My favorite books on myth, trauma, and cultural reckoning demonstrating why sustainability matters

Why am I passionate about this?

Injustice has always motivated my research and activism. I have always been fascinated by nature and by the complexity of cities. For 25 years I have pursued these passions through the lens of sustainability. In 1996, I co-founded the not-for-profit Sustainable Calgary Society. My extensive work and travel in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, have given me a healthy skepticism of the West’s dominant cultural myths of superiority and benevolence and a keen awareness of the injustice of the global economic order. My book selections shed light on these myths and suggest alternative stories of where we come from, who we are, and who we might become. 


I wrote...

Sustainability Matters: Prospects for a Just Transition in Calgary, Canada’s Petro-City

By Noel Keough, Geoff Ghitter,

Book cover of Sustainability Matters: Prospects for a Just Transition in Calgary, Canada’s Petro-City

What is my book about?

Sustainability Matters is an outstanding example of quality journalism bridging front-line academic research and urgent community challenges. It's a view from somewhere—Calgary, Alberta, oil and gas capital of Canada—but a view that takes us far beyond the limits of that city. Sustainability Matters is a critique of current practice and a vision for the future that uses the city of Calgary as a microcosm to address issues faced by cities around the world. Witty and engaging, this book challenges the economic growth imperative taken for granted but impossible to maintain. Through close examination of one city’s struggle for a just transition to a post-carbon world, Sustainability Matters argues for a global, holistic, and radical understanding of the importance of sustainability. City-dwellers who care about their future should read this book.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War

Noel Keough Why did I love this book?

In these times of Black Lives Matter, emboldened white-supremicists, and with European dominance descendant, Born into Blackness is a revelatory and blunt dose of historical reality. I was not fully aware of the centrality of the slave economy in Europe’s rise to global dominance. Most importantly, I was ignorant of the level of cultural, political, and economic sophistication of the African nations when the Portuguese first explored the west coast of Africa. I had some understanding of the Haitian revolution and its manifestation of the enlightenment ideals, but this book opened my eyes to the historical ripples of the revolution: the Louisiana purchase, ceding much of present-day Southern US from Napoleon’s France; the sale and forced-march of thousands of slaves into the cotton-growing south, fueling an economic take-off that made the US an imperial power.

By Howard W. French,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Born in Blackness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a sweeping narrative that traverses 600 years, one that eloquently weaves precise historical detail with poignant personal reportage, Pulitzer Prize finalist Howard W. French retells the story of medieval and emerging Africa, demonstrating how the economic ascendancy of Europe, the anchoring of democracy in America and the fulfillment of so-called Enlightenment ideals all grew out of Europe's dehumanising engagement with the "darkest" continent.

Born in Blackness dramatically retrieves the lives of major African historical figures whose stories have been repeatedly etiolated and erased over centuries, from unimaginably rich medieval African emperors who traded with Asia; to Kongo sovereigns who…


Book cover of The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture

Noel Keough Why did I love this book?

Maté argues persuasively against the dominant genetic and biophysical roots theories of mental illness. He presents a solid body of research published over several decades to argue that mental illness is a manifestation of trauma, often childhood trauma. Maté co-authored the book with his son. He does not flinch from reflecting on his own life history, recounting his own childhood trauma, resultant mental health challenges, and the less-than-flattering manifestations of that trauma in his closest relationships. He also draws upon his own professional experience working with those who have suffered trauma. I was particularly drawn to Maté’s discussion of the pathologization of the birth process and the over-competitive, detached, disciplinary wrong-headedness of how we raise our children. Importantly, the book also offers a way forward to healing.

By Gabor Maté, Daniel Maté,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'It all starts with waking up... to what our bodies are expressing and our minds are suppressing'

Western countries invest billions in healthcare, yet mental illness and chronic diseases are on a seemingly unstoppable rise. Nearly 70% of Americans are now on prescription drugs. So what is 'normal' when it comes to health?

Over four decades of clinical experience, renowned physician and addiction expert Dr Gabor Mate has seen how health systems neglect the role that trauma exerts on our bodies and our minds. Medicine often fails to treat the whole person, ignoring how today's culture stresses our bodies, burdens…


Book cover of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Noel Keough Why did I love this book?

