• Review

A summer reading list for climate survival and hope

With stories of anti-racist farmers, queer vegans, collective struggle and overlooked histories, these four books help inspire climate action.

Nothing like some light summer reading! 

My beach reading stack was less whodunits and guilty pleasures and more of a Climate Change 101 survey course. But in this summer of widespread drought, heatwaves melting roads, super storm events, a deadlocked international climate meeting, the protracted political saga of the senator in Big Coal’s back pocket, and lots of other top-of-the-fold climate catastrophe news, my deep dive was in the service of survival and wide-eyed hope creation.

Across four books, ranging from memoir to “how-to” and beyond, I found myself immersed in a set of topics that drive most Americans to drink, denial and more driving. And yet, unless we change, there won’t be any change. The goals of limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius and getting to a carbon neutral future require systemic change at every level of society. But where does it start? With individuals going vegan, getting on bikes and installing solar panels? Or with demanding that corporations like Nestle, Amazon and Chevron clean up their act (or go out of business trying)? Maybe it’s with global nuclear disarmament as a path to a healthier planet? How about ending the stranglehold weapons manufacturers have on our politics, pocketbooks and prospects for peace?    

Yes! It can start any of those places (or somewhere else), as long as it doesn’t end there and as long as doing one doesn’t make you criticize or demean those who are starting somewhere else. We need it all. Ultimately, addressing climate change is the work of confronting and changing the whole capitalist colonial system. Whether it’s slowing the change, mitigating the damage, building resiliencies, caring for those imperiled right now, developing new green technologies, changing the culture, or doing more with less, it means starting at the beginning. 

For Amitav Ghosh, author of “The Nutmeg’s Curse,” one beginning is 1621. That is when Dutch traders from the East India Company got impatient with Bandanese elders. The corporate representatives wanted exclusive rights to trade nutmeg, mace and other precious commodities with the islanders. But the Bandanese, who were self-governed and already had many trading partners throughout the East, were hedging their bets. They knew that the nutmeg growing throughout the island was valued throughout the world as a spice, medicine and fetish — “valued because they had become envy-inducing symbols of luxury and wealth,” writes Ghosh, an essayist and novelist who lives in New York City. It was the first time in a long time I have given this strange, seasonal spice a second thought. Once more valuable than a merchant ship, once worth killing off whole communities, the small jars of pungent dust sit largely forgotten until it’s time for pumpkin pies or bechamel sauce. 

As Ghosh writes, the man in charge of the negotiations was frightened awake one night when a lamp fell and crashed. The Dutch, believing they were under attack, started killing everyone in sight. “Within a few months of the falling of that lamp, the Bandanese, once a proud and enterprising trading community, had ceased to exist as a people. Their world had been brought to an end in a span of less than 10 weeks.” 

Ghosh’s insight is that colonial subjugation of far away lands and genocide required a new worldview, one that asserted that “the trees, volcanoes and landscapes of the Bandas had no meaning except as resources that could be harnessed to generate profit.” That dehumanizing of people — and willful devaluing of the connection between people and land — is at the heart of the climate catastrophe today.

For Ghosh, nutmeg is a commodity, a metaphor and a point of entry into mapping the colonial brutality and disconnect from nature that shaped the world we live in today and continues to reverberate in tragic and criminal ways through our daily life. He exposes that colonial substructure that endures to corrode and weaken our 21st century pursuits. We are still enacting genocide for smelly little nuts. 

Longtime environmental activist Bill McKibben shares a personal reckoning with his upbringing, class and whiteness in his latest, “The Flag, the Cross and the Station Wagon,” teasing out a way forward for the climate justice movement and our survival as a species. By considering the titular flag, cross and station wagon, McKibben complicates the attractive folk tales of American patriotism, religion and prosperity — injecting each with a truth serum to expose a fuller story. The result is a more accurate understanding of why and how the United States became a “society strained by bleak racial and economic inequality, where life expectancy was falling even before the pandemic that deepened our divisions, on a heating plant whose physical future is dangerously in question.” 

He locates a much more recent turning point than Ghosh, listing the ways that the Carter administration sought to take seriously the interconnected issues of racism, inequality and climate change. Recapping Jimmy Carter’s efforts at mitigating the damage of the 1979 oil crisis with huge investments in solar power and other green technologies and cutting edge conservation, McKibben writes that if those policies had been allowed to take hold “climate changes would have turned from an existential crisis to a manageable problem on a list of other problems.” Can you imagine? Then Reagan came to power, took down the solar panels the Carters installed on the White House roof, instituted tax cuts for the very wealthy and before long it was February 1985: the last month that the planet was cooler than average.  

