7 powerful books that bring the UN's sustainable development goals to life

Can reading increase empathy and charitable thinking?

Books that bring the UN's sustainable development goals to life
Satria SP / Unsplash

Reading, studies show, increases empathy and charitable thinking. Fiction has even been credited with helping readers improve their understanding of others and make changes in their own lives.


  • The UN has identified 17 interconnected goals for a sustainable future, from tackling poverty to climate action.
  • The aim is to achieve all of these goals by 2030.
  • Unesco's Cities of Literature have picked books to reflect each goal.

Knowing the power of reading, a network of cities around the globe has developed a recommended reading list inspired by the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the global benchmarks designed to help the world work toward a better future.

UNESCO's Cities of Literature – a group that includes Durban in South Africa, Manchester in the UK and Baghdad in Iraq – selected novels and true-life stories on key SDG themes, including poverty, hunger and sustainability.

Use their picks to widen your own perspectives and help fuel the world's progress toward achieving the UN's global goals. Here's a selection of their recommendations:


Lowry Going to Work - The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels

A painting by English artist LS Lowry (1887 - 1976) entitled 'Going To Work', and depicting factory workers in the snow outside the main entrance to the Park Works of the Mather and Platt engineering firm in Newton Heath, Manchester, 1943.

Laurence Stephen Lowry/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

1. The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels

Goal: No Poverty

Manchester recommends Friedrich Engels' classic book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, a call to arms sparked by the poverty Engels saw in the country in the 1840s. German-born Engels explores the human cost of the industrial revolution, depicting overcrowded housing, abject poverty, child labor and sexual exploitation. It is considered a pioneering work of social history.

2. Independent People by Halldór Laxness

Goal: Zero Hunger

Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness' book Independent People, recommended by Reykjavik, tells the story of a sheep farmer's heroic determination to eke out an independent living in the harsh landscape of rural Iceland. The brunt of his obsessive quest is felt most by his family as his own daughter becomes equally determined to become independent from her father. Laxness tells this battle of wills with humor in a book writer Annie Proulx calls "sardonic, clever and brilliant."

3. A Fist or a Heart by Kristín Eiríksdóttir

Goal: Good Health and Well-being

The novella A Fist or a Heart by Kristín Eiríksdóttir tells the story of Elín Jónsdóttir, an isolated woman in her seventies who makes props and prosthetics for theater and television programs. She meets a younger woman, also a loner, and they discover common ground in their difficult childhoods. The connection unearths painful memories as Elin's grasp on reality weakens. The book, selected by the city of Reykjavik, explores themes such as trauma and personal connection. It won the Icelandic Literary Prize and author Eiríksdóttir is considered one of the most original voices of her generation.

Trinity College Library, part of Cambridge University

Trinity College Library, part of Cambridge University.

RDImages/Epics/Getty Images

4. Taking Up Space by Chelsea Kwakye & Ore Ogunbiyi

Goal: Quality Education

Written by two recent graduates from the University of Cambridge, Taking Up Space tackles the struggles faced by women of color in predominantly white institutions. This non-fiction book functions as a manifesto for change and helps students advocate for themselves at university, covering everything from academics to activism, mental health and relationships. Called "groundbreaking" by the Guardian, this book was recommended by the city of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.

5. Admissions by Mira Harrison

Goal: Decent Work and Economic Growth

Admissions is a collection of short stories that shares the experiences of eight women – doctors, nurses, cooks and cleaners – who have dedicated their lives to caring. The fictional tales, selected by the New Zealand city of Dunedin, recount the highs and lows of working in clinical medicine. The book demonstrates the many ways different women from all walks of life keep a struggling institution up and running while navigating their lives at home.

6. Scavengers by Darren Simpson

Goal: Sustainable Cities and Communities

Darren Simpson's young adult book Scavengers tells the story of two characters, Landfill and Old Babagoo, who live in a walled kingdom. Old Babagoo looks after Landfill on the condition that he follows his rules: never come looking outside and never rise above the wall. The book, selected by the UK's city of Nottingham, explores themes such as sustainability, prejudice and control in a work packed with twists and turns.

7. The Trespassers by Meg Mundell

Goal: Life Below Water

Meg Mundell's The Trespassers tells the story of a shipload of migrant workers leaving the UK and looking for a fresh start in Australia. When a crew member is murdered and people start falling gravely ill, it becomes unclear where the real danger lies. The book is inspired by the true story of the Ticonderoga, a 'fever ship' full of migrant workers that reached Melbourne in 1852 and led to the creation of Australia's first quarantine station. This book, selected by Australia's Melbourne, was called "clever," "gripping" and "powerful" by reviewers.

Reprinted with permission of the World Economic Forum. Read the original article.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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