Tag Archives for " global warming "

Overpopulation in fiction and on film

overpopulationMake Room! Make Room!, by Harry Harrison

@@@ (3 out of 5)

In 1973, American filmgoers were shocked by a film entitled Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston and Leigh Taylor-Young. The film depicts New York City in 2022 with a population of 40 million. The streets are crowded with homeless people, but those few with jobs and a place to live in a dilapidated apartment are little better off: starvation is no more than a slender paycheck away. Water and food are rationed. Most people barely survive on food substitutes from the Soylent Corporation. Euthanasia is encouraged. When the Soylent Corporation introduces a nutritious new wafer of “high-energy plankton,” Soylent Green,  the demand is far greater than the supply. At length we learn that the bodies of the aged who submit to an early death are processed in a Soylent Corporation plant and converted into . . . yes, Soylent Green.

Overpopulation is the central issue

The film was loosely based on science fiction writer Harry Harrrison‘s novel Make Room! Make Room!, which had been published six years earlier—emphasis on “loosely.” Harrison did not envision a society fed with the products of human remains. Soylent steaks consist of soybean and lentil. Nor did euthanasia figure into his story; instead, the Eldsters constitute an aggressive pressure group often to be found demonstrating on the streets of the city. Harrison’s concern was overpopulation, a subject of intense public debate in those days. (Paul Ehrlich‘s seminal work, The Population Bomb, was published just two years after the novel, further raising the profile of the issue.)

Other themes enter into Harrison’s story, such as global warming, depleted natural resources, failing government, violent conflict over restricted water supplies, and corruption, and the deterioration of the city’s housing stock and infrastructure. For example, motorized transportation is rare. Pedicabs have replaced taxis, and “tugtrucks” carry commerce around the city. But Harrison could not have been clearer that his central concern was overpopulation. The food shortage has become so severe that the price of a bottle of whiskey is unattainable except to the rich. “There was almost none being made now because of the grain shortage . . . ”

Overpopulation isn’t an issue just in New York City or the USA. “All of England is just one big city . . .” Rural areas in the U.S. are crowded, too—and everyone, everywhere, suffers from the endless crush of humanity. Typhoid and dysentery are spreading rapidly because of the lack of water for sanitation. “The whole country is one big farm and one big appetite.” This is a Malthusian nightmare.

Here’s how one rioter describes the pathetic lives people live in 1999 New York: “The authorities have seen to it that we cannot work no matter how fit or able we are. And they have fixed the tiny, insulting, miserable handouts that we are supposed to live on and at the same time see to it that money buys less and less every year, every month, almost every day . . .” Rations of food, water, and other necessities, even paper, are repeatedly cut. The housing stock is so inadequate that “cavemen” populate the subway tunnels and millions sleep on the streets.

A police procedural that ends in tragedy

The central figures in Harrison’s tale are 30-year-old Andrew (Andy) Rusch, a detective third class in the New York Police Department, and Billy Chung, a teenager driven by hunger to become a burglar. Andy shares a single room with an old man named Sol. Billy lives with his large family in Shiptown on one of the many old Liberty Ships that have been strung across the Hudson River and converted into slum housing. When Billy burgles an apartment in a wealthy housing development—one that’s not just gated but surrounded by a moat as well—he accidentally murders the owner. Unfortunately, the owner is a notorious mob figure named “Big Mike” O’Brien who serves as a liaison between the “syndicate” and the city’s political establishment. Andy is assigned to the case. Almost invariably, murders are essentially ignored; there are simply too many to bother. Most police time goes into riot control. But the syndicate pressures the police department to solve Big Mike’s murder—because the Boss fears that it was the work of a rival mob in New Jersey. Andy grudgingly pursues the case, working 18-hour days for weeks. His only reward is meeting Big Mike’s mistress, Shirl; the two fall in love, and Shirl moves in with Andy and Sol. All’s well at first. But when Andy gets close to tracking down Billy and is working virtually around the clock, Shirl leaves him. The story ends in tragedy. There is no escape from Harrison’s gloomy vision.

