Surfing the Web for the latest information on climate change and other environmental issues is a great way to keep informed, but for anyone who seeks a broader and deeper understanding of the issues, nothing beats a good book.
The following selection of authors and books takes the reader on a journey through the history of the environmental movement in the United States, providing a view into its philosophical, social, and legal underpinnings, up to present day concerns with climate change. Many of the guides on this journey are award-winning authors, others tell of their own front-line experience. Some of the writings are literary classics. A few readings are tucked into the list that are not books, but were included to add perspective.
To better understand the historical context of the writings, readers may want to consult the Environmental History Timeline maintained by Professor William (Bill) Kovarik, Ph.D., at Radford University.
The Bible, Book of Genesis: Invaders from Europe established their claims to North America in the name of their country and religion. What does the Bible say about the environment? Chapter 1 of the Book of Genesis is a wonderfully poetic description of creation in which every living thing is good in God’s eyes, man and woman are created at the same time after everything else, and everyone is a vegetarian. A second version of creation is in Chapter 2, in which plants and animals and Eve were all created after Adam and to please Adam.
John James Audubon: (1785-1851): Audubon was an ornithologist, naturalist, and artist whose illustrated book, ‘Birds of America’ (1827), is considered one of the finest picture books and ornithological works, depicting nearly 500 species of birds in life-size drawings and life-like poses shown in their natural habitats. Copies of his paintings were made by engraving copper plates and then hand-painting the prints to produce the books with pages that measured two feet by three feet in size. The John James Audubon Park Museum and Nature Center in Henderson, Ky., has the four volume set of the original prints.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882): Emerson was a leader of the Transcendentalist movement (members included Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman), the philosophy of which is expressed in his famous essay, Nature (1836).
John Muir (1838-1914): Muir was a wilderness advocate and founder of the Sierra Club who wrote several books about nature. ‘Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf’ (1870) describes his hike through Kentucky down to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Most of his subsequent works, including, ‘The Yosemite’ (1920), are about preservation in the western United States.
Aldo Leopold (1887 -1948): Leopold was one of the founders of the Wilderness Society in 1935 and is the author of the ‘Sand County Almanac’ (1948). Leopold was an expert on wildlife management who called for a new way of thinking about wildlife as not just something to be dominated or hunted but as deserving protection as part of a diverse environment.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862): Thoreau was a transcendentalist, philosopher, teacher, surveyor, proponent of minimalist government and individualism, and naturalist. In ‘Walden’(1854), he wrote of an experiment in living a simple, self-sufficient life in natural surroundings to better experience and understand the essence of life. He wrote about the two years that he lived in a house that he built himself near Walden Pond on land owned by his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Henry Beston (1888-1968): ‘The Outermost House’ (1928) describes Beston’s retreat to Cape Cod in search of spiritual solace in nature after his experiences in World War I. The book was instrumental in establishing the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Rachel Carson (1907-1964): The marine biologist and conservationist, Rachel Carson, wrote ‘Silent Spring’ (1962) to warn of the dangers of widespread pesticide and herbicide use. She called for better government oversight of pesticides and other manufactured chemicals. Her work is considered to be the impetus behind the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
‘Touch the Earth: A Self Portrait of Indian Existence’ (1971), T.C. McLuhan, compiler, is a collection of speeches and letters from Native Americans that eloquently describes a philosophy of life based on their close relationship with nature and their feelings of sorrow and perplexity at seeing it destroyed as the white man moved west. Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Tecumseh, Black Elk, and Chief Seattle are among those quoted.
Justice William O. Douglas (1898- 1980): In his famous dissenting opinion in Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972), Justice Douglas reasoned that trees should have standing to sue in court. Standing concerns the legal issue of whether a person or organization has sufficient interest at stake that they should be allowed to maintain an action. The courts readily recognized the sufficiency of a pecuniary interest—the right of someone to protect a monetary interest in property—but the idea of extending the right to file suit to the general public’s interest in protecting forests, parks, and other natural areas that they had no direct monetary interest in was a new concept that the majority of the Supreme Court was not willing to embrace. Many different legal theories were being tried by lawyers at the time in an effort to find ways to protect the environment. If the Sierra Club had been deemed to have standing, it would have providing a new and potentially very effective means for other organizations to require businesses to answer for the full environmental impact of their actions even if the government itself failed to do so.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998): Author of ‘The Everglades: River of Grass’ (1947), Douglas helped draw attention to the threat posed to the Everglades by developers and so was instrumental in garnering public support for establishing Everglades National Park.
