The best environmental history books

3 authors have picked their favorite books about environmental history and why they recommend each book.

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The Wizard and the Prophet

By Charles C. Mann,

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

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.

The Wizard and the Prophet

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…


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.

Metropolitan Corridor

By John R. Stilgoe,

Book cover of Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene

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.

Metropolitan Corridor

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.


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.

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

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. 

The Bulldozer in the Countryside

By Adam Ward Rome,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The concern today about suburban sprawl is not new. In the decades after World War II, the spread of tract-house construction changed the nature of millions of acres of land, and a variety of Americans began to protest against the environmental costs of suburban development. By the mid-1960s, indeed, many of the critics were attempting to institutionalize an urban land ethic. The Bulldozer in the Countryside was the first scholarly work to analyze the successes and failures of the varied efforts to address the environmental consequences of suburban growth from 1945 to 1970. For scholars and students of American history,…


Who am I?

History is my passion as well as my profession. I love a good story! When I was teaching courses in environmental history and women’s history, I kept noticing the intriguing intersections, which inspired me to write Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers. Most of my work focuses on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (1877-1920) and includes two award-winning biographies, Fighting Bob La Follette and Belle La Follette Progressive Era Reformer. I’m also the co-editor of A Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and have written dozens of op-eds and give public talks (some of which can be found in the C-SPAN online library and on YouTube). 


I wrote...

Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History

By Nancy C. Unger,

Book cover of Beyond Nature's Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History

What is my book about?

This is not a presentation of “Great Women in Environmental History.” It instead focuses on how and why men and women frequently responded differently to the environment and environmental issues throughout American History. I argue that these differences are based not only in physiology, but also in cultural beliefs and practices. For example, even though a campfire seems pretty darn gender-neutral, in the 1920s Boy Scouts were taught that it stood for the camaraderie of the battlefield, factory, and office. Girl Scouts, on the other hand, learned that fire represented hearth and home.

In this illustrated study, a finalist for the California Book Award, I trace women’s environmental attitudes and actions from the pre-Columbian period to the environmental justice movements of the present. 

Escapism

By Yi-Fu Tuan,

Book cover of Escapism

Life is complicated and can be overwhelming. We all need to escape. We need to be able to escape anytime, anywhere. Grew up in China and trained in the West, Professor Tuan is one of those magicians who could blend different conceptual understandings of space and beliefs into a coherent narrative of how to overcome and escape from extenuating circumstances. Many of the Chinese perspectives he introduces in his book are refreshing and valuable not only to western readers but to many Chinese readers who have not thought about those ordinary things from an extraordinary angle like Professor Tuan. Ancient wisdom from a distant place can be relevant!

Escapism

By Yi-Fu Tuan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In prehistoric times, our ancestors began building shelters and planting crops in order to escape nature's harsh realities. Today, we flee urban dangers for the safer, reconfigured world of suburban lawns and parks. According to the author of this work, a cultural geographer, people have always sought to escape in one way or another, sometimes foolishly, often creatively and ingeniously. Glass-tower cities, xuburbs, shopping malls, Disneyland - all are among the most recent monuments the author identifies as efforts to escape the constraints and uncertainties of life - ultimately, those imposed by nature. "What cultural product," he asks, "is not…


Who am I?

I'm an archaeologist that is primarily interested in understanding ancient history of water. I have conducted fieldwork in China, Southeast Asia, and Africa. In my spare time, I enjoy writing novels (though never published any yet). This 24 Hours in Ancient China is a trial from this hobbit. I first became fascinated by Han China through a remarkable excavation at the Sanyangzhuang site where an almost intact Han-Dynasty farming village was preserved due to a Yellow River flood. Houses, mills, farming fields, and many other artefacts were revealed through the excavation. Subsequently, I was fortunate to be involved in some collaborative research on the environment and society of Han China. 


I wrote...

24 Hours in Ancient China: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There

By Yijie Zhuang,

Book cover of 24 Hours in Ancient China: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There

What is my book about?

I enjoyed writing this half-fiction half-history book. Han Dynasty represents a fascinating time in Chinese history. Whilst much has been written about its powerful ruling of the expanding territory and economic flourishment, little is known about the life of ordinary people during this time. 