Harrison’s view of overpopulation is simplistic

Sol tries to explain the problem of overpopulation to Andy, explaining what he’d observed in Mexico in 1949: “They never baptize the kids until after they are a year old because most of them are dead by that time and baptisms cost a lot of money. That’s why there never used to be a population problem. The whole world used to be one big Mexico, breeding and dying and just about staying even.” What changed was the arrival of modern medicine. “Everything had a cure. Malaria was wiped out along with all the other diseases that had been killing people young and keeping the population down. Death control arrived.” Sol contrasts “death control” with population control, which he asserts is the sole solution to overpopulation. He rails against Congress, which, under pressure from religious zealots, has resisted decades of efforts to legalize population control.

About the author

American science fiction author Harry Harrison wrote 58 novels. He was a popular figure in the science fiction community. He died in 2012 at the age of 87.




A colony on Mars? Really?

colony on MarsA review of Beyond: Our Future in Space, by Chris Impey

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A colony on Mars? Really?

Some of us grasp the existential crisis humanity faces today, and fear that global climate change, an asteroid collision, a super volcano, a viral pandemic, or some other easily imaginable catastrophe could put an end to the human project — if not the human race — by the beginning of the next century. By contrast, congenital optimists foresee a glorious future for humanity among the stars. Here, for example, is astronomer Chris Impey, writing about Our Future in Space: “the space industry may be where the Internet was in 1995, ready to soar. . . Leaving Earth may soon be cheap and safe enough that it becomes an activity for the masses rather than the experience of a privileged few.” Others take a similar view — Stephen Hawking, for instance, who asserts that “the human race doesn’t have a future unless it goes into space.”

So, if you’re wedded to a gloomy view of our species’ destiny, you probably won’t enjoy this book. For my part, there’s just enough of the optimist left in me to find Chris Impey’s vision intriguing. Not totally convincing — I’m still wringing my hands over climate change and a possible pandemic — but well argued and totally grounded in a deep understanding of science.

Here is Impey’s thesis: “The itch that led our ancestors to risk everything to travel in small boats across large bodies of water like the Pacific Ocean is related to the drive that will one day lead us to colonize Mars.” This “itch,” Impey argues, arises from our DNA. Today, hardly more than 500 human beings have left our planetary home to venture into space, most of them barely so, in orbital and sub-orbital trips. Tomorrow — by mid-century, Impey believes — tens of thousands will have had that experience and dozens will be setting up our first permanent home on Mars.

Don’t think for a minute that Impey is some starry-eyed fantasist: first and foremost, he’s a scientist. Our Future in Space is laid out in three parts: Present, Future, and Beyond. At each level, the author grounds his story in facts. He describes the origins of the US space program in Wernher von Braun’s V-2 rockets and the arms race with the USSR. In discussing the challenges of the next several decades, he is unrelentingly honest: “traveling into space is four hundred times more dangerous than flying but only twice as risky as driving.” This is not a throwaway line; Impey cites the statistics to prove this. In fact, he draws on a fount of fascinating numbers, explaining that today’s spacecraft are “mostly just hauling fuel around: the actual payload was 4 percent for the Saturn V and 1 percent for the Space Shuttle.” Even in Beyond, where Impey ventures far into a possible future among the stars, his feet remain firmly planted on terra firma. Though he draws analogies from Star Trek and science fiction novels, he never leaves the reader in any doubt that he is fully aware it’s all speculation.

Chris Impey is a University Distinguished Professor and Deputy Head of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona. He’s also a prolific author. Our Future in Space is his eighth book.



What makes social change happen?

social changeA review of The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges, by Zaid Hassan

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

“Planning based-approaches — so common across government, civil society, and even business — represent a neo-Soviet paradigm” and have long been shown to be at best minimally effective in fostering meaningful social change.

If that assertion is a revelation to you, you’re sure to find The Social Labs Revolution illuminating. No matter how familiar you may be with economic development, urban planning, or other fields in which disciplined planning is a fixture, you’re likely to discover something new in this challenging book.

The author, Zaid Hassan, has built a consulting business on the basis of his belief that, instead of “strategic planning” by “experts,” the world’s most urgent and compelling problems can be solved only by bringing together large, diverse teams representing every aspect of the population that is most directly affected. Working together over months or years as a “social lab,” a team consisting of as many as 36 people struggles together but, eventually, and after considerable conflict and unhappiness, will arrive at a set of practical approaches to prototype as the first stage in solving the problem they share. At its core, a social lab is characterized in three ways: it’s social, it’s experimental, and it’s systemic (in that the ideas that emerge “aspire to be systemic in nature.”). Work within the lab is based on the “U Process” championed by Otto Scharmer.

