Right now, there are a huge number of environmental books being written and published. From scientific accounts of biodiversity loss and ways to tackle plastic pollution to Greta Thunberg’s book of speeches and the emerging genre of Climate Fiction (fiction set in the near future with a focus on the effects of the climate crisis, often dystopian) - bookshops up and down the country are re-labelling shelves to make way for this new flood of environmental reading. All over the internet, there are lists emerging to handpick the best of these, but I want to do something a little bit different - I want to make a list of books not just with a focus on the climate crisis, but with a positive one.
That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy darker, more challenging reads, or that I am shying away from reality. I have read a great number of books over the last few years on the climate crisis that don’t necessarily fall under the umbrella of “positive” but which I would thoroughly recommend, and in fact I may write another blog post with my recommendations on those. Not to mention that with more challenging stories there often comes a greater depth and complexity. But, when I read too many of these darker stories all together I find myself spiralling into a bit of a climate anxiety hole. Though they often have excellent and powerful takeaway messages, sometimes even of hope for what could be, they can dwell extensively on the negative facets and experiences of the climate crisis and I think it’s necessary to balance those more challenging reads with those that hold hope and a positive outlook at the core of them. So, without further ado, here is my list.
In the non-fiction I have read on the climate crisis - whether it’s academic or creative - too often I find that there is an overwhelming focus on what humans have done wrong, the precise magnitude of the damage we have done, and where we’re headed, and little consideration of what hope we have moving forward and what we might be able to do about it, except for vague and often impossible-seeming calls for global-scale change and a new approach. The non-fiction books on this list, I believe, change that.
The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac
The Future We Choose is a hugely inspirational manifesto from the co-founders of Global Optimism. Optimism is certainly front-and-centre of this book - displaying the power it grants, the causes we have for it, and why we need it. Although the first handful of pages of the book are dedicated to painting a terrifying picture of the future we are headed towards if we do nothing, this is immediately countered with a depiction of the world we could be creating instead, and which we have the means to create. This is one of the first books I’ve read where research, existing global examples, and optimism are combined to create a vivid and realistic vision of the world as it could be, and it has a very powerful positive effect. It gives us something to move towards, to look forward to, to set goals around and push for.
The rest of the book is dedicated to the progress that’s being made already, and actions we, personally, can take. Those actions may be less specific than I had hoped for from two authors with experience working in political environmental sectors - steering as they do towards the psychological and individual over the physical and larger-scale - but this book still throws open the door to a hopeful future like no other. I came away from it feeling inspired and incredibly motivated.
A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough
If there is anyone to turn to for a well-informed, deeply insightful, and personally meaningful book on the climate crisis, it’s David Attenborough. Having lived amongst humans and non-humans across the world for his whole career, which has been considerably long, Attenborough is uniquely placed to offer insight into the global crisis. It is a beautifully written and deeply moving book.
Admittedly, it does not start off on a positive note. The introduction to the book sews a deep horror in the comparisons it draws, and the first section of the book documents just how much the planet’s biodiversity has degraded over the course of Attenborough’s career - as seen first-hand. The rest of the book, however, brings something completely different into the mix: a bold and hopeful vision. The rest of the book breaks down the climate crisis into several key areas of concern and lays out a comprehensive plan for approaching each of these. Not only that, but Attenborough draws on research papers from practising professionals as well as working examples from around the world today to illustrate the practicality and achievability of the solutions he suggests. In many cases, he presents solutions that can be practised locally and nationally on a smaller scale but can and should be, scaled up to an international one. I’ve read books before calling for drastic change, but never has it seemed so manageable, so beautiful, as in Attenborough’s book.
Doughnut Economicsby Kate Raworth
As a literature student, despite my interest in interdisciplinary study, I never thought that a book on economics would have the faintest chance of capturing my interest, but I was wrong. This book blew me away.
As well as giving a brief but very understandable overview of how economics has been taught traditionally up until now, Raworth’s book describes a completely new approach to economics and economic thinking and presents this rearrangement of priorities as a model which works. That’s not just wishful thinking - her book is littered with working examples from all around the world that demonstrate the viability of the principles she has built into her new economic model - “The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries”. For anyone struggling to picture what an economy that does not depend on constant growth, or even green growth, could look like - look no further than this book.
Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman by Rebecca Tamas
For those after something more literary, this collection of essays by skilled poet Rebecca Tamas is stunning. Every essay in the collection is short but sweet, bitesize but brimming with thought-provoking suggestions, and perfectly balanced on the edge between literary essay and poetry. Her writing moves effortlessly from political ideas and movements to mythology to poetry, philosophy, and onwards, interrogating what it is we mean by “humanity”, and what we can stand to gain from asking that question of ourselves. Every single one of these essays struck a chord with me, perfectly capturing ideas and questions that have been turning over and over in my mind for years - I can’t recommend this collection enough.
