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16 Essential Books About Environmental Justice, Racism and Activism

Climate
16 Essential Books About Environmental Justice, Racism and Activism
Demonstrators march down Pennsylvania Avenue near the Trump International Hotel during a protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd on June 3, 2020 in Washington, DC. Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images

By John R. Platt

This year has brought us some brutal lessons so far, chief among them the fact that systemic racism drives or amplifies nearly all our societal and environmental ills.

Now is the time to listen to the people affected most by those problems of environmental justice and racism — and the activists working to solve them.


Here's a good place to start: We've gathered 16 essential recent books on environmental racism and related topics from leading journalists and experts. Two of these are hot off the presses and scheduled to hit shelves this month, while the rest were pulled from previous "Revelator Reads" installments. All provide vital insight into the problems that plague people and the planet, while also offering solutions for a more just future.

Since we're still in the middle of a pandemic — another problem made worse by racial injustice — it obviously remains challenging to visit local bookstores and libraries, so these links all go to publishers' sites, where you can order hard copies or e-books. You can also find enough information to order any of these books from local stores, which may offer delivery or curbside pickup.

This list is hardly exhaustive and pulls mostly from books published over the past two years, and it weighs a bit heavily on Indigenous authors and protests like Standing Rock. So please feel free to recommend any insightful books we missed.

Engage, Connect, Protect: Empowering Diverse Youth as Environmental Leaders by Angelou Ezeilo

The founder of the Greening Youth Foundation provides a critique of the too-white environmental movement and a toolkit for engaging younger participants from African American, Latinx and Native American communities.

As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock by Dina Gilio-Whitaker

The history of Indigenous resistance may offer all of us the strength we need to keep fighting, from the coauthor of "All the Real Indians Died Off" and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans.

Youth to Power: Your Voice and How to Use It by Jamie Margolin

An essential book by one of the country's most engaging youth activists. Margolin, a queer Latinx, cofounded Zero Hour and helped energize 2018's record-breaking Youth Climate March. Now she shares her experience and expertise — along with that of other young activists — and offers advice on everything from organizing peaceful protests to protecting your mental health in a time of crisis. Greta Thunberg provides the foreword.

Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger by Julie Sze

As we've seen many times over the years, activists standing up for environmental justice often face violent reprisal. This academic book examines the what Sze calls the "historical and cultural forces and resistance to violence, death, and destruction of lives and bodies" to reveal guideposts for future (and hopefully safer) action.

Climate Change From the Streets by Michael Méndez

Méndez argues that the climate crisis is also a crisis for public health, especially in lower-income communities of color, and that both problems can only be solved by addressing issues of environmental justice. His book — subtitled "How Conflict and Collaboration Strengthen the Environmental Justice Movement" — taps into Méndez's own research into California communities and grassroots activism to show how the problems that plague us can also bring us together — but only if we invite everyone to the table.

Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial edited by Sarah D. Wald, David J. Vázquez, Priscilla Solis Ybarra and Sarah Jaquette Ray

More than a dozen top minds come together to examine thoughts and cultural processes otherwise ignored by the environmental movement.

A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A. Washington

This book will open your eyes, make you angry, and then point you toward solutions for ending the plague of pollution-related health problems in marginalized communities of color.

Full Spectrum Resistance by Aric McBay

This two-volume series provides a powerful primer for activism on social-justice and environmental issues, using examples from more than 50 resistance movements around the world. The first book discusses how to build movements, while the second examines strategies for change.

Indigenous Environmental Justice edited by Karen Jarratt-Snider and Marianne O. Nielsen

When pollution harms your physical, financial and spiritual health, it's more than an injustice. But that's what happens time and time again in Indian Country. This book addresses situations ranging from Standing Rock to uranium mining on Navajo and Hopi lands through lenses of colonization, sovereignty and — perhaps most importantly — victory.

Poisoned Water: How the Citizens of Flint, Michigan, Fought for Their Lives and Warned the Nation by Candy J. Cooper with Marc Aronson

We've already seen several bestselling and powerful books address the Flint water crisis, but this is the first one specifically written for young-adult readers. When you consider that kids were among the worst affected by the Flint tragedy, that makes this a story they need to read and understand — so they can grow up and help prevent it from happening to anyone else.

Unearthing Justice: How to Protect Your Community From the Mining Industry by Joan Kuyek

Covering everything from how to stop a new mining project to figuring out how to clean up an abandoned mine, this important book offers activists a primer for taking on all manner of extractive industries that can harm human health and the environment.

Whose Water Is It, Anyway? Taking Water Protection Into Public Hands by Maude Barlow

One of the world's most notable water-justice activists provides a step-by-step guide to help communities keep themselves from going dry due to the actions of irresponsible companies and governments.

Standing With Standing Rock: Voices from the #NoDAPL Movement edited by Nick Estes and Jaskiran Dhillon

An essential volume to understand the history and significance of the famous resistance action, combining everything from essays and interviews to poems and photography.

One Earth: People of Color Protecting Our Planet by Anuradha Rao

This book for pre-teen readers delivers 20 short biographies of activists around the world who are working to save everything from trees to dolphins to people. In the process, it hopes to inspire the next generation of activists — especially those who might not have seen themselves represented in the still all-too-white environmental movement.

Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm's Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land by Leah Penniman

A how-to guide for ending racism and injustice in our country's food system, both on farms themselves and in nutrition-starved African American communities. Bonus: The same techniques improve the soil, treat livestock humanely, preserve rare plant varieties and provide benefits for the climate.

Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads and an Indigenous Defender's Battle for the Planet by Nina Lakhani

Honduran indigenous leader and activist Berta Cáceres won the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2015 — one year before she was murdered for her work trying to stop a hydroelectric dam from destroying a sacred river. This powerful book tells the story of her life and death, a tragedy echoed in the murders and assaults committed against hundreds of environmental defenders every year.

John R. Platt is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His "Extinction Countdown" column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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Cottongrass blows in the wind at the edge of Etivlik Lake, Alaska. Western Arctic National Parklands / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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A quality engineer examines new solar panels in a factory. alvarez / Getty Images

Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.