Feature

Elizabeth Kolbert recommends 6 books about people and the planet

The Pulitzer-winning author recommends works by Ainissa Ramirez, John McPhee, and more

Elizabeth Kolbert's new book, Under a White Sky, explores climate engineering and other bids to address humanity's impact on nature. Below, the Pulitzer-winning author of The Sixth Extinction recommends six other books about people and the planet.

Encounters With the Archdruid by John McPhee (1971).

McPhee's prismatic portrait of David Brower, the California mountaineer considered by many to be the "father" of the modern environmental movement, is a classic. It captures Brower's often infuriating complexity, and in the process poses one of the central questions of our time: Can an affluent, technological society coexist with nature, or are the two incompatible?

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen (2012).

When I think of books that have changed the way I look at the world, Quammen's The Song of the Dodo, published in 1996, is near the top of the list. Spillover is also a tour de force: It basically predicted COVID-19. For understanding how our treatment of animals, both domesticated and wild, made the current pandemic — or one like it — inevitable, there's no better guide.

Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays by Paul Kingsnorth (2017).

Kingsnorth, a British writer and the co-founder of a collective of eco-focused artists called the Dark Mountain Project, has a message and a style that are equally unsparing. In these often savage essays, he explains why he doubts the optimistic presumption that, in his words, "we will be saved, by our cleverness, from the consequences of our cleverness."

The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another by Ainissa Ramirez (2020).

Ramirez, a materials scientist, argues that with our technologies we have transformed not just the world around us but also ourselves. It's a fascinating idea, and Ramirez makes it come alive through the stories of inventors, some well-known, others underappreciated.

A Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle (2000).

Fiction about ecological disaster tends to be written in a tragic key. Boyle, by contrast, favors the darkly comic. In this novel, set in 2025, an aging radical environmentalist ex-con is caring for a pop star's Noah's Ark–like menagerie when a real flood arrives.

A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet (2020).

Millet's take on eco-catastrophe is slyly off-kilter in this novel about kids left to fend for themselves as society unravels.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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