25 Novels That Will Turn You Into an Environmentalist

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Earth Day is upon us, and you know what that means: time to pick up the trash in your neighborhood, or hug a tree, or at least think a little bit about your carbon footprint. Not exactly your cup of tea? Then how about reading one of these novels (er, and two short story collections and one children’s book), each guaranteed to turn you into some kind of environmentalist, whether by scare tactics (post-apocalyptic climate nightmare!) or straight wooing (look at all these pretty plants and things!). And, we promise, none of these is as boring as Walden. Celebrate Earth Day from the comfort of your couch this year, and next year… well, who knows?

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

The first in Atwood’s remarkable trilogy takes place in a climate change-induced bio-wasteland where humans are not quite humans anymore. The most terrifying thing about it? As Atwood has said, it’s not even science fiction, because it doesn’t feature anything that hasn’t, in some form, already been invented. The next two books in the series, which you’ll gobble up as soon as you finish this one, only intensify the feeling that something must be done.

My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell

A story of a hilarious family set on the Greek island of Corfu. Durrell may be the “champion of small uglies,” but his eloquent descriptions of the natural world around him will make you swoon — and remind you of how important all those little uglies (and pretties) really are.

The Shell Collector, Anthony Doerr

OK, I’m already cheating with a short story collection, but I just can’t help it. Doerr’s first collection is heart-stoppingly gorgeous in about every way — but for our purposes here, I’ll call attention to his use of nature as a wondrous, intricate, and powerful thing, a force to marvel at and reckon with, the best kind of everyday magic, something we can’t afford to lose.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

Don’t want your child to grow up in a world devoid of wildlife, where the skies rain ash and cannibals run amok? Start recycling.

Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver’s background in biology and undeniable narrative talent make this novel about monarch butterflies and “global weirding” a lucid beauty — both as a page-turning story and as a compelling argument to care about the fragile world around us.

Shadow Country, Peter Matthiessen

Matthiessen’s sweeping American epic corralled into the single book it was always meant to be. It’s an ode to the Everglades and to wildness from one of the greatest nature writers of our time.

The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard

In Ballard’s steamy, broody first novel, it is 2145 and the ice caps have melted, leaving London submerged and overrun by a wet, prehistoric-style jungle. What few humans the world has left must confront the psychological and physical effects of their new, hostile home. You don’t want to be one of them.

Odds Against Tomorrow, Nathaniel Rich

Speaking of drowned worlds: in Rich’s novel, a young man makes his living off predicting worst-case scenarios (so that companies may protect themselves from them), and winds up being viewed as some kind of prophet when a great flood overcomes New York City. The novel also found itself somewhat prophetic, coming out just after Hurricane Sandy dunked Manhattan. Too close of a call, I’d say.

Far North, Marcel Theroux

Another excellent post-global-warming-apocalypse novel, this one leaving the world an arctic shell, where if you come upon the wrong settlement, you may be rather easily sold into slavery. For those of you who’d really rather avoid frostbite.

Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

Think of it this way: when all the animals on Earth have been run out of existence by humanity, who will we have to engage in epic existential struggles with?

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson

As the title suggests, this gorgeous book of vignettes that tells the story of a girl and her grandmother on a remote unpopulated island is as close as it gets to summer in book form. Lovely and joyous and gratitude-inducing.

A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, Norman Maclean

Another cheat (sort of), but there’s no making this list without including Maclean’s classic work, with its deep love and respect for the natural world and fascination with man’s relationship to it. Even if you’ve never picked up a fishing rod, you’ll feel the power of the Rocky Mountains and the blue water with each sentence of this book.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki

Miyazaki’s classic manga features an environmentalist-crusader-princess who pretty much everyone will want to emulate. If only for all that wind-riding.

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Not only is Middle-earth often gorgeous, but next time you want to misuse wads and wads of paper, just consider all the Ents you’re totally killing.

Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier, Wallace Stegner

Stegner was not only one of the best writers of his generation, but one of the best environmentalists as well. This book blends memoir, history, fiction, and essay to create some kind of autobiography as well as some of the most beautiful descriptions of landscape you’ll ever find anywhere.

The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey

The classic comic call-to-arms to protect the American wilderness from industrial development — so influential that “monkeywrench” has come to refer to any kind of extra-legal effort to protect the environment.

The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino

Calvino’s fable-like novel will convince you of the merits of spending your life living among the trees — and in order to do that, there have to be trees to live among. So, it only follows…

When the Killing’s Done, T.C. Boyle

Boyle’s thought-provoking novel sets a National Park Service biologist and her attempts to rid the Channel Islands of its many pests against a local hippie business owner and protector of wildlife. It’s a thriller of sorts with a core of deep empathy for everyone involved — human and animal.

Dune, Frank Herbert

Dune is famous for being the “first planetary ecology novel on a grand scale.” Herbert’s complex depiction of the planet (albeit a sand planet) reminds us of the importance of all its interlocking parts, and is also just pretty impressive. Also, let’s try to avoid ending up on a sand planet.

The Wind Up Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi

Here’s another SF novel that features a future miserable enough to make you an environmentalist on the spot — a post-oil world where calories are currency, sea levels are on the move, and corruption (not to mention mutation) runs rampant. How’d we get here? The corporations who destroyed the planet in order to maintain profit margins, of course.

Solaris, Stanislaw Lem

Look, man, don’t mess with the ocean. It might just mess with you right back.

The Call of the Wild, Jack London

A classic, of course. But you can’t inspire future generations of explorers (canine and otherwise) with this novel if there’s just no wild left to call them.

In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin

Supposedly a travel narrative and not a novel, but rather more generically complicated and ambiguous than it seems at first blush, so I’m including it. An unforgettable journey to the “uttermost part of the earth.”

Grass, Sheri S. Tepper

The beautiful opening of this bizarro sci-fi novel alone is enough to start anyone’s environmentalist engine revving:

Grass! Millions of square miles of it; numberless wind-whipped tsunamis of grass, a thousand sun-lulled caribbeans of grass, a hundred rippling oceans, every ripple a gleam of scarlet or amber, emerald or turquoise, multicolored as rainbows, the colors shivering over the prairies in stripes and blotches, the grasses — some high, some low, some feathered, some straight — making their own geography as they grow. There are grass hills where the great plumes tower in masses the height of ten tall men; grass valleys where the turf is like moss, soft under the feet, where maidens pillow their heads thinking of their lovers, where husbands lie down and think of their mistresses; grass groves where old men and women sit quiet at the end of the day, dreaming of things that might have been, perhaps once were.

It goes on.

The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein

Oh, you know why. Sniff.