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Self-learning in sustainability: the rising importance of books over degrees

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By Maria Tymtsias

· 7 min read

The rise and fall of academic sustainability education

As the world grapples with the interconnected challenges of climate change, resource scarcity, and social inequities, the demand for sustainability expertise has surged. Driven by a desire to make a tangible difference, many professionals are seeking to transition their careers into the sustainable field, drawn by the prospect of impactful and meaningful work. However, embarking on a successful sustainability career requires a solid foundation of knowledge and experience to effectively develop solutions that harmonize environmental protection, social equity, and economic prosperity.

Traditionally, acquiring specialized knowledge has been inextricably linked to formal education. However, sustainability as an academic discipline has emerged quite recently, gaining significant momentum over the past five years. While these programs provide a structured approach to learning, they often face the challenge of keeping pace with the ever-evolving sustainability landscape. Moreover, the curriculum in these programs can sometimes be outdated or inadequately designed, offering a broad yet often superficial overview that lacks depth in practical application. As a result, while these programs may provide a necessary credential to be considered an expert in sustainability, they may not provide the real-world knowledge and experience needed to make a truly meaningful impact.

Therefore, truly successful sustainability professionals are embracing self-directed learning through books, case studies, scientific papers, and active participation in the community. These self-directed learners are actively seeking out knowledge and experiences that are directly applicable to their work, allowing them to develop a deeper understanding of sustainability principles and their practical application.

For those just starting out in the sustainability space, books can be an excellent first step in self-directed learning and gaining practical insights. By immersing themselves in the vast wealth of sustainability literature, new practitioners can develop a solid foundation of knowledge and begin to identify areas for further exploration.

The efficacy of book-based learning for sustainability

Books not only keep up with the latest developments in the field but also allow learners to delve deeply into specific areas of interest. This method offers several advantages, including flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and the opportunity to gain a detailed understanding of specific sustainability topics that are most relevant to the learner, far beyond the general and sometimes outdated knowledge provided by degree programs. Books offer a comprehensive and in-depth exploration of various sustainability topics, allowing readers to absorb information at their own pace and revisit key concepts as needed. Additionally, books often present diverse perspectives and case studies, providing a more holistic understanding of the field.

Moreover, book-based learning fosters a deeper engagement with the subject matter. The act of reading encourages active reflection and critical thinking, enabling individuals to internalize knowledge and develop their own informed perspectives on sustainability issues. This process of self-directed learning cultivates a deeper understanding and appreciation for the complexities of sustainability.

A curated list of essential sustainability books

To effectively navigate the vast array of sustainability literature, it is crucial to select books that cover the diverse dimensions of the field. Here's a curated list of essential sustainability books that provide a comprehensive foundation for understanding and addressing sustainability challenges.

Understanding the environmental dimension

  1. "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson: This ground breaking work highlights the devastating environmental impact of pesticides and serves as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of human actions on ecosystems.
  2. "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" by Michael Pollan: This insightful book explores the complexities of agricultural sustainability and the ethical considerations surrounding food production systems.
  3. "Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air" by David J.C. MacKay: This comprehensive guide provides a factual analysis of various sustainable energy sources, offering insights into their potential and limitations.
  4. "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things" by William McDonough & Michael Braungart: This pioneering work challenges traditional linear production models and advocates for a cradle-to-cradle approach that eliminates waste and promotes circularity.
  5. "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History" by Elizabeth Kolbert: This compelling narrative delves into the alarming decline of biodiversity and the interconnectedness of species loss with human activities.
  6. "The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance" by William McDonough & Michael Braungart: This follow-up to "Cradle to Cradle" showcases innovative approaches to sustainable design, demonstrating the potential for abundance within environmental constraints.
  7. "Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming" edited by Paul Hawken: This extensive collection of essays presents a multitude of solutions to tackle climate change, offering a roadmap for a sustainable future.

Economic and corporate sustainability in practice

  1. "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" by Thomas Piketty: This thought-provoking book examines the growing wealth and income inequality in modern society, offering insights into the economic challenges of achieving sustainability.
  2. "Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist" by Kate Raworth: This innovative economic model proposes a framework that balances essential human needs and ecological sustainability, challenging traditional economic thinking.
  3. " Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman" by Yvon Chouinard: This inspiring case study provides lessons from Patagonia, a company renowned for its commitment to environmental and social responsibility.

Navigating the social, cultural, and educational landscape

  1. "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen: This profound work by Nobel laureate Sen explores the role of social and cultural freedom in driving sustainable development and improving quality of life.
  2. "The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better" by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett: This data-driven analysis examines how income inequality impacts social issues, demonstrating the benefits of greater equality for a sustainable society.
  3. "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide" by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: This powerful book highlights the struggles and triumphs of women around the world, underscoring the importance of gender equality in achieving social sustainability.
  4. "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari: This sweeping narrative traces the evolution of human societies and explores the cultural impact of globalization, providing a historical context for understanding sustainability challenges.

Addressing global challenges through collaborative efforts

  1. "The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century" by Thomas L. Friedman: This insightful book discusses globalization in the 21st century and its profound implications on economies, societies, and environments worldwide.
  2. "Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think" by Hans Rosling: This data-rich book challenges common misconceptions about global development and progress, offering a more optimistic perspective on the world.
  3. "Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty" by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo: This groundbreaking work explores innovative approaches to addressing global poverty, based on years of field research and empirical evidence.
  4. "Collapse" by Jared DiamondThis book explores the fall of civilizations and lessons for sustainability.


The field of sustainability is rapidly evolving, and traditional academic programs may not be able to keep up with the latest developments. Self-directed learning through books, case studies, and active participation in the community can provide a more comprehensive and up-to-date understanding of the field. By immersing themselves in the vast array of sustainability literature available, new practitioners can develop a solid foundation of knowledge and identify areas for further exploration. Additionally, engaging with the sustainability community through conferences, workshops, and online forums can provide valuable insights and networking opportunities.

Sustainability is a complex and multifaceted field, and there is no single path to expertise. However, by cultivating an open mind, embracing continuous learning, and actively engaging with the ever-evolving landscape of sustainability, individuals can make a significant contribution to shaping a more sustainable future.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Maria Tymtsias is an ESG strategist and reporting expert who also leads twin transformation projects, empowering large organizations to harness digital technologies in achieving sustainability goals.

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