read and reviewed by David Radcliff
The Treeline: the last forest and the future of life on earth by Ben Rawlence (2022)
"The migration of the treeline is no longer a matter of inches/centuries; instead it is hundreds of feet every year. The trees are on the move. They shouldn't be. And this sinister fact has enormous consequences for all life on earth."
Rawlence offers a superb overview of the nature of boreal forests, their interplay with the permafrost, and the significance of the dramatic changes for land, creatures, people and climate as a warming worlds sends them marching northward.
He says that more than the Amazon rainforest, the boreal forest is truly the lungs of the world. It only covers 1/5 of the globe, but contains 1/3 of the trees - the second largest Biome after the oceans. Yet "The earth is out of balance, and the tree line zone is a territory in the grip of large geological change, confounding and challenging our ideas our ideas of past present and future."
He takes the reader to boreal forests-on-the-march from Norway (impacting the reindeer herds) to Russia (rising rivers affecting migrating fish) to Greenland, which is losing 71 cubic miles of ice per year and some places haven't had snow for three years to Alaska, where "tundra will soon be an historical term." Our 2022 Learning Tour to Arctic Village, Alaska confirms everything he said and more. "We have to change what we are doing and soon - and soon!" exclaimed our host Charlie Swaney, a seasoned outdoorsman who sees the disruption happening before his eyes.
Indictment of scientific method: "Western science always assumes we have more time."
Affirmation of native knowledge: "Indigenous use of forests is often the most reliable form of conservation."
The Day the World Stopped Shopping by J. B. Mackinnon (2021)
"We must stop shopping, yet we can't stop shopping." Mackinnon makes a compelling case that the prime driver of humanity's devastating impact on our planet is the simple compulsion to consume, to buy, to build. Noting that human
"stuff" in the many forms it takes now outweighs all other living things on Earth, he laments the way we have become defined by what we have rather than who we are.
He also offers plenty of ideas about to live in a way that provides for our needs without gratifying our greed - and throwing the planet under the bus in the process. And it may be more achievable that we think - 1970 was the last year that humans lived in a way that didn't over-use the planet. Some of us were around back then - life was okay. (Of course, much of the world was impoverished in 1970, so we might need to shift back a decade earlier in the Rich World to enable a rise in consumption by the Poor World.)
He challenges the possibility of "green growth," laments the impact of our consumption on nature (when vegetated areas are displaced by a mall or road, the animals don't just "move" - they die), lifts up the philosophy of hunter/gatherers (who spend an average of 30 hours a week on food gathering and chores) and extols voluntary simplicity as the path ahead.
"When the pandemic shuttered the consumer economy, and we told ourselves nothing would ever be the same again, history was quietly laughing."
The Last Winter by Porter Fox (2021)
Written by someone intimately familiar with snow and ice, having been a skier his entire life, Fox takes us to Greenland, the Rockies, the Himalaya, the Arctic and other key arenas where winter is literally melting before our eyes – with frightening consequences for the present and for the future. Not only are ski resorts having to reimagine themselves as something other, but entire nations that are dependent on high mountain snowpack being a reliable water supply for their life-giving rivers are having to think hard about how they will do without these primal – but suddenly fragile – ribbons of wetness that course through our civilizational veins. And did we mention cataclysmic sea level rise?
Solution: act big and soon to rein in climate change; wake up those around you to the urgency
“On average, winter has shrunk by a month…”
The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021)
Indigenous wisdom takes center stage as the authors refute thinking that humans either fell from a pristine state or were never close to pristine, calling both an excuse to give up on fundamentally reordering society away from meanness and materialism and toward a more communitarian, relation-centered way of life. Native Americans and their values are held up as a searing critique of European invaders, revealing them to be self-centered, power-hungry and materialistic – and showing there are other ways to organize life.
Solution: we must reinvent the way we are with each other and with nature
“Our species’ future depends on our capacity to create something different.”
Life Changing: how humans are altering life on earth by Helen Pilcher (2020)
I love a catchy title. And this one makes her point very nicely – beginning with the domestication of animals (the first wolf was draw by the campfire seeking a free meal some 36,000 years ago), humans have changed the lives of other organisms large and small in a myriad of ways. We’ve killed them, transported them, forced them into genetic mutations (brown moths became black within decades thanks to soot from coal fires in England, as this gave them better camouflage), filled them with plastic, over-harvested them (giraffe populations are down by 40 percent in the past 30 years). And even when we try to be nice, we fail: read what “catch and release” does to that trout you caught.
Of course, we have also over-heated and over-polluted them. Half of Florida’s reefs are gone, thanks to warming oceans; there are 400 Dead Zones in the bays and estuaries, due to nutrient run-off.
And we manipulate them to suit our tastes, so to speak. The world consumes 65 billion chickens per year – that works out to almost 10 per person. And I guess it’s a good thing they are raised to be killed at six weeks of age: if they lived much longer, they would internally collapse under their own plump genetically-modified weight.
The critters do fight back. Female elephants in Zambia’s Luangwa National Park (we visited it on our Learning Tour) born without tusks increased from 10% to 40% from 1969 to 1989 as evolution’s way of fending off poachers. Atlantic cod mature twice as fast now due to overfishing.
And humans are helping clean up this mess of our own making, doing things like helping propagate heat-resistant coral to fill in for all the colorful reefs that didn’t make it.
Says it all: “The magnitude of human influence is now such that whatever we do, we change something and nudge evolution along an altered course…pushing the evolution of living creatures into overdrive.”
Fathoms: the World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs (2020)
Who knew that whaling was the first global economic enterprise, as well as the springboard for the beginnings of consumer culture? Or that parts of the whale were used in everything from lubricants to high fashion to food for people and pets? Or that these largest of animals are canaries in the mine for environmental impacts from plastic pollution to climate change to toxins? Or that their poop and their carcasses are integral to the oceanic food chain?
Or that whales are in many ways responsible for the modern environmental movement, as their charisma as a species became a rallying cry for not only stopping their slaughter, but also for recognizing other creatures as worthy of our attention and protection?
The earliest record of whaling dates to 8000 years ago on the Korean peninsula, but whaling really only became threatening to the survival of these behemoths with the advent of fuel-driven ships and explosive weapons. In the 19th century alone, Giggs tells us that 236,000 whales were slaughtered by a burgeoning whaling industry. In terms of the contribution to climate change, killing this many whales was the equivalent of burning 70 million acres of temperate forest. (Guess why?)
Giggs invites us to see whales as sentient beings, capable of culture, communication, adaptation to the changing world around them. Her book is a call to care about whales and by extension all creatures beyond our immediate experience – or are they? She will help you see the many ways the world/our world is ‘in the whale,’ and how whales help us discover our better selves.
Notable quote: “A whale is a wonder not because it is the world’s largest animal, but because it augments our moral capacity.”
Coyote Waits by Tony Hillerman (1990)
The writer, not a native himself, has received high praise from the Dine (Navajo) of the Southwest US for the light he has shed on their lives and culture through his mystery novels featuring their people.
In this installment of his many-book series, Hillerman’s vehicle is a murder mystery, set on tribal land in the Four Corners area. He uses this plotline to go on enlightening detours into the richness of Dineh culture, from clans to ceremonies to coyote – the mythical creature always on the lookout for ways to bring chaos into the lives of the unexpecting.
This reviewer is not a big fan of novels, but this fiction is filled with “fact”ion – real windows into the details, duties and everyday drama of the Dine people. And Butch Cassidy makes a cameo appearance!
Fire: A Brief History by Stephen Pyne (2019)
Who would have thought a book about fire could take on such a lyrical quality, but Pyne pulls it off.
Notable quotes: “Fire is a selective force and an ecological factor that guides evolution, organizes biomes, and bonds the physical world to the biological.” “By cooking landscapes we went to the top of the food chain. By cooking the planet, we have become a geologic force.” “Equipped with fire, people colonized the Earth.” “Long an informing metaphor, philosophical fire became cliché, fit only for humanist scholars and the garish covers of romance novels.”
This book traces the history of First Fire (lightning, volcanoes, etc.), Second Fire (human use of fire to clear land, drive animals, go to battle, and essentially conquer the world), and Third Fire (internal combustion, nuclear weapons, etc.) and calls for a more rational approach to fire, rather than the modern reflexive reaction to contain and suppress it.
He says we need a narrative that tends more toward Primeval fire (fire as our companion, stewarding it within the biota) than Promethean fire (fire as technology to express power).
A critique is that he seems to nearly worship aboriginal use of fire, as if this was something benign and not itself a massive intrusion into and manipulation of nature. I guess if humans are “just another part of nature” and allowed to use fire as a tool – as baboons might use a twig to catch termites – then this is understandable. But humans seem not so innocent to this reader.
“Good fire made us, bad fire may end us, while gathered around a flame we tell our story of what is happening.”
Farming While Black, Soul Fire Farm's Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, by Leah Penniman (2018)(reviewed by Tom Benevento)
This book does an excellent job at expanding our understanding of inequity and racism in our food system. It gives a clear path to creating just food systems that increase farmland stewardship by and for people of color, and how to train for the next generation of activist farmers wanting to transform the food system. It is also a practical guide for many aspects of small-scale farming.
