What’s on an Environmentalist’s Bookshelf?

What's on my bookshelf? Click for the full size version.

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? 


24 responses to this post.

  1. Actually I definitely agree with you on what draws me to environmentalism. I’m significantly more concerned with the fate of the planet than with humans. And definitely prefer cats to people >:3

    And I loved Blue Planet when I saw it on TV. But the one that I saw was narrated by Sigourney Weaver – who is so awesome.

    Thanks for the books though. I’ll see if I can get the chance to read them. :3


    • Hi there, Parisian Feline!
      I think your screenname gave away your affinity for cats! (According to Weisman, they’ll be just fine if humans die out, which may or may not be comforting.) This may be a gross generalization, but I feel like people who don’t have or want kids are just less emotionally involved in the fate of humanity. I think it’d be a shame to lose humans altogether — we’ve created wonderful works of art, language, and other good things — but we ultimately did it to ourselves. I feel much more responsibility towards the species that we are driving towards extinction, the ones we characterize as less intelligent and less capable, but are nonetheless not single-handedly destroying the life support systems of this planet.


      • Yay Kitties!!!! :3 meow. I’m so crazy for cats. Just seeing pictures of them makes me crazy.

        Actually, that makes a lot of sense, as someone who don’t want kids, I don’t feel as connected to the fate of humanity. My friend was talking to me about how as animals, humans feel an instinctual urge to procreate. So when some animals (humans) don’t want to do it – they’re considered selfish.

        It’s interesting how much smarter animals are than humans give credit for. I mean, most people marvel at what animals can and have done in the past because there’s this idea that animals are less than. Which is ridiculous especially since humans are animals too.


        • Just wanted to give a shout out for the kitties. I am in complete agreement that I’m way more concerned about the other species than I am about humans. I realize this sounds crass, but I sort of think that humans deserve what they get since we caused this problem in the first place! I just doesn’t seem fair to take so many innocent species down with us.

          But… if you follow this argument to its logical conclusion, then there is cause for hope. I mean the earth will be just fine without us, and perhaps all that’s happening now is that Gaia is preparing to rid herself of her human infection. I’m sure that whatever comes next will offer opportunities for some other species to thrive.


  2. Posted by seitei on 07/17/2011 at 14:23

    Thanks for the post. interesting! I’d add to my list of influential books the following:

    Edward Abbey’s ‘Desert Solitaire’ (though everything else I’ve read by him has been both enjoyable and inspiring)

    Paolo Bacigalupi’s, well, anything by him, too. He’s a scifi writer who creates very realistic potential futures from an environmental perspective. the worlds he creates are very recognizable, but -be forewarned- a bit depressing!

    Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Eating Animals’ (though I was already not eating animals before reading it.

    And there’s plenty more, but I’d like to second the mention of Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’.


    • Hi Seitei,
      I thought about mentioning Eating Animals, which I also enjoyed, but I’m not sure how much of an influence it had on me. However, it was a good rebuttal to Michael Pollan’s ‘humane’ meat approach and Barbara Kingsolver’s tirade against vegetarianism in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I can’t bring myself to recommend.

      Collapse is wonderful. It’s an intelligent and methodical study whose conclusions agree with environmentalist aims without (I imagine) getting a lot of people’s backs up about conservative/liberal labels.


  3. Excellent post, I can’t wait to see what everyone is reading! My feelings are similar to yours in that I’m ultimately more concerned about the earth as a whole than I am the humans that inhabit it. I teach environmental science though, so my readings are all over the place.

    I’ll second the poster above who mentioned Desert Solitaire; it’s my most recent environmental read and one of my favorite; I’d especially recommend it if you’ve been to Arches NP.

    Anything by Michael Pollan is good, but you mentioned him above so I’m sure you’ve read everything I’ve read.

    Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert is a great book that deals with climate change and the effects that are already being felt around the world.

    I know that you are CF but Last Child in the Woods makes an excellent argument for getting kids away from the screen and outside exploring. I don’t have children but I found this book excellent nonetheless. He’s written another book recently, The Nature Principle, that is currently on my “to read” pile and I’m sure it will be good too.


    • Hi Felicity,
      How cool that you teach environmental science! I was having a conversation on Twitter the other day and we agreed that the only way to get out of these destructive patterns of behavior was to brainwash the young. 🙂 My school sure didn’t have any environmental science classes. I hope they’ll become a graduation requirement soon, because I really do think some knowledge of our place on this planet is more essential than geometric proofs or dangling modifiers.

      I totally agree that kids (and in fact all of us) should be spending less time hooked up to an electronic device and more time exploring the world around them. One problem is that they might not have many opportunities to do so if their parents aren’t interested or don’t have the resources. That seems like a difficult problem to fix.


