Blog – Posted on Friday, Apr 16
20 Insightful Books on the Environment and Climate Change Everyone Should Read
Books on the environment and climate change are growing in relevance — along with the need to fully understand how our lifestyles are impacting the planet. Luckily, there’s plenty of material out there for you to peruse, from well-researched nonfiction titles to acclaimed dystopian novels.
If you’re looking for suggestions from a trustworthy source then look no further: we’ve got you covered with a list of 20 books on the environment that everyone should read. With scientific research, historical overviews, economic arguments, political debates, and even some riveting fiction to explore, you’ll find a book recommendation on this list no matter your preference.
1. Rising by Elizabeth Rush
We don’t have to go far to kick things off — the impact of the changing climate is evident right along the coasts of America, as Elizabeth Rush eloquently shows in Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore. The true stories collected in this journalistic work don’t feature the catastrophic effects of hurricanes and flooding, but the gradual shifts that are taking place day by day, such as changes in the bird migration pattern, the slow sinking of houses on the isles of Louisiana, and the growing toxic mold in homes by the water’s edge.
While Rising is based on evidence Rush gathered in her field work, her talent for storytelling makes it an easy and enticing read. Through the tales she tells, she brings to light the harsh realities faced by many communities, who are having to cope with environmental changes with little support.
2. Where the Water Goes by David Owen
While Rising provides a cross-section of waterfront communities throughout America, Where the Water Goes dives deep into the history of the societies that concentrate along just one stream — the Colorado River. Today, this community is located in the dry desert of West America, but the Colorado River used to be the lifeblood of a wetland environment — a fairly well-known fact that is too often not fully understood. As Owen explains, throughout centuries of legal disputes regarding irrigation and water rights, the river has gradually been exploited and depleted, leaving us with the barren land we see today.
Owen examines this history and its consequences in accessible language, despite the incredible amount of information he covers. He highlights the inefficiencies of the current system, and how all the big cities linked to the river in question — including Los Angeles and Phoenix — are at risk, encouraging us to give this problem the attention it warrants.
3. Storming the Wall by Todd Miller
Even as rivers dry out, coastal areas are facing problems with rising sea levels. Flat countries that border the ocean (like Bangladesh) as well as island nations (like many of the Pacific Islanders) bear the brunt of these changes, their people left with no place to go as the water takes over their homes. As Todd Miller expertly addresses in Storming the Wall, the question of border control and refugee management is increasingly pressing within the context of these changing circumstances.
More than just an environmental issue, Miller’s worldwide coverage of frontiers at risk of being submerged shows readers that climate change is a matter of social division. The more we allow ourselves to be bordered off from one another, the harder it will be to manage the displacement that comes with climate change.
4. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells
Come on a trip to the near future with this New York magazine's David Wallace-Wells to see what we might be dealing with if we fail to remedy climate change. He provides glimpses of food shortages, flooding, and refugee crises, as people have no choice but to move away from environments that are no longer habitable. Even more alarming is the pace at which everything unfolds — the speed of climate change increases with every year that we fail to do something about it, the author warns.
Wallace-Wells doesn’t sugar-coat anything: he gives readers the full scoop on what’s waiting down the line in an unforgettable manner. It’s a succinct but shocking wake up call — and a great resource whether you need to be convinced, or want to convince others, that the time for action is now.
5. As Long as Grass Grows by Dina Gilio-Whitaker
While we’re on the topic of social division and injustice, we have to give a shout-out to As Long as Grass Grows by Dina Gilio-Whitaker. Many of us are aware of the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Reservation, but the fight for indigenous land has been going on for centuries. As a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes and a researcher in indigenous studies, Gilio-Whitaker understands this better than anyone else — and she shares her knowledge in this insightful book.
Ever since colonial times, the legal and political systems in America have overlooked indigenous peoples in order to protect settlers’ interests. This means disregarding the values that Native Americans place on the environment for the sake of resource extraction. A talented Native American writer, Gilio-Whitaker discusses these values and the efforts made to protect them throughout history in an accessible and compelling way. Her book demonstrates just how worthwhile and easy it is to sympathize and cooperate with other cultures to better protect our environment.