Poetry, I believe, has the power to dismantle, analyse, and remake how we use language. With regards to the climate crisis, I think there is a lot to be said for the way this can help us reframe the climate crisis. The kinds of transcendent voices and new perspectives poetry offers up could be an incredible tool for rethinking how the inner lives of humans might relate to the outer world, and how we can express that.
Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit
Mama Amazonica is a poetry collection set in a psychiatric ward in the Amazon rainforest, untangling the story of Pascale Petit’s mentally ill mother.
This is an explosive and visceral read. Nature in Mama Amazonica is violent, painful, beautiful, comforting. The versatility of nature, its ever-changing presence, seems to become a way to channel and unravel psychological pain, the chaotic entangling of human and nature in a vivid menagerie of language aptly reflecting the collection’s search to understand the incomprehensible. It’s this that I think makes this collection so special - this ability to reflect the complexities of human relationships with nature and refract it through the complexities of personal familial relationships. It offers up a new way of writing about nature, and presents hope and beauty despite all the rest. It is an utterly amazing collection, the imagery so vivid that it will haunt you long after you finish reading.
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz
Postcolonial Love Poem is a collection that beautifully interrogates every facet of what is meant by “natural”, finding something new in every turn of the word. Born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River, Diaz offers up a breathtaking, defiant collection of poems exploring love, desire, family, erasure, language, and much more.
Many of the poems in this collection are deeply intimate and sensual in nature, but they are more than just this, blending politics, belonging, desire, and the human body, with bodies of water and bodies of land in a way that is profoundly powerful. Though sometimes the struggles depicted and the themes can be quite dark, there is always a note of inspiration, hope, and beauty to be found threaded through the poems. Diaz’s choice of language exposes how our strongest emotions and our sense of identity is often inextricably embedded in, and reflected by, our natural surroundings. This, in turn, exposes the undeniable and powerful ties that exist between humans and nature - the temperaments and transience we all are subject to.
I really struggled to pick out fiction options for this list that I considered to be positive in the perspectives they offer on the climate crisis. In many ways it’s a desperately difficult challenge, to offer up stories that somehow manage to escape feeling overwhelmingly soaked in the anxieties and horrors of the ecological emergency we’re in. I’ve read some fantastic Cli-fi in recent years imagining the near future (or even the present) in ways that are terribly realistic and wrapped in a very contemporaneous sense of fear and grief. Many of these deliver positive messages alongside more challenging ones, and yet I wouldn’t consider them overall as positive books. Compelling, challenging, insightful, emotional, and sometimes inspiring - yes - but positive? Their bleak visions of a seemingly inevitable future fall short of that. With that in mind, I have only one fiction book on this list - but I very much hope to add to that in the near future.
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver is an incredibly prestigious writer, and for good reason. On a lot of lists like this one compiling great reading about the climate crisis, you will most likely come across another of her books - Flight Behaviour. It’s the book that always seems to get selected because of its very obviously climate crisis focused premise. The problem is, I found Flight Behaviour very pessimistic. It takes up something of an “it’s already too late” attitude leaving little room for hope and is populated with self-destructive, selfish, and quite unlovable characters. Maybe this is the point, but it left me feeling sad, a little empty, and more than a little anxious.
Prodigal Summer, on the other hand, is an unputdownable and surprisingly educational read, which left me feeling more open-minded and hopeful at its end. Though the story is not as obviously focused on the climate crisis, the core focus of the book is about nature and human interactions with nature, depicted across many different kinds of lifestyles and people. The book weaves together three stories centred around three pairs of wonderfully layered and distinctive characters, unravelling their opposing perspectives: a hunter and a reclusive wildlife biologist, a highly educated city-girl and the farming family she married into, and a pair of elderly, feuding neighbours with differing opinions on best practice for growing plants on their respective land. The narrative asks you to re-evaluate each of these perspectives in the context of the characters, exposing how each of their lives is connected to landscape and nature, and how we connect to one another as well as ourselves through it. It’s a beautiful and intricate tale that will challenge the way you think about the environment and why, and leave you feeling hopeful about the world and the potential we all have for positive change.
I hope you have enjoyed my list of positive books on the climate crisis. Make no mistake, they are not all sunshine and rainbows and inevitably are tinged with the fear and grief the climate crisis has engendered, but they seek a way through it - a path to action, a plan, a hopeful vision, new perspectives, and a powerful reconsideration of priorities and methods of expression and connection. I am very happy to say that this list is far from being complete, and I hope to be able to add many more to it in time.
Many of these books are ones that have been passed around the family, and to share this gift of optimism with each other through such powerful writing has been a wonderful thing for us, and has sparked many stimulating and productive conversations.
For now, here’s a little look at what I’ve got on my reading list for more like the books above. Do you have any recommendations for what I should add? I’d love to hear them...