What business can learn from the 'eco-doom' books

What business can learn from the 'eco-doom' books

What do you get from reviewing four books on the same sustainability topic, instead of relying on one?

Most book reviews are published to alert the reader to a book they might be interested in reading, and offer the reader just enough information to judge for themselves. Publications on sustainability or green business regularly review new books, but they do not follow a standard practice in many disciplines of comparing and contrasting books on the same topic. We wanted to explore what those engaged in “sustainability” can learn from that. To do so, we have chosen important works for a general audience about what many consider to be the focal point of planetary sustainability: understanding, and reducing or coping with, climate change brought on by global warming. They are:

Each of these books demands attention individually, and contributes significantly to the issue. We think that there is added value in viewing them as a group. They were all written at about the same time, close to 2009, but by authors with very different backgrounds and home bases. While each book has a provocative title and their themes are challengingly dismal, writing a book is an inherently optimistic exercise, especially so when the author recommends remedies to problems identified. We extend their optimism by suggesting that their individual calls for action can be amplified by taking them as parts of a compelling whole.

We found a kind of unity in the four authors’ divergent views. Each author describes climate change scenarios that range from dramatic to calamitous, but even the least dramatic necessitates definitive, timely and strong action. The climate science they begin with is both literally and figuratively sky-high. It is mathematically and atmospherically ethereal, the product of decades of rigorous scientific work which is usually not accessible to the lay reader.

The authors’ task is to make that work as real and understandable to the public and policy makers as it is to the scientists, which they do commendably. The climate change science they distill on the front ends of the books is from differing sources, but reaches similar conclusions: sea level rise is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Climate scientist James Hansen in 2009 predicted calamitous storms and droughts (think of Superstorm Sandy, or the continuing Midwest dry-up).

The back-end prescriptions for action are quite different, reflective perhaps of the authors’ differing biographies and geographies. In our full review or in the books themselves, readers can find specific suggestions for green practices by businesses, families and communities, as well as for public policies, with examples from various parts of the U.S. and abroad.

Each author brings the implications of their analysis squarely down to earth. Bill McKibben centers his prescriptions on localized action, Mark Hertsgaard on adaptations and mitigations that are a bit larger in scale, Clive Hamilton on fundamental cultural and behavioral shifts, and James Hansen on international-scale planetary projects and policies. At the level of solutions, their narrative and examples are textured with a tangible reality, a physicality of place, land, water, and people. Across the books, the large-scale public analysis combines with the private impacts and actions. The authors give us a better understanding of climate change brought on by global warming, as well as how to reduce or cope with it.

In all the books, the intellectual abstractions of climate change and the physical impacts are brought together by a moral and ethical imperative. It is significant that the connective tissue between the two is moral. Nothing in science itself compels solutions, and although the science of global warming provides information, by itself it provides no guidance for action.

There can be several reasons for action on global warming. One way to mitigate global warming is the proliferation of “green tech” solutions, attached to the potential for personal profit. Geopolitical gain is another motive for seeking solutions, to mitigate the ramifications of climate change on one’s own nation. Yet, the four authors choose to organize their analysis and solutions based on moral and ethical considerations of the impact of global warming on others, whether in other lands or coming generations. The authors’ distillation of causes and effects into actions based on a shared morality democratizes both the problems and the solutions. The books are not political briefs or business plans: they were written to inform and inspire each of us to take action where we have the most influence.

Moral exhortations are self-limiting without specific application, but with it, they can be quite productive. Each author converts abstract scientific findings into very physical impacts and recommendations for action – and the impulse for the conversion is moral obligation to others. Hertsgaard, for example, frames his book in terms of his obligation to his daughter, and Hansen to his granddaughter.

Our reviews themselves also act as a primer on the topic of global warming, detailed at length in the books themselves. In the full review, we take central themes in the four books and compare them for similarities and differences. We cover causes and effects of climate change, predictions and remedies. We also offer appendices, author biographies and information about the sources of information they used.

Book cover collage by GreenBiz Group