Q. My new year’s resolution is to read more in 2009. What are some important new-ish green titles I should start with? – Martin, NH

A. As Emily Dickinson famously wrote, “there is no frigate like a book / to take us lands away.” Or, in the case of most eco-tomes, there is no frigate like a book to depress the hell out of us, make apocalypse feel menacingly imminent, and cause us to chuck all our toxic personal care products and beloved Teflon frying pans in the trash. 

Actually, it’s not all that dire. Green publishing flourished in 2008, and while some of the year’s titles admittedly did a bit of the usual finger-wagging and jargon-spewing, many were inspiring, accessible, and even—gasp—enjoyable. Here’s our list of 2008's green must-reads.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, and How It Can Renew America
By Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $27.95

You’ve probably got an opinion or ten about New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman—most do. Maybe you’re a technology diehard and think the sun shines out of his Lexus. Maybe you bash him at cocktail parties for his support of biofuels, globalization, and carbon trading—and wish those Brown University students who hurtled two pies at him during an energy speech on campus had done more. Whatever sentiments his name evokes in you, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Friedman's fifth book, is one green title you’ll want to read if only for the major buzz it’s garnered. Drawing heavily on reporting done for his column, extensive world travels, and conversations with an overwhelming number of today’s fascinating leaders—from Bill Gates to the Crown Prince of Bahrain—Friedman calls America to a no-nonsense revolution. Revolution means sacrifice and hard work, he says, but time is running out for our hot, flat (as in economically leveling, due to rapidly expanding and resource-hungry middle classes worldwide), and crowded world. Meanwhile, post-9/11 fear is undoing the spirit of openness and exploration that made America great. Enter: Operation Code Green, Friedman’s blueprint for saving the planet and curing America of its economic and entrepreneurial maladies all at once. Friedman’s knack for asking the big questions at the intersection of politics, economics, sociology, and environment, and for drawing memorable quotes and anecdotes out of prominent figures, makes for an absorbing read. – Tobin Hack 

The Body Toxic: How the Hazardous Chemistry of Everyday Things Threatens Our Health and Well-Being
By Nena Baker

North Point Press, $24
It’s no fun to be told that toxins in the shampoo you’ve used for decades, the fire-retardants covering your electronic equipment, or the nonstick Teflon pan you love so dearly could be hijacking your body’s systems—just as they do the planet’s ecosystems—and contributing to cancer rates, diabetes, and birth defects. But unfortunately, in the span of only about 100 years, we’ve rushed headlong into “better living through chemistry,” and we’ve done it all blindly, thanks to an antiquated 1976 Toxic Control Act that does not mandate toxicity testing for chemicals used in everything from carpeting to liquid cleaners to cosmetics. We’re our own lab rats, effectively, and the test results coming back today don’t look good. But Baker is neither obsessive nor alarmist. She calmly presents two decades’ worth of critical research into the science and industries behind leading chemical culprits such as pthalates, pesticides, and PFOAs. In an appendix, she outlines the reasonable, manageable steps she’s taken to detox her own home, body, and lifestyle—a good reason to start this book in the back. - TH

Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It
By Elizabeth Royte
Bloomsbury USA, $24.99

They say the wars of the twenty first century will be fought over water, not oil. In this “fascinating if not terribly comprehensive” book, as New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani put it, Royte “uses the story of a face-off between the small town of Fryeburg, Me., and the giant Swiss food conglomerate Nestlé, which, as the owner of Poland Spring water, sucked more than 168 million gallons of water out of Fryeburg in 2005 alone, as a prism through which to look at the many issues at stake in these water wars.” International Herald Tribune’s Lisa Margonelli added that “Where others are bold, Bottlemania is subversive, and after you read it you will sip warily from your water bottle (whether purchased or tap, plastic or not), as freaked out by your own role in today's insidious water wars as by Royte's recommended ecologically responsible drink: ‘Toilet to tap.’ Eww. Sorry.” Good—it’s about time someone made us face up to the truth behind our dirty little water habit. – TH

Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water
By Maude Barlow
New Press, $24.95

As author—and head of the Blue Planet Project—Barlow told Plentymag.com in February, "There are many parts of the world that are already running out of fresh water: 22 countries in Africa, all of Northern China, big parts of India, Australia, Mexico City, the whole Middle East, most of the US southwest. This isn’t a cyclical drought, and it reflects very badly on us that we’re so unready for it. I worry about the corporate control of water and dependence on technology instead of conservation and source protection. In the global north, [there's] this myth of abundance and the notion that somebody will fix it. In Arizona they’re going to build a water park on the desert [with] waves you can surf on—in the middle of the desert. In the global south, [there's] desperate poverty and inequality. But you have to find a balance between lecturing people and hoping the word comes to them." Barlow's Blue Covenant successfully strikes that balance—no surprise that she's become one of the world's foremost water activists, or that she was recently appointed Senior Water Advisor to United Nations General Assembly Head, Father Miguel d'Escoto Brockman. We're listening. - TH