The problems Hassan and his colleagues choose to address are invariably deep-seated and often life-threatening. The Social Labs Revolution focuses on three long-running experiments, one on sustainable food, a second on malnutrition in urban children (specifically, those living in Maharashtra state in India), and the third on stabilizing the (notoriously unstable) nation of Yemen. For example, the first of these three, a Sustainable Food Lab, was global in scope and participation, bringing together participants from government (Brazil, The Netherlands), civil society (World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy), and corporate food companies (Unilever, General Mills) who worked together for two years. The author credits the team with putting “sustainability” on the radar screens of global food companies.

As Hassan concedes, his consultancy, Reos Partners, is not alone in advancing the social lab technology. He also mentions a Chilean innovation, SociaLab, which addresses new enterprises to alleviate poverty, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT, and points to a number of similar though less structured examples such as Greenpeace’s Mobilisation Lab, set in motion “‘to break through and win on threats to people and the planet.'”

The Social Labs Revolution is blissfully short and easy to digest, with the exception of an annoying digression into an academic discussion of the philosophy underlying the social labs concept. I don’t know about you, but whenever I come across repeated references (13 of them) to the philosopher Martin Heidegger and his disciples, or any other recognizable name from the ranks of dead white philosophers, I head for the exits. Instead of that digression, I would have enjoyed a more detailed discussion of the results that emerged from the three social labs mentioned most prominently in the book. What Hassan offers is spotty and inadequate.

Nitpicking: Someone — the author, the editor, or the proofreader, I know not who, or what potential combination of them — seems to believe that Jack Welch was “the legendary CEO of General Motors.” Fact-checker, please!



Do vegetarians love animals more than people?

vegetariansEating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a vegetarian. However, living as I do in Berkeley, California, from time to time I find myself in the minority at dinners and potlucks. So, as you might imagine, over the years I’ve come to hear most of the arguments against eating animals. 
One thing has always puzzled me about the torrent of passion that invariably erupts when I question why I, or anyone else, should become a vegetarian (much less a vegan): apart from a few rejoinders that the practice of limiting my diet to plants will improve my health, extend my life, and make me a better person overall, most — maybe 80 percent of the verbiage — concerns cruelty to animals.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like furry little animals as well as the next person. Over the course of my long life, I’ve had dogs, cats, and rabbits as well as a few less cuddly animals such as turtles and fish as (dare I say it?) pets. Nor do I kick dogs or other helpless beasts when I’m angry or frustrated with other human beings.

But why do so many people justify vegetarianism on the basis of animal cruelty when the practice of raising animals for food in factory farms promises to drown our country in shit and spew so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that it may eventually inundate low-lying coastal cities like Berkeley and make our planet uninhabitable for the human race? 

Where’s your perspective, people? Cheez! We’re already eliminating a million species a year from the biosphere by encroaching on animal habitat and screwing with the climate, and you’re worried about hurting chickens and cows?

Do I want to hurt chickens or cows? Of course not! I’ve even petted a heifer or two myself over the years. But still . . .

To give due credit, Jonathan Safran Foer does explain some of the environmental consequences of factory farming in Eating Animals. But his foray into the hidden depths of this tragically misconceived industry is almost exclusively focused on — guess what? — animal cruelty. His descriptions of the way animals are treated are purposely graphic and sometimes hard to take. PETA will love this book. If you don’t have an iron stomach, you might not.

Eating Animals is Foer’s first venture into book-length nonfiction. It’s his fourth book. The novels that preceded it, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, have attracted critical acclaim, including a number of literary awards, and both are being adapted to film. (He also produced a strange  work of fiction that was more a sculpture than a book.) For what it’s worth, I tried reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close but couldn’t get past the first few pages. However, Eating Animals is brilliantly crafted. Foer’s writing style, perhaps even his personality, come through loud and clear. He’s obviously a brilliant young man, and if he can avoid falling prey to the silly experimentalism of some of his early work, he’s got a great career ahead of him.

Oh, by the way, are you wondering why I haven’t become a vegetarian? Well, that’s another story . . .

Note: I’m away at Pinchot University for several days, serving as a “Change Agent in Residence” at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute business school. That’s why I’m re-running this review, first posted in December 2012. 

February 24, 2014

Are we living through the Sixth Extinction?

