How to Save the World Reading List – Revised and Updated

.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.


Five years ago, I became ready to listen, and, starting with Full House and Ishmael, began to learn the truth about what is happening to this world, and what we can, and can’t do, to save it from civilization’s excesses.

Here’s the updated list — 80 books and articles that have forever changed my worldview and my purpose for living. The fifteen most critical readings have a numbered triangle in front of them, with the numbers reflecting the order that, I would suggest, it makes most sense to read them in.

What Life was Really Like Before Civilization: Revisionist History

  • [.1] Full House, by the late Stephen J. Gould. The presence of man on Earth was an unlikely and random occurrence, and after the next Extinction Event life on the planet is likely to evolve very 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’.
  • [.4] The Story of B and Ishmael 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.
  • 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 let it end 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.
  • [.12] A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright. A survey of past civilizations makes clear that savagery and short-term thinking are responsible both for humanity’s evolutionary success and its destruction.
  • [.13] Straw Dogs, by John Gray. While we have a responsibility to try to make the world better and joyful, for those we love and leave behind, we cannot be other than what we are: a fierce, brilliantly adaptable species destined to bring out the next great extinction, and annihilate ourselves in the process.

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.
  • Beginning Again, by David Ehrenfeld. A biologist’s plea for a new partnership with nature, and prediction of the mechanized world coming apart like a broken flywheel if we don’t heed his advice.
  • [.5] A Language Older Than Words, by Derrick Jensen. A profound and disturbing argument for why moderate answers to our current predicament won’t work.
  • [.6] 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.
  • 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.”
  • Healing Time on Earth, by David Brower. An argument that life without wilderness is meaningless and unsustainable.
  • The Future of Freedom, by Fareed Zakaria. How cultures change, and why they don’t.
  • The New Rules of the World, by John Pilger. A devastating portrait of how the world really works.
  • The Demon in the Freezer, by Richard Preston. How vulnerable we all are to individual acts of terror, chaos and sabotage.
  • [.10] Against the Grain, by Richard Manning. How and why 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, and how it threatens our planet.
  • 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.
  • Rogue Primate, by John Livingston. How anthropocentric cultural prosthesis has led our species astray, and how we can find our way back by rediscovering “the sweet bondage of wildness”.
  • In Defiance of Gravity, by Tom Robbins. An (online) essay that argues we must “insist on joy in spite of everything.”
  • The Slow Crash, by Ran Prieur. An (online) essay that explains how civilization will end, not with a bang, but with a series of whimpers.
  • [.15] The Long Emergency, by James Kunstler. The story of our dystopian future, caused by our cultural incapacity for preparedness, and sparked by resource scarcity and cultural conflict.

About Gaia: What Nature is Really About

  • [.2] 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.
  • [.7] The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram. How to reconnect with nature, and rediscover wonder.
  • The World is Dying, by Richard Bruce Anderson. Online essay about our instinctive grief over knowing what we are doing to our beleaguered planet, and our feelings of helplessness about how to remedy it.*
  • The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery. A scientific explanation of global warming, how we are causing it, and the possible consequences.
  • The Truth About Nature, by Dave Pollard. My own essay, synthesizing the ideas in this reading list.

