Some of these Best Environmental Books are ones that I’ve read and found life-changing. Others are recommendations from trusted sources — I always welcome recommendations.
Table of Contents
- Getting Started
- Taking Action
- Climate Change
- Zero Waste and Waste Reduction
- Environmental Justice
- Green and Healthy Gardening
- Green Fiction
- Best Environmental Books for Children
Learning Something New
Scientific American Magazine’s ebook series, Ask the Experts: The Environment, contains four editions of books that field questions from the modern consumer, ranging from scientific explanations of weather to discussions about rainbows. The answers, written by scientists, researchers, and teachers from around the country, are presented in article form and are meant to enlighten any curious reader.
Sustainability Made Simple: Small Changes for Big Impact, by Rosaly Byrd and Lauren DeMates
In Sustainability Made Simple, Rosaly Byrd and Lauren DeMates discuss the relationship between the modern reader and environmental issues, and offer suggestions on how to incorporate sustainability into everyday life. Carol Haggas at Booklist writes of the authors: “Byrd and DeMates take a comprehensive yet straightforward approach as they debunk and demystify misconceptions surrounding sustainability. Looking at such regular activities as grocery shopping, household cleaning, gardening, and traveling, the authors offer practical advice regarding small but essential changes that can be easily adopted.” Sustainability Made Simple’s approach to the climate crisis is practical, but hopeful. It’s an excellent introduction to easy changes we can all make in our lives.
The Must-Read “Classics” and Game-Changers
My First Summer in the Sierra, by John Muir
John Muir, considered “Father of the National Parks” and a pioneering environmentalist, philosopher, and explorer, recounts his summer of 1869 shepherding in California’s Central Valley in this seminal book. This edition of My First Summer in the Sierra, with 30 illustrations, serves as an approachable and beautiful introduction to Muir’s vast collection of works. Marion Randall Parsons, as a part of the John Muir exhibit at the Sierra Club, says about Muir’s writing: “The beauty and freshness of the mountains is wonderfully reflected in this book, which seems to hold within its pages all the brightness and sunny geniality of a Sierra morning warming towards noon.” My First Summer in the Sierra is a poetic love letter to the beauty of 19th-century nature, written by a legendary naturalist at the outset of his career.
A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold
Originally published in 1949, A Sand County Almanac is equal parts an informative, structured almanac and an informal, entertaining anecdotal piece written by celebrated conservationist and scientist Aldo Leopold. Leopold, also a philosopher, addresses his own grateful attitudes towards nature and the relationship between America and its land—in addition to looking at the ethical issues concerning conservationism. The author’s main plea, as summarized in a New York Times review: “that the basis of successful conservation was to extend to nature the ethical sense of responsibility that humans extend to each other,” was a novel attitude that is now a fundamental underpinning of the environmental movement.
Released in 2006 alongside the film of the same name, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth both lays out the importance of recognizing the massive crisis of global warming and alerts his readers to what might happen if they ignore it. An Inconvenient Truth is praised for its substantial use of pictures and diagrams to accompany the explanatory text; in fact, both the book and film are based off of a slide presentation Gore created in 1990 that helped begin his public crusade against climate change. Michiko Kakutani’s rather commendatory review in The New York Times calls the book “a user-friendly introduction to global warming” that is “lucid, harrowing and bluntly effective,” and writes that Gore “enumerates practical steps that can be taken to reduce carbon emissions to a point below 1970’s levels.” An Inconvenient Truth is a helpful accompaniment to its famous film counterpart, in addition to a standalone manual for understanding the severity of climate change.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert
Utilizing historical studies, modern research, and thorough collaborations with other authors and scientists, Elizabeth Kolbert formulates her take on the next and sixth phase of mass extinction. In a 2006 article in The New Yorker, Kolbert wrote that “of the many species that have existed on earth—estimates run as high as fifty billion—more than ninety-nine percent have disappeared.” The sixth extinction will continue that trend, this time focusing mainly on the massive loss of flora and fauna species. The Boston Globe called the Pulitzer Prize winning book “surprisingly breezy, entirely engrossing, and frequently entertaining,” all while alerting the reader to the very daunting truth of mass extinction.
The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben
In Bill McKibben’s first, groundbreaking book, The End of Nature, he makes the case that humans must approach the climate crisis in multiple ways — by reevaluating their attitudes towards and relationship with the natural world while educating themselves about the harmful damage that’s already been done. McKibben focuses mainly on human-created pollution and greenhouse gases in his argument for what will be the “end of nature.” Eva Regnier at MIT’s The Tech says about The End of Nature: “McKibben’s incisive discussion of the components of the environmental crisis is broad but detailed, and illustrated brilliantly in terms both human and scientific…Even those with a very good understanding of environmental problems will be fascinated.”
Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson
Regularly cited as one of the most foundational works of the environmental movement, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring warns of the extremely harmful effects of chemical pesticides, zeroing in on DDT. The success of her book prompted a campaign to end the use of DDT in the United States, in addition to the 1967 creation of the Environmental Defense Fund. In the Introduction of Silent Spring, Carson’s biographer Linda Lear writes, “Carson’s writing initiated a transformation in the relationship between humans and the natural world and stirred an awakening of public environmental consciousness.” The book was named one of the 25 greatest scientific books of all time by Discover Magazine, and has been designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society. Silent Spring is not only fundamental for your library of the best environmental books but also absolutely essential to understanding the historical trajectory of environmentalism.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein
In her book This Changes Everything (now a feature documentary), Naomi Klein alerts her readers to the stark reality of two options facing humanity: “either we embrace radical change ourselves or radical changes will be visited upon our physical world.” Klein makes the argument that climate change, apart from being the single most pressing environmental issue of our time, exposes many other faulty systems that must be changed, namely the inequalities in our local and federal economies. Fellow environmentalist author Bill McKibben writes of This Changes Everything: “It sets the most important crisis in human history in the context of our other ongoing traumas, reminding us just how much the powers-that-be depend on the power of coal, gas, and oil…it means the fight for a just world is the same as the fight for a livable one.”
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, by Paul Hawken and Tom Steyer
Using theories and programs devised by leading scientists and policymakers all around the world, Paul Hawken and Tom Steyer outline and rank one hundred concrete solutions to mitigate the climate change crisis. The plans are organized into eight broad categories, with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as the major ranking factor. The book proposes neither a naively positive outlook on combating climate change nor an apocalyptic prediction of our future. Rather, as Ron Meador from MinnPost wrote, it serves as a “foundation for understanding and supporting the kinds of change that really could be coming, and at every scale from your household to your company, your community, your country and state and national government.” Drawdown offers approachable solutions for what is, too often, thought of as an insurmountable problem.
No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, by Greta Thunberg
Time’s 2019 Person of the Year and two-time nominee of the Nobel Peace Prize, 17-year-old Greta Thunberg offers a collection of her most influential speeches from across the globe in this #1 New York Times Bestseller. President Barack Obama called her “one of our planet’s greatest advocates,” and her rallying cry against climate change has inspired every generation to awaken to the issue. Her famous quotation, “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear that I feel every day. And then I want you to act,” is characteristic of Thunberg’s “refreshingly—and necessarily—blunt” rhetoric (Kirkus Reviews). She is an impressive symbol for youth-led activism and continues to unnerve those who have ignored calls to action before.
Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis, by Greta Thunberg
Our House Is on Fire, written by climate activist Greta Thunberg and her family, describes the personal, turned global, story of Thunberg’s Asperger diagnosis and how she transformed her life into one devoted to climate action. Greta and her family describe, in readable and succinct prose that’s peppered with clever humor and facts about the climate, what it was like to get help for Greta, and support her journey towards activism. David Mitchell at The Guardian writes, “everyone with an interest in the future of the planet should read this book. It is a clear-headed diagnosis. It is a glimpse of a saner world. It is fertile with hope.”
This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, by Extinction Rebellion
Extinction Rebellion, established in 2018 in the United Kingdom by a group of academics, is a global environmental movement that aims to alert both the public masses and government agencies to the climate crisis. This Is Not A Drill is a collection of essays “designed to shake us out of our collective despair-induced lethargy,” writes Alice O’Keefe at The Guardian. Taking a more “disruptive” approach, the essayists (with activists, scientists, and psychologists, among others, authoring) acknowledge that there are solutions to this international crisis—it just might be harder than we thought. O’Keefe points out: “their conclusions were that conventional campaigning doesn’t work, and neither does violence. Large numbers of people need to create significant economic disruption.”
The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success by Mark Jaccard is a helpful, informative guide to teach us the difference between necessary policies and insincere, or fruitless actions. Its goal is to ground the reader in realistic modern solutions, “rather than feeling paralyzed and pursuing ineffective efforts.” Jaccard also instructs us on how to distinguish between politicians who are genuine in their proclamations against global warming, and those who are not. Naomi Oreskes, author and professor at Harvard University, says that, in The Citizen’s Guide, “Mark Jaccard has done a huge service, helping to lay out the vexed ground of climate information, disinformation, and conflicting conclusions.” Jaccard is both hopeful and analytical and offers concrete advice for the individual who wants to make larger changes.
A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet, by Sarah Jaquette Ray
In A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, Sarah Jacquette Ray advises the activist Generation Z on how to reduce anxiety surrounding climate change. Using her experience as an environmental studies professor and “combining insights from psychology, sociology, social movements, mindfulness, and the environmental humanities,” Ray provides solutions for coping and resisting burnout. Leslie Davenport, climate author, writes of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: “this book is essential reading for anyone despairing over our current climate emergency and the future of turbulent change. Ray’s strategies offer deep and practical ways to cultivate collective resilience and creative adaptation.”
Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, by Margaret Klein Salamon
Margaret Klein Salamon’s Facing the Climate Emergency is a gentle guide for those of us who are paralyzed with fear over the current climate crisis. Salamon focuses on facing and accepting fears we have about climate change and channeling those fears into more positive and helpful responses. In addition, she keeps her reader informed about the current impacts on the climate. David Wallace-Wells, environmental author and editor at The New York Times, writes that Facing the Climate Emergency “will wake you up, no matter how aware you think you are. Better still: it tells you what to do once you are awake.”