Sixth ExtinctionThe Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

You probably know that you and I — actually, all of us collectively, homo sapiens the species — are responsible for a truly alarming reduction in the number of other species on Planet Earth. But apart from occasional stories in the media about endangered polar bears and black rhinos and the like, you may feel, as I do, that it’s tough to get terribly excited. As it turns out, only a handful of these disappearing species are “charismatic” large animals. In fact, nearly all of them are small, many of them vanishingly so; they’re plants as well as animals, few of them even with names, and they’re hidden away in tropical forests. From a scientific perspective, that’s no less serious. But the PR angle is tough to find.

A brilliant new book

In an outstanding new book, The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert tackles this challenge with considerable success. Kolbert, a science journalist on the staff of The New Yorker, spoke about the mass extinction now underway in an illuminating presentation last Wednesday to a large and attentive audience at the Hillside Club, under the auspices of Berkeley Arts & Letters. Her talk, like the book, was a sobering wake-up call.

Kolbert conducted extensive research for the book, including many thousands of miles of travel to visit scientists in research centers and in the field all across the globe. In The Sixth Extinction, and in a sketchier way during her presentation, she let us tag along, shaping each chapter around one of these trips, from Antarctica to the Amazon. The scientists she interviewed for the book include ecologists, biologists, geologists, paleontologists, geneticists, and authoritative figures in many other fields. She reports what she learned in straightforward, easily accessible language, resorting to a bare minimum of jargon. Though deeply disturbing, the book is a pleasure to read. (I wouldn’t expect anything less from a New Yorker staff writer.)

It transpires that we humans have been at this project of eliminating other species for a very long time — and we hold the dubious honor of being the only species to play an instrumental role in engineering such a large-scale killing spree. The five previous mass extinctions recorded by science over the past 630 million years were all the result of climate change.

As Kolbert emphasized in her remarks, there’s evidence going back more than 40,000 years to the arrival of  homo sapiens in Australia, when we began systematically eliminating the enormous megafauna (gargantuan sloths, Brobdingnagian kangaroos, and so forth) that were common there in that era. Not that the animals they found were threatening them physically. Apparently, the new, human predators simply found the big beasts good to eat. Similar things happened in North America some 25,000 years later, when the original human settlers of what we now call the Western Hemisphere crossed the land bridge from Siberia and began hungrily devouring the mastodons and other huge animals they encountered. There don’t seem to have been any vegetarians among the forebears of today’s Native Americans.

Welcome to the Anthropocene Age

Fast-forward another few thousand years to the end of the last Ice Age roughly 12,000 years ago, shortly after which humans began farming and animal husbandry, and the extinction gained momentum. Then, about 500 years ago, the Columbian Exchange that came on the heels of early European exploration of the New World made matters worse by transferring innumerable plants and animals, diseases, and more aggressive farming techniques from one side of the Atlantic to the other. But it wasn’t until the advent of the Industrial Revolution that the pace began picking up steam (as it were). Then, the ingenuity that gave rise to large cities, railroads, and fast-growing human population ushered in what Kolbert refers to (following a number of eminent scientists) the Anthropocene Age. In that transition, we humans passed the point at which we were simply co-existing with other species and became the arbiters of their survival.

Today, in the full expression of the Anthropocene, we are advancing the extinction of the planet’s gloriously varied plant and animal kingdoms at a furious pace.

A black comedy of unintended consequences

Global warming is, of course, the most obvious means by which we’re engineering this dubious achievement. We’ve all heard a lot about that.

An equally if not even more serious consequence of the extraordinary amounts of carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere every year is the dramatic acidification of the oceans. As you’re probably aware, one of the early results of this phenomenon is that the world’s coral reefs are beginning to die — and, as Kolbert reveals, coral reefs support “at least half a million and possibly as many as nine million species.” All the extra carbon dioxide we’ve released since 1800 has already made the oceans’ surface about thirty percent more acidic; at the current rate of carbon absorption, by the turn of the 22nd Century the oceanic ecosystem will start to crash. Kolbert reports a conversation with a British scientist who said, “in his understated British manner[,] ‘So, that is rather alarming.'” Indeed.

These two factors — global warming and ocean acidification — are far from the only causes of the current species die-off. Invasive species, a reality since the Columbian Exchange, wreak havoc in ways both large and small. The habitat loss that comes with the expansion of cities, the building of roads and railroad tracks, and the desperation of poor farmers who turn to more and more marginal land for sustenance is another significant factor. Would I be wrong to assert that all these processes are, directly or indirectly, a consequence of the alarming growth of human population? After all, our total population today — 7.2 billion — is around three times as great as it was when I was born in 1941!

