Ten  Influential  Environmental  Books    

By David Orton                   

            The following ten environmental books, ranked in order of preference, are the books that have been important
        for me on my own environmental journey to a radical ecological awareness. I have had a conflict in deciding which
        books to leave out from this quite personal list. I have leaned in my selections on the philosophical side, because
        it is our ideas which guide our actions as environmental activists. Also, we do need a deeper ecological vision to
        orient us, that goes beyond to the shallow "resource" realism of industrial society. As societies we have to stop
        seeing Nature as a "resource", because such a Nature will only have instrumental value for humans, not intrinsic
        value. My main motivation for drawing up a list of ten important environmental books, is to share with others the
        books that have guided me in my environmental activism, and to encourage others to become more deeply

            Unfortunately, the books chosen do in some limited ways reflect the English-speaking culture that I have been
        socialized into. Yet all cultures put their own interests to the foreground. An ecological education can help break
        restrictive, self-interested, human cultural blinders. The ecological journey for me has seen a fundamental shift
        from a human-centered to a ecocentric consciousness, in how one relates to the Earth. Also, I have come to
        understand that the present Earth-eating industrial capitalist society, which everywhere commodifies Nature, has
        to be dismantled, for human and nonhuman survival. All of us from diverse cultures have to come to  see that we
        share our identity with the natural world - and with the animals and plants, as a necessary part of ourselves. We
        need to hear their screams inside our heads, the real price of so-called development, as they are destroyed by
        the industrial juggernaut. I believe this needed transformation in consciousness to be in part a spiritual
        transformation, away from human self-centeredness and human chauvinism. The books listed below, have helped
        on my own journey and understanding.  I hope they can also help others. (One book reluctantly left out, because
        I only could choose ten books, is John Livingston's The Rogue Primate, Key Porter Books.)


            Ecology, community and lifestyle: Outline Of An Ecosophy, by Arne Naess, translated and edited by
            David Rothenberg, Cambridge University Press.

            Arne Naess, is a Norwegian and the most important ecological philosopher of the twentieth century. He is now
        in his 80s and has written over 400 publications. Prior to 1970 he was mainly known as an academic philosopher.
        But since then he has become the primary philosophical source for the deep ecology movement, which has so
        inspired and informed radical environmentalism. In 1972, in an  article "The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range
        Ecology Movement. A Summary"
, Naess made the now famous distinction between "shallow" and "deep"
        ecology. Shallow being defined as concerned with the "health and affluence of people in the developed countries"
        and the deep position stating that it was industrial society itself that was responsible for the growing ecological crisis.
        Ecology, community and lifestyle, is the best single introduction to the complicated and subtle thinking of Naess.
        There is lots of good advice for activists in this book, because he has been in many environmental campaigns and he
        is critical and reflective. This book has been translated into a number of different languages. He has been influenced
        by Gandhi, both in his thinking, in his environmental activism, and in his lifestyle. "Ecosophy" in the subtitle means
        for Naess a personal code of values guiding one's interaction with nature. For himself, he calls this "Ecosophy T",
        named after his own mountain hut in Norway, where he has spent considerable time. Within the deep ecology
        movement, an eight-point Deep Ecology Platform, written by Arne Naess and the US philosopher George
        Sessions, is now considered the basis of unity for those who try to follow and apply this needed philosophy for
        the 21st century.

            Regarding Nature: Industrialism and Deep Ecology, by Andrew McLaughlin, State University of
            New York Press.

            A very important book for showing the relationship, along with the contradictions, between deep ecology and
        the progressive political tradition. McLaughlin, a socialist and US philosophy teacher, combines deep ecology,
        bioregionalism and a social justice perspective in a clarifying analysis of the roots and destructiveness of industrial
        society. He shows that industrial society is the problem for radical ecologists and this society can have a capitalist
        or socialist face. This book has provided intellectual background support and understanding for the emergence of
        the "left" theoretical tendency within deep ecology known as left biocentrism. McLaughlin is also well known
        within the deep ecology movement for his writings on the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform, which he has called
        the "heart of deep ecology".


            The Greening of Ethics: From Human Chauvinism to Deep-Green Theory, by Richard Sylvan and
            David Bennett, The White Horse Press and The University of Arizona Press.

