July 16, 2024


You are Your Only Limit

10 notable books on conservation and the environment published in 2023

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10 notable books on conservation and the environment published in 2023
  • The 2023 books that made this year’s list at Mongabay center on the crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.
  • Most of the authors whose work is featured also ponder the role we humans have to play, not just in battling the impacts of these challenges or trying to undo the harm we’ve caused, but as a part of nature going through these crises.
  • The list below features a sample of important literature on conservation and the environment released in 2023.
  • Inclusion in this list does not imply Mongabay’s endorsement of a book’s content; the views in the books are those of the authors and not necessarily of Mongabay.

Many of the effects of the twin crises of climate change and the loss of biodiversity can feel as though they’re happening to us. They are, journalists often write, forces to be battled, or storms to be weathered. Each of the volumes on Mongabay’s year-end book list deals in one way or another. But each also strives to understand how we are as much a part of the world as we are affected by what ails it. We humans bear a hefty dose of the blame (if not all of it) for winnowing away animal and plant numbers to the point that now scientists figure a million species face the threat of extinction. And we’ve done that even to the animals we’ve revered throughout our history, if some of the earliest surviving records our ancestors left behind are any indication. We also know the challenges that changing climates can bring, and yet we continue to quibble over stopping deforestation or ending the use of the fossil fuels that are in large part responsible for the uncertain future that now faces humanity.

Amid those puzzling through these contradictions are the group of authors whose work published in 2023 is featured here. All have thought deeply about different aspects of that future, and they’ve traveled the world learning more about the potential solutions to these problems. These authors have focused much of their attention on the actions being taken, and in doing so, found ways to cope and perhaps also leave things a bit better off. We know what needs to be done. The challenge often requires overcoming tantalizing profits, cobbling together political will and coalitions to take action, and realizing how much humanity’s future is intertwined with — and indeed, a critical part of — the natural world.

By Gloria Dickie

Eight Bears book cover
Image courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company.

Reuters correspondent and Mongabay contributor Gloria Dickie’s new book takes an in-depth look at the surviving members of the Ursidae family. In Eight Bears, she puzzles through the amalgam of fear, awe and exploitative fervor that characterizes the long and complicated relationship between humans and bears. As a student in Colorado, Dickie watched as more and more conflicts between people and bears kept happening, she told Mongabay in a 2023 interview. She soon discovered these problems weren’t specific just to the Rocky Mountains of the U.S., but were in fact happening around the world. Other species are reeling from a long chain of human-induced impacts, often with tragic results for the bears. Perhaps the best-known example is the polar bear (Ursus maritimus), pressed to the point of starvation as a rapidly warming climate melts through their frozen Arctic habitat. Less well-known are the problems that habitat loss and increasing human contact are causing for the shaggy sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) in India. Through Dickie’s careful reporting, readers can find a window into what makes each bear species unique, as well as what scientists and conservationists are doing so that all eight continue to survive.

By John J. Berger

Solving the Climate Crisis book cover
Image courtesy of Seven Stories Press.

As dire as the consequences of global climate change are, there’s earnest work being done to counter it, according to journalist John J. Berger. For his new book, Solving the Climate Crisis, he sought out the people searching for ways to cap the global rise in temperature and with it, the devastating storms, sea-level rise and droughts that are already starting to materialize. Without downplaying the severity of the situation, Berger finds strands of hope onto which we can cling, as the activists, engineers and entrepreneurs he spends time with from across the globe lay out their plans. The details of their work suggest that switching to renewable energy, protecting and restoring ecosystems, and developing key policies could help avert the worst of the crisis.

By Jeff Goodell

The Heat Will Kill You First book cover
Image courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.

Climate change is a term that’s come to encompass the wide array of temperature-related shocks, shifts and challenges that rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere bring to bear for all life on this planet. But at its root, it’s also somewhat self-explanatory, in that these changes stem from a precipitous ratcheting-up of the overall global temperature. Perhaps not surprisingly, the heat that results presents a billowing danger for humankind, writes journalist Jeff Goodell in his book, The Heat Will Kill You First.

The 1.1° Celsius (2° Fahrenheit) increase that the global temperature has so far risen since the late 19th century doesn’t mete out its impacts uniformly, however. The Arctic is warming about four times faster than the overall pace worldwide since the late 1970s. Changing rainfall patterns and shifting seasons are challenging the massive sweep of agriculture necessary to feed 8.1 billion people. And cities face sweltering heat waves that even the wealthiest countries struggle to usher their citizens through unharmed. The scatter of jolts often affects the world’s most vulnerable, but all of us will have to find ways to survive the deadly heat sooner or later.

By Ailton Krenak

Life Is Not Useful
Image courtesy of Polity Books.

