The reason I’m fascinated by environmental issues is that they are a colossal train wreck of science, politics, ideology, money and personal passion. It would only follow that it’s a realm that’s produced its share of impactful literature. Thus I present my highly subjective, American-centric view on the five greatest environmental books of all time.
For me, "Silent Spring" is a slam-dunk Number One. Its combination of passion and science, conveyed by a courageous author, makes Rachel Carson’s masterpiece the greatest environmental book ever.
Already a best-selling author of volumes on the wonders of the oceans, Carson turned her attention to the increasing reports of damage from “miracle” pesticides being sprayed, spread and air-dropped on 1950s America. She doggedly followed studies and lawsuits documenting the human and wildlife toll from DDT, chlordane, dieldrin and many other now-banned substances. When the book was serialized and published in 1962, "Silent Spring" caused an uproar that helped spawn the modern American environmental movement. Ten years later, DDT was fast losing its potency against mosquitoes, but birds were still dropping like flies. It was outlawed in the U.S., and the mortal threat to bald eagles, ruby-throated hummingbirds and a thousand other species abated.
Along the way, ideologues and industry hacks mounted a campaign to vilify Carson, labeling her, in coded 1960s language, a “spinster” and less ambiguously charging that she was an agent of the Kremlin. (Call me crazy, but I don’t think that the Commies would have dispatched an agent to save America’s bald eagle.)
Astonishingly, those attacks survive a half-century later, with the tinfoil-hat community going as far as to liken this mild-mannered meticulous scientist to mass murderers because malaria still kills people and DDT was once effective in battling malaria. That’s what you get for saving the bald eagle.
From a writer’s perspective, the best tribute to Carson’s work came from her New Yorker editor, the legendary William Shawn. According to Carson biographer William Souder, Shawn said Rachel Carson had turned a book about pesticide use into literature.
Aldo Leopold’s "A Sand County Almanac" manages to unintentionally replicate nature itself. It’s a series of essays that are superficially unconnected, but together they function like the web of life. Leopold showed a midcentury audience that conservation is essentially our success or failure at getting along with the natural world. Back then, “conservation” and “conservative” were not necessarily polar opposites.
Those who toil as environmental PR flacks, or those who dispense money for journalists’ fellowships, have a role model in Marc Reisner. A former communications guy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Reisner wrote "Cadillac Desert" fueled by fellowship money. It rates words you typically see for a Hollywood epic, like “sweeping” and “sprawling.” The book spins the tale of corruption, brutality, deceit and wealth as the major influences on western water rights. Published in 1986, "Cadillac Desert" also foretold that water can float the arid West only so far.
Henry David Thoreau had some advantages in writing "Walden": Solitude, relatively pristine nature, plenty of free time, and no daily disruptions. The result is a love story for the nature closest to one’s home. In his case, at least, the quill was mightier than the iPad.
My fifth choice comes from an author who’s been nearly as vilified as Carson. Al Gore’s 1992 "Earth in the Balance" is little discussed today, but its litany of environmental threats have proven real. As personal as Gore’s detractors can get, his information and predictions are depressingly accurate two decades later. While focusing on the threat of climate change, now increasingly a reality, Gore also lays out a case for concern on everything from habitat loss to water quality and quantity to the ills of loading our livestock with antibiotics.
Someday, someone may wish to look into the possible links between authoring giant environmental books and premature death, as few of these authors truly lived to see the success and impact of their work. Carson was stricken with breast cancer while writing "Silent Spring," and died, age 56, not long after its publication. Reisner outlived "Cadillac Desert" by 14 years, but cancer claimed him at age 52. Thoreau died at age 44, eight years after "Walden" was published. Leopold lived to a relatively ripe old 61, but he suffered a fatal heart attack while fighting a wildfire near his home. His classic was published a year after his death. Gore, 64 as of this writing, has a shot at being the exception.
The best environmental books that haven’t been written yet
These days, there are a few emerging topics that warrant a blockbuster book of the future. In short order, the story of the environmental consequences of the fossil fuel industry has never been properly told. The meteoric rise of the fracking industry and the decade of quiet planning that preceded that rise is another one. So is a volume that fully tracks the history of the environmental movement, from its accurate and effective work to its misfires and failures. Any takers?
In recent years, three authors have challenged conventional publishing wisdom by publishing what are essentially biographies of inanimate or non-human subjects: Hannah Holmes’s "Secret Life of Dust" took a pervasive and literally dry subject and gave it life; John McPhee’s "Annals of the Former World" told the history of North America’s rocks and made them interesting; and Mark Kurlansky’s offbeat histories of cod and oysters showed how the pursuit of these creatures help build America.
These books are all significant contributions, and didn’t run the risk of misquoting their subjects. What’s more, environmental books are, by their nature, not very happy works. These are as close as you’ll likely get to that.
Former New York Times reporter Tim Egan has written a couple of riveting history books on wildfire and the Dust Bowl, and an era where our relationship with nature was more like open warfare. Elizabeth Kolbert’s "Field Notes from a Catastrophe" was a 2006 look at an unfolding climate disaster. The book grows more prophetic by the year. Anne Simon’s 1984 book "Neptune’s Revenge" foretold the destruction of the world’s seas, and Richard Ellis delivered a grim 2003 update called "The Empty Ocean." In 2010, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway published the seminal book on the organized, often underhanded industry seeking to thwart health and environmental protection. "Merchants of Doubt" tracked a handful of ideologically driven industry-funded scientists who issue-hopped from pesticides to tobacco to climate change in sowing confusion, doubt and personal attacks against agents for change like Carson.
While he’s not quite American, Farley Mowat’s roots as a Canadian government wildlife researcher led him to write multiple works on big, charismatic wildlife. "Never Cry Wolf" became a Hollywood hit, and "A Whale for the Killing" was a hit TV movie as well as a template for Greenpeace’s whale-saving efforts.
And one more from this list may hit Hollywood soon. Variety Daily recently reported that "Silent Spring" has been optioned by a major production house. My casting suggestions: Charlize Theron as Rachel, and Daniel Day-Lewis as DDT. Just kidding.
There are hundreds of other deserving authors and books that could be mentioned here, but that’s what the comments section is for. Take it away, readers…
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