The 10 Best Books on Nature and the Environment
An environmental journey, as told through books
The Quick Rundown:
Every day it seems more people want to join the environmental movement. This is great news. My advice? The journey of 1000 miles begins with a few good books. I note below those that had the biggest impact on my personal trajectory, and I hope you’ll share yours so we can all go further together.
A Humble Beginner (With a Lot to be Humble About)
When I joined the Nature Conservancy in 2008, I expected a steep learning curve. I had been working on environmental matters for a few years on Wall Street, so I wasn't an absolute neophyte. But leading the world’s biggest conservation NGO would demand much more. So I did everything I could to learn as much as possible, including preparing very carefully for all my meetings. I wanted my new colleagues to have confidence in me.
Our Chief Scientist Peter Kareiva was an especially intimidating figure. He’s a really nice guy, and he’s also one of those brilliant people who reads and knows everything. It seemed there was nothing he didn't know about nature, conservation, science, and the environment. So I tried especially hard to be well-informed and smart in my meetings with him.
I thought I was doing a decent job too, until Peter took me aside after one meeting and said “I see that there are some significant gaps in your knowledge about the work we do.” Whoops — my cover was blown.
He handed me a very thick stack of paper and said “you should read all of this.” It was the manuscript for his soon-to-be-published textbook on conservation science. “If you read this,” he promised, “not only will you become much better informed, you’ll also be better informed than most of your senior colleagues here and at all of the other NGOs.”
He was right. I was delighted to read his book. I found value in each and every page. I was already in the habit of asking the environmentalists that I admired for book suggestions. Back then, I was traveling non-stop, so I got in the habit of carrying a few books with me everywhere I went in order to keep learning. I continue this practice today.
When I think back now on my transition from life as a Wall Street banker to environmentalist, it dawns on me that great books were a big part of the process every step of the way, so I wanted to share them with you in the hopes that they serve you too. Here are the ten books that made the biggest impact on me.
The Instigator’s Top Ten Books on Nature and the Environment For Would-be Tree-Huggers:
Stumbling onto this truly great book in the mid-1990s was one of those happy accidents. It was long before I had any notion of becoming an environmentalist, but I like to think now that it was a little foreshadowing. I was on vacation with my wife Amy and our two young daughters in Florida and needed something to read. I picked this book up and then I couldn’t put it down. At the time, I knew almost nothing about biodiversity, evolution, extinction or the importance of preserving wild landscapes, animals and plants. This book got me excited about all of these topics and 10 years after reading this book, I ended up working on exactly these matters. I even ended up collaborating with luminaries from the book like Ed Wilson and Tom Lovejoy. Thank you David Quammen — your book changed my life. That may sound a bit melodramatic, but when I look back, it’s the only honest assessment I can give.
Read this book to be inspired and to learn about Darwin, Wallace, Wilson, Lovejoy, and the exciting quest we can all join to protect biodiversity and the natural world.
A few years later, and I had a bigger family and much more zeal to learn about the natural world, so we took an eco vacation to Belize. As we explored incredible ecosystems, our stellar tour guide, Max, kept chatting and taught us so much about how nature actually worked. I asked a lot of questions — maybe too many even for high-energy Max. Finally, he handed me Jared Diamond’s book and said, “Read this.'' It worked. I stopped bugging Max. Instead, I devoured the book. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one because it went on to be a bestseller and to win the Pulitzer Prize. Maybe you’ve read it too.
The book aims to explain all of human history by focusing on the environmental, geographic, biological factors that drive it. I know some scholars dispute some of this big thinking book’s conclusions, but none of that matters if you ask me. What's great about this book is its reach and ambition. It's truly inspiring. It’s what got me thinking that there might be more to life than Wall Street.
Read this book to think hard about the sweep of human history and how we interact with all other species and all ecosystems.
By the mid-2000s, I was very interested in conservation, but still a Wall Street banker. It was time to diversify not just my reading but my network. I started making an effort to get to know NGO leaders. One was Kent Redford, the Chief Scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Kent recommended this book. It's a very readable study of what has been done very successfully to reverse the damage humans have caused to wildlife in North America.
The pages are replete with fundamental explanations— how ecosystems and wildlife interact, why and how this gets damaged, and how we can turn this around and get back on track. I started to think that some of the business skills I had developed might also work in efforts to protect nature.
Read this book to build some optimism and to strengthen your ethical commitment to protecting all habitats for all species.
The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable by Gretchen C. Daily and Katherine Ellison
Now several years in, my efforts to learn more about environmental matters started to pay off. In late 2005, Hank Paulson put me in charge of Goldman Sachs’s nascent environmental efforts in 2005. He gave me this book too. It builds on Gretchen Daily’s pioneering academic work concerning natural capital. Together with journalist Katherine Ellison, Daily persuasively argues that we should invest more to protect “green infrastructure” to capture the ecosystem services that nature provides. It made sense for a Wall Street environmentalist like me to be attracted to this investment-oriented approach to protecting nature.
