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An Activist's Reading List

Updated: Aug 26, 2021

Whether you’re into social, political or environmental activism, or all of the above, there’s a book (really hundreds of books) for everyone. When it comes to taking up a cause, education on an issue is a great first and ongoing step. Here’s a few books perfect to serve as a jumping off point for any new or veteran activist:

1. "Everybody Matters,” Mary Robinson

This book will make you want to be Mary Robinson when you grow up. Former president of Ireland, former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Climate Justice founder and all around role model, Mary’s story begins humbly as she first learned to question the role of women and the imposition of others’ morals as a child. Her journey has taken her all over the world and is one of love, humanity and human resilience.

2. “The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela,” Nelson Mandela

Written from his prison cell, these letters to prison authorities, fellow activists, lawyers, government officials and his own wife and children provide a first-hand account of Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison. They tell an extremely powerful story of the plight he faced, the brutal oppression seen in South Africa and worldwide, and the spirit he maintained to keep fighting back. The poignant messages in his letters are just as important today as when he wrote them in his prison cell some 50 years ago.

3. “The Uninhabitable Earth,” David Wallace-Wells

Dubbed “this generation’s Silent Spring” by the Washington Post, “The Uninhabitable Earth” delves into topics of human rights in the face of a climate crisis. Everything from food insecurity, vanishing habitats, refugee emergencies, climate wars and rising sea levels are covered in this book, which brings the human experience to the forefront of the climate change narrative. This book serves as the desperate call to action we all need to turn our world and our fate around.

4. “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes,” Dan Egan

The Great Lakes, the largest freshwater body on the planet, are in great danger. Dan Egan examines the history and future of the Great Lakes with an emphasis on scientific development and the importance of maintaining ecosystems as they function naturally. This book serves as a great example of the destructive powers of man when value is placed on gaining a quick profit. A fascinating look at one of our most valuable resources, Egan also explores our impending water crisis, which will undoubtedly be exacerbated by mismanagement of such bodies of water.

5. “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates

Written as a letter to his 15-year-old son, Coates unflinchingly documents his experience growing up as a Black man in America. A powerful account of America’s racial history by a journalist and father, this book examines what it is like to reckon with our fraught history of racism, and to inhabit a Black body and to find a way to live within it.

6. “How to Start a Revolution,” Lauren Duca

Lauren Duca, an award-winning Teen Vogue columnist outlines the future of activism for the next generation, encouraging young people to get involved in political change. This book is not only informative and enlightening, but a funny, charming and authoritative take on how young people will change the world. She takes a thorough dive into our current political climate and structure, and what it will take to get things going in a more democratic and equitable way. A fantastic and inspiring writer, Duca draws on extensive research and reporting to capture how much the next generation of activists matters.

7. “I am Malala,” Malala Yousafzai, Christina Lamb

At just 15, Malala took an almost fatal stand for education in the face of the Taliban in her home country of Pakistan. She has since become an internationally known activist and champion of education for girls. With the help of her parents, who always encouraged their daughter to attend school, Malala’s fierce determination and fight for equality is truly inspiring. Her incredible story shows that even in the face of terrible oppression, a single voice can launch a movement.

8. “Natural Capitalism,” Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins

It is no secret that a capitalist society is a wasteful one. In “Natural Capitalism,” three of the world’s premier environmentalists lay the groundwork for a capitalist structure grounded in sustainability and sustainable development while boosting growth, creating jobs and respecting the earth’s resources. One of their main points in the book involves productivity--using less of what we need, but in a more efficient way. This book is undoubtedly the blueprint to the future of economic growth.

9. “A Terrible Thing to Waste,” Harriet Washington

This incredibly powerful book explores how environmental racism fuels the Black-white IQ gap and explains what needs to be done to close the gap with marginalized communities. Washington debunks the idea of “hereditary intelligence,” and breaks down the environmental, institutional and social reasons why children of color so often fall behind. Her investigation includes neurotoxins, pollution, urban decay and lack of access to quality food and water. Washington’s extensive scientific research brings complex and

interconnected problems to light, and challenges us all to look for meaningful solutions.

10. “Secondhand,” Adam Minter

“Secondhand” takes you all over the world, from suburban American estate sales, to Goodwill Outlets on the Mexican border, to book buyers in Japan and Malaysia, to electronics repair shops all over Africa. Minter’s narrative-style investigative journalism explores the age old question--”what happens to all the stuff we donate?” This book shows just how vital the used goods market is worldwide, and how many communities depend on these items or choose these items over new ones. This eye-opening journey of stuff makes an incredibly important case for buying and using secondhand, supporting secondhand industries, and living minimally in a world filled with man-made materials.


Catherine is an avid supporter of environmentalism and sustainability at home and worldwide. She earned her bachelor's in political science and journalism and loves to explore how social issues are shaped by law and politics. When she's not blogging for the Tangency Foundation, Catherine works in communications and public relations. You can find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Stolz.

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