I aim to redress the balance by bringing the everyday actions of ancient Chinese Han citizens vividly to life, using information from both the latest archaeological records and research, and traditional historical documents. When and where the data permits, I highlight, or dramatize, the social tension between the governors and the governed, male and female, wife and husband, and many other everyday interactions. This is to further illustrate that life was not as harmonious and frictionless as it is often depicted in mainstream historical narratives.

Book cover of With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest

Sometimes environmental history is written with passion and outrage, and this is one such case. Brazil’s Atlantic forest is 90% gone now, and Dean explains how, why, and when that happened. He regards it as a tragedy, and his sorrow and anger enliven his writing. You probably know the ongoing story of the shrinking Amazon rainforest. Forest history is a major category within environmental history, and this is one of the best. The impact of Brazil’s leaf-cutter ants, which Dean explains, defies belief.

With Broadax and Firebrand

By Warren Dean,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Warren Dean chronicles the chaotic path to what could be one of the greatest natural disasters of modern times: the disappearance of the Atlantic Forest. A quarter the size of the Amazon Forest, and the most densely populated region in Brazil, the Atlantic Forest is now the most endangered in the world. It contains a great diversity of life forms, some of them found nowhere else, as well as the country's largest cities, plantations, mines, and industries. Continual clearing is ravaging most of the forested remnants. Dean opens his story with the hunter-gatherers of twelve thousand years ago and takes…


Who am I?

I’ve been reading and writing environmental history since I was trapped indoors on a rainy afternoon nearly 40 years ago and by chance pulled Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange off a bookshelf. I read it in one gulp (it’s a short book and the rain lingered) and I’ve never been the same since. I regard the environmental as the most fundamental sort of history, because it places humankind and our history in its full context. I love to learn about how humans and their environments affect one another and to read histories that treat both together—because in reality they have always been, and always will be, intertwined.  


I wrote...

Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

By John Robert McNeill,

Book cover of Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

What is my book about?

This is the kind of environmental history that describes changes to the world’s forests, fields, soils, lakes, rivers, water quality, air quality, wildlife, and cities—and tries to explain why those changes happened. It argues that the middle of the twentieth century marked a turning point in global environmental history because the scale, scope, and pace of environmental change accelerated markedly. The key reasons for that acceleration lay in the world’s energy system with fossil fuels at its center, in a sudden surge in population growth, in a relentlessly competitive international system, and in the resistance of economic management to ecological thinking. Even though the Times of London listed it among the best science books ever written, it’s a history book.  

The Yellow River

By Ruth Mostern,

Book cover of The Yellow River: A Natural and Unnatural History

Long being considered the ‘mother river’ of the Chinese civilization, the Yellow River has attracted intensive scientific research in the past decades. In this new book, Ruth Mostern aims to provide a new look of this old river with a special focus on how ancient people along the river from very early period onwards had started systematic engineering the river for various purposes. Some of the aspects discussed by Mostern, such as the frequency of Yellow River floods and their social ramifications, are also relevant to understand some of the stories that I articulated in my own book. 

The Yellow River

By Ruth Mostern,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A three-thousand-year history of China's Yellow River and the legacy of interactions between humans and the natural landscape

"No other scholar has produced such a systematic, comprehensive account of the long-term changes in the river's function and structure. I consider it to be the definitive work on the topic of the Yellow River to date."-Peter C. Perdue, author of China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia

From Neolithic times to the present day, the Yellow River and its watershed have both shaped and been shaped by human society. Using the Yellow River to illustrate the long-term effects of…


Who am I?

I'm an archaeologist that is primarily interested in understanding ancient history of water. I have conducted fieldwork in China, Southeast Asia, and Africa. In my spare time, I enjoy writing novels (though never published any yet). This 24 Hours in Ancient China is a trial from this hobbit. I first became fascinated by Han China through a remarkable excavation at the Sanyangzhuang site where an almost intact Han-Dynasty farming village was preserved due to a Yellow River flood. Houses, mills, farming fields, and many other artefacts were revealed through the excavation. Subsequently, I was fortunate to be involved in some collaborative research on the environment and society of Han China. 


I wrote...

24 Hours in Ancient China: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There

By Yijie Zhuang,

Book cover of 24 Hours in Ancient China: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There

What is my book about?