"Owning our own land, growing our own food, educating our own youth, participating in our own healthcare and justice systems is the source of real power and dignity"
Planet Palm by Jocelyn Zuckerman (2021)
What's the product that is in half the stuff at the grocery store, has turned respected farmers into slave laborers around the world, was first traded by the Egyptians in 3000 B.C., was a key part of colonial subjugation of West Africa, growing it on plantations occupies as much land as the nation of New Zealand, clearing 1 hectare (2.47 acres) of peat in Indonesia to grow it releases 55 million tons of CO2 per year - and is currently a $65 billion global business?
That would be oil palm, which shows up as an ingredient in our cosmetics, ice cream and peanut butter under 200 different names. Read all about its production - and the subjugation of planet and people this has entailed.
Takes our breath away: in 2015 there were 100,000 premature deaths in Indonesia as a result of smoke from fires set to clear land for palm oil production.
Under a White Sky: the nature of the future by Elizabeth Kolbert (2021)
While Kolbert's earlier book The Sixth Extinction gave humankind credit for instigating the planet's sixth great wave of extinctions of other living creatures, this one shows the mess we make as we try to undo some of the environmental mess we are making.
In the desert near Death Valley, we're having to go to great lengths to preserve the Desert Pupfish after draining (or subjecting to radiation from nuclear testing) the aquifers that feed the few ponds where it has lived for millions of years; we've reversed (and electrified) the flow of rivers in Chicago to keep invasive carp out of Lake Michigan; we've reengineered the Mississippi to try to stabilize vast swaths of the delta which were destabilized by earlier reengineering; we're trying to breed climate-tolerant coral so that the 135,000 square mile Great Barrier Reef can survive the warmer waters brought on by climate change; and we're looking seriously at seeding the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide - or diamond dust (not kidding) - to reflect enough of the sun's energy to cool a rapidly warming earth. What could go wrong...?
"What good are pupfish?" he demanded of Phil Phister, the conservationist trying to save the small blue fish at great effort and cost. "What good are you?" Phister replied.
Mother of God by Paul Rosolie (2014)
Rosolie left home as a teen to find meaning in the Madre de dios region (Mother of God) of the Amazon rainforest in Peru - and not only found that, but also massive anacondas, elusive jaguars, an affectionate young anteater, malevolent poachers, and deep friendships with native people. Written in a first-person here's-what-I-did-today style, it's a bit unpolished - but this also lends authenticity. A good read for folks wanting a feel for what it's like to have an up-close-and-personal experience of the rainforest.
Telling quote: “But as the legendary explorer Percy Fawcett warned, ‘the few remaining unknown places of the world exact a price for their secrets.’”
The New Climate Wars by Michael Mann (2021)
What do climate change enablers and cigarette advertisers have in common? They both want to sow doubt – thus postponing action until they can reap their profits. For the cigarette makers, this meant hiding evidence; for the fossil fuel industry this takes many forms – from calling climate change a fait accompli (“it’s gonna happen, we just need to live with it”) to claiming all solutions are untenable (“doing anything meaningful will wreck the economy”) to shifting all responsibility to individuals (“you people just recycle more and drive a little less”) to appeals to the “free market” (which of course conveniently doesn’t build in the cost of climate change) to outright denial.
Mann makes a compelling case that addressing climate change will need both personal actions and corporate ethics (yes, I know this seems an oxymoron) if we want to achieve massive decarbonization of the global economy. Effective action will 1) disregard doomsayers 2) empower youth 3) educate those in the middle 4) change systems. He also (appropriately) puts the onus on the world’s rich, as the richest 10 percent of the world creates 50 percent of the greenhouse gases.
Fuel for thought: Rather than not taking a particular flight, we need to “talk about the structures that give rise to the need or desire to take those trips.”
Good Economics for Hard Times by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (2019)
This wife/husband economics team takes on a slew of economic issues, dispelling myths and exposing facts as they go. Such as:
- Studies show that migrants pose little threat to native workers regarding job loss
- Nearly half of Fortune 500 companies were founded by migrants or their children
- Our own prejudices about ourselves affects our performance
- Every 10 percent of additional income generates 9 percent more CO2
- Today India averages 5 days a year over 95 degrees; by 2100 there will be 75 such days
- Every 1 degree C warmer = 1.4% drop in GDP in the Poor World
- One-third of US children born into poverty will remain there, compared to 11 percent in the EU
- Per capita US carbon emissions are 22.5 tons per year if measured by where products are consumed, not manufactured
- For many items, the cost of production is no more that 10-15% of the retail cost
Combatting climate change? “Better technologies may not do the trick. People’s consumption will need to fall.”
Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard (2020)
Simard grew up in a logging family that practiced selective logging in an earlier time. She developed a deep love for and connection to the forest, and eventually worked for logging companies. However, things had changed - selective logging had given way to industrial logging, which meant monocultures and clear-cuts in the name of efficiency and its boss, profit.
As a biologist, Simard discovered that trees are much more than commodities - they are instead a community and share resources with each other and warn one another of impending threats via their roots and the fungi that mesh with them, and do much better as a diverse ecosystem than as vast stands of single-species harvestable farms.
Her research was ground-breaking, so to speak, and got her in trouble with the largely male- and corporate-dominated logging industry, even though it would also mean more profit for them, as heathier forests, where large trees are left standing to look out for their younger progeny - even of different species - are more productive all around.
Go figure: it turns out that native communities - which we have also tried to "clear-cut" and mono-culturize - already knew about trees' symbiosis and worked to live in harmony with it.
America: the Farewell tour by Chris Hedges (2018)
After the Athenian democracy fell to Macedonia, it was 2000 years until another democratic government - the USA. Hedges believes this grand experiment is in fast decline as well, but this time from forces within itself. He sees this having begun in earnest in the 1970's, when politicians began to shift from emphasizing the "common good" to focusing on race, crime, and law and order. Of course it is not coincidental that this followed hard on the civil rights movement of the '60's and the entry of African Americans into society as bona fide citizens - a primal threat to those who had had full power.
The principle threats to our democracy are unbridled capitalism, which "consumes the structures that sustain it, driving people into debt as social services are diminished"; the Permanent Lie that discredits institutions such as the press, science and public schools; reverting to the Totalitarian need for a simple folk tale to frame life, rather than the messy nuances of thoughtful discussion; and nationalism, which rallies people and diverts their attention away from the ascendancy of the rich over the poor (who are also lured by a focus on moral issues promoted by pandering politicians who could care less but who will do anything for their votes).
A big part of his book is devoted to conversations with working class people who have seen their communities and workplaces slowly disintegrating in the face of globalization, government neglect and corporate greed.
"Trump is the face of our collective ideology. He is what lies behind the mask of our professed civility and rationality - a sputtering, narcissistic, imbecilic megalomaniac."
The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (2019)
“It is worse, much worse, than you think.”
Reminding us that the last time the temperature rose by 5 degrees Celsius (11 F) “ended with all but a sliver of life on earth dead,” this journalist turned climate sleuth sounds a terrifying warning about what awaits us if we continue on the greenhouse-gas-spewing path we are on.
We’re already at 1.1 C rise—
2 degrees: the ice sheets collapse; 400 million more people face water shortages; $20 trillion loss in global GDP
3 degrees: Southern Europe descends into permanent drought; the average African drought will last 5 years
5-8 degrees: sea levels rise 130 feet; at 7 degrees rise in the tropics, the body will no longer be able to cool itself
Between us and this is human response. That’s the good news of this book—that the vast majority of the damage has come in this generation, and if we messed it up, we can fix it. What will it take for the climate system “not to go to war with us for many centuries”? A meaningful carbon tax, political will to phase out dirty energy, a new approach to agricultural and a shift away from beef and dairy in the global diet; public investment in green energy and carbon capture.
But beyond the policies, we also need to get beyond the myth of human exceptionalism and take responsibility for what we have done—and what we must do.
Searing quote: “No human has ever lived on a planet as hot as this one; it will get hotter.”
Guns, Germs and Steel: the fates of human societies by Jared Diamond (1999)
In this interesting and informative book, anthropologist Diamond convincingly argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world. Societies that had had a head start in food production advanced beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, and then developed religion - as well as killer germs and destructive weapons of war - and headed out by sea and land to conquer and decimate other cultures. A major advance in our understanding of human societies, Guns, Germs, and Steel chronicles the way that the modern world came to be and convincingly dismantles theories of human history that ascribe supremacy to race, religion or work ethic.
How it all started: Diamond's interest in this subject began when he was asked by a native of Papua New Guinea "why did your people conquer us, and we didn't conquer you?"
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond (2011)
Jared Diamond offers a cogent analysis as to why only a few societies over several thousand years have not collapsed. His convincing evidence points out that the fall of most societies is due to destruction of their environments, which he calls “ecological suicide.”
Diamond points out that modern society considers itself immune to collapse because of modern technology, but that in fact, we are simply destroying our planet on a much vaster scale and at a much faster rate than ever before. Our much larger population and global interdependence means that environmental collapses in distant places puts us at greater risk than ever before.
