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Environmental Policy History Reading List


I received a request for a list of environmental policy/history books. I make no claims to being an authoritative source here and others will have different books, but here are 10 books on the history of environmental policy I find useful. I am thinking of these terms broadly as well. In no order:

1. Samuel Hays, A History of Environmental Politics since 1945.
Pretty self-explanatory, good overview of the issue from the dean of environmental policy history.

2. James Morton Turner, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964
An excellent recent overview of wilderness politics after the Wilderness Act.

3. Christopher Wells, Car Country: An Environmental History
How did we become a car-centric society and what are its environmental implications?

4. Andrew Hurley, Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race, and Industrial Pollution in Gary, Indiana, 1945-80.
Who has access to clean nature and who does not? Guess what–it’s about race.

5. Karl Jacoby, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation
What were the politics and actions behind the creation of hunting law and national parks?

6. Nancy Langston, Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES
A key book about the science and policy behind synthetic chemicals and women’s bodies

7. Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West
Water policy, which we must understand to talk about the West.

8. Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River
How policymakers and industry completely reshaped a river and its ecosystem.

9. Joseph Taylor, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis
Fisheries policy and its many mistakes is hugely important for environmental policy

10. Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On: People, Politics, and the AIDS Epidemic.
A great piece of journalism rather than a history but it holds up as an indictment of the abject failure of the Reagan Administration during the greatest public health crisis of the second half of the 20th century.

I find this list slightly dated, which surprises me since I keep up on the historiography pretty well. It’s also I should note quite different than what I think the best books of environmental history are, although these are all good. Strictly thinking about policy.

I have no doubt there will be many great recommendations in comments as well, including books I probably just forgot.

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  • gawaintheknight
  • I am surprised at how well Organic Machine holds up every time I teach it. A lovely little book.

  • keta

    Thanks for the list.

    The irony of Taylor’s book on salmon being published by the Weyerhaueser publishing arm strikes me as ironic.

    I would add Cadillac Desert, to this list and wonder if anyone has seen the PBS doc based on the book?

    • It’s a Weyerhaueser funded series at the University of Washington Press. The company has no say or control over the publications. It is greenwashing of course, but of the most innocuous kind.

      • keta

        Ah, blood money. Nice to hear they have no editorial control.

        Taylor’s book looks to be a good read. Thanks for the suggestion.

    • Anna in PDX

      Seconding Cadillac Desert. Of course it is dated but it is a great book about water and the West.

    • Big Al

      Another shout for Cadillac Desert. Still highly relevant, probably more now than ever.

  • rea

    We don’t usually think of an epidemic like AIDS as being a matter of environmental policy, but of course, viruses are part of the environment.

  • Todd

    Probably way too basic and journalistic, but I remember liking John McPhee’s “Control of Nature”.

    • Great book, IMO.

      • Hogan

        M too, and nice examples of smart people making really dumb environmental policy decisions.

        • M too

          I’m not sure I trust that guy.

          • Hogan

            Peter Lorre or Judi Dench?

            • Click the link. Click the link! CLICK THE LINK!

              • Hogan

                Click the what now?

                • I haven’t had enough to drink to splain the inter-tubes, grandpa.

                • Hogan

                  I’ll see if Peer Gynt can help me out.

  • WabacMachinist

    A good overview of the topic.


  • humanoid.panda

    I’d add Doug Weiner’s A Little Corner of Freedom to the list. It’s both a great history of the environmental lobby in the Soviet Union, and really one of the best books ever written about how Soviet politics worked in practice.

    • And it’s worth noting that I rarely read anything to do with Europe so I can’t speak at all to that continent.

    • malindrome

      Ooh, if we are allowed to recommend books on environmentalism in other countries, let me plug The River Runs Black, by Elizabeth Economy, one of the top writers on China’s environmental disaster. It’s from 2010, and everything changes fast in China, so it’s probably a little dated now, but I highly recommend it.

      One factoid from the book: China’s EPA-equivalent agency has fewer inspectors in the whole country than there are just in New York state. And that’s excluding Federal EPA employees operating in NY, only state-level inspectors. For a country of 1.3 billion people, roughly the same geographic size as the USA. Crazy.

  • Peterr

    Three more to add to the list:

    A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest by William deBuys — looks at the water wars of the Southwest, and the battles that lie ahead.

    Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, edited by Subhankar Banerjee — an anthology of 39 disparate voices looking at the effects of Arctic drilling on life in the frozen north.

    Angels By The River: A Memoir by Gus Speth — a personal walk through the history of environmental activism from the 1950s forward.

    The links above go to online chats with the authors, and the introductory posts have links to sites to purchase the books (as well as other things).

  • Garbage! Garbage! Garbage!

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    There was one McPhee already, another good one by him is his book about David Brower from 1971, Encounters with the Archdruid. It’s a great portrait, and as a piece of environmentalist history, plus it shows Brower engaging with disparate foes: miners, developer and the Bureau of Reclamation. Much has surely changed since then, but many of the combatants and battlefields have not.

    • I’m using the part with Floyd Dominy in my US Environmental History course this semester.

    • Anna in PDX

      I was just thinking about this book and wondering if it counts as being primarily about policy. But it is a great McPhee book (among many).

  • Linnaeus

    I know you’ve got Jay Taylor’s very good book there already, but I might suggest Margaret Beattie Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes: An Environmental History, 1783-1933.

  • Webstir

    I would add “The Endangered Species Act at Thirty” by my University of Idaho College of Law Professor Dale D. Goble. Also, look for the upcoming “The Endangered Species Act at Sixty.” It will be released when the act turns fifty to stimulate discussion prior to the Act’s 60th birthday.

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