Put it all together — the changing climate, the dying oceans, and the accelerating species die-off — and this is nothing less than the largest-scale ecological catastrophe since the disappearance of the dinosaurs sixty-six million years ago.

Will humanity survive?

This is the unspoken question that lurks in the background of The Sixth Extinction and, in fact, behind any discussion of the ultimate course of the changes we have set in motion on the only planet we inhabit. There is no scientific consensus on this question, but it’s one that eventually we may have to consider if the near-universal denial among the governments of the Earth continues to block effective action to slow the advance of global warming and the acidification of the oceans.

Given what we’ve seen so far, with tens of millions of dollars invested in campaigns to prevent action on climate change and willfully ignorant politicians insisting the problem is a scientific hoax, it’s difficult to be optimistic. If the planet does truly warm by an average of seven degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, how much of the land surface will remain inhabitable? And, with the oceans dead or dying, how could the human race manage to survive? (Forget that science fantasy about living underwater. If we go there, where will our food come from?)

Millions of years from now, when the rats or cockroaches have taken over the Earth, they might just erect a statue to that nameless (and apparently apocryphal) guy who cut down the last tree on Easter Island, thus securing the demise of his own people and ensuring that some other intelligent creature will inherit the planet. Because isn’t he the perfect symbol of our own mindless behavior as we humans continue to demolish the foundation on which our own lives rest?

My five favorite books of 2013

favorite booksA popular local website called Berkeleyside had asked me to pick my five favorite books for the year just ending. This proved to be a tough assignment. Of the 50 or so books I’d read so far in 2013, the easy route would have been to turn to familiar writers whose work I nearly always love. I could have picked Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behavior), Malcolm Gladwell (David and Goliath), Khaled Hosseini (And the Mountains Echoed), John LeCarré (A Delicate Truth), and Isabel Allende (Maya’s Notebook). I loved them all. But that would have been too easy. These writers all have plenty of readers. So, I decided to select books whose authors are less well known and whose work is all too easily lost amid the hundreds of thousands of new titles published every year in the US alone. Here are my five candidates, then:

Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine, by Diarmuid Jeffreys

As memories of World War II grow dim and its active participants pass away, it becomes too easy to assign blame for the war to a few highly familiar names (Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and so forth) and overlook others whose roles in the conflict may have been equally significant. This compelling and deeply researched account of the intimate between the Nazi regime and German’s largest company is a shocking reminder of how so many genteel and well-educated Germans made Hitler’s war possible. It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic example than IG Farben of business unmoored from any moral purpose — not just supplying the products that literally fueled the Nazi war machine and sponsoring the gruesome research of Dr. Josef Mengele (the notorious “Angel of Death”), but going so far as to build its own concentration camp for Jewish slave laborers at Auschwitz.

Read my full review here.

1The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

Here’s a Western set in California during the Gold Rush that’s more Deadwood than Gunsmoke, a novel imbued with the spirit and the cadences of speech of the real Old West. It had to be: The Sisters Brothers was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and the panjandrums who manage that process aren’t known to show favor to run-of-the-mill genre writing. The Sisters brothers of the title are notorious hired killers in the employ of a mysterious and powerful man known only as the Commodore. They emerge from the page fully fleshed and displaying their own all too believable quirks and idiosyncrasies. I rarely read Westerns, but this one bowled me over.

Read my full review here.

The Night Ranger, by Alex Berenson

It’s hard to find a thriller writer who is more diligent or more ingenious at research than Alex Berenson, a former New York Times correspondent. In The Night Ranger, the seventh novel in his excellent series featuring John Wells (ex-Army, ex-CIA), Berenson casts a spotlight on one of the greatest tragedies on Earth, the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the recurring drought and unending civil war in Somalia. The action is virtually non-stop, and tension builds steadily toward a shattering climax, making the book progressively more difficult to set aside.

Read my full review here.

1Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright

Why is Scientology such an object of fascination when their followers (estimated at 25,000 in the US) are less than half as numerous as those who identify themselves as Rastafarians? Lawrence Wright provides the definitive answer to this question. Just seven years ago Wright’s masterful book about Al Qaeda, The Looming Tower, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. If anything, Going Clear represents an even greater accomplishment, putting to shame previous efforts to tell the story of the notoriously secretive and litigious cult called Scientology. In the pages of this brilliant book, the cast of far-fetched characters who populate the Church come to life, their pretensions, insecurities, contradictions, and (often) mental illnesses on display for all to see — despite Wright’s intensive effort to be fair at every turn.

