An Apocatopian Primer
This is an ongoing list of climate reading. Many of the titles are produced within the design disciplines. Others are works of fiction and non-fiction from around the globe that might inform acts of design. This list challenges the idea that designers are somehow apolitical or work within a disciplinary silo that isolates them from broader societal issues.
The title of the list, An Apocatopian Primer, is borrowed from China Miéville’s essay, “The Limits of Utopia.” Miéville warns that utopias can be part of, and organized within, unjust societies and systems. In order to dismantle these systems, we first need to understand them. This understanding includes basic climate science, law, economics, and how the design disciplines are complicit, an idea that Jesse M. Keenan elaborates on eloquently in his chapter on a “Climate Core” for landscape architecture in Rosalea Monacella and Bridget Keane’s excellent edited volume, Designing Landscape Architectural Education: Studio Ecologies for Uncertain Futures.
An Apocatopian Primer is an incomplete and growing reading list for designers interested in expanding their knowledge of the climate crisis, and also ecological thinking and speculative design for a more just future.
While this is not an exhaustive list, it is already overwhelming. For anyone interested in an extremely condensed Apocatopian Primer, I would suggest starting with the non-fiction essay compilation All We Can Save, edited by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, moving on to the non-fiction The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis by Amitav Ghosh, and finishing with the cli-fi saga, The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. For those interested in digging in further, keep reading.
This list uses three primary classifications:
- Tip of the Iceberg titles assume little to no background knowledge of the climate crisis.
- Treading Water titles assume climate literacy and familiarity with the broad strokes of climate policy.
- The Deep End titles assume a broad conceptual understanding of the climate crisis as a slow-moving global catastrophe that will impact all facets of life on Earth.
Each title is further categorized as:
- Complicity and Denial titles focus on historical analysis of unjust systems and practices.
- Coming to Terms titles look at ways to understand the climate crisis, including philosophy and science reporting.
- Change-Making titles are books filled with ideas and speculative futures.
All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis
New York: One World, 2020
Tip of the Iceberg | Coming to Terms | Communication and Strategy
I was extremely late to the party on this stellar collection of essays. This is a nice entry point into climate reading: if you're just dipping your toe into climate scientist, or a seasoned organizer, there's something in here that will meet you where you're at. The essays are all from woman authors, and they range from acts of witnessing to calls for action to a comprehensive framework for the Green New Deal. Worth keeping on a shelf and sharing with friends, this is a good reminder of how much there is to save.
The Corporation that Changed the World
London: Pluto Press, 2012
The Deep End | Complicity and Denial | Globalization
There are a lot of half-baked think pieces claiming we need a form of global government that "take the East India Company" as a precedent to confront climate change. This book eviscerates that imperialist logic.
Robins writes that "what are often seen as entirely novel problems are, in fact, enduring facets of global economic history, a history that the English East India Company did so much to shape. No stranger to stock market bubbles, eye-watering corruption and government bailouts, the Company actually outstripped the excesses of the contemporary corporation by conquering nations and ruling over millions with its private army."
Robins argues we need far more government oversight since companies driven to make profit for shareholders will not self-correct (duh). Finance, technology, scale and regulation need t be recast to protect public interests and protect "soulless, psycho corporate personalities" by rebalancing corporate rights and privileges so limited liability doesn't screen executives from the consequences of their actions.
TL;DR there are a whole lot of executives from 1600 to the present who still need to be prosecuted.
They Knew: The US Federal Government's Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021
The Deep End | Complicity and Denial | Policy
A very smart, very accomplished, very knowledgeable lawyer translated his expert testimony in Juliana v. United States into a book.
Even with the slightly unhinged title to attract the enraged and angry, it's exactly as dry as you'd expect.
The basic takeaways: since the Carter administration (1976), the federal government in all branches has understood:
1. the dangers of climate change, that they are intensifying, and they are caused dominantly by burning fossil fuels.
2. How climate change will harm the nation, especially children and future generations.
3. There are alternative national energy pathways to provide energy independently, greater environmental protection, and safety for current and future generations.
Nuclear Disaster in the Urals
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980
The Deep End | Complicity and Denial | Science and Engineering
This is a fascinating look into post-truth, pre-truth, and fake news society with massive public health and safety consequences.
In 1976 the author, Medvedev, published an article that hundreds of people died in a Soviet nuclear accident in 1958. The western scientific community dismissed him out of hubris - if there had been a disaster 20 years ago, the West would have known! Medvedev proved the real history of the Urals disaster by treating the omissions, distortions, falsifications, and anomalies in published scientific sources as evidence.
He went off the slightest word of mouth hints, sourced hundreds of state scientific publications with intentional omissions, and paired what he knew about Soviet general censorship with a strict scientific scrutiny of the results in Soviet publications by asking simple questions (like, if you did a controlled experiment in a laboratory, why would the amount of radioactive contamination in fish vary across seasons with snowmelt?)
He made huge inroads against Soviet pseudoscience and Western academic biases, and months later the CIA declassified their own records validating his research in response.
