Category Archives: Review

What I’ve Been Reading – Summer 2020

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Hey all, just thought I’d do a quick post about some of the books I read this summer since we’re just passing the Fall Equinox. Today, I’m partway through Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction from Arizona State University. At this point I’ve read several different explicitly solarpunk anthologies, and I think the main difference from cli-fi (climate science fiction) is that solarpunk takes an optimistic tact. This anthology seems like a mixed bag of optimistic and dystopian visions of the future. I think it’s good to keep in mind that things could go badly, but I find I’m dwelling in negative outcomes enough to really want a whole lot of that in my fiction.

Some of the other books I finished recently were Rewiring America by Saul Griffith, Sam Calisch, and Laura Fraser, Walkaway by Cory Doctorow, and Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson.

I reviewed Rewiring America on the blog, if you want a more in-depth look at it. In short, it’s a detailed plan on how to decarbonize the vast majority of the US economy by 2035. I think it would make a good subset of the Green New Deal, if we ever get one, but it largely sidesteps issues of environmental justice and corporate concentration in favor of being politically palatable.

I’m hoping to write a piece about Walkaway soon, but I think the most succinct way to describe it is as Atlas Shrugged but written by someone who has discovered that capitalism and state-based communism are both bad news. Shrugging and going walkaway both are in response to a government and society that are hostile to the protagonists, leaving them the option to opt out of the default society. For those of you who have read Atlas Shrugged, there is no 100 page philosophical speech or significant narrative left turn in the back third of Walkaway. The time jumps between sections of the book were queued well, so I wasn’t left confused like I have been in some books that used this technique.

Altered Traits was recommended to me since I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) to build a habit of meditating. It details the scientific research into meditation and the effects it has on the brain. As someone with a scientific background, it’s always nice to see that there are measurable data to back up the anecdotal evidence that a particular thing is beneficial. Biological systems tend to be messy, so there are bigger error bars than you might see in physics, but the trends back up the general consensus that more meditative practice means more mental health benefits. Some of the effects even start kicking in pretty early for some practices. The book did a great job of describing how different types of meditation exercise different parts of your brain, so now I have a better idea of what kind of meditation to do if I want to boost concentration or combat negative feelings associated with depression. If you are interested in meditation or neurology, I’d definitely recommend giving it a read.

On the audiobook front, I have been relistening to The Stormlight Archive books by Brandon Sanderson. The fourth book in the series, Rhythm of War is coming out in November, so it’s a good time to catch up on what’s happened so far. These books are epic fantasy, so the first three clock in at 42, 48, and 55 hours of audio! I also was listening along with the Year of Dresden reread this year, and the newest book, Battle Ground, just came out on Tuesday! The Dresden Files is urban fantasy if you haven’t run across it before, so it’s a little lighter fare than the doorstoppers Sanderson writes. If you’re looking for a noire-esque wizard detective trying to get by in the modern world, you should give them a try!

If you want to get a free audiobook, I did recently get a referral code for Libro.fm, which is an audiobook merchant that works with local bookstores so they aren’t cut out of the audiobook market like they are with Audible. If you want to support Cory Doctorow’s work to fight DRM and Audible’s overwhelming market power in the audiobook industry, I suggest you checkout the Kickstarter for his upcoming book, Attack Surface. The Kickstarter ends on Thursday, October 8, 2020 at midnight.

What have you been reading/listening to lately? Anything that seemed particularly solarpunk, or just some good old fashioned escapism?


FYI – There are some affiliate links in the article there, so I may get a small referral fee if you purchase something through them.

Rewiring America – A review

Saul Griffith wants to point out something that we in the science and engineering community have known for awhile: we already have the technology to solve climate change, we just lack the political will. Griffith’s new book, Rewiring America, is a deep dive into one course of action that would eliminate most fossil fuels from the American economy by 2035 and save households bundles of cash in the process.

