Archive for the ‘Green Books’ Category

Heroes of Sustainability: Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry. Photo by Jim Fothergill.

“Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.” — Wendell Berry

Prolific writer and farmer Wendell Berry has spent his life sticking close to his roots. That doesn’t mean the Kentucky-based scholar has never gone out and experienced anything new — he studied at Stanford University in California, taught at New York University, and traveled to Italy and France as part of a fellowship.

“In high school, my teachers were telling me you can’t amount to anything and stay where you’re from,” he told Smithsonian magazine. “So when I left here, I assumed I would be an academic wanderer perhaps, that I’d be going with my ‘talent’ from one university to another so I could amount to something. When I decided to come back here, a lot of people I respected thought I was deliberately achieving my ruin.”

A Sense of Place
Instead, the Kentucky native was returning to the place where his “imagination took root,” taking up the tradition of farming that had been in his family for at least five generations.

Doing so was anything but the achievement of his ruin. A staunch advocate for the land, Berry practices what he preaches, living on a 125-acre homestead that produces most of the things he needs to eat. A team of horses plows the land instead of a modern tractor.

In addition to producing sustenance for his family, he’s produced an incredible number of written works — more than 50 novels, short story collections, poetry chapbooks, and volumes of essays in all. Much of his writing has focused on issues of sustainability and agrarian values, weaving in ideas of connection to place, local economies, and the miracle and interconnectedness of life.

Championing Causes
Although Berry is well into his 70s now, that hasn’t slowed down his activism. Earlier this year, he spent a weekend locked in the Kentucky governor’s office with others from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in an effort to stop mountaintop removal coal mining. In late 2009, he protested the construction of a coal-burning power plant in Clark County, Kentucky, a project that was successfully canceled earlier this year. Also in 2009, he teamed up with The Land Institute’s Wes Jackson (another Hero of Sustainability) to write an op-ed for The New York Times calling for a farm bill that addresses “the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.”

While he’s a champion for the environment, he has criticism for that movement, too, given how some separate wilderness from farmland. “My experience over the last 25 years has been that not many people speak, or can think, from the point of view of the land,” he told Smithsonian. “As soon as the conversation shifts from issues actually affecting the land to ‘the environment,’ then you’re done for. People think of it as something different from themselves, and of course it isn’t.”

With simple yet beautiful prose and commonsense ideas, Berry has ideas worth taking heed of — and yet he’s still working to be heard. As writer Rod Dreher said in The American Conservative, Berry’s “unshakable devotion to the land, to localism, and to the dignity of traditional life makes him both a great American and, to the disgrace of our age, a prophet without honor in his native land.”

To learn more about Berry’s works, visit

Heroes of Sustainability: E.F. Schumacher

One of the hundred most influential books published since World War II, according to The Times Literary Supplement, E.F. Schumacher’s internationally known Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered has informed thinking on Western economies since 1973.

The German-born economist and statistician was more than just a numbers guy — he was an environmental champion. In Small Is Beautiful, he argued that technological production shouldn’t mean damaging our finite natural capital and thus ruining it for future generations. “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent,” he said. “It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

Excessive Growth
The title of the book itself fought back against the idea of “bigger is better” — small can be beautiful, and enough is enough. Rather than using gross national product as an indicator of human well-being, Schumacher thought another model may be more appropriate. “The aim ought to be to obtain the maximum amount of well-being with the minimum amount of consumption,” he wrote.

For 20 years, from 1950 to 1970, he served as chief economic adviser to the National Coal Board in Britain, during which time he championed coal over petroleum. His reasoning was that oil was a finite resource that would eventually be depleted and rise astronomically in price. Plus, he noted that the biggest reserves of oil were in some of the most unstable countries.

Up until his mid-40s, Schumacher was a proponent of unfettered economic growth, like most good economists. He came to realize, however, that modern technology was far exceeding human need. A trip to Burma inspired him to coin the term “Buddhist economics,” which referred to economic principles he created on the tenets of renewable resources and individuals doing good work to further human development.

Nature’s Potential
Instead of looking at natural resources as expendable income, they should be looked at as capital, Schumacher argued, since they can’t be renewed and will eventually disappear. He believed that sustainable development should be a priority, as the earth can’t protect itself against pollution forever. His controversial opinion that industrialism full speed ahead — with no concern for the impact it had on nature — wouldn’t stand up in the long run set him apart from his contemporaries.

While his ideas were fairly radical in economics circles, they made him popular with proponents of environmentalism, a movement that was gaining steam at the height of Schumacher’s career. A thoroughly readable collection of essays that stand the test of time, Small Is Beautiful still informs thought today on eco issues.