Annie Dillard (1945- ): Dillard won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for her book, ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ (1974), a series of essays about nature and life.
Edward Abbey (1927-1989): Abbey wrote on environmental, anti-government, and anarchist themes. Among his environmental writings are: ‘Desert Solitaire’ (1968), about the area around Arches National Park, ‘The Monkey Wrench Gang’ (1975), which was made into a movie, and ‘The Journey Home’ (1991).
John McPhee (1931- ): A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, McPhee has a distinctive literary style. He has written many books relating to nature and the environment, including ‘The Control of Nature’ (1989), ‘Encounters with the Archdruid’ (1971), and ‘The Pine Barrens’ (1968).
Jane Hightower, M.D.: Hightower is an internal medicine physician. Her book, ‘Diagnosis Mercury: Money, Politics and Poison’ (2011), tells about how she discovered mercury poisoning in her patients who had no known exposure, traced the mercury to the fish that they ate, and discovered the role of industry, including coal-fired power plants, in causing mercury pollution as well as in covering up its consequences.
William Dietrich (1951- ): Dietrich shared the Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. His book, ‘The Final Forest’ (1992), describes the controversy between environmentalists and the logging industry in Oregon and Washington states.
Phil Shabecoff: Shabecoff is an environmental journalist who has written several books on the subject. His book, ‘A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement’ (1993), is a history of the environmental movement in the United States.
‘Defending Mother Earth: Native American Perspectives on Environmental Justice’ (1996), Jace Weaver, contributing editor, is a collection of essays by Native North American environmental activists.
Charles Wilkinson: Wilkinson is a former natural resources attorney. His book, ‘Fire on the Plateau’ (2004), addresses environmental issues affecting Native Americans. ‘Crossing the Next Meridian’ (1993) describes the development of environmental law as it concerns forestry, mining, ranching, fishing, and water rights in the American West.
Jim Lichatowich: ‘Salmon Without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis’ (2001), a book by fishery biologist, Jim Lichatowich, examines the cause of the salmon decline in the Northwest and why efforts to restore salmon have failed.
Bill McKibben (1960- ): McKibben is a journalist and leading environmental activist. His book, ‘The End of Nature’ (1989, updated 2006), is considered to be the first book written about global warming that was intended for a general audience and calls for a fundamental shift in the way that people relate to nature.
Dan Fagin (1963 – ) and Marianne Lavelle: ‘Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law and Endangers Your Health’ (2002) is a book by prize-winning journalists, Fagin and Lavelle, about how the chemical industry and the U.S. EPA allow dangerous chemicals to stay on the market. The book also provides advice on what people can do about it.
Al Gore (1948- ): Gore, former U.S. Vice President, is an environmental activist who won a Nobel Prize for his work on climate change. His book, ‘An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It’ (2006), was meant to inform and energize the public to take action. His documentary, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, won an Academy Award.
James Hansen (1941- ): James Hansen is the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a leading climatologist. His book, ‘Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity’ (2009), discusses the history, science, and politics of climate change.
‘Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry’ (2009), Camille T. Dungy, Ed.
Dianne D. Glave: In her book, ‘Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage’ (2010), Glave tells the history of the relationship between African-Americans and the environment.
Mark D. Hersey: ‘My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver’ (2011). Hersey describes Carver’s work in sustainable agriculture.
Penny Loeb: Loeb is a journalist. Her book, ‘Moving Mountains: How One Woman and Her Community Won Justice from Big Coal’ (2007), is about how a West Virginia community took on the coal industry. The book has been made into a move, ‘Moving Mountains’ (2012).
Seamus McGraw: McGraw is a journalist. In ‘The End of Country’ (2011), he writes about the impact of fracking in Pennsylvania, the McGraw’s home state.
Mark Hertsgaard: Journalist and author, Mark Hertsgaard, describes his travels around the globe in search of the answer to whether the human species can survive in his book, ‘Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of our Environmental Future’ (1999). His book, ‘Hot Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth’ (2012), addresses the challenges ahead.
For a more extensive list of environmental books, see Wikipedia.
For a list of environmental books written by journalists, see the University of Colorado, journalism website.