibben. Article in the UK journal Granta explaining the psychology, and cynical political expediency, of denial.
  • Are Cities Changing Local and Global Climates?, (online) by NASA. Studies of urban microclimates and how they contribute to local climate change and instability.
  • Restoring Scientific Integrity (online) by Union of Concerned Scientists. The Bush regime’s distortion of scientific research to forward its own political agenda.
  • Climate Collapse, by David Stipp (online article) from Fortune Magazine. The possibility and chilling implications of global warming producing sudden drastic climate shifts.
  • Conservative Myths on Global Warming (online) by Blogger Carpe Datum. A brief but thorough explanation of the science behind global warming, and the reasoning behind scientists’ connecting it to human activity and worrying about the risks of resultant instability
  • The Empire Strikes Out, by Kenny Ausubel. Corporatism and acquisitiveness run amok are ruining our world, but nature always bats last.
  • The Tragedy of the Commons, by Garry Harding. The commons, that which belongs in common to all of us, is disappearing — Why nobody really cares.
  • Elizabeth Costello, by JM Coetzee. Why we tolerate a holocaust against our fellow creatures on Earth.
  • The Machine in Our Heads, by Glenn Parton. How the ecological crisis is rooted in a human psychological crisis.

About Gaia: What Nature is Really About

  • When Elephants Weep, by Jeff Masson. Compelling scientific evidence that animals feel deep emotions.
  • Mind of the Raven, by Bernd Heinrich. Compelling scientific evidence that animals are intelligent, complex, rational and communicative.
  • The Sacred Balance by David Suzuki. A passionate explanation of James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, the need to redesign how we live, and the importance of spending more time in nature.
  • The Hidden Dimension, by Edward Hall. We need space and a natural environment to be healthy and human. When we’re deprived of them, we get mentally ill.
  • The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram. How to reconnect with nature, and rediscover wonder.

Radical Analysis, Radical Solutions (these are the most important readings, but you probably won’t ‘buy’ their arguments unless you’ve first read much of the material above)

  • Ishmael, The Story of B, and Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn. Also the IshCon discussion forum. The first two of these three books are fictionalized stories about human history from a different, anti-civilization perspective, with penetrating, astounding analysis and insight. Ishmael is more popular but I prefer The Story of B which recapitulates the entire theses in a series of ‘lectures’. The two critical lectures are online here. Beyond Civilization is about what we should do about all this.
  • A Language Older Than Words, by Derrick Jensen. A profound and disturbing argument for why moderate answers to our current predicament won’t work.
  • The World We Want, by Mark Kingwell. Why we are best served by trusting our instincts rather than what we are persuaded is moral or rational.

Toolkit for Change: Knowledge We Can Use to Save the World

  • Freeman Dyson’s Brain (online interview), in Wired Magazine. The twin keys to building a better world are (a) establishing viable self-sufficient local communities to replace big centralized states and governments, and (b) selective more-with-less technologies like solar/wind energy coops and biotech medicines.
  • The Developing Ideas Interview (online) with economist Herman Daly. An economic and tax program that favours communities and commons instead of corporations, and a ‘contract’ to reduce our population and ecological footprint.
  • The Unconquerable World, by Jon Schell. Why non-violence and consensus-building are the only viable way forward.
  • The Support Economy, by Shoshana Zuboff A model for a post-capitalist economy.
  • Unequal Protection, by Thom Hartmann. The case for denying ‘personhood’ to corporations.
  • When Corporations Rule the World, by David Korten. The need to get corporations out of politics and create localized economies that empower communities within a system of global cooperation, overcoming the myths about economic growth and the sanctification of greed, and focusing instead on overconsumption, poverty, overpopulation, and reining in untrammelled corporate power.
  • Radical Simplicity, by Jim Merkel. How to free yourself from possessions and wage slavery without sacrifice.
  • The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. What makes things change.
  • Ten Ways to Make a Difference, by Peter Singer. A pragmatic recipe for change.
  • The Truth About Stories, by Thomas King. The truth about stories is that that’s all we are. Want a new society? Write a new story.
  • The Boycott List, by Responsible Shopper, and Good Stuff, by the WorldWatch Institute. What not to buy, and what to buy instead.
  • The Corporation, by Joel Bakan. An action plan for undermining corporatism.
  • Humans in the Wilderness, by Glenn Parton. How we might reintroduce humans, well-spaced-out, into a primarily wilderness Earth.
  • At Home in the Universe, by Stuart Kauffman. How self-organizing, self-managing systems work.
  • EarthDance (entire book online), by Elisabet Sahtouris. Eleven steps to cultural metamorphosis (my summary is here)
  • eGaia (entire book online), by Gary Alexander. How to achieve of peace, cooperation and sustainability (replacing war, competition and growth, the fuels of our current culture) and a future state vision with vignettes from individuals’ lives in a balanced and harmonious future world.

