David JC MacKay's Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air may be the best technical book about the environment that I've ever read. In fact, if I have any complaint about this book, it's in how it's presented, with its austere cover and spartan title, I assumed it would be a somewhat dry look at energy, climate, conservation and so on.
It's not. This is to energy and climate what Freakonomics is to economics: an accessible, meaty, by-the-numbers look at the physics and practicalities of energy. MacKay, a Cambridge Physics prof, approaches the subject of carbon and sustainability with a scientific, numeric eye. First, in a section called "Numbers, not adjectives," he looks at all the energy and carbon inputs and outputs in Britain and the rest of the world: this is how many kWh of energy are needed to power all of Britain's vehicles. This is how many kWh you would get if you covered the entire British shore with windmills, or wave-farms. This is Britain's geothermal potential. Here's how much carbon vegetarianism offsets. Here's how much carbon unplugging your idle appliances saves (0.25%, making the campaign to switch off energy vampires into a largely pointless exercise -- as MacKay says, "If everyone does a little bit, we'll get a little bit done"). This is the carbon-footprint of all of Britain's imports, gadgets, office towers, and so on.
Using a charming, educational style that teaches how to think about this kind of number, how to estimate with it, and what it means, MacKay explains these concepts beautifully, with accompanying charts that make them vivid and clear, and with exhaustive endnotes that are as interesting as the text they refer to (probably the best use of end-notes I've encountered in technical writing -- they act like hyperlinks, giving good background on the subjects that the reader wants to find out more about while allowing the main text to move forward without getting bogged down by details). Read the rest