Books of 2020

climate narratives: annotated #8

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

This is a special holiday edition without the regular podcast and green finance updates. Season 2 of the podcast is in the production room and will be launching after the holidays, stay tuned!

2020 was a year in which our reading habits changed. Many people say they read fewer books as doomscrolling crowded out everything else. Others reported the opposite.

What kind of a reading year did you have?

My favourite reads from 2020

During the first lockdown, when postal delivery sputtered to a halt, I read old books that were lying around, that looked already read. But to my delight each one was a fresh read, and immensely enjoyable.

  • “Passage to India” by E.M. Forster

  • “The Mayor of Casterbridge” by Thomas Hardy

  • “The Leopard” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The second lockdown was books on China.

👉 “The Story of the Stone” by Cao Xueqin (also known as Dream of the Red Pavillion) is not just my favourite book of 2020, it’s probably the best novel I’ve ever read. It’s like a VR experience of aristocratic life in 18th century China, when the last imperial dynasty was starting to wane.

Best economic and climate books of 2020

For the best books on economics and climate change in 2020, I turned to a good friend, Owen Gaffney, global sustainability analyst and writer, for recommendations.

👉 “Ministry of the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson

Ezra Klein said it was the most important book he’d read this year.

But, was it a good read?

It’s set in the near future, and humanity has gone through some major climatic disasters in the coming decades. We’ve failed to act in time to fend off a major climate emergency.

They've created a ministry for the future as part of the Paris Agreement to find a way of stabilizing the planet, and monitoring biodiversity, climate change, ice sheets, the stability of the oceans. And the big theme is, how do we pay for fixing all of this?

Then a heat wave kills millions in India, and they start their own geoengineering campaign which has knock on effects elsewhere. A terrorist organization sets up to force governments to act faster on climate change.

The book is really about these big processes that are almost impossible to create a story around. Big governmental processes like UN climate agreements.

So does it work?

It's an ordeal to get through the whole thing. I don't think I could have done it if I didn't have it as an audio book.

Did you listen to the Kim Stanley Robinson interview with Ezra Klein?

It's a really good interview, and Ezra sort of skirts around that, he says this is the most important book of the year.

And he says I'm not an expert on literature, so I don't want to make any statements about the style or anything. Which is such a telling statement. Then he just goes into what he found interesting about it.

This is the reason why, even though it's an ordeal, it's worthwhile.

One of the biggest problems about even the best climate literature is that it is a bit, like, unreadable.

He’s trying to make something that's impossible to create a narrative around, seek to create a narrative around it.

👉 “The Price of Peace” by Zachary Carter

On the life and legacy of John Maynard Keynes.

When people talk about Keynes, it’s mostly about spending your way out of recession or depression.

He's just much, much more than that. He's more of a civilisational thinker. He thought about how the economy can be used for human progress, for social progress on a vast scale. And his ideas were really exceptional.

What stayed with me from that book was his idea of the good life for all.

And in Australia I saw that they’re making humanities studies more expensive because universities lost so much revenue from the Chinese students. Which is so sad.

That’s really interesting. If Keynes was alive today he would definitely be saying, invest more in humanities education, not just in the study of economics and business.

👉 “The Deficit Myth” by Stephanie Kelton

Thinking about how we finance a transformation to a green economy, a sustainable economy. There's always talk about, well, where's this money going to come from?

Basically Kelton argues that you shouldn’t manage your economy like you would manage a household. Politicians tell people to vote for them so they can balance the books. Modern Monetary Theory shows that if you can create your own currency, you don’t have to balance the books.

👉 “Notes from an Apocalypse” by Mark O’Connell

No, I don’t want any doomsday books.

It's not, but it's really quite funny.

It’s about people who are obsessed with the apocalypse.

So he goes on a tour around the world to see people who are either investing in the apocalypse, like preppers in America, and the people who want to sell products to the preppers.

Like an absurdist comedy on the apocalypse community?

Yeah, that's a good way of putting it. And he goes to Chernobyl to see the apocalypse tourists from Scandinavia. To New Zealand to see the people who bought boltholes there.

He talks to people who are investing in missions to Mars. The language used isn’t so different to colonial language. It builds into the narrative that some of these groups who are talking about an apocalypse on earth and moving to Mars, they may have ulterior motives. Building a new capitalist state there unbounded by restrictions, in the same way that happened with colonizers going from Europe to the “New” World.

📖 Owen has his own book out next April, co-authored with scientist Johan Rockstrom, called “Breaking the Boundaries”. Watch out for it next year, along with an accompanying Netflix documentary series.

What’s your book about?

It’s about why the 2020s are a critical decade for humanity which will see one of the fastest economic transitions in history.

But will it be fast enough to restabilize Earth? We think it can be done, and the book is really pragmatic.

From the podcast

Season 1 closed with an interview with Kim Nicholas who talks about what it feels like to be a climate scientist at this moment.

If you missed it, you can catch up here.

If you’ve enjoyed season one and you’re looking for more climate content, check out this Spotify playlist of the top 15 climate podcasts. The list is in German, but all the featured podcasts are English language ones.

Found a helpful recommendation here? Please mention us to a friend and help support our work in 2021.

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Safe and happy holidays.

From Paris, France,