The best environmental issue books

5 authors have picked their favorite books about environmental issues and why they recommend each book.

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Winning the Green New Deal

By Guido Girgenti, Varshini Prakash,

Book cover of Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can

I was one in a world of frustrated and increasingly anxious people back in 2018. Politicians just weren’t talking about the severity of the environmental crisis and the vast actions that we need (and can) undertake to tackle it. And then Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and Fridays for the Future, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal, and the Sunrise Movement came along. Suddenly everyone was talking about it. This set of essays brings so many of those thinkers and doers together to give us an inspiring road map for getting out of the crisis and realizing a better world in the process. And it shows us that these movements are built on the shoulders of giants, particularly in the global south. 

Who am I?

I research, write and speak about the global environmental emergency and the policies and politics we need to adequately respond. Drawing on a decade of experience in academia, activism, and policymaking, my work explores the leadership needed to transition to more sustainable and equitable societies while contending with the growing destabilisation resulting from the worsening environmental crisis. I’ve worked at a range of leading policy research organisations and universities and have won awards for my work. I’ve got a BSc in physics and an MPhil in economies from the University of Oxford. 

I wrote...

Planet on Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown

By Laurie Laybourn-Langton, Mathew Lawrence,

Book cover of Planet on Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown

What is my book about?

The political status quo has no answer to the devastating and inequitably distributed consequences of the environmental crisis. We urgently need an alternative to bring about the rapid transformation of our societies and economic systems. As we rebuild our lives in the wake of Covid-19 and face the challenges of ecological disaster, how can we win a world fit for life?

We argue that it is not enough merely to spend our way out of the crisis; we must also rapidly reshape the economy to create a new way of life that can foster a healthy and flourishing environment for all. We offer a clear and practical road map for a future that is democratic and sustainable by design.

The Swamp

By Michael Grunwald,

Book cover of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise

During research for my book, I visited manmade wetlands in south Florida, built to filter farm runoff from the water before it flows into Everglades National Park. These constructed wetlands are thick with alligators, spoonbills, storks, hawks, and other wildlife—but they’re just an echo of the surviving Glades. Now among the most cherished natural areas on Earth, in the settlement era the Everglades was written off as wasted space. Early in the 20th century the northern half of the Everglades was drained and turned into sugar fields. Today polluted runoff from those farms threatens the surviving remnants of the Everglades ecosystem. 

Grunwald’s book shows the human quirks and greed that drove the Everglades’ destruction, and that sometimes get in the way of its restoration.

Who am I?

I fell in love with the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary thirty years ago, when I first moved to town. At the time, I was working as a field biologist, and I loved to hang out at the marsh and birdwatch—I’d see everything from pelicans to peregrine falcons. Later I shifted from field biology to science writing, and some of my first articles were about how the Arcata Marsh serves both as a wildlife habitat and a means of treating the city’s sewage. I learned about the grassroots movement that created the marsh, and the global history of wetlands loss. I’ve been hooked on wetlands ever since.

I wrote...

The Marsh Builders: The Fight for Clean Water, Wetlands, and Wildlife

By Sharon Levy,

Book cover of The Marsh Builders: The Fight for Clean Water, Wetlands, and Wildlife

What is my book about?

The majority of the original wetlands in the US have vanished, transformed into farm fields, or buried under city streets. The Marsh Builders delves into the intertwined histories of wetlands loss and water pollution. 

The book’s springboard is the tale of a citizen uprising in Humboldt County, California, which led to the creation of one of the first US wetlands designed to treat city sewage. The book explores the global roots of this local story: the cholera epidemics that plagued 19th-century Europe; the researchers who invented modern sewage treatment after bumbling across the insight that microbes break down contaminants in water; the discovery that wetlands act as powerful filters for the pollution unleashed by modern humanity.