I started engineering school in 2005, and while there was a growing amount of research into alternative energy at the time, we already had a pretty good idea of what would be needed to transition our economy away from carbon-heavy resources: electrify everything. Fifteen years later, the costs of solar, wind, and electric vehicle technologies have fallen exponentially. The best time to start investing in electrifying everything was during the 70s oil crisis. The next best time is now. As atmospheric carbon concentrations grow, we need to accelerate our efforts to decarbonize. Griffith and OtherLab‘s extensive analysis of US energy distribution shows the gains that can be made quickly by electrification.

One thing often ignored by opponents of climate action, but thoroughly explored in Rewiring America, is that electric motors and generation systems have a much higher overall efficiency than systems dependent on fossil fuels. Just by switching our current lifestyle to all electric, our overall energy consumption would drop by half in the United States.

An old meme from The Onion

Most of my quibbles with this book are because I’m not the target audience of the book. I don’t need convincing that climate change is serious and that we have to do something about it. I’m incredulous about Griffith’s claims that we don’t have to change our lifestyle or his handwaving with regard to the availability of certain critical materials, but Griffith is trying to reach out to the people on the fence who’ve been told by deniers that climate change is either a hoax or is too expensive to tackle. These climate delayers are a bigger problem than climate deniers, since the vehement denial of climate change is coming from a very small segment of the population. Most people agree that there is a problem, but don’t want to take action because they don’t believe it will affect them personally. Griffith skirts around equity and monopoly power while pouring on a heavy coating of patriotism to appeal to this audience that is on the fence about taking action on climate change.

One of the least appealing parts of the book was the incessant call for a war effort and lauding American exceptionalism. Griffith certainly isn’t the first to use this language, but it is getting a little old, not just for me. The book is US-centric, with only occasional references to what could happen worldwide, but we’re also the only country with a major political party that denies the science of climate change. We need this book more than anyone else right now.

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0
Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Most people want the same basic things, but in the current polarized political environment we don’t even speak the same language. I think Griffith is doing a good job of trying to bridge this gap by focusing on the no-compromises parts of the energy transition: cleaner air, quieter cities, and more comfortable living. As a solarpunk, I don’t think we can ignore the equity or the structural problems that lead to the climate crisis to begin with, but Griffith’s plan gives us a starting point to have an honest conversation about climate action.

Have you read Rewiring America? Do you think it has the potential to kick people off the sidelines of climate action?

Digital Minimalism – A Review

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I picked up Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport from my local library expecting to read more of the same information I’d seen before: social media companies use slot machine psychology to hook users; in-person communication is higher quality; spending so much time on our phones is hurting our relationships. This was all in there, but beyond the facts of the matter, Newport opened my mind to new ways of thinking about my relationship with technology and how it’s designed.

Minimalism at its core isn’t based on asceticism, where one denies earthly pleasures for the sake of austerity. I often find myself strongly trying to resist any emotional impulse to make purchases. I think this self-imposed austerity may have been causing undue stress by saying “you can’t have that,” instead of the healthier question of “is this something that could bring value to my life?”

In respect to technology, and apps in particular, Newport revisits calls by friends to join social media because it might be useful. He counters by saying that any tool should have a clear benefit to warrant your time. It’s not that any of these tools are bad per se, but since you only have so much time and attention, do you really want to spend it on something that might be useful, when there are so many other things that definitely would be?

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I’ve mentioned before how I struggle to balance my thirst for new information and time to be creative and thoughtful. It’s something I feel I still haven’t worked out, but Digital Minimalism helped me find some new tools to use in this quest.

Digital Minimalism also deals with some of the more sweeping issues resulting from the unique types of distraction available in the 21st Century. There have always been more things to do than time in the day, so distraction is nothing new. We have reached a point, however, with the introduction of the smartphone, where corporations vying for your attention via the “attention economy” have unfettered access to your eyeballs. Even our work is becoming more fractured and distracting with the advent of the gig economy.

Even after the advent of the internet, people were relatively alone in their own heads when they were mobile. Sure, you could listen to a personal soundtrack on your Walkman. With a computer in your pocket, you’re only a quick tap away from whatever information you seek. The end of the bar bet was also the end of pondering.

The book doesn’t preach throwing away your smartphone, although it does suggest methods of using digital tools so they help you achieve your aims instead of those of the advertising companies. For some people, that might mean going back to a phone that only supports calling and texting. For many others, removing social media apps from your phone will suffice. The key is knowing yourself and what you want to accomplish with theses tools.

