Green Up Your Reading List And Confront The Climate Crisis By Leafing Through Our Top 12 Environmental Novels

With enough effort put into safety precautions, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic will someday subside. But the Climate Crisis is not going away.

Polar ice caps are melting at record rates, critical species are dying off, and previously fertile regions where food crops could flourish have become dry and barren. The collapse of these ecosystems is cascading challenges onto others.

So what can we do to make a difference?

Reading certainly helps. The more environmentally minded individuals we have joining the fight for a protected planet, the better. Over the last century or so (with plenty of examples that have come before), a new genre of writing has emerged. “Eco-literature” or even climate fiction, aka cli-fi, can help us understand the problems facing our planet, and lend new frames of mind with which to approach solutions.

Here are a few you will want to put on your reading list.

12. A Friend of the Earth by T. C. Boyle

A Friend of the Earth by T. C. Boyle
Source: Goodreads
A Friend of the Earth by T. C. Boyle.

Originally published in 2000, “A Friend of the Earth” by T. C. Boyle predicts the eventualities of global warming and ecological collapse. The story takes place in the year 2025. Global warming has destroyed critical habitats around the planet, and most mammals, fish, birds, and amphibians are extinct. Tyrone Tierwater, a passionate environmentalist, now spends his days managing the last remaining animals in a pop star’s personal zoo.

Joanna Kavenna, from The London Review of Books, writes:

“Boyle turns his squinting attention to environmentalism, creating a disconcerting marriage of farce and prophecy: he doesn’t doubt the looming apocalypse; he merely doubts—finds hilarious, even—the idea that the human race would do anything to save itself. This is a comedy of old men stumbling through flooded carparks, destroying the cowboy boots they put on in a moment of vanity.

“The problem of fixing the ‘right relationship’ between people and nature permeates Boyle’s novel. In environmental terms, the choice is between anthropocentrism and ecocentrism—Earth first, or the people first. Rejecting ‘the people’ for the rats and kangaroos, Tierwater lurches towards the sinewy heroics of Earth Forever!, whose ecotageurs stand, convinced of their ideological rightness and kinship to nature, like ‘plugs of muscle hammered into the ground’ … Worst of all is the insularity of US wilderness fighters, their belief that the US can rise above the mess by sheer force of national personality. Save the US wilderness and we can save the planet, they say, as if everything had not become global, and uncontrollable. We are doomed, Boyle suggests, to live through a grim farce of our own devising, and no one is going to come out well.”

11. The Fog Diver by Joel Ross

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross.
Source: Goodreads
The Fog Diver by Joel Ross.

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross was published in 2015. In this novel, the world is cloaked in a noxious white mist. Humanity is driven to mountain peaks in order to survive.

As the Sierra Club reports: “A group of ragtag orphans operate an air-raft that lets the hero, Chess, dive down into the mists to scavenge for treasures they can trade for supplies. Born in the fog, Chess is the only one immune to the sickness it, and he has special sight that allows him to see in the fog. But his special abilities make him a wanted man in the eyes of Lord Kodoc, ruler of slums and all-around evil guy, who is hunting him.

“The Fog Diver is fast-paced and exciting. Through the fog shine a few important parables: that we are the problem that caused the abysmal fog; that nature can thrive if left alone; and that this is the time to let tenacious young kids lead the way.”

10. The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard.
Source: Goodreads
The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard.

J. G. Ballard’s “The Drowned World” was published in 1962, and also foresees a future where the ozone layer has long burned off, and the earth is buffeted with stifling heat and radiation. The story follows a team of environmental scientists as they explore a post-apocalyptic London.

According to Kingsley Amis, who reviewed the book in The Observer the year it was published, “The setting is mong the super-tropical swamps, lagoons and jungles that, as a result of the increase in the sun’s heat, now cover most of Earth’s surface. Plant and animal life is reverting to the giant bamboos and reptiles of the Triassic Age. Among the members of a survey team, sent south from Greenland to determine whether parts of Europe may someday be reclaimable, a parallel but far more complex and disturbing regression can be glimpsed.

“Those so affected share a recurrent dream in which they appear to be reversing the process of their birth, losing their identity in a warm sea that is at once the uterine fluid and the primeval ocean from which life emerged. In their waking hours they withdraw more and more irrevocably into the consciousness of their remote biological past, and the book ends with the hero’s departure on a lone trek southward toward some kind of paradisal graveyard of the species.”

9. Animal’s People by Indra Sinha

Animal's People by Indra Sinha.
Source: Goodreads
Animal’s People by Indra Sinha.

Indra Sinha’s “Animal’s People” was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize and is the Winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize: Best Book From Europe & South Asia. The novel focuses on the 1984 Bhopal gas explosion in India, when a poisonous gas leak from a US-owned pesticide plant left several thousand dead and more than half a million injured, with little hope for justice.

