Book Reviewer
Lloyd Alter is managing editor of environmental news site TreeHugger. He has been an architect, developer, inventor, prefab promoter, and writes for the website Planet Green. Lloyd also teaches sustainable design at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Does dense equal sustainable?

Suburban sprawl might be bad, but overcrowded cities are not the solution.

It has become accepted wisdom that density is a good thing, as part of the notion that cities should grow, adapt and change if they are to become more sustainable, create jobs and remain economic engines.

But not all density is created equal, and there is such thing as too much density. That’s where many academic planning journals and right-wing think tanks start to cross the line. Many complain of too many restrictions that are keeping high-rise condos and business towers from blooming like weeds in a vegetable garden.

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The want of more

Authors of Enough is Enough contend that stability, not constant growth, leads to healthier societies.

In John Huston’s classic film Key Largo, Humphrey Bogart asks Edward G. Robinson, playing gangster Johnny Rocco, what it is he wants. It’s more. “Yeah. That's it. More. That's right! I want more!” Will he ever get enough? “Well, I never have. No, I guess I won't.”

In a sense, we are all Johnny Rocco. We want more, but don’t quite know what, and certainly don’t know why. Our economies are based on Rocco-nomics, built on the foundation of growth and accumulation. Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill propose an alternative in Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources. They call it a steady-state economy.

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The energy of slaves

Author Andrew Nikiforuk says our addiction to oil has defined who we are, and how we live.

It is not a coincidence that the movement to abolish slavery started in nations that, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, didn’t need them anymore. Author Andrew Nikiforuk is not the first to notice that fossil fuels power devices that now fill the role once reserved for people. Richard Buckminster Fuller first used the term “energy slaves” in 1944, calculating that every American used the energy equivalent of 39 people to do their bidding. Now, we each have about 10 times as many energy slaves serving us.

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An energy crisis of our own

In Green Illusions, author Ozzie Zehner says we simply consume too much stuff.

According to some mainstream media reports, America will soon be “awash in oil.” Natural gas, meanwhile, seems to be pouring out of cracks in the ground across North America. Energy crisis? What energy crisis?

In his new book Green Illusions, Ozzie Zehner, visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, writes that there never really was an energy crisis. What we have, he argues, is a consumption crisis that is being compounded by all the gizmo-green technologies we are throwing at it. Zehner subtitles his book “The dirty secrets of clean energy and the future of environmentalism,” and he devotes the first half of his work to a “colonoscopy” of clean-energy technologies.

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The hard sell

The New Sustainability Advantage makes a case for sustainable business

The most fascinating thing about Bob Willard’s The New Sustainability Advantage is that it is not really a book. It’s more like a PowerPoint deck, with a slide on the right and a commentary on the left. Content is edited to fit exactly that page; not one goes longer or shorter. It’s probably also the last print edition; Willard has moved online with his Sustainability Advantage Simulator, which he calls a “real-time précis of the book and an ongoing 10th anniversary edition.” The book is sort of a foot in both worlds, recognizing the changing way in which information is now conveyed.

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The Conundrum

David Owen digs himself out of his own contradictions in his latest book.

David Owen has a formula: first, write provocative articles in The New Yorker magazine with a clever but superficial core argument. Second, wait for everyone to react and respond with research, history and facts. Third, upcycle the article into a book, which everyone will buy to see how he digs himself out of the contradictions in the articles.

It worked with the Green Metropolis, and we are back with The Conundrum. It is subtitled “How scientific innovation, increased efficiency, and good intentions can make our energy and climate problems worse,” and is pitched with the provocative “Hybrid cars, fast trains, compact fluorescent light bulbs, solar panels, carbon offsets: Everything you’ve been told about living green is wrong.” Except it isn’t, and in the end, Owen even acknowledges the fact. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to provoke.

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Fools rule

Inside the failed politics of climate change.

There are two narrative arcs in William Marsden’s recent book, Fools Rule: Inside the Failed Politics of Climate Change. In one, we follow the investigative reporter for the Montreal Gazette from the Copenhagen climate talks to those in Cancun. In the other, we follow him around the Arctic.

Let’s tackle the first. Marsden explains why the 2009 Copenhagen conference failed, and why the 2010 conference in Cancun did not do much better (the book went to press before more of the same happened in Durban). He tries to make the politics of these conferences interesting, with secret drafts and forgeries of treaties flying around the back rooms. But in the end, all of these conferences fail to deal with the main issue: “the refusal of both industrialized and emerging nations to reduce their emissions significantly enough to avoid runaway climate change.” In other words, self-interest trumps climate. Next week’s sale of a barrel of bitumen in Alberta, or container full of junk from China or BMW from Alabama, is more important than the climate change that, in the minds of some, may not be such a terrible thing in the end. There is, after all, a lot of oil and natural gas locked away under that melting Arctic ice!

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