Sunday, July 4, 2010

5 Books that will change how you think

Everyone likes lists. Here's my list of 5 key books related to ecological sociology.

1. Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Ingenuity Gap: Can we solve the problems of the future?

I like this book for three totally unrelated reasons: 1) it provides a thorough and lucid introduction into complexity and the idea of complex adaptive systems, 2) it provides a conceptual alternative to the tired debate between the neo-Malthusian limits to growth types and the economic cornucopians by shifting attention away from physical scarcity and onto factors related to the supply of and requirement for ingenuity and 3) it illustrates a way of thinking about the future in terms of the ongoing operation of long term historical trends rather than the analysis of hypothetical events or predictions around specific technologies.

2. Lance Gunderson and Buzz Holling (eds.), Panarchy: Understanding Transformations In Human And Natural Systems

A tour-de-force explanation of how complex adaptive systems operate. In contrast to the standard account which treats complexity as the product of a large number of factors all interacting with each other, Gunderson and Holling argue that complexity is the result of a comparatively small number of factors interacting within the constraints of a structured process consisting of hierarchically ordered adaptive cycles. They label this structure a panarchy.

3. E.A. Wrigley, Continuity, Chance & Change: The character of the Industrial Revolution in England

A path breaking study of the Industrial Revolution by noted British historian E.A. Wrigley, this work returns energy to its rightful place at the center of our understanding of the emergence of modern economic growth. If you're looking for a single place to explain the phase shift from traditional economic growth (based on organic economies and characterized by Malthusian cycles of growth and collapse) to modern economic growth (based on a mineral economy and characterized by several centuries of uninterrupted economic growth), this is it.

4. Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies

Where Wrigley focuses on the underlying causes of the main phase transition in modern socio-ecological history, the emergence of modern economic growth, Tainter wades through thousands of years of history to generate a theory of why complex societies collapse. His key points: 1) human societies are problem-solving organizations, 2) sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance, 3) increased complexity carries with it increased costs per-capita and 4) investment in increased socio-political complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns and, as a result, societies collapse. Detailed notes on the book are available here.

5. Bill McKibbon, The Age of Missing Information.

Not his best known work, but still my favorite. McKibbon knows how to write and this book, which contrasts his experience of watching a week's worth of tv against his experience of a week spent alone in the woods, will have you laughing out loud. At its core, this is a McLuhanesque interpretation of the world and, specifically, an analysis of the social and ecological consequences of living in an age of missing information where our understanding of the natural world comes more from the images and ideas portrayed in the media than it does from the direct experience of nature. To go full circle, the ideas in this book dovetail nicely with those in the chapter titled 'The Big I' in the Ingenuity Gap.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the list. Tainter goes on my DOE but Wrigley's Continuity Chance & Change looks like the missing link in my own reading list. great stuff. I'm currently reading Earth Democracy by Vandana Shiva, and her chapter on "Living Economies" proposes that all of capitalist industrial economy derives from the British Enclosures. She recasts gloabalization not as an opening of trade but a global enclosure of the commons.