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The best books on Climate Adaptation

recommended by Ben Rawlence

The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth by Ben Rawlence

out in paperback

The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth
by Ben Rawlence

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The future is uncertain; perhaps the only thing we do know is that, in terms of the environment and the climate, there is no going back. Ben Rawlence, the author and activist, selects five of the best books on climate adaptation—nonfiction works that might guide our path through a world of rising temperatures, melting ice caps, and shifting forests.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth by Ben Rawlence

out in paperback

The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth
by Ben Rawlence

Read
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Let’s start with an overview of the concept of climate adaptation, and then we can step through your book recommendations.

Our climate has been altered. That means the way we look at the past has changed, the way we look at the future has changed, the way we conceive of a lot of our current systems—and ourselves—is obsolete. I think the key point I would like to stress is the idea that the status quo is broken. We have to, therefore, transform our systems. Not just because things are getting warmer, but because it’s unsustainable. We can’t be consuming resources at the level we have. We can’t be pushing as much plastic and waste into the oceans and all the rest of it.

So, for me, the definition of climate adaptation is really synonymous with systems change. Historically, there’s been this false debate between mitigation and adaptation, where adaptation was characterised as ‘giving up’ and just making the best of it, and mitigation was the attempt to stop emissions rising, to slow things down. There’s been a lot of debate over these two terms in the environmental movement that has sucked up a lot of energy. In fact, the two always implied the other, in my view.

So for me, in brief: climate adaptation is systems change.

I think that is recognised in the selection of books that you’ve chosen to recommend, all related to climate adaptation in some way. Before we talk about them individually, would you like to reflect on how you came up with the list?

I was thinking about the books which really opened my eyes, made me think about things differently. Or said things that I have felt and thought in a coherent whole. That’s particularly true, I think, of the Chris Smaje and Jason Hickell books. There were lots of bits in there that I knew or agreed with, but it was the force of the argument that brought it all together.

These are all books that I think will stand the test of time. I think they’ll be classics in due course.

Let’s walk through these climate adaptation book recommendations, starting with Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse. It was a follow up to his book The Great Derangement. Can you talk us through it?

He starts with the nutmeg, and the naturally occurring ecosystem which it springs from on an island in Indonesia. Then he looks at the history of how the cultivation, harvesting, transportation, and ultimately the commodification of the nutmeg let to both environmental degradation and the political domination of the island. It formed a key part of Dutch colonialism.

From there, he tells the story of capitalism and colonialism, the intertwining of the two, and how the global system of trade we’re currently left with has its roots in both of those things. There’s the exploitation of natural resources and, by necessity, a throwing under the bus of all the people who get in the way.

But it’s so much more than that. I read short reviews that focused on the nutmeg on its own, but that’s really just the starting point. What was most powerful in the book, for me, was the way he talks through the reasons fossil fuels became embedded in our lives and why it’s so hard to disentangle them. A key element here is the military; he talks about the role of fossil fuels in transforming naval power, in the first instance in Britain, through Churchill and the Royal Navy, and then it being a key part of America’s victory in the Second World War and its subsequent control of world trade regimes.

“Climate adaptation is synonymous with systems change”

There are some astonishing facts in there. More than half of global shipping is the movement of petroleum products. So it gives a sense of both the historical depth of this entanglement and the scale of the interests and networks, the hard wiring that underpins our systems and civilisations.

He finishes by returning to Indonesia, and all the culture and songs and worldview of the people for whom the nutmeg was a key part of their cosmology. And by visiting some of the refugees, for whom it’s not very many generations back when this culture was still alive. And of course, the nutmeg and the culture has all the solutions embedded within it in terms of how we must live with nature—all those ideas that are now very popular in mainstream politics in the global north are still to be found alive in indigenous cosmologies, so there’s a nice circularity to the argument. The seeds of the future involve reclaiming a lot of those cosmologies.

You seem to suggest that to be an environmentalist, one must be an anti-colonialist, and vice-versa.

I think that’s increasingly the case. Even a few years ago, people wouldn’t have seen it that way. But, and this also gets to another book on the list, Reconsidering Reparations, the moment we are in now forces us to look afresh at history. How did we get here? We have to grapple with the histories that have brought us to this point. And the histories that have brought us to this point are incredibly violent, very unjust. Fossil fuels and natural exploitation and the exploitation of people as well as nature. So, yes, increasingly to care about the environment means to look critically at history, at how we got into this mess.

