The best books on living within limits

Giorgos Kallis Author Of Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care
By Giorgos Kallis

Who am I?

I wrote a book on Limits. Limits is the core question of modern environmentalism. But I want to break environmentalism out of the grip of Malthusianism and a set of ideas about our world as being inherently limited, that have delegated us environmentalists to party-pooping prophets of doom. I want to reclaim a radical notion of self-limitation which is what makes the environmentalist movement unique – a claim that a free life worth living is a life lived within limits, a simple life so that others may simply live. It is not the planet that is asking us to limit ourselves, but we that desire it.

I wrote...

Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care

By Giorgos Kallis,

Book cover of Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care

What is my book about?

Western culture is infatuated with the dream of going beyond, even as it is increasingly haunted by the specter of apocalypse: drought, famine, nuclear winter. How did we come to think of the planet and its limits as we do? This book reclaims, redefines, and makes an impassioned plea for limits-a notion central to environmentalism-clearing them from their association with Malthusianism and the ideology and politics that go along with it. Giorgos Kallis rereads reverend-economist Thomas Robert Malthus and his legacy, separating limits and scarcity, two notions that have long been conflated in both environmental and economic thought.

Limits are not something out there, a property of nature to be deciphered by scientists, but a choice that confronts us, one that, paradoxically, is part and parcel of the pursuit of freedom. Taking us from ancient Greece to Malthus, from hunter-gatherers to the Romantics, from anarchist feminists to 1970s radical environmentalists, 
Limits shows us how an institutionalized culture of sharing can make possible the collective self-limitation we so urgently need.

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The books I picked & why

The Limits to Growth

By Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows

Book cover of The Limits to Growth

Why did I love this book?

This is the definitive classic that launched the modern debate on ecological limits. Meadows and her colleagues at MIT ran a global computer model, "World3", for the Club of Rome and produced the first detailed simulations of population, industrial output, food, resources, and pollution. Either we slow down economic and population growth, they argued, or they will come down crashing on their own, and it won’t be pretty. Debates about the specifics of the model and the accuracy of its prophecies still rage. And the book was relatively thin on how to smoothly slow down, what this would entail, and how would it ever be possible within capitalist systems that are bound to either grow or collapse. Love or hate the book and its message (and I myself am ambivalent), this is a book everyone interested in the question of limits, must-read.

By Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Limits to Growth as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Examines the factors which limit human economic and population growth and outlines the steps necessary for achieving a balance between population and production. Bibliogs

The Dispossessed

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Book cover of The Dispossessed

Why did I love this book?

We scientists are very bad at imagining what different worlds could look like. This is why we need science fiction writers. The Dispossessed are the best depiction in my view of what a world whose people have voluntarily chosen to live within limits could look like, with all its beauties and snares. Le Guin grew up in the house of the father of modern anthropology Alfred Kroeber, and her science fiction is unique in describing full alternate modern worlds that have elements of the egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies anthropologists studied. The anarchist planet of Anarres in The Dispossessed looks a lot like the ‘original affluent' societies described by anthropologists - societies living extremely simply and frugally for our standards, but abundantly from their perspective, with lots of time for leisure and play. The beauty of the Dispossessed is that it tries to think what this could look like in a modern set-up – and to present it not idealistically as a utopia, but as an ambiguous dystopian utopia, where the contradictions of the human condition are not resolved, only taken a different, tenuous path. 

By Ursula K. Le Guin,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked The Dispossessed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the very best must-read novels of all time - with a new introduction by Roddy Doyle

'A well told tale signifying a good deal; one to be read again and again' THE TIMES

'The book I wish I had written ... It's so far away from my own imagination, I'd love to sit at my desk one day and discover that I could think and write like Ursula Le Guin' Roddy Doyle

'Le Guin is a writer of phenomenal power' OBSERVER

The Principle of Simultaneity is a scientific breakthrough which will revolutionize interstellar civilization by making possible instantaneous…

Book cover of The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism

Why did I love this book?

