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The 10 Best Books on Nature and the Environment

An environmental journey, as told through books

The Quick Rundown: 

Every day it seems more people want to join the environmental movement. This is great news.  My advice? The journey of 1000 miles begins with a few good books. I note below those that had the biggest impact on my personal trajectory, and I hope you’ll share yours so we can all go further together.

A Humble Beginner (With a Lot to be Humble About) 

When I joined the Nature Conservancy in 2008, I expected a steep learning curve. I had been working on environmental matters for a few years on Wall Street, so I wasn’t an absolute neophyte. But leading the world’s biggest conservation NGO would demand much more. So I did everything I could to learn as much as possible, including preparing very carefully for all my meetings. I wanted my new colleagues to have confidence in me. 

Our Chief Scientist Peter Kareiva was an especially intimidating figure. He’s a really nice guy, and he’s also one of those brilliant people who reads and knows everything. It seemed there was nothing he didn’t know about nature, conservation, science, and the environment. So I tried especially hard to be well-informed and smart in my meetings with him.  

I thought I was doing a decent job too, until Peter took me aside after one meeting and said “I see that there are some significant gaps in your knowledge about the work we do.” Whoops — my cover was blown.  

He handed me a very thick stack of paper and said “you should read all of this.” It was the manuscript for his soon-to-be-published textbook on conservation science. “If you read this,” he promised, “not only will you become much better informed, you’ll also be better informed than most of your senior colleagues here and at all of the other NGOs.”

He was right. I was delighted to read his book. I found value in each and every page. I was already in the habit of asking the environmentalists that I admired for book suggestions. Back then, I was traveling non-stop, so I got in the habit of carrying a few books with me everywhere I went in order to keep learning. I continue this practice today.

When I think back now on my transition from life as a Wall Street banker to environmentalist, it dawns on me that great books were a big part of the process every step of the way, so I wanted to share them with you in the hopes that they serve you too. Here are the ten books that made the biggest impact on me.

The Instigator’s Top Ten Books on Nature and the Environment For Would-be Tree-Huggers:

  1. The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen

Stumbling onto this truly great book in the mid-1990s was one of those happy accidents. It was long before I had any notion of becoming an environmentalist, but I like to think now that it was a little foreshadowing. I was on vacation with my wife Amy and our two young daughters in Florida and needed something to read. I picked this book up and then I couldn’t put it down. At the time, I knew almost nothing about biodiversity, evolution, extinction or the importance of preserving wild landscapes, animals and plants. This book got me excited about all of these topics and 10 years after reading this book, I ended up working on exactly these matters. I even ended up collaborating with luminaries from the book like Ed Wilson and Tom Lovejoy. Thank you David Quammen — your book changed my life. That may sound a bit melodramatic, but when I look back, it’s the only honest assessment I can give.

Read this book to be inspired and to learn about Darwin, Wallace, Wilson, Lovejoy, and the exciting quest we can all join to protect biodiversity and the natural world.

2. Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

A few years later, and I had a bigger family and much more zeal to learn about the natural world, so we took an eco vacation to Belize. As we explored incredible ecosystems, our stellar tour guide, Max, kept chatting and taught us so much about how nature actually worked. I asked a lot of questions — maybe too many even for high-energy Max. Finally, he handed me Jared Diamond’s book and said, “Read this.” It worked. I stopped bugging Max. Instead, I devoured the book. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one because it went on to be a bestseller and to win the Pulitzer Prize. Maybe you’ve read it too.  

The book aims to explain all of human history by focusing on the environmental, geographic, biological factors that drive it. I know some scholars dispute some of this big thinking book’s conclusions, but none of that matters if you ask me. What’s great about this book is its reach and ambition. It’s truly inspiring. It’s what got me thinking that there might be more to life than Wall Street.

Read this book to think hard about the sweep of human history and how we interact with all other species and all ecosystems.  

3. The Condor’s Shadow: The Loss and Recovery of Wildlife in America by David S. Wilcove

By the mid-2000s, I was very interested in conservation, but still a Wall Street banker. It was time to diversify not just my reading but my network. I started making an effort to get to know NGO leaders. One was Kent Redford, the Chief Scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. Kent recommended this book. It’s a very readable study of what has been done very successfully to reverse the damage humans have caused to wildlife in North America.  

The pages are replete with fundamental explanations— how ecosystems and wildlife interact, why and how this gets damaged, and how we can turn this around and get back on track. I started to think that some of the business skills I had developed might also work in efforts to protect nature.