Author and activist Ailton Krenak grew up in the Doce River Valley of Brazil, home to the Indigenous Krenak People. (The river was also the site of a far-reaching failure of a mine tailings dam in 2015.) As Krenak contemplates the COVID-19 pandemic in the pithy Life Is Not Useful, he advocates powerfully for a shift away from the way life was before. As he sees it, humans’ detachment from nature and our obsession with extracting profits from the Earth have led to the crises we are facing today. Instead, he puts forth a vision that embraces the interconnected reliance on all life that shares this planet.

By Tori Tsui

It’s Not Just You
Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

You’d be forgiven for fretting over the state of the world we all live in. As temperatures rise, species wink out and other tipping points press ever closer, “eco-anxiety” seems a, well, natural reaction. It’s a lot to worry about on its own, but first-time author Tori Tsui, a climate activist and mental health advocate, doesn’t silo off eco-anxiety in It’s Not Just You. She connects it with related ills in our society, including sexism and racism. In doing so, she lays out a path for community involvement and action aimed at working toward a healthier and more just planet. (For more on the intersection between concern for the environment and mental health, read Mongabay editor and contributor Jeremy Hance’s 2020 book, Baggage: Confessions of a Globe-Trotting Hypochondriac.)

By John Vaillant

The Fort McMurray fire of 2016 burned hundreds of thousands of hectares and displaced 88,000 people from their homes, with damages totaling in the billions. It also tore through the epicenter of Canada’s oil industry in Alberta’s tar sands. In Fire Weather, John Vaillant examines the climatic changes that are making such destructive conflagrations more common. Vaillant digs deep into the history of how we understand climate change and its devastating impacts like the Fort McMurray fire. And yet the book is also forward-looking, preparing us for a time in which we must find ways to adapt to living with fire.

A Wing and a Prayer book cover
Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

In 2019, a study revealed that North America had lost nearly 3 billion birds since the early 1970s — nearly a third of the continent’s avian population. The loss is in step with species declines elsewhere in the world and the broader biodiversity crisis, and the findings were broadly seen as an indicator of declining environmental health. The challenge for scientists and conservationists since then has been to sort out exactly what’s happening to the hardest-hit bird species and groups and what can be done about those threats. That’s where Anders Gyllenhaal and Beverly Gyllenhaal, two journalists (and birders), picked up the story — at least for A Wing and a Prayer. In their book, they document the at-times heroic efforts to stave off further tragic declines. Birds have shown a phoenix-like ability to recover and rebound — think of the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), whose population once dwindled to 22 before soaring again. Now, the Gyllenhaals give readers a front-row seat to watch the passionate minds set on helping other species do the same.

By Ben Goldfarb

Crossings book cover
Image courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company.

Roadways crisscross the planet, and if global plans to interconnect more of human society are any indication, tens of millions more kilometers will be in the works over the next three decades. Scientists have been grappling for decades with comprehending the impacts that begin with the hundreds of millions of animals (if not more) killed by vehicles every year all over the world, writes environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb in Crossings. Roads can bring localized pollution to new parts of our planet, and they can open up to human exploitation intact areas that serve as vital sanctuaries for nature. Through Goldfarb’s reporting, ranging as far and wide across the world as it does into the impacts that these cogs in human economies can cause, we come away with a new perspective on the question, what price is too great to pay for purported progress?

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By Paula DiPerna

Pricing the Priceless book cover
Image courtesy of Wiley.

Environmental health underpins so many economic systems, from the food we grow to the trade necessary to deliver agricultural produce and other goods across the globe. And yet, when it comes to value, we’re often apt to pursue immediate profits from short-term production rather than protecting that environmental foundation. In Pricing the Priceless, author Paula DiPerna takes a hard look at the value that nature provides through the lens of society’s financial structures. The book uncovers the new variety of financial instruments available that take into account this reliance on the natural world, as well as the changing mentalities, particularly in young people, necessary for the success of these tools to safeguard both the environment and our economies. DiPerna examines how carbon pricing could bolster efforts to address climate change, while also probing the economic importance of wildlife, forests and coral reefs — and how financial tools could be used to protect them.

By Jean-Baptiste Vidalou

We are Forests book cover
Image courtesy of Polity Books.

Philosopher Jean-Baptiste Vidalou investigates the rise of people fighting for forests around the world in We are Forests. Vidalou travels from the boreal fringes of the Arctic to the lush rainforests of the tropics to understand the conception of nature that drives environmental defenders to put their lives on the line for this resource. Along his journey, he searches for what one reviewer called a “complete picture of nature,” rather than the sense that forests, and indeed so many of Earth’s ecosystems, derive their value from what they can provide humanity — timber, for example, or land for agriculture. And he bristles at the idea that something as wild and unruly as a forest needs to be measured to have value. Given his profession, it’s perhaps not surprising that he draws on the work of other philosophers who have wrestled with these topics. He also reflects on what he sees as the limitations of the way we currently approach forests, and in doing so, finds a mirror for human society at large.

Banner image: A Yellowstone grizzly (Ursus arctos). Image by Ania Tuzel via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Bluesky.

10 notable books on conservation and the environment published in 2022

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