The best environmental books we’ve read in 2020

Not surprisingly, we’ve been doing quite a bit of reading this year. Here are some of our favorite books. And not all of them were new in 2020. We reviewed Braiding Sweetgrass back in 2019, and it’s comforting to see that book rise to the top of our collective consciousness (a seven-year old overnight success story).

And a book that I continue to think about is Dark Emu, first published in Australia in 2014. Seeing great books find large audiences, regardless of when they first entered the world gives me hope for publishing and this world. Because great ideas and great stories have no shelf life.

I hope you’ll check out our reviewers’ favorite books of the year — and have a healthy and happy holiday season.

Lauren Frick

The Overstory and Braiding Sweetgrass were already on last year’s list, but if we can repeat books, those two would 100% be the best books I’ve read this year.

Other than those two, The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh, The Animal Activist’s Handbook by Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich, and How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell are my other top favorites.

The Animal Activist’s Handbook: A perfect introduction into how to go about talking to people about veganism without coming across as an angry vegan. There are even guides with possible answers for all the hard-to-answer questions!

How to Do Nothing: This book is a breath of fresh air in a technology heavy, social media driven world. Utopian societies, the attention economy, and birds are just a few of the many things Odell mentions when thinking about the way in which we engage with the world around us.

Midge Raymond

If there is a book the universe needs right now, it is Hope Ferdowsian’s Phoenix Zones: Where Strength Is Born and Resilience Lives. This slender book about trauma and healing portrays the lives of human and nonhuman animals from myriad parts of the world, examining the ways in which suffering—and healing—is universal across  borders and across species. Most important, Ferdowsian turns tangible evidence, through both studies and stories, into ideas for how we can create and embrace opportunities for change. Phoenix Zones is compassionate, edifying, and inspiring, and is the perfect read as we head into a new year with fresh hope. Learn more about Hope Ferdowsian on her website and at the Phoenix Zones Initiative

Mindy Mejia

No one sees nature quite like a poet and Aimee Nezhukumatathil proves that in World of Wonders, her first book of prose. This collection of essays centers around Nezhukumatathil’s lifelong interactions with and observations of the natural world. Born to a Filipina mother and a father from South India, Nezhukumatathil grew up all over the United States due to the demands of her mother’s job as a psychiatrist, and was immersed in landscapes from New York to Arizona. She writes from both the poet’s perspective and as a person of color in a white-privileged world. More…

Jacki Skole

Erosion: Essays of Undoing by Terry Tempest Williams is a “gathering of stories, poems, and pleas” through which Williams explores the erosion of land, of home, of self, of decency and of democracy. And while she mines the anger and despair that often accompanies erosion, she also offers hope. As we erode, she writes, so, too, do we evolve. 

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: I finally read Kingsolver’s seventh novel, published in 2013. An engaging work of climate fiction, Flight Behavior tells the stories of a young woman and a colony of butterflies that have deviated from their traditional paths. 

Here’s a link to the EcoLit Books Flight Behavior book review.

John Yunker

Dark Emu
Bruce Pascoe

As Pascoe illustrates again and again, the Europeans who first arrived in Australia had preconceived notions about the people who lived there. Knowing the truth about Indigenous Australians isn’t just an academic exercise. Learning how they coexisted with the land and the animals poses important lessons for our path towards a more sustainable and compassionate future. 

The Broken Heart of America
Walter Johnson

This is a book I wish I had when I was living in St. Louis, and I hope it becomes required reading now. Because it would go a long way towards righting the wrongs of this city and, perhaps, our country as a whole. It’s long past time we resolved to do better and to stop reenacting the past.

Center for Humans and Nature

Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must and How We Can
Varshini Prakash and Guido Girgenti, eds.
(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020)
A collection from the Sunrise Movement featuring writing by the Center’s 2020 Editorial Fellow, Julian Brave NoiseCat.

Thirty Times a Minute
Colleen Plumb
(Radius Books, 2020)
Reviewed in the latest issue of our journal Minding Nature, Colleen Plumb’s Thirty Times a Minute is a book that speaks to our hearts through the power of images. The volume offers reader/viewers an immersive experience featuring photographs from Plumb’s projections of captive elephants around the world and essays reflecting on the life of captive elephants by Linda Hogan, Hope Ferdowsian, Joyce Poole & Peter Granli, Steven M. Wise, and others. Gorgeous, provocative, unique, and thoughtful, the images and elephants in this book yield new insights with each opening. Read the review here.

Raven’s Witness: The Alaska Life of Richard K. Nelson
Hank Lentfer
(Mountaineers Books, 2020)
A timely biography of anthropologist Richard K. Nelson by one of his close friends and collaborators, CHN contributor Hank Lentfer.

When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry
(Norton, 2020)
Probably the most significant book to arrive in 2020, this anthology of poetry by Indigenous peoples of North America, edited by US Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, features work by CHN contributors Elise Paschen and Tanaya Winder. The anthology weaves work from five geographical regions of the land we call North America. Each section opens with a poem from traditional oral literatures and concludes with the work of contemporary and emerging poets.

Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People
David W. Orr, Andrew Gumbel, Bakari Kitwanga, and William S. Becker, eds.
(New York: The New Press, 2020)
A collection of social theorists, activists, and journalists addressing how to transform widespread angst and anger into equality, empowerment, and structural change. Written against the backdrop of impending planetary change and the degradation of the land and human communities alike.

Radical Wordsworth
Jonathan Bate
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020)
A new biography of one of the greatest poets of nature by one of the outstanding practitioners of eco-criticism. Not a conventional cradle-to-grave narrative, this complex reading of complex texts finds a new lease on life for radicalism in any age.

Paying the Land
Joe Sacco
(New York: Metropolitan Books, 2020)
A graphic ethnography and appreciation of the Dene people of the Mackenzie River Valley. Depicted, quite literally, here is another instance of Indigenous vision and human dignity that does not labor under the drive to defile.

March, 3 volumes. Boxed Set
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
(San Diego, CA: Top Shelf Productions, 2013-2016)
A masterful graphic autobiography by civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis in collaboration with writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell. Whole families must read it and study its images. It makes good trouble.

Resource Radicals
Thea Riofrancos
(Duke University Press, 2020)
Resource Radicals offers a hopeful vision of how the left can address the global politics of resource extraction. We recently featured some of Thea’s ideas about extractive capitalism over at the Center for Humans and Nature.

Alex Blanchette
(Duke University Press, 2020)
Through moving photographs and text, Blanchette examines how the meat industry de-stabilizes ecologies and social relationships in pursuit of a perfectly uniform, standardized pig.

Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals
Alexis Pauline Gumbs
(AK Press, 2020)
Undrowned is a poetic meditation on the experiences and resilience of marine mammals, whose aquatic culture has resisted violence and militarized domination by humans. What can we learn from our marine relatives when we understand their experience through a Black feminist lens?

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Olga Tokarczuk
(Penguin Random House, 2020)
A Polish murder mystery about a reclusive animal-lover who investigates a string of deaths in her remote village and explores ideas of animal rights, crimes against nature, astrology, and a whole lot more.

Hollow Kingdom
Kira Jane Buxton
(Grand Central Publishing, 2020)
A zombie apocalypse novel told from the perspective of the animals who have survived, namely a foul-mouthed domesticated crow and a dopey, slobbering dog. Really a story about the separation of humans from nature.

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