The best books for understanding the environmental movement in America

David Stradling and Richard Stradling Author Of Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland
By David Stradling and Richard Stradling

Who are we?

We grew up, brothers, in Cleveland’s Ohio antipode – Cincinnati – and so we knew Cleveland mostly in contrast to our home. Despite the many differences, both cities experienced the urban crisis. Richard, a journalist, was drawn to the story of Cleveland’s frequently burning river. How did the Cuyahoga become a poster child for the environmental movement? And David, an environmental historian, was drawn to Carl Stokes, a Black man with the skills to become mayor of a predominantly white city in 1968. How did he propose to solve the many problems running through the urban environment? We both wanted to know what Cleveland’s changing relationship with its river could tell us about environmental politics. 

We wrote...

Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland

By David Stradling and Richard Stradling,

Book cover of Where the River Burned: Carl Stokes and the Struggle to Save Cleveland

What is our book about?

In Where the River Burned, we describe Cleveland’s transition from polluted industrial city to viable service city. In the 1960s, Cleveland suffered through racial violence, spiking crime rates, and a shrinking tax base, as the city lost jobs and population. Rats infested an expanding and decaying ghetto, Lake Erie appeared to be dying, and dangerous air pollution. When the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, the city was at its nadir. The burning river became the emblem of all that was wrong with the urban environment in industrial America.

We tell this story through the lens of Carl Stokes, the first Black mayor of a major U.S. city. The story culminates with the first Earth Day in 1970 and a new commitment to the creation of a cleaner, more healthful city.

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The books we picked & why

Book cover of Encounters with the Archdruid

Why did I love this book?

The “archdruid” in John McPhee’s 1971 narrative nonfiction book Encounters with the Archdruid is David Brower, the ardent, at times militant conservationist who spent the latter half of the 20th century fighting to protect wilderness and wild places from commercial exploitation. McPhee profiles Brower with characteristic depth and detail by bringing him together with three foes: a mineral engineer set on mining in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in the Cascade mountains of Washington; a real estate developer who hoped to build homes on what is now Cumberland Island National Seashore, and the commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which, despite opposition from Brower and others, dammed the spectacular Glen Canyon on the Colorado River to create Lake Powell in northern Arizona and southern Utah.

McPhee arranges for Brower and the commissioner, Floyd Dominy, to take a rafting trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon and later a boat ride on Lake Powell. When McPhee proposed the trip to him, Dominy likened Brower to a steer he once had on his farm in Virginia that refused to get in the truck to go to market – “an independent bastard that nobody could corral.” In the end, Dominy said, “I shot him right in the head and butchered him myself. That’s the only way I could get rid of the bastard.”

By John McPhee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Encounters with the Archdruid as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The narratives in this book are of journeys made in three wildernesses - on a coastal island, in a Western mountain range, and on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The four men portrayed here have different relationships to their environment, and they encounter each other on mountain trails, in forests and rapids, sometimes with reserve, sometimes with friendliness, sometimes fighting hard across a philosophical divide.

Book cover of To Save the Land and People: A History of Opposition to Surface Coal Mining in Appalachia

Why did I love this book?

Chad Montrie has written a series of books exploring the unsung corners of environmentalism. Actually, that’s not fair. He’s explored the center of environmentalism – the activism of the poor, the working class, the average people who have fought to protect their families, their homes, their health. In To Save the Land and People, Montrie takes us into the hollows of Appalachia, where disempowered people did everything they could – even to the point of destroying bulldozers and threatening violence – to protect their communities. Montrie’s work reminds us of the struggles in Cleveland’s disempowered neighborhoods, where efforts to improve the environment often go unnoticed and lead to few successes. 

By Chad Montrie,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked To Save the Land and People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Surface coal mining has had a dramatic impact on the Appalachian economy and ecology since World War II, exacerbating the region's chronic unemployment and destroying much of its natural environment. Here, Chad Montrie examines the twentieth-century movement to outlaw surface mining in Appalachia, tracing popular opposition to the industry from its inception through the growth of a militant movement that engaged in acts of civil disobedience and industrial sabotage. Both comprehensive and comparative, To Save the Land and People chronicles the story of surface mining opposition in the whole region, from Pennsylvania to Alabama. Though many accounts of environmental activism…

Book cover of Make It a Green Peace! The Rise of Countercultural Environmentalism

Why did I love this book?

