Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Green Metropolis

The Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability
© 2009 David Owen
357 pages

Green is probably not the word that comes to mind at the mention of Manhattan, but to David Owen, few places on Earth are as environmentally friendly as the heart of New York City. Its towering skyscrapers and elevated train lines are in fact the very image of verdant. Such a contention is at the heart of Owen’s surprising take on sustainability and environmentalism, his approach as practical as it is counter-intuitive. Owen uses the lens of economy to reveal weaknesses of conventional environmental thinking while demonstrating that the most practical solution to making the most of our energy reserves is to live more intelligently together – in cities.
Owen establishes his work’s prevailing theme early on, declaring, “Sustainability is a context, not a gadget or a technology.”  All of our efforts to be environmentally responsible, to greenwash our lives, are insubstantive when examined against the way we routinely waste energy on a day to day basis, living as we do spread out in suburbs and making virtually every trip in a car. It’s not the Hummer’s gas mileage that makes it an environmental disaster, Owen writes, but the fact that owning a car encourages us to drive it all the time. In fact, he views the rising popularity of SmartCars as a disaster waiting to happen, because such efficient machines will only encourage us to drive more, putting delaying the real change we need to make…which is driving less, living closer, and moving out of our sprawling ranch homes and McMansions into something more sensibly-sized.  
Green Metropolis is a smartly-constructed book. After putting forth his premise, Owen establishes why adaptive thinking on our parts is required. In “Liquid Civilization”, he points out that the entirety of the global economy and our lives is based on burning oil or converting it into products like ever-ubiquitous plastics. Until the mid-20th century, however, only a fraction of the Earth’s population demanded the use of those oils –Europe, the United States, and their colonies, or the “western world”.  Resources were thus relatively abundant, and we have been positively spoiled by the surfeit, so much to the point that we have invented dozens of brands of disposable cups, spoons, forks, and plates that are meant to be thrown away after one use…presumably, because we can’t be bothered to wash a dish. But the days of plenty are over. Now the entire world is demanding a once exclusive lifestyle, and over a century of chronic use has sharply reduced available supplies of oil and natural gas. Unfortunately, the Chinese and Indians seem intent on  making the same mistakes that Americans did in regard to transforming their urban landscapes to make full use of the car, expanding the reaches of the automobile and ever-deepening their dependence on and use of, oil.
The Green Metropolis' argument's primary strength is that its proposed solution is both simple and fundamental. It doesn't require us to do anything we weren't doing already until a temporary bout of prosperity made us lose our collective minds -- people have lived in cities for thousands of years. City-dwellers don't make an effort to be "green": they simply live the way they're use to living. Efficiency is built into the fabric of the place, and that makes the eco-urbanist argument especially appealing to me because I've started to suspect that human beings are too short-sighted to put up a meaningful fight in any other way. This approach to environmentalism doesn't require Constant Vigilance, which I suspect is an impossibility -- it only requires us to return to our senses. Not only this, but returning to proper urbanism will provide immediate, short-term results, which are apparently the only thing we grasp. Restructure the suburbs -- make them walkable, increase density -- and we can add value to the urban landscape  and to our lives. We can free ourselves from fiscal disaster and chronic stress. The problem is motivating ourselves to start making the move.
The Green Metropolis not only makes a strong argument, but it leaves us with room for thought, challenging us to reconsider the way we live in terms of this kind of efficiency. Two areas where Owen especially provoked me were in traffic and food. We might believe that buying local food is more energy efficient, but the sad fact is that the big-box boxs have local grocers beat. I have seen this argument offered by Brian Dunning of Skeptoid as well, who did demonstrate to my satisfaction that a tomato from the supermarket is more "Green" than one from a local farm. However, I still buy from the farmer's market, because the issue of food is more complicated than energy efficiency:  I prefer supporting local economies, for instance, and have an aversion to food products that are more 'product' than food. After considering Owen and Dunning, I can't completely condemn the US food market, but neither can I condone it. We have much to consider, and the answers are not simple.

Suburban Nation, Andres Duany et. al
Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Keay
Your Prius Won't Save You, David Owen
Interview with David Owen on his book, The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse

Founding Brothers

Founding Brothers:  the Revolutionary Generation
© 2000
288 pages

Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us, and yet passing harmless under our bark, we knew not how, we rode through the storm with heart and hand and made a happy port. (Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams)

The Founding Fathers loom over Americans all of our lives: their portraits hang in our schoolrooms; their likenesses adorn our money. They are a peculiarity: an elite who created a democracy. The same set of men dreamed the American Revolution into being in Boston, fought for it at Trenton and Yorktown, struggled to bring its fruit to bear in Philadelphia, and finally attempted to steer the new ship of state onto a right course in Washington as one after the other assumed the presidency. Joseph Ellis’ eminently entertaining Founding Brothers focuses on how the interactions between these men as friends and rivals shaped the fate of a new nation, telling their story in six pieces.

Interestingly, Ellis opens the book by killing one of the central characters in his drama, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton perished in a duel against Aaron Burr (as anyone who saw a particular “Got Milk?” commercial in the 1990s will remember vividly), but Ellis doesn’t take us to the misty ridge that is the site of their ritual just for kicks. He digs into the history of Hamilton and Burr’s feud, which – while it became personal – originated from their varying political beliefs, between the Federalists who desired a strong national government and the anti-Federalists (“Republicans”) who despised the idea. Ellis thus establishes early on that the modern penchant for looking back to “the Founders’ intention” is futile, because the Founders were rarely of one mind on any issue. In “The Silence”, two Quakers surprise Congress by asking them to consider the issue of slavery – an issue which they wanted to pointedly avoid. The blaze of debate raged for days thereafter, seeing every argument southerners would cite throughout the early 19th century put into field. They were not blind to the hypocrisy of hailing victory and maintaining slavery, but somehow they found justification – in believing that slavery was a doomed enterprise and would die naturally if left alone, or in arguments from ‘economic necessity’. Throughout the book, these men argue about the meaning of the Revolution, and the ambiguities built in to the Constitution itself become clear. It was not meant to decide what kind of nation the United States was to be – only to give it its start.  The Founders’ own uncertainties and passionate disagreements are a central theme.

Although Ellis introduces the founders as an American pantheon, and refers to them (lightly) as demigods throughout, Founding Brothers somehow keeps these men on their pedestals while simultaneously freeing them from being simple marble idols to be admired from afar. In their fraililities and passions, they are manifestly human, and Ellis’ background allows us to step into their minds, to not only sense their emotions and understand their thinking, but to grasp why they were the men they were.  This matures into a strangely intimate piece for a history book, especially in the final sections which focus on the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson – first political allies, then foes, then tired old friends who write letter after letter to one another with the attitude that “we two ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to one another”. This is a beautifully effective way to close out the book, not only because their dynamic is particularly touching but because it allows the reader to linger on the unfinished legacy of the Revolution, to seek an answer for themselves as to what it means.

Founding Brothers is a  finely crafted book, a genuine pleasure to read and to consider.