Natives and Exotics

By Judith A. Bennett,

Book cover of Natives and Exotics: World War II and Environment in the Southern Pacific

Bennett has produced an outstanding tour-de-force integrating the military history of the Central and Southwest Pacific with the new field of war and environment studies. Bennett goes beyond the immediate impact of combat to consider the military use of natural resources, the effect of bases on islands that never saw fighting, the movement of people, plants and diseases, and the politics of how Islander people and places were used in the war. From how foreign imaginations about the tropical environment affected military planning, to the conflict’s real long-term effects on lands and seas, this book adds essential depth to our view of the war years in this region.

Who are we?

We are three anthropologists who have focused decades of research on the cultures and histories of the beautiful part of the world known as Micronesia. We wrote this book when we realized that the many volumes of history on War in the Pacific focused on the combatants, and told us little of the experiences of the Islanders across whose lands, seas, and airspace the war was fought. Kwajalein, Enewetak, Pohnpei, Chuuk, Peleliu, Saipan, Guam, Tinian—these were not just battlegrounds, but also precious homelands. Our goal was to combine documentary history with interviews of more than 300 elders to tell the story of the war in Micronesia as it was experienced by Islanders who lived through it.

We wrote...

The Typhoon of War: Micronesian Experiences of the Pacific War

By Suzanne Falgout, Laurence Marshall Carucci, Lin Poyer

Book cover of The Typhoon of War: Micronesian Experiences of the Pacific War

What is our book about?

World War II was a watershed event for the people of the former Japanese colonies of Micronesia. The Japanese military build-up, the conflict itself, and the American occupation and control of the conquered islands brought rapid and dramatic changes to Micronesian life. Whether they spent the war in caves and bomb shelters, in sweet potato fields under armed Japanese guard, or in their own homes, Micronesians who survived those years recognize that their peoples underwent a major historical transformation. Like a typhoon, the war swept away a former life.

American Environmental History

By Carolyn Merchant,

Book cover of American Environmental History: An Introduction

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

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. 

Eroding the Commons

By David M. Anderson,

Book cover of Eroding the Commons: The Politics of Ecology in Baringo, Kenya, 1890s-1963

In Colonial Kenya, the famines of the mid-1920s led to claims that the crisis in Baringo was brought on by overcrowding and livestock mismanagement. In response to the alarm over erosion, the state embarked on a program for rehabilitation, conservation, and development. Eroding the Commons examines Baringo's efforts to contend with the problems of erosion and describes how they became a point of reference for similar programs in British Africa, especially as rural development began to encompass goals beyond economic growth and toward an accelerated transformation of African society. It provides an excellent focus for the investigation of the broader evolution of colonial ideologies and practices of development.

Who am I?

Gufu Oba (Professor) has taught Ecology, Pastoralism, and Environmental History at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences for 21 years. He previously worked for UNESCO-MAB on issues of environmental conservation. He has published four books on social and environmental history. His books include Nomads in the shadows of Empires (BRILL, 2013), Climate change adaptations in Africa (Routledge, 2014), Herder Warfare in East Africa: A social and Spatial History (White Horse Press, 2017), and African Environmental Crisis: A History of Science for development (Routledge, 2020).

I wrote...

African Environmental Crisis: A History of Science for Development

By Gufu Oba,

Book cover of African Environmental Crisis: A History of Science for Development

What is my book about?

Using one-and-a-half century’s research literature on peasant agriculture and pastoral rangeland development in East Africa, the book describes myths of environmental changes in terms of soil erosion control, animal husbandry, grazing schemes, large-scale agricultural schemes, social and administrative science research, and vector-disease and pest controls. Drawing on comparative socio-ecological perspectives of African peoples across then colonies and post-independent states, this book refutes the hypothesis that African peoples were responsible for environmental degradation.

The book explores how and why the idea of the African environmental crisis developed and persisted through colonial and post-colonial periods. And why it has been so influential in development discourse. This crisis discourse was dominated by the imposition of imperial scientific knowledge, neglecting indigenous knowledge and experiences.

