Environmental Reading List
Any reading list is subjective. Here are a few texts that are often considered central to nature and environmental writing (minus Rachel Carson’s work, which you can find elsewhere on this site), as well as some more contemporary selections. For a more detailed exploration, try the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE), or the American Society for Environmental History. The ASLE also moderates a lively discussion group where this topic routinely surfaces.
by Dr. Seuss
When Dr. Seuss gets serious, you know it must be important. Published in 1971, and perhaps inspired by the “save our planet” mindset of the 1960s, The Lorax is an ecological warning that still rings true today amidst the dangers of clear-cutting, pollution, and disregard for the earth’s environment. In The Lorax, we find what we’ve come to expect from the illustrious doctor: brilliantly whimsical rhymes, delightfully original creatures, and weirdly undulating illustrations. But here there is also something more–a powerful message that Seuss implores both adults and children to heed.
An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It, by Al Gore (2006)
An Inconvenient Truth: The Crisis of Global Warming (2007)
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (to be released July 2017)
See also Al Gore on TED Talks
by Roger Gottlieb
The argument of Gottlieb’s hopeful, surprising book is that today, religious people and organizations are among the most committed, and most persuasive, environmental activists. Gottlieb’s view is global, principally examining religious green activism in the U.S., but also looking at Zimbabwe, Taiwan and the Vatican. And his approach is ecumenical, encompassing Jewish and Christian theologians who have found a powerful biblical call to stewardship of God’s creation, and Buddhist teachers who are prompted by their belief in compassion to extend care to the natural world. Church groups have participated in peaceful demonstrations against the Bush administration’s energy policy; Jews, inspired by the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, the birthday of the trees, have planted redwoods in denuded stream banks owned by grasping corporations; and interfaith groups have petitioned lawmakers to address global warming. Sometimes religious groups cooperate with secular organizers, as when the Sierra Club and the National Council of Churches co-sponsored a proconservation TV ad. Not only have religious activists helped energize the environmental movement, but environmentalism has reinvigorated religious practice: Lay people and clerics alike have crafted new religious rituals that celebrate the Earth, such as Buddhist gathas (short verbal formulas) for recycling and Christian liturgies for Earth Day. Gottlieb keeps academic jargon to a minimum, so this timely book should have crossover appeal. (Review © Publishers Weekly)
by Edward O. Wilson
Famed entomologist, humanist thinker, and cogent writer Wilson issues a forthright call for unity between religion and science in order to save the “creation,” or living nature, which is in “deep trouble.” Addressing his commonsensical yet ardent discourse to “Dear Pastor,” he asks why religious leaders haven’t made protecting the creation part of their mission. Forget about life’s origins, Wilson suggests, and focus on the fact that while nature achieves “sustainability through complexity,” human activities are driving myriad species into extinction, thus depleting the biosphere and jeopardizing civilization. Wilson celebrates individual species, each a “masterpiece of biology,” and acutely analyzes the nexus between nature and the human psyche. In the book’s frankest passages, he neatly refutes fantasies about humanity’s ability to re-create nature’s intricate web, and deplores the use of religious belief (God will take care of it) as an impediment to conservation. Wilson’s eloquent defense of nature, insights into our resistance to environmental preservation, and praise of scientific inquiry coalesce in a blueprint for a renaissance in biology reminiscent of the technological advances engendered by the space race. (Review © American Library Association)
by Terry Tempest Williams
The only constants in nature are change and death. Terry Tempest Williams, a naturalist and writer from northern Utah, has seen her share of both. The pages of Refuge resound with the deaths of her mother and grandmother and other women from cancer, the result of the American government’s ongoing nuclear-weapons tests in the nearby Nevada desert. You won’t find the episode in the standard history textbooks; the Feds wouldn’t admit to conducting the tests until women and men in Utah, Nevada, and northwestern Arizona took the matter to court in the mid-1980s, and by then thousands of Americans had fallen victim to official technology. Parallel to her account of this devastation, Williams describes changes in bird life at the sanctuaries dotting the shores of the Great Salt Lake as water levels rose during the unusually wet early 1980s and threatened the nesting grounds of dozens of species. In this world of shattered eggs and drowned shorebirds, Williams reckons with the meaning of life, alternating despair and joy.
by Annie Dillard
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a series of essays that combines scientific observation, philosophy, daily thoughts, and deeper introspection with glorious prose. On the surface, Annie Dillard is simply exploring a place called Tinker Creek and its inhabitants: “It’s a good place to live; there’s lots to think about.” But as her observations range well beyond the landscape into worlds of esoteric fact and metaphysical insight, each paragraph becomes suffused with images and ideas. The precision of individual words, the vitality of metaphor, the sheer profusion of sources, the vivid sensory and cerebral impressions – all combine to make Pilgrim at Tinker Creek something extravagant and extraordinary
by Henry David Thoreau
On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into the cabin he had built on the shore of Walden Pond. Walden: An Annotated Edition features the definitive text of the book with extensive notes on Thoreau’s life and times by the distinguished biographer and critic Walter Harding. In the third chapter, Thoreau writes, “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” For many readers, Walden is that book. Written a century and a half ago, it grows more meaningful every day, and whether you are reading it for the first time or the hundredth, Walter Harding’s insightful comments will open your eyes to the true depths of this masterpiece.
