Environmental non-fiction can be a tough slog, as the subject matter is often grim. It takes the most engaging, insightful authors to break through with something that gets at the heart of the matter and also keep the pages turning. Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction from 2015 is a perfect example of this. Several years later, this book about how humans are ushering in a sixth mass extinction remains a popular read—though probably not on the beach.
We read these books not just to be entertained though, but to get a better grasp on the state of the planet and humanity’s evolving impact on it. Every year, important, new chapters are added to this growing library of information, full of knowledge that can be harnessed to improve the outlook for future generations.
Here are a few of the best reads from 2017.
The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion By Peter Wohlleben
Wohlleben accomplished something extremely rare with his first book, an international bestseller about how trees work. The Hidden Life of Trees put Wohlleben, a lifetime forester, on the literary map, and his follow-up sounds just as creative and insightful. Examining everything from insects to pigs, “Wohlleben writes in support of the new biology that challenges the old idea that plants and many animals are little more than mechanisms,” according to The Guardian.
The Zoo: The Wild and Wonderful Tale of the Founding of London Zoo by Isobel Charman
Charman’s book tells the story of the world’s first modern zoo, which came to be in Dickensian London. The story of diplomats, traders, scientists, and aristocratic amateurs, it’s a reminder of our often confounding relationship with nature. With zoos poised to play an even larger role in conservation going forward as wild animal populations diminish, this book is a great reminder of how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.
The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea by Jack E. Davis
The Gulf of Mexico’s importance as a hub for industry, fishing, tourism, and trade is one of those things most Americans take for granted. Davis’s book is the response to those willing to ask the question, “but how did it get this way?” The answer is a rich tale incorporating geography, history, and culture; one that comes together to give a reader a much better understanding of the American Sea.
The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World by Jeff Goodell
A year-end favorite of many reviewers, Goodell’s book is the definitive account of what will happen when sea levels rise substantially due to human-caused climate change. With seas anticipated to rise by up to six feet by 2100, it’s a tale of what will happen as island nations and coastal cities undergo the chaotic changes accompanying underwater submersion, and what sort of responses will be required. Goodell, a seasoned journalist, traveled to over 12 countries to report the book—this is one of the most global stories out there, after all.
Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change by Ashley Dawson
Most of the world’s megacities are located near coastlines threatened by climate change. As hubs of commerce, finance, and trade, they are also responsible for a large fraction of our greenhouse gas emissions. With more than half the world’s population now living in urban areas, cities are where a lot of the real action is when it comes to addressing global warming. Dawson takes on this sprawling topic with a focus on America’s coastal behemoth, New York City.
Earther published an interview with Dawson earlier this year when the book first came out, so that’s a good place to start.
The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper
There are two things everybody knows about Roman Empire: that it was an invincible superpower, and that when it fell, it fell hard. Usually the death of the empire gets blamed on barbarian hordes, imperial decadence, or on sheer exhaustion. But one factor in Rome’s slow tumble into chaos has often been ignored: the role of the natural world. In The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, classicist Kyle Harper lays out the ways that climate change and emergent epidemics conspired to hamstring the first globalized European empire.
Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction by Britt Wray
The promise of de-extinction is incredible, but what is the true potential? Wray’s book is an investigative look at how new technologies like CRISPR might be used to bring the past back to life, literally. While woolly mammoths often come up as good candidates for revival, Wray speaks with scientists working across the field on a variety of projects—and with a great diversity of opinions on the matter. This book truly takes you to the frontlines of de-extinction, and for a moment you might actually forget that extinction is the true crisis.
The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions by Peter Brannen
There were five mass extinctions on Earth before the one we are easing our way into now. Most people know dinosaurs went out with a cosmic bang when a massive asteroid struck the Earth, but what about the others? The question is surprisingly under-explored, and there are more interesting theories than hard facts. Brannen knows the territory well, and makes each extinction event feel much more recent than tens or hundreds of millions of years ago.
Critical Critters by Ralph Steadman and Ceri Levy
Since his days illustrating gonzo legend Hunter S. Thompson’s wild-eyed chronicles, Steadman’s work has been hard to define. Lately he’s pointed his unique brand of illustration towards the natural world, with Critical Critters being his third book dedicated to extinct and critically endangered animals. I’m pretty sure his frantic depictions capture the stressed inner lives of many of these animals today.