5 books that made me an optimistic environmentalist

photo of books courtesy of stock.xchng

So much of what we hear about the state of the environment is doom & gloom, with predictions of global catastrophe and visions of a dark, overpopulated and hot future. It’s definitely important to heed the warnings about what’s happening to the planet, however focusing only on the negative will result in us feeling as though the situation is hopeless; it’s not. Here are a few of the books that have really inspired me, and made me believe that a bright, green, sustainable high-tech future really is possible.

  • Cradle to Cradle – William McDonough & Michael Braungart
  • Biomimicry – Janine Benyus
  • From Eco-cities to Living Machines – Nancy Jack Todd & John Todd
  • Natural Capitalism – Paul Hawken
  • Engines of Creation – K. Eric Drexler

Both Cradle to Cradle and Biomimicry promote the message that nature is incredibly efficient in terms of handling waste, because in nature there is no waste. Everything that is produced is used by another organism for food, shelter, etc. These books both made me understand that in order to be sustainable, our products and related packaging must be designed to mimic natural systems. The Cradle to Cradle (C2C) philosophy involves creating products that are composed of ‘biological nutrients’ which are fully biodegradable, and ‘technical nutrients’ which are fully recyclable to an equivalent product. Biomimicry focuses on emulating nature to create products, an example of this is spider silk; stronger tensile strength than steel, more eco-friendly than kevlar, and made only with the input of insects. The books both also give examples of products and systems designed with this philosophy, resulting in environmentally friendly, healthy and sustainable products.

John Todd, a Canadian scientist probably best known for his work with sewage-treating ‘Living Machines’, paints a very compelling picture of a sustainable future in the book From Eco-cities to Living Machines. Dr. Todd’s work also mimics nature, using constructed ecosystems inside large tanks to carry out processes such as treating wastewater and cultivating fish. When I first read this book years ago it introduced many concepts to me such as urban farming, biological waste treatment, and perhaps the most fascinating to me: aquaponics, which involves purifying fish tank water with plants which are able to derive nutrients from the wastes. This would allow both vegetable and crop production, anywhere, without the problems associated with conventional fish farming or the nutrient and fertilizer costs associated with conventional hydroponics.

Natural Capitalism is a book that I initially passed over, as I’m more interested in technology than economics. However, I’m glad I did buy this book because it introduced me to the concept of a service-based economy; an idea that meshes very well with the things I learned from the previous 3 books. In a nutshell, rather than buying a refrigerator or a computer, you would lease the service or functionality provided by this device. For a refrigerator this would be the service of keeping your food cold. This would include not just the physical device, but also any associated costs including electricity. The provider company would be responsible for delivering, installing, maintaining, powering, and ultimately recycling the device, something that would very quickly ensure efficient and easily recyclable products.

Finally, Engines of Creation deals with the subject of nanotechnology. Although there have been many worries about the dangers of nanotechnology, some very valid, I do believe that nanotechnology holds tremendous promise for transforming our society into a very efficient and high tech one. Already nanotechnology is improving batteries and capacitors, improving the efficiency of solar cells, creating more efficient ways to collect and purify water, and many more amazing things. In the future nanomachines will also be able to assemble and disassemble products at a molecular scale, which would eliminate the need for most factories and their related energy consumption. This is just barely scratching the surface of what nanotechnology can do for the environment, there are many more exciting things awaiting us in the future.

The future can indeed be green as well as high-tech, these are a few of the books that show us how.

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Steve holds a degree in Environmental Engineering Technology from Humber College in Toronto, is a LEED Accredited Professional and a Certified Sustainable Building Advisor. He currently lives in Victoria BC and works as a green building consultant specializing in residential projects.


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