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20 Responses to HOW TO SAVE THE WORLD READING LIST

  1. Myke says:

    I’m surprised that “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart” is not in your “Toolkit for Change” list. I think it is a very important book about working with nature.

  2. Doug Alder says:

    I haven’t read Peter Jay’s The Wealth of Man so i shouldn’t comment but from your description it seems to be along the “noble savage” vein. The reality of pre-civilization was that life was very short with the majority not living long enough to see their grandchildren even though they started reproducing very early, around 11 to 13 years of age. Any serious injury or illness was life threatening for lack of medical knowledge. Let’s also not forget that they were also looked on as a nice source of protein by any number of large carnivores/omnivores – not exactly a sress free idyllic existence. Yes it may have been relatively easy, so long as the large slow moving mammals existed, to feed one’s family but that is not enough to make life idyllic.

  3. Stentor says:

    Instead of Hardin’s essay, I would recommend Elinor Ostrom’s “Governing the Commons.” It goes far beyond the “tragedy” to explore how communities succeed and fail at creating commons management institutions. It doesn’t have the radical “we have to save the world” tenor of much of the rest of your list, but her conclusions fit in with your preference for self-sufficient communities.

  4. Everybody has an agenda, sometimes hidden, sometimes more out in the open, and sometimes even unknowingly. The authors of each of those books and articles has an agenda of promoting their own beliefs or their own views of how they understand the world. Why? Because they think they are right and they believe they know better than everyone else. That sounds egotistical but to a certain extent it is. We all have egos. Those who have similar beliefs, or have similar views of the world, will really understand (that’s the 10%). Those who are interested in the ideas but haven’t thought about it enough to formulate an opinion will listen (that’s the 40%). Those who don’t believe or who are simply not interested in the subject will tune the message out (that’s the 50%).I also truly believe that there are multiple sides to every story and just as Dave experiences 10% of his readers buying in, 40% wanting to believe or partially believing and 50% not caring, the other side of the story probably experiences the same thing. For example, these guys at the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (http://www.oism.org/oism/s32p686.htm) probably experience a small number of people accepting their story and large number of people not really interested in what they are saying or immediately discounting it and then some number of people in the middle who are interested in what is being said but not yet ready to accept it. The numbers may come out differently but the concept is the same.So, who is right? Is Dave any more right than those guys in Oregon? Who was right, the majority of the population who thought the world was flat or Columbus who thought it was round? The majority of the population that thought the earth was the center of the universe or Copernicus and Galileo who thought otherwise. The truth is that we don’t know for sure and we all need an open, but skeptical, mind for if we don’t we trulywill go to hell in a hand basket. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that a lack of skeptical minds resulted in the war in Iraq.

  5. Steve says:

    Hi Dave. How they hangin’?

  6. geo says:

    Dave,Thanks for posting this excellent resource. I’ve read some of the items on the list, and had some of them on my To-read list, but you show many that I’ve not come across before that are now on my (already overloaded) summer reading list. What I find interesting and compelling about the list you present and the discussion as a whole is the wide range of different types of people with thoughts on this matter. No one individual may have it exactly right, but we’ve definitely got the ideas we need to make the world a better place.

  7. Av says:

    Per your advice to me a few weeks ago, I ordered Jay’s Wealth of Man off Amazon.com. I have only gotten to the 2nd chapter so far, but it seems to me that Jay is hinting that the social and economic changes of that last 10000 years were inevitable because of biological reasons. Could the biological basis for human speech and the desire for material wealth lead to anything else other than the early human societies that devolped thousands of years ago? The hardy nature of man, and the highly diverse diet that we can live off of spread humans all over the globe thousands of years ago. It was more likely that peoples would come into contact with other bands of humans, some of whom would be jealous of the material wealth of other groups. Defense would require large populations, metal tools/weapons, and or trade with the other bands. What’s the solution? Large scale agricultre complete with irrigation, markets, and a system of government. Maybe I missed what Jay was talking about and I’m only in the 2nd chapter, but those are my thoughts so far.