Washington's Secret War, Thomas Fleming

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Great Stagnation

The Great Stagnation: How America Ate all the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better
© 2011 Tyler Cowen
110 pages

In The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen takes a long view of human economic history,  asserting that the explosive growth that followed the Industrial Revolution has tapered off and been reversed not because of human mistakes, but because the particular situations which allowed for rapid, expansive growth no longer exist,. These conditions are the "low-hanging fruit" of human history. In the United States, this fruit existed in part in the sheer bounty of resources and land the early Republic had access to, and the drastic, rocketing climbs in production that establishing transportation and communication networks allowed. But now we are in the era of diminishing returns: adding extra roads doesn't contribute to our economic strength the way the early interstate system did.  The same goes for consumer goods: while early appliances may have revolutionized the way people lived, saving them hours of work and energy, a new washer today can only be a marginal improvement over yesterday's. The global economy responded to industrialism like a flame roaring in response to gasoline thrown upon it, but now that gas, that low-hanging fruit, is gone. We can no longer experience the industrial boons of yesteryear, and our new service economy, increasingly dominated by healthcare and education,  can only marginally add more value...if any.  However, we have continued to live as though the fruit were still available  The economic crisis, Cowen maintains, was fundamentally an issue of our thinking we were richer than we are.

Cowen says all this and more in just under a hundred pages, and he presents his own low-hanging fruit --  the kind that Tantalus was offered, the kind that seemed so enticing but ever escaped his grasp. Cowen presents a fundamentally insightful idea here,  but he speaks throughout the book in generalizations.This is frustrating not just because it robs the book's big idea of its potential, but because the generalizations Cowen makes sometimes sweep over the issues. He champions the "Reagan Revolution" and its deregulation as reviving the American economy from the 1970s slowdown, ignoring the fact that the absence of oversight allowed and encouraged banks to make risky loans of the kind that led in part to the fiscal fiasco of late 2007. But Cowen absents governments, corporations, and so on of responsibility in this matter, because the key to prosperity in his view is technology, and at the moment we're just waiting for some new breakthrough to ignite a new era of low-hanging fruit. In the meantime, he says, we should just sit tight and..wait.  His chief advice is to raise the social status of scientists to encourage interest and enthusiasm in science, and thus hasten the coming of the next breakthrough.  While there may be potential in that -- I look forward to reading Neil deGrasse Tyson's Space Chronicles, which in part views a new space race as a solution to our economic  sluggishness -- ultimately the casual approach Cowen takes to the  book is disappointing.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (26 June)

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly event where we share excerpts from our current reads. Play along at Should Be Reading!

How, then, did they do it? Why is it that Alfred North Whitehead was probably right to observe that there were only two known instances in Western history when the leadership of an emerging, imperial power performed as well, in retrospect, as anyone could reasonably expect? (The first was Rome under Caesar Augustus and the second was the United States in the late eighteenth century.) Why is it that there is a core of truth to the distinctive iconography of the American Revolution, which does not depict dramatic scenes of mass slaughter, but, instead, a gallery of well-dressed personalities in classic poses?

p. 16, Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation, Joseph Ellis

When affluent Americans think about 'going green', they tend to focus on enhancements to their own consumption rather than on subtractions from it: buying a new, more fuel-efficient car (rather than driving less or taking the bus), building a new kitchen full of eco-friendly gadgets and exotic building materials (rather than deciding not to add yet another underused room to their house), replacing their old windows with high-tech new ones (rather than caulking air leaks, drawing the curtains during the day, and turning the air-conditioning down or off) and eating better-tasting chickens, tomatoes, and eggs.

p. 297-298, The Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Great Good Place

The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and the Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community
© 1989 Ray Oldenburg
336 pages

In Our Oriental Heritage, Will Durant wrote that man is not willingly a political animal, that we do not love society so much as we fear solitude.  As much as I love Durant's work -- the grandness of his historical approach and the rich eloquence of the language with which he expressed it -- here I must disagree with him. We are social creatures at our roots: to borrow from Augustine, we are made for each other, and our hearts are restless until we find companionship together. Such is the lesson of Roy Oldenburg’s magnificent The Great Good Place, which examines the important role of social centers in human lives, discusses the consequences of their decline in the United States today, attempts to account for why they are struggling, and appeals for their resurrection. It is a timely and momentous work.

I’ve long been tangentially familiar with the phrase, “the third place”, which refers to common gathering places for people in their communities, a place apart from home and work (the first and second places in our lives). But here is that phrase’s origin. Oldenburg begins by establishing what the third place is: a site that attracts people and allows for spontaneous meetings between friends and strangers. These places have been ubiquitous in urban environments throughout human history…at least, until the  late 1940s when the United States decided to try a different approach to urban planning, creating ‘sprawls that no longer deserve the the dignity of of being called a city’*.  Oldenburg’s opening chapters document the third place’s vital role in creating a sense of community, in fostering political cohesion and providing a platform for civic engagement. But not only that – they’re fun. People like to spend time together, and giving them a place to do it makes society better and improves our quality of life.After establishing this, Oldenburg then moves on some specific examples:  English and Austrian coffee houses,  French cafes and bistros, American taverns, and main streets. (Although the cover refers to barbershops and salons as third places, the best in his view have been these "watering holes".)  This is a book strongly reminiscent of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: the Decline and Revival of American Community, but while Putnam examined the disintegration of American public life at large, Oldenburg zooms in to everyday life.

If the third place is so important, so vital to healthy personal and national life, how have we allowed ours to be destroyed? Hindsight is always perfect vision: in this case, third places are so normal to the human experience that we take them for granted, and only their loss makes us realize their importance. While third places can be destroyed by the short-sightedness of business owners who discourage "loitering" and convert attractive sitting places into yet more display areas, ultimately the problem is foundational: America's urban landscape is atrocious; "badly staged", in Oldenburg's words. Time and again he scolds planners for creating municipalities where no one can walk anywhere, of building pod after pod of "nothing neighborhoods", of abandoning the diverse density of cities for suburbia's lifeless homogeneity.

The Great Good Place is a fascinating combination of sociology and history with a lot of insight. The loss of third places goes beyond people not having a place to have a drink together. One of the consequences Oldenburg explores is that as community life fades as an alternative, people are forced to look for solace on their own, by  attempting to buy happiness in the stores -- and the more they focus on themselves, the less inclined they are to seek connections with other people and the more miserable they are. The fascinating link between alienation and advertising is one of the many gems found in here.

Books like these are why I read in the first place. This isn't a subject of mere academic interest: this is a book that tells us something important about ourselves, with ideas that can change our lives and help Americans concerned about the United States' declining health begin to recover from it.  Although the absence of any mention of the internet might date it (a book like this published today would have to address social networking sites), it's never more timely. Ten years after Oldenburg published this, the New Urbanism movement took off -- and reaffirming and reestablishing community life is at the heart of it. As America's urban pattern is forced to change in recognition of suburban's fiscal failure, I hope when we begin building we keep Oldenburg's insights in mind, and build third places.

I cannot recommend this highly enough.


  • Bowling Alone: the Decline and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam
  • Suburban Nation, Andres Duany et. al

* A  turn of phrase borrowed from Robert Bellah. Source: "The Ethics of Polarization in the United States and the World," The Good Citizen.

