Ecology is a divisive topic. The public conversation is so marked by slogans, political partisanship, and heightened alarmism, that thinking deeply about its varying dimensions becomes difficult. Plus, in a media ecosystem as complex as ours there are extreme tendencies on display: to be seduced into the dark well of despair, or to dismiss environmental concerns as so much nonsense.
In 1986, in an address to Catholic educators in Melbourne, Pope John Paul II said:
Love ‘rejoices in the truth’. Seek out this truth where it is really to be found! If necessary, be resolved to go against the current of popular opinion and propaganda slogans!’
The question is: How do we go beyond the slogans? How do we deepen our understanding of the many different issues at play in questions of ecology? John Henry Newman would probably say: Get educated. Pursue excellence of the mind.
In this vein, here is a booklist for you. It is a booklist worthy of a liberal arts curriculum, looking to broaden our understanding of what is at stake by approaching the topic in an integrated way.
Not all of these books tackle "the environment" per se, but they do explore the relationship between nature and human nature, between culture and technology, in a way that is deeply relevant to us today.
If you’re wanting to read more widely, thinking about the topic economically, scientifically, socially, culturally, and above all, theologically, hopefully this booklist is some help to you.
This book is a classic when it comes to economics and ecology. Written in 1973, it is a collection of essays and speeches that tackle the modern tendency of “bigger is better”, and the dubious belief in the endless pursuit of material prosperity. Schumacher, once a refugee from Nazi Germany, explores the unsustainability of modern economies, the problems of nuclear waste, and the importance of education. Perhaps fundamentally, as indicated by the book’s title, he proposed that Western, highly technological solutions to problems aren’t necessarily the best because they don’t always factor in the needs and problems of particular communities. Instead, he dreamed of orienting ‘science and technology toward the organic, the gentle, the elegant and beautiful.’
When the book first came out, he was called a crank. He loved this insult, replying: ‘a crank is a piece of simple technology that creates revolutions.’
What is a Technopoly? Technopolies are created, Postman says, when we come to believe that ‘the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency, that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment ... and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.’ Sound familiar? It should because we’re living it.
Neil Postman was one of the world’s most beloved cultural commentators. He frequently explored questions of education and culture, and the interplay between technology and human life. Originally written in 1993, this book seeks to address a fundamental naiveté people have about technology. Namely: It isn’t neutral.
Technology subtly shapes how we see the world. What we are doing with our fanatical attachment to technological achievement is destroying ‘the vital sources of our humanity’ and creating ‘a culture without moral foundation.’
For anyone wanting to reflect on the ecology of human life, culture and technology, this book is essential.
Romano Guardini was one of the most impressive Catholic thinkers of the early twentieth century. This book is a collection of his letters, written in the mid-1920s, working through the challenges that face humanity as it enters the era of “the machine”.
Although he was culturally German, Guardini loved to vacation in Como, Italy, largely because of the beauty of the environment. As Bishop Robert Barron recounts, Guardini was impressed with the way in which the architecture and craftsmanship of the place moved with the rhythms and contours of the natural landscape, not against them. Over the years, this started to change: buildings became more aggressive, more invasive in their design, and motorboats cut through the waves instead of moving in rhythm with them. What was gradually taking place was an alienation between humanity and nature itself.
What makes this book essential reading is that it’s not a series of treatises or speeches, but a deeply personal collection of letters. It has that personal and spiritual quality that is so often missing from our reflections on nature, creation, and the human relationship with it.
This is a bit of a heavier book in comparison to the others, but Wiker is always an excellent read. The premise of this book is that the question of nature and the environment cannot be adequately addressed when we overlook one of the most important aspects of nature: Human nature.
There is an inherent contradiction in focussing all of our efforts on the environment when we neglect – and actively destroy – this most important dimension of creation. Yes, talk about pollution, Wiker says. But let’s also talk about the pollution of human sexuality by pornography, human trafficking, contraception, and the sexual revolution. Yes, let’s talk about the destruction of the environment. But let’s also talk about the destruction of the human capacity for wonder at the beauty of the environment with the advent of screens, virtual reality, and social media.
Only when we see nature and human nature as integrally connected can we even begin to approach ecological questions holistically. In fact, only when we cultivate human nature faithfully can we fashion an environment that is true to nature and true to ourselves.
No discussion of ecology is complete these days without a scientific angle addressing one of the hot-button issues of global politics: Climate change (or global warming) and its proposed catastrophic impacts.
Finding a book about climate change that isn’t polemical, doesn’t contain an overt political bias, and sticks to the data (even when that data is dry and difficult to follow) seems to be a massive feat. Thankfully, Koonin is perfectly positioned, having been a top science advisor to the Obama Administration and working for decades in computer modelling and theoretical physics.
This book is a journey through the available data, especially as presented by the UN's International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and an honest look at what we can say and what we can’t. The results are sobering.
The ‘elevator speech’ for this book he describes as this: ‘Climate and energy are complex and nuanced subjects. Simplistic descriptions of “the problem” or putative “solutions” will not result in wise choices’ (p.250). For anyone interested in a thoroughly scientific, non-polemical approach to ecological questions, this book is vital.