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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Top 10/50/100 lists
May 6, 2010 - 9:24pm

When I was a college freshman I had to take an English Literature course. It wasn't Lit 101/102 (the generally required two-semester sequence), it was a one-semester course for entering students who either were transfers from other schools or had scored well on the verbal portion of the SAT. The instructor was a visiting professor who'd gotten his PhD from Cambridge, and I remember that because he entered the first class meeting (a couple of minutes late, for effect) wearing full academic regalia. It might have been more impressive were it not for the bright Kelly green plastic watchband he was also wearing. Or so it seemed to me at the time.

The other thing I remember from that first class meeting is that he handed each student three mimeographed pages. Two pages constituted the list of the 100 greatest novels in the English language, in order of their greatness. The third page was the 50 greatest films, similarly ordered. The two lists were presented with an air of total authority; these were not just his lists, these were the lists. All of a sudden, the green plastic watchband seemed relatively reasonable. Almost restrained. That's the way I've felt towards pretty much every "top (fill in the number)" list ever since.

The business world has a similar concept called "best practices". If someone offers to teach you the "best practices" in any field, hold on to your wallet. It's remarkable the number of opportunities I've had to learn a set of "best practices", each of which just happens to require me to use some product, or some service, that the company extolling the practice just happens to be willing -- if pressed, you understand -- to sell. Not all "top (number)" lists are quite so commercial, but most of them are still more informative about the maker of the list than about the subject matter ostensibly being addressed.

So it was with some reservation that I asked Greenleaf Publishing to send me a review copy of their recent book titled "The Top 50 Sustainability Books". I mean, I have my favorites (although I don't know that the list extends to 50). You have yours. And each of us probably shapes his/her preferences based on the specific aspect of sustainability (an incredibly broad topic, at the application level) found most intriguing or compelling.

Let me say, then, that Greenleaf's list isn't perfect, in that it doesn't entirely match my preferences. It probably won't entirely match yours, either. But it's pretty good. It's balanced, it takes a very broad view of its topic, and it doesn't exhibit the hubris inherent in the phrase "in the order of their greatness". Rather, it presents its selections in chronological order; reading through the various reviews in sequence is a good quick introduction to the various threads of thought which have contributed to current understandings of sustainability, and how each developed over time.

As a single volume then, the "top 50" book is, itself, a pretty good survey of the subject matter. Not a huge amount of depth on any single aspect -- the review of each book listed is four or five pages in length -- but enough information to see what each author was concerned with, how the topics interrelate, and how the combinations of topics support and explicate the idea of sustainability. A good bird's-eye view, conveying a rough map of the major territory each of us should be familiar with.

As a catalogue, the book is even better. One of the things I've been doing the last couple of years is putting together a sustainability reading room/lending library for faculty and students. The collection, to date, has been somewhat eclectic and, as a result, stronger in some areas than others. Of the 50 books on Greenleaf's list, I've already acquired maybe ten. But just looking at the list shows me where my collection is thin (population effects, food policy, water issues), and that by itself is of value.

Perhaps most impressive, to a list skeptic like me, is the fact that Greenleaf's "top 50 books" list includes (I believe) no books that Greenleaf itself actually publishes (and their catalogue of sustainability titles is fairly strong). My bookshelf already supported three volumes with their imprint (all relating to the interaction between sustainability and organizational dynamics). The list volume stands on its own; it's by no means a puff piece for its publisher.

That's the kind of "top 50" list I can respect and support. An honest and well-reasoned attempt to direct attention to important thinking and writing over the past 60 years or so, with no more focus on commercial gain than is inherent in every publishing venture. A well-researched guide to a selection of literature (lower-case "L"), that should be present in every college library. And familiar to every college sustainability wonk.

I guess I've got my summer reading cut out for me.


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