* A  turn of phrase borrowed from Robert Bellah. Source: "The Ethics of Polarization in the United States and the World," The Good Citizen.

Something from the Oven

Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America
306 pages
© 2004 Laura Shaprio

     The latter half of the 20th century saw the United States convulsed with social change. Millions of women and blacks who found their role temporarily elevated during the Second World War, when they were called upon to serve in uniform and in the factories, could not simply return to being second-class citizens after war’s end. In Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in the 1950s, Laura Shapiro covers the beginnings of women’s liberation and the feminist movement in the context of America’s changing food market, bookending the text with the question: do women like to cook?

            Initial previews led me to believe this book’s subject was the changing food market itself:  an industry that had to meet the demand for food that could be safely shipped around the world to follow the Allied armies found itself at war’s end with a lot of output and nowhere to sell it  -- unless the civilian market could be expanded considerably.  To do that, advertisers had to convince women to accept their TV trays as dinner, and their new confections as real food. They urged women to reconsider what cooking meant as a craft when women were already beginning to question what cooking and homemaking meant to their lives in general. What did it mean to be a woman?

            Women were not altogether excited to adopt the new foodstuffs. Despite food magazines’ almost-triumphant declaration that old-fashioned cooking was dead, defeated by Scientific Progress,  those same magazines’ letters reveal that women were still looking for traditional recipes. They added the novel products in sparingly, as substitutes for the “real thing”. It was not until the mid-to late fifties when another generation of women came of age – women who, as children, ate the new processed foods without judgment and regarded them as normal – that the substitutes started gaining more traction and replacing the ‘real thing’ in regular use.  Similarly, women reappraising their own role in the home did so at first only reluctantly, until the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminnine Mystique spotlighted the “problem with no name” – and gave women the courage to start speaking  more stridently.  Shapiro sees women as coming of age in this period, and their changing relationship with food reflected this. Cooking would not define their lives, but they would also not be patronized to by businesses which attempt to reduce their role in the house to that of simply warming up product from the grocery store.  Cooking was a skill to take pride in, and ultimately women triumph in Shapiro's narrative by becoming the arbiters of both how to incorporate novelty and tradition, and of their own fates.

             Something from the Oven is a bit like gazing through near-transparent stained glass. The food market is certainly an interesting lens to view the birth of feminism through, but unlike a telescope, here the lens -- like stained glass -- is visible, and sometimes it got in the way of the focus on women. This is a book about women and feminism, but culinary marketing and food culture sometimes overshadow the main subject, so the essential point of the book never comes into sharp focus despite appearing very interesting. It's fascinating, yet frustrating.

This Week at the Library (24 June)

To some, the summertime may be a period of activity. In the deep south, however, being out and about from June to August will send you to the hospital. Summer is a time for sitting on the porch sipping lemonade and fanning yourself, because it's too hot to do anything else: temperatures stay into the 90s until after nine at night. I stayed active throughout the winter, but this summer heat just makes me wilt. So I adapt by waking up earlier and spending the late afternoon resting, not walking.  That leaves more time for reading.

When it comes to books, I'm a big eater: I'll wolf one down, but I sometimes wonder if I'm not diminishing my experience by approaching them so ravenously. In the last couple of weeks I have practiced deliberation, turning the occasional practice of writing down particular quotations and facts in my journal into a regular habit. The idea is to create further opportunity for reflection.  I've also been using the journal to write down books I hear about which sound interesting, which only  intensifies my ambitions: there are so many books out there, so many ideas to be considered and connected together! Just the other night I fell into a veritable gold mine of books using Amazon's "related titles" section: two titles in the pit were Chris Hedges' Empire of Illusion: the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle and  Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before, by Jean Twenge.

Both at the library and in my personal reading, I'm gearing up for the Fourth of July. My personal reading for the occasion will be The Good Citizen, a collection of essays on the meaning of citizenship; Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis; and possibly Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems, and Speeches, an anthology prepared by William J. Bennett.  I have two displays planned to put out this week: a dozen or so titles on the American Revolution, the war, and the early constitutional period, and a larger one devoted to the United States in general. Most of it will be feel-good stuff: the Fourth is a celebratory occasion, after all, and  my theme for the last month has been on environmentalism, ecology, politics, and the future. It's tended to be a little grim, so I'm looking forward to the lighter mood to come. Once the display is up I'll post some of the more interesting titles here.  The small display will be replacing my "See the Stars" astronomical display, which I put up mostly to attract interest in the transit of Venus. As it turns out, the day of the transit was marked here by overcast skies.

Finally, at some point in the last week or so, an update from blogger reset my labels gadgets so that no labels were selected to appear in the drop-down menus. I thought the code might need updating, but it turned out to be a simple matter of my simply needing to re-select the various labels for the appropriate list. I don't know if the problem is entirely resolved, as Books by Category keeps disappearing. I wonder if perhaps I have too many labels.

Pending reviews: The Great, Good Place by Roy Oldenburg, and Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in the 1950s by Laura Shapiro.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Top Ten Books I'll Be Reading this Summer

As the mercury begins to persistently hit the high nineties, the Broke and the Bookish inquire: what are your summer reading plans?

1. For starters, I intend to keep reading Bernard Cornwell's Starbuck Chronicles,  his military-adventure novels set in the American Civil War. Although the protagonist is weaker than most of Cornwell's, Starbuck is supported by a lively crew of characters and I have no doubt that he'll grow through the books.

2. The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen just arrived in the post. The subtitle: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Get Better.  I heard it discussed at length on a podcast, though I'm a trifle disappointed in its size: when I received the package in the mail I thought it was my Mills Brothers CD.

3. Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, Laura Shapiro.  Amazon suggested this one to me, and the preview ensnared my interest. Ever since reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan I've found an appetite for books relating to food.

4. Star Trek DTI: Forgotten History, Christopher L. Bennett. Second in Bennett's Department of Temporal Investigations series, the action is set in the original series era and stars that beautiful icon of the franchise, James Kirk's Enterprise.  Also, Star Trek Typhon Pact: Plagues of Night, David R. George III. First in a new trilogy featuring the Federation's new foe, Plagues of Night features a much-longed-for return to Deep Space Nine.

5. The Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability, David Owen.  Part of my on-going reading in urbanism, energy, and transportation.

6. The Seven Wonders, Steven Saylor. Gordianus the Finder a teenager on the cusp of manhood, on a journey around the world (to Romans, at least) to visit the seven great wonders of antiquity, only one of which stands today.

7. 1493: Discovering the New World Columbus Created, Charles C. Mann. The sequel to his astonishing 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, this one tackles the beginnings of the global marketplace.

8.  The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners that Shape Who We Are Today, Rob Dunn.  We're all hosts to untold numbers of lifeforms...a veritable ecosystem on two legs, as it were.

9. Independence Day reading.  Around the Fourth of July, I like to read something with an appropriate theme. This year I've got Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis in mind.

