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12 Books for Earth Day » Yale Climate Connections

Climate change was not on the agenda for the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Pollution, population, and wildlife preservation were the causes proclaimed on the posters. Now those causes cannot be separated from climate change. For Earth Day 2023, Yale Climate Connections offers a bookshelf on the intersections between climate change and the issues that animated the participants in that founding event of modern environmentalism.

The list begins with two looks back.

The United States was still fighting in Vietnam on that first Earth Day. In Scorched Earth, historian Emmanuel Kreike reminds readers that the intentional destruction of the environment is a long-standing feature of warfare, the consequences of which almost always outlast the original hostilities.

Vietnam gets several mentions in Douglas Brinkley’s history of “The Great Environmental Awakening,” but it’s Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring that gets the top billing in his account of how “conservation” became “environmentalism.” That distinction, however, is now complicated by other “eco-types,” argues sociologist Emilly Huddart Kennedy.

The list then turns to the very traditional environmental concern for biodiversity, with a philosophical appeal on behalf of animals, an invitation to wonder at the miraculous diversity and tenacity of plants, and a warning about the threats to both in the Amazon, the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet, are growing.

Water is the unifying theme of the third set of titles, which includes a “blue” plan for protecting the oceans, a surprising account on the importance (and criminal exploitation) of sand, and a review of water security in the American West.

Completing the list are three titles on the often-vicious economics of natural resources. Two books recount the cruel and destructive histories of phosphorus and cobalt. The third ties everything back to the economic system under which the West has operated for the last five hundred years.

As always, the descriptions of the titles are adapted from copy provided by the publishers.

A black and white book cover that says Scorched Earth.

Scorched Earth: Environmental Warfare as a Crime Against Humanity and Nature by Emmanuel Krieke (Princeton University Press 2021, 538 pages, $39.95)

The environmental infrastructure that sustains human societies has been a target of war for centuries, resulting in famine and disease, displaced populations, and the devastation of people’s livelihoods and ways of life. Scorched Earth traces the history of scorched earth, military inundations, and armies living off the land from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, arguing that the resulting deliberate destruction of the environment constitutes total war and is a crime against humanity and nature. Shedding light on the premodern origins and the lasting consequences of total war, Scorched Earth explains why ecocide and genocide are not separate phenomena, and why international law must recognize environmental warfare as a violation of human rights.

A book cover with a photo of a mountain that says Silent Spring Revolution.

Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening by Douglas Brinkley (Harper Colins 2022, 896 pages, $40.00)

During the 1950s, an unprecedented postwar economic boom took hold, with America becoming the world’s leading hyper-industrial and military giant. But with this historic prosperity came a heavy cost. In Silent Spring Revolution, historian Douglas Brinkley pays tribute to those who combated the mauling of the natural world in the Long Sixties: Rachel Carson (a marine biologist and author), David Brower (director of the Sierra Club), Barry Commoner (an environmental justice advocate), Coretta Scott King (an antinuclear activist), Stewart Udall (the secretary of the interior), William O. Douglas (Supreme Court justice), and Cesar Chavez (a labor organizer). Now, as the U.S. grapples with climate change, David Brinkley reminds us that a new generation of twenty-first-century environmentalists can save the planet from ruin.

A book cover with a photo of a desert with the title Eco-Types.

Eco-Types: Five Ways of Caring about the Environment by Emily Huddart Kennedy

(Princeton University Press 2022, 280 pages, $33.00) Drawing on three years of interviews and research, Kennedy describes five archetypal relationships with the environment: the Eco-Engaged, often politically liberal, who have an acute level of concern about the environment and the conviction that an individual can make a difference; the Self-Effacing, who share the Eco-Engaged’s concerns but not the belief in their own efficacy; the Optimists, often politically conservative, who doubt the severity of environmental problems and resent insinuations that they don’t care; the Fatalists, who are pessimistic about environmental decline and feel little responsibility; and the Indifferent, who have no affinity for any part of the environmental movement. If we are serious about protecting the planet, we must acknowledge that we don’t all care about the environment in the same way.

A book cover with a photo of a whale that says Justice for Animals.

Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility by Martha C. Nussbaum (Simon & Schuster 2022, 400 pages, $28.99)

The world needs an ethical awakening. In Justice for Animals, one of the world’s most influential philosophers and humanists, Martha C. Nussbaum, provides a revolutionary approach to animal rights, ethics, and law. From dolphins to crows, elephants to octopuses, Nussbaum examines the entire animal kingdom, showcasing the lives of animals with wonder, awe, and compassion to understand how we can create a world in which human beings are truly friends of animals, not exploiters or users. Humans have a collective duty to face and solve animal harm. An urgent call to action and a manual for change, Nussbaum’s groundbreaking theory directs politics and law to help us meet our ethical responsibilities as no book has done before.

A book cover with a painting of orange plants with the title Chasing Plants.

Chasing Plants: Journeys with a Botanist through Rainforests, Swamps, and Mountains by Chris Thorogood (University of Chicago Press 2022, 224 pages, $27.50)

  After making a strange discovery on a childhood trip to Ikea, Chris Thorogood dreamed of becoming a botanist and would stop at nothing to feed his growing addiction to plants. In his hair-raising adventures across Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, Thorogood treads a death-defying path over cliffs, up erupting volcanoes, through typhoons, and out into the very heart of the world’s vast, green wilderness. An internationally acclaimed botanical illustrator, Thorogood brings these adventures back to life in his electric paintings, which feature throughout the book. They help us understand why plant species must be protected. To join Thorogood in his adventures is to be cast under a spell: readers will never think of plants the same way again.

