My books of 2021

Every year I like to review what I’ve read and pick some favourites. Here’s a list from 2021, in no particular order. Click on the titles for full reviews, and they’re available from Earthbound Books UK (or US).

A Bigger Picture, by Vanessa Nakate

Having said no particular order, this one would be my top recommendation. Africa is the continent most affected by climate change, but African voices are marginalised in the climate conversation and that makes this book a really important one. I’m sure Bill Gates will probably have the biggest selling climate book of the year, but he doesn’t have to fight to be heard. Vanessa Nakate does, and she has, and the conversation is richer for her courage and her persistance.

A Bigger Picture is also a good book in its own right, combining Nakate’s personal story with the context of climate change in Uganda and the region, and wider issues around representation. It’s honest and inspiring and the only book I read twice in 2020.

Architecture, by Barnabas Calder

A grand history of architecture told through the lens of energy. Calder shows how energy availability has determined materials and design from the earliest human settlements to today, invisibly shaping what we build and how we live.

It’s an imaginative approach and a fascinating story, illustrated with neat scale drawings and photos, and a rewarding read for anyone with even a passing interest in the subject. With current architectural practice so dependent on fossil fuels, it should be required reading for anyone involved in the design, planning and construction of buildings today.

Our Biggest Experiment, by Alice Bell

Also on the topic of history, this time telling the story of climate change – how it was caused and how it was identified. A vast roster of inventors, industrialists and scientists feature, many of them overlooked in other histories, and by the end of the book I had a clear sense of the climate crisis in its historical context. Alice Bell has a sense of humour and an eye for an anecdote, making this more fun than you might expect.

Of course, we’re in the middle of this story and we don’t know how it ends yet. I look forward to a sequel in 30 years time.

Unbowed, by Wangari Maathai

I had saved Wangari Maathai’s autobiography to read on the 10th anniversary of her death, as a way to reflect on the legacy of Kenya’s Nobel Peace Prize winner. I wish I’d read it earlier. Wangari Maathai is best known as a tree planter, but her work was ground-breaking in so many different ways. It’s a remarkable story of courage and adversity, told with wit and humility by a woman who was a hero to some and a pariah to others.

It’s only a matter of time before someone in Hollywood reads this and green lights a biopic, so read it now and you can say you were there first.

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

If you were to re-write this blog as an epic novel, you’d basically get Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. An uncanny number of ideas that I’ve written about here appear in the book, with plenty more besides, all rolled into a sweeping story of a world addressing climate change.

A novel about climate diplomacy and its institutions sounds very dry indeed, but this clips along at pace, drawing on multiple perspectives to investigate tricky topics such as geo-engineering, eco-terrorism, climate migration or postgrowth economics. I haven’t written a review of this yet, but I will.

That’s a top five. If I were making it ten, I’d roll in Aja Barber’s excellent book on fashion, climate and race, Consumed; Chris Woodford’s engaging book on air pollution, Breathless; and Footprints, David Farrier’s fascinating book on the traces industrial capitalism will leave in the planet’s geology. I’ll add a children’s novel in the form of William Sutcliffe’s wise and entertaining The Summer we Turned Green. Finally, I’m going to sneak in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s The Democracy of Species. Yes, Braiding Sweetgrass is the one everyone’s been talking about, but I read this short excerpt to see what all the fuss is about and the longer book went straight onto my to-read list for this year. Profoundly insightful.

Among the other books I’m looking forward to in 2022 are What Climate Justice Means, by Elizabeth Cripps, and The Intersectional Environmentalist, by Leah Thomas. Longer list here.

Having been challenged to be more deliberate about this a couple of years ago, this year I’ve read books from twenty different countries, including Pakistan, Madagascar, Russia, Syria, Jamaica, Austria, Japan and, for some reason, four books translated from German. Of the 86 books I read in 2021, 38 had female authors and 23 were BIPOC.

What did I miss? Drop your own recommendations in the comments.

