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Home>The Top 12 Best Modern Books About the Environment

The Top 12 Best Modern Books About the Environment

Top EnvironmentaLIST


Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. First published in 1949, this memoir by the great Wisconsin naturalist Aldo Leopold makes a lyrical case for what he called the “land ethic.” “That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology,” Leopold wrote, “but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.” But Leopold was no pure romanticist. He recognized the importance of prosperity, and the fact that a modern economy was necessary for any environmental ethic to flourish. “These wild things,” he wrote on the first page of A Sand County Almanac, “had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast.”


Gregg Easterbrook, A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism (1995). While Easterbrook’s subtitle has still not come true 15 years later, this magisterial book (745 pages!) looks at nature from the point of view of nature, surveys all the hot-button issues of our time from acid rain to polluted water, and offers an “Ecorealist Manifesto.” Some of Easterbrook’s issue discussions are out of date, but many of his general axioms are not. Among his refreshingly heterodox recommendations:


Skeptical debate is good for the environmental movement. The public need not be brainwashed into believing in ecological protection, since a clean environment is in everyone’s interest. Thus the environmental movement must learn to entertain skeptical debate in a reasoned manner or [it] will discredit itself, as all close-minded political movements eventually discredit themselves.


It is pointless for men and women to debate what the “correct” reality for nature might have been before people arrived on the scene. There has never been and can never be any fixed, correct environmental reality. There are only moments on the Earth, moments that may be good or bad. (emphasis added)


Charles C. Mann and Mark L. Plummer, Noah’s Choice: The Future of Endangered Species (1995). This splendidly written tour of the frontiers of species extinction begins with beetles; follows the Karner blue butterfly in the Northeast; revisits the snail darter, which almost stopped the Tellico Dam project in the Tennessee Valley in the 1970s; and ends up with practical suggestions for reforming the dysfunctional Endangered Species Act. The book is worth it just for the story of Edward O. Wilson’s stunning experiment of exterminating with pesticides every moving thing on a small island to study how life re-emerged and how equilibrium levels related to geographical area (answers: faster and more completely than expected, and also confirming that size matters).


Alston Chase, Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America’s First National Park (1986). Published two years before the catastrophic fires that burned most of Yellowstone’s trees, Chase explores how an area seemingly so beautiful can in fact be an ecological disaster area because of our hubristic belief that it could be “scientifically managed.” It is a good counter to our casual belief that government bureaucrats are good at protecting the environment. Chase’s prose is bracing: “As a wildlife refuge, Yellowstone is dying. Indeed, the park’s reputation as a great game sanctuary is perhaps the best-sustained myth in American conservation history, and the story of its decline perhaps one of our government’s best-kept secrets.”


Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal, Free Market Environmentalism (2nd edition, 2001). “Free market environmentalism” might seem like an oxymoron to conventional environmentalists, and indeed it still gives some a case of the vapors. “Economics is a form of brain damage,” the great environmentalist David Brower once proclaimed. But Anderson and Leal, Montana economists and sportsmen, relate through numerous case studies how the basic economic concepts of incentives, property rights, and common law—as opposed to bureaucratic regulation—are no less important to environmental protection than to any other sphere of social life. This “Berlitz course,” as Anderson and Leal describe their book, does not offer answers for every kind of environmental problem, but it has been influential in getting conventional environmental leaders and organizations to rethink their views about the role of economics in environmental protection.


Daniel B. Botkin, Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century (1990; new edition forthcoming). Botkin, an award-winning ecologist and wildlife biologist, challenges the common view that nature and ecosystems would persist in a stable equilibrium in the absence of disturbances from humans, and contends that this misperception, often embedded in accepted scientific models and government policy, is an impediment to real progress in environmental knowledge. Botkin’s splendidly written narrative combines provocative reflections on prominent human perspectives on the natural world from Lucretius through Roderick Nash, along with illuminating case studies of African elephants and North American wolves and moose.


Jack M. Hollander, The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment’s Number One Enemy (2003). Hollander, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, challenges the view of many old-school environmentalists such as Paul Ehrlich that technology and affluence are the enemy of environmental quality. To the contrary, Hollander argues that “the essential prerequisites for a sustainable environmental future are a global transition from poverty to affluence, coupled with a transition to freedom and democracy.” (Emphasis in the original.)


Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (2008). Connelly, a historian at Columbia University, gives an exhaustive account of the rise and decline of the global population control movement. This book is most valuable for the light it shines on the political corruption and instinct for centralized authoritarianism that inevitably accompany these world-saving enthusiasms. The “population bomb” can be seen as a precursor to the global-warming crisis of today, and as far back as the early decades of the 20th century the population crisis was put forward as the justification for global governance and coercive, non-consensual rule. Connelly recounts one of the first major international conferences on world population, held in Geneva in 1927, where Albert Thomas, a French trade unionist, argued: “Has the moment yet arrived for considering the possibility of establishing some sort of supreme supranational authority which would regulate the distribution of population on rational and impartial lines, by controlling and directing migration movements and deciding on the opening up or closing of countries to particular streams of immigration?” Connelly also describes the 1974 World Population Conference, which “witnessed an epic battle between starkly different versions of history and the future: one premised on the preservation of order,  if necessary by radical new forms of global governance; the other inspired by the pursuit of justice, beginning with unfettered sovereignty for newly independent nations.” (emphasis added)


Fred Pearce, The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future (2010). Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) was one of the most famous and bestselling doomsday books of modern times, projecting mass starvation and ruin for the world. But a funny thing happened to the exponential population growth that Ehrlich forecast: it stopped. Global population is still growing, but fertility rates have been falling so fast—everywhere—that long-term projections now call for a peak in global population in another few decades, followed by a slow decline in global population that will be evident by the end of this century. British environmental writer Fred Pearce offers a powerful counterpoint to Ehrlich, with a conclusion as optimistic as Ehrlich’s was pessimistic, representing yet another nail in the coffin of Malthusianism. He offers a synoptic history of the gradual unraveling of the “limits to growth” thesis, and, like Connelly in Fatal Misconception, Pearce is rightly scornful of the coercive and authoritarian measures the population control movement promoted. Pearce is still worried about some of the headline issues such as climate change and resource scarcity, but he cannot escape an optimistic view of the planet’s future.


Indur M. Goklany, The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet (2007). Goklany takes up the mantle of the late Julian Simon, offering reams of data and analysis chiefly refuting Paul Ehrlich’s central axiom, the I = PAT equation, where I is human impact on the planet as a function of P (population), A (affluence), and T (technology). The implication of I = PAT is that there need to be fewer, poorer, and less well-equipped human beings. Goklany painstakingly reviews the data, showing how human well-being is improving throughout the world, and how technological innovation and economic growth are the foundations for the transition to better social and environmental conditions in developing nations in the decades to come.


Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (2007). Nordhaus and Shellenberger represent a generational shift within the environmental movement. The authors scorn the apocalypticism that has dominated environmental discourse, seeing its essential pessimism as a hindrance to political and social success. They also acknowledge and repudiate the misanthropy that often comes to the surface in environmental agitation; they remind us that humans and what we make are a part of the planet’s environment, too. The old-style environmentalists “see in housing development only the loss of nonhuman habitat—not the construction of vital human habitat. Thus, the vast majority of environmental strategies aim to constrain rather than unleash human activity.” And Nordhaus and Shellenberger reject environmental romanticism, noting that, like other forms of political romanticism, it is highly dangerous: “Environmental tales of tragedy begin with Nature in harmony and almost always end in quasi-authoritarian politics.” While the authors’ recommendation that the environmental movement reconstitute itself within a broad-spectrum “progressive” movement may be doubtful, the serious self-criticism from within the environmental movement is a refreshing and positive development.


Seymour Garte, Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet (2007). Garte’s book can be viewed as a sequel to Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist. Garte, professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, relates the story of attending a professional conference in Europe. He was struck by the data presented by one speaker showing steadily declining air pollution trends.


Garte argues that excessive pessimism about the environment undermines good scientific investigation and distorts our understanding of important environmental challenges. He criticizes anti-technological biases prevalent among environmentalists, but is also skeptical that market forces alone will suffice to continue our environmental progress in the future. He is guardedly optimistic that the creativity and adaptability of the human species will enable us to confront surprises and new problems. “We should pay attention to our successes as well as our failures,” Garte writes, “because in order to know where to go next, it is just as important to know where (and how) we went right as it is to know where we have gone wrong.”


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