Read my full review here.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk — winner of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction — is, hands down, the most successful anti-war novel to come out of the Iraq War. It’s a funny book, beautifully written, and I suspect it conveys about as well as any humorless treatment a sense of the war in Iraq from the perspective of the Americans who fought it face to face with insurgents. Ben Fountain finds nearly everyone in sight — Hollywood, Texas billionaires, and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, for starters — to be fair game for satire, and he’s very, very good at it.

Read my full review here.

And if my five top picks — well, ten, really — aren’t enough for you, you might check out an extraordinary list of favorite-book lists here. The sheer number of these lists will blow your mind!

Books That Make Great Gifts

1Here’s a baker’s dozen of recent books, both fiction and nonfiction. What they’ve got in common is that they’re all well written, and I found every one of them engrossing. Any one of these will make a great gift for the right person. They’re arranged in alphabetical order by title, with a link to my review embedded in each title.

Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black 

For that mystery-lover who gravitates toward crime stories set in other times and places, this superb novel set in 1950s Dublin will be sure to satisfy.

Critical Mass, by Sara Paretsky

Sara Paretsky fan or not, any faithful reader of superior detective fiction will find it hard to put down this complex novel that revolves around the crimes of the Holocaust.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell

Once again, Malcolm Gladwell dazzles with his talent to challenge age-old assumptions with surprising new evidence.

The Double, by George Pelecanos

For the mystery fan whose taste runs to gritty urban crime, the novels of George Pelecanos — the lead writer on “The Wire” — stand out for tension and authenticity.

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

Always brilliant, Barbara Kingsolver delves into the depths of the human soul in this fascinating speculative tale about the consequences of climate change.

1Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine, by Diarmuid Jeffreys

Any devotee of 20th Century history will relish this thoroughly researched journey into the workings of Germany’s largest business, which played a strategic role in Hitler’s rise and in his ability to wage war.

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty, by Nina Munk

A critical biography of the world-famous economist and his ill-fated project to end poverty.

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson

Any history buff will revel in this balanced biographical sketch of T. E. Lawrence in the context of the contemporary figures who worked the same territory for competing masters.

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

For pure reading pleasure, it’s difficult to top this novel of love, loss, and revolution which was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist and on the short list for the Man Booker Prize.

The Night Ranger, by Alex Berenson

This intelligent thriller by a former New York Times reporter will delight any reader of suspenseful fiction with its tale of conflict and betrayal in and around the refugee camps of northern Kenya.

1Season of the Witch, by David Talbot

That friend or loved one who lives in or near San Francisco will exult in this lively portrait of the tumult that enveloped the City by the Bay in the 1960s and 70s.

Year Zero: A History of 1945, by Ian Buruma

It was the year that the world turned upside down amid the ruins of the Second World War, as empires crumbled and the Cold War began.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan

This revisionist history of Jesus and his times is must reading for any reader of religious history — or anyone intrigued by the origins of contemporary Christianity.


Will solar energy replace fossil fuels? An expert seems to think so


A review of Rooftop Revolution: How Solar Power Can Save Our Economy — and our Planet — from Dirty Energy, by Danny Kennedy

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

The basic facts are clear. The US must move to solar and other forms of renewable energy to slow down global warming; lower the environmental costs of extracting coal, oil, and natural gas; reduce the adverse public health impact of fossil fuel emissions; and end our dependency on overseas sources of petroleum.

But did you know that the move to solar energy is inevitable? That, sooner or later, the economic advantages of solar will be so compelling that the relatively few people today who still believe the coal and oil industries’ propaganda will eventually be forced to decide to install photovoltaic panels on their rooftops and commercial buildings?

That’s the message that emerges from reading between the lines of Rooftop Revolution, the paean to solar energy by Danny Kennedy, one of the avatars of the rising solar industry. Kennedy demonstrates with a wealth of statistics and a captivating narrative that the price of solar electricity from rooftop installations is on such a steep downward track, the pace of technological innovation in the industry is so swift, and the price of oil is on such an inevitable long-term rising trend, that within a very few years it will become impossible to ignore the widening gap in cost between electricity from solar and that from fossil-fuel generating plants — a gap in favor of solar.

