Barack Obama

Obama’s Bedside Cabinet

Our official reading list for the bibliophile in chief

Barack Obama

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MR. PRESIDENT, we’ve seen the pictures of you striding across tarmacs clutching a hardback, so we know you’re a big reader, capable of ingesting everything from Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World—so strategic!—to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which revealed the greasy sheen on our agricultural system. Delicious!

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

How about an environmental reading list? For a city guy, you already seem to have a good handle on green issues. Your proposed energy secretary, Nobel Prize–winning physicist Steven Chu, doesn’t have to be told about solar power; you’ve got Carol Browner as your climate czarina and green-jobs advocate Hilda Solis for Labor; and you’ve had your inbox filled by every enviro group in America.

Want some more advice? I thought as much, so I checked in with some top-shelf people—from former president Jimmy Carter to business leaders like Doug McMillon, CEO of Wal-Mart International. Like me, they were itching to load you up with inspiration, and their picks fell into four categories: the classics, doomsday lit, natural capitalism, and deep wonk.

First, the traditionalists. They overwhelmingly picked A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold’s beautiful articulation of the original land ethic, for perspective on what has been, and what might still be, lost. But as Aspen Skiing Company’s Auden Schendler e-mailed me, “Walden ain’t going to save us, and Obama doesn’t have TIME to read that shit.” So, onward.

Then there are those who want to wake you up, and fast. “The fact that the Obama camp continues to talk about ‘goals’ for CO2-emissions reductions and ‘cap and trade’ makes me wonder whether they really ‘get it,'” your own NASA climatologist, James Hansen, wrote. This is a man who’s been jumping up and down, trying to get presidents’ attention for decades, so you’ll want to download his open letter, “Tell Obama the Truth,” off the Internet. Plenty of other enviros suggested climate-shock therapy. (“Get out your mukluks!” Ed Abbey’s old pal Doug Peacock e-mailed about James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia, in which humanity is reduced to “a few breeding pairs” in the Arctic.) Meanwhile, plenty of business leaders suggested more hopeful books on green capitalism, written by people like Paul Hawken (The Ecology of Commerce), who, as Sun Microsystems sustainability chief David Douglas e-mailed me, get “that ‘eco’ = ecology AND economy.”

Would it be impertinent to suggest, Mr. President—Barry?—that you’d look incredibly snappy toting a star-spangled copy of A Declaration of Energy Independence, by Jay Hakes? This is President Carter’s pick for you. Never mind that Hakes runs the Carter Presidential Library; he headed the Energy Information Administration from 1993 to 2000, and his is one of three heavy-duty tomes filled with serious policy solutions. Combine it with Yale Forestry School dean James Gustave Speth’s 2008 look at sustainability, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, and longtime energy guru Amory Lovins’s 2005 doorstop, Winning the Oil Endgame, and you’ve got your own portable energy council right there.

All of these picks are more than worthy, but cover to cover? Ouch. One of your advisers, off the record, told me you prefer books that are “well-written,” and I hate to think of you curled up in the presidential bedroom, highlighting chapters on peak oil. So here are the five I’d put on your nightstand.

The first volume in your Bedside Cabinet should be The Quiet Crisis and the Next Generation, by former Interior secretary Stewart Udall. Sure, the writing feels dated—it was 1963—but Udall is our wisest environmental elder, and this little-read book comes with a foreword by John F. Kennedy. “Each generation must deal anew,” J.F.K. wrote, in words that still apply, “with the ‘raiders,’ with the scramble to use public resources for private profit, and with the tendency to prefer short-run profits to long-term necessities. The nation’s battle to preserve the common estate is far from won.”

Think of the next two as literary national parks, places you can visit to renew your spirit. You told Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes that Lincoln had a lot to teach about humility. Try E.O. Wilson’s version: “It is mathematically possible to log-stack all the people on Earth into a single block of one cubic mile,” the Harvard entomologist writes in his slim 2006 gem The Creation, a stately reconciliation of religion and science, “and lower them out of sight in a remote part of the Grand Canyon.” Wilson’s version of a bailout? For a one-time payment of $30 billion, he argues, you could protect 70 percent of the land-bound species on earth.

Perhaps you’ve already read Wallace Stegner’s 1960 “Wilderness Letter”—”something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed …”? Right now, Stegner’s “geography of hope” is the tough, tenacious brand we need. Take this, for example, from his 1980 essay collection The Sound of Mountain Water: “If our Westerner lived and wrote his convictions,” he said, “he could show the hopeless where hope comes from, like Aesop’s frog which, drowning in a bowl of milk, in the destructive element immersed, swam so desperately that it churned up a little pad of butter on which to sit.”

By now I imagine you’re longing to sink into something start to finish, and Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert is the single best narrative work of environmental nonfiction we have, a mind-blowing tour of the “economic follies” and “miserable projects” that have characterized western water policy. He wrote it in 1986, but with water scarcity looming as a global challenge, this one is indispensable. Lucky for you, it’s also funny—especially when you encounter bureaucrats, as Reisner did, with buzz cuts so tall that “a three-hundred-pound bear could nest down” for the night.

Finally, because I know that leading is lonesome, co-opt Teddy Roosevelt from the Republicans. “History teaches that a zeitgeist sometimes congeals around a fountainhead figure,” Douglas Brinkley writes in The Wilderness Warrior, his T.R. bio due out in April, “that sometimes a transforming agent serves as an uplifting catalyst for an entire new wave of collective thinking.” Sound like somebody you know? Take a page from Teddy, who when presented with the slaughter of Florida seabirds, asked a single question: “Is there any law that will prevent me from declaring Pelican Island a Federal Bird Reservation?” No? “Very well then,” he replied, “I so declare it”—and, with a stroke, created the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Now that’s what I’m talking about!

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