Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Social Conquest of Earth mini book review

The Social Conquest of Earth mini book review


Edward O. Wilson 297 pages

Liverright Co., W.W. Norton 2012

This book succeeded in changing the way I look at human beings. Wilson develops an argument that we are basically group creatures. We’re wired to function in and through groups, not like wolves for example, in packs, but like ants in their nests. We act to favor our group more often than our individual selves. Yet there is always this conflict between self-interest and group benefit.

The six sections of the book range from mesmerizing to humdrum, depending on how interested you are in insects. The first one hundred pages covering human evolution are brilliant and exciting. Wilson has a unique angle on our development, from chimps and Neanderthals through tribalism and teams, tools and fire through villages and agriculture. He makes persuasive use of new insights from DNA studies.

Unfortunately, the middle of the book gets bogged down by his passion for ants. He posits that ants invented what he calls “eusociality,” generations organized into groups through division of labor. Their fortified nests enable some members to stay home with young, and others to venture forth for food for all. I advise skimming for the second one hundred pages.

Wilson returns on page 191 to answer the question, “What is human nature?” He looks at gene-culture cooevolution, longterm memory, the origins of language, and crucial collaboration. He tackles the origins of morality and honor, religion, and art. He comes to the sweet conclusion that, if we can only stop destroying it, “Earth can be turned into a permanent paradise.”

Wilson writes lucidly with a fiery intelligence. He deserves his vaunted reputation.



Thursday, August 29, 2013

mini review: EAARTH: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben

St Martin's Griffin, New York 2010, 219 pages

This book takes a daring leap. Bill McKibben steps out beyond the warnings we're getting all the time now, documents the damage already irrevocably done to our planet, and presents us with a vivid, compelling picture of the revolutionary way of life we must choose.

We no longer live on the Earth we were born into, McKibben says, but on a transformed, more hostile planet he calls Eaarth. In this new world, with its "spooky, erratic climate," it's too late to repair the damage. "We don't know how to refreeze the Artic or regrow a rain forest."

McKibben wants us to "break the growth habit," jettison our consumer ways, and downsize to "a different kind of civilization." Then he shows us how.

The second half of Earth is a compelling, sometimes thrilling, evocation of the future he believes we'll have the smarts to accept. It's already happening in places like his beloved Vermont: we are treated to charming vignettes, including his village diner, farmer's markets, small farms, neighborhood self-reliance, and "community-supported energy." The world that comes next will be one of "dispersed and localized societies that can survive the damage."

The premise of Eaarth is that rather than continuing to tumble wildly into oil and coal induced disaster,"we might choose instead to manage our descent."

McKibben's style has a folksy, "gosh darn" tone that makes his arguments easy to follow, but does not hide his incredible guts or scalpel intelligence. He is a great leader. Let's go where he's taking us.
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McKibben's next book is on the verge of appearing. The title is Oil and Honey. I can't wait.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Bridge at the Edge of the World book review

The Bridge at the Edge of the World:
Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability

By James Gustave Speth Yale University Press 2008 237 pages

Thesis: “The planet cannot sustain capitalism as we know it.”

This is a brave and brilliant book. Not only does Speth cover the broadest consequences of environmental destruction, he attacks consumer capitalism as the culprit. Then he goes on to specifics about its successor, “post-growth society.” In addition, he has woven into each of his arguments the points of other authors, bolstering his thrust with their input. The result is a compendium of dozens of great minds. It’s an exciting, uplifting, in your face experience for any grateful reader who cares about the future.

The twelve chapters and three parts are heavily weighted in favor of solutions. He’s not kind to current environmental groups, which he deems too timid and too limited. “Working within the system will not succeed when what is needed is transformative change of the system itself.” What he’s after is a change of consciousness, and he details the steps required.

“The capitalist economy is inherently a growth economy,” Speth points out, and “growth is the enemy of environment.” But, he argues, we can make the market work for the environment. Among forces for this are: shifting taxes, incorporating environmental cost in product price, dismantling damaging subsidies, and using a true measure for economic welfare. He favors “ecological economics,” wherein “sustainability is defined in terms of not exceeding assimilative and regenerative capacities.” He calls for recognizing “the real sources of human well-being,” including more leisure time, job security, health and retirement benefits, consumer protection, progressive taxation, and a huge investment in education.

Further, Speth contends, it’s essential to abandon our “growth fetish” and our addiction to consumption, and to completely transform the corporation. “Corporations are capitalism’s most important institutions,” he says, and “profoundly dangerous.” For one thing, they are “unaccountable”—there are no restrictions on them. He sees “corporate greening” as a solution, requiring government action. Most important is changing the legal mandate requiring corporations to pursue their own self interest and shareholder primacy. Corporations need a “public purpose.”

Speth wants to see capitalism evolving, to “recover the security and integration of pre-modern societies.”

Heady stuff!

Yes, Speth wants nothing less than “a new consciousness,” a “new politics,” and “a reorientation of values.”