Not so incidentally, Kennedy reports, “the tide turned in 2010 when fully half of new electric generation coming online globally was renewable. In the United States, renewables were 25 percent of new electric generation.” And “going solar by 2015 will be economically rational for two-thirds of the households in the United States.”

However, Kennedy makes it clear that he isn’t satisfied to let history run its course. The urgent need to lower global warming, and the potential of solar energy to create millions of desperately needed new jobs, together force him to advocate for public support to urge changes in state and federal energy policy.

In Rooftop Revolution, Kennedy makes a powerful case for the adoption of solar on the basis of its job-creating power alone: the solar energy industry hires roughly twice as many people as the fossil fuel business per dollar invested. And the total number of jobs in the solar industry is growing at a ferocious pace while employment in the fossil fuel sector is shrinking.

As the author makes clear, a sensible federal policy of incentives to promote solar and not to encourage the use of fossil fuels could greatly speed up the move to solar energy. However, the powers that be in Washington DC have decided otherwise. Despite all the cries of foul from the US Chamber of Commerce and the oil industry that the government is giving away the store to the solar industry — they point to Solyndra as “proof” — the facts tell us a much different story. In fact, the oil, coal, and natural gas industry has received federal subsidies in the last decade that are more than an order of magnitude greater than those granted to renewables (about 10 times for nuclear, 11 times for natural gas and petroleum, and 22 times for coal!).

About that Solyndra case, by the way: the company was the only one of more than 40 firms that received loans under the same program and proceeded to fail, and the loan program had already set aside more than five times the loss from Solyndra as a reserve against bad loans.

Kennedy quotes Jeremy Rifkin’s assertion that “The great economic revolutions in history occur when new communications technologies converge with new energy systems.” This statement, which encapsulates the thesis of Rifkin’s 2011 book, The Third Industrial Revolution (reviewed here), meshes with Kennedy’s thinking in his description of the changing character of the electricity market. As the number of solar-equipped buildings on the grid increases, the role of the power companies will start to shift, employing them as brokers of a sort, managing the flow of the surplus electricity to fill in gaps elsewhere on the grid. However, Rifkin envisions this becoming the predominant or sole role of the power companies by mid-century; if Kennedy believes that, he doesn’t indicate so in Rooftop Revolution. Instead, he dwells on the technical challenges facing the industry to incorporate surplus solar energy amounting to even less than half the total power in the system. The technology to accomplish that is almost market-ready, Kennedy points out, but it’s not there yet.

Rooftop Revolution offers an appealing overview of the present and prospects for solar energy, written in an engaging conversational style and brought to life by the author’s autobiographical asides and his brief profiles of a number of the leading lights in bringing the power of the sun to life on Earth.

Danny Kennedy is a co-founder and Executive Vice President of Sungevity, a fast-growing firm in Oakland, California, that installs custom-fitted residential solar systems around the US and now in The Netherlands as well. Kennedy was a campaign manager for Greenpeace for many years before launching Sungevity and is widely considered a leading authority on global energy issues.

Will the human race survive climate change and a mass extinction?

mass extinction - Scatter, Adapt, and   Remember - Annalee NewitzScatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Come what may, the human race is heading toward a fall.

As Berkeley Ph.D. Annalee Newitz writes, “the world has been almost completely destroyed at least half a dozen times already in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history . . . Each of these disasters caused mass extinctions, during which more than 75 percent of the species on Earth died out. And yet every single time, living creatures carried on, adapting to survive under the harshest conditions.”

In Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, Newitz explores what humankind must do to be among the survivors of the next mass extinction. Because, as she emphasizes, there will inevitably be a next time. If the current acceleration in species death — think honeybees and frogs — isn’t an early stage of a full-blown mass extinction, something else really, really bad will surely happen sooner or later. Thus it is, Newitz insists, “we need a long-term plan to get humanity off Earth. We need cities beyond the Blue Marble, oases on other worlds where we can scatter to survive even cosmic disasters.”

For me, as a long-time science fiction reader (and once-upon-a-time sf writer), this assertion is not news. Nor are the apocalyptic scenarios she paints, with massive asteroids or comets crashing into the Earth, megavolcanos blanketing the Earth with soot and ash that trigger an Ice Age, bursts of cosmic radiation frying all life on the planet, an incurable contagious disease gone pandemic, or, worst of all — here’s the surprise — climate change.