  4. OK… first of all the sarcastic and obnoxious answer to the question “What’s on an Environmentalist’s Bookshelf?” is: Nothing. A true environmentalist would get their books from the library.

    But cynicism and mockery aside, I must second (or is it third or forth now) the opinion that Jared Diamond totally rocks. I thoroughly enjoyed “Collapse: as well as “Guns, Germs and Steel” (one of his previous books.) I also LOVED “The Botany of Desire”, and I think Michael Pollan totally rocks! My favorite of his is “In Defense of Food”. My great-great grandmother, Felicisma will forever accompany me to the grocery store after reading that book!

    Other eco-books that made a great impression on me include…

    “Better Off” by Eric Brende. This book is a fascinating account of a guy and his wife who spend a year living in an Amish/Mennonite community. What I totally love about it is that he’s not doing it for environmental reasons, he’s more of a modern luddite. And his conclusion that people are actually much happier in a slower and less technology driven society are quite compelling.

    “Slow Death by Rubber Duck”. This book pretty much made me want to run off and cower in a yurt somewhere in the wilds of Mongolia, but it’s an incredible read. Basically these two scientists decide to test whether harmful chemicals from everyday products can actually get into your bloodstream by simply using the products as they are intended to be used. The results are horrifying and quite eye opening.

    “Your Money or Your Life” by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. I think I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s on my all time favorite list. It’s really not about environmentalism at all, but I think that the modern consumer culture is so connected to our environmental problems that it’s totally relevant.

    “6 Degrees” by Mark Lynas. I’m not sure that I’d actually “recommend” this book as reading it actually sent me into a tailspin of depression. But he basically reviews all of the scientific literature and gives a fairly detailed account of how the planet will look with each degree of warming that occurs.

    “Peak Everything” by Richard Heinberg. He gets a bit whiny and overly emotional about the future for my taste, but it’s really an interesting read and enlightening look about how many of the earth’s non-renewable resources we’ve actually burned through.

    That’s all that comes to mind at the moment. Others on my want to read list include “The Vanishing Face of Gaia” by James Lovelock and “Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes.


    • Hi EcoCatLady,
      Hah — yes, books are dead trees, but I’ve been a book lover a lot longer than I’ve been an environmentalist, and I get most of them used — many of them pre-screened at the library so I mostly buy ones I feel confident I will want to reference or reread. I know the ecological arguments for a Kindle, but I shudder at the thought. Maybe I’ll be more open to it in a few years…probably not, though.

      I have to say that I find James Lovelock uncompromisingly depressing. I’ve had one of his books in my car for almost a year and I still haven’t managed to get through it. On the other hand, I’d love to read Slow Death by Rubber Duck. It’s been on my radar for a while.


      • I was just teasing about the library, and I’m in total agreement about the Kindle.

        I’ve never actually read anything by Lovelock, but I’ve seen him interviewed quite a few times and I actually found him quite compelling. I rather like his dispassionate approach to the topic, I guess he appeals to the fatalist in me. We’ll see if I still feel that way after reading his book!


  5. OH… and how could I have forgotten “No Impact Man”. Colin Beavan totally rocks and while I loved the movie, the book was even better. He completely embodies the idea that living environmentally is not just good for the planet, it makes us happier here and now.


    • Posted by seitei on 07/18/2011 at 20:20

      Ha! I think I recall seeing that one.

      A similar tease to yr ‘no books on the shelf’ for the most green: I saw “No Impact Man” in the store and thought ‘huh, I wonder what kind of an environmental impact the creation of the book itself made.’ If I recall correctly, I even had trouble fining any info on the copyright page about soy-based inks or recycled paper or the promise that all the copies of the book were hand-delivered by the ever-walking John Francis….

      Didn’t know there was a movie, though. I reckon I’ll have to check that one out…. thanks for the suggestions. I just recently started ‘Your Money or Your Life” and I look forward to getting into it.


  6. This is so helpful, Jennifer. I haven’t read any current books related to the environment so I love seeing your recommendations. I really need to do some reading to get a solid basic understanding in place. Thanks so much!


    • Posted by seitei on 07/18/2011 at 20:14

      Good news, Sandra!! There’s a perfect bookstore just for you right in the middle of Pahoa! Tell Mary I (Kevin) sent you. 🙂


    • Hi Sandra,

      Oddly enough, I don’t think it’s that necessary to read up if you already care about what’s happening to the planet and are doing something about it. I imagine there are already lots of intersections between your reading and the environmentalist movement; Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama often seem to bring up environmentalism as a spiritual crisis — something that might speak to you more than hard numbers or facts. I’m not a number person myself, so most of my reading is actually in natural history, which renews my awe at the world we live in and strengthens my conviction that we’re screwing things up for everything else.


