The best environmental history books 📚

Browse the best books on environmental history as recommended by authors, experts, and creators. Along with notes on why they recommend those books.

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

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

By Charles C. Mann

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.

From the list:

The best books to understand American environmental history

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Book cover of The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism

The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism

By Adam Ward Rome

Why this book?

Adam Rome examines an underappreciated topic in environmental history: the environmental costs of the ever-growing American suburbs. Mass migration to the suburbs coincided with the rise of the environmental movement. That convergence was followed by political controversy, and ultimately codes, regulations, and guidelines. Rome is a great storyteller who reveals important shifts in growth management and environmental policy. 

From the list:

The best books on the environmental history of the United States

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

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

By Michael Pollan

Why this book?

Pollan sets out to explore the nature of four very human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—through a quartet of plants that satisfy those very needs: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. What he gently imparts to his readers during the course of these investigations is that plants can muster a lot more resources, intelligence, and agency than most people ever imagined. 

From the list:

The best books about the interwoven lifeways of plants and people

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Book cover of Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene

Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene

By John R. Stilgoe

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…

From the list:

The best books to understand American environmental history

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Book cover of Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England

Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England

By William Cronon

Why this book?

When European colonists settled North America, they began to significantly alter the landscape in ways that were deeply ignorant of ecological health. Now, over 400 years later, that impact has not lessened. However, over that time, there have been significant ebbs and flows in the landscape relative to how it’s used (or not used). This fascinating book follows that trajectory as it explores the environmental history of New England. Even for those not familiar with this particular region, this book offers a unique window into how dynamic and fluid landscapes and ecosystems can be over the course of time.  

From the list:

The best books about regeneration, our relationship with the landscape, and restoring ecological health

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Book cover of American Environmental History: An Introduction

American Environmental History: An Introduction

By Carolyn Merchant

Why this book?

There are many general introductions to American environmental history. This one, by a pioneering leader in the field, is excellent. The comprehensive narrative provides a good mix of facts and interpretation, and Merchant provides as well a list of agencies, concepts, laws, and people, in addition to resource guides to print, film, video, archival, and electronic sources, plus bibliographies and essays on a variety of topics

From the list:

The best books on the environmental history of the United States

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