Category Archives: Book Review – Nonfiction

Amsterdam

Here is a book for children as young as 4 about the bicycling revolution in Amsterdam. Here’s the Amazon description:

Pedal Power: How One Community Became the Bicycle Capital of the World

Cycling rules the road in Amsterdam today, but that wasn’t always the case. In the 1970’s, Amsterdam was so crowded with vehicles that bicyclists could hardly move, but moms and kids relied on their bicycles to get around the city. PEDAL POWER is the story of the people who led protests against the unsafe streets and took over a vehicles-only tunnel on their bikes, showing what a little pedal power could do! Author and illustrator Allan Drummond returns with the story of the people that paved the way for safe biking around the world.

I love Amsterdam, It’s not just the idea of bicycling as a major form of transportation, it’s the whole package of getting around by bicycle and on foot, the old world layout, and the active public places and street scenes it leads to. It’s a winning formula that cities around the world could aspire to, and yet almost none are.

sovereignty

Here is a long, long post from Lawfare covering three books about the state of national sovereignty.

In these polarized times, it came as a surprise to me that the authors of three of the most interesting books on international relations of the past year agree on at least one thing. Each argues that the global order is entering a crisis that calls into question the concept of state sovereignty, a foundational principle of the international system as it has existed for nearly four centuries. In the past half-century—as globalization has interwoven the international community more densely and closely than ever, multilateral institutions have proliferated, new doctrines on human rights and counterterrorism have gained credence, and transnational threats have emerged—the definition of sovereignty has come unmoored from its traditions. These diverse authors agree that this will have consequential effects on the world, but diverge over how we reached this point and what should happen next.

The books—Rosa Brooks’ How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Richard Haass’ A World in Disarray, and David Kennedy’s A World of Struggle—could be shelved in the subgenre of international relations literature dedicated to predictions of imminent crisis.

Like I said, it’s long and it covers each of the three books. I’m going to skip to a paragraph on climate change at the end.

Even with stable but rights-abusing regimes in power, undergoverned spaces are likely to grow. This will be exacerbated by increased competition for scarce resources as climate change and demographic shifts strain water and food sources; there is a compelling argument that this already contributed to the conditions for the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Even where conflict does not occur, people will be displaced by climate change. Rising sea levels are already creating “climate refugees” emigrating from the Marshall Islands. Indeed, the flows of refugees and migrants pushed out of their homes by climate change and conflict could pose as great a challenge to sovereignty as Responsibility to Protect and U.S. counterterrorism policy. For all its merits, saving sovereignty as it has been classically understood will not turn back the clock on the diffusion of power that has weakened central governments over the past half-century, it will not end the civil wars that have expanded political vacuums, and it will not halt the creeping effects of climate change.

I probably have a somewhat naive and simplistic view of the world, but a worled baded on simple and easy-to-understand principles might be a more stable world than the one we find ourselves in now. Between the fall of the Berlin wall (1989) and at least the U.S./NATO attack on Yugoslavia (1999), it seemed like we had an international consensus that borders were going to be important and enforced by the international community, led by the UN security council. US- but not UN-led wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, and the various drone strikes around the world seem to have seriously eroded that. Now Russia has crossed the borders of Georgia and Ukraine, and China is challenging Japan and other Asian nations in ares they have clearly claimed for awhile. The U.S. can act outraged but it is kind of hard to take the moral high ground.

So in my simple world, the UN Security Council would be reformed so that it represents a true consensus among the great powers, and military action violating borders would be undertaken only to punish an aggressor who has already violated a border, and only when all the great powers (minus any that is the aggressor in question). In my simplistic world, this solves the problem of balance of power because there are no alliances between great powers, only an alliance of all the great powers against whatever one has chosen to be out of line. And even the U.S. with our current economic and military might (which could arguably be at a peak or even on the wane) should think twice before standing up to the entire rest of the world.

Yes, this does leave the question of how to deal with severe human rights violations within borders. I don’t claim to have all the answers on that, but I just think it has been far too easy for great powers to claim they are attacking their neighbors for so-called “humanitarian” reasons. I would question whether military violence has ever caused less human suffering than it avoided. Certainly not in the short term.

The Argument Culture

In 1998, Deborah Tannen wrote a book called The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. Basically what it describes is a culture where the objective of every discussion is to win, not to seek consensus or at least come to understand the reasons for other people’s positions.

Our society has become overwhelmingly adversarial, with consequences not only in our ability to solve problems but also in our personal relationships.  The war on drugs, the battle of the sexes, politicians’ turf battles—war metaphors pervade our talk and shape our thinking, urging us to approach anything we need to accomplish as a fight between two opposing sides.