New York: Random House, 2018
The Deep End | Complicity and Denial | Fiction
This book feels prescient for the era of American anger and resentment. Jonathan Dee uses a small town in western Massachusetts to narrate what happens when a billionaire comes to town and uses personal wealth to fund gaps in the social safety net. Dee writes a familiar but complex set of characters: a husband failing upwards, a depressed stay-at-home mom, a dystopic teenager, a far-right blogger with an extremely limited audience, a local politician looking forward to retirement. They’re relatable, and you’re rooting for them hard while they’re hoodwinked by the man in expensive clothes from the City who can’t even buy his neighbor a cup of coffee at the local diner.
Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays
Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2017
Treading Water | Complicity and Denial | Communication and Strategy
There is a group of men who have been writing and debating in the climate space for years who argue back and forth over who is a fatalist, whose theories might be secretly eco-fascist, whose writing isn’t nuanced enough, etc. Most are feigning outrage while trying to get enough cultural traction to join the climate speaking circuit. Paul Kingsnorth is one of them. His take is basically: the First World will not take the necessary steps to meaningfully address climate change. Instead, we will dabble in greenwashing and sustainability. To counter that, we need a new way of thinking that privileges both human and non-human needs. Kingsnorth doesn't get so far as to consider the disciplines already engaging in these issues, including landscape architecture.
Learning to Die in the Anthropocene
San Francisco: City Lights Publishers, 2015
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Philosophy
"No matter how many people take to the streets in massive marches or in targeted direct actions, they cannot put their hands on the real flows of power, because they do not help produce it. They only consume."
US Veteran turned environmental Buddhist Roy Scranton's argument is easy to get behind: we can't save the global capitalist system. We also can't stop climate change. What we can do is learn to die as a civilization (whether that's all of humanity, or just western late capitalist societies isn't clearly articulated).
Scranton's concept is well-written. His pathway to get there isn't feasible: there is no way that 'Muricans are going to give up CTE-Sundays for a deep reading of philosophy. And even if they did, if all the rest of your fellow humans are the problem, there's no way to build coalitions to form any kind of new society.
The Mushroom at the End of the World
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Place-based Reportage | Anthropology and Ethnography
I listened to Anna Tsing talk about her first book, Friction: An Ethnography at Rice University in 2014, and I've been following her writing ever since. She explores places, people, and other species in a way that designers must aspire to.
A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change
London: Oxford University Press, 2013
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Philosophy
Gardiner's was years ahead of our current thinking about the 2020s form of climate denial: climate delay.
He lays out the foundation for climate change as an ethical failure for three reasons:
1. Rich countries have and will continue to pass the costs of climate to poorer countries and weaker citizens.
2. This is a multi-generational collective action problem which current generations do not feel urgency to solve.
3. Our brains just can't handle the complexity of the climate crisis. Our understanding of science, international justice, and our Western concept of humans separated from nature make us unwilling to act.
The War on Science
Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2016
Treading Water | Complicity and Denial | Science and Engineering
Otto starts with the birth of big cig advertising in the 1920s, walks through the erosion of public trust of scientists buried in labs during the 1950s, and finishes with a sweeping tour of climate denial. He switches from berating postmodernism to fundamentalist Christianity to Dick Cheney without missing a beat. Even though he casts a wide net criticizing "my kid can't touch chemicals" rich moms and neoliberal academics, he reserves his greatest fury and best analysis for the hard-right for their concerted efforts against science. This book has been somewhat overlooked, but is a must-read.
The Nutmeg's Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis
Chicago: University of Chicago, 2021
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Philosophy | Globalization
If All We Can Save is the best way to dip a toe into climate reading, The Nutmeg's Curse is like jumping off a (melting) glacier. Ghosh starts in the Bandanese archipelago in Indonesia where the Dutch East India Company displaced thousands of villagers to gain a monopoly over nutmeg that they could export and sell. He shows how the compound crises we are in today all start from that same colonial mindset: we created a dead world that turns living beings into objects and resources, stripping them from their places, people, and meaning. We do all that just to sell things!
He illustrates this with personal anecdotes about the pandemic, media theory, pop culture musings, and historical references. There are too many layers to understand everything with a single read, and that might be the point.
The Ministry for the Future
London: Orbit Books, 2020
Treading Water | Change-Making | Cli-Fi | Fiction
My favorite Boomer love story, this tale has it all: cluster-bomb drones, global migration, an escape in the Alps, seven-masted solar schooners, the Federal Reserve... Kim Stanley Robinson writes about the real need to protect future generations in the near present. He does it through agencies and people that are familiar enough to be relatable, but radical enough to be transformative.
New York: Macmillan, 2019
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Fiction | Globalization
This feels like the fictional prelude to The Nutmeg's Curse. Ghosh's tale of international mistranslation glides through the Sundarbans straddling Bangladesh and India, stalls out in Brooklyn, and ends in the open ocean beyond Venice. He weaves them together with a centuries-old legend that's just as captivating in the present day.
Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City
London: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2019
Treading Water | Change-Making | Design | Place-Based Reportage
This book isn't a how-to manual about urban permaculture (look to Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway for that information), instead it's a joyful and informative narrative about transforming a 1/10th acre parking lot into a productive temperate garden.
New York: Harper Collins, 2020
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Fiction
This speculative fiction book is pretty sparse on the details: the tech has already stopped working when it begins. Electric outlets have sparked out, guns have melted, etc. What's left is an incoherent world with a single machine that's traveled across the former US to coastal Maine, where a group of survivors are butchering artisanal meats and growing mushrooms in the soils. Lethem opens up more questions than he answers, and maybe that's the point: the end of the world is a lot more confusing than Blockbusters or other cli-fi reads give it credit for.
