The 6 best sustainability books of 2016

best sustainability books
ShutterstockUnuchko Veronika
An end-of-year reading list.

It's almost that time again.

With a new year just around the corner, we dug into the GreenBiz vault to bring you a list of some of the best books of 2016 (assuming you already caught up on our earlier round-up of the year's best summer reads, of course).

In a year marked by extreme ups and downs on environmental issues, here's a rundown of what to read on climate, cities and more:

1. Risk

"The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security and Sustainability in the 21st Century"

By Mark Mykleby, Patrick Doherty and Joel Makower

This title might not be a shocker, given that GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower is a co-author, but the book neatly encapsulates the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability.

Where ecological conservation once ruled the environmental conversation, climate change is upping the urgency on interrelated issues from resilient energy systems to resource efficiency. That's true not just of big companies worried about risk exposure in a more volatile world, but also of governments staring down potential social, political and economic unrest linked to fallout from rising temperatures.

And the significance of a national grand strategy, as opposed to the myriad other high-level planning documents already lining shelves across the country? "It aligns America’s enduring national interests of prosperity and security with a new framework that blurs the lines between domestic and foreign policy by addressing pressing economic, security, political, social and environmental issues at home, and looking at how those issues impact and connect with the global community," the authors explain.

2. Cities

"Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution"

By Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow

Even in a post-Paris Agreement world, the role of city-scale climate action continues to grow in global importance.

On top of the obvious emissions reduction potential of denser residential development and car-light lifestyles in urban areas, the authors of "Streetfight" use New York as an example of the deeper cultural, social and political questions that arise in the process of trying to chart a path toward smart growth.

"Living in cities isn’t a random demographic result. It’s a choice," the authors write. "In order to attract, retain and accommodate rising populations, our leaders must rapidly implement strategies that make cities more attractive places to live while making their infrastructure function more efficiently."

3. Food

"Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland"

By Miriam Horn

While the world of ag tech is buzzing with drones, robots and sensor-aided harvests, the Environmental Defense Fund's Miriam Horn took a fine-toothed comb to the conservation impact of America's agriculture industry in her 2016 book.

She chronicles individual farmers adapting to new technologies as they juggle centuries-old struggles against the elements and ever-evolving economic realities. Even at a small-scale, recognition of the stakes of land cultivation helps inform day-to-day operations. 

"Farming along this creek, seeing it all the time, you’re aware of the interconnectedness, of everyone and of the water and the land," one farmer told Horn. "You’re reminded that what we do as we farm impacts folks on down the river."

4. Economics

"Surviving the Future: Culture, Carnival and Capital in the Aftermath of the Market Economy"

By David Fleming and Shaun Chamberlin

In a year marked by extreme ups and downs, why not go a little dystopian and consider the "aftermath of the market economy"?

It's not as bleak as it may sound. Instead, this text lays out a nuanced comparison of the case for scale vs. the prediction that the future will be marked by a return to smaller, more localized solutions.

"No, small is not always best; it is a matter of being the right size," the authors explain. "But there are good reasons for a strong presumption — a reliable default position — in favor of small. The problem with large scale is that with each advance in size there is a necessary increase in complication."

5. Energy

"Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for 100 Percent Clean Energy"

By Richard Heinberg and David Fridley

Solar panels and wind turbines might leap to mind when it comes to clean energy, but as the Post Carbon Institute's Richard Heinberg and David Fridley lay out, electricity is just the start.

Transportation is another big piece of the puzzle, with movement of materials and goods through trade routes contributing to a huge proportion of global oil demand.

From electrification to biofuels, the authors advocate for a broader approach to clean energy: "If the transition to renewables is to succeed, it must address these systemic dependencies on liquid fuels. As we will see, there are efforts under way to do this, but enormous challenges remain."

6. Water

"Beyond the Energy-Water-Food Nexus: New Strategies for 21st-Century Growth"

By Will Sarni

In recent years, water scarcity has topped the World Economic Forum's annual list of the world's most pressing risks. What's less clearly understood than lacking global availability of clean water, however, are the links between water use and other common demands of modern society, such as large-scale food production and energy consumption.

As Deloitte's Will Sarni details, the drain is particularly pronounced in developing countries, where an expected uptick in demand for all of the above — food, water and energy — will require unprecedented coordination.

"Wicked problems such as water, managing food waste or providing energy to emerging economies can be addressed only through collective action frameworks," Sarni surmises.