Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books



History of the American Environmental Movement

by David Yarian, Ph.D.

Ecology Flag ImageIn the late 1960s, this flag* first appeared – flying at gatherings in People’s Park in Berkeley and on patches sewn onto the sleeves of army-surplus coats. It symbolized a movement called “ecology” and marked the beginnings of a new wave of environmental activism.

Air and water pollution, depletion of the ozone layer, chemical contamination, toxic waste, endangered species, and recycling to spare scarce resources were rallying cries of this exciting time.

The roots of this movement go deeper into American history, however. The writings of Thoreau (1817-1862) are the anthem; the dreamy amateur biologist who was not honored during his lifetime has provided inspiration to generations of environmentalists.

Many others have provided leadership, written compelling books, or labored on the ground to carry out concrete tasks to further the protection of the environment in this country.

Late 19th century reformers decried the depletion of the nation’s resources and the costs of environmental negligence, particularly disease.

George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882) wrote Man and Nature, perhaps the first truly American work of ecology. Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946) was an ardent conservationist and first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. John Muir (1838-1914) wrote eloquently of wilderness and helped found the Sierra Club, the foremost American environmental organization. John Burroughs (1837-1921) was the most important practitioner (after Thoreau) of the nature essay. The John Burroughs Medal is awarded annually for fine nature writing.

In the twentieth century Rachel Carson (1907-1964) awoke the nation with her book Silent Spring which showed the dangerous effect of insecticides upon the environment. Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), the father of U.S. wildlife management and cofounder of The Wilderness Society has impacted generations with his book Sand County Almanac, a lyrical description of the ecology of a small landscape he loved. The Nature Conservancy has grown to be the largest environmental organization in the world, saving millions of acres of unique ecosystems worldwide.

See the section Best of Nature Writing: American Classics for a full bookshelf of the best of American nature and environmental writing. Peter Matthiesson, Wallace Stegner, Rockwell Kent, Barry Lopez, Richard Nelson, Rick Bass, Loren Eiseley, Edward Abbey, E. O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould Annie Dillard, Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver, Colin Fletcher, John Steinbeck, Carl Safina, John McPhee: America is blessed with compassionate, articulate and learned writers who deepen our knowledge and sharpen our senses as we live in the natural world. These writers have provided substance and sustenance for the U.S. environmental movement.

Tragic events have galvanized the environmental movement, stirring the nation to recognize, although belatedly, the need for action. Since World War II we are becoming more and more aware of the deadly consequences of environmental neglect and abuse. In 1954 the crew of a Japanese fishing vessel was exposed to radioactive fallout from U.S. nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll. In 1962, Silent Spring drew attention to the impact of chemicals on the environment. In 1967 and 1969 major oil spills occurred from tankers at sea. (and again, in 1989: the Exxon Valdez oil spill was one of the worst U.S. environmental disasters) In 1971 a law suit in Japan drew international attention to the effects of mercury poisoning.

In 1978 the Love Canal catastrophe exposed the hazards of improperly stored toxic waste. Ozone depletion, acid rain, air and water pollution, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Three Mile Island incident, global warming – each of these terrible disasters and looming catastrophes has heightened awareness of the fragility of the environment and our vulnerability to its despoilation.

Through all this – and despite the Bush II administration’s efforts to turn back the clock on environmental protections – the environmental movement has only grown stronger. Former Vice President Al Gore made it his business after the 1996 election debacle to focus on his passion of protecting the environment. His homegrown slide show that he presented to audiences around the world grew into a documentary, which won an Academy Award; his TV work earned him several Emmys; and in 2007, he was the co-recipient (with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming celebrates the power and potential of the worldwide environmental movement, a loose and growing coalition of groups, organizations and individuals worldwide who are devoted to improving our natural environment. The authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility call for big thinking and big action to address our current ecological crisis – thinking and mobilization of effort on the same order of magnitude as the efforts that produced the microchip and the Internet; that built the atomic bomb and put a man on the moon; or that pulled together the economic powerhouse of the European Union out of a mixture of twenty different countries, each with their own culture, language and thousand-year history of fighting each other.

See a Timeline of the American environmental movement.

These are dangerous, exciting and challenging times as we race to address the global environmental issues that place at risk life on Earth. The books recommended in the section on Environmentalism and the Environmental Movement offer cogent perspectives on the history, the heroes, the development and current status of the environmental movement in America.

*On 25 October 1969 political cartoonist Ron Cobb developed a symbol for the ecological movement based on an oval and circle and on the initial letters of the words environment and organism. The resulting design, which he put in the public domain, resembled the Greek letter theta. Look magazine (21 April 1970) widely popularized the theta symbol, which it associated with the Greek word thanatos (death) in light of human threats to the environment and atmosphere of the earth. – The Flag Research Center

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