A New Coast
Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2019
Treading Water | Change-Making | Policy | Science and Engineering
A New Coast:
1. Details the existing landscape of regulation and actors across the United States coastline
2. Addresses how that coastline is changing
3. And finally puts out a vision for a federal framework to better address those changing needs.
A Blueprint for Coastal Adaptation: Uniting Design, Economics, and Policy
Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2021
Treading Water | Change-Making | Design | Policy
The key takeaway from this fascinating collection is in the title: we need to unite design, economics, and policy to address coastal adaptation, and not necessarily in that order.
There's enough content for a PhD in just the first essay: A Comprehensive Framework for Coastal Flood-Risk Reduction: Charting a Course Toward Resiliency by Samuel Brody, Kayode Atoba, Wesley Highfield, Antonia Sebastian, Russell Blessing, William Mobley, and Laura Sterns. This book is more of a reference to come back to in practice and theory.
Blue Dunes: Climate Change by Design
New York: Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2017
Treading Water | Change-Making | Design
This is a completely alternative future than the one we are witnessing as the BIG U starts to dump rubble on a beloved public park to meet funding deadlines from the federal government.
The World Without Us
New York: Macmillan, 2007
Tip of the Iceberg | Coming to Terms | Science and Engineering
Frightening. Weisman eliminates the most powerful invasive species on the planet (humans) and narrates the consequences. Nuclear meltdowns across the globe, mega-cities underwater, soil layers filled with human and chicken bones. His expert consultation is meted down in his final provocation, mirroring the Rome Society and Earth First! before him: instead of waiting for catastrophe, we might voluntarily adopt policies to naturally reduce the human population on Earth.
The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet
New York: Public Affairs Books, 2021
Treading Water | Complicity and Denial | Communication and Strategy
Michael Mann is the "hockey stick graph" guy and one of the key figures of "Climategate," when hackers stole a bunch of emails from the University of East Anglia and used scientific watercooler chatter to stoke climate denial.
Despite all that, Mann is a prolific author, and his work has shifted from talking about paleoclimatic evidence that the planet is warming, toward a hard-hitting and easily accessible critique of the fossil fuel industry's war on climate.
The Uninhabitable Earth
New York: Penguin Random House, 2020
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Philosophy
This bleak read about the scale of the climate crisis covers how the side effects of climate change are already accelerating, and quickly. Even more depressing: humans simply adjust our baselines to justify our actions, especially in the West, which will not experience the brunt of climate destruction.
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming
New York: Penguin Books, 2017
Tip of the Iceberg | Change-Making | Design | Policy | Science and Engineering
These teaser pages lay out solutions for climate change with beautiful photos, and rank them by the amount of carbon dioxide they reduce or sequester. Not surprisingly, but important for landscape architects, food, Agriculture, and Land Use/Land Sinks come in first.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2020
Treading Water | Change-Making | Philosophy | Science and Engineering
It's hard to put this book by Potawatomi Nation citizen and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer into a category, but it absolutely belongs on a bookshelf. She writes beautifully about our interconnection with the living and non-living worlds and argues for a stronger ecological ethic. Timothy Morton, take notes?
How to Blow up a Pipeline
London: Verso Books, 2021
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Communication and Strategy
I wouldn't read this on public transit again. For such a provocative title, How to Blow Up a Pipeline has a typical climate nonfiction arc: heavy dose of doom, convincing historic analysis of past civil disobedience movements, reconciliation of previous dissent across the globe, a call to action to blow up pipelines, construction vehicles, and Wall Street (things, not people), followed by an obligatory note of hope. My image of the author is someone at a local park in California wearing $5,000 of Patagonia hiking gear with poles for a quarter mile loop, but it's worth the read anyway.
Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island
New York: Harper Collins, 2020
Tip of the Iceberg | Coming to Terms | Place-Based Reportage | Anthropology and Ethnography
This is a really devastating record of extremely devout Tangier Island, Virginia. There, sea level rise ("erosion" to the people living there) is claiming 150' of coastline each year on an island that lies just 5' above sea level.
Earl Swift spent a year with the 900 (and declining) residents, mostly watermen setting pots for Blue crab, and their families, most of whom are descendents of the same man.
It's a fascinating community that voted for Trump; an island of anti-Fed climate deniers whose cultural imaginary revolves around an Army Corps seawall proposal; a dry island with a drug problem; a place with a cross on its municipally owned water tower; a community that offers warm hospitality while being deeply skeptical of outsiders and "come heres" despite their work for the islanders. It's an incredible account of a place being reclaimed by the tide, and taking with it a way of life that (for better or worse) likely won't survive on the mainland.
The Last Resort
New York: Ecco, 2022
Tip of the Iceberg | Coming to Terms | Place-Based Reportage | Globalization
A very depressing but jovially written beach read touring the end of our cultural imaginary of the "beach as paradise" as sea levels rise and overdevelopment erodes anything that's left. Stodola takes a tour from Caesar's original palace in Baiae, Italy (now 15' underwater) to Railay, Thailand, to an insane floating beach resort in North Korea, among other places.