As Schumacher said: “There is incredible generosity in the potentialities of Nature. We only have to discover how to utilize them.”

Heroes of Sustainability: Donella Meadows

Donella Meadows in 1994. Photo by Medora Hebert, Valley News.

“Speak the truth. Speak it loud and often, calmly but insistently, and speak it, as the Quakers say, to power. Material accumulation is not the purpose of human existence. All growth is not good. The environment is a necessity, not a luxury. There is such a thing as ‘enough.’” — Donella Meadows

Remembered for her contributions to systems analysis and environmental science, Donella Meadows — known as Dana to her friends — gained international acclaim when she served as lead author for The Limits to Growth in 1972.

The best-selling book argued that our consumption pattern is not sustainable in the long run, using a computer simulation model to show how unchecked world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion could impact the earth. The book was translated into more than two dozen languages and sold tens of millions of copies.

It was not unanimously loved but instead fiercely debated. Plenty of economists, scientists, and other leaders criticized the message and methodology, saying that the predictions were too dire and that humans would find a way to make unfettered economic growth sustainable. However, nearly 40 years later, its arguments have stood the test of time, proving it a worthy read that’s only becoming more relevant as the years go on.

“[The Limits to Growth] should be given credit for emphasizing early on the interconnections and feedback between various sectors and trends,” wrote Jørgen Stig Nørgård, John Peet, and Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir in a 2010 article in Solutions journal. “Today we see, for example, how our fast depletion of fossil fuel resources is directly contributing to climate change problems.”

A Global Citizen
With a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Carleton College and a PhD in biophysics from Harvard University, Meadows became a research fellow at MIT, working in the department of Jay Forrester, who invented system dynamics. She offered many contributions to systems theory and global trend analysis herself, and began teaching environmental systems, ethics, and journalism at Dartmouth College in 1972, where she remained until her death in 2001 after battling bacterial meningitis.

She left a compelling legacy as a thought leader in her wake. A weekly column she wrote for 16 years called “The Global Citizen,” about world events from a systems point of view, ran in more than 20 newspapers, won numerous awards, and earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

With husband Dennis Meadows, she founded the International Network of Resource Information Centers (INRIC), better known as the Balaton Group, which played a role in facilitating exchanges between scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. The information-sharing process she developed as coordinator has made a huge impact on science and sustainability development.

In 1996, Meadows founded the Sustainability Institute (now the Donella Meadows Institute), an organization with the mission to apply systems thinking and organizational learning to economic, environmental, and social challenges.

Change Is Not Sacrifice
Even though The Limits to Growth was considered gloomy by many, Meadows had a hopeful outlook for the future of the environment, and she worked tirelessly to share her knowledge with others so that they, too, would recognize the damage being done.

As she said in a 1996 presentation: “As I travel on the path toward sustainability myself and watch my friends travel on it, I keep thinking of a motto I once heard: ‘Change is not sacrifice.’ It is learning, staying awake, being alive, moving to new places. It requires every part of us, our rational minds and our loving spirits. It treasures and protects the bottom of the pyramid, the magnificent planet and all its wondrous living things, and it moves us toward the top of the pyramid, the top of the mountain of sustainability, the ultimate end, the fulfillment of the highest and noblest human purposes.”

Heroes of Sustainability: Daniel Quinn

Daniel Quinn with wife Rennie and a bronze statue of Ishmael

Although writer Daniel Quinn is a well-known environmentalist, he wouldn’t categorize himself that way.

“I don’t consider myself an environmentalist,” he told “I feel that the category itself is badly conceived, dividing the world into people who are ‘for the environment’ and people who are ‘for people,’ which is nonsense. Thus it came to be seen that ‘environmentalists’ were ‘for’ the spotted owl, while non-environmentalists were seen to be ‘for’ forestry jobs that would be lost by saving the spotted owl. The term ‘environmentalism’ emphasizes a false division between ‘us’ and ‘it’ — ‘it’ being the environment. There is no ‘it’ out there. We are all in this together. There are no two sides. We cannot survive as a species somehow separate from the rest of the living community.”

Humankind as a Global Tyrant
Quinn’s view on environmentalism is just one example of his unique way of thinking. His most famous display of thought is in his book Ishmael, a novel that delves into the problem of how humankind can stop destroying the earth. In it, the narrator answers a personals ad from a teacher seeking a pupil with a desire to save the world, and meets Ishmael, a telepathic gorilla.

According to Quinn’s site,, “Ishmael’s paradigm of history is startlingly different from the one wired into our cultural consciousness. For Ishmael, our agricultural revolution was not a technological event but a moral one, a rebellion against an ethical structure inherent in the community of life since its foundation four billion years ago. Having escaped the restraints of this ethical structure, humankind made itself a global tyrant, wielding deadly force over all other species while lacking the wisdom to make its tyranny a beneficial one or even a sustainable one.