Climate Change 101
What We Know about Climate Change, by Kerry Emanuel
This recently updated version of What We Know about Climate Change by Kerry Emanuel is a straightforward, honest account of how human actions have contributed to global warming and greenhouse gas emissions. Emmanuel avoids the doom and gloom of our climate crisis, instead focusing on the changes that have indeed occurred since the 1970s—and how harmful it is when politicians and corporations block those changes. John Platt at The Revelator writes that What We Know about Climate Change “offers a concise explanation about what’s going on with global warming and how we can turn the tide.”
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells
Labeled “the most terrifying book I have ever read” by Farhad Manjoo at the NYT, David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth takes an alarmist approach to alert its readers to the real threats of climate change. In his own book description, Wallace-Wells tells us, “It is worse, much worse, than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible.” The book outlines global resource wars, economic collapse, and even a pseudo-apocalyptic world that future generations might have to face.
Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, by Elizabeth Kolbert
Field Notes from a Catastrophe, by Elizabeth Kolbert, originated as an award-winning, three-part series published in The New Yorker. In this book that began her career as an environmental writer, Kolbert treads the line between alarming her readers and simply explaining what has already happened as a result of climate change. Marguerite Holloway at Scientific American calls the book “a review of the scientific evidence and of the failure of the politicians we chose. The details are terrifying, and Kolbert’s point of view is very clear, but there is no rhetoric of rant here.” Field Notes from a Catastrophe doesn’t use scare tactics but rather lets the facts convince its readers.
Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, by Bill McKibben
In his most recent call to action, Falter, Bill McKibben alerts humanity to three new challenges we face: “to adjust to a new life on a broken planet, to fight the hyper-individualism that now animates government and business; and to reverse the ways that technology is bleaching out the variety of human existence.” Like many environmentalist authors, he discusses hopeful solutions but stays focused on the frightening reality of climate change. McKibben rose to success with his 1989 book The End of Nature, in which he denounced our ability to ruin something so powerful as the Earth. In Falter, he continues this narrative, but strays from his original philosophical style and focuses on data, research, and his own projections for a potentially bleak future.
Climate Change Solutions
The 100% Solution: A Plan for Solving Climate Change, by Solomon Goldstein-Rose
Millennial climate activist and politician Solomon Goldstein-Rose offers a hopeful, yet informative and honest plan for solving climate change in his book The 100% Solution. Goldstein-Rose avoids delving too much into individual — which he contends are often fruitless — actions, while instead emphasizing the importance of large-scale commitments to solving the climate crisis. Ted Nordhaus, Director of the Breakthrough Institute, states that “The 100% Solution is an important read for anyone who cares more about addressing climate change than fighting ideological battles.” Utilizing his experience in the House of Representatives and a youthful perspective, Goldstein-Rose makes larger-than-life ideas into potential realities.
Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet, by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope
Former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and former director of the Sierra Club, Carl Pope, team up on Climate of Hope to provide a guide for slowing the effects of climate change, directed largely at those in metropolitan hubs. The authors don’t agree on every individual point, which is showcased in the book’s alternating chapter format, but they do hope to prove that environmentalism should be a bipartisan effort. Kirkus Reviews calls it “a thoughtful, eminently reasonable set of proposals for saving New York—and therefore the world.” Climate of Hope is filled with personal anecdotes from two practiced businessmen and positive messages that real change can be enacted, if we are courageous enough.
Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to Climate Change, by Tim Flannery
In his book Atmosphere of Hope, Tim Flannery treads the line between hopeful and attainable suggestions towards a better environment, as his title suggests, and being realistic about the dire situation at hand. Flannery skyrocketed to success in 2005 with his #1 bestseller, The Weathermakers, and now offers an updated list of climate effects and how to counteract them, including a focus on government and corporate responsibility. Author Elizabeth Kolbert says about the book, “Thoughtful, candid and—yes—ultimately upbeat, Atmosphere of Hope could not be more timely. It is just the book the world needs right now.”
Lauded by critics for her readable, clever, and entertaining writing, Hope Jahren informs her reader how everyday actions contribute to climate change on a global scale. The New York Times Book Review says that “She takes this approach in order to present climate change as a result of broader dysfunctions having to do with consumption habits that, she says, don’t even make us happy.” In contrast with the doom-and-gloom perspective, The Story of More appeals to human nature and pleads with us to think about how much we waste individually, and as a society. As Jahren writes, “Our children grow up, our bodies wane, and death comes to claim some of those we love. All the while, we spend our days making things for the purpose of discarding them.”
The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival, by Robert Jay Lifton
In an attempt to mobilize both nonbelievers and a potentially apathetic public, Robert Jay Lifton uses his book, The Climate Swerve, to alert readers about “the task of mobilizing our imaginative resources toward climate sanity.” Lifton uses the word “swerve” to mean “a significant, if not always logical or clear, shift in the way people experience their world.” In this book, he notes how much public opinion towards the climate crisis has already changed, but makes a plea for more change. Lifton, a psychiatrist known for his work on the implications of warfare and violence on the human psyche, brings this unique work into his arguments. The Climate Swerve is “a powerful and well-reasoned call to action” (Kirkus Reviews).