            Richard Sylvan, the principal author, died in 1996. He was a well known Australian philosopher; a forestry
        activist who in the 70s with his then wife co-authored a very important forestry book The Fight for the Forests:
        The takeover of Australian forests for pines, wood chips and intensive forestry
; and the "bad boy" of the
        deep ecology movement. (At one time he used the name Richard Routley.) Sylvan was a sophisticated critic of
        the fuzziness of many writings within the deep ecology movement, although he considered himself part of this
        movement. He first outlined these views in 1985 in the publication A Critique of Deep Ecology, published by
        The Australian National University. The Greening of Ethics is a good and available introduction to his
        stimulating ideas. In this book he differentiates between "non ethics", "shallow", "intermediate" and "deep" ethics.
        The Land Ethic of the former US forester Aldo Leopold would be an example of intermediate ethics. This book
        also points out to deep ecology supporters, that there is no alternative political or economic vision yet in deep
        ecology, and that there is no way forward outlined towards a deep ecology society. These are obvious tasks that
        need to be addressed, to create a mass movement that is informed by deep ecology. Sylvan criticizes deep
        ecology for promoting change as mainly occurring through individual consciousness raising.  He advances his own
        "Deep Green Theory" in deep ecology. He was an important influence on the formation of the left biocentrism
        tendency within deep ecology.


            Avoiding Social & Ecological Disaster: The Politics of World Transformation by Rudolf Bahro,
            Gateway Books.

            This is the fifth book in English (and last book) of the German green philosopher and activist Rudolf Bahro who
        died of cancer in 1997. It is a difficult read but contains his provocative,  and stimulating ideas. For Bahro,
        "development" has ended, and the ecological crisis will bring about the end of capitalism. Industrialized countries,
        he said, need to reduce their impact upon the Earth to one-tenth of what it is. Like the Norwegian deep ecology
        philosopher Arne Naess, Bahro had an ecocentric world view. Unlike Naess, Bahro was steeped in the culture
        of the left. He is very influential, particularly in a European context. Bahro came to critical awareness in the former
        German Democratic Republic. He joined the communist party at age 17 and was later imprisoned for writing his
        first major work The Alternative In Eastern Europe, published in then West Germany. Bahro was deported in
        1979 after serving two years in jail. He never became an anti-communist. He went on intellectually to help found
        Die Grünen
and was elected in 1980 to the party's federal executive. Bahro explored and wrote with a striking
        honesty, about the  contradictions for a left-wing person of becoming a green. By 1985 Bahro resigned from the
        German Green Party, saying that the Greens did not want to exit the industrial system. His resignation statement
        particularly repudiated the continuing justification of animal experimentation. On Bahro's intellectual journey he
        demolished bourgeois, left, and Green orthodoxies. As his book shows, Bahro, like Gandhi, believed it necessary
        to look inward for spiritual strength, in order to find the resolve to break with the death course of industrial
        society. He sought to establish communal liberated zones within industrialized society. Bahro has become a
        controversial figure, particularly after 1984-5, as he embarked on a spiritual quest, which he became convinced,
        was crucial for everyone to adopt. He has been accused of "eco-fascism" but this I consider to be a slander.
        However, spiritually he did seem to lose his way. This is reflected in the esoteric/Christian passages in
        Avoiding Social & Ecological Disaster and in his involvement with the bankrupt Indian Bhagwan, Shree
        Rajneesh. However, I remain an overall admirer of his work and consider him an important influence on radical
        ecology. In a letter to me, he said that he was in agreement "with the essential points" of the philosophy of left


            Eco-socialism or eco-capitalism? A critical analysis of humanity's fundamental choices, by
            Saral Sarkar, Zed Books.