6. Losing Earth by Nathaniel Rich
One of the most bizarre things about climate change is probably the fact that we, as a human race, have known about it for quite a long time. In the late 19th century, we were already studying the effects of industrialization on air and water quality. By 1979, the same conversations that we have today about rising sea levels and the effects of man on nature were already being had. How is it that over 40 years later, we’re still here?
Nathaniel Rich tackles this question in Losing Earth, focusing on the defining moments in the 1980s, when our perception of the relationship between industrial activity and the environment was shaped for decades to come. In favoring the more instant gratification of economic growth over long-term sustainability, many politicians have altered our agenda on the issue. Losing Earth’s message doesn’t stop at highlighting the importance of environmental policies: it’s also a reminder of the power that politics has in shaping society’s understanding of the world.
7. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
Because of the enormous impact that environmental change is having on our own lives, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the planet is also experiencing a drastic shift. Elizabeth Kolbert details just how different life could be for a wide variety of species in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Sixth Extinction.
Written as a popular science text, Kolbert’s brand of nonfiction involves turning sound research into digestible information. After briefly explaining the history of extinction, she informs the reader that, unlike the previous five waves of mass extinction, this most recent one is man-made, and conversely it can be stopped with our own efforts. All over the world, from coral reefs to rainforests to our own backyards, various species of flora and fauna are being forced out of existence. Beyond climate change, poaching and deforestation are making the planet a less friendly and habitable place for many organisms. Kolbert’s central message is clear: the prevention of such catastrophe comes down to respecting nature, rather than viewing it as a resource pool for us to exploit.
8. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein
We can’t put together a list of environmental and climate change books without mentioning Naomi Klein. She has an impressive body of works that provides interesting perspectives on the workings of our commerce-driven world — including several volumes on how the climate crisis we’re dealing with is a consequence of our economic system. But if there’s one book you should pick up to better understand her views, it’s This Changes Everything.
Using her knowledge of economics, Klein breaks down the motivations and mindsets behind the corporatist resistance to climate action with clarity and conviction. She unpicks the media and politics produced by climate change deniers, many of whom have economic interests in cheaper fuels and raw materials, in order to demonstrate the urgency of the environmental problem we have on our hands. This Changes Everything boldly challenges the system that we’ve relied on for so long for growth and prosperity, in order to champion the cause of sustainability.
9. Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming by McKenzie Funk
If Klein’s book provides a Western-centric outlook on the topic of climate change and the economy, McKenzie Funk fills the gap by providing a global perspective. Using his background as an investigative journalist, Funk takes readers on a tour of international commercial networks that continue to grow at the expense of the planet’s well-being.
Following the trail of fossil fuel extraction, and the global businesses that are tied to it, Windfall examines how the goal of acquiring cheap resources goes hand in hand with a disregard for conserving and nurturing natural resources. Indeed, the melting of the polar ice caps has been seen not as a cause for concern but an opportunity to grow commercial activities, as trading routes and farmland open up. Windfall acts as a reminder that tackling climate change is very much about moving away from our patterns and finding new ways to function as a global network.
10. Flight Behavior: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver
If you’re a fiction-lover but would still like to better grasp the many layers of the climate change problem, then you’ll enjoy Flight Behaviour. The story follows Dellaboria Turnbow, a disillusioned woman who got married young and didn’t have the opportunity to pursue her education. She plans to move north in search of a new life, but stumbles across the vibrant vision of a colony of monarch butterflies in Tennessee, her own neck of the woods, and is quickly swept up in the adventure of trying to understand this strange scene. As a scientist named Ovid Byron shows her, the colony is prevented from migrating further south due to pollution and changes in the climate.
As Dellaboria learns more about this phenomenon, she comes to terms with her own background and how that kept her from really seeing what was happening to the environment. Kingsolver elegantly comments not just on our ignorance of the damage we do to nature, but also on the social and political dimensions of the problem, in which reality is skewed for the benefits of the few.
