What is the difference between Eco-Thrillers, Environmental Thrillers, and Environmental Legal Thrillers?

By Joel Burcat

My novel, DRINK TO EVERY BEAST, is an environmental legal thriller. That makes it different from eco-thrillers and environmental thrillers. All are thrillers, meaning that there will be a lot of action, quick pacing, suspense, dread, excitement, surprise, anticipation and plot twists.

By definition, all three of these genres feature the environment as a central issue. To some extent, the protagonist will be trying to protect or defend some aspect of the natural environment and health of eco-systems and humans. For the most part, all feature villains, often corporations, that are much more interested in profit at the expense of the environment or human health. Nevertheless, there is district difference between the three genres.

After reading many books from all three genres, here is my guide:

Eco-thrillers. An eco-thriller is a novel in which the action involves an environmental calamity that may be world-wide in scope or that will change some significant aspect of the Earth as we know it. Often greedy corporations are the antagonists. These books are part-science fiction or speculative fiction. Often a massive calamity that shatters the norm or defies scientific principles takes place in these books (e.g. ZOO, in which all of the animals attack humans effectively taking over the Earth; RELIC, in which a monster accidently is brought back from the Amazon rain forest to the New York Academy of Science and runs amok in Manhattan killing dozens of visitors to the museum; JURASSIC PARK, in which dinosaurs are brought back to life). For quite some time, eco-thrillers have been the mainstay in the environmental thriller category. Certainly, with issues like climate change, that can wreck disastrous consequences from one end of the planet to the other, eco-thrillers are here to stay. They are now sharing the spotlight, however, with environmental thrillers and environmental legal thrillers.

Environmental thrillers. These stories deal with real-world environmental issues. Often corporations are portrayed as greedy, thoughtless villains more interested in profit than in the safety of humans, animals, or the environment. There may be no legal proceedings in the book or they may be only tangential to the story. (e.g. THE MONKEY-WRENCH GANG, in which a group of environmental activists become eco-terrorists in an effort to oppose environmental degradation and offenses by callous corporations; OIL AND WATER, in which a family is nearly destroyed when a corporation tries to steal a device that makes oil from garbage). Environmental thrillers are taking more of the spotlight as current writers highlight environmental issues that have real world consequences, as opposed to science fiction-y type books.

Environmental legal thrillers: a sub-genre of legal thrillers, environmental legal thrillers try to portray both environmental harms and the legal battles associated with those harms. The legal battle is central to the story and can involve investigations, trials, and appeals of significant environmental issues. (e.g. GRAY MOUNTAIN, in which a young lawyer opposes mountaintop removal mining in western Virginia; THE PELICAN BRIEF, in which opponents are assassinated on behalf of an oil tycoon who intends to drill for oil on Louisiana marshland that is habitat for an endangered sub-species of brown pelicans).

Interestingly, until I wrote DRINK TO EVERY BEAST, the only writer I knew of who wrote in this genre was acclaimed legal thriller writer John Grisham. Grisham’s books, e.g. GRAY MOUNTAIN, THE PELICAN BRIEF, THE APPEAL, all take on real-world environmental issues that are addressed in one way or another by lawyers. Often the lawyer in Grisham’s novels are young, solo (or small firm), independent, and trying to do the right thing. This is the same as in his environmental legal thrillers. In DRINK TO EVERY BEAST, my main character, Mike Jacobs, along with a small group of dedicated agency people, take on a host of miscreants more interested in making money than the harm they are causing both to the environment and human health.

All of these genres are worth reading. If you are looking for a starting point, I suggest THE MONKY WRENCH GANG. That’s the granddaddy of all three genres. Next you should read DRINK TO EVERY BEAST to see the evolution of the genre (I’m biased).

Some examples of books in these genres:

Environmental Legal Thrillers

•           Drink to Every Beast, by Joel Burcat

  • Gray Mountain, by John Grisham

•           The Pelican Brief, by John Grisham

•           The Appeal, by John Grisham

•           A Civil Action, by Jonathan Harr (non-fiction, but reads like a thriller) 

Environmental Thrillers

•           The Monkey-Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey

•           The Fracking War, by Michael J. Fitzgerald

•           Oil and Water, by P.J. Lazos


•           State of Fear, by Michael Crichton

•           Zoo, by James Patterson

•           Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton

•           Relic, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

•           Reliquary, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child