This is a brilliant intellectual history of US environmentalism and its rooting on what in the 1960s was seen as a global ‘population bomb’. The global population kept growing in the 1980s and 1990s, but slower, and the bomb has, for the time being at least, been defused. It is time for environmentalists like myself to reflect on the legacy of our roles as prophets of unrealised doom, and this book helps us get the historical record right. Paul Ehrlich is a key figure in this story of overpopulation scare, that was not a marginal academic debate, but one that made it into the political mainstream, and around which Ronald Reagan fashioned his persona, as the ever optimist who unlike Jimmy Carter, did not succumb to limits of growth, and the pessimism of Ehlrich and his likes. What I learned from this book is that unless environmentalists develop a positive vision around the need to live within limits, of limits as freedom and not as punishment, we will never go far in convincing our fellows citizens about the need to limit growth.

By Thomas Robertson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Malthusian Moment as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Although Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) is often cited as the founding text of the U.S. environmental movement, in The Malthusian Moment Thomas Robertson locates the origins of modern American environmentalism in twentieth-century adaptations of Thomas Malthus's concerns about population growth. For many environmentalists, managing population growth became the key to unlocking the most intractable problems facing Americans after World War II-everything from war and the spread of communism overseas to poverty, race riots, and suburban sprawl at home.

Weaving together the international and the domestic in creative new ways, The Malthusian Moment charts the explosion of Malthusian thinking in…

Book cover of The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure

Why did I love this book?

Michel Foucault had a variety of interests and wrote about many different topics – ecology and limits to growth were definitely not among them. I have found this book super useful though in thinking about what I call self-limitation, the processes through which individuals and collectives voluntarily craft the limits of their action and their power. Foucault’s book analyses how ancient Greeks perceived sexuality, and how they managed their bodies and desires. For the Greeks mastery over one’s wants was seen as key to personal freedom and development. Sexual freedom was part and parcel of the self-regulation of sexual desire. I can´t say I understand everything Foucault writes, but this is definitely one of his clearest books, with a more American style short prose than his previous labyrythical French writing. Reading about a civilization that was so similar, but also so different from ours, and how it regulated without suppressing desire, freed my imagination about other worlds that can be, worlds where voluntary limitation can be liberating, and not controlling.

By Michel Foucault,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this sequel to The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, the brilliantly original French thinker who died in 1984 gives an analysis of how the ancient Greeks perceived sexuality.

Throughout The Use of Pleasure Foucault analyzes an irresistible array of ancient Greek texts on eroticism as he tries to answer basic questions: How in the West did sexual experience become a moral issue? And why were other appetites of the body, such as hunger, and collective concerns, such as civic duty, not subjected to the numberless rules and regulations and judgments that have defined, if not confined, sexual…

Book cover of The Limits to Scarcity: Contesting the Politics of Allocation

Why did I love this book?

This edited volume questions the notion of scarcity, which is the lynchpin of modern economics. Ever since Malthus’s Essay on Population at the turn of the 19th century, there is a myth that human wants are unlimited (and illimitable) and that the world is too small for all of us and our needs. Economists invented this myth to justify capitalism´s perpetuation of inequality and poverty amidst plenty, constructing an ideology of limitless growth as the only possible response to our predicament of this supposed universal and eternal scarcity. The contributions to this volume reveal how this ideology of scarcity plays out till our day, and elites invoke scarcity and limits to control the bodies and desires of marginalized groups. 

By Lyla Mehta,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Limits to Scarcity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Scarcity is considered a ubiquitous feature of the human condition. It underpins much of modern economics and is widely used as an explanation for social organisation, social conflict and the resource crunch confronting humanity's survival on the planet. It is made out to be an all-pervasive fact of our lives - be it of housing, food, water or oil. But has the conception of scarcity been politicized, naturalized, and universalized in academic and policy debates? Has overhasty recourse to scarcity evoked a standard set of market, institutional and technological solutions which have blocked out political contestations, overlooking access as a…

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