I think what that’s doing is, globally, causing a sea change. In the political centre of gravity, incredible numbers of people are now concerned about climate change. Across the board you find concern with plastics, with consumption of hydrocarbons, emissions, and so on. Green policies are massively popular in most countries. The drag on action is actually the conservatism of governments, not populations in most cases.

Let’s talk about Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s Reconsidering Reparations next, then. He’s a professor of philosophy at Georgetown.

Yes. It sprung to mind immediately following Amitav Ghosh because it is a really deeply thought-through response to the question: what do we do now? There are two key assumptions that he makes. One is that if we’re going to have to think about adapting to climate change, we’re going to have to assume a lens of justice.

Sorry, just quickly: by ‘lens of justice’, you’re gesturing towards the fact that climate change is impacting some groups of people more than others. Hence the need for reparations.

Yes. And I think, coupled with that, any kind of concept of political change must grapple with the question of fairness, and how changes impact differentially. Who is harmed and who is benefiting from any change being considered, and is that fair? I think those are both straight-forward, common-sense concepts.

Climate justice is high on the agenda at places COP, but Táíwò widens the question of justice, because he’s got this Black Marxist background, and also a constructivist philosophy of history which makes a compelling argument for reparations as a result of the accumulated devastation of slavery and inherited injustice over time.

The second assumption, then, is that if we are going to think about reparations, which is a live debate in and of itself, we should be thinking about that through the lens of climate change. And that very much ties with my starting point, which is that climate adaptation is systems change. So we’re thinking of reparations in terms of who has benefited and who has been harmed.

The other thing I found really interesting was his detour into legal theory, the distinction between liability and responsibility. In law, you don’t need to necessarily have actively, knowingly done something wrong, or intended to hurt somebody, in order to be liable. For example, if someone trips over a kerbstone, the Council may be liable even if they didn’t intend the harm. This is key, because it avoids the difficulty that opponents of reparations seize on: that you can’t hold future generations responsible for things their parents or grandparents did.

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There are some good examples in case law, which I wasn’t aware of, regarding what’s called beneficiary responsibility—so, if you’ve benefited from something and the benefits have been accrued as a result of injustice or inequality, then you’re liable. And those benefits are liable. Like if you’ve benefited from ill-gotten goods, you’re liable to give them back. That’s a really important consideration as we grapple with adaptation to a future in a world that is increasingly uninhabitable. This book gives us a way of thinking about how to approach that question of fairness. Especially when you consider that according to Oxfam research, the cost of loss and damage for 55 vulnerable countries could be met out of the profits of the oil majors for only six months, and they’d still have $70 billion left over.

This kind of argument is a very good basis for a really aggressive take on fossil fuel company assets. These are the shareholders and corporations that should be accepting liability. So, with the current conversation about what Exxon knew—what their scientists predicted—we don’t actually even need to prove that they did anything malicious. It’s simply the fact that they are liable. I find that compelling.

Have we seen any instances of climate change-related reparations already?

We saw a lot of damage acknowledged at COP27, and a fund established. We’ve seen climate refugees acknowledged as such in the United States—there’s been federal money for the relocation of communities in Alaska and Louisiana. So I’m aware of that. I don’t know if there have been reparations, per se, but it does seem like something playing a role in international debates at the moment. And there are legal cases in which fossil fuel companies are being slowly pursued through the courts. This book suddenly opened my eyes to the fear that there must be at big fossil fuel corporations.

I think climate justice is a topic that you touch on in the curriculum at Black Mountains College, an educational institution that you set up.

Yes. We have a new degree, a BA in ‘Sustainable Futures: Arts, Ecology and Systems Change.’ There are various elements to that programme, but ecological literacy, climate literacy, and climate justice are all key elements. Reconsidering Reparations is one of the core texts, in fact.

We don’t approach the curriculum through the lens of any particular subject, but rather through questions: How do we understand the past? How do we imagine the future? What are the principles we should be applying? That’s where climate justice comes in: Are the futures we are imagining fair for everyone?

Talking of the future—let’s move on to Jason Hickel’s Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World. Why do you recommend this book in the context of climate adaptation?

Well, it’s really readable, it’s very short, it’s funny, it’s kind of outrageous, and it’s just kind of mind-blowing, the force of his argument. It’s a really fun read, so it’s no surprise that it has been a bestseller. I think as many people as possible should read it. It is a little bit unrealistic, in terms of the utopianism of what he proposes. But it’s also hard to fault the coherence of the argument.

