The best books to understand American environmental history

Patrick N. Allitt Author Of A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism
By Patrick N. Allitt

Who am I?

I am a history professor at Emory University. I was born and raised in England and feel equally at home in Britain and America. I’ve written six books on religious, political, and environmental history and one on my life as a college professor. I’ve also made eleven recorded lecture series with The Great Courses, on a wide variety of topics, including a series on the History of the Industrial Revolution and a series titled The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales.

I wrote...

A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism

By Patrick N. Allitt,

Book cover of A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism

What is my book about?

The book is an intellectual history of American environmentalism since World War II. I argue that environmentalism arose as an organized political response to citizens’ concerns about pollution, resource depletion, overpopulation, and climate change. “Crisis” rhetoric often overstated the severity of these problems but was useful in provoking legislation and regulatory oversight, much of which has succeeded in mitigating the worst problems.

We live in a far cleaner and healthier environment than our parents and grandparents, enjoy better national parks, recreational opportunities, health, and longevity. Severe problems still confront us but our achievements over the last seventy years show that there’s as much cause for hope as for gloom.

The books I picked & why

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The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

By Michael Pollan,

Book cover of The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

Why this book?

Pollan is one of those luminously intelligent people who create the illusion that writing is effortless and fun, even while delivering great jolts of new insight about the natural world. Taking four plants—apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana—he shows how people have cultivated and transformed them through the centuries, how they shape our agriculture and consumption patterns, and how we should assess the good and bad sides of genetic engineering.

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

By William Cronon,

Book cover of Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

Why this book?

Cronon, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, explains how Chicago grew up in a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding rural states. He argues that environmental historians have got to be as interested in cities as they are in the wilderness and that one of the central themes of American history is the transformation of things that grow (including animals and plants) into abstract commodities that can be bought and sold in bulk. No one has done more than Cronon to advance the intelligent study of environmental history and to create for it a sophisticated theoretical framework. This book is incomparably rich but also dense: I’ve been returning to it constantly ever since it came out thirty years ago.

Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene

By John R. Stilgoe,

Book cover of Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene

Why this book?

Railroads usually show up in American history books when they’re just getting started (1830), linking up the two coasts (1869), or going into catastrophic decline in competition with cars, trucks, and aircraft (the 1960s). Stilgoe, a professor of environmental design at Harvard, is much more interested in their long dominance from the 1860s to the 1950s and how they facilitated the development of American cities, the siting of power stations, the development of suburbs, and the rise of industrial parks. Nothing’s too humble and grimy to escape his notice. In one bravura passage, he even explains the truth behind the “Valley of Ashes” in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World

By Charles C. Mann,

Book cover of The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World

Why this book?

Here is a double biography that every environmentalist should read. One of its subjects is William Vogt, a grim pessimist who thought the twentieth-century world was blundering toward self-destruction because of human industrial hubris. The other is Norman Borlaug, an optimistic plant scientist whose work with crop hybrids was central to the “green revolution” that massively increased world food supplies and diminished the danger of famine. Mann explains the internal logic of each man’s work, their strengths, and their weaknesses, and compels readers to question their own cherished assumptions about the environment, humanity, and the future.

Desert Solitaire

By Edward Abbey,

Book cover of Desert Solitaire

Why this book?

Abbey was an exuberant, high-spirited nature lover, slightly nuts, who worked as a park ranger in the early 1960s at Arches National Monument. This book is a brilliant evocation of the desert landscape, and an explanation of why he wanted the area not to be developed for motorized tourists.  Abbey also wrote fantasies about sabotaging road-building and mining projects, which made him an inspirational figure to the protest movement EarthFirst! His writing is always thought-provoking, even when, as often happened, he was wrong.

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