Category Archives: Book Review – Nonfiction

The Wizard and the Prophet

Charles Mann, author of 1491, has a new book called The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.

Here’s the Amazon description:

From the best-selling, award-winning author of 1491 and 1493–an incisive portrait of the two little-known twentieth-century scientists, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, whose diametrically opposed views shaped our ideas about the environment, laying the groundwork for how people in the twenty-first century will choose to live in tomorrow’s world.

In forty years, Earth’s population will reach ten billion. Can our world support that? What kind of world will it be? Those answering these questions generally fall into two deeply divided groups–Wizards and Prophets, as Charles Mann calls them in this balanced, authoritative, nonpolemical new book. The Prophets, he explains, follow William Vogt, a founding environmentalist who believed that in using more than our planet has to give, our prosperity will lead us to ruin. Cut back! was his mantra. Otherwise everyone will lose! The Wizards are the heirs of Norman Borlaug, whose research, in effect, wrangled the world in service to our species to produce modern high-yield crops that then saved millions from starvation. Innovate! was Borlaug’s cry. Only in that way can everyone win! Mann delves into these diverging viewpoints to assess the four great challenges humanity faces–food, water, energy, climate change–grounding each in historical context and weighing the options for the future. With our civilization on the line, the author’s insightful analysis is an essential addition to the urgent conversation about how our children will fare on an increasingly crowded Earth.

I made my own attempt to reconcile these world views a few years ago. My conclusion was that it is theoretically possible to grow without exceeding limits, if almost all innovation that occurs is aimed at transcending those limits. In the real world, I don’t think there is any evidence our species is capable of that. What is more likely is that technology helps us grow until we come up against the limits, then we experience a setback that takes us back under the limits, then eventually we start again. We may push the limits a little further each time, but the setbacks can be long and painful enough to ruin entire human lifetimes. If I am right, we haven’t even finished the first cycle yet as a planetary civilization. Mann’s book 1491, along with Jared Diamond’s Collapse, were instrumental in helping me to realize that regional and even continental cultures have experienced major setbacks before.

is nature doing fine?

A new book by Chris D. Thomas, Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction (the link is to the New York Times review), argues that ecosystems are adapting to human-induced change. The argument seems to be that there are winners and losers in terms of species, and the Earth is headed for a future dominated by less diverse, more tolerant species. It may be true that rats, pigeons, cockroaches and jellyfish see a bright future for themselves, but I still have an ethical problem and a practical problem. The ethical problem is that humans are knowingly destroying species and ecosystems that have existed more or less throughout the 10,000 year or so modern history of our species. Sure, in another 100,000 or million years it will all have changed with or without our intervention, but if you believe these ecosystems have any intrinsic value, then what we are doing is wrong. The practical problem has to do with ecosystem service. Our standard of living depends on a lot of free and low cost help from nature – to name just a few, pollination, fertile soil, rainfall, groundwater, fisheries, breathable air and reasonable temperatures. If these were taken away suddenly, the rats and pigeons might be fine but we might find that we are not among the more adaptable species.

Daniel Ellsberg and nuclear weapons

It turns out that Daniel Ellsberg, who stole and released the Pentagon Papers, stole and planned to release a lot of information on U.S. nuclear weapons.

It turns out that Ellsberg also took many thousands of pages of documents pertaining to another subject: nuclear war. Ellsberg, a prominent thinker in the field of decision theory, had worked on the military’s “mutual assured destruction” strategy during the Cold War. Once a believer in deterrence, he now says he was a collaborator in an “insane plan” for “retaliatory genocide.” He wanted to tell the world decades ago; with nuclear threat looming again, he’s put the whole story into a new book, The Doomsday Machine

Ellsberg believed that his bureaucratic opponents — mainly the military brass — were not thinking through the consequences of nuclear war. Then, in 1961, he was allowed to see a piece of information previously unknown even to Kennedy, the death count the military projected for theoretical strikes: some 600 million, not including any Americans killed in counterattacks. (That was still an underestimate.) Ellsberg writes of being gripped with a feeling of revulsion, realizing that the document “depicted evil beyond any human project ever.” The planners weren’t heedless — they intended to inflict maximal civilian casualties. “The shock was to realize that the Joint Chiefs knew,” Ellsberg tells me. “I was working for people who were crazier than I had thought. I had thought that they had inadvertently constructed a doomsday machine, without knowing it…”

The book examines many close brushes with nuclear war. He says that at least twice during the Cold War — once aboard a Soviet submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis, once inside an air defense bunker outside Moscow in 1983 — a single individual came close to triggering a nuclear war because of a false alarm. “There is a chance that somebody will be a circuit breaker,” Ellsberg says. “What I conclude is that we’re lucky, very lucky.”

 

why start a war?

Why do governments start wars when they kind of know that long, drawn-out wars end up being bad for all sides. A new book by Lawrence Freedman suggests it is because they think they can deliver an early knockout blow and achieve some limited objective. Technology tends to aid and abet that belief.