Why I Came West
By Rick Bass
Houghton Mifflin, $24

Rick Bass made Montana’s Yaak valley his home because it made him feel small, because it was full of stories, and because he knew at first sight that he would forever feel compelled to protect it. Why I Came West is part memoir, and part petition on behalf of one of America’s great, wild, fragile territories—now threatened by loggers and pressure to build roads that scar the land. Bass’ humorous, self-effacing, wise, and meandering musings on place, self, and nature will hit home no matter where yours is. - TH

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
By Michael Pollan
Penguin Press, $21.95

In the past 50 years, nutritionists have transformed how we think about what we eat. If we could just figure out exactly what is healthy and unhealthy about a particular food, their reasoning goes, we could take the bad stuff out, put more good stuff in, and presto! A wonder-food! But nourishment straight from the garden, it turns out, is almost always superior to the tinkered-with “food-like substances” (think low-carb pasta and whole-grain sugar cereals) that line supermarket shelves. Fans of Pollan’s last book take heed: In Defense of Food is not groundbreaking like The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In essence, it’s about the importance of eating foods that aren’t too heavily processed. This philosophy is by no means radical—in fact, it harkens back to a time before the organic and local movements, when labels at health food stores simply said, “all natural.” But the fun is in following Pollan to his conclusion. Perhaps the most rewarding section of the book is the last, where he offers a list of rules to eat by. This is no dull nutritional litany; Pollan’s instructions are witty, and they pithily make the point that how we eat may be just as important as what we eat. The rule “Do all your eating at a table” has only seven words of explanation: “No, a desk is not a table.” Now there’s a lesson that won’t go out of style. – Kiera Butler

Earth: The Sequel – the race to reinvent energy and stop global warming
By Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn
W.W. Norton, $24.95

As President of the Environmental Defense Fund, Fred Krupp is uniquely positioned to deliver a manifesto on the state of our little blue world. Earth is his call for action, focused primarily on the inventors who will “stabilize our climate, generate enormous economic growth and save the planet.” A tall order, but Krupp insists said innovators are up to the job—so long as both politicians and entrepreneurs work to help them compete in the global marketplace. In the sea of global warming books, this one stands out for its hopeful and authoritative focus on new technologies. – TH

American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
Edited by Bill McKibben
The Library of America, $40

If you think literary environmental writing died with Thoreau at Walden Pond, Bill McKibben is ready, willing, and able to prove you wrong. In this inspiring (and seriously hefty) anthology, he pulls together seminal writings from dozens of greats like Walt Whitman, Terry Tempest Williams, and John McPhee, with a foreword from Al Gore. Also expect a bit of formal policy (an excerpt from the Wilderness Act, for example), as well as historical pop culture surprises like lyrics to Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” A Norton Anthology for any student serious about America’s environmental legacy. - TH

World Made By Hand
A novel By James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press, $22

Welcome to Union Grove, just one of myriad American towns facing the end of oil, and the chaos, lack of transportation, hunger, disease, violence, and political unrest that come with it. In this new era, farmers are nobility, and neighbors give each other medical treatment and legal advice not because they’re paid to do so, but because their collective survival depends upon it. World is Kunstler’s first fictional treatment of the end of oil, a topic he’s been onto since his fast-paced, sweeping book The Long Emergency (2005). While it isn’t great literature—logistical information forced into characters’ dialogue too often betrays Kunstler’s agenda, and his prose is more efficient than graceful—it’s an intriguing thought experiment, and effective as the pulse-quickening social awakening it means to be. - TH

The Life of the Skies: Birding at the end of nature
By Jonathan Rosen
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $24

Forget baseball—birding is the national pastime, or would be anyway, if Jonathan Rosen were king. Life is an exploration of birding as the intersection between the natural world and the industrial world, as Rosen’s antidote to nature deficit disorder. Enriched with revelations from history, science, and theology, the book is generously sprinkled with literary candy (references to Henry James, Kafka, Tennyson, D.H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, Saul Bellow, Keats, Frost, and practically everyone else). It’s an elegant and honest account of how Rosen learned to live by learning to bird—and by following the elusive, possibly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, in particular. You’ll agree, by the time you put the book down, that “Looking up is the best we can do.” - TH

This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in October 2008.

Copyright 2008 Environ Press