Recommended Reading 


American Mania, by Peter C. Whybrow, MD 

    Combining genetic, economic, and psychiatric models, Whybrow creates a compelling explanation for the ambitious American role in what he terms the "Fast New World."  He argues that Americans are predisposed to seeking success and adventure at all costs, given the exploits of our parents (or grandparents, or great-grandparents) who chose to test their fortunes here.  The uniquely American (and possibly Australian?) drive for better-faster-more is fast exceeding the biological restraints on our collective lifestyle, leading to obesity, diabetes, and anxiety.   He also makes the case that our foundational models of the free market and the commons can't achieve their intended purposes today and ought to be reconsidered.  The case histories Whybrow uses to explore his theory are rich examples, but unfortunately lead him to prosaic, oft-repeated prescriptions.

Cradle to Cradle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

    An awesome "durabook" about sustainable design, investigating how deeply our cultural metaphors and assumptions impact production and consumption.  Contains such gems as: "this virgin product is mine, for the very first time.  When I am finished with it (special, unique person that I am), everyone is.  It is history."

Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte

    At an idealistic stage of this project, I thought I might follow my garbage around New York City, to see what exactly happens to it.  Luckily the curious, patient, and funny Elizabeth Royte has done that for me.  Far from boring, I ripped through the book in record time; it provides up-to-date information on what happens to the piles and piles we see on the street every day.  Even if you don't live in New York, it's a valuable resource on the current state of recycling, landfills, and consumer waste in the US.  

Gone Tomorrow, by Heather Rogers

    Rogers' Gone Tomorrow provides some of the sociology, economics, and history behind a documentary she made by the same name in 2002.  Unfortunately this doc isn't available on Netflix but the book nonetheless provides an important overview of trash in America.  It is way more up-to-date than the version of Rubbish!  I read but takes a much less personal view and tone than Garbage Land.  I took the most away from Rogers' comments about "purging" and charity: she reminds us that outlets like the Salvation Army make discarding still-functional consumer goods "acceptable -- even pious."

How Much is Enough?, by Alan Durning

     This little book is fifteen years old and a bit insubstantial, but I like the way Durning lays out his issues: precise and clear and a little funny.  He asserts that one of the only ways to address environmental sustainability is for everyone to cultivate materialism. (I don't think it's an accident that "materialist" is an insult among us consumers...)  I didn't think about Fix this way until Durning pointed it out.

The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler 

    Is it dramatic?  Yes.  Is it alarmist?  Maybe.  Is it true?  I don’t know, but I’d rather be warned than have it take me by surprise.  James Howard Kunstler’s Long Emergency is the first thing I’ve read that isn’t afraid to assess the current social, political, environmental , and economic crises for what they are - that is, crises - and come up with a big picture that takes everything into account.  It’s too bad this picture is so bleak.  I have a feeling most of my readers will disagree with Kunstler’s views on the Iraq war and take issue with his seeming lack of optimism, but I encourage everyone to read it anyway.  Plus, he keeps using the term “cheap-oil fiesta,” almost guaranteed to elicit a bitter smile. 

Not Buying It, by Judith Levine

    An entertaining document of Levine's year without buying anything but necessities.  In some ways, her experiment is more extreme than mine: she doesn't buy experiences in 2004, but her list of "necessities" is pretty long.   She focuses primarly on the social and psychological effects of her non-consuming, which leads her to some compelling conclusions and makes for candid, smart writing.   

The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan 

    Even better than the gross-me-out descriptions of how our economy, farms, and bodies are entirely based on corn - which are excellent, by the way - is Pollan's reverence for the rituals of raising animals, slaughter, and cooking, which is almost revolutionary during the convenience-food empire.  He gets at the magic of knowing your materials in a way I might have liked to express in this blog.  And he provides some of the most articulate criticisms against vegetarianism I've ever heard.  Don't worry if it's so last year, get the book from the library ASAP.

Playing God in Yellowstone, by Alston Chase

    Playing God in Yellowstone uses the example of the US National Parks, the Park Service, environmentalists, and scientists to investigate the terms "natural" and "unnatural" -- reminding us that man is also a part of our environment.  Regrettably, the book's science and recent history are nearly 20 years out-of-date, but the questions it raises remain as relevant as ever.

Rubbish!  The Archaeology of Garbage, by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy

    Rubbish! answers a lot of questions I have about garbage, particularly with respect to landfills.  Even though it's a little out-of-date, I appreciate its data-driven and non-hysterical perspective.  The book concludes with the "10 Commandments (of Garbage)" which are a little abstract but nonetheless quite useful.

A Year Without "MADE IN CHINA," by Sara Bongiorni

    Bongiorni's book is what it says it is: a chronicle of her family's year boycotting goods from China.  She doesn't have any major revelations, just neurotic obsessing about China and funny anecdotes about her two kids and husband.  It's a lot like Not Buying It, arranged by the months of the year but lacking Judith Levine's subtle pathos and pointed philosophic moments.  I was astonished by the amounts of crap (Chinese or not) she and her husband declared they absolutely had to have, especially for their kids.  Plastic Halloween decorations?  Squirt guns?  Either her freelance writing job and her husband's academic position are unlike any other in America, or they're in a mountain of plastic-induced debt - every time they go to Target, they walk away with a huge pile, seemingly everything in the store that's not from China.  Despite her un-selfawareness about this fact and others, Bongiorni is funny and very readable - I couldn't put it down!