11. The Case for the Green New Deal by Ann Pettifor
The Green New Deal was an important part of the 2020 presidential campaign, particularly in the early stages of the Democratic debates. And even though it remained unendorsed by the subsequently elected government, its potential remains evident, especially as policy makers continue to work towards realizing it.
In The Case for the Green New Deal, Ann Pettifor works with economists to sketch out alternatives to the “business as usual” pathway that many policymakers follow. Her point is backed up with historical evidence: non-economic plans such as Roosevelt’s New Deal or the Marshall Plan have previously lifted America and its European allies out of moments of social devastation following the World Wars. There’s no reason to believe that a social plan like the Green New Deal, if executed with gusto and commitment, cannot deliver the same powerful effects. More importantly, Pettifor makes it crystal clear that it’s incredibly defeatist to not even try.
12. Don't Even Think About It by George Marshall
Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change addresses one of those questions that’s rather hard to answer: Why do we ignore the issue of climate change? If you’ve read even one of the books mentioned above, then it should be hard to convince you that climate change is not a problem. Most of us know the facts — and yet we’ve done very little towards remedying the situation. Why? Well, Marshall has traveled far and wide, and spoken to a huge range of people, to provide you with a possible answer.
From psychologists to environmentalists, liberals to conservatives, Marshall’s survey of our thoughts on our environmental impact opens up a window for readers to think about human nature, and how we process the complex idea of climate change. As a teaser for the book, think about how you would deal with any problem you face. Theoretically, you’d determine the root cause and find a way to address that, right? Well, what if, like climate change, your problem has multiple causes that are occurring in various places? It’s difficult to pinpoint a root cause and a straightforward solution. But as Marshall suggests, we can build better human connections in order to better understand the nuances of the climate crisis as a community — and that’s a good first step.
13. The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh
Tackling the same question as Don’t Even Think About It, Amitav Ghosh’s book of essays tries to find the answer on a wider scope. In The Great Derangement, he examines how our global network of media content and politics has failed to emphasize the importance of a greener world.
Covering three topics — literature, history, and politics — Ghosh highlights how international relations of power have influenced the way we think about climate change. While there is evidence to show that the levels of air pollution in India and China are much more worrying than those in the Western world, Ghosh argues that this popular rhetoric fails to fully explore our joint responsibility to stop global warming. He analyzes the discourse on climate change books, fiction and nonfiction, to demonstrate how our perceptions are skewed by the people telling the story. The Great Derangement is an interesting and refreshing take on the global climate crisis that you shouldn’t miss out on.
14. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
On the topic of literature, it’s encouraging to see more and more fiction books address the issue of climate change. While classic dystopian novels, like The Drowned World or The Road, depict future worlds ravaged by natural disasters, they stray more on the side of the imaginative than The Water Knife — a piece of speculative fiction that bears an uncanny resemblance to home.
Bacigalupi sets this story in the areas surrounding the Colorado River, where (as we’ve heard from Where the Water Goes) people have long been contesting and exploiting the natural resources. It is here that a covert operative worker for a resort developer, a journalist investigating the mysterious murder of her activist friend, and a young refugee farmer cross paths. As they struggle on with their own lives, they come to realize how the larger battle to access a water source that ought to be protected connects them all.
15. How Bad Are Bananas? by Mike Berners-Lee
Spoiler alert: we’re not here to debate how delicious or nutritious bananas are. Instead, it’s the impact of our banana consumption on the environment that’s the subject under Mike Berners-Lee’s microscope. What goes into producing a simple food like a banana or a tomato (or any other product, really) is a lot more complex than soil, sun, and water. Fruits are transported across countries to get from farmer to consumer, and many are grown out of season, which means that extra measures have to be taken to replicate certain weather conditions year-round. And that’s only fruits and vegetables — what about global events involving thousands of people, like the World Cup or wars?