Later, to my delight, I got to work closely with Gretchen as we served together on the board of TNC and worked jointly on the Natural Capital Project. Gretchen’s work also influenced the book I ultimately ended up writing (along with Jonathan Adams) — Nature's Fortune: How Business and Nature Thrive by Investing in Nature.
Read this book to learn about the economic value of nature and inspiring examples of big conservation wins that have been achieved on this basis.
With every new enviro-person I met, I kept asking for book ideas. Gretchen suggested this one. It's a real page-turner — almost a thriller. It grapples with the following crazy question — what would happen to the natural world if humankind suddenly vanished? Weisman is a brilliant writer and journalist. His book is a fascinating read and turns the way we tend to view environmental challenges inside out.
Read this book for a very dive deep into human interaction with the planet.
Weisman later wrote another great eco book, Countdown, which focuses on the global environmental challenges arising from population growth. Gretchen herself is featured as a leading character in this book.
Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization and World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse by Lester R. Brown
When I joined TNC in 2008, the financial crisis was just getting underway. My team and I really had our hands full as we grappled with various challenges. We worked very long days, were under a lot of pressure, and had to make a lot of tough decisions. I would return home exhausted and take solace in these books.
Lester Brown is a hero in the environmental field. He is also a superb writer, analyst, problem solver, and policy wonk. The two books almost felt like memos advising me on how I should set priorities and make decisions about the work TNC would do.
Read these books (or any of Lester’s other great ones) for a very clear assessment of the daunting environmental challenges we face as well as a game plan for how we can address them.
Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering are Necessary by Stewart Brand
I was a fan of The Whole Earth Catalog back in my high school days. So when Stewart Brand, who led and co-founded that effort, put out an environmental book in 2010, I was eager to read it. The financial crisis was behind us and the TNC team was working hard to determine the best ways to scale and accelerate the organization's achievements. This great book was enormously helpful, providing us many exciting ideas, provocative challenges, and real inspiration.
I looked at my copy of this book the other day, as well as the two Lester Brown books noted above. I see that they really connected with me; I managed to highlight almost every paragraph in all three books.
Read this book for a no-nonsense, engineering-like, reality-based approach to addressing environmental challenges. It's a fascinating read, and Stewart is a great writer.
Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser
Glaeser is an economist who brilliantly makes the argument you’d expect from the book’s title. Yes, COVID-19 has thrown a curveball at cities right now, but I doubt pandemics will disrupt the long-term and mostly very positive trend of urbanization. I’m a city boy. I grew up in Cleveland and spent most of my adult life in cities — Tokyo, NYC, and Washington, DC—so I was very receptive to Glaser’s notion that cities are a force for good, environmental and otherwise. Glaser’s view is good news because half of the world’s people live in cities today and soon it will be two-thirds. This book helped persuade me to launch a cities initiative at TNC.
Read this book to understand how cities are an engine of human progress and a solution to enormous challenges to the natural world.
No one has been a better champion of the need to protect nature at scale in order to protect biodiversity than leading scientist Ed Wilson. He is also a prolific author of many superb books on nature. I’ve read and loved most of his books. It's difficult to single one out. I pick Naturalist— his memoir — because it's a moving firsthand account of his own journey as a scientist as well as the evolution of the fields he developed.
Read this book to be inspired by one person’s extraordinary personal journey in the world of science, conservation, and large-scale problem-solving.
One of the most frustrating aspects of being an environmentalist is watching society’s very slow engagement on climate change. Doing nothing or moving slowly makes absolutely no sense from a business or economic perspective, period. The cost of dealing with climate is not zero, but it's much lower than the cost of doing too little. Somehow this gets lost in all of the debate, politics, ill will, and obfuscation that characterizes so much of the dialogue about climate. Sigh.
Read this fun, brilliant, sobering, and very clearly argued book by Wagner and the late Weitzman to see how climate policymakers should start thinking more like homeowners do every day when they purchase homeowners insurance. Managing risk makes sense!
I know I said just 10 books, but it's the holidays. Here’s a bonus book for you!
It's probably not every day you read a textbook. But this book doesn't read like one. This is the book that Peter, TNC’s Chief Scientist, gave me. Kareiva and co-author Marvier answer practical questions about how best to achieve progress in protecting nature right now. All of the thorny tradeoffs, controversies, and messiness of conservation management is well-considered here. Saving nature and running an NGO is not as easy as it looks. Peter was being practical when he gave me his not-quite-finished manuscript. The book provides just what you’ll need to know if you’re ever suddenly appointed CEO of a big conservation organization.