10. Bastille Day reading.  I also like to have a French-themed reading in the middle of July, but I haven't decided what this year's shall be. Alistair Horne is an option, but his Seven Ages of Paris left me wanting: it was not quite as brilliant as La Belle France had me worked up to anticipate.  Another possibility is Henri Barbusse's Under Fire, a novel of the Great War, supposedly France's All Quiet on the Western Front.  On the other hand, I spent my morning sipping coffee and reading reviews for Bringing up Bébé, an American woman's discovery of parenting in France, which I find oddly fascinating. I suppose it depends on my mood when I go to make my purchases...

These will do for starters, anyway! How about yourself?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Hot, Flat, and Crowded

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why America Needs a Green Evolution: And How it Can Renew America
© 2006 Thomas Friedman
438 pages

   The world is changing. Regardless of the consoling reassurances of corporations, industries, and the silk-tongued politicians who lobby on their behalf, our environment is deteriorating – and that loss is driven by our actions as a global society.  Our comfortable and relatively carefree days are numbered. But the changes to come need not be our undoing. The challenges of the future may indeed be a boon, forcing us to work hard to meet them, fueling innovation and creating new sources of strength. Such is the premise of Hot, Flat, and Crowded, a thought-provoking work of interest to anyone concerned about the future or the health of their respective nation, or the human enterprise in general.

            Friedman begins by establishing the conditions – hot, flat, and crowded. Global warming is a fact, not media myth or political hyperbole. His account illustrates amply that even minor changes in temperature can cause drastic changes in the weather, spurring on calamitous flood/famine patterns and making the environment as a whole more chaotic, wrecking havoc on our ecological systems. We need those systems to make sense, because we have ever-more people to feed. We are already seven billion strong, but our task isn’t limited to simply feeding those billions. As the developing world continues to mature, more people in the old ‘third world’ are demanding the lifestyle of the first. (“Flat” refers to the elimination of barriers between various populations; the idea is that free trade agreements, globalization, and the Internet are putting more people on even ground.)  And they should get it, says Friedman: it’s simply not fair to deny them the same opportunities the west has enjoyed for the last century and a half.  So how on Earth are we going to meet those ‘needs’?

            Well, we need to figure that out. We need ideas, because our current approach isn’t cutting it. We’re still thinking like 19th century industrialists, but the old ways are defunct. The resources aren’t there to support them, and even if they were, we can’t absorb the damage anymore. Green has gone global: even coal is billing itself as “clean”. But green adverts don’t mean a thing: we’re not putting in an effort, Friedman says, we’re having a party. We have to change the way we live on a fundamental level, not just be content with throwing a can in the recycling bin instead of the trash and patting ourselves on the back. One idea Friedman proposes is an ‘energy internet’, interlinking all of our devices which require electricity, and having them coordinated by a home computer which itself is integrated with the computer system of the power company, so that usage can be managed to minimize waste.

 Today the global economy is slowing down: even China’s momentous growth is finally feeling friction. Some fear that forcing companies to limit themselves in order to maintain the environment will cause stagnation, even depression…but Friedman also demonstrates how ‘going green’ can make companies more financially resilient –  more efficient and stable – as well as competitive, for the company that finds a better way of doing things will  vault over their rivals.  Even so, Friedman acknowledges that we have done a poor job of helping these new companies get their start. Despite already having an easy time of it – abundant resources, little regulation – the old coal and oil companies enjoy comfortable subsidies to boot.  There’s nothing to be gained in propping them up,  especially when those financial resources could be put to work building a future. Friedman speaks for the need for strong, visionary leaders who are willing to face up to the impressive challenges of the future, and his account gives some reason for hope, as it is sprinkled with stories of political and business leaders who have revolutionized their sphere of influence.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded commends itself, but not without reservation. These are ideas everyone needs to consider, at least those who are contemplating being alive within the next few decade. Young people considering their future career plans or just settling into the responsibilities of adulthood and considering civic engagement are the ideal audience here: the "Millennial" have their work cut out for them, and Friedman makes a great many fundamentally good points. In "If It Isn't Boring, It Isn't Green", for instance, he drives home the idea that sustainability has to be foundational, so much the background for what we do that we take it for granted. Right now green is just garnish -- decor to entice us to buy one brand of bottled water instead of another. He advocates for "cradle to cradle" manufacturing, for instance, an idea also mentioned in Cheap: the High Cost of Discount Culture as the polar opposite of our current approach, which is to produce useless garbage (broken fiberboard bookshelves from Wal-Mart) from useful raw materials.Cradle to cradle manufacturing consists of making products which can be completely broken down and either reused by the part, or biodegradable to the point that their materials can break down and be reused atomically. Waste must be eliminated, not lessened. Similarly, Friedman suggests improving what we've got when we can: instead of throwing money at projects we hope might work, let's first devote it toward maximizing the value of what we have. It reminded me of what the town of Littleton, Colorado has accomplished with its "economic gardening" approach.This last idea is especially key, because the amount of work Friedman is suggesting will consume an enormous amount of capital -- capital we may no longer have, given the crisis of 2008. Friedman is writing for a popular audience, so naturally he hopes to offer hard ideas with a soft coating to help them go down easier, but the idea that China and India will be able to convert to "western" style consumerism simply isn't believable to me. By 2050, our energy consumption alone is expected to double. That is a staggering prediction (by the Shell Energy Group).  Something's got to give.

The great limitation of Hot, Flat, and Crowded is that Friedman still believes we change the outcome by altering what we consume. He praises new cars, for instance, which get better gas mileage, but ignores the fact that marginal improvements in efficiency don't matter when the entire system is broken. Beyond Friedman lies the American landscape, a nation of parking lots and freeways in which everyone must drive.  Fuel efficiency is a band-aid on a bullet wound. However, the economic gardening approach which Friedman advocates can be used to transform suburban sprawl into communities with economic and social value.  Supposedly his later book, That Used to be Us, addresses transportation matters. If so, I look forward to reading it. In the meantime, I'm still glad to have found this. For its weaknesses, it seems a good starting point for people concerned about the shape of the human future here on planet Earth. The need for a revolution is also a good rallying point for Americans of all political persuasions, whether they are concerned by fiscal or social health. In this age of polarization, Americans need to find common ground in matters like this.

At One with Nineveh: Politics, Consumption, and the Human Future. Paul and Barbara Ehrlich
Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability, David Owen 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


© 1993 Bernard Cornwell
402 pages

Nathaniel Starbuck shouldn't be in South, but this son of a preacher man is positively hopeless when it comes to the ladies. Love tore him from the seminary, and it led him into Virginia just as the United States was about to be rent in war, as southern aristocrats -- having finally lost their domineering influence over the path of the nation -- seceded from the union rather than face the prospect of inevitable change. The appearance of a Bostonian in their midst on the eve of war doesn't sit right with the townfolk, and Starbuck makes his first appearance running from an angry mob set on tarring and feathering him. Fortunately, young Nathaniel is friends with the richest man in Falcouner County -- Washington Falcouner, who owns a mansion with its own name. Such influence is handy, for it saves Nate's life...but in return for his assistance, Falcouner would like Nate to join his fancy new regiment. While some fear war, to Falcouner it's a marvelous opportunity to dress in uniforms, salute the flag, woo the ladies, and win some glory. So Nate, son of an abolitionist preacher, is thrown by chance where no one would possibly expect to find him: in the ranks of the Confederate Army, where he will find what fate has in store for him.