The key thing about degrowth is that it is not about shrinking living standards. It’s about prioritising which sectors of the economy should grow and which should contract, in order to stay within planetary limits and to live sustainably. He shows the self-evident wisdom of that, and backs it up with lots of social science from the progressive tradition. For example—the fact that a universal basic income is proven to promote wellbeing and to increase levels of happiness. There’s a really good discussion of progressive taxation—the fact that after World War Two, America had a 95% tax rate—and he knocks down a lot of myths and shows that a fairer, happier, progressive future is not only possible, but actually really affordable. You want to put it in the hands of politicians and say: What’s the problem?

It’s easy-to-read and common sense. I think that’s why it’s so compelling.

What you said about realism versus utopianism was interesting. Does the argument function as a sort of thought experiment? How should we understand it?

It’s not a thought experiment. What he’s doing is taking lots of social science arguments from different spheres to their logical conclusion, and bringing them together to say: Here is a vision of a happier society, which is not fixated on economic growth. He uses really practical examples from lots of different parts of the world.

So it is utopianism, in the sense that it’s ambitious—given the retrograde governments that we have—but it’s not utopian in the sense of its plausibility. In fact, it’s highly plausible, and rooted in practical examples.

Okay, that makes sense. Next you’ve chosen Ideas to Postpone the End of the World by Ailton Krenak—what does this book add to our understanding of climate adaptation?

Again, this is another really short book, but it’s very eye-opening. Ailton Krenak is from an indigenous community in the Brazilian Amazon, returned there, and became a kind of activist and leader. He talks about the indigenous worldview of his people, and how those concepts might help us think about the role of humans in relation to our habitat and in relation to each other.

So it’s really about climate change and how we understand it. One version of adaptation might be that we need rapid political and technological change. We need renewable energy. All of these things. My take is that it requires a shift in behaviour, a shift in frames of reference, in how we think. And I think this book is a terrific blueprint for some of the shifts that need to be made.

It’s quite surprising and arresting to lots of people who are steeped in the very rational Western tradition. I just love it because of the easy, kind way that he offers all this to people for whom it might be unfamiliar.

This does seem to be a repeated refrain—the need to learn from indigenous worldviews, cosmologies, or value systems. Is the way forward in finding existing philosophies that we can assume or take inspiration from?

It’s about taking inspiration, not assuming. All religions are worldviews and, to some extent, a kind of bricolage of different things. We need to be actively assembling a collage of ways of thinking.

An important point: this is not an alternative to the hard work of organising, of legislative change, of social justice. This is not a theory of change that rests on yoga retreats and spiritual experiences—that’s not going to cut it. That won’t reduce emissions and ensure food security for billions of people. But! All of these things need to happen at the same time. We have to have a shift in consciousness in order to have a shift in politics, and social and economic relations. There’s a quote in my book, The Treeline: “Systems change when there’s a culture that demands it.” The more we have a culture that questions the assumptions of rational political systems, and economic unlimited growth, the more resilient we will be, the more able to imagine and build alternatives.

As soon as you read a book like this, you won’t be able to look at a forest again without thinking of all the other non-human beings that are there. Without thinking about your right to even pick a leaf, let alone cut a tree down. That’s an important corrective, I think. It’s something that we’ve lost. If you can read Beowulf, or other old British myths and cosmologies, and find some of that message in there, then brilliant. But in the absence of that… that’s where indigenous stories come in. It’s to help us stop and reflect, and imagine differently.

You mentioned The Treeline, your latest nonfiction book, which is now out in paperback. Could you talk us through it quickly?

The Treeline is a journey around the Arctic Circle, which is also—at the moment—just about the growing limit of trees in the north. It’s a journey of discovery of what’s happening to that treeline as the planet warms, and what that might mean for humanity as a whole.

We meet individual species in six chapters around the top of the world, from Scotland, Scandinavia, Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. We also meet scientists and people living in those regions. It’s a blend of travelogue and science. And I hope it’s both a journey of wonder, as the reader experiences these incredible places and incredible people, but also an invitation to reflect on what’s happening and weave in some of the anthropology and sociology about why we are where we are.

It ends with an epilogue that echoes many of the themes we’ve been talking about, about how we look at the world, what we prioritise, and how we begin to unpick the damage.

