The best books in environmental history

John Robert McNeill Author Of Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World
By John Robert McNeill

Who am I?

I’ve been reading and writing environmental history since I was trapped indoors on a rainy afternoon nearly 40 years ago and by chance pulled Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange off a bookshelf. I read it in one gulp (it’s a short book and the rain lingered) and I’ve never been the same since. I regard the environmental as the most fundamental sort of history, because it places humankind and our history in its full context. I love to learn about how humans and their environments affect one another and to read histories that treat both together—because in reality they have always been, and always will be, intertwined.  


I wrote...

Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

By John Robert McNeill,

Book cover of Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

What is my book about?

This is the kind of environmental history that describes changes to the world’s forests, fields, soils, lakes, rivers, water quality, air quality, wildlife, and cities—and tries to explain why those changes happened. It argues that the middle of the twentieth century marked a turning point in global environmental history because the scale, scope, and pace of environmental change accelerated markedly. The key reasons for that acceleration lay in the world’s energy system with fossil fuels at its center, in a sudden surge in population growth, in a relentlessly competitive international system, and in the resistance of economic management to ecological thinking. Even though the Times of London listed it among the best science books ever written, it’s a history book.  

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters

By Kate Brown,

Book cover of Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters

Why this book?

This book explores the history of two communities that during the Cold War devoted themselves to the production of nuclear weapons: Richland, Washington and Ozersk in Russia’s southern Urals. She calls this a “tandem history” because even though the towns existed in very different countries, the U.S. and the USSR, seeing them side-by-side reveals how much they had in common as a result of nuclear secrecy, accidents, and the privileges that came with working inside the jewel in the crown of a military-industrial complex. Brown is a skilled author and she inserts herself into her stories with travelogue segments that in the hands of a lesser writer might seem self-indulgent but in hers add texture to the historical fabric.

Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters

By Kate Brown,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

While many transnational histories of the nuclear arms race have been written, Kate Brown provides the first definitive account of the great plutonium disasters of the United States and the Soviet Union.

In Plutopia, Brown draws on official records and dozens of interviews to tell the extraordinary stories of Richland, Washington and Ozersk, Russia-the first two cities in the world to produce plutonium. To contain secrets, American and Soviet leaders created plutopias--communities of nuclear families living in highly-subsidized, limited-access atomic cities. Fully employed and medically monitored, the residents of Richland and Ozersk enjoyed all the pleasures of consumer society, while…


Ecological Imperialism

By Alfred W. Crosby,

Book cover of Ecological Imperialism

Why this book?

This is one of the classic books in environmental history. It expands upon his earlier work, The Columbian Exchange, and shows how European imperialism succeeded sooner and more fully in those parts of the world that were ecologically suited to the crops and weeds, domestic and wild animals, and disease-causing microbes that Europeans brought with them. Plants, animals, microbes, and human-operated as an unconscious team, helping one another get established in the temperate zones of the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand—to the great misfortune of the Indigenous populations of these lands.

Ecological Imperialism

By Alfred W. Crosby,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

People of European descent form the bulk of the population in most of the temperate zones of the world - North America, Australia and New Zealand. The military successes of European imperialism are easy to explain; in many cases they were a matter of firearms against spears. But as Alfred W. Crosby maintains in this highly original and fascinating book, the Europeans' displacement and replacement of the native peoples in the temperate zones was more a matter of biology than of military conquest. European organisms had certain decisive advantages over their New World and Australian counterparts. The spread of European…


The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail

By W. Jeffrey Bolster,

Book cover of The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail

Why this book?

Since the sea covers more than 70% of the globe, environmental historians ought to pay attention to it too, and Bolster does so like no other. He is himself a sailor and writes with an easy familiarity about storms and swells, codfish, and currents. The story here is about overfishing in the North Atlantic, beginning in European waters in medieval times, but moving quickly to the seas between Cape Cod and Newfoundland in the 17th to early 20th centuries. A wonderful blend of conventional historians’ sources with insights from marine biology.

The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail

By W. Jeffrey Bolster,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mortal Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since the Viking ascendancy in the Middle Ages, the Atlantic has shaped the lives of people who depend upon it for survival. And just as surely, people have shaped the Atlantic. In his innovative account of this interdependency, W. Jeffrey Bolster, a historian and professional seafarer, takes us through a millennium-long environmental history of our impact on one of the largest ecosystems in the world.

While overfishing is often thought of as a contemporary problem, Bolster reveals that humans were transforming the sea long before factory trawlers turned fishing from a handliner's art into an industrial enterprise. The western Atlantic's…


With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest

By Warren Dean,

Book cover of With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest

Why this book?

Sometimes environmental history is written with passion and outrage, and this is one such case. Brazil’s Atlantic forest is 90% gone now, and Dean explains how, why, and when that happened. He regards it as a tragedy, and his sorrow and anger enliven his writing. You probably know the ongoing story of the shrinking Amazon rainforest. Forest history is a major category within environmental history, and this is one of the best. The impact of Brazil’s leaf-cutter ants, which Dean explains, defies belief.

With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest

By Warren Dean,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked With Broadax and Firebrand as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Warren Dean chronicles the chaotic path to what could be one of the greatest natural disasters of modern times: the disappearance of the Atlantic Forest. A quarter the size of the Amazon Forest, and the most densely populated region in Brazil, the Atlantic Forest is now the most endangered in the world. It contains a great diversity of life forms, some of them found nowhere else, as well as the country's largest cities, plantations, mines, and industries. Continual clearing is ravaging most of the forested remnants. Dean opens his story with the hunter-gatherers of twelve thousand years ago and takes…


Sustaining Lake Superior: An Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World

By Nancy Langston,

Book cover of Sustaining Lake Superior: An Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World

Why this book?

This is the story of the world’s biggest freshwater lake from its origin up to today. Most of it focuses on the last two centuries, when Lake Superior changed fast under the impact of deforestation, mining, and industrialization around its shorelines. In the last 50 years or so, environmental regulation in the U.S. and Canada has substantially improved Lake Superior’s water quality, although new threats connected to climate change will require new conservation efforts. Langston lives on the shores of Lake Superior, and writes about it with intimate knowledge and boundless affection.

Sustaining Lake Superior: An Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World

By Nancy Langston,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sustaining Lake Superior as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A compelling exploration of Lake Superior's conservation recovery and what it can teach us in the face of climate change

Lake Superior, the largest lake in the world, has had a remarkable history, including resource extraction and industrial exploitation that caused nearly irreversible degradation. But in the past fifty years it has experienced a remarkable recovery and rebirth. In this important book, leading environmental historian Nancy Langston offers a rich portrait of the lake's environmental and social history, asking what lessons we should take from the conservation recovery as this extraordinary lake faces new environmental threats.

In her insightful exploration,…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Washington state, human geography, and Seattle?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Washington state, human geography, and Seattle.

Washington State Explore 53 books about Washington state
Human Geography Explore 7 books about human geography
Seattle Explore 53 books about Seattle

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Illness as Metaphor, In the Wake of the Plague, and Creatures of Empire if you like this list.