The best books about living with the threat of environmental collapse

The Books I Picked & Why

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

By Terry Tempest Williams

Book cover of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

Why this book?

Since Virgil’s Georgics, nature writing has largely consisted of dispatches of pastoral splendor to soothe the jangled urban soul. It tended to be nostalgic for a lost Arcadia, some former, purer world. Writing about the sky, it didn’t mention the contrails. In a time of mass extinction and climate change, to remain relevant, nature writing needed to address the actual situation, but how to do it without being so depressing no one would read it? Terry Tempest Williams made this shift in a profound and beautiful way with this first book, edited by the late Dan Frank. How Williams pulled this off was on a shortlist of inspirations when I wrote Nature Noir.

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The Control of Nature

By John McPhee

Book cover of The Control of Nature

Why this book?

In a series of long-form journalist pieces, McPhee visits places where human beings are at war with natural forces: the long attempt to control the course of the Mississippi River and its floods, Icelanders trying to control lava flows with hoses, and a system of hardened channels and containments for massive mud and debris flows pouring down from the mountains behind Los Angeles. McPhee is at the height of his powers in this book, with his acerbic wit allowing the heroic futility of these manipulations to speak for itself.

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A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There

By Aldo Leopold

Book cover of A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There

Why this book?

Published posthumously after Aldo Leopold’s 1948 death, A Sand County Almanac reflects Leopold’s hands-on experiences with ecology, from his early work for the Forest Service to his restoration of a mistreated farm near Baraboo, Wisconsin. Although Leopold co-invented (with Arthur Carhart) the “leave it alone” land management scheme of Forest Service wilderness, his mature philosophy differs in fundamental ways from John Muir. Muir was in favor of leaving nature alone to sort itself out. Leopold, whose career reached its apotheosis at the time of the 1930s Dust Bowl, understood us to live in a damaged world and charged us with deliberately manipulating natural systems back to health. There are multiple editions in print. This one has additional essays and is edited by Leopold’s biographer, Curt Meine.

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The End of Nature

By Bill McKibben

Book cover of The End of Nature

Why this book?

McKibben started covering climate change for the New Yorker in the late 1980s. The title of his 1989 The End of Nature encompasses the idea that if we were to finish what we started with greenhouse gasses, nothing would be “natural” anymore. McKibben considered the subject so important that he has continued to speak and organize about it ever since. This book reminds us that we knew enough three decades ago to act. The ensuing delay was a deeply cynical and ultimately fatal mix of propaganda designed to give the impression that climate change was scientifically questionable or controversial, produced by a syndicate of carbon industry giants such as Exxon-Mobil, “conservative” think-tanks like The Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, and the Republican Party.

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By Edward Bernays

Book cover of Propaganda

Why this book?

To understand how we came to the brink of global environmental collapse while significant numbers of Americans were distracted enough to believe gay marriage or women’s sovereignty over their own reproductive systems were greater threats, read Bernays’s slim 1928 volume. Bernays, who was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, begins by referring to “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” He goes on: “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism…constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed our ideas suggested…” Bernays new science of thought control was fully weaponized before the internet. Social media just turbocharged it, and plowed and planted the field of our vulnerability.

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