“That tyranny is now hurtling us toward a planetary disaster of pollution and overpopulation. If we want to avoid that catastrophe, we need to work our way back to some fundamental truths: that we weren’t born a menace to the world and that no irresistible fate compels us to go on being a menace to the world.”

Becoming a Thinker
Quinn wrote the book in order to submit it to the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award, which was created by Ted Turner to recognize an unpublished work of fiction that offered creative and positive solutions to global problems. Ishmael won the award in 1991, and with it, $500,000. When the book was published the next year, it was met with critical acclaim, called “a thoughtful, fearlessly low-key novel” by The New York Times Book Review, “wonderfully engaging,” by The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and “suspenseful, inventive, and socially urgent” by The Austin Chronicle.

The book was not without its controversies, though. Quinn touches on the argument that providing food aid to impoverished countries only exacerbates overpopulation and environmental issues, as population growth is a function of food supply. This idea is explored more in some of his other books, as well as in the DVD Food Production and Population Growth.

Whether or not you agree with all his ideas, Quinn has a way of thinking that brings a fresh perspective to long-held beliefs, challenging people to throw out what they think they know and approach problems in a new way.

In My Ishmael (a follow-up to Ishmael), Quinn wrote: “Thinkers aren’t limited by what they know, because they can always increase what they know. Rather they’re limited by what puzzles them, because there’s no way to become curious about something that doesn’t puzzle you.”

Straight Talk with Tom: The Soul of Money

The Soul of Money

I just finished reading Lynn Twist’s book, The Soul of Money, and it is one of the most inspirational messages I’ve ever read.  In this book, Lynn talks extensively about our perception of money — individually, in our families, and…

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Heroes of Sustainability: Michael Pollan


One hundred years ago, no one spent time thinking about where their food came from. That’s because they all knew. There were no mystery ingredients, meals didn’t by and large travel great distances before getting to the table, and farm animals weren’t injected with growth hormones. Today, you only need to stroll down the inside aisle of any grocery store, pick a package at random, and try to decipher the ingredients listed on the back to see that it’s not that simple anymore.

That unknown is what has driven much of Michael Pollan’s research over the years, including his famous and bestselling 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Bothered by the fact that he really didn’t know the origins of his food…



Heroes of Sustainability: Bob Willard

Bob Willard, Corporate Straight Shooter

 Some people talk the talk about sustainability — Bob Willard talks it, walks it, and drives it (he has two hybrid vehicles). A longtime businessman, Willard spent 34 years at IBM Canada before becoming a leading expert on corporate sustainability.

 With three books under his belt — The Sustainability Advantage (2002), The Next Sustainability Wave (2005), and The Sustainability Champion’s Guidebook (2009) — Willard is among the best at laying out a clear, actionable plan for business leaders to follow in order to institute more-sustainable policies within their companies.

 “Sooner or later, there is a tough message that sustainability champions need to deliver to harried business leaders — the business game they are playing can’t continue,” Willard writes. “It’s been fun, but if they keep playing the game the way they are, everyone will lose.”

 Delivering that tough message is what Willard has made his mission, and to support it, he’s developed hundreds of keynote presentations, numerous webinars, two DVDs, and a Master Slide Set to drive home the point that if we want to have clean air, potable water, nutritious food, and adequate shelter, something has to change in the way corporations do business — and fast.

 Willard’s talent is in quantifying and selling the business value of corporate sustainability strategies to CEOs and other C-level personnel. “Executives might think you are trying to convince them that sustainability is a nobler goal than contending with gnarly business issues like complexity, resource scarcity, and talent shortages,” Willard writes. “It’s sometimes better to back off and reframe sustainability strategies as enablers of executives’ priorities, rather than as another nagging goal to worry about.”

 To communicate effectively, Willard uses sales techniques widely successful in business: He talks the language of the decision-makers, meets them where they are, and makes the connection between what they’re already doing and what they could be doing. He has a personal commitment to sustainability, having been turned on to the importance of the issue when, after plans surfaced in his community to build a water treatment plant downstream from a nuclear power plant, he realized that those in charge weren’t looking out for the well-being of the community members. Since then, environmental issues and taking personal responsibility for making a difference have been at the forefront of his life and work. But even those who haven’t caught the sustainability bug the way Willard has would do well to follow the advice he lays out. “The bottom-line payoff comes from increased revenue, innovation, and productivity, as well as risk-mitigation and eco-efficiency cost-savings,” he writes.

 For more information about Bob Willard, visit, and read an excerpt from The Sustainability Advantage here.


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