The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, but Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac
Authors Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac outline two possible outcomes for our world in their book, The Future We Choose: “what life on Earth will be like by 2050 if we fail to meet the Paris climate targets” and “what it will be like to live in a carbon-neutral, regenerative world.” Bestselling author Yuval Harari praised the book’s multilevel and well-structured approach for addressing what we can each do to help: “The book presents the existential challenge of climate change as a unique opportunity to build a more just world and to make ourselves better people. Most importantly, the book adopts a very practical approach, and suggests 10 concrete actions that each of us can take in order to create a better future for all the residents of planet earth.” The Future We Choose both analyzes the Climate Crisis at the international level and suggests practical ways for each individual reader to help at home.
Zero Waste and Waste Reduction
Zero and Low Waste Lifestyle
In Zero Waste Home, Bea Johnson both shares stories from her own family’s journey reducing their waste and offers hundreds of suggestions to help her readers live more sustainably. Johnson shares a home with her husband and two sons, and they have managed to reduce waste to such an extent that they only produce a quart of garbage per year! Edward Humes, the author of Garbology, writes that Zero Waste Home “compels us to recognize that our heedlessly wasteful ways are not gateways to prosperity and convenience, but barriers to a good life and a healthy planet.” This is what Johnson intends to show us: that waste reduction isn’t just about helping the planet, but helping ourselves.
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by Michael Braungart & William McDonough
The phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle” echoes in the ears of every citizen with a newfound hope to contribute less waste. But in Cradle to Cradle, Michael Braungart and William McDonough argue that this phrase can do more harm than good: “this approach perpetuates a one-way, ‘cradle to grave’ manufacturing model that…casts off as much as 90 percent of the materials it uses as waste, much of it toxic.” Braungart and McDonough argue instead that goods should be manufactured with the intent that their materials are re-used in pure form, not as lower-grade material. Publishers Weekly calls the book “an inspiring reminder that humans are capable of much more elegant environmental solutions than the ones we’ve settled for in the last half-century.”
Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, by Yvon Chouinard
In Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon Chouinard — climber, turned entrepreneur, turned environmentalist, and founder of the Patagonia company — tells of his experience running an international corporation while keeping it environmentally responsible and humane. Greg Ambrose at the San Francisco Chronicle writes, “For everyone who is alternately outraged and depressed by the wave of greed that has been the hallmark of corporate America in the twenty-first century, there is a name that inspires hope: Yvon Chouinard.” Let My People Go Surfing tells about one man’s personal journey and poses as a crusade to change corporate ideals towards the environment in general.
Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, by Susan Freinkel
Plastic, once a convenient and cheap resource for making products in bulk, has now turned up en masse in oceans, landfills, and littered on sidewalks. In Plastic, Susan Freinkel uses eight household plastic items, including a credit card and a grocery bag, to show the alarming impact these seemingly innocuous items have had on us and the earth. But her story is not just hopeless. Frienkel makes sure to acknowledge how plastic can work positively—after all, it can be a lifesaving tool. Publishers Weekly states that Plastic will help “all of us understand the importance of individual action, political will, and technological innovation in weaning us off our addiction to synthetics.” For me, Plastic was a transformative read – a definite addition to the Best Environmental Books list!
Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, by Edward Humes
In Garbology, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Edward Humes follows a trail of trash through the United States and shows his reader just how much the material is woven into our lives. Originally published in 2013, Garbology has reached widespread success and has even been introduced into some high school curricula, due not just to its enlightening material but also Humes’s anecdotal, entertaining writing. On his journey, Humes introduces “a collection of garbage denizens unlike anyone you’ve ever met,” including artists who live in the San Francisco dump. Neil Seldman at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance calls Garbology “an excellent concise history of how the US became addicted to garbage and the socioeconomic and environmental dilemmas of today.” Garbology is an essential addition to your Best Environmental Books reading list.
Like other famous environmental exposés before it, Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff is paired with a successful documentary released three years prior. Leonard researches her subjects in depth through investigative journalism, and by “sneaking into factories and dumps around the world [and] visiting textile workers in Haiti and children mining coltan for cell phones in the Congo.” Leonard analyzes the way production and waste have become a purposeful cycle and offers suggestions for ending that cycle. Linda Poppenheimer at Green Groundswell writes about The Story of Stuff: “the book is written in ‘real people’ language with humor sprinkled in. There are facts and figures but you don’t need a science degree to understand them…Leonard offers views into what’s wrong but also provides good examples and hopeful suggestions for the future.”
Sustainable Food Systems
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan
Nutrition has become less about the food itself and more about the obscure ways to describe it, the structure of diets, and proving which chemicals are better for us. In his #1 New York Times bestseller, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan presents a more simple alternative to the healthy eating lifestyle that has become so complicated and chemical: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Pollan attempts to “bring pleasure back to eating” while maintaining a healthy yet clear attitude towards food. Janet Maslin at The New York Times calls In Defense of Food “a tough, witty, cogent rebuttal to the proposition that food can be reduced to its nutritional components without the loss of something essential.”
