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The Top 50 Sustainability Books
Buy now

The Top 50 Sustainability Books


Wayne Visser on behalf of the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership
December 2009   256 pp   200 x 160 mm  
paperback   ISBN 978-1-906093-32-7   £40.00  

Alternative formats: eBook (PDF)

Review copies  

This colour paperback title is printed to order. Please be aware that delivery time will therefore increase.

"quirky and fun but also engrossing and unsettling in a good way. The list amounts to something far more than the sum of its 50 separate pieces." Crosslands Bulletin

"Not only an excellent idea but, more importantly, well executed ... It would be ideal if everyone read all these books in their original form, but this crash course is the next best thing." Peter Mason, Ethical Performance

'When Corporations Rule the World' by David C. Korten (1995)

This item available in PDF format for free download     Download


In this video: extracts from research interviews conducted as the basis for this book. Perspectives on sustainability leadership from Joseph Stiglitz, George Monbiot, L. Hunter Lovins, Elizabeth Economy, Mohammad Yunus and Jeffrey Sachs.

heroes bundle covers


Buy this title together with Planet Savers, 301 Extraordinary Environmentalists and save £16.95/€25/$32.95.

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This unique title draws together in one volume some of the best thinking to date on the pressing social and environmental challenges we face as a society. These are the Top 50 Sustainability Books as voted for by the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership’s alumni network of over 3,000 senior leaders from around the world. In addition to profiles of all 50 titles, many of the authors share their most recent reflections on the state of the world and the ongoing attempts by business, government and civil society to create a more sustainable future.

Many of these authors have become household names in the environmental, social and economic justice movements — from Rachel Carson, Ralph Nader and E.F. Schumacher to Vandana Shiva, Muhammad Yunus and Al Gore. Others, such as Aldo Leopold, Thomas Berry and Manfred Max-Neef, are relatively undiscovered gems, whose work should be much more widely known.

The profiled books tackle our most vexing global challenges, including globalisation (Globalization and Its Discontents, No Logo), climate change (Heat, The Economics of Climate Change) and poverty (The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, Development as Freedom).

Some of these featured thought-leaders are highly critical of the status quo (e.g. David Korten, Eric Schlosser and Joel Bakan), while others suggest evolutionary ways forward (e.g. Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins, Paul Hawken and Jonathon Porritt). Some place their faith in technological solutions (e.g. Janine Benyus, Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker), while others are upbeat about the potential of business to be a force for good (e.g. John Elkington, Ricardo Semler, William McDonough and Michael Braungart).

By featuring these and other seminal thinkers, The Top 50 Sustainability Books distils a remarkable collective intelligence — one that provides devastating evidence of the problems we face as a global society, yet also inspiring examples of innovative solutions; it explores our deepest fears and our highest hopes for the future. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to tap into the wisdom of our age.


If you don’t have time to read books ... but want to know what the good ones say, then you should take a look at this splendid array of best sellers about sustainability and related issues. As books go, it’s quite unique because you get 50 for the price of one – and in a compact package of 250+ pages. Do the math – that’s 5 pages per book. Students – and let’s admit it, their teachers, too – will love the shortcut.

For each one of the Top 50 books, author Wayne Visser gives you key ideas, a one-page synopsis, illustrative quotations, author bio, follow-up interviews with most authors, and citations to related books and website listings. So armed, you can bluff your way through any social gathering (or student classroom) as if you had read the whole thing.

Books are treated chronologically, beginning in 1949 with Aldo Leopold’s powerful case for land conservation, A Sand County Almanac, followed by the better known Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic about the dangers of DDT pesticide use. Toward the end are two books about climate change: Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and The Economics of Climate Change by the UK’s Nicholas Stern as No. 50. In between are many examples illustrating the pro and con public dialogue about preserving the Earth’s ecosystems seen as under siege by mindless, reckless, greedy corporations pursuing profits at all costs ...

Reading through from front to back carries you along enjoyably and informatively on the emerging currents of thought generated by business leaders, corporate consultants, academic experts, NGO critics of corporate behavior, and – perhaps most intriguingly as a harbinger of future thinking – a few bioethicists and ecosystem specialists who draw directly on natural processes for making sustainability stick. Taking this journey from the 1940s through the early years of the 21st century is well worth the trip.

A Worthwhile Book
The Top 50 is overall a good read. Work your way through it from beginning to end, thereby capturing the growing awareness of 50+ leading thinkers about unfolding planetary ecosystem disasters in the making. Without doubt, the collective power of giant corporations just may be the key to resolving, or at least lessening, the most monstrous impacts and human tragedies envisioned by futurist thinkers.

