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16 Essential Books About Environmental Justice, Racism and Activism

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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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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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