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one of the New York Times Book Review’s Ten Best Books of the Year (2006), is Michael Pollan’s seminal book on how food choice plays a significant role in impacting climate change. Pollan analyzes the origins of a meal, from taking a drive to the McDonald’s drive-through to making dinner completely from scratch in your own garden, discussing the positives and negatives along the way. The Austin Chronicle calls it “a brilliant, revolutionary book with huge implications for our future, and a must-read for everyone.” Originally published in 2007, The Omnivore’s Dilemma was crucial in opening conversations around food that, today, seem commonplace and fundamental.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver’s #1 New York Times Bestseller, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, tells of “her family’s adventure as they move to a farm in southern Appalachia and realign their lives with the local food chain.” The Kingsolver family wanted to see how their lives would change if they understood the process by which their food arrives at their table. The year-long project has now turned into much more, including a farm-to-table restaurant and community development project. Janet Maslin at The New York Times says about Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: “Without sentimentality, this book captures the pulse of the farm and the deep gratification it provides, as well as the intrinsic humor of the situation.”
Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, by Tristram Stuart
In Waste, Tristram Stuart travels from nation to nation both to investigate just how big of a problem global food waste is and to learn what innovative farmers and thinkers are doing to combat waste. Wealthy nations discard more than enough food annually to feed the world’s hungry, but, as Stuart tells us, “there could be surprisingly painless remedies for what has become one of the world’s most pressing environmental and social problems.” Publishers Weekly writes that “Stuart’s thoughtful illumination of the problem and his proposed solutions are bound to get even the most complacent citizen thinking…[Waste] is passionately argued and rigorously researched, and is an important contribution to the discussion of sustainability.”
100 Under $100: Tools for Reducing Postharvest Losses, by Betsy Teutsch
100 Under $100, written by Betsy Teutsch, is a guide for the ordinary citizen but designed to help farms minimize post-harvest losses—which is what occurs when farmed food (roughly 40%) diminishes from the moment of harvest to the moment of consumption. The book is sponsored by The Postharvest Education Foundation, a group designed to educate and inspire people and companies about food losses and waste. 100 Under $100 is full of anecdotes, graphs and photos, and user-friendly descriptions that will help preserve food in each phase of its journey from farm to table.
Dumping In Dixie: Race, Class, And Environmental Quality, by Robert Bullard
A foundational work that opened the discussion on environmental racism, Robert D. Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie follows the stories of five African-American communities in their efforts to combat local environmental inequity. Bunyan Bryant of the University of Michigan hails Bullard’s book as “a forceful treatise that most cogently demonstrates the interplay between environmental issues and social justice concerns.” Dumping in Dixie is deeply informative and eye-opening, and is a valuable and historical introduction to understanding environmental racism in the United States.
Toxic Communities by Dorceta Taylor is the modern guidebook on the causes, effects, and living conditions of those in poor and minority neighborhoods that have been ravaged by environmental racism. Taylor draws from her own research, in addition to historical and contemporary nationwide studies to provide a summary of zoning laws, debates on environmental racism, and the effects of government legislation. Sheila Foster, author and professor at Georgetown University, praises how Taylor “not only forthrightly confronts the complex causal processes that shape the uneven distribution of environmental hazards, but she does so with a keen sensitivity to the vast differences among communities, their geographies and their histories.” Toxic Communities is a comprehensive and compelling introduction to environmental racism in America.
A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind, by Harriet Washington
In A Terrible Thing to Waste, author Harriet Washington attempts to open up a new conversation surrounding environmental racism: the powerful intellectual loss of people of color whose health and lives are disproportionately affected by environmental and social hazards, such as pollution, poor infrastructure, and bad nutrition. Professor Gerald Markowitz calls A Terrible Thing to Waste “a powerful and indispensable book for anyone who cares about a just and healthy future for all Americans.” Washington both acknowledges the historical and current injustices that have placed communities of color at higher environmental risk and asks her reader to reflect on how much these communities have to offer.
Frontlines: Stories of Global Environmental Justice, by Nick Meynen
In Frontlines, Nick Meynen, environmental activist and investigative journalist, recalls his past ten years exploring the lives and communities of those on the frontlines of the environmental crisis. Meynen has traveled across the globe, investigating the resistance to mining in India, lawsuits and challenges to local governments, and hidden toxic waste dumps in Italy. Fellow author and activist Naomi Klein writes that Frontlines “harnesses the power of lived experience to bring our most urgent, high-stakes policy debates to life, and it deserves a wide international audience.” Not one to sugarcoat the dire situation of our environmental crisis, Meynen tempers his analysis with accounts of how people are combating the problem with creative solutions.
Green and Healthy Gardening
Nature’s Best Hope, by Doug Tallamy, is both a beginner’s guide to gardening naturally, with wildlife-friendly native plants, and an appeal to individual accountability. Tallamy makes the effort against climate change deeply personal while maintaining a mindset that this is, of course, a global issue. Scott Freeman, Environmental author and columnist Scott Freeman calls Nature’s Best Hope “a clarion call to go native: acting locally in your yard or neighborhood and thinking globally about the biodiversity crisis.” The book is full of realistic tips for anyone looking to make a difference, no matter how small.
