The economy and the natural environment are interlinked: every economic action can have some effect on the environment, and every environmental change can have an impact on the economy. From cheap fashion to the billion-dollar trash trade, the following five books demonstrate some of the key connections between economic and biological systems. With topics ranging from Paul Ehrlich’s predictions about overpopulation and the depletion of resources to Jeffrey Sachs’ attempts to eradicate world poverty by investing millions of dollars in desperately poor, isolated villages across sub-Saharan Africa, this quintet of books offers fascinating insights into the way economic choices shape nature, and nature can likewise shape our choices.


The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth's Future"The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth's Future"

By Paul Sabin

Publisher: Yale University Press

A tremendous gulf separates American environmentalists and their critics today. This contrast between those who believe human ingenuity can solve the world's problems and those who foresee imminent doom reflects the deepening polarization over environmental issues. In his fascinating and highly readable new book, “The Bet,” Paul Sabin, a history professor at Yale, suggests that this national conflict was greatly amplified by biologist Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon.

In his 1968 best-seller, "The Population Bomb," Paul Ehrlich warned that mass starvation and misery would come with overpopulation. Meanwhile, his lesser-known adversary Julian Simon advocated that technological advancement and flexible markets would resolve threats posed by overpopulation. In 1980, Simon made Ehrlich a 10-year bet involving overpopulation, the depletion of resources, and the prices of commodities. Put simply, Simon won. Conservatives have celebrated Simon’s victory ever since, using it to denounce environmentalists for alarmism and to criticize environmental regulation. Environmentalists, on the other hand, have tended to deny the significance of the Ehrlich-Simon bet, arguing that commodity prices illustrate little about real environmental threats.

"Simon's victory was not guaranteed," writes Sabin. "He would not have won any ten-year bet about commodity prices." Despite its clear limitations, the stark clash of perspectives that the bet represented suited the divisive environmental politics of the early 1990s. In “The Bet,” Sabin tells the history of that wager and its aftermath, weaving Ehrlich and Simon’s lives together with partisan political battles since the late 1960s over the environment and the role of government in our lives. Whereas in the 1970s, major environmental legislation had passed with bipartisan support, by the early 1990s, regulations to protect endangered species, policies to slow global warming, and efforts to protect national forests and rangelands sharply split Democrats and Republicans, and where a politician stood on environmental policies served as a litmus test of ideology and political affiliation. Drawing insights from both sides, Sabin argues for using social values, rather than economic or biological absolutes, to guide society’s crucial choices relating to climate change, the planet’s health, and our own.


What Has Nature Ever Done for Us: How Money Really Does Grow on Trees, Tony Juniper"What Has Nature Ever Done for Us: How Money Really Does Grow on Trees"

By Tony Juniper

Publisher: Synergetic Press North American Edition

How much do you pay each month for your ecosystem services? What are ecosystem services, you ask? According to British environmentalist Tony Juniper, they are the natural services that are (or were) provided for free by nature: Think pollination and vultures. Juniper offers many fascinating examples of these services in his book “What Has Nature Ever Done for Us: How Money Really Does Grow on Trees.” He shows how until recently these services have been something we could reliably take for granted, but how there is now great cause to question this view.

Take the example of pollination. Juniper writes, “Fundamental changes to ecosystems have led to growing concern over the continued reliability of pollination. The extent of our dependence on pollination services is underlined by the remarkable fact that some two-thirds of the different species of food crop plants are pollinated by animals. These different crops produce about one third of the total calories we eat, not to mention most of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that we need to remain healthy." Pollination and other ecosystem services are the focus of a new wave of environmental study looking at “natural capital,” or the things that nature does for us; meanwhile, the estimated cost of said services is inspiring researchers and economists to assign financial values to nature. The idea is that considering nature in this way will help create the tools needed to reflect its value in economic transactions.

“What Has Nature Ever Done for Us” is full of incredible stories, containing both warnings (such as in the tale of India's vultures, which were killed off by drugs given to cattle, leading to an epidemic of rabies and a total bill of about $34 billion) but also the positive (how birds protect fruit harvests, coral reefs protect coasts from storms, and how the rain forests absorb billions of tons of carbon released from cars and power stations). Juniper shows that everything nature does for us — from providing water to generating oxygen — has an economic value that can and has been measured. His hope: That upon realizing what that value truly is we will be inspired to stop polluting and destroying our natural world. Juniper’s book will entirely change the way you think about life, the planet and the economy.


Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, Elizabeth L. Cline"Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion"

By Elizabeth L. Cline

Publisher: Portfolio Trade

We’ve looked at the high cost of cheap fashion here and here, and Elizabeth Cline’s book, “Overdressed,” offers deeper insights into the environmental and human toll of fast fashion. Now out in paperback from Portfolio Trade, Cline’s book explores the world that created fast fashion, from the factories that pay less than fair wages in China and Bangladesh, to the "haulers" who feed the "disposable clothes" idea. She also looks at how detail and craftsmanship have been drastically reduced in the rush to get clothing to market, and examines the environmental toll that cheap clothes create. The United States now makes 2 percent of the clothing its consumers purchase, down from about 50 percent in 1990. We have chosen low-priced clothes made in other countries, and the loss of our garment trade has contributed to a decline in domestic wages, the loss of the middle class, and the problem of unemployment, especially for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

