books climate change

Who gets to tell the story of climate change?

About three years ago I began to think seriously about climate change and race. It was a subject I wanted to know more about, and so I went looking for a book about it. I couldn’t find any, and I ended up researching and writing the book I wanted to read – and which I hope to be able to publish in 2021*. But it raises an interesting question – not just why there aren’t any books on climate and race, but why so much of the climate story is being told by White people.

I try to keep up with the major books on climate change as they are released, and browsing my shelves, there is a preponderence of White men. There is nothing wrong with books by White men – I am one myself and I hope to publish plenty of my own. The problem is the imbalance, the lack of representation of other views.

In order to follow my hunch a little further, I compiled a list of the 50 bestselling books on climate change. There’s no official list anywhere for that specific category, so I made my own from Amazon, GoodReads and a couple of other places.

A lot of the books will be familiar. I’ve read just over half of them. There are big hitters such as Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, or the much talked about The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. Greta Thunberg’s collected speeches are on the list, along with books by Al Gore and Bill McKibben. Not all of the top 50 are advocating action on climate change, with the climate contrarians well represented.

Two of the books are collections with multiple authors (Drawdown and the XR Handbook). Putting those aside, I looked at the 50 named authors. 42 are men and 8 are women.

Then I looked up all the authors on the list that I didn’t already know. 49 of the 50 are white. The only author of colour in the list is the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh, for his book The Great Derangement.

I’m aware that my survey is unscientific. It’s also slightly out of date – a handful of books have been released since I compiled my list that might diversify it a little if they go on to sell well enough. You’d get different results if you ran the experiment in other parts of the world, so my observations are only for the English speaking world and Britain in particular. I’m only looking at books – not academic research, news articles, etc. And I’m just looking at the top selling books, so it’s not exhaustive.

Nevertheless, my little book survey reveals that yes, the climate bookshelves are dominated by White men. This is a problem because White men tend to be climate privileged and don’t have skin in the game in the same way that others do. I suspect that, among other things, this leads to books that look at climate change through the lenses of technology, economics and science. The justice questions are much less important, along with the psychology of the climate crisis. It must surely affect the urgency of those books too.

To give just one example of what we’re missing, consider how often you have read about colonialism in a book about climate change, something Ghosh addresses. Probably very rarely or never, but the majority of the world will experience the climate crisis from the perspective of former colonies, not former imperial masters – and the causes and the effects of climate change divide very much along colonial lines.

Of course, I don’t know what insights are missing, because I haven’t read them. But I want to, and we need to hear them. I want to read more climate books by Black and Asian writers, more women, more indigenous authors, more climate books translated into English and representing a wider international perspective. Including these voices would create a broader, healthier, more balanced and more holistic debate on climate change.

A just and sustainable world is impossible as long as these voices are unheard, because it will include or exclude along the same lines as our current unjust and unsustainable world does. And this affects everyone, because I’m really not convinced that the climate crisis will be solved with the same Western, male-dominated thinking that caused it.


*Quick update on my book, for those following its progress. After some promising early interest, it’s proved quite difficult finding a publisher for this. Much of it is Covid-related, and publishing being very risk-averse at the moment. Some of it is because I’m not formally qualified or a recognised authority.  I’ll let you know when there is movement on this, because I really want to get the book out as soon as possible.

3 comments

  1. Good points: I suspect the while male domination here is a subset of a general domination across most ‘technical’ (as opposed to more arty/touchy/feely) publications? But particularly for climate and general economic justice, i can see our ignorance of how the majority world experience these things is badly distorting even our best-intentioned thinking and action.

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