The best books on the environmental history of the United States

Nancy C. Unger Author Of Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History
By Nancy C. Unger

Who am I?

History is my passion as well as my profession. I love a good story! When I was teaching courses in environmental history and women’s history, I kept noticing the intriguing intersections, which inspired me to write Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers. Most of my work focuses on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (1877-1920) and includes two award-winning biographies, Fighting Bob La Follette and Belle La Follette Progressive Era Reformer. I’m also the co-editor of A Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and have written dozens of op-eds and give public talks (some of which can be found in the C-SPAN online library and on YouTube). 


I wrote...

Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History

By Nancy C. Unger,

Book cover of Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History

What is my book about?

This is not a presentation of “Great Women in Environmental History.” It instead focuses on how and why men and women frequently responded differently to the environment and environmental issues throughout American History. I argue that these differences are based not only in physiology, but also in cultural beliefs and practices. For example, even though a campfire seems pretty darn gender-neutral, in the 1920s Boy Scouts were taught that it stood for the camaraderie of the battlefield, factory, and office. Girl Scouts, on the other hand, learned that fire represented hearth and home.

In this illustrated study, a finalist for the California Book Award, I trace women’s environmental attitudes and actions from the pre-Columbian period to the environmental justice movements of the present. 

The books I picked & why

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Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England

By William Cronon,

Book cover of Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England

Why this book?

This prize-winning book is a classic, and a wonderful introduction to the value of environmental history, engagingly written by one of the giants in the field. Cronon shows how the first American Revolution was not the political one of 1776, but the incredible changes to the plant, animal, and human communities put into motion by the arrival of European colonists.


American Environmental History: An Introduction

By Carolyn Merchant,

Book cover of American Environmental History: An Introduction

Why this book?

There are many general introductions to American environmental history. This one, by a pioneering leader in the field, is excellent. The comprehensive narrative provides a good mix of facts and interpretation, and Merchant provides as well a list of agencies, concepts, laws, and people, in addition to resource guides to print, film, video, archival, and electronic sources, plus bibliographies and essays on a variety of topics


Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West

By Donald Worster,

Book cover of Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West

Why this book?

This is a classic by a leader in the field. It’s a hefty tome combining philosophy, economics, and history, but is well worth the time and energy required. Worster emphasizes that lack of water resources is a massive problem for the modern American West, necessitating increasingly complex and far-reaching irrigation systems that come at high social and economic costs. The result is an “empire” whose power is based on who controls the water vital to the urban, suburban, and rural life of the hydraulic west.


Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States

By Carl A. Zimring,

Book cover of Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States

Why this book?

The environmental justice movement grew out of recognition of the disproportionate environmental burdens faced by low-income communities, including many communities of color. Zimring provides a detailed and compelling analysis of the long history of environmental racism that the environmental justice movement seeks to remedy. He reveals how ideas about race, hygiene, and waste have shaped where and how people (including Native Americans, immigrant groups, and African Americans) have lived and worked.


The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism

By Adam Ward Rome,

Book cover of The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism

Why this book?

Adam Rome examines an underappreciated topic in environmental history: the environmental costs of the ever-growing American suburbs. Mass migration to the suburbs coincided with the rise of the environmental movement. That convergence was followed by political controversy, and ultimately codes, regulations, and guidelines. Rome is a great storyteller who reveals important shifts in growth management and environmental policy. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in environmental history, environmental justice, and New England?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about environmental history, environmental justice, and New England.

Environmental History Explore 7 books about environmental history
Environmental Justice Explore 11 books about environmental justice
New England Explore 48 books about New England

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