|The essence of ecological thinking:
twenty gems from twenty years 1970-1990
Extract from The Ecologist 20(4):153-154.
Sandy Irvine 1990 (then associate editor, The Ecologist):
EARTH, by Anne and Paul Ehrlich; Thames Methuen 1987.
This is easily the best overview of the whole tangled web of problems facing humanity.
It captures the dynamics of exploitation and destruction, making the links between
social and environmental issues. it is a model of how to present a complex message
in an accessible way, without compromising its meaning.
ECOLOGY AND THE POLITICS OF SCARCITY, by William Ophuls; Freeman 1977.
This contains the best single presentation of the green critique of expansionism, based on
"all-embracing concept that encompasses all the various limits to growth or costs
attached to continued growth". Ophuls ' explanation of the 'tragedy of the
commons' is excellent and should be read by all those who simply blame everything upon
"them", be they crooked capitalists or other demons.
THE ENTROPY LAW AND THE ECONOMIC PROCESS, by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Harvard
University Press, 1971.
Many books have claimed to be revolutionary; this one really is. It
demolishes the edifice upon which rest schools of economics ranging from monetarism to
Marxism. It develops the critique with an unrelenting vigour which makes me think
that perhaps it should be passed in a brown paper bag from one consenting adult to
THE POPULATION EXPLOSION, by Anne and Paul Ehrlich, Hutchison 1990.
A thoroughly documented and cogently argued demonstration that human numbers do count.
they show that the population time-bomb is ticking faster and why it is the most
serous threat to the future of humans and non-humans alike. The Ehrlichs make it
clear that overpopulation is far from being the only factor in the equation of social and
environmental ruin but whatever the cause, it is a lost one without a stabilisation and
then reduction by socially acceptable means of the weight of human numbers pressing on a
ABANDON AFFLUENCE, by F E Trainer; Zed 1985.
Ted Trainer has pulled together the evidence that shows why the bubble of economic
expansionism must burst, as resource and pollution barriers build up. Western-style
consumption, he shows, cannot be generalised to the rest of the world without bankrupting
the biosphere. Trainer spares no illusions. He demonstrates, for example, that
a switch from conventional energy sources to those favoured by alternative energy
advocates could not underwrite 'business as usual'.
QUESTIONING TECHNOLOGY, edited by John Zerman and Alice Carnes; Freedom Press
This superbly edited anthology, as the introduction says, "presents one side - the
other side" bringing together articles by outstanding critics of contemporary
technology including Jacques Ellul, Lewis Mumford and Eugene Schwartz. The authors
destroy the myth of neutral technology and show how technologies both embody social
values and priorities as well as shape society around their own characteristics.
HUMAN SCALE, by Kirkpatrick Sale, Secker and Warburg, 1980.
At a time of German reunification and the formation of the 'Single European Market' the
message of 'think shrink' could not be more relevant. Sale has always acknowledged
his debt to Fritz Schumacher, but I think that Human Scale is far better than Small
is Beautiful, a woolly and much overrated book which is long over-due for a rigorous
THE CASSANDRA CONFERENCE, edited by Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren, Texas
A&M University Press, 1987.
No, I have not got shares in Ehrlich Enterprises. I have picked this book partly for
the excellence of its contents and partly as a means of recognising our debt to people
like George Woodwell and Earl Cook who contributed characteristically useful essays.
All the contributors are prepared to ask that great green question all other shades
of thinking avoid, namely "how much is enough?".
DECLARATIONS OF A HERETIC, by Jeremy Rifkin, RKP, 1985.
The symptoms of social malaise and environmental destruction have deep roots in human
culture and character. Apart from his outstanding work as a campaigner, Rifkin's
writings are very effective at diagnosing what is wrong in the ways we think about and
value things. In particular, he dissects two of the great technological dreams of
our time - nuclear fusion and recombinant genetic engineering - and uncovers how they
attempt to cure the patient with more of the disease.
ARROGANCE OF HUMANISM, by David Ehrenfeld, Oxford, 1981.
Ehrenfeld is particularly good at capturing the logic of the technocratic mind and he
shows how it has invaded both the natural and social sciences. What really marks out
this book for any top 20 is the discussion of the fallacies of utilitarianism as the basis
for nature conservation programs. Other species have a right to exist...
because they exist.
WHERE THE WASTELAND ENDS / CULT OF INFORMATION, by Theodore Roszak, Doubleday,
1973, and Paladin, 1988.
I have cheated by following the practices of Dr Frankenstein. My new creation
comprises the first part of the oldie Where Wasteland Ends followed by the
highlights of Roszak's recent book. The Wasteland is a great book which
analyses the reductionist and mechanistic 'disenchantment' of the world about us.
Roszak shows how industrial growth society is as alienating as it is destructive.
His critique of the computer provides the perfect case study to illustrate his general
NAKED EMPERORS, by Garrett Hardin, Kaufmann, 1982.