I never expected to read the Starbuck Chronicles, for despite having been born and raised in the South, I've always been a stalwart Union man. The idea of a northern fellow fighting for the rebels did not sit well with me at all. Oh, I grudgingly figured I would try the first book one day, because it was after all a Bernard Cornwell novel, and I am rather enamored of his work -- but I didn't plan on liking it. As it happens, Nathaniel Starbuck is not an idealist.  Frankly, I was off my rocker to suspect that a Cornwell protagonist would be fighting for 'principles'. No, like Richard Sharpe or Thomas Hookton, Nate is just someone who found himself in the middle of a war, realized he had a talent for soldiering, and decided to play the cards he'd been dealt. Starbuck is no more a states-rights enthusiast than Sharpe is a fan of British foreign policy, but defend it he shall, because he happened to be on that side of the Potomac when the war broke out, and -- well, it'd enrage his father, and wouldn't that be fun?

Rebel is the story of a man finding himself in battle -- at the Battle of Bull Run -- but he really starts off a boy, and this sets him apart from every other Cornwell hero I've yet read. Even when Uhtred of Bebbanburg was a boy, he brimmed over with confidence -- his charging the Norse to avenge his fallen father so impressed them that they adopted him. But Nate Starbuck is a fuzzy-faced teenager by comparison. He's utterly unsure of himself:  only that profound weakness for women kept him from being utterly dominated by his father. I've haven't seen a character this easily or drastically derailed by women since The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.  Nathan was raised Puritan, but he can't help being a lover...and love will turn him into a fighter and see him change the fate of a nation.

Nate Starbuck amuses me. Of course the novel is superb, filled with little details that make Cornwell's world seem real, and the characters are as ever fantastic, constantly defying expectations. But Cornwell's series are known for their larger-than-life heroes, and this one has just gotten his boots on. I'm looking forward to seeing what he makes of himself. As I seem to be sliding into an American Civil War mood (for the first time since 2003...), I may be reading the series this summer.   I'm  interested in seeing what an English author like Cornwell makes of a conflict that involves only Americans.

The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara
Rifles for Watie, Harold Keith. Meant for teenagers,  set in the west, about a young boy who joins the Union army and has various wartime adventures, including a stint pretending to be a rebel after he's caught behind enemy lines scouting.

Teaser Tuesday (12 June)

Teaser Tuesday once again!

How wide the gates of hell gaped, how searing the flames would be, how agonizing the lake of fire, and how long would all eternity stretch if he did not stand now, fetch his sword, and walk out from this den of iniquity into the cleansing rain. Dear God, he prayed, but this is a terrible thing, and if you will just save me now then I will never sin again, not ever.  He looked into Sally's eyes, her lovely eyes.
"Of course I'll kill him for you," he heard himself saying.

p. 227, Rebel. Bernard Cornwell

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Cinderella Ate My Daughter

Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture
© 2012 Peggy Orenstein
260 pages

When did every little girl become a princess to be bedecked in pink and fawned over? Such is the question posed by Peggy Orenstein, author of numerous books on issues of motherhood and raising women. The answer is at least twofold. First, advertising toward girls in general has emphasized coy, yet overt sexuality, even to the very young: and secondly, in the early 1990s, the Disney Corporation realized there was a lot of money to be had in developing a line of princess goods.  But this isn't really a book on advertising: Orenstein is more concerned about what the princess culture is doing to the minds of girls. The substance of the book is an examination of  how girls view themselves and each other in society.

 What makes a princess special? There's no answer. A princess is special just because. She exists solely to be an object of attention: her specialness is not the result of her accomplishments, her skills, her talents, her character, or anything substantial.Therein lies the problem with the princess culture, for it influences girls to aspire to be objects of appreciation. Their sense of self-worth is an external fair, subject not to what girls feel themselves capable of, but how girls feel others respond to them. If they are not regarded as Special, they feel worthless. Distracted by the quest for attention, they don't bother with the kind of self-growth that would merit attention, or  be fulfilling on its own. Substance is placed by superficiality. This is particularly troublesome in the case of sexuality: in Orenstein's words, girls learn to aspire to be desired before they have desire (of that kind) on their own. Orenstein sees this as a problem for girlhood in general, because the princess culture has utterly hijacked what it means to be a girl. If a helmet isn't pink, it isn't a girl's helmet. If a mother scorns all the fluff, her inadvertent lesson to her daughter is that it's not okay to be a girl.  This being the problem, her solution -- in addition to reversing Reagan's deregulation of children's advertising -- is for parents to focus on teaching girls how to live for themselves, and not for the approval of others; to define themselves and not try to fit Disney's definition of a girl.

Orenstein is a fun author, especially as she covers beauty pageants for four-year-olds and facebook, using phrases like "Sesame street walker".She's also one who has to practice what she preaches, for her own daughter Daisy is one of the afflicted: the account conveys her desperate frustration in trying to raise Daisy to be a strong person in an environment swamped by odious messages in the advertising. It shares themes with Consuming Kids and So Sexy, So Soon and covers similar ground. What So Sexy, So Soon referred to as "age compression", Orenstein calls "KGOY", Kids Getting Older Younger. This refers to the way kids are attracted to objects advertised to older children, hence kiddie thongs and Barbie in the toddler aisle.  Of obvious interest to the parents and guardians of young women, and quite readable. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Why We Get Fat

Why We Get Fat: and What To Do About It
© 2011, 2012 Gary Taubes
267 pages

The secret of weight, we are told, is as simple as physics, as the laws of thermodynamics. If we take in more energy in eating than we expend in exercise, we gain weight. If we use more energy than we eat, we lose weight. Hence the constant advice to those concerned about their bellies is to eat less and exercise more. Simple, right? ...then why doesn't it work?  Why do millions of people go on diets every January and struggle so mightily to do make any progress? And how can there be so many societies in history and at present where obesity is linked not to abundance, but to poverty? How can obesity and malnutrition exist in the same family at the same time?  Gary Taubes has an answer, one which explains in full the link between obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiac problems while turning everything you think you know about diet on its head.

            Insulin is the key. Taubes writes like a volleyball player, delivering his argument with a bump, a set, and finally the spike. He begins by dismantling conventional explanations about weight control, pointing out that even studies done by institutions which dearly wanted to demonstrate an incontrovertible link between exercise and diet and weight loss have failed to do so. He then prepares the reader by pointing out that we already know that fat is managed substantially by hormones, pointing out the role estrogen plays in shifting body fat around at the onset of puberty. He also points out the way we observe fat utilized in other animals: is a Jersey cow lean because it eats lighter and runs laps around its field? Hardly. Jersey cows are bred as milk cows because their hormones prioritize turning food into milk, and Angus cows are bred as beef because their hormones emphasis turning food into fat and muscle. Calories and exercise have nothing to do with it – not in cows, not in rats, and not in humans.