One of the main problems is our focus on immediate profits from extraction of resources while minimizing costs – including the expenses for disposing of waste byproducts safely - think climate change gases, nuclear waste, "eternal" chemicals.
Sound familiar? "The processes through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance differs from case to case: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, desalinization, and soil fertility losses), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people."
Waste by Kate O’Neill (2019)
What a waste! That summarizes this book on the enormous amount of waste humanity generates in two different ways. First, we waste a lot – and have done so since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Altogether she estimates we have created 30 trillion tons of human-produced stuff over that span. And the beat goes on: today and every day the world creates six million tons of off-castings from our many industrial/municipal processes. To use other numbers, that’s 12 billion pounds – or about 1.5 pounds for every person on the planet.
The other way all this is “what a waste” is that by not keeping these materials from the earth within the virtuous circle of use/reuse/reintegrate into the biosphere, we are wasting a very valuable resource, and threatening future generations with scarcity.
O’Neill takes on electronics, food, plastics, recycling and the global trash collection system – or non-system: in Cairo Coptic Christians were the main trash collectors, recycling 80 percent of what they gathered (nearly 3 times the US recycling rate), but then the government tried to intervene to better “systematize” this process. You can guess the outcome. Two billion people are not served by any sort of solid waste collection.
Waste not, want not stats: The US recycles 9.5 percent of its plastic; half of our used clothing ends up being sold on the street in the Poor World (undermining local tailors); the average life expectancy of a Smartphone in the US is 21.6 months (which is 2 and 3 months longer than China and Germany, respectively).
Who Rules the World by Noam Chomsky (2016)
If you are familiar with Chomsky, you already know who he thinks rules the world. Clue: it’s not little people like you and me, nor is it the duly elected leaders of nations our nation wants to control. And neither is it those who hold the notion that our earth is to be shared as a kind of “blessed commons” which is jointly tended and whose fruits are jointly shared.
(One of the biggest insights for me in this book was The Charter of the Forest, the foundational principle of which was “the protection of the commons from external power.” Nope, the values of a “commons” – careful development and maintenance, available for all, the riches preserved for future generations – is directly counter to the aims of the capitalist enterprise, which seeks to turn public goods into private property.)
Chomsky is about as cynical – or as clear-eyed – as it gets when it comes to naming the real intentions of the rich and powerful. For instance, according to him, US foreign aid is primarily to create favorable business opportunities for corporate interests. At another point, he notes that we celebrated the Soviet dissidents but killed the Salvadoran ones. And it’s not any better for us hapless consumers. As the consumer economy got into gear over the past 150 years, an early goal was “to direct people to the superficial things of life.” I guess it worked.
Key question: “How do the masses come alive and fit to live? There is not much time.”
People, Power and Profits by Joseph Stiglitz (2019)
Key premise borne out by evidence: On their own, markets fail to achieve shared and sustained prosperity, with climate change being a case-in-point.
The Nobel economist goes on to lay out his case that absent oversight, economies tend to bifurcate into the really rich and the really-not-so-rich. He notes that the USA is Number One in income inequality – not the category in which one wants to lead the world. And in contrast to the myth that “anybody can make a good living” in our society, he points out that one’s parents are the main predictor of one’s future economic success.
The basis of true wealth is innovation, research and providing basic goods and services; the antipathy of these things is money in politics, unfettered markets and the idea that people serve the economy rather than the other way around.
Read ‘em and weep: since 1970, the income of the bottom 90 percent has remained essentially flat, while the fortunes (literally and figuratively) of the top 1 percent have soared.
The Great Divide: the Rocky Mountains in the American Mind by Gary Ferguson (2004)
This is a fine overview of the ecological and human dynamics of this key element of the American llandscape and mindscape. This region hold over 2000 plant species and 75 mammals; the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is the largest intact temperate ecosystem in the world. In 1843 it took a herd of bison 2 days to pass a tourist party.
As for humans, of course there were many native groups occupying this region prior to the arrival of European invaders. French trappers often intermingled with them; pilgrims who associated with natives i ew England were imprisoned and whipped. On the other hand, thanks to trappers like these, beaver populations are now 2 percent of their original 400 million.
By 1911, there were 200,000 tourists in Yellowstone annually, most without personal vehicles. The park Superintendent felt they would diminish the experience of other visitors. (The NCP 2020 Learning Tour saw - and reported - bison being spooked by the roar of Harley Davidson motorcycles.)
Get this: the Rocky Mountains span one-tenth of the circumference of the earth (from Santa Fe to Alaska)
Inconspicuous Consumption: the environmental impact you don’t know you have by Tatiana Schlossberg (2019)
This investigative reporter turns her keen eye – and keen wit – on all the hidden ways we are making a mess of the planet, thanks to their being out-of-sight, out-of-mind. She takes on the Internet (it consumes 1 percent of all electricity globally, and creates 2-3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions); e-commerce (packaging and all uses of paper is the third largest consumer of electricity in the USA after the chemical industry and petroleum); electronics (100,000 Congolese mine the cobalt that is a key ingredient in lithium batters in difficult and dangerous conditions for $2-3 per day) (Silicon Valley has over 50 toxic Superfund sites); food (producing it requires 40 percent of the planet’s ice-free surface – and we waste about 40 percent of what we grow); and more.
A very readable (written with refreshing informality and wit) and honest (she is ready to admit when there are no easy answers) treatment of this important topic.
Yikes: “The problem isn’t commerce necessarily; the problem may be us.”
Wolf Nation: The life, death, and return of wild American wolves by Brenda Peterson (2017)
Humans have had a love/hate relationship with wolves over the centuries, but mostly the latter. We have seen them as in the way of two economic activities—ranching (historically) and sport hunting (more recently). Of the latter, it is said that wolves’ biggest problem is that they don’t buy hunting licenses, which both bring states revenue (although people coming to see wildlife bring in 150 percent more revenue to Alaska that people coming to kill wildlife) and funds wildlife management boards, which then allows hunters to control these bodies.
Peterson provides a personal and compelling argument for sharing this earth with wolves. Personal, in that she takes us into the family lives of wolf packs, where we see personalities emerge and wolf “culture” on full display. Compelling, as she runs the numbers on the exactly how much harm wolves are not responsible for, and provides strategies for conservationists and ranchers to work together to protect these magnificent creatures.
In her own words: “I learned to love what was wild and would never belong to me, what was not a pet or a daily companion but wary, hidden away, untouchable.” “Our American character is reflected in the history of how we treat wolves.”
The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018)
Powers very powerfully traces the impact of trees – or sometimes a single tree – on half a dozen disparate people or families, bringing them all together in defense of a stand of old growth forest. Stories that are brought together include a war veteran, the woman who discovered that trees communicate with each other (she was first ridiculed, then celebrated), and an Iowa farm harboring one of the few chestnut trees to escape blight - due to its isolation.
At the end of the book, he portrays our planet’s life as one day: Two hours lava and meteors. Life at 3 or 4 a.m. simple cells till late morning. Things start to happen at noon. Mid-afternoon plants and animals part ways. But still only single cells. 9 pm jellyfish and worms. By 10—backbones, cartilage, body forms. Plants on land before 10. By 11, dinosaurs are gone, leaving mammals and birds in charge for an hour. Modern humans by 11:59:56. Cave paintings 59:59. By midnight, most of globe covered by row crops for the care and feeding of one species. That’s when the tree of life becomes something else. The giant trunk starts to teeter.
The reporters ask why her group, unlike every other NGO seed bank on the planet, isn’t focusing on plants that will be useful to people, come catastrophe. She wants to say: Useful is the catastrophe. Instead, she says, “We’re banking trees whose uses haven’t been discovered yet.”
Trail to Wounded Knee: the last stand of the Plains Indians 1860-1890 by Herman Viola (2003)
"We wanted to make them farmers and Christians." In other words, to tame these nomadic, spiritual-but-not-Christian natives and assimilate them into the White World, "getting them out of the way" of westward expansion. Well, some of them weren't going to go down without a fight. Bands of warriors staged hit-and-run raids, and the Ghost Dance emerged as a spiritual movement of resistance. And the US government and the settlers/invaders pressing westward were more than happy to oblige. When 200 mostly women and children were massacred at Sand Creek - including US soldiers "clubbing little children, beating their brains out," according to one eye-witness - the Rocky Mountain News crowed,"US soldiers have covered themselves in glory." And blood, we might imagine.
We took away their lands: where the men had been hunters, now the women stood in line for rations. And we denigrated them by renaming them: the Dineh became the Navajo, the Nee-me Poo the Nez Perce.
Poetic justice: According to native tradition, Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn was due to his not keeping a sacred peace treaty he had signed earlier. So perhaps the arc of the universe does bend toward justice.
Love Has No Borders by NCP friend Phyllis Yvonne Dodd is a nonfiction account of her forty years of work with refugees and immigrants who have come to the United States to begin a new life. One can hear the desperation of immigrants from Cuba, Russia, the Middle East and Asia, Latin America, and Mexico, who have come through the doors looking for sanctuary in a country that is known for accepting the refugee.