Read this book to build some optimism and to strengthen your ethical commitment to protecting all habitats for all species.

4. The New Economy of Nature: The Quest to Make Conservation Profitable by Gretchen C. Daily and Katherine Ellison

Now several years in, my efforts to learn more about environmental matters started to pay off. In late 2005, Hank Paulson put me in charge of Goldman Sachs’s nascent environmental efforts in 2005. He gave me this book too. It builds on Gretchen Daily’s pioneering academic work concerning natural capital. Together with journalist Katherine Ellison, Daily persuasively argues that we should invest more to protect “green infrastructure” to capture the ecosystem services that nature provides. It made sense for a Wall Street environmentalist like me to be attracted to this investment-oriented approach to protecting nature. 

Later, to my delight, I got to work closely with Gretchen as we served together on the board of TNC and worked jointly on the Natural Capital Project. Gretchen’s work also influenced the book I ultimately ended up writing (along with Jonathan Adams) — Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Nature Thrive by Investing in Nature

Read this book to learn about the economic value of nature and inspiring examples of big conservation wins that have been achieved on this basis. 

5. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman 

With every new enviro-person I met, I kept asking for book ideas.  Gretchen suggested this one. It’s a real page-turner — almost a thriller. It grapples with the following crazy question — what would happen to the natural world if humankind suddenly vanished?  Weisman is a brilliant writer and journalist. His book is a fascinating read and turns the way we tend to view environmental challenges inside out. 

Read this book for a very dive deep into human interaction with the planet.  

Weisman later wrote another great eco book, Countdown, which focuses on the global environmental challenges arising from population growth.   Gretchen herself is featured as a leading character in this book.

6. Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization and World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse by Lester R. Brown

When I joined TNC in 2008, the financial crisis was just getting underway. My team and I really had our hands full as we grappled with various challenges. We worked very long days, were under a lot of pressure, and had to make a lot of tough decisions. I would return home exhausted and take solace in these books. 

Lester Brown is a hero in the environmental field. He is also a superb writer, analyst, problem solver, and policy wonk. The two books almost felt like memos advising me on how I should set priorities and make decisions about the work TNC would do. 

Read these books (or any of Lester’s other great ones) for a very clear assessment of the daunting environmental challenges we face as well as a game plan for how we can address them.  

7. Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering are Necessary by Stewart Brand

I was a fan of The Whole Earth Catalog back in my high school days. So when Stewart Brand, who led and co-founded that effort, put out an environmental book in 2010, I was eager to read it. The financial crisis was behind us and the TNC team was working hard to determine the best ways to scale and accelerate the organization’s achievements. This great book was enormously helpful, providing us many exciting ideas, provocative challenges, and real inspiration.

I looked at my copy of this book the other day, as well as the two Lester Brown books noted above. I see that they really connected with me; I managed to highlight almost every paragraph in all three books.

Read this book for a no-nonsense, engineering-like, reality-based approach to addressing environmental challenges. It’s a fascinating read, and Stewart is a great writer.

8. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser 

Glaeser is an economist who brilliantly makes the argument you’d expect from the book’s title. Yes, COVID-19 has thrown a curveball at cities right now, but I doubt pandemics will disrupt the long-term and mostly very positive trend of urbanization.  I’m a city boy. I grew up in Cleveland and spent most of my adult life in cities — Tokyo, NYC, and Washington, DC—so I was very receptive to Glaser’s notion that cities are a force for good, environmental and otherwise. Glaser’s view is good news because half of the world’s people live in cities today and soon it will be two-thirds. This book helped persuade me to launch a cities initiative at TNC.

Read this book to understand how cities are an engine of human progress and a solution to enormous challenges to the natural world.

9. Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson

No one has been a better champion of the need to protect nature at scale in order to protect biodiversity than leading scientist Ed Wilson. He is also a prolific author of many superb books on nature. I’ve read and loved most of his books. It’s difficult to single one out. I pick Naturalist— his memoir — because it’s a moving firsthand account of his own journey as a scientist as well as the evolution of the fields he developed.

Read this book to be inspired by one person’s extraordinary personal journey in the world of science, conservation, and large-scale problem-solving.

10. Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet by Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman

One of the most frustrating aspects of being an environmentalist is watching society’s very slow engagement on climate change. Doing nothing or moving slowly makes absolutely no sense from a business or economic perspective, period. The cost of dealing with climate is not zero, but it’s much lower than the cost of doing too little. Somehow this gets lost in all of the debate, politics, ill will, and obfuscation that characterizes so much of the dialogue about climate. Sigh.