But remember, beyond these valuable perspectives, you should also seek out the plethora of newly-emerging research about what might be done by the major players to confront and grapple with the entire sustainability agenda.
William C. Frederick. February 2010

This is not only an excellent idea but, more importantly, well executed.

Taking the 50 best books on sustainability as compiled from a poll of 3000 experts around the world, Wayne Visser looks at them all through the same lens. Each entry – generally four pages long – lists the key ideas in each book, a synopsis of its contents, some of its notable sentences or thoughts, a potted biography of the author, and suggestions for further connected reading.

This turns out to be a highly useful format, providing just about all you need to know about each volume without actually reading it. The book is also well illustrated, with photos of the authors and images of each book.

Perhaps the only criticism might be that it provides no critique of the books or any sense of how the views in them have been received or fared over time. However, this is essentially a work of reference, and the decision to steer away from this polemical course is, on balance, the right one.

For the corporate responsibility practitioner there are at least 23 books in here that directly relate to CSR, including tomes by John Elkington, Simon Zadek and Anita Roddick. The rest generally look towards ecological or sociological matters, and while the majority of the entries were written post-2000, some date back more than 30 years. It would be ideal if everyone read all these books in their original form, but this crash course is the next best thing.
Peter Mason, Ethical Performance

One would expect ‘The Top 50 Sustainability Books’ to fit the standard mold of lists of bests, like the favorite 100 songs of the 20th century or the 10 scariest movies of all time. In superficial respects, it does. But the book from the University of Cambridge Program for Sustainability Leadership outshines its whimsical counterparts. Not only is it quirky and fun but also engrossing and unsettling in a good way. The list amounts to something far more than the sum of its 50 separate pieces.

The idea originated as an academic exercise. Under the patronage of Charles, the Prince of Wales, the institute, which changed its name in 2009 from the Program for Industry to reflect a wider curricula, has built up an alumni body of more than 3,000 people. The decision-makers and executives of various kinds have participated in its seminars and workshops over a period of two decades.

The organization polled them: ‘Please indicate your top 10 books for a sustainable world published since 1950.’ About 5% responded to the ballot. Over half of the 156 voters are graduates of the seminars for senior leaders. A fifth are alumni of the postgraduate certificate in sustainable business typically attended by professionals.

Twenty of the top 50 books earned a place on the list by securing the most vote. The program’s directors and faculty picked the other 30 from 100 titles as voted for by the alumni from a long list of 250 books. (The respondents had the option to add books not on the prepared list.) The Cambridge team then culled the candidate books to ensure diversity as well as a fair representation of authors who have had the greatest impact. The consensus choices by the organizers are not ranked in any way; and the 50 selections are presented in the book in chronological order.

Somewhat worrisome is the dominant voice of American and British commentators, and the fact that at least 16 of them are educated at Harvard, Yale, or Stanford University. It makes no sense to belittle the Cambridge compilation, for instance by decrying the omission of Barry Commoner, whose quotes include one he made famous about ecosystems: ‘everything is connected to everything else.’ Commoner’s 1971 The Closing Circle is the progenitor of at least 10 of lesser books that do make the list. The value of the top 50 list is the sweeping vista of an era, not specifically who’s in or out of the picture. Spending a year on the project, Wayne Visser, senior associate for the Cambridge program and founder of the firm CSR International, summarizes each book and interviews about half of the authors. (A pity more of them were not rounded up.) They are asked to reflect on the ideas they had expressed and how their thinking might have changed since publication.

Oliver Dudok van Heel, who has since joined a consultancy for corporate public relations, provided research and editorial assistance. The candid photographs of the authors are marvelous. The portraits are a huge complement to the summaries and the excerpts from the interviews.

The collection begins with Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) and ends with the The Economics of Climate Change, a thick (in more ways than one) report commissioned by the UK and better known as the Stern review. Nicholas Stern, an advisor to businesses and government, was born two years before Aldo Leopold penned his graceful elegy for the environment.

The journey from start to finish spans one lifetime. Adults can decide as witnesses how well the wise men and women who wrote these 50 books measure up. Are the authors correct in identifying capitalism as the main perpetrator of environmental degradation? Is Joel Bakan on target when he argued that the modern corporation is criminally psychopathic?

India’s Vandana Shiva (born in 1952) believed 20 years ago that the same processes of dominion over nature lead to dominion over women. How near to the truth is her hypothesis?

What about the solutions? Do we need more capitalists in developing countries, as Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto and Indian academic management consultant C.K. Prahalad maintain? Or fewer (Canadian activist journalist Naomi Klein)?

