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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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).

By Aldo Leopold,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked A Sand County Almanac as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac has enthralled generations of nature lovers and conservationists and is indeed revered by everyone seriously interested in protecting the natural world. Hailed for prose that is "full of beauty and vigor and bite" (The New York Times), it is perhaps the finest example of nature writing since Thoreau's Walden.
Now this classic work is available in a completely redesigned and lavishly illustrated gift edition, featuring over one hundred beautiful full-color pictures by Michael Sewell, one of the country's leading nature photographers. Sewell, whose work has graced the pages of Audubon and Sierra magazines, walked…

Book cover of Coming Into the Country

Why did I love 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.

By John McPhee,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Coming Into the Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Coming into the Country is an unforgettable account of Alaska and Alaskans. It is a rich tapestry of vivid characters, observed landscapes, and descriptive narrative, in three principal segments that deal, respectively, with a total wilderness, with urban Alaska, and with life in the remoteness of the bush.

Readers of McPhee's earlier books will not be unprepared for his surprising shifts of scene and ordering of events, brilliantly combined into an organic whole. In the course of this volume we are made acquainted with the lore and techniques of placer mining, the habits and legends of the barren-ground grizzly, the…

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

Why did I love 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.  

By Bill McKibben,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Thirty years ago Bill McKibben offered one of the earliest warnings about climate change. Now he broadens the warning: the entire human game, he suggests, has begun to play itself out.

Bill McKibben's groundbreaking book The End of Nature -- issued in dozens of languages and long regarded as a classic -- was the first book to alert us to global warming. But the danger is broader than that: even as climate change shrinks the space where our civilization can exist, new technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics threaten to bleach away the variety of human experience.

Falter tells the…

Book cover of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Why did I love 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. 

By Elizabeth Kolbert,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Sixth Extinction as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions of life on earth.

Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Elizabeth Kolbert combines brilliant field reporting, the history of ideas and the work of geologists, botanists and marine biologists to tell the gripping stories of a dozen species - including the Panamanian golden frog and the Sumatran rhino - some already gone, others at the point of vanishing.

The sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most…

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 did I love 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.”

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

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Over the past five hundred years, North Americans have increasingly relied on mining to produce much of their material and cultural life. From cell phones and computers to cars, roads, pipes, pans, and even wall tile, mineral-intensive products have become central to North American societies. As this process has unfolded, mining has also indelibly shaped the natural world and the human societies within it. Mountains have been honeycombed, rivers poisoned, forests leveled, and the consequences of these environmental transformations have fallen unevenly across North America. Drawing on the work of scholars from Mexico, the United States, and Canada, Mining North…

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