  8. kara says:

    So much to read – so little time…

  9. Thanks a million, Dave, this is just the kind of resource list I was looking for. This should keep me busy for… a while. :)

  10. Catana says:

    Excellent reading list, but somewhat lacking in information about why humans are the way they are. I suggest adding The Tangled Wing by Melvin Konner, a classic that was revised, updated and republished a couple of years ago.

  11. Jasen Robillard says:

    I agree: what a great resource! Dave, I just discovered your site last week and I must say I’m impressed with it and also grateful to have found another person who shares similar beliefs to my own. Keep up the good work – I look forward to every blog update.

  12. Jason Yip says:

    I’d suggest Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman and the field of positive psychology in general. Not so large scale but I’d say “saving the world” is not a technical problem, it’s a people problem.

  13. Dave Pollard says:

    Myke: I’ve ordered Cradle to Cradle but it hasn’t yet arrived, which is probably why it’s not (yet) on the list.Doug: Not true, according to new research by anthropologists — Prehistoric man lived a leisurely, healthy and (unless eaten) quite long life. Civilization brought with it a drastic increase in malnutrition, stunted growth and disease.Stentor, Catana, Jason: Thanks for the suggestions — I’ll check them out.Av: My take-away from Jay was simply that pre-civilization man lived a very comfortable and leisurely life. His theories beyond that, about what motivated human behaviour once civilization took hold, I am not so taken with — I prefer the theories that hold that man is not inherently selfish or acquisitive or hierarchical, and that most of our anti-social behaviours in the last 10k years have been reactions to the stresses of overcrowding and sudden crop failures and other man-made catastrophes, not, as many would have us believe, because we’re all selfish at heart.David: What’s critical, as you say, is not what we believe but how we act on our beliefs. I’m a believer in keeping an open mind and in being skeptical, but at a certain point in time we need to accept that our information will never be complete and certain, but we have to take action anyway. On global warming, for example, those that advocate more study are prepared to take the risk that additional study will show that no action is needed. If they’re wrong, of course, it will be too late to change course. I think it is more sensible to act when the preponderance of evidence indicates that inaction could have lethal consequences. I think that time is now.Geo, Renee, Jasen: Thank you. It’s a labour of love.

  14. Don Dwiggins says:

    I was glad to see Stentor’s recommendation of Ostrom’s work, as a nice antidote to the all-too-frequent transmogrification of the meme. It’s also interesting that a proposal Hardin offered to avoid the tragedy, “a system of mutual coercions, mutually agreed upon”, is a pretty fair description of the governance of many well-managed commons throughout history. (Also, a typgraphical correction: the author was Garrett Hardin, not Garry Harding.)On the longevity of pre-civilization humans: do you have some references to this? I remember reading that the average life span was under 40 years for most of these societies. (Even at that, 40 good years might be preferable to 80 miserable ones.)On the idyllic nature of the lifestyle: I remember some descriptions from Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” that contradict that, at least for some cases. In one case, a peaceful Pacific island society was overrun by an agressive one that came from a nearby island. Most were slaughtered, some were captured and kept as slaves. My memory of Diamond’s thesis in the book is that a tendency to violence is a deeply-rooted characteristic of humans. (I really need to revisit it…) A dialogue between Diamond and Jay would be fascinating.

  15. Joe says:

    Hi DaveThank you for putting this all together, I’m just getting into all of this and your blog looks like a great resource.

  16. Wayne says:

    Great reading list! Thanks!I recommend the book Human Zoo by Desmond Morris.Also insights can be garnered by studying thebehavior of chimpanzees vs bonobos

  17. Tom says:

    Future of Money by Bernard Lietaer

  18. Pearl says:

    Thnks for pointing to this again. I’ll put a few on my reading list. Your opening quote would complement nicely my post on listening. http://www.pagehalffull.com/humanyms/?p=512

  19. melisa Christensen says:

    How about a How to Save the World Documentary list?

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