My books of 2019

At the end of every year I like to pick some favourites from what I’ve read, and pass on some recommendations. In no particular order, here are five books that stand out from 2019.

From What is to What if, Rob Hopkins

Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Towns movement, has taken a long look at the multi-faceted crises of the 21st century, and concluded that one of the common roots is a failure of the imagination. Others have reached similar conclusions, but haven’t gone on to describe how imagination could be revived and put to work instead. Hopkins has, with dozens of examples of inspiring projects from around the world, demonstrating how imagination can crack open new solutions and build a better future.

Earth Heroes, Lily Dyu

Earth Heroes is a collection of short biographies of people making a difference to the environment, and it’s full of inspiring people, many of them unfamiliar. It’s written in enough detail to provide really useful explanations of some important concepts. A chapter on Ellen MacArthur explains the circular economy. One on Amelia Telford shows how climate change disadvantages indigenous communities. So as well as giving my six and eight year old some role models, it’s been fabulous for explaining what I do for a living, and building our environmental literacy as a family. I haven’t included a children’s book in my end of year top five before, but this one definitely deserves a mention.

The Plunder of the Commons, Guy Standing

The commons is a powerful philosophical and political concept that could make a huge difference to public discourse, but at first glance it can be hard to see how it applies to modern life. The commons naturally evokes grazing cattle or gathering firewood, hardly 21st century priorities. In this book, Guy Standing lays out the enormous scope of public wealth, and applies commons logic across health, policing, arts, law, public space, and a whole variety of topics I hadn’t considered before.

Poverty Safari, by Darren McGarvey

I came to this a couple of years late, but Poverty Safari is a highly unusual book: an account of working class politics written by a man who has first hand experience of poverty, addiction and exclusion. It’s angry, witty and insightful, with urgent lessons for politicians of all colours. ‘Understanding the anger of Britain’s underclass’, as the book’s subtitle reads, is all the more important after a general election that has left many educated middle class people with their head in their hands.

The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace Wells

I didn’t enjoy this book. It’s a mortifying read, but I’m pretty sure this is the book that has come up the most in conversation in 2019. It’s the one that best sums up the discernable turn in environmentalism over the last couple of years as we understand how serious things have become, and how much time has been wasted. It is perhaps the first mainstream articulation of environmental grief, and that makes it a book with historic significance.

Those are five standouts. Honourable mentions ought to go to One Planet Cities, by David Thorpe, which was full of brilliant ideas. I really enjoyed Palaces for the People, by Eric Kleinenberg, which also provides useful language for talking about shared wealth. And I should definitely mention Mike Berners-Lee’s There is no Planet B, as my wife and I have ended up buying multiple copies and recommending it all over the place.

I like to read fiction when I’m on holiday, and got through a stack of novels this year. Among my favourites were Naomi Alderman’s The Power, which imagines that women evolve the ability to deliver electric shocks through their hands. The male/female power dynamic switches, and for a story that reads like a thriller, it’s full of insights into gender politics and how power corrupts.

I should also mention Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s book Much More Veg, which I’ve spent a lot of time with this year. I wanted to widen my repertoire of vegan meals, and decided I would try every recipe in the book. 55 out of 175 so far, and I’ve liked all of them – though my children do not share my enthusiasm…

How to lose a country, by Ece Temulkuran
The Case for Universal Basic Services, by Anna Coote and Andrew Percy
Turning the Tide on Plastic, Anna Siegle
The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu
Earth Heroes, Lily Dyu

How to be Right, James O’Brien
Denied, by Richard Black
Blueprint for Revolution, by Sdrja Popovic
Mutual Aid, by Peter Kropotkin
Housing fit for Purpose, Fionn Stevenson

From What is to What if, Rob Hopkins
Standing Rock, Bikem Ekberzade
Given Half a Chance, Edward Davey
Rule Britannia, Danny Dorling & Sally Tomlinson
Possessed, by Bruce Hood

This Civilization is Finished, Samuel Alexander & Rupert Read
The Plunder of the Commons, Guy Standing
Waste, Kate O’Neill
Against Doom, Jeremy Brecher
SOS – What you can do to reduce Climate Change, Seth Wynes

Resurrection Trust, a short story collection
Generation Share, by Benita Matofska and Sophie Sheinwald
No one is too small to make a difference, by Greta Thunberg
Carbon Inequality, by Dario Kenner
One Planet Cities, by David Thorpe

Facing up to climate reality, ed John Foster
This is Not a Drill, an Extinction Rebellion Handbook
Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau
Poverty Safari, by Darren McGarvey
What We’re Fighting for now is Each Other, Wen Stephenson

Honourable Friends, by Caroline Lucas
Palaces for the People, Eric Kleinenberg
Talking to my Daughter about the Economy, Yanis Varoufakis
The People vs Tech, Jamie Bartlett
There is no Planet B, Mike Berners-Lee

White Privilege, Kalwant Bhopal
Peak Inequality, Danny Dorling
The Lies we were Told, Simon Wren-Lewis
Managing Without Growth, Peter Viktor
Atmosphere of Hope, Tim Flannery

The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace Wells
The Beauty of Everyday Things, Soetsu Yanagi
Team Human, Douglas Rushkoff
No is not Enough, Naomi Klein
Mohandas Gandhi, Talat Ahmed

Elon Musk, Ashlee Vance
The Silk Road Trap, Jonathan Holslag
The Economics of Enough, Diane Coyle
No. More. Plastic, Martin Dorey
Sustainability – A History, Jeremy Caradonna



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