A book cover with a wildfire photo and the title Masters of the Lost Land.

Masters of the Lost Land: The Untold Story of the Amazon and the Violent Fight for the World’s Last Frontier by Heriberto Araujo (Harper Collins 2023, 432 pages, $29.99)

In the tradition of Killers of the Flower Moon, this haunting murder mystery reveals the human story behind one of the most devastating crimes of our time: the ruthless destruction of the Amazon rain forest—and anyone who stands in the way. Featuring groundbreaking revelations and exclusive interviews, this gripping work of narrative nonfiction is the culmination of journalist Heriberto Araujo’s years-long investigation in the heart of the Amazon. Set against the backdrop of appalling deforestation rates and resultant superfires, Masters of the Lost Land vividly reveals the human story behind the loss of—and fierce crusade to protect—one of our greatest resources in the fight against climate change and one of the last wild places on earth.

A book cover with an illustration of a fishing net surrounding Earth. The title is The Blue Commons.

The Blue Commons: Rescuing the Economy of the Sea by Guy Standing (Pelican 2022, 592 pages, $45.00)

The sea provides more than half the oxygen we breathe, food for billions of people and livelihoods for hundreds of millions. But giant corporations are plundering the world’s oceans, aided by global finance and complicit states. The situation is dire: rampant exploitation and corruption now drive all aspects of the ocean economy. The Blue Commons is an urgent call for change, from a campaigning economist responsible for some of the most innovative solutions to inequality of recent times. The oceans must be at the center of the fight against climate change. How do we do it? By building a Blue Commons: a transformative worldview that prioritizes the historic rights of local communities, the wellbeing of all people and the health of our oceans.

A book cover with a photo of a mine on it. The title is Vanishing Sands.

Vanishing Sands: Losing Beaches to Mining by Orrin H. Pilkey et al (Duke University Press 2023, 272 pages, $25.95 paperback)

In a time of accelerating sea level rise and increasingly intensifying storms, the world’s sandy beaches and dunes have never been more crucial to protecting coastal environments. Yet, in order to meet the demands of large-scale construction projects, sand mining is stripping beaches and dunes, destroying environments, and exploiting labor in the process. The authors of Vanishing Sands track the devastating impact of legal and illegal sand mining over the past twenty years. They show how sand mining has reached crisis levels; organized crime groups use deadly force to protect their illegal operations. Calling for immediate and widespread resistance to sand mining, the authors demonstrate that its cessation is paramount for saving not only beaches, dunes, and associated environments but also lives and economies everywhere.

A book cover for Hydronarratives.

Hydronarratives: Water, Environmental Justice, and a Just Transition by Matthew S. Henry (University of Nebraska Press 2023, 232 pages, $30.00 paperback)

In Hydronarratives Matthew S. Henry examines cultural representations that imagine a just transition, a concept rooted in the U.S. labor and environmental justice movements to describe an alternative economic paradigm predicated on sustainability, economic and social equity, and climate resilience. Focused on regions of water insecurity, from central Arizona to central Appalachia, Henry explores how writers, artists, and activists have creatively responded to intensifying water crises in the United States. By drawing on a wide and comprehensive range of texts, Henry presents a timely project that examines the social movement, just transition, and the logic of the Green New Deal, in addition to contemporary visions of environmental justice.

A book cover with a photo of algae that is titled The Devil's Element.

The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance by Dan Egan (W.W. Norton 2023, 256 pages, $30.00)

The story of phosphorus spans the globe and vast tracts of human history. First discovered in a seventeenth-century alchemy lab in Hamburg, it soon became a highly sought-after resource. Over the past century, phosphorus has made farming vastly more productive, feeding the enormous increase in the human population. Yet, as Pulitzer Prize finalist Dan Egan harrowingly reports, our overreliance on this vital crop nutrient is today causing toxic algae blooms and “dead zones” in waterways from the coasts of Florida to the Mississippi River basin to the Great Lakes and beyond. With The Devil’s Element, Egan has written an eye-opening account of the most perilous but little-known environmental issues of our time.

A photo of people mining in red dirt. The title is Cobalt Red.

Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives by Siddharth Kara (St. Martin’s Press 2023, 288 pages, $29.99)

Cobalt is an essential component in the lithium-ion rechargeable batteries that power our smart-phones, tablets, laptops, and electric vehicles. Roughly 75 percent of the world’s supply of cobalt is mined in the Congo, often by peasants and children in sub-human conditions. Cobalt Red is the searing, first-ever exposé of the immense toll taken on the people and environment of the Democratic Republic of the Congo by cobalt mining. Activist and researcher Siddharth Kara has traveled deep into cobalt territory to document the testimonies of the people living, working, and dying for cobalt. He has investigated militia-controlled mining areas and traced the supply chain of child-mined cobalt from toxic pit to consumer-facing tech giants. In his stark book, Kara argues that we must all care about what is happening in the Congo—because we are all implicated.

A book cover with an illustration of a train depot. The title is Profit.

Profit: An Environmental History by Mark Stoll (Polity Books 2022, 280 pages, $28.00)

Profit — getting more out of something than you put into it — is the original genius of homo sapiens. As civilization developed, we found ever more ways of extracting surplus value from the earth, often deploying brutal methods to discipline people to do the work needed. Historian Mark Stoll explains how capitalism supercharged this process and traces its many environmental consequences. This story of incredible ingenuity and villainy begins in the Doge’s palace in medieval Venice and ends with Jeff Bezos aboard his own spacecraft. Mark Stoll’s revolutionary account places environmental factors at the heart of capitalism’s progress and reveals the long shadow of its terrible consequences.

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