Read this fun, brilliant, sobering, and very clearly argued book by Wagner and the late Weitzman to see how climate policymakers should start thinking more like homeowners do every day when they purchase homeowners insurance. Managing risk makes sense!

I know I said just 10 books, but it’s the holidays. Here’s a bonus book for you!  

11. Conservation Science: Balancing the Needs of People and Nature by Peter Kareiva & Michelle Marvier

It’s probably not every day you read a textbook. But this book doesn’t read like one. This is the book that Peter, TNC’s Chief Scientist, gave me. Kareiva and co-author Marvier answer practical questions about how best to achieve progress in protecting nature right now. All of the thorny tradeoffs, controversies, and messiness of conservation management is well-considered here. Saving nature and running an NGO is not as easy as it looks. Peter was being practical when he gave me his not-quite-finished manuscript. The book provides just what you’ll need to know if you’re ever suddenly appointed CEO of a big conservation organization.

Read this book to think hard about how humans and nature best share our crowded planet.

Me with top ten authors Ed Wilson, Gretchen Daily, and Peter Kareiva

The Coda

Peter Kareiva ended up moving on from TNC a couple of years before I did. As he made his farewells, he was complimentary about my leadership, which meant a lot to me coming from him. Even better was his specific choice of words. He pulled me aside, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, “Mark, my friend, I want to pay you my highest compliment.” I leaned in, anxious to hear what he thought I had done so well. “You are a geek.” 

Peter credited me for my learning above all else. I certainly don’t want to be immodest, but I kind of agree with Peter. To the extent that I’ve had any success at all, I attribute it mostly to trying to learn, staying curious, reading everything I can get my hands on, and continually trying to figure things out. I know,  I know — I still have a very long way to go. Good. I’m enjoying the journey. 

Over to You 

So there you have it. The books that shaped my environmental journey from knowing next to nothing to writing The Instigator and everything in between.  

As I’ve mentioned here before, if you’re interested in making a change — whether it’s a career switch or just becoming a more environmentally responsible citizen — one of the best ways to begin is to learn as much as you can. Books are an easy way to do that. How do you pick from the abundant choices? Ask for recommendations from everyone you talk to and never stop. 

On that note, dear readers, let’s start helping each other out. What are the environmental books that moved you

Take the Leap: How to Launch Your Own Personal Environmental Game Plan

The quick rundown. 

It’s been a tough week. We could all use some leadership right now. The Instigator usually focuses on organizational strategies — how companies, investors, and NGOs can tackle environmental challenges. But personal strategies matter too. To achieve the change we seek, we need more people across society to step up, get outside their silos, think big, and devise personal engagement plans that will work in the real world. The best way to do this is to start now, play to your strengths, and find ways to reinvent yourself.


Think Big

In 2016, I was speaking in front of a huge audience at the Paris climate convention.  And I’ll let you in on a secret. 

I thought I was killing it. 

At the time, I was the CEO of the Nature Conservancy, and I was speaking on a panel about food, agriculture, and climate change.  Just as I was making what I thought was another absolutely brilliant point about sustainable ranching, another panelist interrupted me.

“Sustainable ranching? That’s like saying you’re in favor of making torture less painful.”  

His line got some laughs from the crowd. Ha ha. But not from me. Who is this jerk and why is he disagreeing with me?

It turns out that it was Pat Brown of Impossible Foods.  Neither Pat nor his company were well-known at the time.  (Today both are world famous giants in the booming plant-based meat business). 

Onstage in Paris I tried to defend myself.  I elaborated on my point, ticking off the many benefits and practicalities. To demonstrate my unbiased stance, I even mentioned that I was a vegan.  Pat — quite the showman — didn’t miss a beat. He immediately had one of his colleagues bring out a mini Impossible Burger, right there on  stage so I could try it before the big crowd. 

I had to admit —  the burger was delicious. 

Long story short, it turns out this guy wasn’t a jerk at all. He was a real leader.

Pat told me his story afterwards. An accomplished (and arrogant, as he put it) Stanford professor of chemistry, he was about to take a hard-earned sabbatical a few years earlier.   He thought he should do something very important on his break.  Pat thinks big. He decided he should try to solve one of the world’s biggest challenges. He picked climate change.   