Digital Minimalism wasn’t what I expected. While it did have some of the same information I had read before regarding the distracting nature of digital technologies, it was neither alarmist nor placating. It presented a well-reasoned and tested set of tools for using digital technologies in a reasonable way that can help you feel a little less discombobulated in this distracting world.

Do you have any thoughts on practices to keep technology from distracting you from what’s important? Do you find it ironic I wrote this post predominantly on my phone? Sound off below!


Disclaimer:  This review is my honest opinion of the book, but I may get financial reimbursement through the affiliate link in this article.

The Upcycle — A Review

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The Upcycle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is the followup to Cradle to Cradle. Written in 2013, it brings a decade’s worth of new information and experience to the concept of Cradle to Cradle design thinking.

If you’re interested in the circular economy and can only read one book – this is it. There is a short section at the front that recaps the underlying principles of Cradle to Cradle systems in case you haven’t read the first book. While Cradle to Cradle was groundbreaking for the concept that we should design human industry to be a positive good for the environment, The Upcycle contains many more specific examples of projects where the authors were able to achieve these ends.

For example, in the book there is a story of Dan Juhl who pairs farmers with investors for building renewables on their land. The investors get a guaranteed return on their investment for ten years, and the energy generation equipment reverts to the farmers after this period. More renewables end up on the grid, and families get an additional source of income by owning the means of energy production.

The physical book itself is a nice counterpoint to the design of Cradle to Cradle. While Cradle to Cradle was designed to be reusable in technical nutrient cycles, The Upcycle is designed with biodegradable inks and paper so that it can become a biological nutrient again. One of the main ideas of Cradle to Cradle design is that things should be delineated into two separate nutrient streams: biological and technical. Wood, paper, and things of this nature can be reused as they would be in nature by returning to the land while technical materials like plastics and metals should be reclaimed for infinite technical cycles. Preventing the creation of “monstrous hybrids” is an important goal of the Cradle to Cradle design process. These materials are amalgamations of material that are difficult, if not impossible to separate and reuse. This is particularly harmful if the materials in these hybrids are toxic in nature. The book quotes McDonough, “Let’s put the filters in our heads and not at the end of pipes.”

The Upcycle is a breath of fresh air. McDonough and Braungart show how we can rethink the way we design everyday objects to fit into the constant cycles of Mother Nature and end the insanity of cradle-to-grave mentality. Cradle-to-Cradle design is definitely the way we should be thinking  when we design technologies and objects for our solarpunk future.

Do you use any Cradle to Cradle products in your life? What has your experience been? Let us know below!

Energy: A Human History – Review

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Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes chronicles the development of industrial power sources with a focus on the innovators and scientists who developed the technologies. Starting in Elizabethan England with none other than William Shakespeare, Rhodes weaves a compelling tale of the western world’s energy sources starting with the transition from wood to coal in 1600s Britain.

The book paints the picture of the industrialists we now love to hate as human beings with hopes, dreams, and failings. It can be hard to remember after so long that James Watt and Henry Ford were once actual, living beings, and that they had hoped to make the world a better place with their inventions.

Drawing from many primary sources, Rhodes has lifted many gems of what the people of the time found concerning about these new technologies. With references to coal as “the devil’s excrement,” and many other such epithets, one might wonder why such dirty fuels ever became predominant. As Rhodes points out in the book though, industrialization with coal and other fossil fuels led to a near doubling of human life span and a higher standard of living. Rhodes does devote a fair bit of the book to the work that various towns and nations did to combat the air quality problems associated with the use of fossil fuels to varying degrees of success.

Concerns were not just constrained to air quality. Safety of steam engines, locomotives, and automobiles were a great concern of the time. As to cars, we have definitely come out on the wrong end of that technology with many US cities being designed for cars instead of people, but some of the concerns for trains seem amusing now as this quote Rhodes found shows.

“What can be more palpably absurd and ridiculous,” asked a reviewer for London’s Quarterly Review who favored a plan for a railway to Woolwich, “than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches! We should as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s… rockets, as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate… We trust that Parliament will, in all railways it may sanction, limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which… is as great as can be ventured on with safety.”