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

  • [.3] 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.
  • Tools for Conviviality, by Ivan Illich. “The re-establishment of an ecological balance depends on the ability of society to counteract the progressive materialization of values. Otherwise man will find himself totally enclosed within his artificial creation, with no exit.” Full book is online.*
  • Beyond Civilization, by Daniel Quinn. A prescription for creating a post-civilization world, starting with preparing yourself.
  • 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.
  • The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki. Why collective wisdom is better than accepted wisdom and expertise at solving problems, and how to tap it.*
  • Ten Ways to Make a Difference, by Peter Singer. A pragmatic recipe for change.
  • [.8] 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.
  • [.9] 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 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.
  • [.11] The Commonwealth of Life, by Peter Brown. A 14-point plan for stewardship of the Earth based on an accepted set of duties, responsibilities, and universal rights.
  • Cradle to Cradle and The Hannover Principles, by Bill McDonough. Cradle to Cradle outlines a 5-stage design and materials usage approach to sustainability. The principles should drive the way we design, develop and operate cities.
  • [.14] Creating a Life Together, by Diana Leafe Christian. How to create and sustain model Intentional Communities.
  • The Growth Illusion and Short Circuit, by Richard Douthwaite. A blueprint for creating Sustainable Local Economies. Short Circuit is free online [my summary is here].
  • Biomimicry, by Janine Benyus. Lessons and approaches from nature that could transform and inspire our processes for food production, harnessing energy, manufacturing, health care, education, collaboration and entrepreneurship.
  • The Cellular Church, by Malcolm Gladwell. An online essay that suggest cellular organization principles might allow us to accomplish, bottom-up, what political entities cannot.
  • Is Your Genius at Work?, by Dick Richards. A guide to deciding how your talent and passion (your ‘genius’) can be applied to your purpose, and hence how you can best help to save the world.*
  • To Be Of Use, by Dave Smith. A sustainable entrepreneur’s explanation of why creating natural, sustainable enterprise is essential to our planet’s survival, and hence to our own peace of mind.*
  • Sustainability Within a Generation, by the David Suzuki Foundation. Eleven public policy programs that could achieve this extraordinary goal. This essay, by me, explains how these programs, along with my own four proposed programs (a sustainability information exchange, sustainable enterprises, personal sustainable living programs, and sustainable intentional communities) could bring both top-down and bottom-up synergies to achieving sustainability.*

The table of contents of all 150+ articles I’ve written about Saving the World is here.

(*In the update footnote earlier this week, these additions were inadvertently omitted)

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13 Responses to How to Save the World Reading List – Revised and Updated

  1. etbnc says:

    Thanks, Dave. I’m sure your readers appreciate this excellent list of recent resources.May I suggest a different link to Ishcon.org? The front door to the Ishcon conversation area can be found at:http://www.ishcon.org/modules.php?name=ForumsOne can also get there from the top level site name, Ishcon.org .And speaking of links (but otherwise tangential), I find the link to the imagegen.last.fm music list usually takes a long time to load. It often prevents the entire blog page from displaying in a timely way. That might just be poor routing from my ISP, of course, but I thought I’d mention it in case it’s more common than that.Cheers

  2. Hi there…I would add in addition, the list of books on my site about process and leadership capacities needed to take us forward:http://www.chriscorrigan.com/wiki/pmwiki.php?n=Main.AListOfBooksInMyLibrarySome of these are more particular to my work, but I find that the all support work the worldview we share.

  3. Wow, Dave, this is a fantastic list of books! The Daniel Quinn books really opened my eyes, too, when I happened upon them. Or, you could say, when I was ready for them.

  4. SB says:

    Wow, Dave — great list, but — and — I can’t help but notice that almost all the cited authors are men. Two women? Three? You work far outside my small areas of expertise, but is it all like that? And if so, what does that mean?

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    SB: Yes, I confess, only four of the books on my list (Zuboff, Sahtouris, Christian & Benyus) were written by women. I rambled about this at the end of a post last summer after Rayne and Aleah both pointed this out to me. It’s true not only for these books but for my favourite business books as well — 90% written by males. And my blogroll (excepting the Artists & Dreamers and Salon Blogs sections which are 50-50)is about 80% authored by males (you may recall last year there was quite a flurry of discussion about why males dominate the blogging A-list). At the same time, the music that inspires me is about 70% written and performed by women (my last.fm list of songs recently listened to, in my right sidebar, consistently shows this). The poetry that inspires me is as likely to be written by women as by men. So my bias, if I have one, seems to be specific to non-fiction written material. I just find that most of the books and articles on subjects I care about seem to be written by men, though it is probably something of a cop-out to blame the publishing industry. I think that, at the risk of generalizing, men and women seem to express ideas in different ways and hence may tend to find books written by their own gender easier to understand and relate to. Lakoff frames meet Mars/Venus. So I don’t know, but it’s a very good question. What do you think it means? Am I a chauvinist without realizing it, or is the available, pertinent reading material heavily skewed in favour of male points of view — and if so, why is that so, and what important and different points of view are we (all of us, male and female) missing as a result?