            In humans, insulin is the chief hormone that manages fat. We’ve known this for decades, but somehow in the WW2 period the United States lost sight of the consequences. Essentially, when insulin is present in the bloodstream, we accumulate fat, and can’t get rid of it. When insulin is absent, our bodies are free to convert fat into fuel. To avoid gaining weight, then, we must avoid foods which stimulate the secretion of insulin, particularly carbohydrates and sugar. No carbs means no grain, no corn, and no rice. The idea of going “carbless” may strike modern readers as positively abnormal, but in truth the diet we’re “used” to is the strange one from the perspective of natural history. Humans evolved eating meat, fruit, and the occasional greens –  our dependence on grains is relatively recent, historically speaking. That dependence is one promoted by the idea which currently holds sway over dietary belief in America, that carbs are good and fat is bad: in most supermarkets, low-fat brands are the only option available. Not only is our love affair with carbohydrates fattening us up, says Taubes, but we've declared anathema a vital part of our diet.  We’re supposed to be eating fat, he says. The more fat in our diet, the more efficiently our bodies run -- and there's nothing to the idea that fatty diets lead to exercise, studies indicate.Here he and Michael Pollan concur.

The effective way to losing weight, then, is to avoid carbohydrates and eat heartily the diet of our ancestors – meat and greens. Fruit is more problematic because modern stocks have been bred to be far more sugary than their antecedents. This approach has been advocated by others; the famous Atkins Diet is based on it, for instance, and it’s very similar to the “Paleo” diet which is now gaining in popularity.  Why is there a link between obesity and poverty? Because poor societies rely on cheap foodstuffs – carbohydrate-rich foodstuff like bread and rice. Why is the Fast Food nation an obese nation?  Because carbohydrates are the appetizer, main course, dessert, and drink under the golden arches.
Why We Get Fat is a book of tremendous importance. In the United States today, diets low in fat are emphasized even as sugary sodas are sold in the public schools. Little wonder that despite the prolonged ad campaigns of the past decades,  obesity and its related diseases continue to become worse. Not only are we missing the point, but our attempts to address the problem only exacerbate it. Consider diabetes, a disease defined by our bodies’ inability to manage its blood sugar. The dominant form (Type 2) of diabetes is caused by our bodies becoming resistant to insulin: that is, it is less effective at moving sugar out of the bloodstream and into cells. Thus, our bodies have to produce more of it to do the job, and naturally the body becomes even more resistant to insulin, rather like we build a tolerance for alcohol. When the body’s demand for insulin product exceeds its ability to do so, we recognize diabetes…but our solution is to inject more insulin into the bloodstream.  This is a ‘solution’ that guarantees the problem will never be addressed at its root.  The lesson of Why We Get Fat is that we become insulin-resistant because our diet demands we produce an abnormal amount of the hormone. Change the diet to minimize insulin demand, and our bodies won’t develop that resistance.If that weren't enough, Taubes also pins the blame for high blood pressure and heart disease on it, though the latter is only a correlation.

Taubes has written two books in this vein; Good Calories, Bad Calories and this, Why We Get Fat. As I understand it, Good Calories, Bad Calories is the more substantial of the two, while Why We Get Fat is intended for a larger audience (har har) and emphasizes more application of the research. While Taubes doesn't promote a specific diet, the appendix does list various others (like Atkins) and provides general guidelines to eating. I've been doing my homework on Taubes' work for the last few months, since I first heard him in an extended interview on EconTalk, and I believe Why We Get Fat may be one of the most significant books I have ever read. Definitely recommended. 


Friday, June 8, 2012


Cheap: the High Cost of Discount Culture
© 2009 Ellen Ruppel Shell 
296 pages 

A few weeks ago I read Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, which is a critical history of  the 20th-century trend in business toward cheaper goods. The history begins in the 19th century, with the rise of bulk retailing department stores. The existence of a business atmosphere that didn’t prioritize the lowest prices possible seems surreal to someone like myself, who came of age in the era of Wal-Mart triumphant.  But according to Shell, traditional businessmen were positively scandalized by the ambitions of new retailers, who opted to make their profits by selling an enormous amount of cheap merchandise rather than a respectable amount of more moderately priced items. The new business model transformed the world, but there are consequences to every action.  

Shell covers some of the same ground as was covered in The Wal-Mart Effect: the new model shifts the balance of power in business relationships from suppliers to retailers, which is bad news given that the retailers tend to be more monolithic, concentrating power in the hands of a few. Consumer expectations for cheap goods has disastrous environmental consequences: cheap is an adjective that once meant not just inexpensive, but inferior, and that meaning remains valid. The goods manufactured and sold by Wal-Mart and IKEA are produced as cheaply as possible, using the cheapest – most inferior – materials as possible. Not only do these cheaply-made goods wear out quickly, but they can’t be made into anything else. Although they cost the consumer little, they are a grave waste of resources in an age that can’t afford such waste. The costs that the consumers are spared are paid by cheap, abused labor, and the global environment.  Shell also writes on price mechanisms and the psychology of selling, opining that the retailers’ success in convincing consumers that items can be sold this cheaply has distorted our concept of what things should truly cost, and ends by extolling the virtues of craftsmanship – a value I'm given to share. I despise purchasing items that won't last, or visiting stores where service is nonexistent because there the only reason people are hired is to restock merchandise and check goods out.

            How convincing this is, I can’t say: The Wal-Mart Effect familiarized me with most of the key concepts. I was struck most here by the notion that we are creating garbage goods from garbage materials. Unfortunately, I can’t see that most people will decide to start buying more expensive goods, even if the discount culture depresses wages and wastes resources. However,  as the 21st century progresses, the scarcity of resources will force people to use them more intelligently regardless of their wishes. 
The Wal-Mart Effect, Charles Fishman
Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why America Needs a Green Revolution, Tom Friedman  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Blaze of Glory

A Blaze of Glory
© 2012 Jeff Shaara
464 pages

Come all you gallant soldiers, a story I will tell
About the bloody battle on top of Shiloh's hill
It was an awful struggle; it'll cause your heart to chill
All from the bloody battle on top of Shiloh's hill.

  In 1974, Michael Shaara wrote an unparalleled novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, eschewing a traditional narrative and telling the story directly from the point of view of various generals and infantrymen who contended against one another amid Pennsylvania’s rocky hills and woodlands. The novel met enormous critical and popular success, and when it became a movie,  Shaara’s son Jeff was prompted to consider picking up where his late father left off and writing similar novels in the same time. He responded with Gods and Generals, concerning the war’s beginning, and later with The Last Full Measure, making his father’s original part of an American Civil War trilogy. Keeping his father’s style, Shaara followed up on his success with novels set in all of the United States’ major wars – the Invasion of Mexico, the War of Independence, and the two world wars.  The WW2 novels saw Shaara attempting to create his own narrative approach, one focused on fewer characters, but in A Blaze of Glory he returns to both his original style and setting:  1862, the American Civil War. But this time Shaara writes not of Lee and Grant, of the armies of the Potomac and of Virgina. Here, the action begins in the west, and the main event is the staggeringly bloody battle of Shiloh.