1 comment

  1. Jeremy, I have only read one of your top 10 – the Tim Stanley Robinson. It was indeed excellent. Anyway as 2022 starts it is time to engage with the enemy. This action will have to sit alongside your reading suggestions. Some recent despatches from my opposition – the “near climate deniers” of the Global Warming Policy Foundation …. Net Zero Watch (website of Global Warming Policy Foundation)

    Dr John Constable, the Net Zero Watch energy editor, said:
    It has long been clear that Lord Deben and his Climate Change Committee give too little thought to the cost implications of green policies, but this proposal for a huge increase in the cost of household heating and hot water suggests a degree of indifference bordering on cruelty.
    It would also be, of course, politically suicidal. No government would long survive the imposition of this new heating tax.”
    • 70% of Brits worried about energy costs this Christmas, new ComRes poll reveals.
    • Over 60% of Brits say they won’t benefit from the government’s ‘green’ subsidies in poll commissioned by campaign group Net Zero Watch.
    • Three in five UK adults aren’t willing to pay higher taxes on their energy bills to help reach Net Zero targets.
    • 65% of UK adults say they haven’t been given enough of a say on the government’s Net Zero policies.
    • “Net Zero could deliver a political crisis greater than the Poll Tax”

    Craig Mackinlay MP, Chair of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group said:
    “As I’ve been saying for some time, I didn’t become a Conservative to make my constituents colder and poorer.
    “It’s clear, looking at these figures, that the British public are not signed up to the government’s plans. They feel they haven’t been consulted or had their say; the majority don’t feel that government grants for air pumps or electric cars are either relevant to them, or more fundamentally needed to nudge them towards unreliable technologies they don’t want, and there is real worry about the ever-increasing costs of energy bills this winter.
    “The general public are quite obviously not onside, and we need to be very careful about just whose shoulders are going to be carrying the very considerable costs of Net Zero.”

    Steve Baker MP, who heads up the steering committee of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group said:
    “I’ve warned that the cost of Net Zero could deliver a political crisis greater than the Poll Tax, and these figures show that the government are heading straight for such an eventuality.
    “The British people are clearly deeply unhappy about paying higher taxes to help reach Net Zero targets and feel they haven’t been consulted about the choices the government are making.
    “Grants for air pumps and electric cars are all very well, but how many people can actually afford to pay all the additional costs? 20% think they will actually benefit.
    “We are heading down a path where blithe promises are made without considering the realities of current technology and the fact that many people in this country will just be left colder and poorer.“

    Benny Peiser, Director of Net Zero Watch, said:
    “Whilst these are not shocking figures to us, they should ring alarm bells in No. 10. Britain may have hosted COP26, but the general public feel that they have not been given a real say on the changes the government are forcing through.
    “Millions of families will be struggling to keep their homes warm and their cars running this winter. Fuel prices continue to soar and the burden of these energy costs will fall on the elderly and the low paid at a time when people are already finding things tough.
    “The government need to start listening and setting a more realistic path. We cannot bankrupt the country for an arbitrary goal or to look good on the international stage.”

    Net Zero Watch is calling on the Government to:
    1. Suspend Net Zero plans as a matter of urgency and put energy costs and security of supply at the centre of national security.
    2. Suspend all green levies on energy bills, funding subsidies temporarily out of taxation, but acting firmly to cancel these subsidies in the near term.
    3. Cancel constraint payments, and compel wind and solar generators to pay for their own balancing costs, thus incentivising them to self-dispatch only when economic.
    4. Remove all fiscal and other disincentives to oil and gas exploration, including shale gas, to increase domestic production levels.
    5. Suspend carbon taxation on coal and gas generation in order to provide consumer relief and ensure security of supply.
    6. Re-open recently closed gas storage facilities and support new storage projects.
    7. Suspend all further policy initiatives directed towards the Net Zero target, including the Carbon Budgets, the heat pump targets, and the overly ambitious timetable for the ban on petrol and diesel engines, until the UK energy sector has been stabilised.
    8. Facilitate the acceleration of building and deploying Small Modular Reactors for both electricity and heat.

    I am going to challenge all of this!!


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