Even Pat recognized it made sense to narrow his focus a bit.  So he set his sights on meat consumption. The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector worldwide. Pat understood that if people in China, India, and other economically rising countries chose to eat burgers and steaks like Americans, we were (pardon the pun) cooked.  Pat decided to do something about that.

Where others (like me) focused on the need to improve agricultural practices, Patrick viewed the challenge as diet.  He decided to make a delicious burger entirely from plants for people who love meat. He was certain that consumers would prefer his plant-based meat substitutes —  not for lofty environmental reasons (although he would have no objection to that) but because they would taste better, cost less, and be healthier. 

So how’s his little project going? Impossible Burgers are showing up on menus everywhere, from Michelin-starred restaurants in Manhattan to value meals at Burger King. They have raised more than $1.5 billion in equity funding and attracted high-profile investors like Bill Gates, Temasek, Khosla Ventures, Jay-Z, and Serena Williams. (Not me — sigh —  I wasn’t smart enough to ask Pat to let me buy some shares back in 2016.)  The company also sells plant-based sausages and soon will offer plant-based chicken and milk too.

I can tell you firsthand that the Impossible Burger lives up to its name: they are impossible to stop eating. I hosted a fundraising event at my house in DC a short time after meeting Pat.  The burgers weren’t on the market yet but Pat sent a big supply for my event. Our guests were mostly fancy Washington, D.C. bigwigs. We had planned a lofty conversation about reducing greenhouse gas emissions through better agriculture, ranching, and conservation practices. But we couldn’t get guests to focus on our speakers — they were too busy scarfing down their plant-based patties. 

Fast forward to today: Pat’s burgers are a household name. There are many other great meat substitutes widely available, such as  Beyond Meat. The alternative protein food business is booming, and no one thinks plant-based foods are weird anymore. Real change can happen faster than we expect and make a very big difference.  All it takes is leadership.

Not everyone can drop everything and take on a completely new and enormous challenge like Pat did.  But you don’t have to.  We need engagement at all levels and in all fields.  Further, we can all learn from Pat’s example.  Pat thinks big and plays to his strengths.  He went from being a prominent, successful and big-thinking professor of chemistry at Stanford to an iconoclastic businessperson who argued that everything responsible for making a burger taste, feel, and smell like a burger could be recreated with ingredients from the plant world. As a chemist he was sure he could pull this off.  So he went for it.  What can you do in the same way? 

* * *

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom.

When it comes to a huge challenge like climate change, the more strategies the better. That’s why people like Pat — and fortunately there are many of them — make such a huge difference. Long-term projections for climate change rarely include huge unpredictable breakthrough scenarios like transforming diet patterns. 

Examples abound of folks in varied fields who leave their comfort zone and follow their passion toward world progress. In the weeks that follow, we’ll be discussing them (and talking to them!). You’ll meet my friend Jacqueline Novogratz, a banker who wanted to reduce poverty. All she did was create a global leadership development and micro financing network called Acumen that has now invested some $125 million in 126 companies tackling poverty in 14 countries. (Check out Jacqueline’s great new book Manifesto for a Moral Revolution to learn more).

Podcasting for Progress

Here’s another cool example of bold leadership.  When COVID struck last winter, I was stuck at home like many of you, and looking for a good podcast to listen to while I worked out.  I discovered “My Climate Journey” and was immediately hooked.  The podcast is hosted by Jason Jacobs, a former startup guy who was wondering what he could do to address the climate challenge. He decided to learn everything he needed to know by interviewing key players in the climate space. He shares what he learns in real time, conducting his inquiry over the podcast.  

His program is outstanding for staying current on climate matters and hearing directly from a diverse group of players. Jason talks to clean-tech entrepreneurs, atmospheric science professors, grassroots activists, elected officials, NGO leaders, and various others in the climate world. I’ve been a professional environmentalist for more than 15 years and theoretically know my stuff, but I still learn a lot from every episode.  

One of the really smart things Jason does is acknowledge that there is a lot he doesn’t know about how to address the climate challenge. He’s like most of us.   So he does the work. He lines up the experts, asks all of the questions we would if we could, and he makes us all much smarter.

It turns out that as a former startup guy, Jason is very good at stepping back and thinking about the big picture, assessing different strategies, and networking so he can talk to all of the right people. He’s not shy or afraid to ask obvious questions. And he is in a hurry.  Just what you would expect.  Note: Jason is playing to his strengths.

