The best books to help us face up to the environmental crisis

Laurie Laybourn-Langton Author Of Planet on Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown
By Laurie Laybourn-Langton

Who am I?

I research, write and speak about the global environmental emergency and the policies and politics we need to adequately respond. Drawing on a decade of experience in academia, activism, and policymaking, my work explores the leadership needed to transition to more sustainable and equitable societies while contending with the growing destabilisation resulting from the worsening environmental crisis. I’ve worked at a range of leading policy research organisations and universities and have won awards for my work. I’ve got a BSc in physics and an MPhil in economies from the University of Oxford. 

I wrote...

Planet on Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown

By Laurie Laybourn-Langton, Mathew Lawrence,

Book cover of Planet on Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown

What is my book about?

The political status quo has no answer to the devastating and inequitably distributed consequences of the environmental crisis. We urgently need an alternative to bring about the rapid transformation of our societies and economic systems. As we rebuild our lives in the wake of Covid-19 and face the challenges of ecological disaster, how can we win a world fit for life?

We argue that it is not enough merely to spend our way out of the crisis; we must also rapidly reshape the economy to create a new way of life that can foster a healthy and flourishing environment for all. We offer a clear and practical road map for a future that is democratic and sustainable by design.

The books I picked & why

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The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene

By Simon L. Lewis, Mark A. Maslin,

Book cover of The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene

Why this book?

I can find it overwhelming to think how large and bad the environmental crisis really is. Record temperatures, species extinction, fires and storms. In many ways, this book hammers home the scale – but it does so productively. It’s been an excellent companion for me in learning more about the problem. It’s written by two of the world’s top scientists who have led the way in helping us see this as an environmental crisis, not just a problem of climate change or species loss, but an overall destabilization of the natural world. This is often missed from the mainstream discussion and Lewis and Maslin offer a whole range of approaches that can help you make sense of what we can do in response. 

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet

By Rajeev Charles Patel, Jason W. Moore,

Book cover of A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet

Why this book?

I was born at the end of the 1980s and the majority of greenhouse gas emissions have been released in my lifetime. That means the world’s emitted more since Seinfeld was first broadcast than in the previous 10 millennia of human history. But this isn’t just a story of the last few decades or of certain bad technologies that use fossil fuels. It’s a story going back centuries, to the emergence of global systems of profit-making that impelled people across the world to seek people and nature to exploit for money. This book has been invaluable in helping me understand that history and in seeing the environmental crisis foremost as a crisis of politics and of the great economic systems that dominate our world. 

Things Fall Apart

By Chinua Achebe,

Book cover of Things Fall Apart

Why this book?

I’ve always read this book as being a lesson from our past and present, and a warning from the future. We simply cannot separate the intertwined histories of imperialism, capitalism, and growing environmental crisis. The experience of pre-colonial life in Nigeria and the searing effects of the arrival of British imperialism and capitalism bring to life the resultant, shattering experience of people and places. The dislocation, the chaos, the disenfranchisement, and exploitation: all these are the lived reality of so many across the world to this day, particularly those on the frontline of worsening environmental impacts. These people are predominantly found in those countries that contributed least to the problem and still suffer the vulnerabilities brought by the impacts of the colonial era. Into the future, that frontline will grow.

Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can

By Guido Girgenti, Varshini Prakash,

Book cover of Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can

Why this book?

I was one in a world of frustrated and increasingly anxious people back in 2018. Politicians just weren’t talking about the severity of the environmental crisis and the vast actions that we need (and can) undertake to tackle it. And then Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and Fridays for the Future, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal, and the Sunrise Movement came along. Suddenly everyone was talking about it. This set of essays brings so many of those thinkers and doers together to give us an inspiring road map for getting out of the crisis and realizing a better world in the process. And it shows us that these movements are built on the shoulders of giants, particularly in the global south. 

Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World's Economy

By Adam Tooze,

Book cover of Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World's Economy

Why this book?

How can we make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic? Adam Tooze gives us a clear answer: it is the first crisis of the new era of environmental crisis. My work now focuses on the increasingly destabilizing effects that the crisis will bring into the future and how future leaders can be better ready to carry on the struggle under worsening conditions. The responses of current leaders to the pandemic – some good, many poor – are a key resource to learn from. This book is a first bash at learning the lessons from the pandemic. Into the future, more than anything we need leaders and governments who are capable of freeing us from the freezing embrace of fear in face of seemingly insurmountable odds. 

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