The Best Books About Environmental Catastrophes

The Books I Picked & Why

We Almost Lost Detroit

By John G. Fuller

We Almost Lost Detroit

Why this book?

We Almost Lost Detroit was published in the mid-1970s  at a time of growing concern over nuclear power in America that would reach a boiling point with the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania in 1979. There was no love lost between the two sides. Utility executives were believed to be liars trying to save their investment in a costly, difficult technology. Nuclear critics were portrayed by the industry as deluded tree-huggers. It was a real debate with real consequences, and this book shows why. The cover of the Ballantine paperback edition shows the terrified face of a man inside a radiation protective suit.


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Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals

By Michael Harold Brown

Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals

Why this book?

Brown lays out some of the major crises that fueled modern environmentalism and in so doing helps the reader to understand the passions that drove the movement. I remember when Lois Gibbs, a leader of the Love Canal residents, came to Centralia to give a pep talk to residents there about fighting government inaction.


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A Civil Action

By Jonathan Harr

A Civil Action

Why this book?

I recommended this book because it demonstrates how difficult it can be to obtain civil justice even in seemingly obvious cases of environmental harm.  Residents of Centralia, to hark back to that story, worked with a skilled (and pro bono) Washington law firm which, try as it did, could not find a likely road to win damages for them. While the book favors the cause of justice, Harr does not spare Schlichtman from exposure of his personal faults. A Civil Action is almost a primer on the litigation process, and is said to be taught in some law schools. The book, which could have been dry, is compelling reading, a model of narrative non-fiction. Haar makes it as much or more about the people involved as about the legal filings, and that is the key.


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Meltdown: A Race Against Nuclear Disaster at Three Mile Island: A Reporter's Story

By Wilborn Hampton

Meltdown: A Race Against Nuclear Disaster at Three Mile Island: A Reporter's Story

Why this book?

While this is not a comprehensive history of the TMI accident and its aftermath—none exists––you can happily read this book and understand the seriousness of what happened. It is not encumbered with anti-nuclear ideology, like some of the books written immediately after the accident were. It has many photos, a glossary of nuclear terms, and an index. 


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Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster

By Adam Higginbotham

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World's Greatest Nuclear Disaster

Why this book?

The world continues to consider nuclear power, despite the devastation to the nuclear industry caused by the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Nuclear power can play a part in fighting climate change, but we need to be aware of the risks as well as the rewards. Beyond that, it is a well-researched and dramatic story about the trauma that ensues when human communities are beset by environmental disasters.


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