  6. Thomas Watson says:

    Great list, lots of reading. Its always funny to be reading something for the first time but that you’ve known before.I’ll throw my (male, perhaps masculine) hat in the ring about the gender mix. I suspect that it is simply a reflection on the culture that we abound in, which reinforces particular traits in both of the genders. Net culture *is* predominately western (as I’m sure most of the people in your various lists) and this reinforcing is another thing about our broader culture that I don’t like because I think its not the best of all possible worlds. Of course, the argument is always that my concept of possible is false and that these changable divisions are ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable’. (Aren’t those two a counter-argument for everything?)I don’t believe buy into that whole, ‘expressing themselves in their own way’ idea. I mean, come on! Men and women are equally baffling!

  7. (Repost with paragraphs. Dave, kindly delete the above post, and this note when you get a chance.)WRT male vs female, I find that I read many more male bloggers than female. I favor the link-driven blog, and, of the (comparatively) few practitioners that exist, I wonder if they are mostly men? The ones I find – at least the ones who are linking to things I’m interested in – have historically mostly been male. I have been a devoted reader of several women’s blogs which have shut down for various reasons (one woman had a baby – go figure).I’ve found it hard to find women for the panels I’ve helped organize, too. In each case, the panel was about the Web, or software, and search as I would, it was hard to find women who were blogging on the subject(s). I slogged through many a page of Google results with little success. (On one such panel, I recruited a woman whose legal name, as it turned out, was Dave.)Recently, searching for panelist for another Web panel, I started paging through A List Apart hoping to find woman writers. I found one. I even looked through the Blogher Speakers wiki and had no luck finding women who specialized in the topic I was programming.Now, you could accuse A List Apart of sexism, but knowing the founder as I do, I think that unlikely. And of course unconscious bias often exists in the most rational people (even me). But blogging is self-publishing. Other’s conscious or unconscious bias will affect linking patterns, but not the publishing itself.I know there are women working on every aspect of Web design and programming. But I’m beginning to wonder if many women just don’t feel comfortable “tooting their own horns”. A woman friend told me of encouraging another woman to post something on her blog, to be told “Oh, I don’t have anything new to say about that.” I quite honestly don’t see very many male bloggers who exhibit that same reservation. So, I don’t think there’s any shortage of smart,capable women *doing* things in the world, but for whatever reason (time, interest, bias, self-effacement) they are harder for me to find online — and these days, that’s where I look. FWIW, here is a link to the Blogher Blogrolls and another to the Blogher Speaker’s wiki for those who want a starting point.

  8. Great list. May I suggest two more:Non zero, The logic of human destiny by Robert Wright, which argues that the world, contrary to popular belief, is becoming a better place. My review: http://positivesharing.com/2004/01/book-review-non-zero/Change by Paul Watzlawick, which examines how people change. My review: http://positivesharing.com/2002/11/book-review-change/Non zero is crucial because it challenges the popular belief that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. If that depressing thought were true, why should we bother to do anything?Watzlawick’s book is important because all change starts with changing people.

  9. Peter says:

    Not to throw more gas on the fire, but white male David Korten has published a new book The Great Turning: from Empire to Earth Community.

  10. Neil says:

    Wired Magazine seem to have removed “Freeman Dyson’s Brain (online interview)”. I’d be interested in reading this.There’s lots more on Freeman Dyson here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeman_Dyson

  11. Nora says:

    Here’s an excellent eye-opening book by a woman:Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver It came out this year (2007)and has really inspired me.Cheers, Nora

  12. EJ says:

    Very interesting list, I’ve copied it and will start reading most of these books.I also noticed the male slant but at least as important where are the non-western world thinkers?

  13. Patry says:

    I just had one of those futile arguments today. Thanks for the reminder–and everything else you do.

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