If you are firmly anti-nuclear, the end of the book will not be to your liking. As a cautiously optimistic person regarding nuclear energy, I feel the author may be a bit nuke-happy. Many of his points in favor of nuclear base loads are legitimate, however. Current nuclear generation technologies have been shown by IPCC and NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) analysts to have a carbon footprint similar to wind and solar. With many cities and states looking at 100% renewable commitments, including nuclear as a base load to counter the intermittency of renewable sources seems reasonable in geologically stable areas. Unfortunately, when states set “renewable” goals for their energy goals, they sometimes include waste incineration, which is both gross and bad for local air quality.

Beside its overly-western focus, the other main shortcoming of the book is its relatively light treatment of renewable technologies. There was very little regarding solar, hydro, and wind, and I’m not sure if geothermal was mentioned at all. I suspect that this was due to a desire of the author to focus on the technologies that were the primary drivers of industrialization. Regardless, I think this is a good treatment of the subject of modern industrial energy sources and the people who brought them to fruition.

Do you have any recommendations for other books about energy generation or transmission? Let us know below!

Cradle to Cradle – A review

Book cover for Cradle to Cradle - blue top and green bottom with mirrored vehicle silhouettes

Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way We Make Things

Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart is about envisioning a better way to manage human interactions with the natural world. The authors ask,

“What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity? That are so intelligent and safe, our species leaves an ecological footprint to delight in, not lament?”

Starting from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, they analyze the design decisions that led capitalist society to the environmental crossroads it faces today. While things weren’t quite so dire in 2002 when the book was written, its analyses of the pitfalls of rampant industrialization are thorough and thought provoking.

The most refreshing part of this book though is it isn’t just a list of where capitalism went wrong and why we’re all doomed. Cradle to Cradle outlines ways in which designers, engineers, and scientists can work together to deconstruct the current way we make things and redesign our material lives to benefit the natural world. The main idea, which I find to be very solarpunk, is to look at how in nature there is no waste. Everything serves a purpose in the environment. The fruit of the cherry tree feeds birds and animals while those animals spread the seeds of the tree. The droppings of those birds and animals fertilize the ground where the cherry tree and its offspring grow so that they can offer more food. Everything has its place in the cycle.

In one project, a shampoo was redesigned from scratch to only have positive effects by carefully selecting every chemical going into it, including the bottle. Herman Miller had a new factory designed including natural lighting, more ventilation, and a “street” with plants inside to bring nature closer to the workers. As we saw with the Nature Fix, bringing humans and nature together has positive benefits for human health, and by bringing the outdoors in, Herman Miller was able to bring its new focus on environmental sustainability to the forefront.

photo of pile of ripped carton

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The book isn’t just anecdotes and feel-good aphorisms, it also includes a framework for how to approach design to ensure maximum good. One of the ongoing themes in the book is that so far, most industry has tried to do less bad to the environment when it cares at all, but it’s time to go a step further and see how we can take industry and make it improve the world around us.

A success story in this vein tells of a textile factory in Europe that worked to make a better upholstery fabric for office chairs. When the regulators came to check the factory’s wastewater (effluent), they were confused as the water coming out of the plant was cleaner than that going in.

The equipment was working fine; it was simply that by most parameters the water coming out of the factory was as clean as — or even cleaner than — the water going in. When a factory’s effluent is cleaner than its influent, it might well prefer to use its effluent as influent. Being designed into the manufacturing process, this dividend is free and requires no enforcement to continue or to exploit. Not only did our new design process bypass the traditional responses to environmental problems (reduce, reuse, recycle), it also eliminated the need for regulation, something that any businessperson will appreciate as extremely valuable.

One of the things I’m hoping to investigate further in 2019 is the circular economy, and I think the design strategies outlined in Cradle to Cradle are a good first step in this direction. I found there is a followup book called The Upcycle written in 2013 that I will be checking out from the library soon.

Have you read Cradle to Cradle or have thoughts on the circular economy? Let us know below!

