5 Books for Understanding the Environmental Crisis

5 Books for Understanding the Environmental Crisis

Book recommendations for concerned citizens of Planet Earth.

Is knowledge really power? The old adage has taken a hit in recent years, and can be readily disproved by contemplating the occupants of high office at any given moment. But there is still an important connection between the two. Becoming a well-informed citizen of Planet Earth is a laudable aim and the starting point for positive, meaningful action. 

Listed below are some people who know more than anyone about the complex ways the natural world is under threat. Running the gamut of ecological collapse, collective folly, and human ingenuity, their books are vital reading for anyone trying to wrap their head around what’s happening to the planet and why.

Find them at the library, buy them from your local bookshop, gift them to your family this Christmas. Read them and weep. Then do something about it.

5 Books for Understanding the Environmental Crisis

1. From What Is To What If by Rob Hopkins

From What Is To What If by Rob Hopkins – Image Credit: Chelsea Green Publishing

A serious and courageous work about the untapped potential of the collective imagination. Its author is a seasoned environmental campaigner based in Devon; according to the American journalist Bill McKibben, who wrote the ‘80s classic The End of Nature, “there’s no one on earth who’s just done more [environmental] stuff – and inspired more doing – than Rob Hopkins”. This book, subtitled Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want, is full of heartening stories, big ideas, practical examples, extraordinary characters, ingenious communities, and hope grounded in experience.

2. Feral by George Monbiot

Feral by George Monbiot – Image Credit: Penguin

The best and probably most influential of Monbiot’s books, Feral is a hymn to the natural world and everything that humans stand to gain by re-engaging with it. Beautifully written and rigorously argued, it’s the perfect introduction to rewilding and what it might look like in practice. Learn about trophic cascades, Shifting Baseline Syndrome, the spillover effect, and the interdependency of basically everything that lives and dies. Read, in impassioned yet fair-minded, open-hearted prose, how England’s pleasant pastures were once canopied with lush rainforest, and megafauna roamed what is now central London.

3. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert -Image Credit: Henry Holt

Elizabeth Kolbert, who covers the environment for The New Yorker, is perhaps the twenty-first century’s pre-eminent chronicler of environmental decline. Her work brings together science, politics, history, psychology and economics, ranging across questions of climate, biodiversity, extinction, food security and more. In 2006 she published Field Notes from a Catastrophe, which documented the role of corporate and political malfeasance in various environmental disasters. Last year’s Under a White Sky addressed solar geoengineering and other proposed technological fixes. (“To be a well-informed citizen of Planet Earth, you need to read Elizabeth Kolbert,” declared one of the many glowing blurbs.) But this, her best-known book, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014, is a good place to start.

4. The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells – Image Credit: Penguin

A fairly bleak read, as you probably gathered from the title, brightened by occasional glimmers of hope. Wallace-Wells, an American journalist, considers in remorseless detail some of the probable and possible consequences of a warming planet. These are grouped under chapter headings that give a fair idea of the book’s tone: Heat Death, Hunger, Drowning, Dying Oceans, Unbreathable Air, Plagues of Warming, Economic Collapse, etc. The final section reviews a few of the potential ways out of this mess. The book’s dense with facts and figures, but the momentum of its disaster narrative is more than sufficient to hold your attention. 

5. The World We Made by Jonathon Porritt

The World We Made by Jonathon Porritt – Image Credit: Phaidon

If the previous couple of books on this list left you feeling gloomy, this here is the perfect antidote. The basic premise is as follows: in the year 2050, teacher Alex McKay looks back on the last thirty years, recalling how humanity stepped up to the plate and restored an ailing planet to health. It’s a couple of years old now which means the timeline is a little out of sync, but this shouldn’t detract from the core message, which is one of hope and possibility.

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