Freedman — an emeritus professor at King’s College London, one of Britain’s pre-eminent strategic thinkers and a former member of its official Iraq war inquiry — argues that the prognosticators often expect to limit the destructiveness of the next war through a surprise knockout blow. But they tend to overlook what happens if that first salvo doesn’t win a quick victory, underestimating the salience of demographics and economic capacity while overestimating citizens’ willingness to keep on fighting and dying in a prolonged struggle. Bloody stalemates at the front can spark revolutions, mutinies or civil wars at home…

There’s an important Asian case in point, mentioned only briefly here, that strongly supports Freedman’s warnings against delusions of knockout battles: Japan in World War II. Plotting their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese militarists hoped to win some quick victories and then negotiate peace on more favorable terms…

Today the allure of a swift victory comes packaged in new military technologies combining information with more accurate targeting from afar, killing enemies without endangering American soldiers. Freedman is unbeguiled by our current tech obsession. While studies of the evolution of warfare have often concentrated on newfangled weaponry like machine guns, nuclear submarines or artificial intelligence, he spurns the “constant temptation to believe that there were technical fixes for what were essentially political problems.”

the decline and fall of the U.S. empire

Okay, it is not falling quite yet, but The Intercept has a review of two books that make a persuasive case we are witnessing its decline.

Wright sees the system under threat from a combination of newly emerging powers and recent American missteps. McCoy, for his part, sees the unraveling of the U.S. empire as analogous to the series of events that led to the decline of the British and French empires before it. The first step is the loss of support from local elites in territories under imperial influence, a process that McCoy says is clearly underway for the U.S. in many critical regions of the world. In recent years, America has seen its ties strained with military partners such as Turkey, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, while major U.S. allies like Germany and South Korea have increasingly come to question America’s capacity to continue leading the imperial system that it created.

It is the Arab Spring uprisings against mostly pro-U.S. dictators, however, that McCoy says marked the slow beginning of the end of American imperium. While the revolts are widely judged to have failed in bringing about liberal democracy, they did succeed in unseating longtime American allies in Tunisia and Egypt, while straining U.S. ties with Gulf Arab countries and even Iraq. As McCoy writes, “All modern empires have relied on dependable surrogates to translate their global power into local control.” He adds, “For most of them, the moment when those elites began to stir, talk back, and assert their own agendas was also the moment when you knew that imperial collapse was in the cards.” The British empire famously became a “self-liquidating concern” when local elites across the empire began demanding self-rule, as did France’s far-flung rule when it was forced to wage a grinding war of attrition to keep control over Algeria. The Arab Spring and the forces it unleashed, which have reduced U.S. influence while exhausting its resources to deal with terrorism and migration, “may well contribute, in the fullness of time, to the eclipse of American global power…”

Partly as a consequence of so many self-inflicted losses, China, Russia, and Iran have all mounted growing challenges to American hegemony in recent years, contesting the tenets of the U.S.-enforced order in the South China Sea, eastern Europe and the Middle East, respectively. Russia has successfully annexed territory and asserted its influence along its periphery, in places like Ukraine, while China has moved ahead with plans to put the economically-vital South China Sea region under its control. Instead of a world in which a hegemonic U.S. enforces the political and economic rules of engagement in these regions, its now possible to see a future in which the world is carved up into a “spheres of influence” system that gives regional powers wide latitude to set the agenda in their immediate neighborhood.

Love the republic, hate the empire. Or at least let the empire go and maybe breathe a sigh of relief to let some of the self-imposed responsibility go with it. But if we are going to do that, we need to support and strengthen international institutions that promote peace, trade, and human rights. Instead we seem to be abandoning those institutions at the same time we are abdicating responsibility.

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery is an Australian scientist and author who wrote a popular 2007 book on global warming called The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth. He has a new book out called Sunlight and Seaweed: An Argument for How to Feed, Power and Clean Up the World, which appears to be about, among other things, growing kelp on a massive scale to absorb carbon.

By the way, I don’t sell anything on this site. I’m not against selling things necessarily, but when I signed up as an Amazon affiliate nobody ever bought anything. So I’m just embedding the book covers below for convenience and because I kind of like book cover art.

why buddhism is true

I learned about Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment through a Fresh Air podcast (embedded below). The interesting thesis is that mindfulness meditation is the antidote for a lot of what is wrong with the human condition, such as always wanting more than we have, and then not being happy when we get it. You argue that a modern meditation practice could achieve these goals without the religious angle, but the author’s thesis is that the Buddhists correctly diagnosed the human condition thousands of years ago (however old Buddhism is, I was a little too lazy to look it up).

The only thing that makes me wary of Buddhism, but this applies to almost all religions, is that a social elite can use it to encourage people to accept things the way they are rather than envision a better future and be willing to fight for it. Then again, maybe part of the human condition is a fundamental conflict between being happy in the moment and being unsatisfied with the way things are and willing to fight for a better future. Perhaps the middle ground is to take some time each day to reflect on all the things that are good about the moment we find ourselves in. I personally like to also take a little time to nurture that deep down flame of anger about the way certain things are, because it motivates me to want to change them. If everyone just exists peacefully in the moment all the time, nothing will ever change.

Richard Florida: The New Urban Crisis

Richard Florida has a new(ish) book out called The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It. You can also get the general idea from this article he wrote in City Lab. He offers five policy prescriptions, which I summarize below.

