The best books for deep environmental learning

Mitchell Thomashow Author Of To Know the World: A New Vision for Environmental Learning
By Mitchell Thomashow

Who am I?

I’ve been engaged in the environmental field for fifty years as an educator, a professor, a university president, and as a concerned citizen. The field is dynamic, complex, inspiring, and often overwhelming. All of my writing and teaching emphasizes empowering readers and students alike to use the depth of their experience to gather insight, wisdom, and agency. I want readers to actively think about their relationship to the biosphere, the contributions they can make as environmental citizens, and the inspiration they can cultivate at home or in the workplace. 

I wrote...

To Know the World: A New Vision for Environmental Learning

By Mitchell Thomashow,

Book cover of To Know the World: A New Vision for Environmental Learning

What is my book about?

How can we respond to the current planetary ecological emergency? In To Know the World, I propose that we revitalize, revisit, and reinvigorate how we think about our residency on Earth. First, we must understand that the major challenges of our time—migration, race, inequity, climate justice, and democracy—connect to the biosphere. Traditional environmental education has accomplished much, but it has not been able to stem the inexorable decline of global ecosystems. I use the term environmental learning to signify that our relationship to the biosphere must be front and center in all aspects of our daily lives.

Mixing memoir, theory, mindfulness, pedagogy, and compelling storytelling, I discuss how to navigate the Anthropocene's rapid pace of change without further separating psyche from biosphere; why we should understand migration both ecologically and culturally; how to achieve constructive connectivity in both social and ecological networks; and why we should take a cosmopolitan bioregionalism perspective that unites local and global.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Fathoms: The World in the Whale

Why did I love this book?

Fathoms is a remarkable narrative about the human relationship with whales, and how our understanding of that relationship lends insight to both the human condition, the state of the oceans, and of course, the survival of whales. While reading Fathoms you will learn a great deal about how you perceive nature, and how whales are a barometer for that insight. You will experience both the compassion and savagery of humanity, and you will ponder questions about the meaning of life. Fathoms is wide-ranging, and includes great insights about how technology changes our relationship to the natural world, and our understanding of human history. Most importantly, it helps you perceive the world differently, and develop empathy (as much as humanly possible) for what the whale experiences. It is also brilliantly written.

By Rebecca Giggs,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Fathoms as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



'There is a kind of hauntedness in wild animals today: a spectre related to environmental change ... Our fear is that the unseen spirits that move in them are ours. Once more, animals are a moral force.'

When Rebecca Giggs encountered a humpback whale stranded on her local beach in Australia, she began to wonder how the lives of…

Book cover of The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans

Why did I love this book?

If you have ever experienced the delight of admiring seashells then you will be enamored with this fine book. The Sound of the Sea uses seashells as a way to explore the history of life on earth, the extraordinary biology of mollusks, the fascinating cultures of First Nations Amerindians, and the political economy of shells, from the naming of Shell oil to their use as natural resources. Who knew that seashells could take us on such an encompassing journey? After reading this book, you will enhance your sense of wonder and gain a deeper appreciation for the role of mollusks in the biosphere. And you will be more firmly committed to natural history exploration and the necessary conservation it requires. 

By Cynthia Barnett,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Sound of the Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Seashells have been the most coveted and collected of nature's creations for thousands of years. They were money before coins, jewellery before gems, art before canvas.

In The Sound of the Sea, Cynthia Barnett blends cultural history and environmental science to trace our long love affair with seashells and the hidden lives of the mollusks that make them. From the mysterious glow of giant clams to the surprising origin of Shell Oil as a family business importing exotic shells, the book is filled with unforgettable stories. As it explores the perfect symmetry of a Chambered Nautilus, the pink-glossed lip of…

Book cover of The Nutmeg's Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis

Why did I love this book?

