These are the books that changed my life. They cover a range of themes from climate change to animal exploitation, and social justice issues to veganism. They made me aware of things I feel that I should have known all along, and many things I could never have known.
It is largely down to these books that I’m now an ethical vegan, and am doing my best to adopt a more sustainable and environmentally aware lifestyle. I’ve read, watched and listened to many other resources since and this process is one of constant learning.
Here is where it all began:
Food and climate change without the hot air by S L Bridle
It started actually not with a book, but with a small number of science focussed talks from Bluedot Festival 2019. Talks discussing the environment, sustainability, climate change, and our food landscape peppered the schedule alongside pulsars, space flight, and more (as an event, I cannot recommend it highly enough by the way – 2022 details here).
One of these sticks in my memory more than the rest. Professor Sarah Bridle’s talk Food and climate change focussed on the carbon footprint of food and the environmental impact of food production in comparison to other industries (see also GGDOT). Her book Food and climate change without the hot air addresses the same, and offers dietary alternatives to help reduce the impact of our food choices. This was the first time I made any real connection between the food on my plate and its impact on the environment – from how resource intensive animal agriculture is, the water demand of crop varieties, to the transportation cost of our fruit and vegetables. Spoiler alert, the latter is not what we’ve been led to believe.
Eating animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
I grew up across the road from a pig farm and, as a child, used to walk down the farm lane to the village where I went to primary school. I never saw a pig on those walks. We stopped to say hello to the ‘pet’ lambs and the horses, but we never saw a pig. Since reading Eating animals, the implications of this has become haunting to me. I am not accusing the farm of the abuses that are documented in the films we see on Netflix – but the point remains, we never saw a pig. The pigs didn’t see the outside, let alone live in it.
This book highlights farming practices, across the spectrum from small-holdings to industrial scale animal farms. It is a brutal read at times, and dispels any romantic notions of the way animals are bred to become food. From caged calves and crushed chicks, to spent cows and exhausted pigs. It’s brutal from start to finish. Everyone should read this book, then decide if they can continue to look at their plate the way they did before.
Why we love dogs, eat pigs and wear cows by Melanie Joy
Whereas Eating animals focusses on our dietary obsession with animals, Why we love dogs, eat pigs and wear cows by Melanie Joy discusses the contradictory relationships we have with them across all aspects of our lives. From the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the pets we cherish. Melanie introduces the concept of ‘carnism’ – an invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals (https://carnism.org/carnism/).
Why we love dogs forces you to challenge the status quo around meat-eating, and brings into sharp focus the socially constructed blindness we learn to impose towards animals destined to become food and their treatment during their tragic lives, and the almost absolute mental separation of the food from the creature it came from.
The discussion isn’t limited to food either. Later chapters explore ‘beyond carnism’ where, Melanie explains, our exploitation of animals can be seen as an extension of wider social justice issues. Sexism, racism, and other harms can be related to the same social constructs that lead us to become blind to the realities of the world around us. Whilst I found the language slightly overpowering at times, this book shatters some really big illusions that I simply couldn’t walk away from.
A life on our planet by Sir David Attenborough
A life on our planet by Sir David Attenborough is a call to arms in the fight to manage climate change. We are beyond the point where we can stop it (related reading, Losing Earth: The decade we could have stopped climate change by Nathaniel Rich) – it’s already well in progress – and it is a race against time to prevent absolute runaway temperature increases. The global target is to keep warming below 2ºC, but we don’t know what domino effects any degree of climate warming will have. We already know that globally, we’re experiencing record temperatures and vast wildfires, and alongside that, increasingly devastating weather events causing extreme flooding even in places that have not previously been prone to it.
This book explores the history of a life lived alongside nature, observing the noticeable shifts as our planet has warmed. It presents a view of what is in store for us if we don’t address our way of life to be more sustainable, more environmentally aware, as our planet warms. And it offers a manifesto of hope for how we can change to divert the worst of what’s to come.
Bosh! How to live vegan by Henry Firth & Ian Theasby
If I was to recommend one book to anyone wanting to adopt a vegan lifestyle, Bosh! How to live vegan by Henry Firth & Ian Theasby would be it. Their approach is relaxed, but comprehensive. It takes a balanced approach to transitioning to veganism, from diet through to toiletries, household good, clothing and shoes. Nothing has to be done overnight, and there is a respect for anyone making any move towards more plant-based living.
I valued the way they approached some of the more nuanced discussions too, around products we already own, the lines we each have to draw for ourselves with our own vegan journeys, and how to navigate even the most tricky conversations. (I also highly recommend The joyful vegan by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau.)
I am fortunate to have access to everything I need to be the ethical vegan I want to be. But that isn’t the case for everyone. Food deserts are a thing, as is the lack of access to vegan household products and toiletries. Vegan options for these things often come with an elevated price tag even if they are available close by. The cost of switching out our shoes, bags, etc. – let alone the waste if we throw away rather than donate, give away or sell – can be eye-watering. Bosh! touches on all these things with a sensitivity and rationality that comes as a relief as someone new to veganism.
We don’t need everyone to go vegan, but if everyone adopted a little more ‘vegan’ into their lifestyles we could reduce our overall harm to each other, animals, our oceans and our planet such a huge amount. And the more vegan we can be, even if it’s not 100%, the better.
So, these are the books that changed my life. I hope that you enjoy them too.
Are there other books you would add to this list? What books have influenced you towards more ethical, sustainable and environmentally aware choices?