            Saral Sarkar was born in West Bengal, India in 1936. He was involved in progressive politics, and studied
        and later taught German language and literature in that country. In 1982 he moved to Germany where he still lives.
        Eco-socialism or eco-capitalism? is his latest book, which sums up thirty years of his thinking. It has been
        published also in India. Sarkar has been active in the Green movement in Germany. He was a political
        contemporary of Rudolf Bahro, and similarly associated  with a "fundamentalist" green vision. Sarkar is the
        author of the two-volume Green-Alternative Politics in West Germany, published by the United Nations
        University Press. My bias is that Sarkar is a personal friend, whom I have known since 1990. His writings have
        contributed to my own thinking. This is an important book for those concerned with whether or not it is possible
        to fuse the radical ecology and socialist movements. The author believes it is possible, providing socialism is
        prepared to redefine itself and learn "the ecological lesson" from the radical ecology movement. His
        "eco-socialism" is a planned non-industrial society. So this book is very helpful for its ecological critique of all
        forms of socialism, its critique of green politics and the insightful examination of traditional cultures, with a brutal
        non politically correct honesty. A scientific critique of the various assumptions behind the industrial growth
        economy is present in the book. Also to be found, is the argument for a contracting economy and a reduction
        of the standard of living in the so-called developed economies. Sarkar argues that those who support a
        contracting economy on ecological grounds, must advocate concrete policies for reducing social inequities, with
        a sharing of the burden according to financial capacity. He argues for population reduction. He proposes that in
        Third World countries like India, there must be a guarantee of livelihood in old age, to have any successful
        population reduction policy. Sarkar notes that for the first time in history, "a social movement 'promises' a lower
        standard of living if it is successful." I find my disagreement with this book, is that I do not believe that the
        "theoretical synthesis" of radical ecology and socialist politics, the main task set for himself by the author, has
        been achieved. Deep ecology, which has such an influence on the radical ecology movement, is rather cursorily
        dismissed in the book, as a form of anthropocentrism. Yet there is a subdued biocentric perspective in this book.
        In recent personal discussions  (resulting from a visit to Canada and  talks on his new book), Sarkar comes
        across as someone sympathetic to deep ecology. But this is not reflected in this excellent and courageous book,
        with its political vision and economic model.


            Deep Ecology For The 21st Century: Readings On The Philosophy And Practice Of The New
, edited by George Sessions, Shambhala.

            There are 39 essays in this book of readings (13 by Arne Naess himself), divided into six sections with valuable
        introductions to each section, written by the US philosopher George Sessions.  The editor has written many articles,
        and played a crucial role in introducing and popularizing deep ecology in North America. The essays are by
        representative thinkers within or having influence on the deep ecology movement. I would recommend this book as
        a good introduction to deep ecology published writings. The weaknesses of the book reflect those of the deep
        ecology movement. Generally, anthologies of deep ecology writings reflect a bias in the material selected towards
        the writings of university academics and not movement activists, and show  few applications of deep ecology to
        actual environmental problems.  Such anthologies also illustrate what could be called the "educational fallacy",
        that is, the belief that ideas are enough to bring about social change in our relationship to Nature. Overlooked or
        downplayed are the class and power relationships in industrial capitalist society.


            A Green History Of The World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations, by
            Clive Ponting, St. Martin's Press.

            This is a magnificent book to come across and then read. Environmentalists and greens need a sense of green
        history, including a non-romanticized view of the history of indigenous societies, otherwise they can easily believe
        that environmental destruction is somehow associated only with the expansion of a Eurocentric society over the
        rest of the world starting in the 15th century.  (Prior to this period Europe was an economic backwater, with 13th
        century China being the world's leading 'industrialized' economy with sophisticated technology for the use of water
        power, hemp, spinning machines, etc.)  Ponting gives the evidence in A Green History Of The World, to show
        many examples of past civilizations and empires, e.g. Greece, the Middle East, Rome and North Africa, when
        humans have ruined their local environments. This, through over-exploitation of the local natural bounty, not
        controlling population, extensive deforestation, etc.  Deforestation was present in a number of pre-industrial
        societies. Tiny Easter Island, first visited by Europeans in 1752, is one example of a place where people were
        unable to find a balance with their environment, and placed impossible cultural demands on the land. With
        European expansion based on looting, forced labour and slavery and the eventual emergence of a global industrial
        society, environmental destruction now however becomes global. Yet paradoxically, as other books have pointed
        out, it was in the 19th century in the Western intellectual tradition, that an anti-vivisection movement, a vegetarian
        movement, a naturalist movement, and an animal welfare movement also emerged. The twentieth century saw the
        birth of the environmental movement and animal rights movement in Western society. Ponting, although a
        documenter of ecological destruction, does not come out and condemn industrial society and speak of an
        alternative. As he said in his book: "De-industrialization may apply to some regions within a country but
        not to modern society as a whole."

            A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation from Round River by Aldo Leopold,
            Oxford University Press.

            Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was a hunter, and a former forester and game manager for the US Forest Service.
        His book of essays, A Sand County Almanac was published after his death. He was also an eco-philosopher,
        writing extensively on the meaning and importance of wilderness and about his own changing ecological
        consciousness, away from the human-centered "resource management" perspective of his time. Today, some of
        Leopold's basic ideas and metaphors, e.g. "thinking like a mountain", "the Land Ethic", "green fire", and "round
        river rendezvous", have been branded into the consciousness of ecocentric activists who defend old growth
        forests and wilderness. His environmental ethics have become extremely influential. Most environmental activists
        know of the Land Ethic, which speaks of enlarging the boundaries of the human community, to include soils,
        waters, plants and animals. For Leopold, "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability,
        and beauty of the biotic community, it is wrong when it tends otherwise."
From this perspective alone,
        every industrial forestry clearcut must be condemned.


            Clearcut: The Tragedy Of Industrial Forestry, edited by Bill Devall, Sierra Club Books/Earth Island Press.

            This is a "coffee table" size book, which is not meant as something to flick through and soothe. It is meant to arouse
        anger and it succeeds perfectly in this. The Dedication in this book in part says: "This book is in memory of the
        plantlife, birds, insects, animals, and indigenous cultures that have been driven to extinction by the greed
        and delusion of human arrogance."
  Industrial forestry is probably THE environmental issue, which preoccupies
        most activists in Canada and the United States. Clearcut contains page after page of pictures of forest destruction
        from many states in the US and from every province in Canada. It is a book which makes anyone with some
        sentiment for the environment very angry at the vandalism that passes for forestry in North America. Bill Devall, the
        editor, like George Sessions, has been at the heart of the deep ecology movement and this philosophy permeates
        this book. As well as the descriptions of industrial forestry - massive clearcuts, forest biocide spraying to eliminate
        non commercially desirable trees, forest roads everywhere, biologically sterile plantations of one or two species,
        essentially without wildlife, replacing multi-species and multi-aged forests, etc. - there are essays by forestry
        activists and also by foresters who have come over to the anti-industrial forestry side. Still, many activists and
        alternative foresters have illusions that a fundamentally different, ecologically sensitive forestry can have a place
        within a market-based, continually expanding industrial economy. This book nevertheless is the best overall bird's
        eye view of industrial forestry in North America and of a critique informed by deep ecology.


            The Ecological Indian: Myth and History, by Shepard Krech III, W. W. Norton & Company.

            In North America, within the environmental movement, non-aboriginal environmentalists have to come to terms
        with a society overladen by a past aboriginal history of exploitation, land dispossession, and racial discrimination;
        and also have to come to terms with a contemporary history of renewed aboriginal struggles over land claims and
        claims to treaty "rights". Such claims can have profound ecological consequences in a contemporary situation, e.g.
        claims to hunt, trap and fish year-round, without season; claims to "traditional" harvest rights in wildlife areas, marine
        protected areas, and parks, etc. Part of coming to terms with this  (today we are all impacted by industrial culture
        with its destructive technologies), and working out a position which respects historical injustice and today's
        demand for social justice for aboriginals - but in a deep ecology context of justice for all marine and terrestrial life
        forms, is to look realistically at the past ecological record of aboriginals in North America. This is a task that the
        book addresses. This is a scholarly and well documented book by a university-based US anthropologist. The
        Ecological Indian
draws upon research both from Canada and the US. It helps in putting aside widespread
        romantic illusions about aboriginals, current within the environmental movement. This book gives the evidence to
        show that aboriginals did not always harmoniously co-exist with Nature. There is no "Ecological Indian", in the
        commonly understood sense of being the first true environmentalists. Krech examines the Pleistocene major faunal
        extinctions of some 11,000 years ago, the role of fire, past aboriginal wildlife exploitation (buffalo, deer and beaver)
        and the fur trade, in coming to his conclusions. Yet Krech is stuck in a perspective of looking at Nature only from
        human enlightened self-interest. He does not acknowledge in this fine book that for those inspired by a deep
        ecology awareness, wildlife, plant life and wild nature have value in themselves, independent of their role as
        "resources" for human use.

        December 20, 1999

            This list of books was originally prepared for The Reviewer, a progressive Indian online review of books, now defunct,
                which had invited nominations from environmentalists for "The ten most influential environmental books of the century."
                The books had to be ranked in order of preference.
Later the list was widely distributed on the internet, and published
                in the newsletter Green Voices #12, January 2000 (publication of the Kootenay-Boundary Greens, BC)

      To obtain any of the Green Web publications,  write to us at:

Green Web, R.R. #3, Saltsprings, Nova Scotia, Canada, BOK 1PO
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