This book includes personal stories of Guatemalan women who have left home to work as servants in the cities in order to help their abused mothers. It speaks of the men and women of Cuba who came to the United States on rafts, with issues of mental illness and criminal backgrounds. It tells the story of the family who is assumed to have money because of relatives who live in the United States and then killed because they cannot pay the extortion fees. It will tell the story of the young women who are trafficked for sex, who then come into the community with babies to support.
This is also Phyllis' personal story as someone who has spent much of her life caring for 'the least of these.' And in a world where 1 out of 100 people is refugee, is a timely reminder that we all need to continue to care.
How to Give Up Plastic by Will McCallum (2019)
Greenpeace director McCallum pulls back the curtain on the impacts of plastic pollution on the world’s oceans, and then offers ideas for how we can act personally and politically to fight back against convenience and corporations – the two main drivers of the plastic crisis.
The reports are coming in, and it’s not pretty.
13.9 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year
90 percent of seabirds have ingested plastic
Of the 7 billion pounds of plastic manufactured every year in the world (100 pounds for every man, woman and child), only 5 percent is actually recycled and not down-cycled (the bottom becomes a park bench, not another bottle)
Coffee drinkers in the US go through 25 billion coffee cups per year (about 75 per person
Microfibers (mostly from synthetic clothing shedding during washing) is responsible for 15 percent of plastic pollution (the author’s solution to this one: buy fewer clothes and fewer synthetics, wash in cold water)
He agrees with NCP that the real solution is less clean-up than shut-down – we need to end the production of single-use plastic. Corporate and user taxes are part of how the formula, as is scrupulous pre-sorting by consumers to avoid using it in the first place. And governments need to be pushed to enact laws restricting manufacture/use of plastic bags, etc. – anything to stem the production of 500 billion pounds of both bags and bottles annually around the world. Around 14 million tons of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans every year – and they found plastic particles in the guts of small creatures at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, seven miles down in the Pacific Ocean.
Frightening stat: fully one-third of the 365 million tons of plastic the world produces ends up not in a landfill or being recycled, but in the ecosystem. His solution: organize campaigns as has been done in Bali, Rwanda, Vanuatu, and Karnataka Province in India
Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why they Matter ( 2018 ) by Ben Goldfarb (reviewed by Karen Wenger)
All right everybody. How many of you have given any thought to beavers lately? Right. Just as
I thought. I hadn't either until until I read this book. But there is a growing number of beaver
fans, Beaver Believers they call themselves, who are acting as public relations agents for
America's largest rodent. Why?
Because, in the words of the author, beavers " are ecological and hydrological Swiss Army
knives, capable, in the right circumstances, of tackling just about any landscape scale problem
you might confront. Trying to mitigate floods or improve water quality? There's a beaver for
that. Hoping to capture more water for agriculture in the face of climate change? Add a beaver.
Concerned about sedimentation, salmon populations, wildfire? Take two families of beaver and
check back in a year."
In his book, Goldfarb describes how beavers literally shaped this continent before the
Europeans arrived and exploited the natural resources, including beavers, whose pelts were the
mainstay of the European fashion industry in the 18th and early 19th century. Just take our
notion of what a perfect stream looks like. You might conjure up a fast moving, bubbling brook
cutting through a meadow of cud chewing cattle. That may be the stream we're used to seeing,
but it's not the way creeks looked before beavers were hunted to near extinction. The historically
accurate water way was actually more like a series of ponds in a marshy area with dead trees
poking through the water. Water in these impoundments sinks into the ground and recharges the
aquifer. It is slow moving, and doesn't erode stream banks. Sediment falls out in the quiet areas.
Large swaths of swampy areas control wildfires, and the wetlands keep rain and snow melt
where they land instead of hastening it downstream. How did streams get this way? Beaver dams all over this country and much of Canada.
If you want to learn about a remarkable mammal who has the ability to remake our continent
into a healthier place for wildlife and ourselves, read this book. It will make a beaver believer
out of you.
The Myth of Human Supremacy by Derrick Jensen (2016)
This is comprehensive indictment of the human culture of universal domination and enslavement. The book mercilessly deflates every self-serving claim of the superiority made by this culture and this species, exposing them as self-serving and ultimately self-destructive, as if we don't see nature as a relationship to be respected rather than our "resource" to be exploited, it will certainly turn on us.
This is a book that can change the way we see the world and will make for raised eyebrows among your friends as you tell them about the qualities he attributes to nature that we typically reserve for humans.
Telling quote: “Once you break your identification with the system, with the authoritarian technics that are driving planetary murder, your language and your actions become very different. Once you identify with the real, living planet, everything changes.”
The Five Ton Life: Carbon, America and the culture that may save us by Susan Subak (2018)
Is it possible for people in a US community to live anywhere near what is required if we are to rein in climate change? The answer is yes, and these very communities span the spectrum from the Amish of Ohio to the suburbs of Chicago to an urban campus.
And did we mention Mount Vernon? The author uses George Washington as her lead witness to a less consumptive lifestyle. Seems the Founding Father ate less meat and had a smaller home than his peers, heated with wood rather than charcoal, and used mules rather than other work animals, as they required less fuel per amount of work done.
Subak is not only calling for carbon reductions, but for a change in the way we conceive of ourselves and our wants and needs. Thus her focus on Washington’s rejection of the conspicuous consumption of other leaders of his time; thus Berwyn, IL, where people seems okay with public transit and smaller houses/yards; thus the Amish, who would be pretty near perfect if not for their love of meat and having kids.
Amish Golden Rule re technology: If machinery doesn’t ‘help fellowship,’ you shouldn’t have it.
Drawdown—a comprehensive plan to reverse global warming by Paul Hawken, ed (2017)
This is the eco-techies Holy Grail, as it provides dozens of green strategies for curbing climate change. Drawing on experts from many sectors, it gives the ranking, carbon savings and cost of interventions from scaling up solar farms (will save 37 billion tons of CO2 by 2050) to reducing food waste (ranked #3 on the list, will save 70 bt of CO2) to educating girls to reduce family size and increase vulnerability to natural disasters (save nearly 60 bt—no. 6 on the list). Our only criticism of this quite-encompassing prescription for reducing climate change is that it lacks a clarion call for personal, spiritual transformation away from consumer lifestyles, and there is no critique of the mantra of economic growth that underlies our rapacious consumption of fossil fuels.
Telling stat: Fossil fuels received $5.3 trillion in subsidies in 2015, including health costs, environmental damage and climate change (IMF).
Homo Deus—a brief history of tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari (2017)
If you’re looking for a reality check, this may be the book for you. Harari spares no sacred cow in his critique of everything from religion (his favorite foil) to industrial agriculture to the global economy based on growth to our naivete in thinking that we control our data and it won’t someday control us. A few of his pithy comments: “For the average American, Coca Cola poses a far greater threat than Al Queda” (noting that diabetes kills some 3 million humans a year, while terrorists fewer than 8000); “the only sure way to stop global warming is to stop economic growth, which no government is willing to do” (as he reminds us that the myth of constant growth is a modern invention); “industrial farming sanctifies human needs, whims and wishes, while disregarding everything else” (he sees the belief that humans have souls and will experience life-after-death as the rationale for humans to see themselves as superior to all other living things—both of which beliefs, by the way, he ridicules); the thing that sets human beings apart from other creatures is our ability to cooperate, even with strangers. In the end, he finds little hope that there are any underlying values or beliefs that can save us from ourselves and our inventiveness; for instance, “data threatens to do to Homo Sapiens what HS has done to all other animals.” He sees us being enslaved to the very data flows we have created, as when “crowd-connection” is quickly rendering transformative experiences—or journal keeping---useless in and of themselves. Why experience something if we can’t post it? And religion is essentially useless: “what did religion create in the 20th Century?” He is quick to point out the fallacies and foibles of religion and its lack of usefulness without noting the role of the prophets in calling unjust systems to account, or the positive contributions to morality of figures like Jesus or St. Francis or MLK. We are left wondering what hope there is for the human/earth prospect if we cannot turn to some kind of beyond-human reality to call us to be more than our data.
I am Malala: the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai, with Christina Lamb (2013)
This is the very engaging autobiography of the Pakistani girl the world simply came to know as “Malala” after she was shot by the Taliban while on her way to school as a 16 year old. The book opens with a stark recounting of this moment, but then turns back to recount the dynamics that got her country – and her beautiful Swat Valley – in such a mess, and how raising her voice to advocate for girls’ education put her in the Taliban’s sights.
This is the very engaging autobiography of the Pakistani girl the world simply came to know as “Malala” after she was shot by the Taliban while on her way to school as a 16 year old. The book opens with a stark recounting of this moment, but then turns back to recount the dynamics that got her country – and her beautiful Swat Valley – in such a mess, and how raising her voice to advocate for girls’ education put her in the Taliban’s sights.
Fact-of-note: At 17 years old, Malala was the youngest person ever to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize when she won it in 2015.
Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice by Mark Plotkin (1993)
Join this ethno-botanist on his adventures in the northern reaches of the Amazon rainforest to track down plants with healing properties – and the shamans who know and use them. During the course of his months-long visits, he chronicles the plants, compares how different tribes treat the same diseases, and slowly earns the trust of elderly healers, who seem to be (even in 1993) the last of a disappearing breed. Young people in their villages lack the interest and dedication needed to know these plants and how to use them to cure.
In the course of his research, Plotkin himself unexpectedly gets a treatment from the Jaguar Shaman that includes the presence of a spirit being and an out-of-body experience that has him looking down on himself being healed.
Plotkin shows deep respect for his jungle teachers, and they in turn reward him with a treasure trove of cultural and medicinal knowledge that is as precious as it is astounding.
Long memory: Tirios people of Brazil tell the story of their ancestors “crossing a land so cold they had to wrap themselves in the skins of animals for warmth.” (tribal recollection of their forbearers crossing the Bering Strait 20,000 years ago?)
Clean Protein by Kathy Freston and Bruce Friedrich (2018)
If you need another reason to make the move away from industrially produced animal products – or want to convince someone else to do so – here’s your book. The authors make a compelling argument for eschewing meat, eggs and dairy primarily because of their impact on our health (incidence of Alzheimers has gone up 700 percent in Japan since their move toward a more meat-based Western diet; vegans are 60 percent less likely to have Type II diabetes), but also for the environmental impact of animal products on land, water, climate and the ability of diseases to resist our antibiotics.
The writers promote a diet rich in beans, whole foods such as veggies, fruits and nuts, and faux meat and plant-based dairy products. They even suggest “brewery meat” as an alternative for those who can’t give it up altogether. (This is meat “grown” in a vat from cells of animal meats that are given nutrients directly. At a 3 to 1 feed to food calorie ratio, this “product” is much better than 9 to 1 for chicken – and beef and pork are worse.)
Nutty quote: “Eating a handful of nuts five or more times per week can extend your life by two years.”
State of the World’s Children: Children in a Digital World, UNICEF (2017)
One-third of the world’s internet users are under the age of 18, with 71 percent of those connected to the internet being between 15 and 24 years old. And while this technology opens doors for many in this generation, it also divides: 60 percent of African youth are not online, while only 4 percent of European youth are not connected, and in India, less than one-third of internet users are female.
This report by the world’s leading child advocacy agency argues for faster action, focused investment and greater cooperation to protect children from the harms of a more connected world – while harnessing the opportunities of the digital age to benefit every child.
Fascinating Finding: “A study carried out in 91 schools in England among children aged 11–16 found that banning mobile phones had a positive effect on their standardized test scores. What’s more, the effect was strongest for low-performing students and absent for the best-performing, which suggests that technology in some cases can have a negative effect on low-achieving students. The authors of this study conclude that restricting mobile phone use in schools could be a low-cost policy to reduce educational inequalities.”
Jacksonland by Steve Inskeep (2017)
This NPR reporter takes us back to one of the most compelling news stories in US history—the mid-19th century removal of the Cherokee people from their homeland in the Southeast to points west. It was a forced migration even though in the end it was agreed to by the Cherokee—it was their last option before eviction by the US military. Inskeep also gives some coverage to groups such as the Choktaw and Seminoles, whose leader Osceola was taken prisoner when he came in good faith to peace negotiations. This raised much sympathy for him among white citizens, to the point that his name adorns counties, towns and other locations across the eastern USA. He is also the mascot for the FSU sports teams.
The Cherokee and the other groups were expelled due to the expansion of white settlers in North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and especially Georgia, which might have left the Union had treaties been enforced that gave the Cherokee the right to remain. Among rationales that were given: “we are doing this for their own good to keep them from being corrupted by contact with whites”; it is “natural” that these lands should be taken away from “savages” and given to people of a clearly superior race; the Cherokee never really lived in this area, they were only “passing through” as nomadic hunters—this last one by President Jackson himself, who had already and would continue to amass personal wealth by stealing Cherokee lands. Btw, his name also adorns many sites across the south, not to mention the $20 bill.
The spokesperson for the Cherokee was John Ross, himself mostly Scottish, but also part native. He shrewdly presented the native cause to the powers that be, as he was also of “their” world, spoke their language, and by complexion could pass for “white.”
In the end, he was doomed by the volume, violence and racism of the waves of white settlers, and only managed to negotiate more favorable terms for the inevitable displacement of the Cherokee—an exodus which became known as the Trail of Tears.
The distinguished—and obviously more civilized—gentleman from Michigan, Lewis Cass, on the nature of the native savages: “Reckless of consequences, he is the child of impulse. Unrestrained by moral considerations, whatever his passions prompt, he does. They roam the forests to pursue their game, attack their enemies, spending the rest of their lives in listless indolence. These are the principle occupations of the Indian. They must be pushed away from civilized areas for their own good.”
The One Device: The secret history of the IPhone by Brian Merchant (2017)
The author pulls back the curtain on the most successful product in history, having sold over 1 billion units—the IPhone. And it is a thing of wonder; for instance, its computer is 100,000 more powerful than the one used in the Apollo mission to the moon, thanks to miniaturization.
Merchant traces the backroom intrigue of how this device came to be, the role (or not) of Steve Jobs, and most interesting to NCP, the environmental and human impacts of its production and disposal.
To wit: to produce a 129 g IPhone requires the mining of 275 times its weight in ore, which requires 3 times this much water to process the ore, so that one phone creates 26 gallons of water pollution. Each phone contains 0.034 grams of gold, worth about $1.82 at today's prices. There are also 16 grams of copper, worth about 12 cents, 0.35 grams of silver, worth 36 cents, and 0.00034 grams of platinum, valued at 2 cents. Refining the gold requires 20 grams of cyanide—and toxic chemical that often ends up in nearby waterways.
Waste is an issue in another way: The USA and Haiti are the only two countries not to join the Basel Convention regulating e-waste. Thus, we recycle only 12.5% of our e-waste—and what is “recycled” is often done behind closed doors in the poor world by people with no protective gear.
And then there is cobalt, which is mined in places like the DR Congo by people like child laborers, with the profits sometimes funding local militias.
We can add to the true “cost” of an IPhone: “Miners working with primitive tools in deadly environments produce the feedstock for these devices.”
A World of Three Zeros: zero poverty, zero unemployment, zero net carbon by Muhammed Yunus (2017)
This Nobel Peace Prize winner lays out his strategy for renewing the world by reframing human capacity (we all have great capabilities waiting to be expressed) and the nature of economics (the key is to empower entrepreneurs through small business loans, as his Grameen Bank has done for 20 years for millions of women).
His solution for healing the environment is similar—empower entrepreneurs to initiate community-based forest conservation programs. He notes that 20 percent of farmland in his native Bangladesh lies within 1 meter of sea level—a chilling reality in a world of rising seas.
While Yunus makes a few too many self-promotional references, he is basically laying out a much-needed vision of a global economy fueled from the bottom up by social enterprise.
Key quote: “It is a fatally flawed conceptual framework that people are born to work for a few fortunate capitalists.”
The China Study by Colin and Thomas Campbell (2016)
Need another reason to move away from a meat-based diet? How about saving your life?
This is pretty much the conclusion of this well-researched volume on the health impacts of eating more protein than we need, and having that protein come mainly from animal-based sources. To summarize: rather than our diets being 15+% percent protein, that needs to come down to 5-10%, and of that, only 10% should come from animals, including milk.
Wanna beat Big C?: “Lower protein intake dramatically decreased tumor initiation” and “plant protein did not promote cancer growth, even at the higher levels of intake.”
Understanding Global Poverty: causes, capabilities and human development by Cosgrove and Curtis (2018)
Better than any book we have seen, this one lays out the causes and effects of poverty in a world where billions of people have been left behind in the economic boom that currently benefits a sliver of the global community.
The book combines good research with compelling human stories to not only analyze poverty, but to help the reader feel its implications for those struggling under its burden.
Summary: “This book…defines poverty as unfreedom, the deprivation of freedoms necessary to lead a fulfilled life.” This includes everything from food shortages to lack of health care and clean water to violations of political and civil rights. Finally, a book that brings together the multitude of factors that keep billions of our neighbors from the full life deserved by all.
The New Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins (2015)
You don’t want to know. John Perkins, a former analyst for what he calls the corporatacracy, lays bare the dirty tricks employed by the two-headed monster of US political and corporate interests. Their goal? to destabilize nations around the world via debt or intimidation to ensure their compliance with our goals of raking in profits for the already rich and powerful.
From Noriega (not the drug king you thought) to Zelaya (Honduran president deposed for raising the minimum wage) to Torrijos (president of Panama who died in a made-by-the-CIA plane crash after claiming sovereignty over the Panama Canal) to Arbenz (Guatemala) to Allende (Chile)—these and others made the mistake—or took the courageous stand—of resisting US economic imperialism and paid with their lives or their presidencies. Rather than actual invasions, today’s weapon of choice (except for Iraq, Panama and possibly Iran) is deals signed under duress by nations around the world who have something we want: cheap labor, oil, strategic location, etc.
What to do? He says what we at NCP say: dig deep and don’t be afraid of what you find; join with others who share your passions; resist debt personally and as it is used against our global neighbors; speak up.