            Shaara turning his attention to the little-regarded western theater is most welcome:  although the battles of Shiloh and Vicksburg may have some name recognition,  the eastern characters and battles (Lee and Grant;  Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg) dominate the national imagination.  I also welcome Shaara’s return to his and his father’s former style: the WW2 novels were overly dominated by one or two characters and didn’t deliver the varied substance of The Killer Angels and other works. Here, Shaara’s panel includes Albert Sidney Johnston, Nathan Bedford Forrest,  Grant, Sherman, and a few infantrymen from both sides. This allows Shaara to tell the story from both sides, without demonizing either. Consistently, the generals chide their men for dehumanizing the enemy, pointing out that the “rebs” or the “bluebellies” are just as clever, just as tough, and just as resolute in believing the righteousness of their cause as their respective side is.

            Shaara’s writing in A Blaze of Glory is as compelling as ever: he captures splendidly the utter confusion in the opening day of battle, as the southern troops hammer through a bewildered Union line, and the grisly impact of the bloodshed on the second day. It’s an experience that leaves one stunned, especially when main characters become part of the carnage. At novel’s end, one can’t help but reflect on how much was lost in one battle for relatively nothing, and the epilogue doesn’t improve judgments of the battle’s worth.  Unlike battles covered in other novels, there’s no triumph to celebrate, nothing to redeem the carnage and make it seem worthwhile. And yet even knowing this, I’d read it again, because Johnston is a particularly inviting character, and the suspense and action make it an exciting read even given the subdued ending.

            If Blaze of Glory is any indication of what we have to look forward to, Shaara’s new ACW trilogy will prove quite a treat, for it begins with a battle that is both a thriller and gives opportunity for sober reflection on the costs of the war.

Although we won the battle, my heart is filled with pain
The one that brought me to this life I'll never see again
I pray to the lord  if consistent with his will
Lord save the souls of them poor boys that died on Shiloh's hill.

  • The Killer Angels; Gods and Generals; The Last Full Measure; Gone for Soldiers; Michael and Jeff Shaara
  • Shiloh, 1862, Winston Groom
  • "The Battle of Shiloh Hill", various artists. The most haunting version I've yet heard is Bobby Horton's. YouTube has a cover by Wayne Erbsen.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Teaser Tuesday (5 June)

There is a Chinese proverb that says, "When the wind changes direction, there are those who build walls and those who build windmills." What will we do? 

p. 24, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why America Needs a Green Revolution. Thomas Friedman.

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly book event in which participants share excerpts from their current reads. Play along at Should Be Reading.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Books in the News

Every so often I see news articles which touch on subjects I've been reading about; I used to link to them in weekly review posts from time to time, but I may start doing it in this format.

Financially struggling schools nationwide are increasing the volume of advertising that children see in the halls, at football games and even on their report cards.
School administrators say that with a public unwilling to adequately fund K-12 education, they’re obligated to find new ways to keep teachers in classrooms.
“We know that we can’t continue to only look at ways to cut, we also need to be innovative about the assets we have and learn how to bring in more revenue,” says Trinette Marquis, a spokeswoman for the 28,000-student Twin Rivers Unified School District in McClellan, Calif.

For Asphalt Nation  and Suburban Nation:
States eye new motorist taxes: miles you drive could cost you (USA Today)

States are looking for new ways of taxing motorists as they seek to pay for highway and bridge repair and improvements without relying on the per-gallon gasoline tax widely viewed as all but obsolete.
Among the leading ideas: Taxing drivers for how many miles they travel rather than how much gasoline they buy. Minnesota and Oregon already are testing technology to keep track of mileage. Other states, including Washington and Nevada, are preparing similar projects.
The efforts are being prompted by the fact that gasoline taxes no longer provide enough money to pay for roads and bridges — especially when Congress and many state legislatures are reluctant to increase taxes imposed on each gallon. The federal tax of 18.4 cents a gallon hasn't been raised in nearly two decades.

For The Shallows
Some caution texting is ruining art of conversation, Martha Irvine

Statistics from the Pew Internet & American Life Project show that, these days, many people with cell phones prefer texting over a phone call. It's not always young people, though the data indicate that the younger you are, the more likely you are to prefer texting.And that's creating a communication divide, of sorts - the talkers vs. the texters.Some would argue that it's no big deal. What difference should it make how we communicate, as long as we do so?But many experts say the most successful communicators will, of course, have the ability to do both, talk or text, and know the most appropriate times to use those skills. And they fear that more of us are losing our ability to have - or at least are avoiding - the traditional face-to-face conversations that are vital in the workplace and personal relationships."It is an art that's becoming as valuable as good writing," says Janet Sternberg, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York who is also a linguist.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Witch of Hebron

The Witch of Hebron
© 2010 James Howard Kunstler
334 pages

The future isn't what it used to be. When the oil wells ran dry, the global economy and every nation built on petroleum collapsed. This is the dawn of a new age, one centered on self-sustaining towns with a close relationship to the soil -- a world made by hand, where most of the population works in agriculture and the few which don't are busy turning the resources that remain into usable goods; they are carpenters, cobblers,  James Howard Kunstler's original novel in this world established the conditions and allowed us to visit the town of Union Grove as it slowly began rebuilding itself again in a most eventful summer. The Witch of Hebron begins in the early fall and culminates in Halloween, a fitting setting given the eerie tone of the book. The central character of The Witch of Hebron is Jasper Copeland, son of the town doctor, who flees after an act of  revenge that ends in death. Outside the confines of Union Grove, darkness awaits, hiding desperate poverty and grotesque individuals. Jasper starts off as a boy on the cusp of adolescence, and what little innocence he could call his own is ripped away when he is coerced into becoming the protege of a highwayman who refers to himself as an Honorable Bandit and insists on singing a ballad about himself to all his victims. The citizens of Union Grove are still trying to find themselves, adjusting slowly to their new environment. The adults have seen everything they took for granted destroyed; the rules seem to be broken. Anything might be possible -- they cannot tell what beauties or horrors the future might hold.  Although Kunstler is not a man given toward the supernatural, it permeates this new world. Even the skeptical have been so shaken by all they have witnessed that they wonder if maybe there aren't such things as devils and witches:  the industrialized world is dead, and with it the scientific thinking it encouraged. Kunstler develops their uncertainties and plays them to full advantage: the reader is left to sort through the ambiguities. Is this is a fantasy, or are Brother Jobe and the witch playing within the same rules as today's mentalists, phone psychics, and witch doctors?

Even without the supernatural element, The Witch of Hebron's setting is unsettling, a mix of the old and new -- the 18th century seems to have been reborn against the decaying background of the 20th. Characters' dangerous journeys through the woods take place not on old dirt pig-trails, but heavily damaged country highways. One flaw in Kunstler's world-building is that he resurrects too much of the old too quickly, particularly the language of occupations which have only recently been reborn: characters who are our contemporaries, living in the same world we live in now, are suddenly talking about sutleries and haberdasheries.  While these artisans would revive, would they refer to themselves in antiquidated ways? Would the new shoemaker not call himself a shoemaker, and not a cobbler? At least the town doctor does his own surgeries and isn't recommending people to the barber in Old West style.  Perhaps it's Kunstler's way of emphasizing the divide between the world we're expecting the future to become, and the world it might turn out to be.  Peak oil and the collapse of modern civilization are matters which Kunstler almost seems to anticipate with relish: they are the destruction of everything he despises, and that destruction will allow a better world to be created. But this isn't wish-fulfillment: while his imagined world has its pleasures, the entire book is smeared with blood. It is a violent and disturbing world.