I enjoyed writing this half-fiction half-history book. Han Dynasty represents a fascinating time in Chinese history. Whilst much has been written about its powerful ruling of the expanding territory and economic flourishment, little is known about the life of ordinary people during this time. 

I aim to redress the balance by bringing the everyday actions of ancient Chinese Han citizens vividly to life, using information from both the latest archaeological records and research, and traditional historical documents. When and where the data permits, I highlight, or dramatize, the social tension between the governors and the governed, male and female, wife and husband, and many other everyday interactions. This is to further illustrate that life was not as harmonious and frictionless as it is often depicted in mainstream historical narratives.

Changes in the Land

By William Cronon,

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

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.  

Changes in the Land

By William Cronon,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Changes in the Land as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The book that launched environmental history, William Cronon's Changes in the Land, now revised and updated.

Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize

In this landmark work of environmental history, William Cronon offers an original and profound explanation of the effects European colonists' sense of property and their pursuit of capitalism had upon the ecosystems of New England. Reissued here with an updated afterword by the author and a new preface by the distinguished colonialist John Demos, Changes in the Land, provides a brilliant inter-disciplinary interpretation of how land and people influence one another. With its chilling closing line, "The people…


Who am I?

Ever since my childhood growing up off-grid in rural Maine, I’ve been fascinated by the natural world. Out of that fascination grew an abiding interest in weaving people and the landscape back together, something I’ve focused on and explored for over two decades, both personally and in my capacity as a landscape designer. The books I’ve shared here all provided me with know-how and perspective that has inspired me to pursue ecological regeneration. If you’re interested in these topics you won’t be disappointed! 


I wrote...

Lawns Into Meadows: Growing a Regenerative Landscape

By Owen Wormser,

Book cover of Lawns Into Meadows: Growing a Regenerative Landscape

What is my book about?

Landscape designer Owen Wormser explains how to replace the dead scapes we call lawns with attractive, eco-friendly meadows. This is a how-to book on meadow-making that's also about sustainability, regeneration, and beauty. In a world where lawns have wreaked havoc on our ecosystems, meadows offer a compelling solution. Meadows establish wildlife and pollinator habitat, are low-maintenance and low-cost while also sequestering significant amounts of carbon.

Wormser describes how to plant a meadow that’s right for your site. His book includes guidance on designing your meadow, preparing your plot, and planting without using chemicals. Wormser draws on his own stories that led him to landscape design and meadow making, including his childhood growing up off the grid in rural Maine.

The Mortal Sea

By W. Jeffrey Bolster,

Book cover of The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail

Since the sea covers more than 70% of the globe, environmental historians ought to pay attention to it too, and Bolster does so like no other. He is himself a sailor and writes with an easy familiarity about storms and swells, codfish, and currents. The story here is about overfishing in the North Atlantic, beginning in European waters in medieval times, but moving quickly to the seas between Cape Cod and Newfoundland in the 17th to early 20th centuries. A wonderful blend of conventional historians’ sources with insights from marine biology.

The Mortal Sea

By W. Jeffrey Bolster,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Since the Viking ascendancy in the Middle Ages, the Atlantic has shaped the lives of people who depend upon it for survival. And just as surely, people have shaped the Atlantic. In his innovative account of this interdependency, W. Jeffrey Bolster, a historian and professional seafarer, takes us through a millennium-long environmental history of our impact on one of the largest ecosystems in the world.

While overfishing is often thought of as a contemporary problem, Bolster reveals that humans were transforming the sea long before factory trawlers turned fishing from a handliner's art into an industrial enterprise. The western Atlantic's…


Who am I?

I’ve been reading and writing environmental history since I was trapped indoors on a rainy afternoon nearly 40 years ago and by chance pulled Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange off a bookshelf. I read it in one gulp (it’s a short book and the rain lingered) and I’ve never been the same since. I regard the environmental as the most fundamental sort of history, because it places humankind and our history in its full context. I love to learn about how humans and their environments affect one another and to read histories that treat both together—because in reality they have always been, and always will be, intertwined.  


I wrote...

Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

By John Robert McNeill,

Book cover of Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World

What is my book about?