Her key takeaways: coastal insurance is going to be unaffordable except for ultra-luxury brands by 2050, and beach tourism, all other problems aside, is never going to be sustainable until you ditch long-haul flights and stop decimating and colonizing local culture. So basically it's 300 pages advocating for high speed rail and better marketing for beaches where you live.
All aboard the Jersey Shore Express!
New York: Penguin Random House, 2022
Tip of the Iceberg | Coming to Terms | Cli-Fi
Eleutheria is nominally about an ecological camp in the Bahamas that encourages the children of the super wealthy to start global climate action, but it's actually mostly about a toxic relationship between a Harvard professor and a younger idealist in a dystopic near future.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018
The Deep End | Coming to Terms | Philosophy
I'm still not sure if I totally get this, and most people I've talked to about it also don't totally get that. Is the language intentionally obscure because the editors also don't totally grasp it? Or do we need a new and more free language to talk about ecological knowledge beyond the usual scientific facts that Morton is critiquing? He's arguing for a more experiential way of seeing the world, one that pushes back against Anthropocentrism to see ourselves as a single node in the interconnected web of living things. He largely leaves out race and class in his analysis, and it's unclear if that shift in the way we relate to the broader world is really just something that white, western society has left behind in five hundred years of imperialist conquests.
Wildland: The Making of America's Fury
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022
Treading Water | Coming to Terms| Place-Based Reporting | Communication and Strategy
I found this book in a little free library on Nantucket and was surprised because it was almost brand new, and expensive. After reading it, I understand: this book castigates the upper classes for isolating themselves from the rest of America (which probably hits too close to home for the millionaires in second homes on the island).
Osnos walks through the last 20 years in West Virginia, Chicago, and Greenwich and ends up with a few American takeaways:
1. the rich being this rich and this isolated isn't normal, and it's not the capitalism that Boomers grew up in;
2. the nationalization of politics is also new - people are angry at governors in states they've never been to while they let local newspapers go out of business;
3. the way out is refunding those local papers and businesses and reconnecting with local civic society. Pulling people off screens and uniting them around structural issues they can see might enable consensus around big issues like affordable housing, air quality, and healthcare, instead of things that are just meant to sow division that people have no agency over (like Q Anon).
Last Harvest: From Cornfield to New Town
New York: Scribner, 2007
Tip of the Iceberg | Coming to Terms | Place-Based Reportage | Policy | Design
I was skeptical about this title because of the 1995 Microsoft Word clip art cover, but Witold walks through the development process from a series of truly awful community meetings to septic leach field installation to water main nightmares in a new urbanist development in rural Pennsylvania. The key takeaways: everyone hates developers, it takes twenty years for design trends to catch on, big National Builders still make real homes, and this four-year process is why it's so hard to build affordable housing in America, especially in more liberal areas.
The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution
New York: Norton, 2021.
Treading Water | Change-Making | Biography | Place-Based Reportage
A lot of this book is just talking about the forgotten author Louis Bromfield (once faster selling than Fitzgerald and pegged to be a bigger success than Hemingway) and his forgotten farm, Malabar in Ohio, where he was running endless experiments with no-till, crop rotation, and organic mulching sixty years ago. Before that, he was Edith Wharton's go-to call for garden advice during the interwar period when he was throwing decadent garden parties in Senlis, France.
The narrative ties these two places tightly together to bring his legacy forward and untangle it from the agrarian-environmental writers he still influences today, like Wendell Berry and Robert Rodale. Bromfield didn't exactly do well (hence why the first half of the book is like a seating chart of famous friends whose names you probably recognize more than him), but he did a lot of good.
Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Place-Based Reportage | Anthropology and Ethnography
I took a course called the Idea of Environment at Harvard GSD with Abby Spinak, a brilliant scholar in the energy humanities, who was then the co-chair of the since-dissolved Master in Design Studies in Risk and Resilience track. She generously shared her updated syllabus with me for the Fall 2022 course, and I have been slowly making my way through it, starting with Running Out.
Anthropologist Lucas Bessire travels back to his childhood home on the plains in Kansas. His goal is to understand his complicity in the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies eight states in the midwestern United States. The narrative isn't linear. He investigates a female relative who was lobotomized, big-ag corruption in community meetings, his own relationship with his father, and hundreds of other unexpected entanglements. The flow of the book is rarely clear: he is trying to frame and take responsibility for depletion in a place he fled decades ago. He doesn't offer any grand conclusions, instead, this style of writing, acknowledging that every choice has meaning and consequences, is his larger contribution.
Designing Landscape Architectural Education: Studio Ecologies for Unpredictable Futures
New York: Routledge, 2022
Treading Water | Change-Making | Design | Pedagogy
The title of this book includes landscape architecture, but many of the essays in this wide-ranging compendium apply beyond the design disciplines.
This is due to the wide-range of contributors that Rose and Bridget curate, from Billy Fleming's piece on speaking out despite the precarity (read: one year contracts) in junior academia; Jesse M. Keenan's expansive two-semester climate core in place of stilted male-dominated theory sessions; and the excellent conclusion calling for a code of ethics in landscape teaching.
Most of these pieces stress the need for to expand the discipline of landscape architecture through designing scenarios for the future that can be co-produced and shared with communities, instead of inheriting pre-defined sties and problems that don't address broader issues (like greenwashing instead of making difficult proposals for climate gentrification and retreat). It's always easier to iterate an idea on the table, than to start fresh.