Quote of note: “The propaganda machine owned and controlled by the corporate crazies has spun stories to convince us that we must embrace a system based on fear and debt, accumulating stuff, divide-and-conquer everyone who isn’t ‘us’, and that the Economic Hitman system will provide security and make us happy.”
Door to Door: The Magnificence, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation by Edward Humes (2016)
Humes takes on a magic carpet ride to follow the trail of the products that are part of our daily lives—where they came from , how they got to us, and at what cost—both the $10 cost to ship a TV to the USA from Asia, and the enormous amount of pollution produced by the container ship that bought it (as much as 7.5 million cars). He covers products like coffee and aluminum, and includes not just the literal transport, but the particular idiosyncrasies of harvesting, preparing and shipping coffee beans, for instance. (Btw, he considers an aluminum can a “transport vehicle,” as its job is to carry a product from the seller to the consumer. )
Automobiles get blasted by Humes, for reasons related to the environment (our second biggest source of greenhouse gases after generation of electricity), safety (3,000 people killed every month in the US on the highways—and unless alcohol is involved, rarely is anyone prosecuted), and energy efficiency (the internal combustion engine is only 20 percent efficient).
While it was disappointing that he didn’t take aim at our overall consumer culture as unsustainable in itself, he does offer these suggestions: buy local, reuse as a first option before recycling, walk and bike for trips under 3 miles, rideshare whenever possible, support a new focus on mass transit, impost tolls imposed during rush hour (to encourage off-peak driving) and on large trucks anytime (since a truck causes 10,000 times the damage to roads as a car—yet pay the same amount of federal tax per gallon of fuel).
Car rant: “In almost every imaginable way, as it is deployed and used today, the automobile is insane. …It is a rolling disaster in terms of economics, environment, energy, efficiency, climate, health and safely. Our failure to acknowledge the social and real-dollar costs of these automotive shortcomings amounts to a massive hidden subsidy. The modern car could not exist without this shadow funding.”
The Fifth Beginning by Robert Kelly (2016)
From his viewpoint as an archeologist, Kelly takes us on a tour of human development “from the beginning”, with a focus on tipping points in human history—epochal transitions from one stage of development to the next. He notes four of these moments when we set out in a new direction: Sticks and Stones (tool-making, mastery of fire), Beads and Stories (culture, religion, cave art), Agriculture (moving away from hunting/gathering to farming), and the age of nation states (bureaucrats, workers, ruling classes, war—you know the drill…).
Each of these transitional moments was spurred by change—typically some combination of environmental stress and human population growth. And each time, humanity figured out how to deal with their new reality. Note: he blames racism, sexism and warfare on the rise of nation states, as before that, human settlements were more egalitarian and often found cooperation more beneficial than confrontation.
Kelly sees us now perched on the precipice of the “fifth beginning”—a time of crisis precipitated by, you guessed it, population pressures and environmental demise, fueled by unbridled capitalism and the weapons and intents of the rich and powerful, and often bolstered by religion pressed into the service of narrow interests. Key questions at this moment in history: what will come of capitalism when there is no more cheap labor; what will replace war as a way of maintaining international stability; can we integrate people into the global economy while respecting their culture?
This is a fascinating and very readable overview of the human prospect, and carries an implicit hopefulness (“we’ve been here before and succeeded in making a new beginning—we can do it again”) that to this reader isn’t entirely merited, but might have been made more so by a compelling summary section laying out a clearer path.
Quotable: “Civilization’s dirty secret is that it was built on the backs of slaves, indentured servants and peasants.”
We are All Fast Food Workers Now: the global uprising against poverty wages by Annalise Orleck (2018)
If a summary of the efforts of the global working class to rise out of poverty and subjugation is what you’re looking for, this is it. Using interviews with workers and movement leaders from around the world, Orleck paints a clear picture of a global movement to find dignity and opportunity in spite of the near chokehold of the forces of racism, sexism and corporatism.
From the clothing factories of Bangladesh to the McDonald’s down the street, she gives an upclose-and-personal view of the people leading the fight against the nefarious forces of unbridled capitalism—and sometimes winning!
Fact to note: Walmart imports from abroad have cost 400,000 US jobs.
Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert (2014)
"It was on the back of cotton, and thus on the backs of slaves, that the US economy ascended in the world." For most of us, this is probably news, but Beckert convincingly details the role of cotton in empowering the US onto the world economic stage in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and how this was only possible due to the availability of slave labor and cheap land--land from which native Americans had been expelled, usually by force.
This is a fascinating and deeply troubling look at how cotton fueled globalization and helped launch the industrial revolution. From the plantation owners of the South and the politicians they controlled, to the traders in Lancaster, England and textile mills all across Europe, cotton production was the common thread that at once made fortunes for the fortunate few while enslaving millions of Africans and employing tens of thousands of mill workers (including children as young as six) in near slave-like conditions. It also gave rise to one of the first Fair Trade initiatives, as the English Ladies Free Grown Cotton Movement launched a campaign to only purchase cotton that had produced without slave labor.
Pithy quote: "The all-encompassing control of workers - a core characteristic of capitalism - experienced its first great success in the cotton plantations of the American South."
The Locus Effect – Why the End of Poverty Requires the end of Violence by Gary Haugen (2014)
The biggest challenge to poorer societies is obvious but neglected, according to this enlightening and enraging book by Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros. The authors make the case that violence and the broken justice systems of many countries are keeping hundreds of millions people from achieving economic prosperity.
The authors effectively use real life examples of their thesis. They describe detention of slave laborers in India, the random detention of local business people in Kenya and the violation and killing of girls in Peru—with impunity. And many of these same countries are seen by international investors as some of the better examples of the rule of law.
How do these same big businesses deal with the violence around them? Private security services—a luxury not afforded the poor.
One problem of this book—it tends to overlook the many other hurdles facing the poor. We could mention the legacy of colonialism, climate change, gender bias, international trade agreements, greedy corporations and oblivious consumers, to name a few.
And the authors sometimes seem to see western NGOs and governments as necessary parts of solution to the problems they describe—perhaps a bit of paternalism—and self-interest, as they run one of these organizations.
However, “The Locust Effect” is an insightful read for anyone wanting to glimpse an overlooked but critical aspect of the poverty equation—establishing, as the Bible puts it, “justice at the gate” for the world’s poor as a key step to their economic well-being.
They said it: “While the broader world is still paying attention to other things in the fight against poverty, experts are coalescing to confirm the devastating reality of the “locust effect” – the crushing impact of the plague of violence on the poor.”
Carbon Shock: A Tale of Risk and Calculus on the Front Lines of the Global Economy by Mark Shapiro (2014)
Shapiro has given us one of the best books out there for understanding the implications of climate change for the way we live. He takes on food supply, water resources, transportation, the world’s forests and the politics of it all (e.g. how the US fought global regulations for CO2 emissions from the airline industry) and paints a clear picture of what it will be like if we continue on the present course (such as a 7-18” rise in the water level of the San Francisco Bay by 2050).
He also does a nice job of speaking to those on the front lines (for instance, cherry orchardists in California, where there are no longer enough “chill hours” for the fruit to properly develop) and looks at the various ways we externalize the costs of climate change (China purchasing 40 percent of Brazil’s soybean crop to feed its livestock: China gets pork, the Amazon gets deforested).
Spot-on quote: “Keeping these carbon costs a mystery has been fundamental to our economic growth.”
Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People by Jon Jeter (2009)
Jeter takes on economic globalization with the passion of someone who has seen its impacts first-hand. And indeed, he uses anecdotes from around the world—tailors in Zambia fighting against imported used clothing; garbage collectors and sex workers in Argentina, whose economy was run into the ground by international policies; farmers in Malawi dealing with cuts to government assistance due to stipulations by international lenders; cashew farmers in Mozambique who used to process and package their own nuts but who now ship them abroad so someone else can make the real profit by doing the “value-added” part of the process; and the overall trend toward privatization of public services and the impact of this on common people).
He spends a little too much time in his final chapters with personal stories from inner city America, but all in all, a very comprehensive and comprehensible look at the real impacts on real people of international financial policies.
To sum up: “Globalization is an international shake-down, and its targets are ordinary people.”
Half Earth—Our Planet’s Fight for Life by E.O. Wilson (2014)
One of the world’s foremost experts on small things (ants) takes up a big cause—reserving half our planet for the other living things that call it home. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard, puts forward an eloquent description of the way the world works, with species woven together to create a tapestry of life—and sustaining human life in the process. He also gives a siren call to protect our planetary home, noting threats on nearly every front, from invasive species (he hates ‘em) to dams (ditto) to climate change to poaching and palm oil.
Setting aside half the planet for “the rest of life” will take a major shift in our moral reasoning—considering not just ourselves, but altruistically thinking of all other living things; a turn to living “more with less” by innovation in our economy and areas such as food and energy production; redefining wealth in terms of quality, not quantity; and seeing the biosphere not “as a commodity, but as something vastly more important—a mysterious entry still beyond the boundaries of our imagination yet vital to long-term human existence.”
Hopeful ending note: “We will come awake.”
