What with this being the fiction issue, I thought, in the interest of a little balance, that I might suggest a few non-fiction, environmentally oriented titles, in case anyone out there is looking for edification over diversion. Yet, as I found while pulling together my favorite eco titles, the best of environmental writing tends toward the philosophical and poetic. All of these books transcend their information-conveying and at least a couple of them rank high on my list of all-time favorite reading, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Nabokov and Lowry unapologetically. Take that, fiction.
One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka: Granted, this might seem like an odd choice for New Yorkers, but Fukuoka's philosophy (and practice) of farming is also the story of a city resident going back to the land and finding something worth working on, and at. Fukuoka developed his "do nothing" techniques for farming rice, vegetables, and citrus fruits after suffering an existential crisis in the city (who can't relate?) and moving back to his family's farm. A once-underground classic, One Straw Revolution has just been re-released by NYRB, with an introduction by Francis Moore Lappé. Lest you think it's all farming, Fukuoka touches on ecology, philosophy, religion, diet and more as he describes his life in the country and ways of growing — not in a prescriptive way, but as an explorer, finding and refinding the links between people and the world they inhabit.
The Lost Language of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner: If I were ever going to employ a bit of journalistic cliché and claim that a book was ahead of its time, I might do so for Stephen Harrod Buhner's The Lost Language of Plants. Published in 2002, before many of us were paying attention to chemicals in the environment, this is the book that introduced me to the environmental perils of pharmaceuticals, personal-care products, PCBs from plastics, dioxin and more. Sounds riveting, right? Actually, Buhner has a way with words — this is one of the most readable "straight" environmental books ever. I've been sharing facts gleaned from this book for years, and the various problems it describes have completely altered the way I look at the chemicals we use daily. Peppered with stories from Thoreau, and quotes from poets, writers, scientists and Native American philosophy, it will appeal to even the most literary-minded. In fact, Secret Language's collection of quotes, filling the margins and spaces between chapters, make it a mini Bartlett's for environmentalists. And the ground it covers, the intersection of environmental and personal health, couldn't be more relevant as we face rampant health problems, failing antibiotics and epidemic over-prescription of drugs.
Stuffed and Starved by Raj Patel: I was sorely tempted to throw one of Michael Pollan's food books, The Omnivore's Dilemma or In Defense of Food, on this list: I loved them both and learned an awful lot from their entertaining and readable pages. But Pollan's profile is just a touch lower than Barack Obama's, and selfishly I'd love for someone to mention anybody else next time food and the environment come up in cocktail-party conversation. Raj Patel's Stuffed and Starved is itself stuffed with information about the present-day food system, its incredible failures and occasional successes. He devotes an enormous amount of time to the human costs of industrial, trans-global agriculture, from farmers driven to suicide to coffee growers driven to bankruptcy. Most importantly, he brings all the threads of the food story back to where the food itself ends up, our own bodies, and teases out the truth of a world populated by people who are both overfed and undernourished, and also people just plain starving to death, both the products of an industrial food complex run amok. Stuffed and Starved paints a bleak picture, but it's hard to turn away from, as it should be. We all eat, right?
Endgame by Derrick Jensen: It's a lot to ask of folks to suggest they tackle a two-volume work that uses as its cornerstone the idea that "civilization is not and can never be sustainable." Tough: life's too short, and too important, to read Danielle Steele. What I really want to say is that everyone should read at least one of Jensen's works: He approaches the destruction of the environment with both more emotion, and more poetry, than anyone else I know of. End Game, his largest and most comprehensive work, approaches the problem of civilization and its possible remedies. Read it and weep, really, for the mess we've made of things.