In his original book on the importance of native plants, Bringing Nature Home, Doug Tallamy offers a more specific, smaller-scale definition of the food chain. With the decline in native species in our backyards and parks, native insects, without plant food sources, die off—then birds and other animals are left without food. Tallamy tells his readers how to choose native plants and what to do to restore the balance in their own small ecosystems. Anne Raver at the New York Times calls Bringing Nature Home “a fascinating study of the trees, shrubs and vines that feed the insects, birds and other animals in the suburban garden.”
In The Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson takes a subject matter as specific as the loss of carbon in our soil and transforms it into a personal, yet ultimately global, story of science and nature. Ohlson shows her reader how industrial farming techniques and general poor landscaping practices have, over the years, caused an 80% loss of carbon in soil, contributing to the warming of our atmosphere. Along the way, she introduces us to the “visionaries—scientists, farmers, ranchers, and landscapers—who are figuring out in the lab and on the ground how to build healthy soil.” Kirkus Reviews says about The Soil Will Save Us: “But dirt—or soil, if you prefer—takes on character in Ohlson’s hands, and readers will soon become invested in its well-being, for soil is a planetary balancer, and from its goodness comes the food we eat.”
Green Landscape Design
The Living Landscape: Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden, by Douglas Tallamy and Rick Darke
Rick Darke and Douglas Tallamy come together to write The Living Landscape, a helpful guide for designing a beautiful backyard that is also environmentally responsible. Darke and Tallamy’s book “offers beauty on many levels, provides outdoor rooms and turf areas for children and pets, incorporates fragrance and edible plants, and provides cover, shelter, and sustenance for wildlife.” They focus on native plants, functional living spaces, and realistic flora choices designed for the novice gardener. Anne Raver at the NYT says that these “two giants of the natural gardening world…have collaborated on their best work yet” in The Living Landscape.
Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscape, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West
In Planting in a Post-Wild World, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West identify problems with what they call our “post-wild world,” which is represented by urban sprawls, the taming of nature for the sake of aesthetic, and mass suburbanization which results in a lack of proper biodiversity. The authors present their idea of designed plant communities, in which the goal is to combine realistic plant choices with a layout that fosters natural growth. Penny Lewis at the Ecological Landscape Alliance writes, “For designers who are committed to ecological principles, this book offers both the inspiration and the practical steps necessary to be transformative. This valuable resource is one to read and enjoy – and read again.”
Tapestry Lawns: Freed from Grass and Full of Flowers, by Lionel Smith
In his book Tapestry Lawns, Lionel Smith criticizes the resource-draining, ornamental grass lawns that have taken over the suburbs and argues for the more biodiversity-friendly trend of tapestry lawns. Through planting alternating flowers and more native plants, tapestry lawns “are substantially richer in their diversity of plant and animal life compared to traditional grass-only lawns and see the return of flowers and color to a format from which they are usually purposefully excluded.” Lionel Smith both warns his readers of the unseen dangers of popular grass lawns and instructs them how to make lawns more colorful, kinder to the environment, and even easier to care for.
Wildlife Gardening: For Everyone and Everything, by Kate Bradbury
Kate Bradbury’s Wildlife Gardening is, as its title suggests, truly a guide for everyone interested in gardening, whether you’re starting out on an apartment balcony or expanding one that’s already in your backyard. Bradbury emphasizes the importance of gardening with wildlife in mind and includes helpful information about what kinds of species need the most help, right alongside her tips, charts, and suggestions. Green City Gardens states that Wildlife Gardening takes “broad ideas…and provides specific detail on what features to include to attract different types of wildlife, and even particular species…a great resource.” Bradbury’s guidebook is practical, engaging, and endorsed by both the Wildlife Trusts and The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).
Publishing company DK’s guide, Your Well-Being Garden, focuses on how the right plants, flowers, and natural spaces can be not just helpful for the environment, but healing to humans too. The book brings up topics such as: “How certain plants can form a barrier against air and noise pollution…which birdsong alleviates anxiety…how plants can help to save energy…[and] why green is so good for us.” Your Well-Being Garden contains tips, suggestions, and stories — all backed by scientists, researchers, and gardeners — to demonstrate how helping the environment also helps us.
Therapeutic Gardens: Design for Healing Spaces by Daniel Winterbottom, Amy Wagenfeld
Landscape architect Daniel Winterbottom and occupational therapist Amy Wagenfeld combine their areas of expertise in Therapeutic Gardens to give readers suggestions on how to garden with both mental and physical health in mind. Utilizing garden features such as design, function, color, and spacing, Winterbottom and Wagenfeld “demonstrate how healing spaces can be designed to support learning, movement, sensory nurturance, and reconciliation, as well as improved health.” Charles Christainsen, at the American Occupational Therapy Foundation, says of Therapeutic Gardens: “This incredible book has that rare combination of beautiful design and applied therapeutic science, which together makes it a complete, balanced, and valuable resource.”