I loved the speculative audacity of this alternative story of how human civilizations evolve—a collaboration of an anthropologist and an archeologist. The authors take aim at two foundational myths of the human journey. First, they argue that we should not accept as universal an increasingly sophisticated and hierarchical trajectory from hunter-gatherers to farmers to city-dwellers. They present evidence of civilizations that voluntarily abandoned urban life for a return to agricultural and even hunter-gatherer existence. In a second major contribution the authors weave an intriguing and plausible narrative of the possibility that the articulation of the ideals of the enlightenment was a collaborative effort of indigenous North American and European philosophers and statesmen. At a time of existential crisis, the book offers hope in the diversity of human experience.

By David Graeber, David Wengrow,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked The Dawn of Everything as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution—from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality—and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike—either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction…


Book cover of Imperial San Francisco

Noel Keough Why did I love this book?

San Francisco the good, an icon of diversity, creativity, and prosperity, is how I imagined the city. This book weaves a compelling, alternative narrative. Brechin tells his story through the rising fortunes of founding fathers–politicians, engineers, and entrepreneursmany today memorialized in San Francisco’s public spaces and places. People like media tycoon William Randolph Hearst Jr. with all his narcissism, wealth, and political ambition (remind you of anyone?). The book unearths the city’s beginnings in the rapacious extraction of resources in frontier California. It illustrates (through art, newspaper cartoons, and headlines) the city as the spearhead of an emerging empire with all of its racist and white supremacist roots. The book chronicles the trauma inflicted on nature and nations that stood in the way of San Francisco’s ambition. It demands that we reflect on ‘the stuff’ our great cities are made of.

By Gray Brechin,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Imperial San Francisco as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in 1999, this celebrated history of San Francisco traces the exploitation of both local and distant regions by prominent families - the Hearsts, de Youngs, Spreckelses, and others - who gained power through mining, ranching, water and energy, transportation, real estate, weapons, and the mass media. The story uncovered by Gray Brechin is one of greed and ambition on an epic scale. Brechin arrives at a new way of understanding urban history as he traces the connections between environment, economy, and technology and discovers links that led, ultimately, to the creation of the atomic bomb and the nuclear…


Book cover of The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects

Noel Keough Why did I love this book?

This book is important at a time when cities are too often presented unproblematically as the solution to global crises like the climate emergency. Mumford gives a broad historical sweep of cities from their very beginnings and a non-sentimental examination of the prospects of this now-dominant form of human settlement. The book was an instant classic and remains so—often referenced but unfortunately less often read. Mumford went out of favour in the 1970s, in my opinion, in part because his is a critical examination of the role of cities, not a hagiography. Mumford clearly loves the city at its best as ‘a magnifier of all the dimensions of life,’ but he does not shrink from examining cities’ amplification and consolidation of political and economic power, often to humanity’s detriment.

By Lewis Mumford,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The City in History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD. A definitive classic, Lewis Mumford's massive historical study brings together a wide array of evidence — from the earliest group habitats to medieval towns to the modern centers of commerce — to show how the urban form has changed throughout human civilization.
Mumford explores the factors that made Greek cities uniques and offers a controversial view of the Roman city concept. He explains how the role of monasticism influenced Christian towns and how mercanitile capitalism shapes the modern city today.
The City in History remains a powerfully influential work, one that has shaped the…


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I Am Taurus

By Stephen Palmer,

Book cover of I Am Taurus

Stephen Palmer

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Philosopher Scholar Liberal Reader Musician

Stephen's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

The constellation we know as Taurus goes all the way back to cave paintings of aurochs at Lascaux. This book traces the story of the bull in the sky, a journey through the history of what has become known as the sacred bull.

Each of the sections is written from the perspective of the mythical Taurus, from the beginning at Lascaux to Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, and elsewhere. This is not just a history of the bull but also a view of ourselves through the eyes of the bull, illustrating our pre-literate use of myth, how the advent of writing and the urban revolution changed our view of ourselves, and how even bullfighting in Spain is a variation on the ancient sacrifice of the sacred bull.

I Am Taurus

By Stephen Palmer,

What is this book about?

The constellation we know as Taurus goes all the way back to cave paintings of aurochs at Lascaux. In I Am Taurus, author Stephen Palmer traces the story of the bull in the sky, starting from that point 19,000 years ago - a journey through the history of what has become known as the sacred bull. Each of the eleven sections is written from the perspective of the mythical Taurus, from the beginning at Lascaux to Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Greece, Spain and elsewhere. This is not just a history of the bull but also an attempt to see ourselves through…


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