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  • Bridey Newell

Books For When The House is Burning

Words by Bridey Newell (they/them)

I find what often deters people from climate change literature is a fear that it’ll be pretentious and preachy. 

Maybe we feel that books about climate change are not as aware or intimately acquainted with global warming as we are. I mean, we’re 90s-to-early-2000s babies. We’ve spent our lives entering adulthood deep within the Anthropocene. Even outside of climate change, Gen Z is a generation caught up with the importance of individual responsibility. We receive calls to action via our (globally aware) social media every week. 

On top of climate change, we’re living in a century that has witnessed the rise of #BLM, Covid-19 guidelines, #MeToo, and so much more. The role of the individual has been characterised as the core of political change, yet, the individual is powerless unless they force the hand of the powerful. Fun fact for you: BP invented the term ‘carbon footprint’. It makes sense that literature would encourage us and inspire individual action against climate change—and when we’re living in it, we don’t need it to be over-explained to us! We don’t need to be told to care.

I get it… 

But I see little reason to endorse sitting on our hands. Comfort avoidance dressed in nihilism’s clothing can’t give us much. So, the books I’ve chosen to review here are not meant to ‘open your eyes’ to the catastrophe that’s been unfolding since before we arrived on Earth, for better or worse. They are intended to help you examine the climate crisis and the environment from new angles, challenging your perspective—as all good storytelling is meant to do. 

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Oh Lordy, you know when you read or watch something and you’re kind of just like, ‘everyone needs to experience this’? The Overstory is one of those things! In all honesty, this is a book I think anyone could enjoy. 

The Overstory isn’t about climate change as much as it’s about trees. If you watched FernGully: The Last Rainforest, read The Lorax, or planted trees in your community with your primary school class as a kid, this book has the uncanny ability to bring you back to those moments. Primarily set in the 90s (but also not, but kinda, but not really), The Overstory explores the kinds of thinking that drive industry, conservation, protest, and eco-radical action that we first glimpsed in childhood. It’s philosophical, passionate, and yet unpretentious in the way that many people might find fiction about deforestation to be. Honestly, this book is phenomenal. I’ve recommended this book to everyone: my flatmates, my boyfriend, my coworkers, even to a woman selling plants at a Saturday market in Nelson. 

Richard Powers says he read over 120 books on trees as research for writing this book, and it shows. But it doesn’t read like a Wikipedia page by any means. Powers’ writing is strong, well paced, and keenly interested in making sure the reader remembers every word (which is pretty hard for a 625 page book).

The Overstory is available at Good Books for $26. 

Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

At my most concise, I can say Bangkok Wakes to Rain is about the scale at which time allows change to unfold—be that rapid or slow, minute or extreme. Spanning over a century, this novel depicts the eponymous city and its citizens going through the motions of history. Sometimes tragic and threatening (as history often is), Bangkok Wakes to Rain constantly searches for beauty and seeks to build a vision of an optimistic future. Memories, ghosts, and imaginations of utopian futures and pasts that honour the climate all retain an illusive lustre here. Through Sudbanthad’s poetic prose, we’re able to hold these realities in our hands, however momentarily. 

If you’re still not convinced but want a book that isn’t strictly about climate change and is more concerned with culture, people, and our place within this world, then you’ll probably enjoy this one. 

Bangkok Wakes to Rain is available at Paper Plus for $32.

The Earth Transformed: An Untold History by Peter Frankopan

Written by historian Peter Frankopan, The Earth Transformed is both wildly interesting and satisfying. It’s a novel that explores human curiosity, deep diving into the rich history of our species. Retelling the history of the earth from the very beginning (as in 4.5 billion years ago), we, through Frankopan’s words, witness various climate changes through the ages. Eventually, The Earth Transformed becomes a chronicle of our relationship with the weather, God, and nature. What I appreciated most about this book was its thoroughness. Frankopan gives time and attention to the ecological and meteorological histories of as many civilisations, communities, and landscapes as possible. The book seems only Eurocentric to the point that it is focussed on the role European imperialism has played in climate change. 

The Earth Transformed is available at Unity Books for $45.

Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet by George Monbiot 

I’m fond of all the books discussed so far, but this one was a pleasant surprise for me. Not because I expected to dislike it, but because it’s a bit out of my area of personal and academic interest. Regenesis is a non-fiction exploration of sustainable agriculture in the UK, told by George Monbiot as he travels between farms. He brings us along as he learns about the unconventional techniques farmers are employing to ensure the health of their soil. If you’re studying the sciences or have an interest in agriculture, this book would definitely be up your alley. Studying a Bachelor of Arts, I knew to keep my expectations tethered and approach this one with a modicum of humility. I know very little about soil microbes. But Regenesis was charming—Monbiot seems to understand that interest, not prior knowledge, is what drives learning. And as a result, his writing is both accessible and attentive to the priorities of the layman and the farmer. 

Regenesis is available at Paper Plus for $37.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass weaves together indigenous knowledge and biological science to build stories of our natural world and how we can reconnect to it. Robin Wall Kimmerer is an indigenous American of the Potawatomi nation, and a decorated professor and scientist in environmental science and biology. Braiding Sweetgrass is poetic and heartfelt, and tells stories from a place of home and family. Each chapter imparts a lesson on how to care for the world outside of yourself. It is a must-read for anyone who cares for the environment today. 

Braiding Sweetgrass is available from Unity Books for $26. 


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