The Nature Fix – A Book Review

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Do you feel more relaxed after going for a walk in the woods? Does the scent of conifers make you think of happy times? The Nature Fix by Florence Williams investigates the connection between nature and human well-being, physical and mental.

As a scientist, I’m always excited to bury myself nose-deep in a new area of investigation, and I’ve found that popular science books are one of the best ways to acquaint yourself with something you’ve never studied before. Instead of getting bogged down in equations and minutia, you can dive right in and see what the science has to do with your life. Williams has done a brilliant job in The Nature Fix connecting the dots between how you feel during your day and how much exposure to nature you get.

silhouette of mountain hill with pine trees under white cloud blue sky

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While skimming photos of mountains and trees on Instagram might help you relax, it turns out that your other senses play an important role in your well-being. For instance, researchers in Korea have found that the smell of cypress trees have health benefits and some of the compounds the trees produce may even deter cancer.

Other researchers Williams talked to have found that sound plays an important role in our health. Bird song can have a positive effect, while many human-made noises such as jet aircraft can overstimulate the fight-or-flight aspects of our brains. One example from the book is that the “World Health Organization attributes thousands of deaths per year in Europe to heart attack and stroke caused by high levels of background noise.”

nature bird red wildlife

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Williams goes into biology, evolution, neuroscience, and sociology to really see what it is about nature that is so compelling. To really improve your mood and health, some Finnish researchers interviewed suggested a minimum of five hours of nature per month. As this can be difficult for the increasingly large proportion of people who live in cities, she points to examples like Singapore that endeavor to be a city in a garden. This really appeals to my solarpunk tendencies as cities that are full of lush, native plant life and provide physical and mental stimulation to their residents are my ideal.

I wholeheartedly recommend The Nature Fix to anyone who is interested in nature, even the tiniest amount. I would also suggest that all health professionals should read it regardless of their interest in the outdoors. I got my copy from my local library, but you can also find it through IndieBound here.

Have you read The Nature Fix? What did you think of it?

Team Human discusses AI and consciousness (podcast suggestion)

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Are you a solarpunk wondering, “Am I using technology, or is it using me?” If so, Team Human is the podcast for you. Every week, Douglas Rushkoff meets with guests to discuss what it means to be human in the digital age.

If you’re concerned about AI, consciousness, and how artists can relate to technology, the discussion with Kenric McDowell from Google’s Artists and Machine Intelligence group will be right up your alley. If that’s not your thing, check out their archive of other shows.

I really love the way Team Human remains positive about technology while still being critical. Technology can be a great tool, but we need to make sure we’re using it as a tool, and not becoming tools for the technology. One of the things that is a repeating theme is that the internet held so much promise but then was invaded by corporate interests who turned it into an advertising platform. While some people say you should unplug if you are worried about privacy and manipulation through the internet, that isn’t really a reasonable option for most people. Team Human is here to help us navigate the murky waters of humans and machines working together.

Do you listen to Team Human? If so, what episodes would you recommend? For more podcasts I think solarpunks would find interesting, check out the Resources page!

 

 

Glee Gum – A solarpunk gum?

As a solarpunk trying to reduce my impact, I’ve been looking for easy switches to more sustainable products. I chew a lot of gum, but when I started doing more research I found that most gums on the market contained plastics that don’t break down in the environment. While I’m not plastic-free, I wanted to find gum that tasted good and didn’t leave a permanent mark on the planet. Enter Glee Gum.

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I found a store in town that had it and grabbed two different flavors to try: peppermint and lemon-lime. I stick to sugar-free as my teeth need all the help they can get, but Glee also makes sugar gum. Like most fruity gums, the lemon-lime loses its flavor pretty quickly, but the peppermint has better staying power.

Glee is a bit softer than the Trident White gum I’m switching from and it doesn’t end up getting super hard if you chew it for more than 30 minutes like the Trident did. The main disadvantage of Glee Gum is that it is a bit stickier than most mainstream gums. The advantage is not having to deal with empty blister packs of gum.

