Lone cypress tree on the coast

When Americans gathered for the first Earth Day on April 20, 1970, blatant examples of pollution and environmental destruction were on the agenda: rivers that caught fire as a result of the flammable toxins dumped into them by petrochemical companies; dense, choking smogs that settled over cities for days at a time; mass die-offs of birds, fish, and beneficial insects from the overuse of pesticides; and the extermination of wolves, coyotes, mountain lions and any other wild animals deemed a threat by farmers and ranchers.

That first Earth Day, and the movement that grew out of it, spurred real progress, and Earth Day now is widely recognized throughout the world as the largest civil action date on the annual calendar. Sadly, this year that progress won’t be publicly celebrated. Why? Because a less blatant form of environmental destruction, a “spillover” event in China, loosed a pandemic that now has most American, and millions of others around the world, “sheltering in place” in their homes.

But Earth Day can still be privately celebrated. Some of that time at home can be allotted for reading.

The 12 books listed below update the objectives that motivated the first Earth Day.

Three of the titles take more fine-grained looks at air pollution. Another three review the new challenges that must be met to deliver clean drinking water for all. Three especially beautiful books follow: a photo gallery of endangered species, a cultural history of the salmon, and a photo essay on the American eagle, the iconic species that began clawing its way back from the brink of extinction shortly after the first Earth Day.

Climate change was not on the agenda in 1970. Now, however, it affects all the other concerns that were on the agenda, a point made by each of the first nine books.

In 1970, plastics were just part of the litter problem. Few foresaw then how deeply and pervasively plastics would permeate the planet and its ecosystems, including the human body. The last three books in this Earth Day list describe the scale of this new problem.

One final note: Somewhat surprisingly, this 50th anniversary elicited no new books on the history of Earth Day. For that, interested readers can pick up Adam Rome’s 2013 book, The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation, still available in paperback. And another great resource, this one current and on video, comes from EcoAmerica.org.

As always, the descriptions of the titles are drawn from copy provided by the publishers. When two dates of publication are provided, the second is for the release of the paperback.

The goal of clean air

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Clearing the Air: The Beginning and End of Air Pollution, by Tim Smedley (Bloomsbury 2019, 320 pages, $28.00)

Globally, 18,000 people die each day from air pollution. Contemporary air pollution is often anonymous; an invisible killer borne from the industrial processes used to make and do stuff. But there is so much we don’t know. Parents on school runs in their 4x4s, for example, are not told that the pollution inside the car is 5 times worse than that on the street outside. Clearing the Air explains what has happened to the air we breathe. Sustainability journalist Tim Smedley interviews scientists at the forefront of air pollution research as well as those whose lives have been affected by smog. He reviews past instances of extreme air pollution – in London, Beijing, Delhi and LA – and examines recent stories like the VW diesel scandal. But these problems can be solved, and the book shows how the fight against air pollution can and does work.

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The Invisible Killer: The Rising Global Threat of Air Pollution – and How We Can Fight Back, by Gary Fuller (Melville House 2019, 320 pages, $26.99)

A shocking realization came out of the world-wide diesel fuel scandal, wherein car manufacturers concealed how highly polluting diesel fuel was: Air pollution is much, much worse than we knew. The Invisible Killer introduces the incredible individuals whose ground-breaking research paved the way to today’s new understanding of air pollution. Gary Fuller’s global story covers London’s Great Smog, Norway’s acid rain, Los Angeles’s traffic problems, and wood burning in New Zealand. Fuller argues that the only way to alter the future course of our planet and improve collective global health is for city and national governments to stop ignoring evidence and take action, making polluters bear the full cost of the harm that they do.

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Choked: Life and Breath in an Age of Pollution, by Beth Gardner (University of Chicago Press 2019, 312 pages, $27.50)

Air pollution prematurely kills seven million people every year, including more than one hundred thousand Americans. It is strongly linked to strokes, heart attacks, many kinds of cancer, dementia, and premature births. In Choked, Beth Gardiner take readers from the halls of power in Washington to the diesel-fogged London streets she walks with her daughter to Poland’s coal heartland and India’s gasping capital. Alive with powerful voices and personalities, Choked exposes the political decisions and economic forces that have kept so many of us breathing dirty air. Nevertheless, Gardiner shows us that we hold the power to build a cleaner, healthier future, one in which breathing, life’s most basic function, no longer carries a hidden danger.

The goal of clean water

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Drinking Water: A History, Revised & Updated, by James Salzman (Abrams Press 2017, 336 pages, $16.95 paperback)

When we turn on the tap or twist open a tall plastic bottle, we probably don’t give a second thought about where our drinking water comes from. But how it gets from the ground to the glass is far more convoluted than we might think. In this revised edition of Drinking Water, Duke University professor and environmental policy expert James Salzman shows how drinking water highlights the most pressing issues of our time. He adds eye-opening, contemporary examples about our relationship to and consumption of water, and a new chapter about the atrocities that occurred in Flint, Michigan. Provocative, insightful, and engaging, Drinking Water shows just how complex a simple glass of water can be.

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Whose Water Is It Anyway? Taking Water Protection into Public Hands, by Maude Barlow (ECW Books 2019, 160 pages, $14.95 paperback)

The Blue Communities Project believes that access to clean, drinkable water is a basic human right, that municipal and community water should be held in public hands, and that single-use plastic water bottles should not be available in public spaces. Ten years after the project’s founding, Paris, Berlin, and Montreal are just a few of the cities that have made themselves Blue Communities. In Whose Water Is It, Anyway?, renowned water justice activist Maude Barlow recounts how she and her fellow activists woke up to the immense pressures facing water in a warming world. Concluding with a guide to making your own community blue, Maude Barlow’s latest book is a heartening example of how ordinary people can effect enormous change.