The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature by Sue Stuart-Smith
In The Well-Gardened Mind, psychiatrist Sue Stuart-Smith writes about the emotional and physical healing powers of gardening, which she calls “one of the quintessential nurturing activities.” Restorative gardening is not a new concept, but Smith argues that there is much more to the practice than is assumed. She draws on personal anecdotes, historical examples, and her career in psychology. PD Smith at The Guardian writes that The Well-Gardened Mind “is a life-affirming study of the special pleasures of tending your garden and growing things.” Stuart-Smith’s stories are heartfelt and her suggestions are valuable, all with the intent of bringing peace to your life and garden.
Herbal Remedy Gardens: 38 Plans for Your Health & Well-Being by Doris Byers
Doris Byers’s Herbal Remedy Gardens is a helpful and practical guide for those who wish to learn how to grow and use healthy herbs at their own home. She includes common and easy-to-find herbs for nutritional as well as medicinal purposes and includes recipes for healing mixtures. Byers also offers tips on customizable gardens such as cold and flu, decongestant, headache relief, women’s care, and rejuvenation. Herbal Remedy Gardens is full of fun facts and suggestions and is an essential tool for both beginners and advanced gardeners.
Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren
In Lab Girl, geobiologist Hope Jahren recounts her lifetime of experiences studying the soil and everything that grows out of it, drawing from her childhood memories and appealing to the scientist in all of us. Jahren alternates her chapters between the lives of different plants and her own life, showing us both how similar we can be to trees or flowers and how strikingly unique plants are in the world. Michiko Kakutani at The New York Times calls Lab Girl “at once a thrilling account of her discovery of her vocation and a gifted teacher’s road map to the secret lives of plants.” Hope Jahren lovingly tells her readers how she came to appreciate nature so much, and along the way, shows us why we should, too.
Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben
Peter Wohlleben’s New York Times bestseller, Hidden Life of Trees, filled with poetic writing and beautiful imagery, examines the ways in which trees are actually social beings that communicate, stay together, and have a life of their own. Wohlleben combines real scientific discoveries and research with his own experiences as a practiced forester, and his writing is both practical and deeply personal. Scientist Tim Flannery tells readers, in the foreword: “If you read this book, I believe that forests will become magical places for you, too.” Hidden Life of Trees asks us to more deeply contemplate just how much plants are living beings.
Connecting With Nature
Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey
Originally published in 1968, Edward Abbey’s memoir Desert Solitaire is an impassioned call for the appreciation of nature amidst the manufactured, rapidly developing world of today. The book recounts Abbey’s time as an Arches National Park Ranger near Moab, Utah, and it is just as filled with entertaining anecdotes and personal moments as it is filled with arguments for wildlife and nature conservation. In a special 50-year anniversary review, Douglas Brinkley at The New York Times writes that Abbey’s storytelling “is a perfectly rendered hybrid of transcendental joy, coyote humor, in-your-face wrath, field science detail, philosophical righteousness, and moral clarity.” Desert Solitaire is a true classic and remains as potent and beautiful today as it was years ago.
Now a movie starring Robert Redford, Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods is a charming, hilarious, and emotional journal of Bryson’s real journey on the massive Appalachian Trail. He introduces us to entertaining characters—animal and otherwise—and mixes a deep appreciation for nature with a laugh-out-loud commentary on the ridiculousness of everything he encounters. Barnes & Noble Reads writes that, in addition to being full of facts and engaging material, Bryson’s “wry account of the many pitfalls he encounters and errors in judgment he makes at every step will give outdoorsy people a good chuckle, while giving indoorsy people some very useful tips.” A Walk in the Woods is truly a great read for anyone, even if you think you don’t like hiking.
The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey
Edward Abbey’s classic, raunchy novel The Monkey Wrench Gang tells the story of four crazed misfits as they seek to destroy the corporations that turned America into a mined, manufactured, paved oasis. George Washington Hayduke III returns from war and is shocked to find the dramatic changes in the American West wrought by corporate development. Abbey’s account of Hayduke and his gang’s tear through the American West is filled with equal parts hilarious absurdity and serious introspection on the human ravages of nature. In an original, 1976 review, Jim Harrison at The New York Times commends the characters and subjects of The Monkey Wrench Gang: “They are all plausible, sympathetic, in their sometimes comic torments, and Abbey renders them as convincingly as he does the landscape with all the breathless intensity of a true desolation angel.”
Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver
Named 2012’s “Best Book of the Year” by USA Today and the Washington Post, Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver is a beautiful, dramatic novel about a bored young housewife whose accidental discovery changes her life as well as the lives of those around her. Dellarobia Turnbow is a discontented mother and wife living in Appalachia, who, while on her way to beginning an affair, stumbles across millions of monarch butterflies in a valley. Her discovery plummets Turnbow and the reader into a competitive world of “religious leaders, climate scientists, environmentalists, politicians,” all the while enlightening us to the issues of climate change. National Public Radio’s review writes that Kingsolver’s “novel extols the ecstasy of passionate engagement — with people, ideas and the environment,” and praises its gentle, elegant honesty.