by Aldo Leopold
These original essays on the natural environment by renowned conservationist Leopold (1887-1948) were first published posthumously in 1949. In this edition, more than 80 lush photographs shot by nature photographer Michael Sewell on Leopold’s former Wisconsin farm accompany the text. Following the seasons, Leopold, whose seminal work in the U.S. Forest Service and in books and magazines helped shape the conservation movement in this country, shared his perceptive and carefully observed portraits of nature month by month. In April, he watched the “sky dance” of the woodcock, who flew upward in a series of spirals. As he hunted partridges in October, his way was lit by “red lanterns,” the blackberry leaves that shone in the sun. A November rumination details how the products of tree diseases provide wooded shelters for woodpeckers, hives for wild bees and food for chickadees. Included also is an appreciative essay on wild marshland and several pieces stressing the importance of protecting the natural environment. Leopold sadly observed, “there is yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” His hope that society would develop an “ecological conscience” by placing what should be preserved above what is economically expedient remains relevant today.
by Edward Abbey
Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, the noted author’s most enduring nonfiction work, is an account of Abbey’s seasons as a ranger at Arches National Park outside Moab, Utah. Abbey reflects on the nature of the Colorado Plateau desert, on the condition of our remaining wilderness, and on the future of a civilization that cannot reconcile itself to living in the natural world. He also recounts adventures with scorpions and snakes, obstinate tourists and entrenched bureaucrats, and, most powerful of all, with his own mortality. Abbey’s account of getting stranded in a rock pool down a side branch of the Grand Canyon is at once hilarious and terrifying.
by Bill McKibben
McKibben writes of our planet’s environmental cataclysm, including evidence about the greenhouse effect, the depletion of the ozone layer, and an array of other ecological ills. An impassioned plea for radical and life-renewing change, arguing eloquently the necessity of a fundamental shift in the way mankind relates to nature.
Other books by Bill McKibben
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
“Read it, please. Straight through to the end. Whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important.” —Barbara Kingsolver
American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
This anthology includes excerpts – as the title states, starting with Thoreau, up through recent activists.
by Sandra Steingraber
Sandra Steingraber, a poet and biologist, writes with extraordinary grace and clarity about that most depressing of subjects: cancer, a disease that sends you into an unfamiliar territory where all the rules of human conduct are alien. That territory, she suggests, is expanding as chemically poisoned environments begin to take their toll on their human inhabitants. This interaction between the disease and compromised natural zones takes her text into fascinating arguments. Along the way, Steingraber looks at community efforts to reverse the effects of carcinogenic toxins, such as an Iowa farming group’s decision to replace chemical herbicides with natural methods of pest control, following the principle of the least toxic alternative. She also suggests that with proper foresight we can do much to make our environments less dangerous.
A Scientific Detective Story by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, John Peterson Myers
Is there really a population crisis looming due to reduced human sperm counts? Is there anything we can do about it? This work by two leading environmental scientists and an award-winning journalist picks up where Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring left off, offering evidence that synthetic chemicals may have upset our normal reproductive and developmental processes. By threatening the fundamental process that perpetuates survival, these chemicals may be invisibly undermining the human race.
by Sara Stein
What kind of grass is planted behind your house? What insects burrow in your soil, and what birds eat them? What’s happening in that compost pile you’re so proud of? This book may well change the view from your patio. A former old-style suburban gardener, Sara Stein writes convincingly of the ecological history of suburbia and the necessity of good stewardship of the land stolen from prairies and forests to make our back yards.
by Cheryll Glotfelty (Editor), Harold Fromm (Editor)
Environmental ideas have been shaping politics and writing for many years now, and the literary critics are catching on. This wide-ranging anthology follows Wallace Stegner’s notion that an environmentally based criticism should be “large and loose and suggestive and open,”…Fortified by critical notes and reading lists, this collection is useful to students seeking a broad introduction to literary studies of environmental writing.
by Roderick Nash
A classic study of the origins of the wilderness thought. Nash provides some of the best short writing about historic figures who are central to the environmental movement: Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold. The theme throughout is wilderness, so readers should not make the mistake of thinking this is a definitive history of the environmental or conservation movements. However, as a scholarly introduction to major themes in environmental history, this book stands alone.
by Frank Stewart
A Natural History of Nature Writing is a penetrating overview of the origins and development of a uniquely American literature. Essayist and poet Frank Stewart describes in rich and compelling prose the lives and works of the most prominent American nature writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. He examines Henry D. Theoreau (the father of American nature writing); John Burroughs; John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club); Aldo Leopold; Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring); and Edward Abbey. Stewart highlights the controversies ignited by the powerful and eloquent prose of these and other writers with their expansive (and often strongly political) points of view. Combining a deeply-felt sense of wonder at the beauty surrounding us with a rare ability to capture and explain the meaning of that beauty, nature writers have had a profound effect on American culture and politics. A Natural History of Nature Writing is an insightful examination of an important body of American literature
by William Cronon (Editor)