That's the broader argument to reinvent studio, anyways. As Charles Waldheim writes in the foreword, studio can be a supportive, transformative tesing grounds for radical ideas, instead of being an archaic and painful way to push forward neoliberal ideas and train students to be exploited for their labor for minimum wage. Any student (myself included) that has been lucky enough to study with Rose can attest to that type of inclusive studio environment.
The Turquoise Ledge: A Memoir
New York: Penguin Random House, 2011
The Deep End | Coming to Terms | Memoir | Place-Based Reportage
Personal storytelling at its best, Leslie Marmon Silko's first non-fiction book explores her own experiences across the landscapes of the southwest.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
New York: Harper Collins, 2018
Tip of the Iceberg | Complicity and Denial | Place-Based Reportage | Memoir
Before J.D. Vance totally revealed himself to be a reactionary in his 2022 Ohio senate race, he hinted at it in a way that was subtle enough for the wealth-apologist New York Times and its middle-aged liberal audience to jump on board.
Hillbilly Elegy dresses the idea of pulling oneself up from the bootstraps in elite language. Instead of interrogating systemic racism and underinvestment in rural America, Vance decries the need for rural areas to reform from within.
The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape
London: Macmillan, 2015
Tip of the Iceberg | Change-Making | Place-Based Reportage | Memoir
Maybe the British antidote to Hillbilly Elegy. James Rebanks smashes through the literary descriptions of the Lake District in northern England to share the story of the people that shape the landscape in the background for hundreds of thousands of tourists and artists each year.
He describes his detour at Oxford University, the repetitive labor he performs each day, and how shepherding has survived in his homeland for thousands of years. Rebanks genuinely loves his roots and the work that he does, and the intimate connection to place that he writes is deeply powerful.
The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security
London: Chelsea Green, 2016
Treading Water | Change-Making | Design | Science and Engineering
If Drawdown identifies agriculture and land use as the key to reforming our greenhouse gas emissions, Eric Toensmeier digs into the toolkit of carbon farming practices that we can use to sequester carbon in the soil and aboveground in biomass.
He doesn't dismiss that these practices need to happen in concert with a transition to renewable energy and adaptation strategies, but he synthesizes hundreds of complex technical papers into a guide for mitigation that designers and farmers can use in the climate crisis.
Seek You: A Journey through American Loneliness
New York: Penguin Random house, 2021
The Deep End | Coming to Terms | Graphic Novel | Communication and Strategy
This beautifully illustrated graphic novel succinctly identifies the way the American cultural imaginary elevates images of rugged, masculine individualism, and how those same images have long-term psychological effects that keep us from forming the social bonds and connections that we need to address collective action problems.
While Radtke is looking at loneliness through lenses of media, gender, and technology, the lessons she shares are extremely relevant to the root issues of social distrust that make it so difficult to make change against the climate crisis.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Place-Based Reportage | Design
During the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, the seashore technically extended 100 miles into land-locked Vermont. I'm not sure what to do with that fact, but I've thought about for days since I first read it.
John Stilgoe's investigation of the terms we use to describe the nearshore, and our cultural history, is incredibly complex, beautiful, sprawling, and worth tucking on a bookshelf for repeated reading.
A Paradise Built in Hell
New York: Penguin Books, 2010
Treading Water | Change-Making | Place-Based Reportage | Communication and Strategy
Rebecca Solnit perfectly captured the idea of mansplaining in Men Explain Things to Me, her collection of essays that are the perfect size to gift as a stocking stuffer.
A Paradise Built in Hell is an earlier investigation into the moments right after natural disasters, and the communities of joy, mutual aid, and understanding that are built. While our historical narratives tend to focus on statistics (how many died, the total value of damages, etc) they overlook the meaningful change that is sometimes only possible in the immediate aftermath of disaster.
How feasible that will be in the future, when we've left a multi-year global pandemic without improvements to universal healthcare, sick leave, or matching wages to inflation, is unclear, but there is certainly enough historical precedent to be hopeful.
Overgrown: Practices Between Landscape Architecture and Garden
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2022
Tip of the Iceberg | Change-Making | Design
This series of case studies should be a wake-up call for landscape architects working across scales. Raxworthy argues that the profession has pigeon-holed itself as white collar workers behind computers. What the discipline needs is to go outside, get dirty, and grow.
Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World
London: HarperCollins, 2022
Tip of the Iceberg | Coming to Terms | Globalization | Policy
I slogged through Land for months. Simon Winchester bought an expensive plot of land in Dutchess County, New York, and uses that as a jumping off point to investigate how private land ownership has evolved across the globe for centuries. The result is a patchwork of narratives from across the globe that are interesting, but feel apolitical and detached, like they were written by someone isolated on a rural estate.
New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2018
Tip of the Iceberg | Coming to Terms | Fiction
The Overstory is a beautiful story about nine Americans whose personal experiences with trees lead them to defend forests. Some of it feels like real life, since Powers drew on scientist Suzanne Simard to write the depressed ecologist Patricia Westerford. The narrative is increasingly unbelievable, kind of like Tom Wolff trying to write through the eyes of a freshman college girl, but the story will make anyone less plant blind in literature and real life.