Tannen traces this tendency to the history of our educational system, and shows its roots among boys at play.  Exploring how other cultures approach opposition, and discussing the influence of electronic communication in ratcheting up the level of aggression, Tannen shows how we can move toward more constructive dialogue in our public as well our private lives.  This book will change forever how you see forces that powerfully shape our lives, and suggests new ways of reaching our goals.

David Fleming

Today is the first time I heard of the late David Fleming, but he appears to have been a sort of new age steady state economy theorist. His seminal work is Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future and How to Survive It, which is notable for being written in a sort of encyclopedia format that can be read in any order. Here’s the Amazon description:

Lean Logic is David Fleming’s masterpiece, the product of more than thirty years’ work and a testament to the creative brilliance of one of Britain’s most important intellectuals.

A dictionary unlike any other, it leads readers through Fleming’s stimulating exploration of fields as diverse as culture, history, science, art, logic, ethics, myth, economics, and anthropology, being made up of four hundred and four engaging essay-entries covering topics such as Boredom, Community, Debt, Growth, Harmless Lunatics, Land, Lean Thinking, Nanotechnology, Play, Religion, Spirit, Trust, and Utopia.

The threads running through every entry are Fleming’s deft and original analysis of how our present market-based economy is destroying the very foundations―ecological, economic, and cultural― on which it depends, and his core focus: a compelling, grounded vision for a cohesive society that might weather the consequences. A society that provides a satisfying, culturally-rich context for lives well lived, in an economy not reliant on the impossible promise of eternal economic growth. A society worth living in. Worth fighting for. Worth contributing to.

The beauty of the dictionary format is that it allows Fleming to draw connections without detracting from his in-depth exploration of each topic. Each entry carries intriguing links to other entries, inviting the enchanted reader to break free of the imposed order of a conventional book, starting where she will and following the links in the order of her choosing. In combination with Fleming’s refreshing writing style and good-natured humor, it also creates a book perfectly suited to dipping in and out.

The decades Fleming spent honing his life’s work are evident in the lightness and mastery with which Lean Logic draws on an incredible wealth of cultural and historical learning―from Whitman to Whitefield, Dickens to Daly, Kropotkin to Kafka, Keats to Kuhn, Oakeshott to Ostrom, Jung to Jensen, Machiavelli to Mumford, Mauss to Mandelbrot, Leopold to Lakatos, Polanyi to Putnam, Nietzsche to Næss, Keynes to Kumar, Scruton to Shiva, Thoreau to Toynbee, Rabelais to Rogers, Shakespeare to Schumacher, Locke to Lovelock, Homer to Homer-Dixon―in demonstrating that many of the principles it commends have a track-record of success long pre-dating our current society.

Fleming acknowledges, with honesty, the challenges ahead, but rather than inducing despair, Lean Logic is rare in its ability to inspire optimism in the creativity and intelligence of humans to nurse our ecology back to health; to rediscover the importance of place and play, of reciprocity and resilience, and of community and culture.

The Death of Expertise

This sounded familiar to me:

a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

It’s from the Amazon description of a new book called The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters.

sea level rise and high tide flooding

From PLOS One:

Sea level rise drives increased tidal flooding frequency at tide gauges along the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts: Projections for 2030 and 2045

Tidal flooding is among the most tangible present-day effects of global sea level rise. Here, we utilize a set of NOAA tide gauges along the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts to evaluate the potential impact of future sea level rise on the frequency and severity of tidal flooding. Using the 2001–2015 time period as a baseline, we first determine how often tidal flooding currently occurs. Using localized sea level rise projections based on the Intermediate-Low, Intermediate-High, and Highest projections from the U.S. National Climate Assessment, we then determine the frequency and extent of such flooding at these locations for two near-term time horizons: 2030 and 2045. We show that increases in tidal flooding will be substantial and nearly universal at the 52 locations included in our analysis. Long before areas are permanently inundated, the steady creep of sea level rise will force many communities to grapple with chronic high tide flooding in the next 15 to 30 years.