This is the kind of environmental history that describes changes to the world’s forests, fields, soils, lakes, rivers, water quality, air quality, wildlife, and cities—and tries to explain why those changes happened. It argues that the middle of the twentieth century marked a turning point in global environmental history because the scale, scope, and pace of environmental change accelerated markedly. The key reasons for that acceleration lay in the world’s energy system with fossil fuels at its center, in a sudden surge in population growth, in a relentlessly competitive international system, and in the resistance of economic management to ecological thinking. Even though the Times of London listed it among the best science books ever written, it’s a history book.  

Records of the Grand Historian

By Sima Qian, Burton Watson (translator),

Book cover of Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty I

More than 2000 years later, Sima Qian’s masterwork remains the most crucial source of the Han-Dynasty history. He explained his intention of writing this immortal history, "I wish to examine into all that concerns heaven and man, to penetrate the changes of the past and present, and to establish my own view of history." Although it was inevitable that legendary kings, emperors, and elites were the main focus of the book, Sima unprecedentedly dedicated some chapters to not so important people before or of his time. The book produces a wide list of famous stories and idioms, many of which are still well-known or used in contemporary Chinese society. 

Records of the Grand Historian

By Sima Qian, Burton Watson (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Records of the Grand Historian as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sima Qian (145?-90? BCE) was the first major Chinese historian. His Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, documents the history of China and its neighboring countries from the ancient past to his own time. These three volumes cover the Qin and Han dynasties.


Who am I?

I'm an archaeologist that is primarily interested in understanding ancient history of water. I have conducted fieldwork in China, Southeast Asia, and Africa. In my spare time, I enjoy writing novels (though never published any yet). This 24 Hours in Ancient China is a trial from this hobbit. I first became fascinated by Han China through a remarkable excavation at the Sanyangzhuang site where an almost intact Han-Dynasty farming village was preserved due to a Yellow River flood. Houses, mills, farming fields, and many other artefacts were revealed through the excavation. Subsequently, I was fortunate to be involved in some collaborative research on the environment and society of Han China. 


I wrote...

24 Hours in Ancient China: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There

By Yijie Zhuang,

Book cover of 24 Hours in Ancient China: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There

What is my book about?

I enjoyed writing this half-fiction half-history book. Han Dynasty represents a fascinating time in Chinese history. Whilst much has been written about its powerful ruling of the expanding territory and economic flourishment, little is known about the life of ordinary people during this time. 

I aim to redress the balance by bringing the everyday actions of ancient Chinese Han citizens vividly to life, using information from both the latest archaeological records and research, and traditional historical documents. When and where the data permits, I highlight, or dramatize, the social tension between the governors and the governed, male and female, wife and husband, and many other everyday interactions. This is to further illustrate that life was not as harmonious and frictionless as it is often depicted in mainstream historical narratives.

Nature's Metropolis

By William Cronon,

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

This classic work on economic geography by William Cronon demonstrates how the city of Chicago and the American West developed together. It is a history of the relationship Chicago had with the rest of America in the nineteenth century by looking at the flow of grain, lumber, and meat. The key role of the railroads is also featured as well.

Nature's Metropolis

By William Cronon,

Why should I read it?

3 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


Who am I?

One of the oldest questions is: why are some countries rich and some countries poor? Adam Smith famously answered that it was the division of labor (specialization) and trade in his book The Wealth of Nations. The more you study trade, however, the more complicated the answer becomes. I have been grappling with this question since the 1990s, as a student, and I still do not have a simple answer like Adam Smith. However, I think I have come up with a framework to understand how the economic history of the world developed and I have been teaching that global history in college as a professor since the 2010s.


I wrote...

Yokohama and the Silk Trade: How Eastern Japan Became the Primary Economic Region of Japan, 1843-1893

By Yasuhiro Makimura,

Book cover of Yokohama and the Silk Trade: How Eastern Japan Became the Primary Economic Region of Japan, 1843-1893

What is my book about?

This study provides a broad political and economic examination of the impact of the silk trade on nineteenth-century Japan. It analyzes the economic role of Japan’s eastern interior region and that of the port of Yokohama. It argues that the economic development in this period laid the foundations for Japan’s prewar industrial development in the late nineteenth century and was largely responsible for the integration of Japan into the global economy.

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