Crime Pays but Art Doesn't
San Francisco: Pacific Street Publishing, 2022
Tip of the Iceberg | Coming to Terms | Design
Joey Santore leads with vulgarity on his podcast, but his collection of black-and-white pen and ink drawings across the American landscape are powerful and political in their own right, resist being shoehorned into one type of subject matter, and open up a world that most people don't stop to appreciate.
PrairyErth: A Deep Map
Boston: Mariner Books, 1999
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Place-Based Reportage
PrairyErth is a heavy tome that William Least Heat-Moon calls a deep map. It's a weighty reading through Chase County, Kansas that spans disciplines: he describes the economic history, natural disasters, geography, and ecology with equal emphasis.
The book is laid out in twelve parts, each one of the divisions in a USGS survey. Some include tallies of plant life, others interviews with flood survivors, others newspaper clippings. All of them begin with a commonplace book of quotes.
The methodology could easily carry to different places: instead of jumping in the car to drive to the middle of the country, you can immerse yourself in place while we wait for high-speed, low-carbon rail.
Redesigning the American Lawn: A Search for Environmental Harmony
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001
Tip of the Iceberg | Change-Making | Design
Lawn is the largest irrigated crop in the United States. Thirty years ago this group of designers and design students proposed the "Freedom Lawn" (as the name suggests, the definition isn't super exact. A Freedom lawn is better designed by what isn't not: it's not a monoculture of Bermuda grass). Some freedom lawns just have a little clover sprinkled in, others are xeriscaped in dry climates, others are multi-story edible gardens where lawns used to grow. This book walks through the origins and evolution of the lawn, and makes a clear case for why we should destroy them.
Despite the Freedom Lawn franchise (TM) that sprung up in the early 2000s, the lawn is still the most clear marker of middle class America, and most ASLA awarded projects have a green swath.
The deeper cultural message is clear: we need a new landscape tradition: seed bombs away?
Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires
New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2022
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Media | Philosophy
The reviews for this book are totally unhinged. So many people miss the mark on what this book is: a critique of the hyperwealthy in board rooms and tech elite on exclusive retreats that are trying to steal the last gasps of middle class prosperity to research and develop their way to Mars or underground hideouts. Blogs torch this book because they want Rushkoff to reveal those secrets. But this man is an academic; he's just here to share what he's learned.
Douglas Rushkoff has spent two decades with these guys (yes, mostly men) trying to talk to them about circular economies and mutual aid. They've rolled their eyes and asked about crypto and bunkers and prepping.
He comes away with some obvious takeaways (and big paychecks): the tech isn't here yet to allow anyone to escape our planet, but the mindset of limitless growth is accelerating our mutual apocalypse.
More generally, the neoliberal ideology behind the tech elite (the 0.0000001%) is replicated by the western 10% through COVID learning bubbles, Amazon Prime's "touchless delivery," and paywall media like the "dependably wealth apologist New York Times."
We're all complicit, and spreading the wealth of the escape fantasies won't help. Stop asking.
For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History
New York: Viking, 2011
Tip of the Iceberg | Coming to Terms | Globalization
Robert Fortune (what a name...) committed the world's most serious act of corporate espionage when he spent three years in China stealing live tea plants and shipping them in glass cases to the British-colonized Himalayas in the mid-nineteenth century. He was an extremely savvy biopirate, and Sarah Rose sticks closely to his story (there isn't a lot of source material, Fortune's wife buried his records when he died [ again...] so the author exclusively uses the East India Company's records as a source) without digging into the broader context of imperial violence behind the steal.
Fixer-Upper: How to Repair America's Broken Housing System
Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2022
Tip of the Iceberg | Change-Making | Policy
This book could have been an email with a single, extremely well-researched table.
Instead, the book identifies key problems in housing systems and offers potential market-based and policy solutions for the American context. Those are all good and important, but they're all things tried, tested, and obviously not working. There are three pages that acknowledge that voucher systems, subsidies, and tax breaks to wealthy white homeowners are structurally racist, ineffective, and can't solve structural problems. Then there are 208 pages that propose policies to keep housing-as-commodity instead of housing-as-right.
Apparently the costs associated with the status quo aren't too high.
New York: Knopf, 2020
Treading Water | Change-Making | Fiction
Jenny Offill writes women in their 30s really well. In this novel she tackles a woman in her 30s flirting with the end times (get your teeth checked, folks, it's always the teeth). I've re-read it three times, laughed each time, and ended on a high feeling the Obligatory Note of Hope.
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001
Tip of the Iceberg |
Nickel and Dimed should be considered the prequel to Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber. In 1999, PhD Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover as a journalist working $6/hour jobs, living in trailer parks, and uncovering the scourge of middle management (see again, Bullshit Jobs) that make life hell for people doing jobs that are considered unskilled but actually require mental fortitude to work through pain, endurance, quick thinking, and attention to detail. This should be required reading for anyone taking an architecture studio in the United States.
Bunker: Building for the End Times
New York: Ecco, 2020
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Anthropology and Ethnography
There are some books that just could not be written by anyone other than a tall guy. Bradley Garrett earned his PhD exploring London's underground urban haunts, and took himself on the road for a tour of bunkers from North Dakota to Thailand. He spends the night in artificial environments surrounded by stockpiles of SPAM and automatic weapons, attends conferences and Prepper Camps, and ultimately draws some obvious conclusions: at the end of the world, you're going to need food, not concrete.
Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn
New York: Metropolis Books, 2010
Tip of the Iceberg | Change-Making | Design
Artist Fritz Haeg has built installations across the world tearing up lawn in favor of productive landscapes, pollinator gardens, and permaculture experiments. He walks through eight prototype gardens in different bioregions, from Salina, Kansas to the heart of New York City, accompanied by insightful essays and beautiful full-color photographic spreads. Attacking the lawn is subversion on a budget.
One Man's Meat
London: Victor Gollancz, 1943
Tip of the Iceberg | Coming to Terms | Memoir
Maybe the most beautiful relationship in E.B. White's recollection of his time on a small farm on the Maine Coast from 1938 to 1942 is his admiration for a local lobsterman, Dameron, who the author sees as a truly free man.
Essays like A Shepherd's Life (see James Rebank's book for a similar account of birthing lambs and shearing ewes across the Atlantic) reflect on the hard-working perseverance of rural life, and White's own reflections on thrift and the slow adoption of technology in the country. He stops short of romanticizing life on the Maine coast, and frequently notes how much he's willing to pay Mainers to take on daily tasks that he'd rather not do so he can sit at his typewriter overlooking the Atlantic.
What becomes clear: being a free man isn't as valuable to White as his leisure time in his idyllic surroundings against the backdrop of international war.
Moon of the Crusted Snow
Toronto: ECW Press, 2018
Tip of the Iceberg | Change-Making | Fiction
Set in an isolated northern Anishinaabe community, this novel begins in early autumn when the power goes out. Diesel generators left over from decades ago, before hydropower was introduced, quickly dwindle.
The book highlights the short-sightedness of the white, western obsession with apocalypse and climate anxiety: we've already driven thousands of other societies to collapse.
As Rice writes, "as one society collapses, another is reborn."
Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Anthropology and Ethnography | Place-Based Reportage
Jean M. O'Brien digs into local histories written across southern New England from 1820 to 1900. While the scope is geographically limited, since historians around the nation used these volumes as a guide, much of her research is translatable.
Her findings show how we've built a national ideology around stories of how the "'first' New Englanders are made to disappear, sometimes through precise declarations that the 'last' of them has passed, and the colonial regime is constructed as the 'first' to bring 'civilization' and authentic history to the region."
Contested Lands: Israel-Palestine, Kashmir, Bosnia, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010
Treading Water | Change-Making | Policy
Sumantra Bose looks at the similarities in five ethno-national conflicts through the lens of international politics. His conclusions for durable peace involve many nations, territorial self-determinism, regional cooperation, and incremental strategies for autonomy, undertaken with international involvement.
Geostories: Another Architecture for the Environment
New York: Actar Publishers, 2018
Treading Water | Change-Making | Design
These stunning representations of speculative fiction telescope across scales and across the globe, each addressing a different facet of the climate crisis. We need more of these grand visions to begin filling in the gaps to make them real.
Montreal: McGill-Queens Press, 2021
Tip of the Iceberg | Change-Making | Design
Bay Lexicon pairs nicely with John Stilgoe's Alongshore, which focuses on historical landscape literacy across the New England coast.
Wolff's work is focused on the present, using the Bay coastline as a testing grounds to develop a shared language that brings everyone to the table. Her argument: "the lack of nuanced, commonly understood language limits public discussion, and that makes effective agency difficult for technical experts, policy-makers, politicians, and citizens - for anyone with a stake in the future."
She uses a transect across the Bay, and framing questions, like "Where do boats meet land?" to dig into the complex economic, social, and design decisions that have shaped the built environment.
Here's to lexicons across the landscape.
A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2019
Treading Water | Change-Making | Philosophy
I first read Kathryn Yusoff's book in a course at GSD taught by John May, Environmentalisms II: How to Have a Politics. He primed the semester as a taster, noting that we would come back to these texts overtime.
A Billion Black Anthropocenes has so many layers and insights. As I read more, I come back to it often, especially working through Amitav Ghosh's Gun Island. Yusoff pins the origins of the climate crisis in slavery, and argues that the way we talk about the crisis (especially through the term Anthropocene) doesn't actually address its origins. The Anthropocene as a geologic epoch associates the era with the invention of the steam engine and the accumulation of scientific evidence. It substitutes *how* we know things in a western frame for the root causes of climate change, a collective action problem rooted in slavery.
Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand
New York: Routledge, 2011
Tip of the Iceberg | Complicity and Denial | Communication and Strategy
If Michael E. Mann approaches climate denial from the point of view of a beleaguered scientist, Washington and Cook approach the problem from a social science agenda, looking at the principal climate change denial arguments that politicians, fossil fuel magnates, and individuals use: cherry picking, impossible expectations of proof, logical fallacies, and outright bulverism.
While these techniques are analyzed in the framework of climate change, they are applicable to plenty of other reactionary rhetoric.
New York: Penguin Randomhouse, 2014
Treading Water | Change-Making | Fiction
Jonathan Franzen's private novelist, Nell Zink, raises a lot of good points ("why exactly twenty-somethings are considered so vital to protest movements, I never figured out, seeing as how they never vote and have no money").
While her female protagonists can come off as disaffected at first read ("I am through being people's sex slave! I want to study organic forestry"), they are all fascinating, feminist character studies rooted in deep environmental politics.
