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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Michael Pollan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A farmer cultivates genetically modified potatoes so that a customer at McDonald's half a world away can enjoy a long, golden french fry. A gardener plants tulip bulbs in the autumn and in the spring has a riotous patch of colour to admire. Two simple examples of how humans act on nature to get what we want. Or are they? What if those potatoes and tulips have evolved to gratify certain human desires so that humans will help them multiply? What if, in other words, these plants are using us just as we use them? In blending history, memoir and…

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

Why did I love 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.

By William Cronon,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Nature's Metropolis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this groundbreaking work, William Cronon gives us an environmental perspective on the history of nineteenth-century America. By exploring the ecological and economic changes that made Chicago America's most dynamic city and the Great West its hinterland, Mr. Cronon opens a new window onto our national past. This is the story of city and country becoming ever more tightly bound in a system so powerful that it reshaped the American landscape and transformed American culture. The world that emerged is our own.

Winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize

Book cover of Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene

Why did I love 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.

By John R. Stilgoe,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Pathbreaking examination of the impact of railroads on American culture and the built environment. Prof. Stilgoe focuses on how the railroads created metropolitan corridors that not only shaped the landscape but also American attitudes towards industrial might, exploration of the countryside and Nature, and the possibility of an ordered and beautiful future. Illustrated throughout with black and white photos as well as drawings. With extensive notes. 397 pages with index.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Charles C. Mann,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In forty years, the population of the Earth will reach ten billion. Can our world support so many people? What kind of world will it be? In this unique, original and important book, Charles C. Mann illuminates the four great challenges we face - food, water, energy, climate change - through an exploration of the crucial work and wide-ranging influence of two little-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt.

Vogt (the Prophet) was the intellectual forefather of the environmental movement, and believed that in our using more than the planet has to give, our prosperity will bring us to…

Desert Solitaire

By Edward Abbey,

Book cover of Desert Solitaire

Why did I love 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.

By Edward Abbey,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked Desert Solitaire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'My favourite book about the wilderness' Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild

In this shimmering masterpiece of American nature writing, Edward Abbey ventures alone into the canyonlands of Moab, Utah, to work as a seasonal ranger for the United States National Park Service.

Living out of a trailer, Abbey captures in rapt, poetic prose the landscape of the desert; a world of terracotta earth, empty skies, arching rock formations, cliffrose, juniper, pinyon pine and sand sage. His summers become spirit quests, taking him in search of wild horses and Ancient Puebloan petroglyphs, up mountains and across tribal lands, and down the…

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