The Wall, by John Lanchester
John Lanchester’s dystopian novel The Wall focuses on an unnamed island—assumed to represent Great Britain—whose residents have built a perimeter long wall to protect themselves from a dangerous entity called the Change. The story follows Joseph Kavanaugh, an assigned ‘Defender’ of the wall, as he tries to protect his section of the wall from the effects of the Change, which includes rising sea levels, increased immigration, and extreme weather. Alec Nevala-Lee at The New York Times writes of Lanchester: “Lanchester constructs a more elegant wall in prose than any politician could in concrete,” reminding us of both the current political and climate importance that the book carries.
The Overstory, by Richard Powers
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction and William Dean Howells Medal, in addition to spending over a year on the New York Times bestseller list, The Overstory by Richard Powers is a compelling epic that weaves together tales and characters in a dramatic vision of our future (and past). The book follows nine main characters, eight of whom follow paths that lead to environmental activism. Although the arguments and methods they use are all different, they all echo the realistic and dire need for change. Barbara Kingsolver at The New York Times writes about Powers’s prose: “Using the tools of story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility while watching our own kind get whittled down to size.” The Overstory has amassed awards, prizes, and much critical praise. It is beautifully written, deeply insightful, and important work in environmental fiction.
Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward
A 2011 National Book of the Year recipient, Salvage the Bones is about a family living in poverty in rural Mississippi in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. It tells the story of Esch, pregnant at 14, as she and her three brothers struggle alone to prepare for the hurricane. Parul Senghal at The New York Times writes that Salvage the Bones “is a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale.” Jesmyn Ward is a gifted writer who combines sorrow with love, rage with tenderness, and whose portrayal of human emotions is utterly genuine.
Best Environmental Books for Children
Young Children: Toddler – 6 Years
The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss
Dr. Seuss’s beloved story The Lorax tells of a fuzzy orange environmental crusader (The Lorax) who tries to convince the Once-ler, who represents the consumer industry, to stop cutting down trees to make a profit. The Once-ler is naively greedy and manages to decimate his natural resources in the course of the story. But ultimately The Lorax is hopeful, and a young boy plants a new seed to regrow the forest. USA Today says that “The Lorax. . . has been a perennial favorite of kids and parents since it was published in 1971.”
The Lonely Polar Bear, by Khoa Lee
Written and illustrated by artist Khoa Lee, The Lonely Polar Bear tells the story of a young polar bear that wakes up after a storm without his mother, but soon encounters a little girl and various other animals. It is a gentle introduction to the topic of climate change and global warming, specifically in arctic environments, with beautiful whimsical illustrations.
Young Readers: Ages 6 – 8
The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge, by Joanna Cole; illustrated by Bruce Degen
Mrs. Frizzle is back with her time traveling, planet-hopping school bus, and this time she’s showing her enthusiastic students how the earth has changed since global warming, and how the younger generations can help. The Magic School Bus tells an honest, as always, fun story that’s full of vibrant and detailed drawings. As Kirkus Reviews says of Cole and Degen’s work: “it’s a tested formula that’s still as effective as ever for cluing in younger readers with a mix of instruction and droll side remarks.”
Middle Grades: Ages 8 – 12
How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming, by Lynne Cherry and Gary Braasch
Intended to help answer children’s unending trains of “why?” questions, Lynne Cherry’s and Gary Braasch’s How We Know What We Know looks at data and evidence from all over the world to show that the climate is actually changing. The authors’ writing is positive and gives children (and the adults helping them read the book) helpful tips that they can use to help the environment. How We Know What We Know is more advanced than the other books in this category, though it does include fun charts and many photos.
One Earth: People of Color Protecting Our Planet, by Anuradha Rao
In One Earth, author and biologist Anuradha Rao takes a trip around the world to interview and research individuals of all different ethnicities—profiling People of Color activists—to demonstrate the significance of the intersection between culture and the environment. Kirkus Reviews calls One Earth a “thought-provoking reading for young people figuring out their own contributions. This valuable compilation shows that Earth’s salvation lies in the diversity of its people.” Rao takes us on a life-affirming journey and introduces us to an array of wildly creative people of all ages. The stories are accompanied by photographs, illustrations, and fun facts. One Earth is a testament to the innovation and the power of people.
Young Adult: Ages 12 – 18
Where Have All the Bees Gone? Pollinators in Crisis, by Rebecca Hirsch
Where Have All the Bees Gone? by Rebecca Hirsch is a concise and helpful answer to questions we all have about why bees are so important to the earth’s and our health, and what we can do to help. J.B. Petty at Booklist comments about Where Have All the Bees Gone: “Color photographs and specialized text inserts enhance the narrative. Detailed source notes, a selected bibliography, and further readings give additional valuable information. An important resource for all libraries.” Hirsch’s writing is informative but ultimately hopeful and is a great read for kids and adults alike.
Exodus, by Julie Bertagna
Julie Bertagna’s dystopian novel, Exodus, takes place in the year 2099, when global warming has caused ocean levels to rise and submerge island after island. 15-year-old Mara and her community must flee their sinking island by boat, undertaking a harrowing journey towards metropolitan cities built on top of sunken islands. Of course, simply starting a new life isn’t easy, and Mara and her family need to be resourceful and clever about finding their way onto the island to start a new life. Exodus is an exciting tale packed with adventure and information, and a must-read for the young environmentalist looking to be inspired.