In How Bad are Bananas?, Berners-Lee provides you with a digestible breakdown of carbon footprints, complemented by clear graphs and diagrams that are hard to forget. It’s very much a book about sustainability, as it effectively makes you think about every purchase you might make in your life. And while the changes you make right now might be small, remember that these choices will accumulate with time, and your decisions will matter in the long run.
16. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg
If you’re still on the fence about how much you can really do to remedy the situation, let Greta Thunberg convince you that you can make a difference. Since 2018, the young activist has been using her words and actions, like choosing to travel by sea unless there’s an emergency, to show that reducing your personal carbon footprint is important and possible.
Unlike the kind of inspirational book we’ve come to expect, Thunberg’s sobering voice is at once alarming and riveting. She asks her readers and listeners (since this book collects the speeches she’d made) to “act as if our house is on fire, because it is”. She’s asking us to feel the gravity of the situation, because that’s how we can begin to take serious action. Reading her thoughts is an eye-opening experience, and it really goes to show that no one is too small to make a difference.
17. Frontlines: Stories of Global Environmental Justice by Nick Meynen
Nick Meynen has spent several years in academia, studying geography, conflicts, development — and further years carrying out field research and working on policies that address these issues. He’s seen his fair share of fights for environmental protection across the world, and in Frontlines he gives readers the full scoop.
From gold mining to sand mining, there are plenty of multinational industries perpetuating the “business as usual” model while the lives of those on the ground are straying further and further away from any kind of “usual”. Meynen succinctly discusses this topic, as well as the people (farmers and activists, adults and children, and many in between) who’ve stood up to industrial giants in order to protect their environment. It’s a fascinating book that shares both victories and defeats, but never fails to instill hope in its readers by letting them know that many people continue to fight for this cause.
18. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates
Hot off the press in 2021, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster lays out all that Bill Gates has learned over a decade spent building sustainable development programs across the world. From the science behind climate change to its politics, Gates provides a clear overview of some of the key factors leading to the continuation of global warming. He suggests that the way forward, if we don’t want to experience climate catastrophe, is to encourage innovation and move away from a West-dominated development policy.
How can you participate in this process, if you’re not part of a governmental or intergovernmental body? Well, awareness is the first step, and using your voice to share your knowledge is the second. Sound, rational, and hopeful, Gates’s book is another one to keep around to remind you that there is a solution, and you can be part of it.
19. Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken
The climate drawdown is the point at which the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stops climbing and starts to level off — and it’s considered a turning point in the process to stop climate change. Paul Hawken has been spearheading Project Drawdown since 2014, collaborating with researchers, investors, and activists alike to analyze the costs and benefits of multiple plans to tackle climate change, and determine the most favorable one. What his team found is compiled in Drawdown, which was published in 2017.
The proposed solutions target various areas, including innovative food production, opportunities for women and girls, sustainable urbanization and transport systems. What Hawken and his fellow environmentalists show is that policies and actions that protect the environment don’t just benefit nature, they benefit society as well. For those interested in more updates on the proposed policies, you can also visit Project Drawdown’s website to find the 2020 review.
20. The Overstory by Richard Powers
We’ll end our list with a soulful novel and another Pulitzer Prize-winner — The Overstory by Richard Powers. It follows a range of characters who all share a particularly powerful relationship with trees. There’s the Hoel family, who maintain the tradition of taking a photo of the chestnut tree on their farm once every year from generation to generation. There’s a duo of corporate workers in Oregon who watch as the city around them becomes less and less green, only to realize that they are willing to do anything to stop it. And there’s a married couple who can’t quite find happiness no matter what they do, be it having an adventure or a stable life — until they found their joint love for trees.
The stories about these people all across America, in various periods of time, intertwine to create a rich tale that puts nature at its heart. Through its many lively and never repetitive descriptions of trees, and the emotional connections that it conveys, The Overstory poetically reminds us that perhaps climate action begins with a harmonious relationship with nature.
If you’ve enjoyed this list, perhaps you’d like to check out these 60 nonfiction books and learn more about the world we live in today!