While the plot is a little thin (it's more a season in the town's life with a little journeys giving a thread of consistency), the setting continues to fascinate me.  Kunstler's next work is nonfiction (Too Much Magic), but his third World Made by Hand novel should take place in the winter.

World Made by Hand, James Howard Kunstler
The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler
Lucifer's Hammer, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Why We Get Sick

Why We Get Sick: the New Science of Darwinian Medicine
© 1994 Randolph M. Nesse, M.D; George C. Wiliams, Ph.D.
290 pages

Years ago I read an exceptional book on evolution by David Sloan Wilson. I say exceptional because it advocated for freeing evolution from being mere natural history: instead, Wilson argued that we should use it to understand all matters biological, including medicine. He used as his example the case of morning sickness in pregnancies, revealing research that illustrated that far from being a problem to be solved, morning sickness is an adaptive behavior which protects fetuses from foods that might be toxic to them in their highly vulnerable state. This application of evolution floored me, and so you can imagine my delight to discover an entire book on the subject, Why We Get Sick.

For the most part, Why We Get Sick fulfills my anticipation, though its authors are writing mostly to introduce the concept of evolution-informed medicine to the public. Though they share the insights that research with this focus have revealed already,  in any more instances they can only offer speculation, as Darwinian medicine is still quite new. The book covers general health, and explains the science of injuries, nutrition, and sickness. They establish early on that the Darwinian model can help us understand a given disease's ultimate root, and avoid prolonging it in our clumsy efforts to dispels the symptoms. Often symptoms of a disease are actually the products of our own immune system, and if we disrupt those defenses the disease itself is given free reign. Fevers, for instance, are one of our body's ways of disrupting an infection. It doesn't matter to our genes if it makes us uncomfortable: they're more concerned with killing the invaders. But the invaders have their own defenses, and they adapt a lot more quickly than we do -- another reason some diseases to be here to stay, like the flu. The existence of multiple flu strains and our constant attempts to find new ways to kill them are evolution in action, the ongoing biological arms race.  Other physical ailments are hangovers of evolution, like our back problems and heel spurs;  walking upright on two feet is something our bodies are still getting used to. We haven't even started adapting to novel environments, another element of disease: we have bodies accustomed to hardship now living in a world of abundant, cheap food and easy living. Little wonder we struggle with obesity and problems of physical inactivity. And then there are the genetic diseases and strangely adaptive byproducts of mental illnesses...

Why We Get Sick is compact, dense, and brimming with information: the authors are writing to introduce people to the viewpoint,  so there's lot of enticing speculation. If one section doesn't catch your interest, rest assured another will. I for one am quite excited about this novel approach to medicine, and if health or evolution are of any interest to you, this intersection of the two should prove fascinating.


Suburban Nation

Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream
© 2000, 2010 Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck
294 pages

Compare a modern American city to its European counterparts, or even an older American city, and the contrast is striking: American cities seem to have fallen apart, spewing their innards cross the landscape. Indeed, America has taken a radically abnormal approach to urbanism in the last fifty years, building out instead of up. Even while the city centers have been left to fall apart, ‘greater metropolitan areas’ – the mats of low-density sprawl surrounding those decaying centers – have grown. Why have Americans chosen to live this way, and what are the consequences? Suburban Nation is a citizen’s guide to understanding the new American landscape, a guide to what makes communities function, and a primer for setting our urban areas to rights again.

Duany and Zyberk, a team of urban planners, begin by breaking sprawl down into its five constituent parts. While traditional cities freely mix various kinds of buildings together – shops on a ground floor, apartments or offices above –  the suburban model separates  uses into separate pods. Anyone who lives in the United States can identify them; housing developments, commercial strips, office parks, and industrial parks.  These pods have no  direct connections to one another: navigating from one to the other necessitates traveling on a   ‘collector’ road, which is almost always congested because it is the sole carrier of traffic the pods are too widely spaced apart to make walking feasible or train transit efficient. Municipal buildings are the final element of sprawl, and like the rest are strictly separated and isolated except by cars.

Suburban Nation includes large, wide margins to the side of the text, making the book squarish instead of  rectangular. The authors use those margins for photographs, specifically sets of paragraphs, comparing traditional urban approaches to the new methods favored by modern planners. The contrast is potent, illustrating how wasteful and ugly suburban sprawl can be. But why has it become so popular?  The answer draws on numerous elements of American culture and history: the fact that most American cities came into being during the industrial age, and so Americans tend to associate them with the abuses of that period;  the coming of the automobile just as people were wanting to move away from the cities, the availability of wide open land for people to expand into, and government policies which saw in outward growth a foundation for the American economy – as in the Great Depression, when highway construction was used to put people to work. These elements each influence the other: people’s aversion to living near factories was the genesis of zoning codes, which segregated residential and industrial areas; the availability of automobiles allowed those zones to be far apart; and the generous government subsidies supporting the expansion of roads made such networks feasible. After World War 2, the FHA’s policies encouraged growth outside the cities, offering loans to families who wanted to buy new single-family homes but refusing any to people who wanted to move inside the cities. Banks followed suit.

            We left the cities in pursuit of a dream – a home of our own, far from the noise and pollution of the city. But if there’s a constant in history, it’s that no action is without unintended consequences. Not only did Americans manage to destroy their cities in a manner of decades (with the same money that Europeans were using to rebuild theirs), but suburbia has proven a fiscal nightmare. Its low densities don’t provide the tax base needed to maintain its infrastructure, and the widespread sprawl mires people in traffic, not only forcing everyone to drive everywhere but do so at a snail’s pace, wasting both time and gasoline. In addition, suburban sprawl fails to produce that vital element of human society, a community. There is no coherence in these suburban wastes, no 'place' for a community to coalesce around. Instead, people live apart from one another, and when they venture into society they only do so as part of a mass of strangers, either on the collector roads or in the big box stores.

            Since the mid-1990s, criticism of suburbia has been building steadily. As municipalies and states face budget crises and the threat of insolvency, more people are realizing the pattern of development we’ve been pursuing is no longer a viable option. Duany and Plater-Zyberk also offer steps we may take in getting a handle on these problems. There are ways we can redevelop some existing suburbs and make them livable, for instance, but the 60s-era zoning laws that make proper cities illegal need to be scrapped, as with subsidies which encouraged all that sprawl. Although restoring America's urban fabric seems a vast undertaking, it is doable, and necessary.

Suburban Nation  is the comprehensive book on America's landscape, and consequently a fundamental book for understanding many of our problems -- civic, economic, and social. Its ideal audience is the average American citizen; though Duany and Plater-Zyberk are urban planners by profession, the third author Jeff Speck served to introduce planning concepts in layman's terms -- and even if the text didn't make a particular idea clear, the illustrations do that amply.  This is in short a most excellent book. I doubt it will be rivaled by any others, but  there are more works in this genre (like Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier) which I intend to read in the future.