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05.31.2011 - 08:51PM

Category: Corporate Social Responsibility

CSR Summer Reading Picks


By CSRwire Contributing Writer Francesca Rheannon

A crop of new and recent books will improve your sustainability IQ while you soak up the sun at the beach.

Memorial Day has come and gone and the summer season is upon us (even if it's still formally a few weeks away). The crises in the economy and environment continue to amplify in the popular mind, enough to see a bumper crop in books addressing them. They range from scathing critiques and sobering predictions to prescriptions for positive change.

So grab your beach towel, sunscreen and umbrella, and pack your tote with a few of the following picks for summer reading.


The outlook for Wall Street may seem rosy, but the fundamentals are far from sound. That's the lesson one comes away with after reading several recent books by well-respected analysts and financial journalists - all great reads. Take your pick or read all of them for a real Financial Fiasco Feast.

Former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson teamed up with management consultant James Kwak to write 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and The Next Financial Meltdown. They argue that the rise of the ideology, "what's good for Wall Street is good for America," has enabled a concentration of financial power that undermines the stability of our economy. Their prescription is to break up the big banks and impose strict limits on their size so the financial sector can get back to doing what really is best for America: providing the capital for productive investment. (Read the intro here.)

In a similar vein, Matt Taibbi's incandescent prose enlivens his takedown of Wall Street's "long con that is breaking America" in Griftopia. He breaks the gory details down into simple language that educates without being boring. He roasts Ayn Rand acolyte Alan Greenspace, uncovers the hidden bubble of the commodities market and tells us why Goldman Sachs is the "vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity."

Just off the presses is New York Times business journalist Gretchen Morgenson's book (co-authored with Joshua Rosner) Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon. Morgenson is a favorite of mine - her trenchant analyses of the unfolding financial crisis were source #1 for me as I was trying to make sense of the mess. In this book, she and Rosner (who tried to raise the alarm before the house of cards came crashing down) tackle conservative bugaboo Fannie Mae along with mortgage subprime villain Countrywide Financial, Wall Street's overlords at Goldman Sachs, the Federal Reserve and the enablers at HUD, the U.S. Congress and FDIC.

I can't leave this topic without a brief mention of Nicholas Shaxson's Treasure Islands. The author's lens on the rot at the core of the financial system is offshore tax havens, which he says vacuum up and sequester income and resources that governments and business should be using for productive investment. When companies like GE pay no federal taxes or others rob the UK exchequer of about £20billion each year (which could have kept UK universities from steep rises in fees), society as a whole suffers. And the credit crunch continues.

Companies Behaving Well or Badly

As you gaze out at the cerulean waves crashing ashore, you might think about how easily the ocean's health can be undermined by reckless disregard for safety on the part of corporate Bad Profiteers. In A Sea in Flames, Carl Safina powerfully deconstructs the causes of BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout, factors that complicated the response to the disaster, and the emotional, ecological and financial consequences. (You can listen to the excellent interview he gave me here.)

Edward Humes' book, Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart's Green Revolution brings some good news on the sustainability front. He tells how Wal-Mart learned to stop hating environmentalism and start loving sustainability (within certain limits) - purely motivated by profit and the drive to cut costs. He writes, "Plain and simple, Wal-Mart's company leaders came to understand that pollution is another just word for waste." And getting rid of waste fattens the bottom line. Throwing its prodigious weight around has also meant the company has been able to somewhat green its supply chain.

It's a fascinating read, but critics have pointed out other aspects of the Wal-Mart business model weaken the company's green cred: situating stores in outlying suburban malls means customers have to drive there, spewing CO2 emissions; huge parking lots contribute to water pollution; and, many stores are open (and emitting carbon) 24/7. Add to that unsustainable social practices like paying rock-bottom wages, handing out meager and expensive benefits and hollowing out the local economy, and Wal-Mart's "Green Revolution" starts to look a bit tarnished.

And some passing mention again - Seventh Generation founder Jeffrey Hollender is out with a new book: Planet Home: Conscious Choices for Cleaning and Greening the World You Care About Most. I haven't read it yet, but if it's as well-written and inspiring as his last book, The Responsibility Revolution, it would be worth going into the tote on the way to the beach.


What summer reading list would be complete without some literary additions to the palate? And with Oxfam's new report showing a doubling of food prices by 2050, the situation is crying out for attention.

Maria Rodale, granddaughter of the organic food movement's pioneer, has issued a clarion call in her new book, Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe. Countering claims by Monsanto and the World Wildlife Fund that GMOs will be needed to feed the planet's billions, Rodale says organic agriculture can do it better and more safely for both humans and the environment. Short but pithy, Organic Manifesto lays out a convincing case why organic farming lessens global warming, is a key ingredient for a sustainable future - and produces the tastiest and most nutritious foods.

And talking about tasty foods… you can find recipes, local lore and some great travel stories all wrapped up in a new book about how global warming is changing one spicy corner of our food system: peppers. Ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan joins co-authors Kurt Michael Friese and Kraig Kraft as they recount their journey through the U.S. and Mexico to find out what's happening to that staple of Mexican cuisine and those who grow it. They write about their odyssey in Chasing Chilies: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail.

So head back after a day at the beach or poolside and fry up some comfort food inspired by the book. You'll need it after burning up all that brain energy while boosting your sustainability IQ.

About Francesca Rheannon

Francesca is CSRwire's Talkback Managing Editor. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is co-founder of Sea Change Media. She produces the Sea Change Radio's series, Back to The Future, and co-produces the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility's podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca's work has appeared at SocialFunds.com, The CRO and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon.

This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.

Readers: What summer reads do you recommend? Tell on Talkback!



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