This started out as a top-ten-books-about-environmentalism op-ed—essentially the books that shaped my eco-philosophy. And some of those books still remain, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that books simply covering the science don’t get you all the way. There are a number of authors (Rick Bass, for example) who do more than describe eco-systems and how to save them. Instead, they manage to go out and capture the truly inscrutable quality of the natural world, the mystery behind the mystery, and I realized that this list would be incomplete without these titles as well.
To make room for those, I’ve cut some obvious classics (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Aldo Leopold’s Sand Country Almanac) and did so not because there’s anything wrong with them—seriously, they’re both excellent books—but because they weren’t those that really affected me the most. So what I’ve come up with is a list of ten books that have done more to shape my eco worldview than all others. Some people are what they eat. I am what I read. So, for better or worse, here they are and here I am:
- Song of the Dodo by David Quammen
Okay, technically, this is a book about “island biogeography,” which is a fancy way of saying the study of islands. But the study of islands is also a really fancy way of saying the study of nature surrounded by boundaries that wildlife won’t cross—like, say, big interstate freeways. In fact, as Quammen eloquently points out that, since there are very few contiguous wildlands left, these days it’s all islands. And this has consequences. This is a book not only about those consequences, but about how we learned of them, meaning Quammen starts all the way back with Darwin and Wallace, and works forward from there.
It’s an amazing history of ecological/environmental thought, but that’s only half of what makes this book. The other half is the writing itself. Quammen is one of the few journalists who took the uppity fun-to-read style of the New Journalism (writers like Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson) and applied it to science. What’s left is, without question, a masterpiece.
- The Control of Nature by John McPhee
John McPhee is a tough one. I love his story of taking environmental legend David Browser on a rafting trip (Encounters with the Archdruid), and there are so many reasons his Pulitzer Prize-winning and downright incomparable Annals of the Former World remains the best book on geology ever written, but it’s his The Control of Nature that wins my vote, because it tells the story of a lesson we’ve yet to learn.
The Control of Nature is about the Army Corps of Engineers trying to tame the Mississippi. It’s about how and why humans repeatedly do way more damage than good when they try to mess with eco-systems. It’s the book that always and uncomfortably comes to mind when people start talking about space mirrors and ocean seeding as solutions to global warming.
- Against the Grain by Richard Manning
I have to be honest; this 250-page argument against agriculture is essentially a plea for a return to the hunter-gatherer state. That may sound like a lot to swallow. Turns out it’s not. The essay it was based on (“The Oil We Eat”) appeared in Harper’s Magazine a few years back and blew my mind. I thought it was perhaps the best piece of scientific essay writing I’d ever seen and then the book came out and beat it hands down. Truly, an amazing read.
- A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
If you want to truly appreciate the mystery of the natural world, it helps to understand how that world works. I am a mechanist by heart, so by “how does it work” what I really mean is how do all the pieces fit together moving across scales and orders of magnitude and such. Bryson’s book may be literally the best science book ever written, and it’s certainly the best macroscopic look at how our world works. Plus, no one is as fun to read as Bryson.
- The Hidden West by Rob Schultheis
I don’t think you can truly want to save the planet if you can’t appreciate the planet—and that means savoring the mystery. A lot of great writers have gone here (Thoreau, for example), but this book—mostly forgotten these days—is a true gem. Not only does Schultheis paint a great portrait of the American West, he gets as close to anyone I’ve ever read at also capturing the magic.
I used to doubt the veracity of passages in this work. This lasted until I moved to the Southwest and went hiking through those same tortuous slot canyons and desert whirls and outright madness that he discovered and here describes. Really, there’s nothing here that Schultheis didn’t warn me about, but that still doesn’t make that “nothing” any easier to explain.
- The Ninemile Wolves by Rick Bass
Again, with Bass, he’s so good that picking just one book is difficult, but Ninemile wins because I love wolves, because I am a believer in preserving vast stretches of uninhabited lands for wildlife, and because this is the book I find myself still thumbing through some ten years after I first read it. Technically it’s the story of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone. Emotionally it’s the story of America’s tortured relationship with wildlife. Either way it’s a must read.
- The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram
This book is a tough one. There’s a lot of philosophy and a lot of ecology and a lot of psychology, but his thesis is sound and his ideas revolutionary—and it’s worth slogging through the occasional dense passage to get there. This book is a sort of primer to the new field of eco-psychology, which is the study of the impact that nature has on the human brain and human consciousness. Trust me when I say that most people will find the truth more than a little shocking. On top of all that, perhaps more importantly, this is a book about what we’ve lost on this road to modernity and how to get it back.
- Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
This list would be really incomplete without any of the recent masterpieces on food. I really like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and feel the same about Nina Planck’s Real Food, but Eric Schlosser’s muckraking classic, Fast Food Nation, remains at the top of this class both for the sheer number of facts per page and the beauty of the sentences containing those facts. This book is as close as I’ve come to giving up my carnivorous ways.
- The Dominant Animal by Paul Ehrlich
There are disaster books and disaster books and disaster books , so this may be the toughest category to select from. Almost there was James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency or Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, but for my money the best choice is Paul Ehrlich’s The Dominant Animal. This book lacks Kunstler’s long treatise on peak oil and the dangers of suburbia and the bleak intimacy of Kolbert’s portrait of global warming, but Ehrlich is one of the best population biologists around. To really understand the current crisis, one has to understand the impact that mankind’s exploding population is having on our world. This is the book that paints the whole scary picture.
- The Fragile Edge by Julie Whitty
Whitty—a longtime scuba diver and nature documentary filmmaker—provides an amazing portrait of our oceans in crisis. We’ve spent a lot of time lately dwelling on what is happening on the continents, but the devastation underwater is just as profound. Whitty weaves all of this information into an exciting tale of underwater adventuring—personal, spiritual and deeply moving. A great way to round out a difficult list to produce.
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