Dear Umbra,

I am new to the environmental movement, and I was wondering how you keep track of the major issues within it, because there are so many! Also, do you have any books to recommend on the history of the environmental movement?

Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Dearest Naomi,

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Boning up on green issues.

But you need a quick intro now to get your environmental bearings. A laughingly rudimentary list of important environmental topics would include: climate change, aka global warming, which encompasses all issues related to energy generation; damage to the physical environment, which includes sprawl, habitat destruction, desertification, deforestation, toxics, and species extinction; and irresponsible human behaviors, which include overconsumption, overpopulation, and poor resource management (e.g., unsustainable logging, mining, fishing, and water use).

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Obviously, these topics are all one topic seen from varying angles. If you doubt it, try to disentangle overconsumption from damage to the physical environment from climate change. It’s important to understand how these systems operate as a whole, but you can still choose which parts you most want to focus on. The websites of most large environmental organizations list different versions of these broad categories, and you might find it helpful to take a look at them. Try the Sierra Club (and its Canadian arm), the Natural Resources Defense Council, and/or Greenpeace Canada.

Books. If you were to take a basic environmentalism class in the States, you would read the Herman Melvilles of the movement: Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold, Frances Moore Lappe, Henry David Thoreau. Go for their major works if you like to start with the classics. For more recent books, take a look at Grist‘s reviews in Books Unbound, or the bookstore shelves for a title in your area of interest. Island Press publishes books with an ecological bent, and you could look through their titles for one that calls your name. One that attracted my attention was Robert Gottlieb’s Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. Apparently it places environmental history within the context of social-justice movements, which sounds like a fascinating and useful way to get an overview of the history of the movement. (I apologize for my U.S.-centric views.)

I’ll also toss your question out to my oh-so-learned readers. What environmental history books and other sources would you suggest to Naomi? Post your recommendations in our blog, Gristmill.