Reading List: The History of the Environmental Movements

A few years ago, I did a three part series on the environmental and conservation movements in the west (western civilization, not US West). This was the list of books I recommended for further reading. I have nibbled a few newer titles since then, but these are still solid, and generally easy to find. There are lots and lots of very good books about specific aspects of environmental history, but these cover the movement and its background, as well as some different philosophies. Since yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day (yawn), I thought I’d run this again.

Well, after going through my notes-n-stuff, I’ve also added a few intro-to-environmental history books that some folks might find interesting. As you would expect, environmental history books can range from dry and preachy to dreadfully preachy to pretty good to readable and fascinating. I’ve tried to go easy on the first two categories. These are in no set order. I’d recommend using Inter-Library-Loan for most of them, due to either scarcity or specialty.

Wilderness and the American Mind Roderick Frazier Nash. The idea of Wilderness and how it changed to being a good thing. He was the first environmental history rock-star in the US, for academic versions of rock-star.

Changes in the Land William Cronin How New England shifted over time, from the 1500s to the 1800s.

Ecological Revolutions Carolyn Merchant – A response to Cronin, adding in more about Indians and pre-Industrial attitudes. Her book The Death of Nature is a history of the ideas of “nature” in the Scientific Revolution and of the foundations of eco-feminism (the intellectual side, not the touchy-feely-earth-mother side).

Refuge Terry Tempest Williams  A well written eco-feminist book about the author, her family, and the Great Salt Lake. I thought it got too maudlin for my taste, but it is a great example of the better end of the spectrum.

Beauty, Health, and Permanence Samuel P. Hays. How people’s attitudes towards who nature should be preserved changed.

Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency Samuel P. Hays The original and still one of the better books about it.

Smokestacks and Progressives David Stradling  Looks at the health arguments for improving environmental quality, and who what worked in the north didn’t catch on in Birmingham, AL.

Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares Nancy Langston. A classic on the history of forestry and what we didn’t know we didn’t know.

Crossing the Next Meridian Charles Wilkinson  A look at how 19th century laws collide with 20th century ideas about preservation.

Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey Gospel of preservation.

The End of Nature Bill McKibbin One of the important works arguing that all of Earth has been tarnished by humanity and that we are about to be doooooomed.

A Passion for Nature: John Muir by Donald Worster (and pretty much any history by Worster). Excellent biography that puts Muir in context. Long but well written.

Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature Linda Lear. Read this, then Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us Does a good job of showing where Carson got her ideas from, and how she connects with the different strands of environmental thought.

A Sand County Almanac and other Writings Aldo Leopold. The Granddaddy of the wilderness movement in its best sense. And a heck of a writer and observer.

Encounters with the Archdruid John McPhee. The account of an unlikely trip that highlights the wilderness side and the Bureau of Reclamation’s wise use sides. Well written.

There are also course reading lists, and a number of Environmental History Readers, compilations, and other works. This doesn’t even start to scratch the surface of what’s available.


12 thoughts on “Reading List: The History of the Environmental Movements

  1. Additional reading for middle of my list. Still working on some earlier suggestions.

    When the sentiment shifted national forest and parks from “conserve, preserve” to “no trace of man”, a lot of environment was set up for obliteration by fire and flood. Conserving resources and tending areas takes a great deal of technical skill, and is a far cry from “No Humans Allowed”.

  2. Meh, I’m glad you read them so I don’t have to. I’m sorry, but putting hundreds if not thousands of people out of work to ‘save’ the Delta Smelt soured me on the whole movement… Add the spotted owl, etc. and that just irks me to no end. What I never see is the costs in terms of jobs and associated economies lost to ‘preservation’, see also Camp Fire and other fires… sigh

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