A real and effective environmental movement will expand its agenda to fight the consumer commercial lifestyle, challenge corporations, stress human rights, and oppose inequality—via grassroots politics. Let’s, says Speth, have an Environmental Revolution!

I find this book so exciting because it charts a course through what I’ve been feeling, thinking, and experiencing over some years. My only reservation comes from the question: how can a movement that touts as its major principle the Golden Rule, take on the entrenched interests of corporate capitalism, the “American Way Of Life?” Isn’t such a view just Utopian? Speth’s reply is that business as usual is the real Utopian delusion.





Thursday, December 22, 2011

No Goodbye to Occupy

I visited Occupy Boston twice. The first time, a few weeks after it began, the weather was warm and there had been heavy rains. But there were sturdy paths of cardboard and wood between the tents. I wandered around, and the guy manning the Medic Tent invited me to sit down while we chatted. As we talked, someone came by to ask, "Do you know where the Spirittual Tent is?" and was directed there. Everyone I met was friendly and welcoming, glad I was there, but casual too. The atmosphere both times was open, amiable, comfortable. There was no question of bad smells or litter. I counted about 120 tents.


My second visit was in December, just days before the group was evicted (none of us knew that at the time). I went to the Library Tent to donate my novels. It was very large, lined with books on every side, shelves all labeled. The guy in charge suggested I inscribe the books to Occupy Boston, "so that later people will see that and you'll make history." He told me about a troublemaker who'd been bothering people, and complained that the police refused to stop him . At this point the City had prevented the delivery of a sink and a winterized tent, clearly pressuring the protesters to leave. The City wouldn't even allow them to bring in a port-a-potty (which they paid for); so for bathrooms the group had to cross two busy streets to South Station.

But the same friendly, welcoming atmosphere prevailed. I was so proud of those people, proud they are Americans. In the end, I was proud of Mayor Menino too. Although I can't forgive him forbidding the port-a-potty, in general I think he handled the situation with respect and constraint.

To all those courageous protesters, wherever you are: I salute you and urge you on. You inspired us and changed the dialog in this country. You are pioneers in bold and refreshing directions. I am grateful to believe you represent my America.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

More About Snow

In Boston this winter we've had huge, amazing quantities of snow. Lots of people are continuously complaining about it. I myself, though sometimes inconvenienced, have been enjoying it. I loved the first blast, observed from inside my cozy home. The wind was so fierce, it drove the snow sideways. We had a nice fire going, and drank mulled wine.

Ignoring my car the next day, I let it repose under its white blanket while I made my way in warm boots to the busstop. On the bus I observe the streets with new eyes, and enjoy the many types getting on and off. In subsequent weeks, as the snow descended again and again, I did my grocery shopping in the neighborhood. I made do at times by raiding my own pantry and coming up with inventive recipes. I fed the birds and squirrels who visit my back deck, and bought fresh flowers for my living room.

Now mid-February brings longer days and stronger sunlight. My city is still piled everywhere with snow, dirtier by the day as it slowly melts. There's a touch of spring in the air. Aren't you glad you don't live in boring Florida?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

mini book review: WATER

Water, A Natural History by Alice Outwater
Basic Books 1996 186 pages

This is a story of the relationship between water and land. "Water is the blood of land."
Outwater's tone is at once affectionate and reverent. From prairie dog lifestyle to scientific stats, the book is readable and enlightening.
In many ways, it's a tragic story. The author takes us back to the 17th century fur trade, the beginning of the end for the plentiful beaver. Lost too are the ecological benefits from the beaver's lifestyle, which forms dams, ponds, and wetlands. "A land with hundreds of millions of beavers is a truly rich land, and the wetlands associated with beaver dams made the New World's water plentiful and clear as the dew."
After decimation of the beavers, that of buffalo, prairie dogs, and alligators followed, as did the way in which each species benefitted the land. Forests were cleared; by 1870 over 60% of the original forests were gone. (Those that have grown back are "shadows of what they once were.") So too the vast prairies. "The natural system was being dismantled piece by piece." As a result, "water is no longer able to clean itself naturally, and despite our best legislative efforts our waterways are still impaired."
In the 1930s came the dams, (there are 50,000 dams in this country), altering and simplifying river systems. Then in the 1940s came thousands of new chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers.
Outwater makes a passionate and convincing case for bringing back beavers and prairie dogs to public lands.
This thesis is original enough, but what makes her book really wonderful is the way her mind works. It spans four centuries with ease and constant interconnection, weaving the mesmerizing story much like an ecosystem. She thinks systemically, illuminating for us a whole new take on the disaster that's called progress.

Snow

I love snow.

After November winds have finally stripped the trees, we can admire the intricate elegance of every twig, not to mention the impressive nests of squirrels and birds that have been hidden all summer. Then, just when the uniformity of landscape begins to pall, rain becomes white crystals that blanket and brighten the dark winter world.

Can't dig out your car? Good! Put on your best boots and tramp through the fresh air. Be a child again, wonder at the transformation , the beauty.Take to your heart the natural systems of our precious planet, of which you are a part.