Every time I come across a new list of recommended books for environmentalists, I find that a) it bears no resemblance to any other list I’ve seen; and b) I’ve only read one (at most) of the books on it, most of which I haven’t even heard of. There’s just so much out there, and most of it hasn’t been there long enough to establish itself as a classic. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring being the major exception, of course. Haven’t read that one either.
The underlying reason for the lack of a canon probably has to do something with the fact that we all came to environmentalism for very different reasons, and very different books, facts, and scenarios speak to us.
Here are a couple rows from my non-fiction bookshelf (click for the larger version if you’re really curious). Roughly, it says that I am interested in natural history, food, and poison, in roughly that order.
There’s hardly a book that would be filed under the environmental section. I don’t read a lot of specifically environmentalist books: the ones that aren’t massively depressing are irritatingly chipper (with titles like It’s So Easy Being Green! 100 Totally Ineffectual Things You Can Do That Require Minimal Effort), too number-filled, or about environmental topics that don’t really interest me very much, even though they should (renewable energy, green economies, etc.).
My particular form of environmentalism is based almost exclusively on my awe at our planet’s biodiversity and concern over what humans are doing to it. As someone who will never have children and generally prefers the company of cats to other humans, I have minimal investment in the future of humans. I just don’t want to take everything else down with us. And since it’s unlikely we’ll just manage to snuff ourselves out, that means building a more sustainable way of life while we still have magnificent creatures like whales, rainbow toads, and giant redwoods. We need to learn how to share again.
I don’t expect you to share this attitude. Most of the green people I know are more concerned about the future of people, and that’s fair enough. But I do want to give a quick shout-out to some of the books that were most influential to me.
Collapse by Jared Diamond. As my friend Emily’s spouse put it, this is a book about how societies that cut down all their trees are doomed. OK, it’s actually not just about trees but about using natural resources and interacting with the natural world. Jared Diamond documents with painstaking care many different case studies around the world: the ones that used their natural resources responsibly, and the ones that didn’t. Being wealthy, as it turns out, just means being the last to starve. Diamond’s conclusions are hard to refute. We need to clean up our act on a global scale, because there is no escape from this planet.
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Here’s an interesting thought experiment: what would happen to the world if all humans died out now (or within the near future)? For one thing, there’d still be plastic for thousands of years after we went away. This is the book that really made me think about the legacy of plastic that we leave behind every day, and it wasn’t pretty. But overall, this is a surprisingly upbeat book. Weisman projects that the planet will be resilient in our absence; trees, plants, insects, and animals (cats, but not dogs — sorry) will enjoy a renaissance. Nice.
The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. To be honest, I can’t remember whether it was in this book (which is a rather interesting look at how plants have used humans to achieve greater reproductive success) or Omnivore’s Dilemma, but there was one scene in which Pollan goes to visit a conventional potato farm, and then an organic one. The conventional one was bare, dusty dirt; the organic one was planted with lots of different crops to control pests and increase harvest. That one image was my first step towards realizing that buying organic produce wasn’t just about being a snooty Whole Foods shopper with too much money; it was about supporting a type of farming that was better for our planet.
And finally, though these two aren’t books at all, Blue Planet and Planet Earth, the two splendid BBC documentary series narrated by David Attenborough that proves that, yes, sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words. Without being in the least preachy, they showed me the wonders of our planet — and how close we are to losing them forever. Who knew it was possible to be awed and depressed at the same time?
Now it’s your turn. What’s on your list of most influential environmental books/movies?