Dancing in the Glory of the Monsters: the collapse of the Congoby Jason Stearns (2011)
NCP having begun a partnership in the Demoratic Republic of the Congo, it seemed important to learn more about this part of Africa—one known for its tropical forests, its resources, its endless wars, and its despotic leadership. This book was the perfect avenue for such an education.
Stearns does a compelling job of relating so many repelling stories of war crimes, refugees, political intrigue and a colonial legacy and Cold War gamesmanship that in many ways set Congo up to fail. The facts are simply horrendous: five million deaths over two decades, either from war-related malnutrition and/or lack of medical care or actual slaughter; hundreds of thousands of women raped; atrocities that nearly defy belief, such as militias dismembering those they kill; blatant interference in Congo’s affairs by its more powerful neighbors.
This reads like a crime novel, keeping the reader engaged with a mix of political analysis and personal interviews with the main characters in this all-too-true work of nonfiction that is the Congo.
To sum it up: “The story of the Congo wars is one of state weakness and failure…allowing the ceaseless proliferation of insurgent groups, who are not so much about controlling territory as about controlling civilians, who are brutalized in order to obtain resources and as a retaliation for attacks by their rivals.”
Climate Shock: the Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet by Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman (2015)
Follow the money. That’s the bottom line in this primer on the economics of a warming world. On the one hand, there are sure to be (and already are) costs to be borne thanks to climate change. The poor will suffer most, but Manhattan may be toast as sea levels rise—so we all stand to lose—and possibly lose BIG if temps go to 11 degrees above “normal” (10 percent chance of this happening). On the other hand, since it’s hard to feel the “crisis” of creeping climate change (meaning that people or politicians aren’t likely to make significant changes anytime soon), we need to make it costly to continue our bad behavior by putting a price on carbon in an effort to reduce emissions.
The authors consider various scenarios for bringing down our CO2 emissions before it truly is too late, but spend most of the time on two: geo-engineering and making carbon emitters pay. The geo-fix would put sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s energy before it strikes the earth. They give this option a thorough look, but in the end worry that the risks may outweigh the benefits. They instead call for a tax of $40 or so on every ton of carbon, building in the cost of the estimated harm every ton of CO2 causes to the environment.
Along with this, they invite us to Scream (share our concerns with others, and especially with elected officials—but letting our actions shout out our concerns to people around us as we bike more, eat less meat, etc.), COPE (plan ahead for a warmer world – and we would add, help our poorer global neighbors plan ahead to deal with a problem they did not create), PROFIT (divest from fossil fuels and invest in green enterprises), and STICK IT TO CARBON (that would be the tax).
The formula: ingenuity + committed people + a price on carbon = the best chance to bring change.
The bottom line: “Getting off fossil fuels is one of the most difficult challenges modern civilization has ever faced, and will require the most sustained, well-managed, globally cooperative effort the human species has ever mounted.”
Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America by Wenonah Hauter (2012)
This is an extremely well-documented and engaging look at the in-corporation of the US food system, along with what this has done to small farmers, our health, the economies of rural communities, and the well-being of the environment. Producing and marketing food is a $1.3 trillion business in the USA, and with that much money on the table, you can bet Big Business is going to be interested—and use every trick up its sleeve to control as much of this process as possible. On the other side of the equation, the government has moved from being the defender of smaller farmers to their adversary, as policies undermine locally-oriented production in favor of corporate control of every rung of the food ladder.
Hauter does a nice job of reviewing the history of local resistance to industrial food production, which includes some successes along the way. She places a lot of blame on politicians, who make promises during the Iowa political primaries they can’t make the courage to keep once in Washington, and who trumpet free trade even when this means importing foods from afar even when they’re in-season in a given locale. She warns of the true cost of cheap food when this comes at the expense of healthy soils, waterways, foods and rural communities. She also wades into the debate on the true nature of “organic” and “natural” foods, when these are produced with the corporate model.
Solutions? Question the rules of the World Trade Organization when these discourage local production and allow environmentally-unsound food production; allow no genetic tinkering; regulate advertising for junk food while increasing access to good food; support small-scale organic producers and conservation of soils, streams and air quality; develop an awareness of the “global commons”; be involved politically while ending corporate election contributions.
Planet Heart: How an Unhealthy Environment Leads to Heart Disease by Francois Reeves (2014)
The incidence of heart disease in the USA tripled in the first half of the 20th Century. Why? Reeves puts the blame squarely on unhealthy air, unhealthy food and the pollution and stress of living in urban environments. He notes that the same increases take place in every society that industrializes and/or adopts “Western” diets. For instance, Okinawans—famous for their longevity—who move to Hawaii experience a doubling of heart disease rates; for those who end up in Los Angeles, it goes up 44 times.
Remedies? Trees, for one. Studies have shown that areas deforested by the Emerald Ash Borer saw higher cardiovascular disease rates as a consequence of fewer trees around to clean the air, provide cooler temperatures, produce air-borne molecules that lower blood pressure, and increase the aesthetics of neighborhoods. Diet, for another. Stay away from processed foods (especially corn syrup, phosphoric acid, excessive salt, transfats and saturated fats, GM foods and simple sugars). Third: Take care of yourself by exercising, maintaining a healthy weight and living at some distance from busy roads (and the particulate matter from auto exhaust). Finally, question the price of “progress” and call on politicians to put our health above corporate profit and the lure of de-regulation (1 out of 1000 human beings will die from air pollution this year, mostly related to burning fossil fuels—why aren’t governments pulling out all the stops to clean up our air by regulating this industry??).
Quote: “Human beings seem to have sacrificed the health of their arteries in the name of progress.”
This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein (2015)
This book makes very clear that we are facing a planetary disaster and have to fix this problem ASAP. There are many steps to take but if enough of us support this effort we will succeed, and in so doing make the planet much more livable for all of us. The powers that be want to deny that humans have anything to do with the problem. They are typically interested in preserving their own wealth and power. But it is crystal clear from scientific evidence that human activity associated with fossil fuels has created the problem. If we act now we can replace fossil fuels with environmentally safe renewable sources of energy, which will also create many jobs and redistribute wealth in a more equitable way. If we fail to act soon we will not be able to stop the heating up of our planet and the results will be horrendous.
Global CO2 output continues to increase by 3 percent per year, when what is needed are reductions of 10 percent per year if we hope to avoid temperature increases that will lead to “a world incompatible with organized, civilized, equitable human society.”
Grabbing Power: Land, Food and Democracy in Northern Honduras by Tanya Kerssen (2013)
Land ownership is central to the well-being of the rural poor of Honduras, yet the best land is increasingly in the hands of ten wealthy, politically-connected and often ruthless families. Working in concert with national and international groups—including the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development—they control the production of products like palm oil, a process than begins with acquiring the necessary land by any means possible.
Kerssen provides a comprehensive look at the history of Honduran land struggles, with a focus on the impact of neo-liberal policies such as privatization and free trade as well as the role of the US “war on drugs”—all of which benefit the elites while further marginalizing the poor.
Key stat: 70 percent of Honduran farmers have only 10 percent of the land; 1 percent of the wealthiest farmers control 25 percent of the land.
100 Heartbeats by Jeff Corwin (2009)
Species of all shapes and sizes and locations are vanishing before our eyes around the world, and we"humans"are both the cause of the catastrophe and the only ones who can halt it. Jeff Corwin draws on his extensive field experience among endangered creatures to present a fact-filled but also quite engaging journey into the worlds"and the threats to those worlds"of the planet's most threatened living creatures, from the giant panda (needs to eat over 80 pounds of bamboo every day"and its bamboo-rich range is fast disappearing) to the polar bear (which loses over two pounds of weight every day it doesn't eat during the ever-longer period between the disappearance of the ice pack in the spring and its reappearance in the fall).
This book is a very personal (having his hair caressed by the trunk of a 350-pound baby elephant as he slept with it in the absence of its murdered mother) and poignant (the bird before him is boringly ordinary"until the keeper tells him there are only 15 left in the world) look into the threats to species' survival. These include global warming, invasive species, over-harvesting, pollution, and the king-"o-them-all, loss of habitat. His primary solution is that we must care, and show that we care by mustering the resources and willpower to protect these animals"our kindred spirits in a 3-billion year old dance of life on planet earth.
You don't want to know: A species becomes extinct every 20 minutes. At this pace, half of all species of living creatures will have disappeared by 2100.
Capitalism in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty (2014)
Piketty give a very thorough (577 pages!) analysis of capitalism as we know it—and delivers a very helpful historical overview and current critique of this global economic system. His main concern is capitalism’s tendency to accrue wealth to those who already have it, thus inexorably widening the gap nationally and globally between a thin strata of fabulously wealthy people and the rest of us who often struggle to get by. (The top one-thousandth of the world’s people own 20 percent of global wealth, and he warns that their portion could rise to 60 percent in the future, absent revolution or cleaver propaganda—such as keeping people focused on divisive “social issues”.)
Although he addresses the economies of other Rich World nations (interestingly, he notes that the “Anglo-Saxon world—Britain, USA, Australia, etc—is more unequal than other richer nations), he gives the lion’s share of attention to the United States, as the most unequal of all other comparable economies. He notes that at the beginning of the 20th Century, Americans had an aversion to the fabulously rich; today we seem to admire and seek to emulate the super-rich—we won’t, as the US is also the least upwardly-mobile of any RW nation.