  • land value tax – Tax the value of land rather than the value of the developed property on it, so that land owners have a disincentive to sit on property and an incentive to develop it to the most economically valuable use a particular neighborhood will support. (My take – I like this idea. I wouldn’t get rid of zoning and building codes, but these can focus on the “look and feel” of the neighborhood rather than restricting height or density, requiring or prohibiting a certain amount of parking, etc. There also needs to be a strategy to preserve a certain amount of public open space under a system like this, whether it is public or held by some sort of land trust.)
  • invest heavily in public transportation – This decreases commute times, allowing people to live in more affordable locations and work in higher wage ones. (My take: makes sense, although we should rethink whether the same old 20th or even 19th-century ideas of public transportation and transportation agencies are going to serve us well in the 21st. I think we need flexible routes, flexible vehicles, and flexible modes that can adapt to changes in the economy, landscape and technology as they come.)
  • end the mortgage interest deduction so single-family homes are not unfairly subsidized relative to multi-family rental housing. (My take: makes perfect economic sense, but this would need to be phased in over a long period of time to not be a slap in the face to today’s middle class and working class homeowners who have made their decisions under the current system.)
  • Set minimum wage at 50% of median wage on a city-by-city basis – his argument is that this is essentially how the high-wage manufacturing jobs of the U.S. postwar period were created. He brings up Henry Ford and the idea that even if prices go up somewhat, a newly broadened middle class is able to afford them. (My take – I’ve always been a little skeptical of minimum wage as a policy prescription because it only redivides the pie rather than growing the pie, at least in the short term.)
  • Better fund public education, including early childhood development programs. What is there really left to say about this, except it is shameful we haven’t been doing it all along?
  • Guaranteed minimum income, or negative income tax. The idea is to replace the hodgepodge of housing, food and other assistance programs we have now with cash outlays to the poor, which they can then decide how to spend on market price goods. (My take – it could be done in a revenue neutral way, and should appeal to rational, logical parties of all political stripes. Of course, politics and human nature are not particularly rational or logical, especially lately.)

Naomi Klein

In The Intercept, Naomi Klein warns that the Trump administration could be waiting for a crisis to advance the worst of its agenda, including extreme income redistribution (from the poor to corporations and the rich, of course).

Large-scale shocks are frequently harnessed to ram through despised pro-corporate and anti-democratic policies that would never have been feasible in normal times. It’s a phenomenon I have previously called the “Shock Doctrine,” and we have seen it happen again and again over the decades, from Chile in the aftermath of Augusto Pinochet’s coup to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

And we have seen it happen recently, well before Trump, in U.S. cities including Detroit and Flint, where looming municipal bankruptcy became the pretext for dissolving local democracy and appointing “emergency managers” who waged war on public services and public education. It is unfolding right now in Puerto Rico, where the ongoing debt crisis has been used to install the unaccountable “Financial Oversight and Management Board,” an enforcement mechanism for harsh austerity measures, including cuts to pensions and waves of school closures. This tactic is being deployed in Brazil, where the highly questionable impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 was followed by the installation of an unelected, zealously pro-business regime that has frozen public spending for the next 20 years, imposed punishing austerity, and begun selling off airports, power stations, and other public assets in a frenzy of privatization.

As Milton Friedman wrote long ago, “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” Survivalists stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; these guys stockpile spectacularly anti-democratic ideas.

Her list of potential shocks includes terror shock, war shock, economic shocks, and weather shocks. I would put any amount of money on at least one of these happening in the next four years.

Naomi Klein has a new book coming out called No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need.

The Allure of Battle

This is a new book arguing that winning battles is not enough to win a war. From Amazon:

History has tended to measure war’s winners and losers in terms of its major engagements, battles in which the result was so clear-cut that they could be considered “decisive.” Cannae, Konigsberg, Austerlitz, Midway, Agincourt-all resonate in the literature of war and in our imaginations as tide-turning. But these legendary battles may or may not have determined the final outcome of the wars in which they were fought. Nor has the “genius” of the so-called Great Captains – from Alexander the Great to Frederick the Great and Napoleon – play a major role. Wars are decided in other ways.

Cathal J. Nolan’s The Allure of Battle systematically and engrossingly examines the great battles, tracing what he calls “short-war thinking,” the hope that victory might be swift and wars brief. As he proves persuasively, however, such has almost never been the case. Even the major engagements have mainly contributed to victory or defeat by accelerating the erosion of the other side’s defences. Massive conflicts, the so-called “people’s wars,” beginning with Napoleon and continuing until 1945, have consisted of and been determined by prolonged stalemate and attrition, industrial wars in which the determining factor has been not military but matériel.

Nolan’s masterful book places battles squarely and mercilessly within the context of the wider conflict in which they took place. In the process it help corrects a distorted view of battle’s role in war, replacing popular images of the “battles of annihilation” with somber appreciation of the commitments and human sacrifices made throughout centuries of war particularly among the Great Powers. Accessible, provocative, exhaustive, and illuminating, The Allure of Battle will spark fresh debate about the history and conduct of warfare.