World Book Day: QMUL Sustainability’s top 10 environmental books

It’s World Book Day today and our team has been discussing our favourite environmental books all day. We decided to draw up a bit of a shortlist of the best ones we’ve come across so far. They aren’t all fiction books, some speculate on a future yet to come, some reflect on our past, and others have sparked generations of keen environmentalists. Here we go:

1. Gaia, James Lovelock

The idea that the world functions as one single organism may sound a bit hippy-dippy to some people, but James Lovelock’s theory is extremely compelling. What we like is that way he doesn’t separate human activity from the complexity of the environment. It puts us in the midst of the destruction we create, and urges us to be the change we wish to see. It’s accessible to scientific and non-scientific readers alike, capturing a huge audience over the 30+ years since Gaia was first published. 

2. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson

I first came across Silent Spring after listening to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ for the first time. The lyrics mentioned something called DDT, and as a 12 year old I was clueless as to what this was. I looked it up (in my school Library, this was in the early days of Google being a thing) and was directed to Silent Spring. I found out that DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was a powerful pesticide, used prolifically by farmers wanted to boost crop yields during and following the Green Revolution. Rachel Cason’s book documented the detrimental effects on the environment—particularly on birds—of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. I still remember the emotive, yet detailed case put forward in the book.  

3. An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore

The reach of this book is undoubtedly linked to the fact that Al Gore was Vice President of the USA for 8 years from 1993 onward. However, this alone doesn’t make a good book. An Inconvenient Truth is an extremely accessible guide to climate change, and we recommend it to anybody looking to find out a bit more about the science and data behind climate change, but is often feels alienated by popular science non-fiction. 

4. The Lorax, Dr Seuss

Everybody loves a Dr Seuss, and I’m proud to say that I can still recite huge chunks of ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ at a moments notice. But there’s one astoundingly amazing Dr Seuss epic that brings a bit of a tear to my eye. First published in 1971, the Lorax narrates the impact that corporate greed has on a small and beautiful landscape inhabited by loving and faultless creatures and organisms. It’s littered with all the usual tongue-twisters of the Seussian genre, whilst providing a poignant microcosm for the impact of industrial and post-industrial societies on our beautiful planet

5. Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake is not a book that shies away from the major issues of our time. It’s the first in a trilogy of a post-apocalyptic dystopian tale tackling terrifying issues from bio-engineering and genetic modification, to climate change and over-consumption. To provide an extremely condensed summary, the human race is near-eradicated by an all-encompassing plague, leaving the world inhabited by a mysterious blue race called the ‘Crakers’ who are guided by their prophet ‘Jimmy-the-Snowman’. It’s less weird than it sounds. 

6. Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter PlanetMark Lynas

An average global increase of 3 degrees Celsius doesn’t sound like much, right? Well think again. Six Degrees provides an account of the reality of what may seem like a relatively small global average temperature rise: rivers larger than the Amazon fed by glacial melt waters from Greenland, huge numbers of environmental refugees, and the sparks of a nuclear war beginning as a result of widespread droughts. Read it and weep…. then pick yourself up and get inspired to make a difference!

7. The Malay Archipelago, Alfred Russell Wallace

To many people, a mention of Wallace will bring back memories of multiple choice science test questions about the natural selection of species. Wallace was the founding father of modern biogeography, and the Malay Archipelago documents his famous scientific expedition between 1854 and 1862. During this time Wallace explored the southern area of the Malay Archipelago, which includes Malaysia, Singapore, the Indonsian Islands, and New Guinea. Wallace’s work, alongside that of Charles Darwin contributed to our contemporary understanding of evolution- perhaps the world’s most famous scientific theory.

8. The Little Green Book of Big Green Ideas, Sonja Patel

Perhaps the least important fact about this book is that it coined an amazing pun- the ‘re-cyclopedia’. If you’ve read the above books, find yourself inspired to act, but have no idea where to start, then this book should be your first key investment. It contains tips on everything from cleaning your house with baking soda and vinegar (not as smelly as it sounds..!), to travelling in the most carbon-neutral ways possible. There’s 185 tips to kick off your eco-life!

9. The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, Sir Nicholas Stern

Not technically a book, although we’re qualifying this one because of both its importance and its length (700 pages!). Sir Nicholas Stern, an eminent economist and special adviser to HM’s Government, produced the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change in 2005. The review does what it says on the tin, and outlines an economic case for acting on climate change. The overriding outcome of the review is that “the benefits of strong, early action on climate change outweigh the costs “. There’s some strong and quantified reasoning behind that argument, but we don’t want to spoil the read for you!

10. The Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronan

Again, not technically a book. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a mind-altering read that you should definitely look up straight away. Cronan’s ‘The Trouble with Wilderness’ argues that concepts like ‘wilderness’ are damaging our chances of conserving many important environments on our planet. The problem with ‘wilderness’ is that it posits that true nature sits outside of the real human experience; that these pristine and unaffected environments exist, and that these are what we need to save. He’s not a defeatist, and he’s not against conservation: instead Cronan deconstructs and re-imagines a concept that lies at the heart of conservation imagery. 


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