Empty blister pack of gum

Glee Gum comes in either recyclable cardboard boxes, plastic pouches, or giant 400 piece tubes if you order it in bulk from their website. I decided to order a tube of peppermint from the website after my initial testing was complete. It was shipped in a cardboard box stuffed with newspaper. They even included a little sample of sugar-free watermelon gum! I was super-excited that all the packaging was recyclable and the cost per piece of gum is about the same as the Trident White I was getting at the grocery store, even when I include shipping costs.

Glee Gum Coupon CHEWMORE - Save 15%

Glee Gum Coupon CHEWMORE – Save 15%

Glee has an extensive “Learn More” section about how they make their gum here, and I think they’re making a great product in a really responsible way. You can find a local store that carries Glee Gum on their website, or get it on Amazon here. You buy it online from their store which I think is the only way to get the giant 400 piece tubes.

Do you chew Glee or know of some other good options for solarpunk gum? Sound off in the comments!

KitchenMade Measuring Cups Review

2018-02-07-17-26-43_origSolarpunk living includes a pretty strong waste reduction component as part of being environmentally conscientious. One of the simpler ways to reduce the amount of waste you generate is to cook your own food. While the greenest measuring cups are the ones you already have, if you are in need of a set, the KitchenMade Stainless Steel 6 Piece Stackable Set is the best I’ve come across. The measuring cups are each made from just one piece of stainless steel, so they are easy to clean and could be recycled if needed. Short of being hit by a truck, I don’t see how they would break and need recycling though.

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Besides their indestructibility, the best feature is the little indents on the sides for smaller measurements. For instance, the 1 cup also has gradations for 1/2 and 3/4 cups. This is great when you’ve been cooking a lot (Thanksgiving, anyone?) and your 1/2 cup is already dirty. The little gradations aren’t deep enough to trap anything from getting cleaned, and I usually just throw mine in the dishwasher. The only real downside to these measuring cups is that the labels for the gradations are written from the outside. Since the labels are stamped into the metal, you can see them from the inside, but you’ll need to read backward to know what the measurement is.

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At the time of writing, the KitchenMade Stainless Steel 6 Piece Stackable Set is $23. There is also a combo of the KitchenMade measuring cups and measuring spoons available for $30.

Green Jobs: A review

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Green Jobs: A Guide to Eco-Friendly Employment (2008) promises the following on its back cover:

> Get up to date on the green movement’s latest trends
> Choose a career that’s good for the environment — and for you!
> Go for extra training, if needed
> Learn about the exciting advantages of “green collar” employment

Let’s look at how it stacks up…

This book was published in 2008, so we get an interesting snapshot of the “green revolution” right before the Great Recession caused a major setback to climate action. Having 10 years of perspective on where things have gone gives a bittersweet read of what the authors expected of the future. A few of the technologies touted in the book have proven to be dead ends, including a particularly bullish look at fuel cells. Refreshingly, there is some treatment of the geothermal industry which is an often overlooked part of the energy puzzle.

As far as finding a career in the green industry goes, this book has a lot of good resources on companies and organizations to investigate, broken down by job type and skill set. Some of the companies are now defunct, but there is enough information here to get you started looking into interesting industries and finding positions that are a good fit for your particular set of skills and training.

Many community colleges and universities now have programs either in green trades or degrees available. Many of these programs were just starting in 2008, so there may be good programs now in your neck of the woods. As a quick example, the solar industry now employs more people than the coal industry, and most of those workers are in the solar installation business. A large number of schools offer training for the skills you need to install solar panels all around the United States. I suspect this is similar in other countries, but I’m not super-familiar with education abroad.

The primary advantage of getting a job in the green industry is having a job that aligns with your personal values. Some other possible benefits include getting help with cycling or using public transit to go to work. Some companies are headquartered in LEED certified buildings as well, reducing your impact and exposure to VOCs further. Most green jobs will come with your standard benefits of 401K, health insurance, etc. as well.

TL;DR: Green Jobs is a good read, and while some of its information is outdated, it is still a solid starting point if you want to get a job in environmentally sustainable businesses/organizations.

Disclaimer: I use Amazon affiliate links to help keep the lights on here at Solarpunk Station. I borrowed this book from my local library, so you might check out yours to see if you can read it for free. If you do decide to buy, using the links here will help keep the site running. Thanks!