The best books about toxic heritage: pollution, politics, and why history matters

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m deeply concerned about the health of the planet and am puzzled by our failure to act. As someone who thinks a lot about museums and heritage (aka the stories we tell about ourselves), I’m intrigued by how we think about places of environmental harm as heritage and how we pay attention to the environmental impact of heritage sites like WWI battlefields, English ironworks, and Appalachian coal mines. Interrogating what we remember and what we forget illuminates the systems of power that benefit from ignoring environmental and social costs. My hope is that understanding the history of toxic harm points us to a more sustainable, just future.


I wrote...

Toxic Heritage: Legacies, Futures, and Environmental Injustice

By Elizabeth Kryder-Reid (editor), Sarah May (editor),

Book cover of Toxic Heritage: Legacies, Futures, and Environmental Injustice

What is my book about?

What is toxic heritage? Simply put, it is the legacy of harm humans have created. While it may include the harm of oppression, tragedies, and violence, it refers here specifically to the material harm of toxic residues in our air, water, and land and their effects on all life on the planet. Understanding environmental toxicity as heritage reckons both with the complex history of cultural practices, political economies, policies, structural racism, injustices, and ideologies, and with the way this history is remembered (or erased) in narratives, memory practices, and public discourse. This collection addresses how we understand toxic heritage and its impact, especially on the most vulnerable, with the premise that how we remember the past is critical to creating a more sustainable, equitable world.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Pollution Is Colonialism

Elizabeth Kryder-Reid Why did I love this book?

This book changed my thinking not just about pollution and its impact, but how scientific (and I would include historical) research itself often perpetuates colonial power dynamics. Its centering of Indigenous perspectives shifts thinking about plastic pollution by aligning it with Indigenous concepts of land, ethics, and relations.

By Max Liboiron,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In Pollution Is Colonialism Max Liboiron presents a framework for understanding scientific research methods as practices that can align with or against colonialism. They point out that even when researchers are working toward benevolent goals, environmental science and activism are often premised on a colonial worldview and access to land. Focusing on plastic pollution, the book models an anticolonial scientific practice aligned with Indigenous, particularly Metis, concepts of land, ethics, and relations. Liboiron draws on their work in the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR)-an anticolonial science laboratory in Newfoundland, Canada-to illuminate how pollution is not a symptom of…


Book cover of Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities

Elizabeth Kryder-Reid Why did I love this book?

The authors examine urban environmental harm in three US cities and the environmental and social cost of growth.

The powerful takeaway is their explanation of why this harm remains largely hidden – the “churning” of industry and residential areas and the political incentives to reward short-term gain and ignore long-term costs.

By Scott Frickel, James R Elliott,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2020 Robert E. Park Award for Best Book from the Community and Urban Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association

From a dive bar in New Orleans to a leafy residential street in Minneapolis, many establishments and homes in cities across the nation share a troubling and largely invisible past: they were once sites of industrial manufacturers, such as plastics factories or machine shops, that likely left behind carcinogens and other hazardous industrial byproducts. In Sites Unseen, sociologists Scott Frickel and James Elliott uncover the hidden histories of these sites to show how they are regularly produced…


Book cover of Industrial Ruination, Community and Place: Landscapes and Legacies of Urban Decline

Elizabeth Kryder-Reid Why did I love this book?

Alice Mah puts a human face on the legacy of derelict factories, shipyards, and other facilities in cities in the US, UK, and Russia, tracing a global story of the impact of deindustrialization on communities. She shows “landscapes of ruination” are vital complex places of changing economies, memory, and identity.

By Alice Mah,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Industrial Ruination, Community and Place as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Abandoned factories, shipyards, warehouses, and refineries are features of many industrialized cities around the world. But despite their state of decline, these derelict sites remain vitally connected with the urban landscapes that surround them. In this enlightening new book, Alice Mah explores the experiences of urban decline and post-industrial change in three different community contexts: Niagara Falls, Canada/USA; Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK; and Ivanovo, Russia. Employing a unique methodological approach that combines ethnographic, spatial, and documentary methods, Mah draws on international comparisons of the landscapes and legacies of industrial ruination over the past forty years. Through this, she foregrounds the complex challenges…


Book cover of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor

Elizabeth Kryder-Reid Why did I love this book?

Nixon’s concept of “slow violence” is one of the most useful for recognizing the long-term, and “slow motion urgency” of environmental damage.

His lucid storytelling highlights the environmentalism of marginalized communities. I’m inspired by his goal of changing how we think about the “deferred casualties of our poisonous, unsustainable practices.”

By Rob Nixon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The violence wrought by climate change, toxic drift, deforestation, oil spills, and the environmental aftermath of war takes place gradually and often invisibly. Using the innovative concept of "slow violence" to describe these threats, Rob Nixon focuses on the inattention we have paid to the attritional lethality of many environmental crises, in contrast with the sensational, spectacle-driven messaging that impels public activism today. Slow violence, because it is so readily ignored by a hard-charging capitalism, exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems and of people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntarily displaced, while fueling social conflicts that arise from desperation as…


Book cover of The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945

Elizabeth Kryder-Reid Why did I love this book?

A clear, detailed account of human’s relationship to the biosphere since WWII tracing the accelerating use of coal and oil. If carbon dioxide is one of the most significant pollutants affecting the planet, this book documents how we pumped it into the atmosphere and the resulting ecological disruption. 

By J. R. McNeill, Peter Engelke,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Earth has entered a new age-the Anthropocene-in which humans are the most powerful influence on global ecology. Since the mid-twentieth century, the accelerating pace of energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and population growth has thrust the planet into a massive uncontrolled experiment. The Great Acceleration explains its causes and consequences, highlighting the role of energy systems, as well as trends in climate change, urbanization, and environmentalism.

More than any other factor, human dependence on fossil fuels inaugurated the Anthropocene. Before 1700, people used little in the way of fossil fuels, but over the next two hundred years coal became…


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The Last Whaler

By Cynthia Reeves,

Book cover of The Last Whaler

Cynthia Reeves Author Of The Last Whaler

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Arctic adventurer Eternal optimist Unrealistic realist Foodie Teacher

Cynthia's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This book is an elegiac meditation on the will to survive. Tor, a beluga whaler, and his wife, Astrid, a botanist specializing in Arctic flora, are stranded during the dark season of 1937-38 at his remote whaling station in the Svalbard archipelago when they misjudge ice conditions and fail to rendezvous with the ship meant to carry them back to their home in southern Norway. 

Beyond enduring the Arctic winter’s twenty-four-hour night, the couple must cope with the dangers of polar bears, violent storms, and bitter cold, as well as Astrid’s unexpected pregnancy.

The Last Whaler concerns the impact of…

The Last Whaler

By Cynthia Reeves,

What is this book about?

The Last Whaler is an elegiac meditation on the will to survive under extreme conditions. Tor, a beluga whaler, and his wife, Astrid, a botanist specializing in Arctic flora, are stranded during the dark season of 1937-38 at his remote whaling station when they misjudge ice conditions and fail to rendezvous with the ship meant to carry them back to their home in southern Norway. Beyond enduring the Arctic winter's twenty-four-hour night, the couple must cope with the dangers of polar bears, violent storms, and bitter cold as well as Astrid's unexpected pregnancy. The Last Whaler concerns the impact of…


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