Last month, PBS premiered a new documentary on the life and work of Rachel Carson, author of the 1962 environmental classic Silent Spring. An exposé on the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring was a shocking wake-up call for a generation of Americans raised on the promise of “better living through chemistry.” Despite the efforts of the chemical industry to destroy Carson’s reputation — maybe even because of them — Silent Spring helped to launch the modern environmental movement. But it wasn’t the only book of its kind: The sixties and seventies introduced several works of canonical environmental literature. The books below are a great place to start.
Peter Singer’s 1975 work Animal Liberation is a foundational work for environmentalists who see reforming humanity’s relationship with its fellow animals as an inseparable component of environmentalism. Animal Liberation popularized the concept of “speciesism”: a form of bigotry in which humans assign value to living beings based on their species. Singer suggests that the worth we assign to animals should be based on their ability to feel pain and to suffer, concluding that a vegetarian diet was the only ethical choice a person could make under those terms. Lest one gets the wrong idea, the capacity of human beings to suffer is also of great concern to Singer. One of his more recent books, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, is a philosophically-based argument for greater altruism and charitable giving.
A Season in the Wilderness
Naturalist Edward Abbey’s 1968 essay collection Desert Solitaire is based on his many experiences as a park ranger at Arches National Park. A combination of memoir, nature guide, and philosophical treatise on America’s sometimes toxic relationship with its natural spaces, Desert Solitaire proved to be a widely influential title within the conservation movement. Desert Solitaire was just a taste of what was yet to come. In 1975, Abbey published The Monkey Wrench Gang, a humorous work of fiction about a gang of environmentally minded saboteurs and their war against land developers and polluters. Some activists took the novel’s message to heart and began their own real-life campaign of “monkey-wrenching” their ideological opponents.
As the first executive director of the Sierra Club, and later, the founder of Friends of the Earth, David Brower was an unyielding defender of the nation’s wild spaces, and a vocal opponent of those he believed would harm them. Brower had little time for niceties. His reputation earned him the following backhanded compliment from Nixon-era EPA administrator Russell Train: “Thank God for Dave Brower; he makes it so easy for the rest of us to be reasonable.” Brower wrote a handful of books, but most people came to know him through journalist John McPhee’s 1977 book Encounters with the Archdruid, a collection of articles about Brower and his environmental crusade. Those looking for a more authoritative work on Brower and his life might consider Tom Turner’s recent biography David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement.
Scientist James Lovelock’s 1979 work Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth introduced the Gaia hypothesis to the general public. Lovelock’s hypothesis contends that Earth itself is a living system—a super-organism—that uses water, wind, microorganisms, and other factors to maintain an environment conducive to life. Of course, “conducive to life” doesn’t mean conducive to human life: The byproducts of civilization might provoke compensatory changes devastating to humanity—a worrisome thought explored in Lovelock’s 2007 work, The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis & The Fate of Humanity.
Eugene Gibbons was a proponent of the back to nature movement: a call to city dwellers to abandon the urban lifestyle in favor of a life on the farm. Stalking the Wild Asparagus, his 1962 guide to foraging and preparing edible wild plants, was a bible among the movement’s adherents. It didn’t remain in the back shelves of co-ops and health food stores for long, though. The American public at large found the book and its author fascinating, and Gibbons became something of a celebrity. He appeared on “The Tonight Show” and in a series of memorable commercials for Grape-Nuts cereal. The naturalist followed Stalking the Wild Asparagus with two companion volumes, the last of which was 1966’s Stalking the Healthful Herbs.