Books That Changed The Way We Think About the Earth
We may be incredibly pessimistic about the direction our country is headed at the moment, but so were many residents back in the last days of Manifest Destiny, when Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden. (If you’re angry with President Obama, think about having Franklin Pierce as the commander-in-chief. That New Hampshire pretty boy came out in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, for chrissakes.) The titles below are books that changed the way we see the environment and the world at large, whether it was during the tumultuous political situation in the mid-1800s or today, where people are still arguing with each other about whether global warming actually exists. Some of these books changed laws, and all served (and continue to serve) as the Cassandras of our time. So happy Earth Day, everyone! Grab a book and get informed about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and what you can do about it.
Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy by Seth Fletcher (2011)
Even though the release date is May 10th, we decide to include Seth Fletcher’s new book because it’s such an important topic. He details the political and technological obstacles to making electric cars more popular and affordable while debunking the idea of “Peak Lithium.” Fletcher examines the rare earth elements that will fuel our future, using accessible language to explain complex scientific concepts. In the meantime, you can read Fletcher’s “Bottled Lightning” posts on Popular Science here.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (2006)
Whether you like him or not, Michael Pollan’s sobering critique of modern agriculture and our dysfunctional corn-fed Western diet began an important conversation about what we eat and how we get it. Maybe we won’t all abstain from eating chicken nuggets or loads of white bread, but the mere act of thinking before you eat is a good start to a healthier way of interacting with food. (Are you eating Chubby Hubby as you read this? You are, aren’t you?)
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (1997)
Jared Mason Diamond is a scientist and author of a number of thought-provoking books which are able to conflate scientific, historical, and social issues for a mass readership. If you want to find out how agricultural societies developed ruling classes and eventually become conquering empires, this is the place to start. Environmental factors really have shaped the course of history, and Diamond tells us why. (Side note: Like Thoreau, Diamond has a pretty amazing chin beard.)
Mother Country: Britain, The Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution by Marilynne Robinson (1988)
Robinson, who has previously received attention for her beautifully written debut novel, Housekeeping , investigates the northern English town of Sellafield, where a government-owned plant dumped loads of radioactive waste into the nearby Irish Sea for 40 years (providing yet another reason for the Irish to hate the British). Robinson showed that the ground and water was contaminated, and linked the high cancer rates in the area to lax environmental restrictions on pollution.
Hiroshima by John Hersey (originally published in The New Yorker in 1946)
At 8:15am on August 6, 1945, the first nuclear weapon to be used against a civilian population was dropped on Hiroshima, a Japanese city of roughly 400,000. John Hersey’s account was originally published in published by The New Yorker‘s August 31, 1946 issue, and detailed the experiences of six atomic bomb survivors. In a letter, Hersey writes his decision to write in an unassuming style: “A high literary manner, or a show of passion, would have brought me into the story as a mediator; I wanted to avoid such mediation, so the reader’s experience would be as direct as possible.” Hiroshima provided an unsparing view of the horrific situation on the ground for an audience of victors who believed we were in the right. The piece was introduced by the editors with two simple, effective sentences: “The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use.”
The Population Bomb by Paul and Anne Ehrlich (1968)
Even if Paul Erlich was wrong in predicting widespread famines in the 1970s, this husband and wife team were correct in addressing the issue of overpopulation and its stresses on the planet. It may be a Malthusian argument, but its one that has endured and is even more important to consider as the global population reaches seven billion. Nevertheless, this wasn’t an endorsement of Eugenics — it was meant as a common sense approach to curbing exponential growth. Forty years later, Walter Berglund tries to tackle the issue in Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom, but only ends up angering his neighbors and pissing of a whole load of West Virginians.
Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader (1965)
Ralph Nader’s name has never been synonymous with “fun,” but this landmark book has arguably saved lives and lead to the passing of the Clean Air Act of 1970 as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency that very same year. Nader gets into the environmental costs of driving in Chapter Four, titled, “The power to pollute,” which discusses LA’s growing smog problem. It might not be the sexiest of reads, but it’s definitely informative.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
The sixties were all about reform, and this book is known for kick-starting the environmental movement in the United States as well as leading to the ban on DDT and other harmful pesticides in the years to come. It was first published as a group of articles in The New Yorker in 1962, then published as a book later that year. Carson attended Pennsylvania College for Women and studied Zoology, graduating in 1929. She later became a junior aquatic biologist and published features on marine biology in the 1930s. She is quoted in Peter Matthiessen’s TIME article as saying, “The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became. What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important.”
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (1906)
“Chicago will be ours!” Upton Sinclair’s 1906 exposé on the corruption surrounding the meat packing industry in the windy city may be a socialist treatise on poverty in America, but it also details the horrors of life working in the stockyards, where officials are bribed, injuries are sustained, and workers scrape by on meager wages. This book no doubt influenced the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act that same year, and served as a model for Eric Schlosser’s popular 2002 book against McMeat, Fast Food Nation.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
Thoreau, in his 1854 treatise on living simply and being self-sufficient, is arguably the grandaddy of the environmental movement. He teaches us to eliminate waste, appreciate pastoral living, and learn to love the wilderness. Or, in modern terms, he instructs us how to lower our carbon footprint without feeling like we’re giving anything up by doing so. He also had a really fetching chin beard, a love of woodland creatures, and benevolent, if incredibly condescending, compassion for poor, misguided Irish farmhands who are trying to carve out their slice of the American dream pie. Three cheers for solitude and Utopian bliss!