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This is a short list of Canadian books that capture the drama of humanity’s relationship with Mother Earth.
The Lesser Blessed, by Richard Van Camp.
A coming-of-age novel set in the rural aftermath of Canada’s residential school system may seem an odd choice to lead a list of environmental literature. But even if it doesn’t mention climate change, The Lesser Blessed always struck me as essential eco-reading. Hilarious, tragic, and ruthless, the novel thrusts you into the living legacy of colonialism, an intensely human story without which no understanding of ecological destruction (and resilience) is complete. I was blown away by Van Camp’s ability to turn such bleak material into a healing voyage—and a page-turner at that. This is one of very few books in my adult life that I read in a single sitting.
The Tiger, by John Vaillant
The story of the hunt for a man-eating tiger in Russia’s far east becomes a gateway to the eon-spanning saga of homo sapiens’ spread across the planet. Few writers blend history, philosophy, ecology, and adventure as seamlessly as Vaillant, in whose hands The Tiger’s feline protagonist becomes as mesmerizing—and vengeful—as any white whale.
The Serpent and the Rainbow, by Wade Davis
Every book list should include at least one cult classic, and this is mine. Long before Wade Davis became famous for chronicling how Indigenous knowledge can heal the modern world, he travelled to Haiti to sleuth out how vodoun practitioners turn people into zombies. He succeeded, not just in that mission but also in writing a wild travelogue whose subsequent cinematic destruction by Wes Craven is no fault of the author’s.
A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright
This insanely readable book turns the whole notion of human progress on its head. In deceptively light prose that tracks how civilizations from Easter Island to the Mayan empire succumbed to the “progress trap” time and time again, Wright shows how humanity’s great strength—the capacity to exploit our environment—can also be our greatest liability. This book had a huge influence on my perception of the modern world’s predicament, including our species’ remarkable capacity for denial when confronted with the limits of progress.
Birds Art Life, by Kyo Maclear
In this lyrical memoir of one profound year in the author’s life, every sentence is a poem. The poems become an ode to birds (and bird-watching), creativity, and wonderment. We don’t need to be famous, or heroic, or rich and powerful to save the world. For most of us, a more useful and fulfilling pursuit is simply to notice our surroundings and pay them the gift of our attention. At a time when each day feels laden with globe-shaking headlines, Birds Art Life reminds us that it’s more than okay to focus on the little things; it’s essential.
American War, by Omar El Akkad
Not many journalists can write a great novel, but Akkad is one of them. Drawing from his experience reporting on civil wars elsewhere in the world, Akkad imagines an America in which climate denial and petroleum interests caused a second civil war to split the country in half; that his book came out just as Trump took office made it seem less a work of imagination than observation, but still—this is the kind of storytelling that helps the world grasp the potential consequences of our current trajectory.
The Truth About Stories, by Thomas King
It’s hard to pick any one Thomas King book as a favourite. I might as easily choose Green Grass, Running Water or The Inconvenient Indian, depending on my mood on any given day. But The Truth About Stories is truly a must-read for anyone interested in the power of narrative to shape the world we live in. More importantly, narratives shape us, too. We become the stories we imbibe, and King, whose deliciously dry humour has helped him to deliver decades of hard truth to a North American audience more inclined to sweet deception, is the ultimate Inconvenient Indian.
Payback, by Margaret Atwood
In this prescient collection of Massey Lectures, Atwood not only anticipated the 2008 Great Recession but also helped popularize a new way of understanding the world’s environmental crisis: It’s a crisis of debt. Humans, above all in affluent nations like Canada, are spending the natural capital of our forests and oceans and aquifers much faster than they can replenish, effectively borrowing against the future and draining our descendants’ inheritance. In Atwood’s hands, humanity’s ecological overdraft is just one more example (albeit the one with the highest rate of interest) of our insidious talent for inventing new forms of debt. From Christianity’s debt to Jesus to subprime mortgages, the one thing they all have in common is that moment described by the title.
For readers of Ronald Wright, Rebecca Solnit, and Yuval Noah Harari, comes a compelling inquiry into our relationship with humanity’s latest and greatest calamity
In The Environmentalist’s Dilemma, award-winning journalist Arno Kopecky zeroes in on the core predicament of our times: the planet may be dying, but humanity’s doing better than ever. To acknowledge both sides of this paradox is to enter a realm of difficult decisions: Should we take down the government, or try to change it from the inside? Is it okay to compare climate change to Hitler? Is hope naive or indispensable? How do you tackle collective delusion? Should we still have kids? And can we take them to Disneyland?
Inquisitive and relatable, Kopecky strikes a rare note of optimistic realism as he guides us through the moral minefields of our polarized world. From start to finish, The Environmentalist’s Dilemma returns to the central question: How should we engage with the story of our times?
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