He suggests investing in education as a way of helping workers have skills to market—and thus perhaps demand a fairer wage. He also recommends a graduated tax on capital as a means of ending the indefinite increase in inequality, and a tax of up to 80 percent on incomes over $500,000. He believes the only way to make this tax work is for it to be a global agreement—otherwise people and corporations will shelter their money in tax havens.
“No doubt the veritable cult of Bill Gates is an outgrowth of the apparent need of modern democratic societies to make sense of inequality.” It’s hard to challenge what you worship…
The Essentials of Public Speaking by Sims Wyeth (2014)
This small book is full of helpful observations for anyone who is or wants to be a public speaker. Composed of a page-at-a-time short vignettes that illustrate the page heading, it encourages the speaker to be genuine, to cut out extraneous material, to stand leaning forward, to make eye contact, to pay special attention to the beginning and ending of a speech, to not be arrogant, boring or confusing, to utilize self-deprecating humor, to build drama by laying out the issue/problem, exposing false remedies, then clinching the deal with a better alternative, and many more such tidbits—well, not tidbits, really. They are the building blocks of effective spoken communication.
Wyeth has written this for businesspeople, but I found it applies equally as well for preachers, teachers and even nonprofit directors.
“Stick to being you; everyone else is taken.”
To Repair the World by Paul Farmer (2013)
Dr. Paul Farmer is one of the world’s most respected authorities on dealing with disease in the Poor World. Certainly this respect is in part due to his time “on the ground” in places like Haiti and Rwanda, which has given him real world experience in what it takes to successfully treat disease in the midst of challenging circumstances. But just as importantly, Farmer knows how to treat people—seeing the poor not just a helpless recipients, but as partners in the quest for a fairer, healthier world. Thus the name of his organization: Partners in Health.
And this is what really sets Farmer apart from other “aid” providers. In his mind, aid connotes a short-term, one-way encounter (as does “mission”, an oft-used term in religious circles – DR). He calls us not to “aid,” but to “accompaniment,” by which he means an open-ended commitment to one another, completed only when the weaker one in the relationship says so. (So different from our normal understandings of the dynamic between rich “givers” and poor “receivers.”)
The book is a collection of addresses and commencement speeches; I would have preferred a more “traditional” format, but even these are replete with compelling stories of life in the trenches, working for justice and health for all. A good read for any of us—should be required reading for med students and workcampers and mission-trippers of any stripe.
Quotable: “It’s easy to be dismissive of accompaniment in a world in which technical expertise is advanced as the answer to every problem. But expertise alone will not solve these difficult problems. This was the les of the earthquake in Haiti. We all waited to be saved by expertise, and it never came. Accompaniment does not privilege technical prowess above solidarity or compassion or a willingness to tackle what may seem to be insuperable challenges.”
Where am I Wearing by Kelsey Timmerman (2012)
Part travelogue and part investigative reporting, Timmerman sets out on a global quest to find out by whom and under what circumstances his attire was made. He goes to Honduras to back-track his t-shirt (it takes eight different workers five minutes to make a t-shirt; average wage: $4-5 per day), to China for his flip flops, Cambodia for his Levi jeans (85 people are involved at some point in making a pair of jeans; Levis pays $90 million for the jeans it imports from Cambodia, and sells them for $400 million in the USA), and to Bangladesh on the trail of his underwear manufacturer (wages there just went up to $43 a month, but the cost of living has increased apace). Along the way he meets interesting and usually helpful people (otherwise, his mission would have failed, as he often arrives in a country without a real plan), and uses a combination of ruses (posing as an underwear manufacturer at one point) and straight-forward I-just-wanted-to-see-where-these-are-made approaches to gain information.
Timmerman takes on the issue of buyer boycotts (not generally for them; the workers tell them they need the jobs, but with less hours and higher pay), child workers (he concludes it’s not as clear-cut as one might think), international treaties and failed US laws (there was a bill to ban import of stuff made by sweatshops—it never made it out of Committee), and seems to doubt whether leaving the rural area for a city sweatshop is really a necessary rung on the ladder of opportunity for young women, as some Rich World writers claim (most of the girls send all their extra money back home to their families, and thus have none to invest in their own further education, for instance). He finally concludes that we need to be conscious consumers (check out GoodGuide.com), looking for opportunities to buy from companies that pay a fairer wage, such as Alta Gracia and Sustain U.
“I miss working and talking in the rice fields. At the factory, the Chinese boss won’t allow us to talk.” – Ai, worker at a Chinese-owned jeans factory in Cambodia, on having to leave the countryside to work in a factory in the city
One Nation. Underfed. Peter Pringle, ed. (2013)
Pringle brings together a variety of voices—from community activists to food policy experts to religious leaders—to talk about the challenge of feeding America. Not that there’s not enough food—we’re producing more calories than ever—but the right food is often not getting to the right people. Indeed, it’s startling to learn that half of all children in the USA will need food assistance of one kind or another at some point during their childhood—and the same can be said of every adult between 19 and 65.
Issues covered in this volume include subsidies for Big Ag, the Senate decision in the early 1960’s to allow Food Stamp recipients to buy soft drinks with their allowances, facts about what kind of food constitute the “average” American diet, the challenges faced by people living in food deserts (typically small towns and inner cities), and the need for citizens to keep food security on the national agenda.
Read ‘em and weep: The Number One source of calories in the average American diet? Grain-based desserts (cakes, cookies, pie, doughnuts). No wonder in a food-poor nation, obesity is the leading cause of death.
The Impact Equation by Chris Brogan and Julian Smith (2012)
Want to up the readership of your blog, the traffic to your website, the sales of your new gadget, the support for your nonprofit? These guys can help you do it. The duo addresses dynamics like Contrast (what makes you different), Reach (the size of your network), Exposure (frequency of connections), Articulation, Trust, and Echo (feeling of connection on the part of your audience)—and yes, that acronym spells CREATE.
Perhaps most importantly, they remind the budding entrepreneur that one must bring “value” to one’s audience—what is it that they “get” from you that makes you worth their time/investment/etc.?
And remember: “Giving info to others is not as interesting or valuable as presenting it in a human, emotional manner.”
Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition by Colin Campbell (2013)
A plant-based, whole food diet—that’s a big part of the answer to our disease-care system (as opposed to “health care” system), according to long-time nutritional advocate Campbell. He is unsparing in pointing out the damage done by Big Ag and Big Pharm in covering up the real causes of our health crisis, and lambasts the government’s role for its complicity in this sad tale. He cracks on the $30 billion dietary supplement industry, and even debunks the school milk program, saying it’s a victory for the dairy industry and a defeat for our children. And Adkins Diet folks beware: too much animal protein increases the risk of cancer, says this son of a dairy farmer.
On the positive side, Dr. Campbell holds up the anti-oxidant properties of a plant-based diet, along with the lower risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes; the greater ease in controlling weight; and even such pluses as less acne and headaches. This diet slows climate change, reduces water and air pollution, stems deforestation, disempowers Factory Farming, and could reduce malnutrition among the world’s poor.
If the disease don’t kill you: 100,000 US’ers die annually from the effects of prescription drugs.
The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond (2012)
For those interested in cultural anthropology, Diamond has written a jewel of a book. Ever wonder how traditional cultures (bands, tribes) raise their children (competition is discouraged, cooperation promoted)? Whether we’re prone to fighting or to peace (largely depends on the space and the resources available)? How do tribal people confront danger (cautiously and without a hint of machismo)? What the trade-offs are when groups of people coalesce into a “state” (equality traded for security)? Why Papua New Guineans speak 1000 of the world’s 7000 languages?
Primitive? “We see people in small-scale societies spend far more time talking to each other than we do, and they spend no time at all on passive entertainment supplies by outsiders, such as television, video games and books. We are struck by the precocious development of social skills in their children. The adolescent identity crises that plague American teenagers aren’t an issue for hunter/gatherer children.”
Dear White America by Tim Wise (2012)
If you think being non-white is anything but a disadvantage, think again, according to this (Caucasian) social critic. Wise lays out the fact about white privilege in the USA, and in the process debunks lots of myths about why race and what allows some to be successful and others not.
Did you know, for instance, that for the first 20 years of its existence, the Social Security system didn’t allow contributions by agricultural workers or domestic workers—the occupations of most African Americans; or that African American college grads are twice as likely to be unemployed as their anglo counterparts; that whites comprise 70 percent of illegal drug users, yet 90 percent of arrests for first-time use are people of color; only 1 in 33 of all non-white college applicants receive any kind of race-related scholarship; or that 20 percent of black children in two-parent families live under the poverty line—twice the rate of white children?
As Joe Friday of Dragnet fame used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am.” That’s what Wise gives us as a corrective to the many assumptions and insinuations about privilege and poverty in the USA.
Telling quote: “A comprehensive comparison of various social programs in the US and Europe found that racial hostility to people of color better explains opposition to high levels of social spending (in the US) better than any other economic or political variable.”