Wednesday, September 12, 2012

This Week at the Library (12 September)

About a week ago, ten inches of rain were dumped on my hometown in 24 hours, leading to widespread flooding. Various services around town were disrupted, meaning the people who -- inexplicably -- journeyed to the library in the midst of the downpour found it with only intermittent Internet access, with leaks in the roof and library folk running around trying to cover books and equipment. And on top of this, a hamster escaped. Twice.

Seriously, it made headlines.  As the director said, "From the sublime to the ridiculous." I have managed to do some reading, though, in between the water-treading and hamster-chasing.

I read two books within a day of starting them: Summer of my German Soldier by Bette Green, which is a bit of teen fiction about a lonely young Jewish-American girl who befriends a German POW, who makes her realize she does have worth, despite the opinion of her parents, and makes her look beyond simple prejudice. It's a sweet story, albeit a trifle sad. The other was a Star Trek book -- the sequel to Plagues of Night -- which I'll give full comments to later.

I'd prefer to give Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies a regular review, but it is plainly obvious that I am not going to find the time anytime soon, especially given that I can't seem to help reading books even when the pile of books I want to review is high enough to appear as a radar blip. My guilt is alleviated by the fact that despite its quality, this is not a book that will be read by a mass audience.  Sure, I wolfed it down, but I'm contemplating three books on garbage and waste management and wondering if two out of the three will suffice to meet my needs. My own reading tastes are a bit...eccentric.

Essentially, Consuming Power examines the way American choices regarding technology -- specifically, which technologies to use, and in which ways -- shape society. It's short for the timespan it covers, but dense; the word muscular comes to mind. Nye wastes no words: : every sentence carries with it the meat of facts or analysis. He has grievances with those who believe certain technologies always have particular effects on society, like the introduction of the automobile  leading to a society whose transportation infrastructure is wholly oriented toward cars. Human choices created the highways and subsidies cars thrive in, and human choices eroded the rail networks that once tied the nation together. The choices we make regarding which technologies to invest in dictate our future actions, however: the United States will be hard-pressed to move away from an automobile-oriented system if even it badly wants, and needs to. Other nations -- which made different choices  regarding the automobile -- have more options.

While this argument has its merits,  I think Nye overestimates the role of human choice. We seem to be a species dedicating to following the path of least resistance: if a technology allows us to do a thing, and it occurs to us to do it, we'll happily do it without sitting down and thinking terribly long about the consequences. Geography and history had more to do with Europe's different approach to cars than human choice: Europeans couldn't sprawl around sloppily because they don't have an entire continent of land to waste.  At the same time, this criticism reinforces Nye's other argument, that choices dictate future choices.  Once arrangements have been made for one system, it's difficult to adopt to another. Europe would find it difficult to impose suburban sprawl on itself. While Nye doesn't have an obvious agenda, he's plainly not impressed with the way Americans have so limited themselves and their future energy options. The course of our energy history, it seems, is have put more eggs into fewer baskets.

Consuming Power is a strong read for those interested in American economy, industry, and energy.

"I think maybe good changes will come when our leaders are better and there aren't any evil dictators," I said.
Anton nodded. "There are those who would agree with you. But leaders don't usually spring forth to impose their will upon a helpless people. They, like department stores, are in business to give people what they think they want."

(Summer of my German Soldier, p. 142).

"No one is more keenly aware of advertising's ubiquity than the advertisers themselves, who view commercial inundation as a clear and persuasive call for more -- and more intrusive -- advertising. With so much competition, the agencies must spend more than ever to make sure their pitch screeches so loud it can be heard over all the others. David Lubars, a senior ad executive with the Omnicom Group, explains the industry's guiding principle with more candor than most. Consumers, he says, 'are like roaches -- you spray them and spray them and they get immune after a while.'"

p. 9, No Logo. Naomi Klein.

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