Read this book to think hard about how humans and nature best share our crowded planet.
Peter Kareiva ended up moving on from TNC a couple of years before I did. As he made his farewells, he was complimentary about my leadership, which meant a lot to me coming from him. Even better was his specific choice of words. He pulled me aside, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, “Mark, my friend, I want to pay you my highest compliment.” I leaned in, anxious to hear what he thought I had done so well. “You are a geek.”
Peter credited me for my learning above all else. I certainly don’t want to be immodest, but I kind of agree with Peter. To the extent that I’ve had any success at all, I attribute it mostly to trying to learn, staying curious, reading everything I can get my hands on, and continually trying to figure things out. I know, I know -- I still have a very long way to go. Good. I’m enjoying the journey.
Over to You
So there you have it. The books that shaped my environmental journey from knowing next to nothing to writing The Instigator and everything in between.
As I’ve mentioned here before, if you’re interested in making a change — whether it’s a career switch or just becoming a more environmentally responsible citizen — one of the best ways to begin is to learn as much as you can. Books are an easy way to do that. How do you pick from the abundant choices? Ask for recommendations from everyone you talk to and never stop.
On that note, dear readers, let’s start helping each other out. What are the environmental books that moved you?
Great books on the environment keep getting published every year. 2020 was no exception. The best new one in my view is All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis edited by environmental leaders Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson.
Please read this book. The only reason All We Can Save is not on my top ten list above is that I’m still working hard to absorb its challenging and provocative arguments. Indeed, some of the criticisms seem to be aimed at people just like me. The book is a collection of essays (and a few poems too) by more than 40 women. Some of the authors are very prominent environmental leaders, and others are clearly rising stars. The essays are inspiring, useful, and provocative. They provide a mix of good information that is not always available, practical advice, tough criticisms, strong demands that the climate movement do things differently in specific ways, and personal reflections. One good example (of many) is an essay by Mary Anne Hitt, National Director of Campaigns at Sierra Club. She explains exactly how their Beyond Coal campaign worked, why it was successful, and her personal connection to some of the places where it succeeded. She also thinks ahead to what future campaigns will need to succeed. I wish more NGO leaders would engage in this type of transparent analysis. Bravo to the book’s two editors, Mary Anne, and all of the contributors, and everyone else who made this great book happen.
It was very tough for me to pick just ten books for this list above. Here are some other great ones that I loved:
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken
The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability by James Gustave Speth
The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know by Joseph Romm
The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
I was a guest on an enviro podcast recently and the host gave me a heads up that they always ask for a book recommendation at the end of the show. “Please don’t recommend The Overstory by Richard Powers,” he warned. “Everybody names that book.” It is indeed a great enviro-themed novel. I loved the book too and recommend it. Other enviro-themed novels I really admire include:
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver;
The Maddaddam Trilogy by Margaret Attwood;
Weather: A Novel by Jenny Offill;
And the timeless classic -- The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey.
There are also some great books on how to accelerate private sector-led environmental progress. Two recent favorites are: Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Rebecca Henderson and Grow the Pie: How Great Companies Deliver both Purpose and Profit by Alex Edmans.
One Last Thing:
In my last newsletter, I asked you what we should be talking about. You had some great ideas!
Jeff suggested we focus on new business models that drive significant environmental change. He mentioned Litterati, Saildrone, and Aclima as examples. I agree -- this is exciting stuff and promises significant change.
Britt is worried about behaving like its business as usual and wants to see more focus on climate adaptation. She's right, in my view. This is a big opportunity for private-sector leadership as well as government-led infrastructure and stimulus programs.
Henry encourages us to dive even deeper into how NGOs and the private sector can work together to address climate change. I’m for this too -- one-plus-one can be worth much more than two here.
Juan wants to talk about integrated landscape management and developing nature positive portfolios at scale. He emphasizes the potential opportunities in “blended finance” deals. This was a top priority for me back when I was at TNC. I hope to see and will keep pushing for progress here this year.
Leonard advocates for rethinking how we educate and eventually employ today's environmental-minded teenagers. I think this is a huge and very positive opportunity. I hear almost every day from college students. They really want to make a positive difference. Lots of upsides here.
Marc is seeking evidence we can use to persuade skeptics that individuals and businesses really do benefit economically from prioritizing environmental progress. Challenge accepted. It's what The Instigator is all about.
Thanks for all of these great ideas and suggestions. Please keep them coming!
And in the spirit of not just asking but giving, I’d like to help.
If you’re interested in specific environmental topics, hit reply and let me know what you’re exploring. I’ll provide some specific reading recommendations.