Amitav Ghosh is an outstanding novelist who has now written two great books about global environmental change. His previous work, The Great Derangement, looks at the relationship between colonialism, the humanities, and the climate crisis. Now, The Nutmeg’s Curse expands that exploration provides more detail and depth, and covers the historical era of European expansion, paying close attention to how that process irrevocably and dangerously changed how we perceive the natural world. In so doing, Ghosh covers some of the most pertinent issues of contemporary environmental learning—race, equity, diversity, inclusion, and migration.

If you want to gain deeper insight into our current environmental challenges from a cultural perspective, this book will reward that interest. Hopefully, too, it will give you insight into your own behaviors and cultural predispositions. 

By Amitav Ghosh,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Nutmeg's Curse as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this ambitious successor to The Great Derangement, acclaimed writer Amitav Ghosh finds the origins of our contemporary climate crisis in Western colonialism's violent exploitation of human life and the natural environment.

A powerful work of history, essay, testimony, and polemic, Amitav Ghosh's new book traces our contemporary planetary crisis back to the discovery of the New World and the sea route to the Indian Ocean. The Nutmeg's Curse argues that the dynamics of climate change today are rooted in a centuries-old geopolitical order constructed by Western colonialism. At the center of Ghosh's narrative is the now-ubiquitous spice nutmeg. The…

Book cover of Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape

Why did I love this book?

Are you interested in a world tour that brings you to some of the most toxic, abandoned, and disturbed places in the world? On the face of it, not really! However, Cal Flyn remarkably transforms what seems like a death spiral into avenues of hope. She finds that many of these places, in part because of human absence, are also islands of restoration and revitalization. Despite the disturbance, nature once again takes hold. I’m amazed at the courage involved in visiting these places, and then the investigative thoroughness in exploring and explaining the possibilities.

The word resilience is gaining urgency and this book provides great insight into the deeper meaning of that word. I also appreciate how she highlights the human dimensions of her experience, both in terms of the people she meets who are agents of revitalization and the emotional responses that they and she have. Inevitably, there are such places close to where you live. After reading this book, you may view them differently. 

By Cal Flyn,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Islands of Abandonment as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A beautiful, lyrical exploration of the places where nature is flourishing in our absence

"[Flyn] captures the dread, sadness, and wonder of beholding the results of humanity's destructive impulse, and she arrives at a new appreciation of life, 'all the stranger and more valuable for its resilence.'" --The New Yorker

Some of the only truly feral cattle in the world wander a long-abandoned island off the northernmost tip of Scotland. A variety of wildlife not seen in many lifetimes has rebounded on the irradiated grounds of Chernobyl. A lush forest supports thousands of species that are extinct or endangered everywhere…

Book cover of Atlas of the Invisible: Maps and Graphics That Will Change How You See the World

Why did I love this book?

Sometimes we need much more than words. Maps, diagrams, and artistic illustrations often provide a comprehensive view. Over the last few years there’s been a conceptual transformation in the graphic arts, culminating in wonderful portfolios of visual illustrations depicting global environmental change. This new project, Atlas of the Invisible, is among the best. The title is crucial as so often the most important trends and patterns of our times are hard to ascertain, and even more difficult to synthesize and interpret. It is hard to perceive environmental change because of the scale at which it takes place. Atlas of the Invisible provides two hundred maps that portray the dimensions of these changes, helping to make them more clear and accessible, and in so doing, empowering the reader’s perceptual abilities.

Their previous work, Where the Animals Go is a brilliant series of maps depicting animal migration, and is also highly recommended. If you’d like to learn more about how to enhance your ability to perceive global environmental change, please check out my earlier book, Bringing the Biosphere Home

By James Cheshire, Oliver Uberti,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Award-winning geographer-designer team James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti transform enormous datasets into rich maps and cutting-edge visualizations. In this triumph of visual storytelling, they uncover truths about our past, reveal who we are today, and highlight what we face in the years ahead. With their joyfully inquisitive approach, Cheshire and Uberti explore happiness levels around the globe, trace the undersea cables and cell towers that connect us, examine hidden scars of geopolitics, and illustrate how a warming planet affects everything from hurricanes to the hajj. Years in the making, Atlas of the Invisible invites readers to marvel at the promise…

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