Eco-Friendly Books Explore The Literary Green

Juliet Eilperin

hide captionJuliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's environmental reporter and the author of Fight Club Politics. For her upcoming book on sharks, she's lived with villagers in Papua New Guinea and faced a whale shark the size of a school bus.

"Three Books ..." is a series in which we invite writers to recommend three great reads on a single theme.

Despite being a national environmental reporter, I didn't grow up sporting L.L. Bean or going spelunking with my friends. As a result, I often see reading environmental books as homework. But three new books on store shelves this summer eschew both purple prose and hyperbole to challenge the way we view our planet. These books remind us what's at stake when we chip away at the landscape — and what we can do to stop the damage.

'American Earth'

'American Earth'
American Earth, edited by Bill McKibben, hardcover, 900 pages

Bill McKibben is one of journalism's premier commentators on global warming, but in American Earth, he turns back the clock. The anthology collects song lyrics, poetry, political speeches and essays about nature from two centuries of Americans — from early thinkers like Henry David Thoreau to contemporary writers such as Michael Pollan.

McKibben includes one of the most haunting lines of verse I've ever read. In "The Summer's Day," poet Mary Oliver depicts the lazy vista of an open field down to a tiny grasshopper before concluding, "Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?/Tell me, what is your plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?"

As we wander through this vast literary terrain, we're reminded that, even now, it's the diverse landscape, more than any other feature, that helps define our country.

'Where The Wild Things Were'

'Where the Wild Things Were'
Where The Wild Things Were, by William Stolzenburg , hardcover, 304 pages

Science writer William Stolzenburg takes a more global view of environmental havoc in Where the Wild Things Were. Large mammals like wolves and cougars are disappearing from ecosystems around the world — and the results are disastrous, influencing everything from the natural character of rivers to the blooming patterns of aspens and willows.

Scientists and researchers who track large animals are the heroes of this story, but the most thrilling moments of the book are reserved for the beasts themselves: In one passage, a pronghorn antelope races against a truck, keeping pace without faltering. It's a beautiful — and haunting — scene; sadly, the antelope's finely honed survival mechanism is out of place in a world where there are few predators left to chase this magnificent herd.

'The Carbon Age'

'The Carbon Age'
The Carbon Age, by Eric Roston, paperback, 320 pages

While Stolzenburg examines nature on a sweeping scale, former Time journalist Eric Roston drills down to the atomic heart of the planet in The Carbon Age. I have avoided anything to do with organic chemistry for years, but Roston's book convinced me that the fastest way to understand "everything larger than an atom and smaller than a planet," is through the element carbon. It occupies a central role in the current debate about climate, but it's also found in the food we eat, the pills we pop — even high-end tennis rackets and bicycles.

Roston writes that our use of carbon to create goods has made us "more powerful than plate tectonics" when it comes to the potential for destruction. While Hollywood filmmakers expect Armageddon to come from the skies, Roston says we should all look inward: "We are the meteor."

Reading words printed on dead trees doesn't automatically translate into saving the planet. But by encouraging us to reevaluate the world around us, these three books offer a vision of a different path forward, one that might steer us safely out of the meteor's path.

Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

Books Featured In This Story

Where the Wild Things Were
Where the Wild Things Were

Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators

by William Stolzenburg

Hardcover, 291 pages | purchase


Purchase Featured Books

  • Where the Wild Things Were
  • Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators
  • William Stolzenburg
American Earth
American Earth

Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

by Albert Gore and Bill McKibben

Hardcover, 1047 pages | purchase


Purchase Featured Books

  • American Earth
  • Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
  • Albert Gore and Bill McKibben

Purchase Featured Books

The Carbon Age

by Eric Roston



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