In the Wallcreeper, young American protagonist, Tiffany, has just followed her new husband, Stephen, to Switzerland. He's in biotech, her full-time gig is maintaining the rouse that she's writing a screenplay so she doesn't have to work. Her environmental activism takes a turn toward eco-terrorism, and ultimately Tiffany (like all of Zink's characters) makes her own meaning in marriage, infidelity, eco-action, and birdwatching.
Embedded within the wit (and occasional devastation) is a poignant critique of environmentalism. Without a broader vision, all of our tiny, incremental steps toward a better planet remain fragmented and exclusionary. Once you're on the eco-bandwagon, you're responsible for bringing people in.
Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007
Treading Water | Complicity and Denial | Anthropology and Ethnography | Globalization
This mind-blowing book looks at colonial botany across the Atlantic. The trade of plants was not reciprocal. Imperial nations mined the Americas for food crops, medicines, and beauty as they established the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Bioprospectors turned into biopirates who intentionally omitted the different uses of the plants they shipped across the Atlantic to Europe. Peacock flower, for example, was used to treat nausea in Europe, but the imperial botanists did not record the way women used the plant as an abortifacent in the Caribbean.
Schiebinger explores the way that ignorance factored into the trans-Atlantic plant trade, while describing the horrific ways that colonial plant practices contributed to violence and enslavement across the Americas.
Planting in a Post-Wild World
Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2015
Tip of the Iceberg | Change-Making | Design
This book charts the future of planting design, starting with an evisceration of the xenophobic terms we use to describe plants as invasives or non-natives. Instead, Rainer and West's look at the functions of plants to create planting designs that function like naturally occurring plant communities. Plants from South Africa are used as structural layers with North American grasses and trees from Kazakhstan to create beautiful and resilient landscapes that will last without water or labor-intensive maintenance.
Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and other Inscrutable Geographies
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
Tip of the Iceberg | Coming to Terms | Place-Based Reportage
Alastair Bonnett's romp across the globe makes an argument that spaces are cheap, but places are endlessly curious. He chooses forty-seven such places that make the world seem truly adventurous, from the village of Twayil Abu Karwal, which has been rebuilt over twenty-five times after being demolished by the Israeli state, the Principality of Sealand, where Paddy Roy Bates and his family issued its own passports to drug smugglers and money launderers from an abandoned offshore platform in the North Sea, and Sandy Island, which was erased from maps in 2012 when it was finally reclaimed by the ocean.
All of these places have stories that Bonnett skillfully unfolds. Read it with a friend, there's plenty of content to talk about, and a few trips to plan in its pages.
Inventing Greenland: Designing an Arctic Nation
New York: Actar, 2021
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Design
Every chapter in this book could be a studio prompt for a place that is literally opening to the world as Arctic sea ice melts. Bert pulls apart the interventions that have shaped the Greenlandic landscape through the lens of urbanism, combining fascinating stories of military debris scattered through the ice with legitimate warnings of how climate change will continue to alter this otherworldly landscape.
An Ecotopian Lexicon
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019
Tip of the Iceberg | Coming to Terms | Communication and Strategy
This title might be the most obvious title around coming to terms on this list. An Ecotopian Lexicon is an extremely generous primer of thirty terms that might be adopted by the English language to better approach the climate crisis, interspersed with beautiful artwork.
Parable of the Sower
New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2019
Tip of the Iceberg | Change-Making | Cli-Fi
Set in 2024, this powerful book explores survival, and how to share community in the midst of disentegration. Octavia Butler first wrote The Parable of the Sower in the 1970s, but her vision of the future feels eerily prescient, down to the fundamentalist Christian president with the slogan "Make American Great Again." Despite the darkness in Butler's vision, the protagonist, Loren, leaves her gated community to walk north on the highways of an unrecognizable California while living her optimistic faith, Earthseed.
New York: Soft Skull Press, 2019.
Treading Water | Coming to Terms | Cli-Fi
Architecture critic Elvia Wilk has written cli-fi in bingeable archi-speak. Anja lives in a quickly gentrifying Berlin with her American boyfriend, Louis. Together, they've agreed to live in an eco-home in the Berg, a new development meant to digest their waste and demonstrate the pinnacle of sustainable living. Wilk's wit is burning as she explores the relationship between artists, corporations, sustainability, climate, and design in a world of erratic weather, greenwashing, designer drugs where everyone is complicit.
New York: Penguin, 2021.
Tip of the Iceberg | Change-Making | Place-based narrative
Oak Flat is somewhere between a postcard of a place, a graphic novel, and a deep map. Redniss's stunning pencil drawings of the southwest landscape and peoples, narrated by Naelyn Pike, a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe, and an advocate to keep mining conglomerates from developing an open pit copper mine on the sacred site.
Redniss's environmental non-fiction includes interviews, drawings of the landscape, a single photograph of the town of Superior, a riveting description of the Vatican's nearby deep-space telescope (also built on sacred land at the objection of local people), and a deep compassion for the people that love Oak Flat. She interviews all sides, weaving a tangled narrative as tribal members advocate for the mine, arguing that it's inevitable, the San Carlos Apache tribal delegation visits Washington, D.C., all laced with images of what the mine could bring to the lively desert landscape.