The Convergence

from Amazon:

Convergence is a history of modern science with an original and significant twist. Various scientific disciplines, despite their very different beginnings, and disparate areas of interest have been coming together over the past 150 years, converging and coalescing, to identify one extraordinary master narrative, one overwhelming interlocking coherent story: the history of the universe. Intimate connections between physics and chemistry have been revealed as have the links between quantum chemistry and molecular biology. Astronomy has been augmented by particle physics, psychology has been increasingly aligned with physics, with chemistry and even with economics. Genetics has been harmonised with linguistics, botany with archaeology, climatology with myth. This is a simple insight but one with profound consequences. Convergence is, as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg has put it, ‘The deepest thing about the universe.’ This book does not, however, tell the story by beginning at the beginning and ending at the end. It is much more revealing, more convincing, and altogether more thrilling to tell the story as it emerged, as it began to fall into place, piece by piece, converging tentatively at first, but then with increasing speed, vigour and confidence. The overlaps and interdependence of the sciences, the emerging order that they are gradually uncovering, is without question the most enthralling aspect of twenty-first-century science.

High and Dry

Nature has a review of a new book on worldwide groundwater depletion. Remember, we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions at the same time it appears we are seeing more extreme and long-lasting droughts. Groundwater overpumping seems to be a wound we are inflicting on ourselves at the same time we are dealing with these external threats.

Some 95% of unfrozen fresh water resides unsung and underground, dimly visible at the bottom of a well or gushing from a pump. Big cities such as Buenos Aires and entire countries, including Germany, depend hugely on groundwater. About 70% of it goes into irrigation, accounting for more than half of irrigated agriculture — which in turn provides nearly half of the global food basket. In large parts of India, groundwater is egregiously overdrawn. And everywhere, aquifers are poorly measured and managed. As a result, no scientific consensus exists on the details of this vast and vital source of fresh water — although there is consensus on the fact that we face a worldwide problem.

In High and Dry, hydrologist William Alley and science writer Rosemary Alley encapsulate the crisis in a description of the US High Plains Aquifer, which spans eight states from South Dakota to Texas. “This virtual ocean of groundwater, which accumulated over thousands of years, is being used up in decades,” they write. In three ways, the book provides a deep and broad understanding of groundwater use and abuse, mostly in the United States but with some international scope…

The well could empty for millions more. The United Nations Development Programme notes that, in 2011, more than 40 countries experienced water stress; of those, 10 have nearly depleted their renewable freshwater supply. By 2050, one in four people globally may be hit by periodic shortages. The near future could see refugee numbers swell, to include more people without water.

The Fourth Turning

Supposedly Steve Bannon is influenced by a book called The Fourth Turning that hypothesizes a cyclical view of history. Wikipedia refers to its primary author, Neil Howe, as an “amateur historian”, although he actually does have a history degree from Yale. Here is Howe talking about his own book in the Washington Post.

Along this cycle, we can identify four “turnings” that each last about 20 years — the length of a generation. Think of these as recurring seasons, starting with spring and ending with winter. In every turning, a new generation is born and each older generation ages into its next phase of life.

The cycle begins with the First Turning, a “High” which comes after a crisis era. In a High, institutions are strong and individualism is weak. Society is confident about where it wants to go collectively, even if many feel stifled by the prevailing conformity. Many Americans alive today can recall the post-World War II American High (historian William O’Neill’s term), coinciding with the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy presidencies. Earlier examples are the post-Civil War Victorian High of industrial growth and stable families, and the post-Constitution High of Democratic Republicanism and Era of Good Feelings…

Finally, the Fourth Turning is a “Crisis” period. This is when our institutional life is reconstructed from the ground up, always in response to a perceived threat to the nation’s very survival. If history does not produce such an urgent threat, Fourth Turning leaders will invariably find one — and may even fabricate one — to mobilize collective action. Civic authority revives, and people and groups begin to pitch in as participants in a larger community. As these Promethean bursts of civic effort reach their resolution, Fourth Turnings refresh and redefine our national identity. The years 1945, 1865 and 1794 all capped eras constituting new “founding moments” in American history.

Supposedly, Bannon’s theory is that the 2008 financial crisis is the latest “fourth turning”. There are lots of critical takedowns of these ideas online, calling them “pop history” or “pseudoscience”. For example, here is the original New York Times review of the book in 1997, and here are recent articles in Huffington Post, Business Insider, and The Nation.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

NPR had a review of this book recently (below is the Amazon description).

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the critically-acclaimed New York Times bestseller and international phenomenon Sapiens, returns with an equally original, compelling, and provocative book, turning his focus toward humanity’s future, and our quest to upgrade humans into gods.

Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible and rein in famine, plague, and war. This may seem hard to accept, but, as Harari explains in his trademark style—thorough, yet riveting—famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.

What then will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century—from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers? This is the next stage of evolution. This is Homo Deus.

With the same insight and clarity that made Sapiens an international hit and a New York Times bestseller, Harari maps out our future.