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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.