As an environmental photojournalist, writer, and videographer, I’m always looking to understand the conflict between culture and the environment as deeply as possible. It is from books that I get inspiration for projects, fill gaps in my knowledge, and expand the way I think about how to tell environmental stories visually. This list serves as an evolving record of the books that I’ve found most interesting, inspiring, or informative, and I hope that you’ll discover something that makes you think about our relationship to the planet more deeply.
By no means an exhaustive list, these aren’t ranked in order of best to worst, but are stacked one on top of the other as I come across them.
Limits to Growth – Donella and Dennis Meadows
When this book was originally published in the early 1970’s, many — including some of the most reputable environmental experts of the time — dismissed it as doomsday fiction. The husband and wife team of Donella and Dennis Meadows were commissioned by think tank Club of Rome to create a computer model that would predict the world’s environmental future based on rates of consumption. Tracking population, food, pollution, industry, and the use of resources, the project made predictions about the state of the global population to the end of the 21st Century. The simulation found that if significant action wasn’t taken to combat environmental degradation and curb humanity’s rapacious appetites, we would be on the verge of collapse by 2070.
But the really chilling part isn’t the prediction itself, or that most people of the time dismissed it entirely. It’s that the predictions it made, when measured against today’s statistics, have proven to be more or less accurate. And while I’m not saying that our world is going to collapse in 50 years, this freely available book is well worth a read if only for the sake of understanding the great imbalance between resource availability and consumption. There is a limit to how much society can grow, yet despite being warned about it nearly 25 years ago, we still have continued with business as usual.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate – Naomi Klein
One of the most definitive modern texts on climate change and what it means, This Changes Everything is also one of the most readable. Written by the author of No Logo and other bestselling non-fiction books, Klein lays out the problem we’re facing with the clarity of a journalist instead of an academic.
Simply put, we have built our society around the principle that we can expect to continuously grow and expand our profits without end. And despite the fact that this is obviously not true (see Limits to Growth), we proceed to act as though it were. From the oil and gas giants who expand operations every year despite the almost irrefutable indications that they are doing irreparable damage to the climate to the governments who continue to ignore the mountains of science they know to be true, Klein argues that a paradigm shift is needed immediately or everything really will be lost. When read in conjunction with Limits to Growth, This Changes Everything puts the climate change problem into perspective in a writing style that is both informative and highly engaging.
Let My People Go Surfing – Yvon Chouinard
This autobiographical business manifesto written by the founder of Patagonia was originally intended as an employee handbook to explain the ethics and values of the company to new workers, but was eventually published internationally for public consumption. Now nearly 80 years old, Chouinard’s Wikipedia page lists his occupation as “rock climber” even though he has been managing one of the biggest outdoor clothing companies in the world for more than 40 years, which should tell you something about his character.
Decreeing that profits should be secondary to creating long-lasting, high quality, environmentally sustainable, and personal ethics, Patagonia’s corporate philosophy is far from greenwashing. They are one of the few companies that actually goes out of their way to better the world they sell to, and their most recent advertising urges people not to buy their products if they don’t need them. They also offer free repairs to all of their items, something that is sorely needed in the age of planned obsolescence that creates the need for us to buy a new iPhone or laptop every few years to ensure that the companies who make them can keep turning a profit.
Part memoire, part business philosophy, Let My People Go Surfing shows us an alternate example to how businesses can operate sustainably, and how we can continue to buy the things we need without destroying the planet. It’s no coincidence that Naomi Klein, an author who has spent much of her career attacking corporate greed, personally wrote the intro for this businessman’s book.
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival – John Vaillant
The second offering from the author of the equally great The Golden Spruce, this true story recounts the rise of a man-eating tiger in the hostile forests of Siberia and the team that was tasked with tracking it down. Vaillant has an incredible ability to present his subjects in such detail that the freezing world of eastern Russia comes to life, and the tiger itself becomes a living character in its own right. While this is ostensibly a story about killing a wild animal, in reality it is an ode to the fragility of the ecosystem and the incredible impact humanity has made on it.
It is rare to find non-fiction books that move forward with such an attention-grabbing narrative, and I absolutely tore through it. The characters, the setting, and the message all combine to make this one of the most gripping environmentally oriented books I have ever read.
Numerous high profile academics and military leaders have been quoted as saying that just as the wars of the last century were fought over oil, the wars of this century will be fought over water. In persuasive detail, Barlow outlines the facts: there is not enough fresh water on the planet to keep pace with current usages, corporations have been given a free license to privatize the world’s most valuable resource, and pollution is spiralling out of control.
There can be no life without water, but despite this absolute truth, we continue to treat water as if it was worthless and hardly think twice about its wastage. But the time is coming where we will have to stare the reality of our water choices in the face and deal with the consequences. Not just a treatise of doom and gloom, Barlow outlines steps that can be taken to bring us back form the brink of water catastrophe — but it remains to be seen if governments and business leaders will put humanity’s survival ahead of profit margins.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed – Jared Diamond
From the author of the popular Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse is focused on how societies — from the pre-historical to the modern — fall apart. With a great deal of attention paid to the role of environmental degradation in the destruction of societies, I found this book reminded me how much there is to lose. We tend to view our current society as indestructible and we can often bury our heads in the sand and assume that regardless of our actions things will continue as normal. But ancient Babylonians or Sumerians must have thought much the same thing, and their societies are nothing more than an ancient memory today.
Diamond is careful to point out that environmental issues alone were not solely responsible for the collapse of the world’s great civilizations. Military and economic factors brought down the Romans and Soviet Union alike, and cannot be ignored. Among the challenges facing our 21st Century society, however, Diamond views the environmental crisis as one of the most likely to bring us down. A long, sweeping historical narrative along the lines of his other books, Collapse warns that if we don’t do something to check the ecological degradation taking place around us than our future is no more assured than that of the Vikings.
Have any suggestions for great environmental books? E-mail me: I’d love to hear them.