"The average price of clothing has plummeted in recent decades," writes Cline. "And cheap clothes have undergone a total image overhaul, where they no longer imply some inherent compromise in style and quality. Budget fashion is seen as chic, practical and democratic, and our conversations are dotted with wow-inducing stories of clothing 'steals.'" Guilty of partaking in cheap fashion herself, Cline experienced an awakening after buying “seven pairs of $7 shoes” at Kmart; shortly after she decided to take a wardrobe inventory, and while cleaning out her closet she discovered, among other things, 61 tops, 60 T-shirts, 15 cardigans and hooded sweatshirts, 21 skirts and 20 pairs of shoes, most of which she never wore. She found herself humbled, ashamed and curious. What are we doing with all these cheap clothes, she wondered, and more importantly, what are they doing to our society, our environment, our economic well-being, and each of us?

Cline shows how consumers can break the buy-and-toss cycle by supporting innovative and stylish sustainable designers and retailers, returning to custom clothing, refashioning clothes throughout their lifetime, and mending and even making clothes themselves. “Overdressed” will inspire you to vote with your dollars and find a path back to being well dressed and feeling good about what you wear. Check out her companion website for a shopping directory that includes fashion designers and brands who not only have a strong ethical vision, but are design and style leaders as well.


Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, Adam Minter"Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade"

By Adam Minter

Publisher: Bloomsbury Press

They say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and that may well be because most people don’t realize that the contents of their recycling bins are just a small piece of a half-trillion-dollar business. In his new book “Junkyard Planet,” Adam Minter charts the globalization of the recycling trade, focusing on the U.S. and China, and featuring a cast that ranges from self-made scrap-metal tycoons to late-night garbage pickers. Minter is uniquely suited to writing about this particular topic: The Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View, he was raised by an American junkyard owner and scrap dealer in Minneapolis. With unmatched access to and insight on the junk trade, Minter traces the export of America’s recyclables and the massive profits that China and other rising nations earn from it.

“It’s an essential trade,” he writes. “In 2012, China accounted for 43.1 percent of all global copper demand, or more than five times the amount acquired by the U.S. that same year. A modern economy can’t grow without copper. One way to get that metal is to dig holes in the ground; the other is from scrap. Since the mid-1990s, China has taken both approaches, with scrap accounting for more than half of all Chinese copper production every year (peaking at 74 percent in 2000). Because China is still a developing economy, it doesn’t throw away enough stuff to be self-sufficient. Thus, for the last decade it’s imported more than 70 percent of the scrap copper it uses. Meanwhile, the U.S., which throws away far more scrap metal than it can ever use, has become the world’s most attractive market for the savvy Chinese buyer.”

A fascinating look at consumption, innovation and the ascent of a developing world that recognizes value where Americans don’t, “Junkyard Planet” reveals how “going green” usually means making money — and why that’s often the most sustainable choice, even when the recycling methods aren’t pretty. Check out Minter’s personal blog, Shanghai Scrap, where he’s posting a new photo taken during his decade of reporting on the global waste, recycling, refurbishment and repair as part of the run-up to the Nov. 12 release of the book.


The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, Nina Munk"The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty"

By Nina Munk

Publisher: Doubleday

Jeffrey Sachs — celebrated economist, special adviser to the secretary-general of the United Nations, and author of the influential bestseller "The End of Poverty" — has been obsessed with the eradication of world poverty since he traveled to sub-Saharan Africa for the first time in 1995. Before that life-changing trip, he had been convinced of the power of open markets, free trade, deregulation, privatization and fiscal discipline, but after that first trip to Zambia — where he first saw AIDS and malaria — he started looking at the world with new eyes. Why, he wondered, was so much of our planet impoverished at the most prosperous time in human history? Why were millions of human beings dying every year from diseases that we learned to prevent and treat a generation ago?

“By the early 2000s,” writes Nina Munk in her new book, “The Idealist,” “Sachs's life was devoted to one cause: ending extreme poverty. The stumbling block, he concluded, was a 'poverty trap': an overwhelming, interconnected burden of disease, illiteracy, high fertility rates, dismal agricultural productivity, lack of capital, weak or nonexistent infrastructure, debt, hunger, drought, malnutrition. ... Tackling one problem at a time, piecemeal, was pointless, he concluded. The way out of extreme poverty depended on a 'big push' in foreign aid — a massive, coordinated investment designed to lift countries up and out of poverty, once and for all." Convinced that poverty was a problem he could solve with the right theories and enough funding, in 2006 Sachs launched the Millennium Villages Project, which aims to address “the root causes of extreme poverty, taking a holistic, community-led approach to sustainable development.”

Munk, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair since 2001 and winner of three Business Journalist of the Year Awards (including “most outstanding winner of all categories”), first wrote about Sachs in Vanity Fair’s 2007 Africa issue. She spent the next six years returning to Africa to follow the progress at two Millennium Villages and writing this profound and moving story of what happens when the abstract theories of a brilliant, driven man meet the messy reality of human life. “The Idealist” offers a fascinating portrait of Sachs, as well as an illuminating examination of his methods and the Project.

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5 books about economics and the environment
From cheap fashion to the billion-dollar trash trade, the following five books demonstrate some of the key connections between economic and natural systems.