  7. Love Planet Earth, totally awed and depressed at the same time, that is a good way to put it. I have not read any of the others you listed but they all sound interesting, especially the first one. I also watched a show on the idea of what would happen if all the people left, and it basically was a nuclear disaster from all the nuclear power plants going off…

    My top book – very tipity top – the one that actually caused me to take action, to tip, to wake up and forever be changed – “Now or Never” by Tim Flannery. Amazing, short, well written, easy to read. I read it all in one night until 2 am. I think it is such an important book, as perhaps it cause the masses to “tip” as well… A couple weeks after reading it, I decided to start up my blog!

    I also love “No Impact Man” of course, read it early on and have been inspired ever since. There are so many good quotes in there.

    I also like “Sleeping Naked is Green” which is a young woman’s account of going green, doing one thing everyday and blogging about it. It was also funny.

    Right now I am reading “Radical Homemakers” and “Animal, Vegetable Miracle”. Both so good, I keep alternating between them.

    Oh yes, also the “100 mile diet”, that book probably inspired my current garden situation.

    So much to read, so little time…


    • Hi Sherry,
      I have to say, I couldn’t really stand Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Barbara Kingsolver’s writing just rubs me the wrong way, and there was something especially elitist and smug about AVM. (And there’s a chapter in which she hates on vegetarians…sigh.) Her daughter Camille was especially insufferable. I thought about keeping the book for the recipes, but no…it went straight out again.

      It’s so interesting the way everyone’s tipping point was something completely different. I think that makes it harder to approach other people who aren’t concerned yet, because who knows what would make them tip?


      • I am about a 1/3 through AVM, and get the elitist part. I found some parts especially good though, especially at the beginning when she was framing the lack of connection people generally have with food, and why that is one of the reasons we have let it get so bad here. As for living in a mountain valley with a huge garden, it seems pretty hard to emulate or apply to my situation. I liked 100 mile diet way better from that point of view, because it was a regular couple living in an apartment – and they still were able to eat locally and make it work…


  8. Posted by Emily on 07/19/2011 at 07:09

    Hi Jennifer. What a great post! Thanks everyone for sharing your favorite environmental reads- its very helpful.

    You had recommended to me The World Without Us and my partner and I both read it this winter. It took me a while to read because it was so depressing, but I also highly recommend it. I, however, didn’t find it at all “upbeat.” Yes nature may be able to heal itself, but only in a world without nuclear power, oil refineries, and other extreme human nastiness. Weisman had a whole chapter descibing how the entire state of Texas would explode if there were no humans around to manage the precarious oil refineries and chemical plants. Texas alone would cause enough damage to kill species and ruin habitats world wide. Scary!!

    Also, I agree that the Planet Earth series is truly amazing. Just thinking about the scene of the polar bear unable to find any large icebergs to sit on brings me to tears. Just heartbreaking.

    I second Felicity’s Field Notes From A Catastrophe. The autor did a great job going into the scientific specifics of climate change, but made it very reader-friendly and not textbook-like. I’d also like to recommend Novella Carpenter’s Farm City. Its not necessarily about environmentalism, but is an inspiring book about how we can actually be a solution to the problem. Novella Carpenter recaps her experiences as an urban farmer. Yay for the local food movement!

    I know that Al Gore is kind of a joke these days, but his book, An Inconvient Truth, was actually very good. It is quite rudimentary, but perfect for anyone who is sceptical or unaware of climate change. He included lots of amazing images of environmental destruction- a picture is worth a thousand words.


    • Hi Emily,
      Yeah, I guess The World Without Us isn’t that cheerful (many things will recover…but only if humans are out of the picture). Sorry you had a tough time getting through it. The book I’m really having trouble getting through is The Vanishing Face of Gaia. In the first chapter, Lovelock suggests that renewable energy isn’t going to cut it, we’ve already gone beyond the point of no return, and that things are going to get uncomfortable regardless of what we do. Yay! That might be the truth, but not being able to do something about it is…demoralizing.

      It’s great to hear about all the books that were influential to other people. Great mix of stuff!


      • I could not get through Lovelock’s book either. Way too depressing. I don’t like it when books on this subject don’t have even a faint glimmer of hope. It’s like – what is the point of even reading it? I cheated and watched a 15 minute interview of him on You Tube instead. Got the picture Lovelock, next….


  9. Thanks for this great post Jennifer-I love book suggestions. While my bookshelves are filled with books-environmental and other-I am always searching for great books to read. Anything Michael Pollan will work (although I’ve probably already read them!) and some of your other suggestions sound intriguing. I’m going to give Collapse a try. Thanks again!


  10. The previous comments include everything I would mention, so I’ll just say that I’m glad you brought up The World Without Us. I’ve been on the fence about reading it because I’d rather not read something horribly depressing. Now that you mentioned it’s quite upbeat, I look forward to checking it out.


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