Books for Sustainability Nerds

Looking to cozy up with a good book this fall? Do you identify as a sustainability wonk, an armchair scientist, or a full-blown climate nerd? Here are a few page turners to educate, inspire, and put it all in perspective.


Full disclosure: The books listed here are ones I’ve read for my personal (read: nerdy) enjoyment – no one asked me to read or write about these. They’re all available for free at our local library, which is where I picked them up.

The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future
Gretchen Bakke

This book is a deep dive into the nitty-gritty of our electrical grid. Bakke goes all the way back to the its earliest development and outlines the key players and events that lead to the system we have in place today. She also walks readers through the ways the grid is fragile, detailing the step-by-step cascade that caused the August 2003 blackout in the eastern United States and Canada (spoiler: it started with one erstwhile tree).

As increasing amounts of renewable, and variable, energy come online, the utility companies that oversee the grid have to keep a perfect balance between generation and demand. Making a profit has also become a challenge – as more commercial and residential customers choose to generate their own energy on-site, utilities are losing money. One option to make up the loss is to raise rates, effectively encouraging more people (the ones who can) to pursue on-site generation and making electricity even more expensive for the ones who cannot (often low-income or transient populations who rent).

Bakke does see generation becoming even more distributed and Jeremy Rifkin, in his book The Third Industrial Revolution, also talks about renewable and distributed energy as one of the key markers of the revolution. Answers are yet to come on how the grid and utility companies will change in the future, particularly as utility-scale energy storage grows.

NPR has a lengthy interview with Gretchen Bakke available in audio and transcript form to give you a sneak peek at the book.

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming
Paul Hawken

This is the most hopeful book I’ve read in a long time. If you’re looking for a boost of inspiration, I highly recommend it. It’s an easy read and filled with solutions we can implement in our homes and in our cities.

Filled with 80 measured solutions and 20 “coming attractions”, the Drawdown team identified the actions needed to slow and even reverse climate change. The most surprising part for me was that refrigerant management is the number one single action we need to implement. Many refrigerants have a greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide and as even more people begin to use appliances like air conditioners, these chemicals must be carefully managed and kept from escaping into the atmosphere.

Speaking of carbon dioxide, the preface of the book explains the importance of word choice. Most people recognize that CO2 is carbon dioxide. But how many immediately translate CH4 to “methane”? Drawdown takes care to use words rather than chemical formulas in order to make the book more understandable to a wide variety of readers, not matter your level of expertise

More surprising facts:

  • 26 of the 80 solutions are related to either land use or food. How we grow our food and manage (or simply protect) our land matters!
  • The 2030 Challenge, which sparked 2030 Districts including the Pittsburgh 2030 District gets a mention in the Net Zero Buildings solution (print version only).

Snippets are available the Drawdown website, and the book dives in to even greater detail. You can also check out this video of Paul Hawken talking about the book.

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much
Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

A bit different than the other books on this list, Scarcity has been one of my favorites since I read it a few years ago. Mullainathan and Shafir address the thorny economics topic of poverty in a way that’s easily assessable to the lay-reader.

One example that has stuck with me is the importance of having some slack or cushion. Without a bit of financial cushion in an emergency fund, an unexpected vehicle repair can throw the household budget into crisis. Having slack also applies to our time and personal relationships – if the babysitter cancels just before you leave for work, do you have the ability to work from home? Or a friend or family member who can fill in? Keep in mind that relationships with friends and family also need to be nurtured at times when you don’t need a favor, adding to your time commitments (which could be jam-packed with two jobs already). The authors concluded that people experiencing scarcity – be it a scarcity of finances or a scarcity of time – are more likely to make bigger mistakes than people with a bit of slack. Simply put, experiencing scarcity causes impairs cognitive ability.

Reading Scarcity helped me to understand a perspective on poverty that I hadn’t considered. It’s also helped me to recognize the areas in my life where I have slack and identify ways in which I can help others create a little bit of cushion in their own lives. If you’d like a preview of the book, check out this American Psychological Association interview with Eldar Shafir.

I’m always looking for new and nerdy things to dig into– if you’ve got a recommendation, comment below or send an electronic mail 🙂

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