The history of politics can be dry stuff. But Frank Zelko is a natural storyteller – and a gifted historian. His subjects, Greenpeace and the men and women who formed it, provide access to the evolution of North American environmentalism from the 1960s through the 1980s. In vivid detail, Zelko narrates the drama at the heart of the Greenpeace strategy, the “mind bombs” that would activate citizens around the globe to stop whaling – at least mostly. Zelko makes us feel the urgency among these activists, their fear of nuclear testing, and their love of whales. Even among this relatively small group of activists, however, personality conflicts and philosophical differences reveal the difficulty of creating and maintaining a countercultural organization. For many of these folks, organization is not their thing. But action was. And throughout, Zelko’s fine-grained narrative reminds us that individual action is at the heart of all political movements.  

By Frank Zelko,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Make It a Green Peace! The Rise of Countercultural Environmentalism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The emergence of Greenpeace in the late 1960s from a loose-knit group of anti-nuclear and anti-whaling activists fundamentally changed the nature of environmentalism-its purpose, philosophy, and tactics-around the world. And yet there has been no comprehensive objective history of Greenpeace's origins-until now.

Make It a Green Peace! draws upon meeting minutes, internal correspondence, manifestos, philosophical writings, and interviews with former members to offer the first full account of the origins of what has become the most recognizable environmental non-governmental organization in the world. Situating Greenpeace within the peace movement and counterculture of the 1960s, Frank Zelko provides a much deeper…

Book cover of The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City

Why did I love this book?

The subtitle to Robert Sullivan’s The Meadowlands is Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City, and it’s Sullivan’s adventures exploring the vast New Jersey wetlands that make the book so entertaining. But Sullivan is right to use the word “wilderness” to describe the 32 square miles of swamp, landfills, and rusting industrial debris along the Hackensack River where it flows into Newark Bay just five miles from the Empire State Building in New York City. Like the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, the Meadowlands have been abused and degraded for centuries but also show the resilience of nature and how people’s attitudes toward it have changed. “Now it is a good place to see a black-crowned night heron or a pied-bill grebe or eighteen species of ladybugs,” Sullivan writes, “even if some of the waters these creatures fly over can oftentimes be the color of antifreeze.” Sullivan’s loving description of a damaged place helped us see the Cuyahoga through different eyes.

By Robert Sullivan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Imagine a grungy north Jersey version of John McPhee's classic The Pine Barrens and you'll get some idea of the idiosyncratic, fact-filled, and highly original work that is Robert Sullivan's The Meadowlands.  Just five miles west of New York City, this vilified, half-developed, half-untamed, much dumped-on, and sometimes odiferous tract of swampland is home to rare birds and missing bodies, tranquil marshes and a major sports arena, burning garbage dumps and corporate headquarters, the remains of the original Penn Station--and maybe, just ,maybe, of the late Jimmy Hoffa.  Robert Sullivan proves himself to be this fragile yet amazingly resilient region's…

Book cover of The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump

Why did I love this book?

Of all the changes in environmental politics since the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, perhaps the most perplexing – and disappointing – is the Republican turn away from environmental protection. From the Reagan Administration through the Trump regime, the Republican Party has staked the claim not just to passivity toward environmental regulation but has engaged in an all-out assault on government protection of the human and nonhuman environment. Turner and Isenberg make sense of this policy turn, emphasizing the roles of libertarian ideologues, multinational corporations with a stake in the status quo, and rural Americans who tired of federal intrusions in their lives and livelihoods. As aspects of the urban crisis have eased, and specific places like the Cuyahoga River have improved, environmental activists would do well to figure out how to make environmental protection bipartisan once again.

By James Morton Turner, Andrew C. Isenberg,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Not long ago, Republicans could take pride in their party's tradition of environmental leadership. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the GOP helped to create the Environmental Protection Agency, extend the Clean Air Act, and protect endangered species. Today, as Republicans denounce climate change as a "hoax" and seek to dismantle the environmental regulatory state they worked to build, we are left to wonder: What happened?

In The Republican Reversal, James Morton Turner and Andrew C. Isenberg show that the party's transformation began in the late 1970s, with the emergence of a new alliance of pro-business, libertarian, and anti-federalist…

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