Blueprint for a Green Economy, popularly known as the Pearce Report, was prepared by the London Environmental Economics Center for the UK Department of the Environment in 1989. Its authors, David Pearce, Anil Markandya, and Edward Barbier, captured the theme that pervades the top 50 list. The environment needs to be assigned economic value, which then has to be reflected in policies.

George Monbiot was 26 years old when the Pearce Report appeared on the scene. Seventeen years later, the British columnist for the Guardian wrote a top 50 sustainability selection. In 2006 in his book Heat about climate change, the newspaperman wrote, ‘… only regulation — that deeply unfashionable idea — can quell the destruction wrought by the god we serve, the god of our own appetites.’

Are we overpopulating the planet (Paul Ehrlich, 1969)? Have we arrived at the limits of growth (Dennis and Donella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William Behrens, 1972)? Or have we reached a turning point (Fritjof Capra, 1982), a chaos point (Ervin Laszlo, 2006), or a false dawn (John Grey, 1998)?

Coming up with the answers is a tough job. Each of us alive today will have strong opinions about the views in these 50 celebrated volumes. No book could be a better one to select for a reading group.

As a postscript, the Cambridge 100 Questions Project is asking everyone who wants to contribute, ‘What are the most important questions we need to answer if we are to thrive together in the future?’ The final list will be launched at the end of 2010 after a worldwide engagement process.
Crosslands Bulletin, February 2010

The prestigious University of Cambridge Programme (translation: ‘Program’) for Sustainability Leadership has released their list of the top 50 books on Sustainability, chosen by their alumni. This is a remarkable resource for anyone interested in catching up on their studies, or formalizing an opinion on today’s environmental issues. I’m sure it would also be a great help in impressing hot babes at cocktail parties.
EARTHactually, 4 February 2010

The Top 50 Sustainability Books is a must for sustainability professionals and academics. It provides an excellent guidebook for those who are beginning their journey in ‘sustainability science’, and as a reminder of origins and principles for those who have been relentlessly working towards sustainability. The collection of books shows that if we want to avoid a World catastrophe, from which we may not be able to recover, we need to address the issues currently ailing the World not in isolation, but through systemic and holistic approaches where the interconnections and synergies among issues are equally, or perhaps more, important than the issues themselves.
Rodrigo Lozano, Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, in Journal of Cleaner Production 18 (2010)

The Top 50 Sustainability Books provides a unique insight into the best sustainability books on the market today. The University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership conducted a survey of more than 3,000 specialists to compile its list. Topics addressed in these books range from climate change and poverty through to globalisation. The commentary also incorporates the views of those surveyed with regards to contemporary sustainability issues, whether social, environmental or economic in nature.

A few titles that particularly caught the attention of the team at Article 13 for their seminal contribution to business sustainability include:

  • Our Common Future, by the World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987.
  • For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward the Community, the Environment and a Sustainable Future, by Herman Daly and John Cobb, 1989.
  • The Civil Corporation: The New Economy of Corporate Citizenship, by Simon Zadek, 2001.
  • Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits, by C.K. Prahalad, 2004.
  • Capitalism as if the World Matters, by Jonathan Porritt, 2005.
  • Business as Usual: My Entrepreneurial Journey, Profits and Principles, by Anita Roddick, 2005.
  • An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It, by Al Gore, 2006.
  • The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, by Nicholas Stern, 2007., ‘Worth a Read'

Polly Courtice, Director, Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership