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Troubled Water: What’s Wrong with What We Drink? by Seth M. Siegel (Thomas Dunne Books 2019, 352 pages, $29.99)

If you thought America’s drinking water problems started and ended in Flint, Michigan, think again. From big cities and suburbs to the rural heartland, chemicals linked to cancer, heart disease, obesity, birth defects, and lowered IQ routinely spill from our taps. Many are to blame. The tragedy is that existing technologies could launch a new age of clean, healthy, and safe tap water for only a few dollars a week per person. Scrupulously researched, Troubled Water is full of shocking stories about contaminated water found throughout the country and about the everyday heroes who have successfully forced changes in the quality and safety of our drinking water. And it concludes with what America must do to reverse decades of neglect by government at all levels and to keep our most precious resource safe.

Protecting wildlife

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National Geographic: One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals, Limited Earth Day Edition, by Joel Sartore (National Geographic 2020, 400 pages, $35.00)

Joel Sartore is committed to documenting every endangered species, especially those facing imminent extinction. To do this, he has circled the globe, visiting zoos and wildlife rescue centers to create studio portraits of 12,000 species to date. Paired with the eloquent prose of veteran wildlife writer Douglas Chadwick and foreword by Harrison Ford, Sartore’s animal portraits are riveting. Now, with the accelerating pace of climate change and its devastating effect on wildlife habitat, his project is even more urgent. This special edition comes with a free poster celebrating National Geographic’s Photo Ark Initiative, now in its 15th year. These portraits of the world’s endangered species convey a powerful message.

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Salmon: A Fish, the Earth and the History of Their Common Fate, by Mark Kurlansky (Patagonia Books 2020, 448 pages, $30.00)

David Thoreau wrote, “‘Who hears the fishes when they cry?’ Maybe we need to go down to the river bank and try to listen.” In what he says is the most important book in his long and award-winning career, Mark Kurlansky – best-selling author of Cod, Salt, and The Big Oyster – employs his signature multi-century storytelling to chronicle the harrowing yet awe-inspiring life cycle of salmon. Kurlansky’s research shows that all over the world these fish, uniquely connected to both marine and terrestrial ecology, are a natural barometer for the health of the planet. With stunning historical and contemporary photographs and illustrations throughout, Kurlansky’s insightful conclusion is that the only way to save salmon is to save the planet and, at the same time, the only way to save the planet is to save the mighty, heroic salmon.

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40 Years from the Brink of Extinction: America’s Bald Eagle, by John D. Chaney (Far Country Press 2016, 80 pages, $35.00)

American bald eagles and their fight for survival ignited passion in award-winning photographer John D. Chaney. He began documenting America’s national bird for future generations when he learned in college that the bald eagle might become extinct. A few years later in 1976 the bald eagle was added to the Endangered Species list. His passion grew year after year as he captured more interesting photographs and finally witnessed first-hand the resurgence of our symbol of freedom. 40 Years from the Brink of Extinction pays tribute to the eagles’ survival and the people who helped them. This large-format hardcover features 63 beautiful photographs of the majestic eagles in their natural habitat, interspersed with interesting facts he learned on his journey.

The problem of plastic

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Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution, by Michiel Roscam Abbing (Island Press 2019, 136 pages, $27.00)

According to some estimates, if we continue on our current path, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by the year 2050. In this innovative atlas, filled with striking photographs and graphics, Michiel Roscam Abbing of the Plastic Soup Foundation reveals the scope of the issue: plastic trash now lurks on every corner of the planet. Yet Plastic Soup also sends a message of hope; although the scale of the problem is massive, so is the dedication of activists working to check it. Abbing highlights a diverse array of projects to curb plastic waste and raise awareness, from plastic-free grocery stores to innovative laws and art installations. Created to inform and inspire readers, Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution is a critical tool for corrective action.

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Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution, by Marcus Eriksen (Beacon Press 2017/2018, 216 pages, $18.00 paperback)

Junk Raft tells the story of scientist and adventurer Marcus Eriksen and his team’s fight to solve the problem of plastic pollution. Against long odds and common sense, he and his co-navigator, Joel Paschal, construct a “junk raft” made of plastic trash and set themselves adrift from Los Angeles to Hawaii, with no motor or support vessel. As Eriksen recounts their struggles to keep afloat, he explains how the proliferation of cheap plastic products during the twentieth century has left the world awash in trash – and how the plastics industry, with its lobbying muscle, continues to defend poorly designed products and deflects responsibility for the harm they cause. But the tide is turning. Junk Raft provides concrete, actionable solutions and an empowering message: it’s within our power to change the throw-away culture for the sake of our planet.

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How to Give Up Plastic: A Guide to Changing the World One Plastic Bottle at a Time, by Will McCallum (Penguin Random Houses 2019, 224 pages, $15.00 paperback)

It takes 450 years for a plastic bottle to fully biodegrade, and there are around 12.7 million tons of plastic entering the ocean each year. How to Give Up Plastic is a straightforward guide to eliminating plastic from your life. Going room by room through your home and workplace, Greenpeace activist Will McCallum teaches you how to spot disposable plastic items and find plastic-free, sustainable alternatives to each one. From carrying a reusable straw to catching microfibers when you wash your clothes, you’ll learn ways to reduce plastic waste. And from anecdotes about activists fighting plastic around the world, you’ll also learn how to persuade businesses and leaders in your community to commit to eliminating disposable plastics for good.

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...