Mill Town

By Kerri Arsenault,

Book cover of Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains

A truly engaging personal history of a paper mill’s impact on a working-class town in Maine. Arsenault tracks rising public health hazards and the decline of the working class through her rural hometown and over the course of her life, reckoning with the meaning and nature of home and abandonment.

Who am I?

We had money for a while when I was a kid in the Midwest and then, suddenly, we did not. I watched my world of opportunity change dramatically almost overnight, and my mother struggle to redefine herself as not only a mother but now also a breadwinner. It took time for me to understand that the questions I was asking then about gender and access to money weren’t unique to my life, or the lives of Midwestern white women; they got at some grand-scale problems that people had been writing about for a long time about gender and capitalism. Those are the works that helped me formulate my own memoir.

I wrote...

Gentrifier: A Memoir

By Anne Elizabeth Moore,

Book cover of Gentrifier: A Memoir

What is my book about?

In 2016, a Detroit arts organization grants writer and artist Anne Elizabeth Moore a free house—a room of her own, à la Virginia Woolf—in Detroit’s majority-Bangladeshi “Banglatown.” Accompanied by her cats, Moore moves to the bungalow in her new city where she gardens, befriends neighborhood youth, and grows to intimately understand civic collapse and community solidarity. When the troubled history of her prize house comes to light, Moore finds her life destabilized by the aftershocks of the housing crisis and governmental corruption.

Part investigation, part comedy of a vexing city, and part love letter to girlhood, Gentrifier examines capitalism, property ownership, and whiteness, asking if we can ever really win when violence and profit are inextricably linked with victory. One of NPR’s Best Books of 2021.

All the Wild That Remains

By David Gessner,

Book cover of All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West

The physical journey as a metaphor for personal growth and enlightenment is no better accomplished than in this book on the environment. Gessner takes two very different authors, Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, and weaves their perspectives together as he embarks on his own trip through their worlds and through his own American West. Highly educational in a style that is lively and readable.

Who am I?

I grew up a fan of an evening news segment called “On the Road with Charles Kuralt.” Kuralt spotlighted upbeat, affirmative, sometimes nostalgic stories of people and places he discovered as he traveled across the American landscape. The charming stories he told were only part of the appeal; the freedom and adventure of being on the open road ignited a spark that continues to smolder. Some of my fondest memories from childhood are our annual family road trips, and I still jump at the chance to drive across the country.

I wrote...

The Open Road

By M.M. Holaday,

Book cover of The Open Road

What is my book about?

Set in the American West in the second half of the 19th century, Win, a wandering free-spirit, persuades his best friend to head west with him to see the frontier before it disappears. They meet Meg, the female embodiment of Win’s own inner conflict between place and restlessness. As the friends seek adventure and find love on the American frontier, there is irony in these adventurous souls looking for a place to call home.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies

By Paul S. Sutter,

Book cover of Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South

This history of Providence Canyon in southwestern Georgia explores a seemingly ironic state park: one dedicated to preserving a network of massive erosion gullies formed by poor cotton farming. But Providence Canyon is so much more than ironic, as this book beautifully illustrates. Yes, improvident farming harmed the land—as was the case across much of the South—but the spectacular gullies of Stewart County came from the intersection of human abuse and terrifyingly fragile soil structures. And they are somehow sublimely beautiful, despite their grim past. The park is perhaps the perfect place to witness the way in which human and natural actions are always tied together. Come for the gullies, stay for the lessons!

Who am I?

I grew up a farm kid and then worked as a park ranger fresh out of college. This background draws me to the history of American preservation, where so much that seems natural also has deep cultural roots. I find the American South—with its combination of irony and tragedy, beauty, and flaws—the most fascinating place on earth to study. Or maybe I’m just pulling for the home team.

I wrote...

Remaking Wormsloe Plantation: The Environmental History of a Lowcountry Landscape

By Drew A. Swanson,

Book cover of Remaking Wormsloe Plantation: The Environmental History of a Lowcountry Landscape

What is my book about?