1 A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold (1949)
2 Silent Spring Rachel Carson (1962)
3 Unsafe At Any Speed Ralph Nader (1965)
4 The Population Bomb Paul L. Ehrlich (1968)
5 Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth R. Buckminster Fuller (1969)
6 The Limits to Growth Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens III (1972) FIND OUT MORE / BUY: paperback | hardback
7 Small Is Beautiful E.F. Schumacher (1973)
8 Gaia James Lovelock (1979)
9 The Turning Point Fritjof Capra (1982)
10 Our Common Future (‘The Brundtland Report’) World Commission onEnvironment and Development (1987)
11 The Dream of the Earth Thomas Berry (1988)
12 A Fate Worse Than Debt Susan George (1988)
13 Staying Alive Vandana Shiva (1989)
14 Blueprint for a Green Economy David Pearce, Anil Markandya and Edward B. Barbier (1989) FIND OUT MORE / BUY
15 For the Common Good Herman Daly and John B. Cobb Jr (1989)
16 Human Scale Development Manfred Max-Neef (1989)
17 Changing Course Stephan Schmidheiny and Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) (1992)
18 The Ecology of Commerce Paul Hawken (1993)
19 Maverick Ricardo Semler (1993)
20 When Corporations Rule the World David C. Korten (1995) FIND OUT MORE / BUY
21 Biomimicry Janine M. Benyus (1997)
22 Cannibals with Forks John Elkington (1997)
23 The Hungry Spirit Charles Handy (1997)
24 Banker to the Poor Muhammad Yunus (1998)
25 The Crisis of Global Capitalism George Soros (1998)
26 Factor Four Ernst von Weizsäcker, Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins (1998) FIND OUT MORE / BUY
27 False Dawn John Gray (1998)
28 Development as Freedom Amartya Sen (1999)
29 No Logo Naomi Klein (1999)
30 Natural Capitalism Paul Hawken, Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins (1999)
31 Business as Unusual Anita Roddick (2000)
32 The Mystery of Capital Hernando de Soto (2000)
33 The Civil Corporation Simon Zadek (2001) FIND OUT MORE / BUY
34 Fast Food Nation Eric Schlosser (2001)
35 The Skeptical Environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg (2001)
36 Cradle to Cradle William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2002)
37 Globalization and its Discontents Joseph E. Stiglitz (2002)
38 The Corporation Joel Bakan (2004)
39 Presence Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers (2004)
40 The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid C.K. Prahalad (2004)
41 The River Runs Black Elizabeth C. Economy (2004)
42 Capitalism as if the World Matters Jonathon Porritt (2005) FIND OUT MORE / BUY
43 Capitalism at the Crossroads Stuart L. Hart (2005)
44 Collapse Jared Diamond (2005)
45 The End of Poverty Jeffrey D. Sachs (2005)
46 The Chaos Point Ervin Laszlo (2006)
47 Heat George Monbiot (2006)
48 An Inconvenient Truth Al Gore (2006)
49 When the Rivers Run Dry Fred Pearce (2006) FIND OUT MORE / BUY
50 The Economics of Climate Change Nicholas Stern (2007)

Mike Peirce, Deputy Director, Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership

About the author
About CPSL

Wayne Visser

Wayne Visser is Founder and CEO of the thinktank CSR International, as well as Senior Associate of the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership. He is the author/editor of eight books, including six on sustainable and responsible
business, among themLandmarks for Sustainability(Greenleaf Publishing, 2009), Making a Difference (VDM, 2008) and The A to Z of Corporate Social Responsibility (John Wiley, 2007).

Before getting his PhD in Corporate Social Responsibility (Nottingham University, UK), Wayne was Director of Sustainability Services for KPMG and Strategy Analyst for Capgemini in South Africa. He has an MSc in Human Ecology (Edinburgh University,
UK) and a Bachelor of Business Science in Marketing (Cape Town University, South Africa).

Wayne lives in Cambridge, UK, and enjoys art, writing poetry, spending time outdoors and travelling in his home continent of Africa. His personal website is

Oliver Dudok van Heel

Research associate

Oliver Dudok van Heel is passionate about finding solutions to the sustainability challenges we face as a society. He believes that by bringing together human ingenuity with respect for our wonderful planet and its people we can develop solutions and create a planet worth living for.

He tries to make this vision reality in different ways. Oliver founded Living Values to help integrate sustainability within corporations. He is a tutor on the University of Cambridge’s Postgraduate Certificate on Sustainable Business and a facilitator of the Be The Change Symposium. He helped launch the Lewes Pound, a local currency, to support the local community and reduce its carbon footprint, as part of the Transition Towns movement. He is also a co-founder of Transition Training and Consulting.

Oliver speaks English, French, Dutch, German, Spanish and Portuguese and holds a Master’s of Law and an Insead MBA.

Oliver lives in Sussex with his wife and three children.

CPSL logo The University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (CPSL) works with business, government and civil society to deepen the understanding of those who shape the future and help them respond creatively and positively to sustainability challenges.

Our focus on deepening understanding of sustainability through seminars, leadership groups and practical engagement builds on the University’s strengths as one of the world’s premier academic institutions. Our programmes provide opportunities for leaders to explore and debate key social and environmental trends and their significance within the global economic and political context. We draw on the intellectual breadth of the University and on leading thinkers and practitioners from around the world to help participants examine the array of strategic risks and opportunities and make decisions on the basis of a real appreciation of cutting-edge science, world-class thinking and best practice in business and government.

Our programmes include flagship initiatives inspired by the vision of our Patron, HRH The Prince of Wales. This unique coalition between the University and His Royal Highness gives the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership the power to convene thought leaders and top-level decision-makers from across the world in order to advance innovative thinking and transformational change.