As Inverse reports, “The main character in the novel, Animal, is a 19-year-old orphaned boy who survives the explosion with a deformed body. This means he must “crawl like a dog on all fours.” Animal does not hate his body but embraces his animistic identity – offering an unconventional non-human perspective.

“With this wounded “human-animal” figure, Sinha puts forward his critique of India’s postcolonial conditions and demonstrates how Western capitalist domination continues to damage people and the environment in contemporary postcolonial society.”

8. Hoot by Carl Hiaasen

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.
Source: Goodreads
Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.

“Hoot” by Carl Hiaasen, published in 2005, is a departure from the somewhat humorous environmental mystery novels the author is known for. The target audience is much younger, but “Hoot” still tells a story that can inspire young minds to fight for the environment.

According to the Sierra Club, “Hoot is an oldie but a goldie. In his first book for kids (followed by the likes of Chomp and Flush), Hiaasen turns his humor to three middle-school children who are trying to save an endangered species of owl from an all-American pancake house called Mother Paula’s.

“How will Roy, Mullet, and Beatrice take on the cops, corporate thugs, and construction crews that are threatening the owls? Hiaasen’s indignation at our stupidity is as relevant as ever—only now it’s not just Florida wildlife versus a pancake restaurant but the entire planet versus fossil fuels.”

7. My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki.
Source: Goodreads
My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki.

Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest. She is the award-winning author of three novels, “My Year of Meats,” “All Over Creation,” and “A Tale for the Time Being,” which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

“My Life of Meats” is about documentarian Jane Takagi-Little who is working for a Japanese television show sponsored by an American meat-exporting business, she uncovers some unsavory truths about love, fertility, and a dangerous hormone called DES.

According to Kirkus Reviews, “For Jane Tagaki-Little, it’s pay vs. principle; her production job in a TV series for Japanese housewives, My American Wife!, sponsored by US beef exporters, takes her across America, in time giving her the director’s role she covets. But with each segment her knowledge of doctored meat is more at odds with the corporate mandate. Meanwhile, in a Tokyo suburb, Akiko Ueno, wife of the adman in charge of the series, vomits routinely after dutifully preparing for her brutish husband the recipes given on the shows, starving herself and ensuring that she will never have the baby he demands. Only when Jane’s episodes begin to appear, full of remarkable human touches and with nary a beef recipe in sight, does Akiko begin to hope—and to menstruate—again.

“She faxes Jane on the sly, seeking a way out of her abusive marriage, and learns that Jane plans to use newfound knowledge of feedlot practices to strip big beef to its chemical-laced core. Her husband, already furious with his director for a segment on vegetarian lesbians, discovers what’s afoot and goes ballistic, venting his wrath on Akiko by hospitalizing her before leaving for the States to stop Jane. In turn, a now-pregnant Akiko leaves him herself to go see Jane, who, following revelations at the feedlot exceeding her worst nightmares, has had a miscarriage and lost her job—and stands to lose the love of a man she barely knows but badly wants. Character gems and exquisite plotting make this a treasure to read, but the real sizzle is in the take on beef: grilled between Oprah and Ozeki, every burger now deserves a long, hard look.”

6. The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard

The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard.
Source: Goodreads
The Crystal World by J. G. Ballard.

J.G. Ballard appears twice on this list, and for good reason. Ballard was a prolific novelist of post-apocalyptic sci-fi thrillers, though perhaps most well known the his more conventional war novel, Empire of the Sun.

“The Crystal World” takes place on an earth where time is leaking. West Africa has begun to crystallize. Trees are turning to gemstones. Crocodiles glitter

According to NPR, “J.G. Ballard is often considered the godfather of cli-fi. The legendary British author’s cataclysmic novels of the 1960s, including The Burning World, The Drowned World and The Wind from Nowhere, imagine the nightmarish results of a trio of climate-based disasters. But they’re all pulpy in nature compared with 1966’s The Crystal World. In his first truly mature work, Ballard draws from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in his effort to symbolize climate change as something far more insidious — a transmutation of the atomic structure of nature itself, one that’s gradually rendering all flora and fauna as crystal. It’s a startling yet subtle work that cuts to the heart of the stark reality of climate change: that we might soon be living in a world that’s fundamentally alien to us. In a sense, The Crystal World is a body horror novel — except instead of the body horror happening to a person, it’s happening to the Earth.”

5. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee.
Source: Goodreads
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee.

“Disgrace” by J.M. Coetzee tells the story of Professor David Lurie, a 52-year-old divorced father whose life is headed nowhere in a hurry when a dalliance with a student leaves him with nothing but the strained thread of a relationship he maintains with his daughter. As the two work to repair their relationship, stability is shattered by sexual violence in the context of apartheid-era South Africa.

Coetzee is a celebrated Noble Prize laureate, and an advocate for animal rights. In Disgrace, he explores the environmental and physical racism enforced in South Africa during apartheid, contrasted with the graphic depiction of an illegal dog fight.