Plantations conjure up visions of southern leisure and wealth, but their tourism landscapes are cultivated as carefully as their fields once were to produce cotton for world markets. My book looks at the long transition of one plantation on the Georgia coast from a site of sea island cotton cultivated by dozens of enslaved laborers to a state historical park. I highlight how natural forces always shaped human ideas, and vice versa. It’s a tale of sorrow and hope, challenge and promise, environment and humanity—forces that shape all of our historical landscapes.

The Hour of Land

By Terry Tempest Williams,

Book cover of The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks

No one writes better about landscapes, including national parks, than Terry Tempest Williams. To celebrate—and interrogate—the centennial of the National Park Service in 2016, she published The Hour of Land, a breathtaking personal, political, and literary engagement with American national parks and the histories, landscapes, and people they represent. They are, as she shows, both scarred and sacred, and that makes parks so meaningful. Again and again, her words and ideas jump off the page and expressed things I’ve long believed but never articulated like, when she suggests parks might be “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.”

Who am I?

I started studying public lands by accident in the 1990s for a class project before I really knew what they even were. Since then, I've published hundreds of thousands of words about them, including my latest book Making America’s Public Lands where I’ve brought together much of what I’ve learned. I’m convinced the national forests, parks, rangelands, and refuges are among the most interesting and important experiments in democracy we have. I'm a writer, historian, and former college professor who now calls the Skagit Valley of Washington home. As much as I enjoy studying the public lands, I've appreciated hiking, sleeping, teaching, and noticing things in them even more.

I wrote...

Making America's Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands

By Adam M. Sowards,

Book cover of Making America's Public Lands: The Contested History of Conservation on Federal Lands

What is my book about?

The federal government controls roughly 640 million acres in national forests, parks, rangelands, and wildlife refuges. Managing these lands has been an ongoing—and noisy—experiment in democracy and conservation. Making America’s Public Lands tells this history from the earliest years of the nation to recent controversies, along the way providing guideposts and explanations to help us understand the public’s land. The book shows the increasingly complex task land managers have faced as the public demanded more and more from the lands, from timber and beef to inspiration and ecosystem services. Meanwhile, the politics of it all has become ever more complicated as a more diverse set of constituents demanded their rightful seat at the table. 

Floating Coast

By Bathsheba Demuth,

Book cover of Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait

This book—about the United States as well as Russia and the USSR—skilfully draws diverse peoples, territories, and animals into a single compelling narrative. Exposing different phases of humans’ exploitation of Arctic resources under both capitalist and socialist regimes, Demuth compels the reader to think about humans, energy, and the implication of nature in the historical process in new ways.

Who am I?

I have been studying Russia and its history for over 30 years and find that it continues to intrigue me. Having previously focused my attention on religion and its imperial dimensions (including The Tsar’s Foreign Faiths, with Oxford University Press in 2014), I have more recently sought to understand the importance of Russia’s nineteenth century and I am now exploring the history of Russia’s territory with a view to writing a history of the longest border in the world. I teach at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

I wrote...

1837: Russia's Quiet Revolution

By Paul W. Werth,

Book cover of 1837: Russia's Quiet Revolution

What is my book about?

Historians often think of Russia before the 1860s in terms of conservative stasis, when the "gendarme of Europe" secured order beyond the country's borders and entrenched the autocratic system at home. This book offers a profoundly different vision.

Drawing on an extensive array of sources, it reveals that many of modern Russia's most distinctive and outstanding features can be traced back to 1837, a seemingly inconspicuous but in fact exceptional year. From the romantic death of Russia's greatest poet Alexander Pushkin in January to a colossal fire at the Winter Palace in December, Russia experienced much that was astonishing in 1837. The cumulative effect was profound. The country's integration accelerated, and a Russian nation began to emerge, embodied in new institutions and practices, within the larger empire. The result was a quiet revolution, after which Russia would never be the same.

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