Throughout the book, McKibben returns to the theme of debt. And there are so many debts to recount and repay. The debt the United States owes African-Americans for their enslavement comes to $11 trillion or more. The debt the older generation owes the younger generation is also massive and urgent. McKibben writes, “If you are over 60, 82 percent of the world’s fossil fuel emissions have occurred during your lifetime.” There is also the debt the Global North owes to the Global South for climate change. Bangladesh, which is losing land to sea level rise and seeing an increase in diseases as a result, is “responsible for .2 tons of carbon per person,” more than 100 times less what a North American emits. McKibben writes that “these debts call into serious question the meaning of the symbols we theoretically honor … Debts are there to be paid.”    

While Ghosh and McKibben look back into our history to locate where the problems started, two other authors, Leah Thomas and Liz Carlisle, look forward, charting a liveable future through hard work, deep connection with nature, intersectional environmentalism and thoughtful, strategic resistance to the racism endemic in agribusiness, resource extraction and corporate capitalism. 

Thomas, a Black environmentalist, was motivated to develop intersectional environmentalism by the alienation and racism she experienced in white-led movement spaces. Working for various nonprofits, Thomas had a front row seat to orchestrated arrest scenario planning, and her observations that these actions would turn out very differently if the participants were Black and Brown activists instead of older, white people fell on deaf ears, even as organizers continued to lament the absence of people of color from the movements. After the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, Thomas’ grief and anger crystalized into action: “I wouldn’t do it anymore; I needed to immediately depart environmental spaces that ignore the urgent need for social justice reform.” She started Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter and positive feedback she received helped her develop the intersectional environmentalism framework.  

“The Intersectional Environmentalist” is for anyone looking to deepen and broaden environmental activism with a racial justice lens. In fact, she effectively posits that the only way to be an environmental activist is to be an intersectional activist. Thomas assembles documents, weaves different voices together, provides side bars, FAQs and short chapters on the envinromental struggles and victories of Chicana, Indigenous, Black, feminist, Asian and queer activists working intersectionally. 

In a sobering and instructional section, she calls out the green energy projects from Thailand to Mexico to Chile that multinational corporations are perpetrating on Indigenous land that jeopardize their livelihood, territory and autonomy. She writes, “within an intersectional approach to environmentalism, we must acknowledge the dark side of green energy and the harm these initiatives have caused to marginalized communities.” The theme of debt comes up again as she points out that “those who are least responsible for the climate crisis are often the most impacted and burdened by it.”    

Liz Carlisle’s “Healing Grounds” begins there, with the work those “least responsible” are doing alongside the natural world to regenerate the soil, the plants and the whole of our ecosystem. “Healing Grounds” starts at the molecular level and encompasses everything, including our need for hope and possibility. Carlisle is an agroecologist and professor of environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara. She brings the reader into the work of regeneration through permaculture and deep commitment to working with, respecting and understanding the ways the natural world changes and endures. 

“Healing Grounds” offers finely wrought stories of farmer-activists of color building soil, tending land, breathing new life and technologies into the wisdom of old ways. Carlisle brings us from the plains of Montana, where buffalo again roam, to a mushroom farm nestled in old growth forest in North Carolina. She connects the stories of the small, densely diverse farms of Central Americans, Hmong and Chicanos occupying tiny parcels of California’s Central Valley pesticide- and fertilizer-drenched monocultures to the work of a fourth generation Japanese-American orchardist growing organic peaches, grapes, apricots and nectarines on land her grandfather bought in 1950. She draws the reader in to listen to women of color telling the stories of relationships with the land that are restoring both the land and their communities. Her stories call readers to find their place and stand there, and learn from elders and from the land itself to restore productivity, reintroduce biodiversity and sequester carbon that will arrest the rapid warming of the plant. 

Nikiko Masumoto, the fourth generation farmer, reflects towards the end of the book that “the possibility of belonging to a place — of being intimately connected to lives beyond our own — is central to healing our soils and our climate.” And it is all connected: immigration and farm policy and racism and capitalism. As Masumoto further notes, “With the government systematically separating families from one another, ripping people away from any connection to land, it’s no wonder there’s no more organic matter beneath the surface of rural America. People were never allowed to put down roots.”         

In some ways, this self imposed survey course was a depressing slog. A total of 819 pages, filled with facts about climate change and its roots in colonialism, imperialism and racism, starting as far back as you want to reach. But with stories of anti-racist farmers, queer vegans, the power of collective action and a deep reading of history, these books remind me that there is plenty of work to keep us going and plenty to learn and love along the way. 

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