Jason’s impact goes way beyond his weekly podcasts. He’s also formed a superb climate-engaged community on Slack for his listeners. I joined the group and right away I started hearing from various people working on promising climate projects.  I’ve made some great friends and even a few new business partners.  The back and forth dialogue between a very diverse group of people all trying to figure out their personal climate engagement plan is really exciting.  Looking back, it seems like an obvious initiative to launch.  But it takes someone like Jason to make these things happen.  They don’t get started by themselves.

More recently, Jason has launched a start-up investment fund focused on climate solutions. One good thing leads to another.

All of this is happening because one more person decided to step up, reinvent himself a bit, and engage in a way that would likely make a big difference.  More of us should do the same. 

How? 

Start now but know that it’s okay go slow and lay the groundwork. 

Not everyone is ready to make a giant leap like Pat and Jason did, and that’s fine! The truth is, most of the time, it’s only hindsight that makes it look like people made drastic moves to become climate activists. That’s because you’re only seeing the highlights. The reality usually involves much more legwork. 

My own case might be a good example. My resume reads as if I seamlessly transitioned from Goldman Sachs to CEO of The Nature Conservancy.  But that’s not really what happened.  For the prior 15 years, I volunteered with several NGOs, ultimately joining their boards, and even serving as chair of two. These were much smaller organizations than TNC, but size doesn’t really matter.  They faced the same kinds of issues and challenges that big non-profits like TNC must confront. I learned a ton.  I also went out of my way to make friends in the environmental community.  It was fun and —  again — I learned so much, especially about how the different NGOs do their work. I had also been teaching finance courses at NYU’s business school, so I shifted gears and co-taught a semester-long program on environmental strategies for business. These different activities led to me running Goldman’s first environmental initiative, which of course was another extraordinary learning opportunity.  I even persuaded my wife Amy and our then school-aged children to go on various environmental-themed and rather geeky vacations with me.  And so on. 

When I showed up at TNC in mid-2008, there was still a huge amount that I didn’t know (just ask my colleagues). But all of my prior environmental experience helped me make a pretty smooth transition. 

Now obviously, I realize that I was very fortunate to be in a position to do all of these things. But I want to emphasize that one way or another most people can lay a foundation for meaningful action from whatever position they are in.   

Some Ideas:

  1. A number of my friends recently volunteered to be on the front lines of Get Out The Vote efforts in connection with the election.  What a great way for them to see how politics works firsthand and really make a difference.  It’s easy to stay home and criticize politicians with whom you don’t agree. But it’s so much more effective (and fulfilling) to roll up your sleeves and engage. They all returned home energized and excited about new ideas they now have on doing more going forward.
  2. Many college students are doing a nice job on the climate front too.  Often they start by pushing for their colleges to divest of fossil fuel stocks. That, in turn, leads to campus-wide ghg emission reduction campaigns; efforts to add more on climate to the curriculum; and engagement with local communities on renewable energy. All of this activity not only makes a difference in their schools; it positions students to make a real difference after graduation.
  3. Employees of companies can and should push for more ambition on the climate front. The Instigator has already noted how employee leadership made a big difference at Amazon.  It’s a good idea  to keep a close eye on climate leaders in your company’s sector. Encourage your employer to match such efforts. See if you can spark a “race to the top.”
  4. Volunteer for your favorite NGO (like I did).  It’s fun, you can help the organization a lot, and the learning opportunities are huge.  (Also, please support them financially.  All gifts, including small ones, are hugely appreciated.)
  5. Learn as much as you can. It’s easier than ever to do so now. Find your favorite podcasts and newsletters.  Look for inspiring role models too and imitate them. See the links below for some suggestions.

There’s a common thread here. 

We need more people to step up and make things happen on the climate front.  This might even mean you.  Think about how you can make an impact.  Don’t feel stuck in a silo.  Don’t expect the “experts” to get the job done.  Don’t think blaming others is a good substitute for sticking your own neck out.

Maybe that means speaking up at your org, pushing for change like the Amazon folks did.  Maybe that means edging up your engagement in your day-to-day life, like many of the folks on the My Climate Journey Slack community.  Or maybe it means diving all the way into something new and transformative, like Pat Brown or Jason Jacobs did.

You don’t have to figure this out all at once — none of these folks did.  Take your time.  Ask for help.  Reach out and make new friends. Learn what you need to know.  But please, get in the game. It’s up to you. It’s up to all of us.