The best books about the environment for the age of global warming

Kenneth O'Reilly Author Of Asphalt: A History
By Kenneth O'Reilly

Who am I?

When I left Wisconsin and arrived for a position at the University of Alaska Anchorage, I was struck by the state’s nearly manic fear of low prices for the oil flowing from Prudhoe Bay through the Alaska (or North Slope) oil pipeline. Years later I returned to Wisconsin and quickly learned that there was relatively little interest in a pipeline that ran down the entire state in the manner of the Alaska pipeline. Only this pipeline carried synthetic crude made from natural asphalt hacked or melted out of the ground in Alberta, Canada. My interest in the environmental and political aspects of that pipeline set me on the path to a book about asphalt.


I wrote...

Asphalt: A History

By Kenneth O'Reilly,

Book cover of Asphalt: A History

What is my book about?

The asphalt on approximately 94 percent of paved roads in the United States has a chemical cousin in the oil sands (or tar sands) of Alberta, Canada. Oil companies are converting that natural asphalt (called bitumen in Canada) into synthetic crude oil ("syncrude") or diluting it with chemicals ("dilbit") so it can ship south via pipeline through Wisconsin and into storage tanks in Illinois. Refineries are the end destination. Gasoline is the end product. 

Global warming imagery has the earth bleeding co2 and consumed by God knows what. Wildfire and rising sea? War and famine? Pandemic now and pandemic from now on? Asphalt helped shape our environment in so many ways. Now, it might help destroy our environment in one simple way.

The books I picked & why

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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?

Largely forgotten when first published, Sand County rose to prominence after the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and since then it is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Thoreau’s Walden and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I rediscovered this book after beginning work on my current project—a history of family dairy farmers and their struggles against endless enemies. I also have a geographic connection as I now live in Wisconsin and Leopold taught at the University of Wisconsin for many years and was research director of the UW Arboretum (which has over a dozen miles of trails where one of my sons once ran nearly every day with the UW cross country team).


Coming Into the Country

By John McPhee,

Book cover of Coming Into the Country

Why this book?

Regarding the Alaska portion of my life, I arrived after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 and after Prudhoe Bay oil started flowing through the pipeline on June 20, 1977. Because Coming into the Country was published in 1976, the book gives us a timely account of the nation’s Last Frontier before the Settlement Act and big oil changed everything from the villages of the bush to urban Alaska. By the time everything changed again with the Exxon Valdez oil spill of March 24, 1989, I was a full-bore Alaskan who had worked my way up the tenure track at the university in Anchorage.


Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

By Bill McKibben,

Book cover of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

Why this book?

Arguably, Bill McKibben has been this nation’s preeminent environmentalist since 1989 when he published The End of Nature. Falter is his latest book and it is a numbing take on our species and how we have damaged the environment, perhaps, to the point of no return. On the other hand, McKibben is as much an activist as an environmentalist and as such he cannot and, so far at least, has not lost hope no matter how dire the straits.  


The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

By Elizabeth Kolbert,

Book cover of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Why this book?

Any book by this writer makes a good read but this one rise above the others—and that is no small feat. This is an odd way to put it but the book brings to life the five catastrophic events that decimated so many species over the course of geological time. The idea of a sixth catastrophic event causing another mass extinction can be seen in human time because human activity is driving the catastrophe. Though it is true that the earth has always had climate change with global warming and cooling, this book shows how dangerous that plain fact can be without context. 


Mining North America: An Environmental History Since 1522

By John Robert McNeill (editor), George Vrtis (editor),

Book cover of Mining North America: An Environmental History Since 1522

Why this book?

This anthology makes the case that an empire of extraction has existed from the dawn of the colonial era until deep into the 21st Century. The essays in the “Health and Environmental Justice” section are both fascinating and disturbing. And how could they not be disturbing with such words as these in chapter titles? “Uranium Mine and Mine Tailings.” “Arsenic Pollution.” “Quebec Asbestos.” Nearly every chapter in this section emphasizes the impact on indigenous populations with the chapter title on the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, being particularly stark. It opens with this: “If the Rivers Ran South.”


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