20 books to celebrate Earth Day’s 50th anniversary

In Reading Lists - Children's & Young Adult by The Editors

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Earth Day turns 50 years old amid a health crisis and a resulting reckoning with our old ways of working, socializing, and traveling that, in large part, polluted the planet. In the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been rays of hope for the environment; in particular, bluer skies thanks to less pollution from manufacturing and travel and a rejuvenating connection with our immediate surroundings, which we usually take for granted. In the short term, it seems, lessening the effects of climate change through society’s collective effort to shelter in place is a silver lining to an otherwise tragic situation.

The challenge becomes whether we can apply the lessons we’ve learned on this 50th Earth Day to ensure there’s another Earth Day in 2070. Just as the coronavirus required us to come together (by staying apart) in unprecedented ways, combating climate change requires us all to make sacrifices. As U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson said on the first Earth Day, in 1970: “Our goal is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings and all other living creatures. Our goal is a decent environment in its broadest and deepest sense. And it will require a long, sustained, political, moral, ethical and financial commitment far beyond any other commitment ever made by any society in the history of man.”

The books in this list provide critical context about the profound impacts of drastic climate change and offer ways we can still avoid the worst. Before the coronavirus crisis, some of these solutions — along with some of the most dire outcomes — seemed like they would never come true. But now more than ever, it’s easier to put this looming existential threat into proper perspective, and imagine ways that we really can protect the planet.

Here are historical accounts of climate science throughout the years and political battles that are ongoing, plus fictional accounts that grapple with human interference with the “natural” world.

Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert

This examination of the ways global warming has already made its imprint strikes an ideal tone, neither glossing over complicated methods of measuring global change nor losing the scientific dilettante along the way.

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The Ends of the World by Peter Brannen

Everyone knows about the tragic end of the dinosaurs, but do you know what happened in the other four mass extinctions? Peter Brannen walks through Earth’s history of death and destruction, pointing out parallels between carbon dioxide releases then and now. It’s a warning for what apocalyptic ends could befall us, and a beacon of hope that we can still stop the destruction of life as we know it.

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Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

In a list of “must-read books on the environment and climate change” on EarthDay.org, Communications Manager/Writer Brandon Pytel wrote up Merchants of Doubt, saying “Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway draw a direct line between the tobacco industry’s initial response to secondhand smoke and our contemporary way of thinking about science, specifically global warming. … Thanks to a few very powerful people, facts have been misconstrued and the public misguided in favor of unregulated, corporate-friendly ventures. Meanwhile, global warming has accelerated and so, too, has our own doubt about it.”

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On Fire by Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein’s On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal is, as you might’ve guessed, a polemic against the direly inadequate global response to the climate crisis. As talk of the Green New Deal becomes de rigueur in the Democratic debates and Greta Thunberg’s Climate Strike expands, it seems as though a sea change is finally afoot.

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Drawdown edited by Paul Hawken

Get on board with the game plan to not only stop, but reverse, the effects of climate change. Some of the 100 solutions you’ll surely already be familiar with, but others will surprise and inspire you to think differently about how you can help the planet.

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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Here’s an interesting thought experiment — what if humans suddenly disappeared from the planet? How long would it take for natural growth to take over our concrete jungles? An unconventional way of viewing many environmental issues and changes due to human development.

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Don’t Even Think About It by George Marshall

The more scientific evidence supporting climate change presented, the more people seem to resist the facts. George Marshall interviews climate change deniers and top psychologists to explain the phenomenon and give you the tools to persuade any skeptics in your life.

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How to Change Minds About Our Changing Climate by Seth B. Darling and Douglas L. Sisterson

Now that you know how to get people thinking about global warming, arm yourself with this handbook. It’s like Snopes for climate change deniers’ alternative facts. After reading this, you’ll be able to debunk common misconceptions (and outright lies) and spread the true facts instead.

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Green Metropolis by David Owen

Think city living pollutes more than country life? Think again. In Green Metropolis, David Owen makes his case that “New York is the greenest community in the United States” and dismantles anti-urban bias from mainstream environmentalists.

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The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

This heartwarming story is about so much more than the sustainability of the environment — it’s about modernizing and bringing together a community that others had written off. William Kamkwamba’s quest to build a windmill will surely inspire you.

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Light of the Stars by Adam Frank

What if we’re already too late? Astrophysicist Adam Frank believes it likely that many alien civilizations have existed and might have steered their own planets’ environments into ruin. He explores what that means for our fate on an Earth devastated by climate change.

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Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

The classic text that revealed the harmfulness of pesticides and other chemicals and launched the modern environmental movement. Carson’s reporting helped inform voters and lead to the passage of many federal regulations to keep the planet clean.

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The Overstory by Richard Powers

Take a long walk through the luscious forest that is this masterful (and Pulitzer-winning) work from Richard Powers. When a wide cast of characters ultimately converge upon one of the few still-pristine stretches of forest in America, the full majesty of the trees, and the devastating threat to their survival, is made painfully clear.

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Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Millions of butterflies end up migrating to Tennessee for the winter instead of Mexico, a tiny sign of many bigger and more devastating climate changes to come. Barbara Kingsolver skewers all the symptoms — such as poor educational opportunities in the South and elitism among environmentalists — for America’s insufficient response to climate science.

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Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

In a list of “must-read books on the environment and climate change” on EarthDay.org, Justine Sullivan, the director of communications and digital media, picked Jesmyn Ward’s novel. “Like the book’s protagonist, 15-year-old Esch, Ward grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and lived through Hurricane Katrina. … Ward’s prose rises above the cut-and-dried news coverage of the time to tell the story with a dignity and intensity that demonstrates all that we can create together and all that we stand to lose by climate change.”

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Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx’s epic novel spans several centuries and tells a cautionary tale about deforestation. The elegant prose only solidifies the devastation at the slow death of the forest, as families build dynasties through logging, relying on the trees to build their fame and fortune. National Geographic is making a limited series based on the book starring Christian Cooke and James Bloor that debuts next month on Memorial Day.

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The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

This expansive, award-winning story from David Mitchell, one of the most gifted writers of a generation, takes you through decades of Holly Sykes’ difficult, beautiful, magical, and ultimately dystopian life. A wild ride with apocalyptic ends.

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The Wall by John Lanchester

A dark dystopian novel about drastic sea level rise and other climate change hazards that radically change life on Earth as we know it. Modern comforts are all gone as less land leads to more fights for survival in an increasingly cruel world.

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Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich

A cutting and humorous look at how capitalism and the climate collide. A mathematician obsessed with worst-case scenarios exploits companies’ growing fears over climate change destroying their business. But then, of course, one of the worst cases comes true.

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The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi’s biopunk sci-fi novel paints a bleak picture of the fallout from biotechnology in the near future. Set in the dystopian streets of Bangkok where bioengineered plagues run rampant, food is in short supply, and calorie corporations reign supreme, a food scavenger falls for an artificial human.

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