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. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By William Cronon,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Changes in the Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The book that launched environmental history, William Cronon's Changes in the Land, now revised and updated.

Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize

In this landmark work of environmental history, William Cronon offers an original and profound explanation of the effects European colonists' sense of property and their pursuit of capitalism had upon the ecosystems of New England. Reissued here with an updated afterword by the author and a new preface by the distinguished colonialist John Demos, Changes in the Land, provides a brilliant inter-disciplinary interpretation of how land and people influence one another. With its chilling closing line, "The people…

Book cover of American Environmental History: An Introduction

Why did I love 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

By Carolyn Merchant,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Environmental History as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

By studying the many ways diverse peoples have changed, shaped, and conserved the natural world over time, environmental historians provide insight into humanity's unique relationship with nature and, more importantly, are better able to understand the origins of our current environmental crisis. Beginning with the precolonial land-use practice of Native Americans and concluding with our twenty-first century concerns over our global ecological crisis, American Environmental History addresses contentious issues such as the preservation of the wilderness, the expulsion of native peoples from national parks, and population growth, and considers the formative forces of gender, race, and class. Entries address a…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Donald Worster,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rivers of Empire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Donald Worster examines the development history of the American West, identifying the elite of technology and wealth who have controlled its most essential resource: water.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Carl A. Zimring,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Clean and White as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Clean and White offers a history of environmental racism in the United States focusing on constructions of race and hygiene
When Joe Biden attempted to compliment Barack Obama by calling him "clean and articulate," he unwittingly tapped into one of the most destructive racial stereotypes in American history. This book tells the history of the corrosive idea that whites are clean and those who are not white are dirty. From the age of Thomas Jefferson to the Memphis Public Workers strike of 1968 through the present day, ideas about race and waste have shaped where people have lived, where people…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Adam Ward Rome,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Bulldozer in the Countryside as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The concern today about suburban sprawl is not new. In the decades after World War II, the spread of tract-house construction changed the nature of millions of acres of land, and a variety of Americans began to protest against the environmental costs of suburban development. By the mid-1960s, indeed, many of the critics were attempting to institutionalize an urban land ethic. The Bulldozer in the Countryside was the first scholarly work to analyze the successes and failures of the varied efforts to address the environmental consequences of suburban growth from 1945 to 1970. For scholars and students of American history,…

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