Ten Views of Sustainability: A Reading List

Lance Hosey

With my latest book, The Shape of Green, coming out this summer, a colleague asked me to compile a list of other sustainability-related books I would recommend. Since the usual suspects—Silent Spring, The Ecology of Commerce, Biomimicry, and Cradle to Cradle, etc.—are so well known, there’s no need to repeat them here. Instead, I’ll focus on a more personal list of favorites that have influenced my thinking on sustainability. Below are ten compelling reads that, in their own ways, expand the sustainability dialogue.

The Wooing of Earth, René Dubos (1980). The man who coined the phrase, “Think globally, act locally,” explains that it is not the ethics of environmentalism but, rather, the “visceral and spiritual” power of nature that moves people to action. Ecology and humanism must unite.

Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, E. O. Wilson (1999). The famed father of sociobiology declares that sustainability is impossible without breaking down the barriers between the arts and sciences: “Until that fundamental divide is closed or at least reconciled in some congenial manner, the relation between man and the living world will remain problematic.”

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, David Abram (1997). We tend to speak of “the environment” in the singular, as if it’s one homogeneous space, rather than an endless variety of peaks and plains, hills and haddocks. Abram meditates beautifully on how the values of indigenous peoples grew out of the specificity of place—how each worldview evolved from a particular view of the world.

The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson (1965). Where Silent Spring was her call to arms, The Sense of Wonder is Carson’s reverie on the joys of immersing oneself in nature. Presaging The Last Child in the Woods by forty years, she writes that such immersion is essential for early education—and for lifelong wisdom.

The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems, Fritjof Capra (1997). An eloquent introduction to “deep ecology”: “The more we study the major problems of our time, the more we come to realize that they cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and interdependent.”

Human Nature: A Blueprint for Managing the Earth—By People, For People, James Trefil (2005). A physicist defies conventional wisdom about the environment and celebrates new scientific breakthroughs that promise to solve the challenge of sustainability—by putting people first.

The World Without Us, Alan Weisman (2007). A powerful thought experiment in what would happen if humanity suddenly disappeared. Step by step, Weisman shows how quickly nature would fill the void, which forces us to ask what sustainability is intended to protect—all of the earth, or just us?

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson (2010). Comparing innovation to evolution, Johnson shows how some environments—coral reefs, cities, the World Wide Web—are naturally more conducive to creativity than others are.

Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace, Vandana Shiva (2006). Shiva’s insightful criticism of economic globalization demonstrates how its practices could be antithetical to sustainability.

One World: The Ethics of Globalization, Peter Singer (2004). In the age of global warming, Singer argues, managing natural resources must transcend political boundaries and nation states.

9 Responses to Ten Views of Sustainability: A Reading List

  1. Jeff Sties says:


    I would add ‘The End of Growth’ by Richard Heinberg. Our definition of sustainability is changing in the post-carbon world.



  2. Lance Hosey says:

    Hey, Jeff.

    I’ve heard that book is really good. I’ll pick it up, thanks!

    Hope you’re well.


  3. I would also recommend:

    “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (also titled Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive” Jared M. Diamond


    • Lance Hosey says:

      Simon: great recommendation. An early draft of my forthcoming book included some thoughts on how “Collapse” relates to the design of communities, but I edited them out. “Guns, Germs, and Steel” is one of my favorite books. Can’t go wrong with Jared Diamond!

  4. Susan Piedmont-Palladino says:

    Great list, Lance! I’ll borrow it to share with students. I’d also add 3 seminal books from the early 60′s that are–in my opinion–best read as an unintentional trilogy: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring; Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities; and Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden. Together, they form a great yet invisible raft foundation supporting so much that came after.

    • Lance Hosey says:

      Thanks, Susie! In Women in Green, we list Carson and Jacobs as the precursors, along with Buckminster Fuller, of all the issues now at the core of sustainable design (environmental health, community, and material innovation). FYI, my new book is out next week: http://www.shapeofgreendesign.com. (A good addition to your list…?)

  5. David Fox says:

    Biomimicry – Innovation Inspired by Nature – by Janine Benyus.

  6. Lance Hosey says:

    Thanks for the suggestion, David. Biomimicry is a seminal book, as I mention in the preface above.

  7. Elizabeth Porter says:

    Love this list! Some of my favorite books. Thanks for this!

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