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Environmental book worm: 5 books to read in the climate crisis

Environment, climate, and nature-related literature is becoming increasingly popular, as writers, activists and academics attempt to grapple with the complexity and scale of the climate and ecological crises we face. From personal rewilding to systemic environmental injustices and everything in between, these 5 books tackle different aspects of the crisis we find ourselves in today, its difficult history, its present challenges, and its future possibilities.

1: ‘As Long As Grass Grows’ by Dina Gilio-Whitaker (165 pages)

This concise but thorough book examines the thorny concept of ‘environmental justice’ (EJ) and its meaning for Native American Indians, a diverse collection of peoples who have suffered from centuries of colonial-settler white-supremacy, leading to the destruction of their lands and livelihoods.

Gilio-Whitaker strikes at the heart of the ideology underpinning the genocide of Native American nations: “The religiously-based conqueror model extended to an ideology of human superiority over the natural world; it is an anthropocentric world-view in which the world is there for the human taking, manipulation, and exploitation, without regard for the consequences to either human or nonhuman life.”

The author breaks down EJ theory, its legal application and the history of the failure of the United States government to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (which, in 2007, it voted against). Chapter Two, ‘Genocide by Any Other Name’ provides a perfect introduction to the history of indigenous EJ, whilst Chapter Three delves further into the systematic removal of Native American nations from their ancestral lands.

The bulk of the book, however, is focused on how indigenous groups have resisted government and corporate incursion on their lands, providing case studies of successful and failed alliances between Native nations, modern environmental groups, farmers, and other stakeholders.

2: ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree (308 pages)

From Native American environmental justice, to the Knepp Farm Estate in East Sussex; this book by Isabella Tree describes “the return of nature to a British farm.”

In 2000, Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell, embarked on the process of rewilding their arable and dairy farm which was on the verge of bankruptcy. The results of handing 3,500 acres of farmland back to nature would surprise everyone involved, with rare species of birds and insects thriving only a decade later.

Tree first outlines the extent to which the British countryside has been decimated since the Second World War, with 97% of wildflower meadows gone, and 40 million fewer birds in British skies compared to 1966. Rewilding has the capacity to reverse this trend, as this book demonstrates.

Knepp is now a haven for wildlife; from rare nightingales, turtle doves and emperor butterflies, the estate is home to over 600 species of invertebrate; meanwhile, Knepp’s soils now store over 50% more carbon than they did when used for farming.

‘Wilding’ is a book full of hope and inspiration, providing a model example of how our intensive and extractive relationship with nature can be transformed in a matter of years, to the benefit of the natural and human world alike.

3: ‘Rewild Yourself’ by Simon Barnes (198 pages)

Since the Second World War, we have not only lost so much of British wildlands to intensive agriculture and human activities; we as human beings have also become increasingly detached from the natural world. Children spend less time outdoors than any previous generation and grow up in a world without knowledge, understanding or experience of the natural world.

Simon Barnes’ short and sharp book offers “23 spellbinding ways to make nature more visible” and in concise, easy-to-follow chapters, allows the reader to practice methods which bring them closer to the natural world.

Most of these ‘spells’ are cheap and simple, but astoundingly effective: from a good pair of waterproof trousers to the art of sitting still and in silence. Barnes teaches you how to identify butterflies and moths, birds, bats, and small mammals, using the senses that we have developed as humans over hundreds of thousands of years, but which we are increasingly forgetting how to use.

Connecting with nature has become harder for our generation, simply because less of it is on our doorsteps due to the destruction of the natural world by our parents’ and our grandparents’ generations. Nevertheless, the UK is still home to plentiful helpings of magnificent wildlife: puffins, eagles, dolphins, snakes, kingfishers, swallows. Barnes’ book is a key to a world many of us don’t even know exists.

4: ‘Doughnut Economics’ by Kate Raworth (372 pages)

The climate and ecological crisis is an all-encompassing challenge that most abundantly demonstrates the destructive nature of our current economic system, one focused on growth, extraction and profit.

Raworth, a Senior Research Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, offers an easy-to-understand doughnut model of economics which she believes can help us to meet humanity’s great 21st Century challenge: how to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. The aim is for everyone to live in societies within the doughnut ring; in doing so, nobody falls short and fails to meet basic social needs such as water, food and health, and at the same time, we do not overshoot Earth’s capabilities in terms of run-away climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss.

For those of you (myself included) who don’t really know much, or anything, about economics, this book is not only easily readable (with simple diagrams and charts), but it also expertly summarises the failings in our current economic mindset, exposing the deadly flaws in a fixation on GDP and the pursuit of infinite growth on a finite planet.

5: ‘The Future Earth’ by Eric Holthaus (229 pages)

The blurb on the back cover of this book summarises its purpose perfectly: “A hopeful book about climate change, and a 30-year plan for reversing its effects.” Books dealing with the climate crisis too-often fall into the doom spiral, of spouting endless facts and figures about the loss of habitats, species, towns and cities, to the climate and ecological crises.

Undoubtedly, it is necessary to understand the catastrophe that our current trajectory is headed towards, but the most effective way of averting this disaster is to offer a hopeful and courageous way out. This is exactly what Holthaus does.

The book’s second part is broken down into three chapters: the 2020s, the 2030s and the 2040s; Holthaus provides a vision of a planet that has embarked on a radical course to transform all aspects of society, just as the IPCC’s 2018 ‘12 years left’ report argued was necessary. Society moves away from a growth-oriented model to one which strives for a world that is just and inhabitable for all.

“It’s 2050. The world is carbon neutral. The economy is circular. Society has transformed. Our world is a place that has decided to radically change in its entirety because places like the Marshall Islands matter. Because you matter. Because we couldn’t just go on like we had anymore.”

Immersing ourselves in a wide range of environmental literature is an essential journey on which we all must embark if we are to understand the history of the crisis we are now in, how and why we must change today’s system, and what kind of world we envision for our collective future. Holthaus encapsulates this eloquently: “Talking about climate change is how we build a better world. Learning and listening and getting excited about new ways of existing on our beautiful planet is impossible without conversation.”

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) is Environment News Editor at The Oxford Blue for the summer vacation and Michelmas 2020. He is entering his second year studying History and Politics at Balliol.