Our book tips for this holiday break

Nina van Rijn

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6 minutes

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Leisure

You deserve a Christmas break. And some good books to read while sitting by the warm fireplace, holding a cup of hot chocolate, wearing warm socks. Here’s our list of favourite books on nature, the environment and our climate.

December 9, 2021
Image: 
Kira auf der Heide

Yes, the fireplace, your chocolate and your socks do have something in common with our climate: They're hot. But that’s old news. It is not our goal to provide you with a list of books that retell the story of our warming planet and make you feel desperate. Instead, we’ve listed books that are inspiring, adventurous, hopeful and will leave you amazed by our planet and its great environmental thinkers and storytellers. New and old.

Some of them I read myself, so I’ll give you my own reflection. Some of them I should and will read, so I’ll give you the world wide web’s reflection.

1. The invention of nature – Andrea Wulf

Book cover of The invention of nature, written by Andrea Wulf

I first saw this book at my friend’s wedding. All the guests gave the newlyweds a bookshelf, filled with books. On there was “The invention of nature”. It caught my eye, and one week later I was reading it (I didn’t steal it from my friend, I purchased my own copy). After 10 pages I decided it was my favourite book ever in the history of my personal existence.

It’s about 18th-century explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt, whose ideas on the way nature works have become so ubiquitous, that we would almost forget who invented them. Humboldt’s then radical idea: nature is a complex and interconnected global force. His ideas inspired many of his contemporaries, such as Darwin and Goethe, and he laid the foundations for many fields we still study today.  

What I love most about this book is that it so vividly describes Von Humboldt’s wild adventures in South America, but also romantically illustrates what it was like to be a scientist in that time. I loved this book so much that after finishing it, I felt like I was abruptly pulled back into the 21st century , feeling quite lost for a few days. I’m not exaggerating!

2. Let my people go surfing – Yvon Chouinard

Book cover of Let my people go surfing, Yvon Chouinard

Is Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, the kindest and most environmentally conscious person on Earth? After reading this book, I believe so. In this autobiography, climber, environmentalist and accidental business man Chouinard explains how he went from handyman – building his own climbing gear because he and his climbing friends didn’t like what the market had to offer– to extremely successful business man. All the while trying to spend as much time in the outdoors as possible, and while encouraging “his people” to do the same.

The first half of the book is about Chouinard’s adventures and simultaneous seemingly accidental business growth (growth was never his intention, it just happened). In the second half, Chouinard explains how he’s running his business today. How he deals with parental leave and in-house childcare, redistributing revenues to environmental causes, trying to minimize environmental damage (at which he admittingly fails sometimes), and his activism are truly inspiring for anyone.

3. The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben

Book cover of Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden life of Trees

I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s a Sunday Times bestseller, so it must be good right?

Wohlleben argues that the forest is a social network. Using scientific evidence, he explains how trees are like human families: they live together, communicate with each other, support each other to grow by sharing nutrients and warn each other about danger.

Wohlleben also shares his love of forests, explaining how they live, die and regenerate. It all sounds very enchanting. It’s on my own pile of books to read over Christmas. So, if you see someone whispering to trees in January, it might be me.

4. Braiding Sweetgrass – Robin Wall Kimmerer

Book cover of Braiding sweetgrass, written by Robin Wall Kimmerer

There is no better time to learn from the Earth’s wisdom than today. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer argues we should acknowledge and celebrate our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the world, in order to truly understand our ecological surroundings. She shows us what we can learn from plants and animals. She taps into both indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge for this.

I also haven’t read this one yet, but it sounds highly valuable. In our Western society, we often live like we own nature. We are both the guardians and exploiters of the Earth. I think this book will show us the intrinsic value of nature, even when not seen, not touched and not used by us.

5. Prosperity without growth - Tim Jackson

According to my colleague Erich, this is one of the classics in the debate on economic growth and its effect on the natural environment. An often-heard solution is that we should decouple economic growth from natural exploitation and environmental degradation. Jackson says this is hardly possible. Another one that’s often mentioned: degrowth. But according to Jackson this is not desirable.

What he’s arguing for is far less drastic. What it is, I don’t know. My colleague didn’t want to spoil it. So I guess we’ll just have to read it.

6. Darwin comes to town – Menno Schilthuizen

Book cover of Darwin comes to town, written by Menno Schilthuizen

A book you will finish in a few days, it’s that fun to read. Menno Schilthuizen shows us the extraordinary power of urban biodiversity, and explains how the city has become its own valuable ecosystem, supporting numerous old and new plant and animal species.

With more and more wildlife claiming their space among humans, evolution takes a surprising turn in the city. Animals evolve or learn how to become more resourceful, mischievous and toxin-resistant.  

With more and more biodiversity disappearing all around us in the natural world, this book provides a small celebration of new life flourishing in our unnatural worlds of concrete and steel.

7. Eating animals – Jonathan Safran Foer

Movie poster from Eating animals

This book was born from Safran Foer’s own internal struggle. Interchangeably carnivore and vegetarian for years, he finally wanted to make up his mind on eating animals, and decide whether or not his newborn child should eat meat. If you don’t feel like reading, the book was also made into a documentary.

Safran Foer investigates the implications of meat consumption for the animals involved, for our environment and for our health. Ultimately, he argues, the decision of whether or not to eat meat comes down to the ethical values we stand for. People know there is something wrong with eating meat. But does this lead them to decide that letting animals live is more important than satisfying their desire for meat?

Whether or not you eat meat, this book can make you feel awkward about your own food decisions at times. But in the end, it really helped me think about my own ethical values concerning food. It still does, years after reading it.

Whether or not surfing, tree whispering, braiding sweetgrass or eating meat is involved: have a lovely Christmas!

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