According to The New York Times, in a review published in 1999, Coetzee was the first person in the then-31-year history of the Booker Prize to win it twice. He previously won it in 1983, for “The Life and Times of Michael K.”

“[Disgrace is] an allegory about what is happening to the human race in the post-colonial era,” said Gerald Kaufman, a member of Parliament and the chairman of the Booker Prize judges’ panel, “In a sense this is a millennial book because it takes us through the 20th century into a new century in which the source of power is shifting away from Western Europe.”

4. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.
Source: Goodreads
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver.

Barbara Kingsolver, author of “The Poisonwood Bible,” saw “Flight Behavior” published in 2013 to positive reviews. The book was named to New York Times Notable Book list, named the Washington Post’s Best Book Of The Year, landed on Amazon’s Top 100: Editor’s Choice, and was named USA Today’s Best Book Of The Year.

“Flight Behavior” focuses on Dellarobia Turnbow a restless farm wife who saw her dreams diverted when she became pregnant at seventeen. A decade later, not much is going right for Dellarobia apart from the younger man she has sparked up a secret relationship with.

One day, Dellarobia hikes over a mountain road behind her house and finds a valley of trees ablaze in orange fluttering wings. Monarch butterflies have been roosting on her in-laws’ property for the first time in history, disrupted by changing weather patterns.

Next Nature offers this review:

“From the scientists who come to study the problem, she learns of the delicate balance that is needed to keep the butterflies on course. Kingsolver’s rich descriptions of an impoverished Appalachian community are combined with her biologist’s training, so that reader empathy is eventually shifted from the likeable heroine to the natural wonder that is the butterflies. We are reminded of how climate change risks not simply human comfort but the planet’s ecological complexity.”

3. The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory by Richard Powers.
Source: Goodreads
The Overstory by Richard Powers.

“The Overstory” by Richard Powers was winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. a New York Times Bestseller. a New York Times Notable Book and a Washington Post, Time, Oprah Magazine, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, Kirkus Reviews, and Amazon Best Book of the Year.

According to Inverse, “The Overstory is praised by critics for its ambition to bring awareness to the life of trees and its advocacy to an ecocentric way of life. Powers’ novel sets out with nine distinctive characters – which represent the ‘roots’ of trees. Gradually their stories and lives intertwine to form the ‘trunk,’ the ‘crown’ and the ‘seeds.’

“One of the characters, Dr. Patricia Westerford, publishes a paper showing trees are social beings because they can communicate and warn each other when a foreign intrusion occurs. Her idea, though presented as controversial in the novel, is actually well supported by today’s scientific studies.
Despite her groundbreaking work, Dr. Westerford ends up taking her own life by drinking poisonous tree extracts at a conference – to make it clear humans can only save trees and the planet by ceasing to exist.
These are just a few books with a specific focus on environmental issues – perfect for your current reading list. To everyone’s surprise, this global lockdown has given us some eco-benefits, such as a sudden dip in carbon emissions and a huge decline in our reliance on traditional fossil fuel energy. Maybe then if we can learn from this experience we can move towards a greener future.”

2. Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta.
Source: Goodreads
Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta.

“Memory of Water” by Emmi Itäranta takes place on an earth where global warming has changed the way borders are drawn and wars are waged. Water has become an extremely precious commodity. Seventeen-year-old Noria Kaitio is following in her father’s footsteps by learning to become a tea master, a distinguished position, and one that may be critical to her survival.

According to Quartz, Kaitio, “must decide whether to share her family’s precious water supply with her friends and fellow villagers and risk being accused of ‘water crime,’ punishable by death. This tender coming-of-age narrative is thus also a meditation on the value of resources taken entirely for granted by the contemporary, westernized reader.”

1. Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler.
Source: Goodreads
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler.

Award-winning author Octavia E. Butler presents another post-apocalyptic world in “Parable of the Sower,” but this one is perhaps closer to far than fiction.

“Parable” takes place in the early 2020s, just as effects of the climate and economic crises have led to worldwide uprisings. California becomes a waterless wasteland, where protagonist Lauren Olamina, 15, lives in a gated community with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, while violence and anarchy rages just blocks away. The decisions Lauren makes will have lasting consequences for her loved ones, as well as the future of humanity.

According to NPR, “Parable of the Sower” and its follow-up, “Parable of the Talents,” may have been published in 1993 and 1998, respectively, but it’s as though Octavia E. Butler had a looking glass trained squarely on 2019. The first two installments in a great unfinished saga — the legendary author died in 2006 — the books detailed a racist, populist upsurge in an America led by a demagogue president. But the books also foresaw the cascade of climate change that has beset us today, although Butler suffused that horror with a hopefulness that humankind might find a way to overcome such dire transformations in our environment. Not only is there optimism about how people might directly cope in the face of climate change, but there’s a solution that admittedly isn’t an immediate help to anyone currently: emigration from Earth to other planets.”

Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.

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