It’s a brilliant book, and it touches on many of the issues we’re discussing today. Let’s turn our attention to your final climate adaptation book recommendation, which is A Small Farm Future, by Chris Smaje. Earlier you described it as “a practical vision for sovereign and sustainable food systems.”

This is perhaps the most programmatic of the books. Chris Smaje is a social scientist, but also a farmer. That’s what I really like about it, the deep reading of Marxism and the progressive tradition, the very strong critique of politics and food systems—but then this really lovely, open way of talking about raising chickens and pigs, and his own journey into farming.

This, I think, is a key book. It’s a real handbook for the next ten or twenty years. What he understood before many people was all the ways in which food security will be one of the critical thresholds that we are crossing. He’s got a very clear-eyed view of how to prepare for that.

“Uncertainty is scary and solidarity is the key to managing fear. We need each other!”

He looks at the calorific intake of adults in the UK, where those calories come from, and what that means in terms of land use, land ownership, and food distribution. So it’s a step-by-step critical take on how we produce food, where it’s grown, how it’s sold, how it’s distributed. A really revolutionary programme, really, for the readjustment of the British Isles, breaking down this barrier between the country and the city, which has largely been driven by processes of industrialisation, which has divorced us from our food.

Food sovereignty is about involving the people who eat the food in decisions about how it’s produced and distributed and made available. So we’re not all relying on supermarkets, but to a greater extent thinking about where our food comes from and being involved, having some kind of agency.

It’s interesting, this take which combines an academic discussion with practical skills. It’s similar to your approach at the college. Can you talk about why you think that’s important?

Absolutely. So A Small Farm Future does what we’re doing at Black Mountains College, which is teaching practical skills with an eye on global processes. He talks, for example, about how to extract the model of rural land ownership from a global system of capitalism, debt, and assets. We need it for local purposes.

Black Mountains College is a kind of experiment, a model of how to build a life raft, and a place to think about how we might regain some democratic control over the conditions of our own existence, in order to weather the coming storm. That’s why we grow food. That’s why we practice coppicing and sustainable forestry. We are living in an abundant environment here, we can absolutely grow enough food to feed ourselves, we can coppice enough timber to build shelter and to heat our homes. If we’re not using 95% of our land for grazing animals.

So it’s both a practical demonstration but also a place to come and critique the structures that are holding us back, and acknowledge that everything is going to change. As the planet warms up, all the things we’ve taken for granted—or many of the things we take for granted, in terms of what food grows, how it’s moved around the world, the water we can access—are going to come under pressure.

The final point I want to make is that we don’t necessarily know how this is all going to play out. I certainly don’t have all the answers. But what everybody’s going to have to do is find other people who they can come together with in order to think about and answer those questions. So: community and togetherness is a key part of climate adaptation. That’s true of any kind of social change, but particularly true when resources are going to become more scarce. Uncertainty is scary and solidarity is the key to managing fear. We need each other!

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

February 10, 2023

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Ben Rawlence

Ben Rawlence

Ben Rawlence is an award-winning writer, activist and educator. He wrote two books about the human consequences of environmental catastrophe in Africa: Radio Congo, about the people living in the wreckage of Eastern Congo’s resource wars, and City of Thorns, about people fleeing famine and climate-driven war in the Horn of Africa. After moving to Wales and beginning to research the coming impacts of climate change closer to home, his attention turned to the Arctic Circle and the boreal forest. What he discovered led to his third book, The Treeline, and to a dawning realisation that we needed to prepare—and soon—for major changes to our ways of life. Rawlence co-founded the Black Mountains College to promote new ways of thinking and learning, new ways of seeing ourselves, and new ways of interacting with the non-human world.

Ben Rawlence

Ben Rawlence

Ben Rawlence is an award-winning writer, activist and educator. He wrote two books about the human consequences of environmental catastrophe in Africa: Radio Congo, about the people living in the wreckage of Eastern Congo’s resource wars, and City of Thorns, about people fleeing famine and climate-driven war in the Horn of Africa. After moving to Wales and beginning to research the coming impacts of climate change closer to home, his attention turned to the Arctic Circle and the boreal forest. What he discovered led to his third book, The Treeline, and to a dawning realisation that we needed to prepare—and soon—for major changes to our ways of life. Rawlence co-founded the Black Mountains College to promote new ways of thinking and learning, new ways of seeing ourselves, and new ways of interacting with the non-human world.