If the green movement suffers from too much woolly thinking, then Garrett Hardin provides
the shears. Hardin has been reviled even more than Paul Ehrlich but, having read
most of his work, I can only report as I have found - a man concerned about the human
condition but wanting to avoid pseudo-solutions based on soft-headed thinking. His
argument about 'lifeboat ethics' does deserve the criticism it attracted, as it is based
on a very narrow analysis and he does not ask the question of his answer which he asks of
everyone else, namely 'what next?' (that is, what results would it produce in practice?).
Nevertheless, Hardin's work is an indispensable contribution to green thinking.
DEEP ECOLOGY, by Bill Devall and George Sessions, Peregrine Books, 1985.
This is more a collection of essays rather than a coherent book. Yet it provides an
excellent benchmark of the green alternative to the dominant world view. In
particular, it traces a lineage of 'deep ecology' thinking from which we can fashion
values and understandings that are not simply the more familiar philosophies fro the last
300 years with a bit of environmental concern tacked on. The book's attach on
'resource managerialism' is very valuable at a time whin the perspectives of the
Brundtland and Pearce Reports are providing a rallying point for a more sophisticated
domination and manipulation of non-human nature.
SAND COUNTRY ALMANAC, by Aldo Leopold, OUP, 1987.
I cheat again here since this edition is of course a commemorative one of a work first
published in 1949. I include it because I think that Leopold got to the heart of
what it is to 'go green'. I also believe that his famous 'land ethic' is central to
the development of green thought from within our own culture and history.
BLUEPRINT FOR SURVIVAL, by Edward Goldsmith, Robert Allen, Michael Allaby John
Davoll and Sam Lawrence; Penguin, 1972.
Now that we have got our heads and hearts together, it is time to turn to books about the
nuts and bolts of the green reformation. The Blueprint still contains the
best general program for action - a sad reflection on the subsequent failure of greens to
put flesh on this skeleton. Indeed, documents like the program of Die Grünen in
Germany are veritable dogs' dinners, hashes of demands from just about every disaffected
group in society. There is also a lot of talk about 'living' economics, for example,
but it does not seem to have come up with anything significantly better than the old Blueprint.
Perhaps future conferences and seminars of the Greens Party and similar
organisations might do better if they took it as a starting point rather than keeping on
reinventing inferior wheels.
STEADY-STATE ECONOMICS, by Herman Daly; Freeman, 1977.
The concept of the steady-state (or dynamic equilibrium) is much misunderstood yet it
represents the essence of the green alternative to expansionism. Daly explains what
it is, whey we need it and puts forward challenging ideas about how to institutionalise it
(which again, have not been bettered in more recent books). His focus on the
throughput of energy and raw materials in the economy helps dispel a lot of the fog that
vaguer terms like 'growth' and 'development' create about the issues at stake. In
the light of so many left-wing attacks on greens with regard to social equality, it is
worth noting that Daly's argument is based on redistributive mechanisms. Daly
anticipated the pollution charge policies that economists such as David Pearce are
advocating, and explained why they are an inadequate tool applied to the wrong end of the
production and consumption process.
ENERGY UNBOUND, by Amory and L.Hunter Lovins; Sierra, 1986.
No-one has shed more light on the social and environmental impacts of energy supply and
use than the Lovinses. The 'soft energy path' concept is a vital tool in developing
alternatives. For the sake of variety, I have chosen a work of fiction from their
voluminous output. It is no great work of literature but the exchange between
a newly appointed minister and her radical adviser are very illuminating. The Lovins
have been particularly good at showing that alternative does not always mean appropriate.
PERMACULTURE: A DESIGNER'S MANUAL, by Bill Mollison; Tagari, 1988.
What is really exciting about Mollison is the way he has developed design philosophies for
land uses that supply human needs while retaining the self-sustaining, self-repairing and
self-regulating characteristics of un-modified ecosystems. The book is wide-ranging
and packed full of stimulating drawings and photos covering architecture and community
planning as well as water, food and timber production. This book combines vision
with a strong practical orientation.
SEEING GREEN, by Jonathon Porritt; Blackwell, 1984.
Many people in Britain, myself included, will have been helped to see green by the
writing, public speaking engagements and media appearances of Jonathon Porritt. He
puts the green case with an eloquence and incisiveness that fee can match. This book
reflects those qualities. It shows that green politics is not anarchism, it is not
socialism, it is not conservatism or any other 'ism'. Of course it draws from may
traditions, yet its core is a distinctive politics of ecology.
LIVING IN THE ENVIRONMENT, by G. Tyler Miller; Wadsworth, 1985.
Last but certainly not least, this is easily the best textbook of the last 20 years.
It is an outstanding primer, which also covers many topical issues. It has
excellent diagrams and Miller's style of writing is particularly clear. There are
useful study questions and a lengthy bibliography. Many organisations, not just
publishers, are touting their educational wares to teachers and lecturers. A
set of this book is worth the whole lot put together.