Yes, it turns out that the worst of the half-dozen mass extinctions science has brought to light “involved climate change similar to the one our planet is undergoing right now.” During that distant period, around 250 million years ago, “95 percent of all species on the planet were wiped out over a span of roughly 100,000 years . . .” And lest you take comfort in the hope that our brush with such a catastrophe lies in the distant future, please note that some in the scientific community date the beginning of the current mass extinction to a time about 15,000 years ago when human invaders from Asia began to exterminate the giant fauna of the Americas (mammoths, giant elk, sloths, and other species).

Newitz, a science journalist and award-winning blogger, divides Scatter, Adapt, and Remember into four sections. In Part I, she surveys the history of mass extinctions. Part II focuses on homo sapiens‘ close calls — from the population bottlenecks in the earliest days of our species in Africa a million years ago, to our recent competition with Neanderthals and homo erectus, to the horrific pandemics that have lowered our numbers, to the widespread incidence of famine throughout our history. In Part III, Newitz examines the successful strategies employed by homo sapiens and other species (including microbes and gray whales) to survive in the face of existential threats. These strategies give the book its title: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember. Part IV makes the case that humanity will only survive in cities and explains “How to Build a Death-Proof City” in which every surface is used to grow food. Part V looks to the far future — a million years or more — with humanity spreading out to the stars.
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember features excerpts from the author’s face-to-face interviews with scientists working on the frontiers of exploration in synthetic biology, nanotechnology, materials science, and many other contemporary fields. There’s scarcely a chapter without a smattering of references to working scientists. Newitz’s views emerge from a solid base of understanding of the latest findings in a wide range of scientific inqiury.
However, Newitz also reveals her love for science fiction by drawing ideas and examples from the work of some of the craft’s most celebrated writers (as do many practicing scientists and engineers, not so incidentally). In particular, she calls out the work of the late Octavia Butler to illustrate the ethical quandaries posed by the threat of extinction in one possible far future for humanity.
Alternately troubling and inspiring, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember is ultimately an intrinsically hopeful proposition from a brilliant young visionary. Annalee Newitz is a name to watch. 

Ten Big Issues Washington Is Ducking

This is the time of year when most of us record the New Year’s resolutions that will load us with guilt throughout the year because we never follow through with them. So, for a change this year, I decided to take stock not of my own life but of the state of our nation. What follows is my best effort to list (in no particular order) the ten most significant issues that the White House and the Congress should be addressing – but aren’t, and maybe never will. I write in the wake of a long-delayed compromise between the two parties, a deal that nobody likes and that, in its superficiality, illustrates just how far off the mark our elected leadership has strayed.

1.     Public corruption

The dominance of money in politics is the root cause of much that ails us. Massive campaign spending, combined with lavish lobbying efforts, is largely responsible for corporate welfare, our shockingly inequitable tax code, the dangerous bloating of the financial sector, and the corporate dominance of the news media. It’s also a major factor in the country’s continuing dependence on fossil fuels. Every one of these issues cries out for systemic change, but in a society where the U.S. Supreme Court’s outrageous Citizens United decision holds sway, it’s difficult to see how any meaningful change can be enacted. The source of the problem lies deeper than policy, in the values that corporate money has sold to the public – at heart, the delusion that freedom means independence from government oversight, that society offers a level playing field to all comers, and that success can only be fairly rewarded if the winners take all. In The Self-Made Myth (reviewed here), Bryan Miller and Mike Lapham expose this value set for the illogical and self-serving approach that it is.

2.     Military overreach

The United States spends more than $700 billion annually on what is characterized with Orwellian skill as “defense.” This amount is reportedly greater than the combined military expenditures of all the rest of the nations on Earth and is certainly larger than the total spent by all our potential adversaries combined. It’s also mostly money that could be so much more productively invested in advancing our true national security – upgrading our educational system, restoring our once-undisputed lead in science and technology, combating global poverty, and tending to our long-neglected public infrastructure. The late Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback series – Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis – illuminate the extent of U.S. military overreach, and the steep price we pay for the dubious privilege of maintaining nearly 1,000 military bases around the world. We put Imperial Rome to shame.

3.     Secrecy in government

Most of what we read about secrecy in our federal government concerns the “classified” documents such as those unearthed by Wikileaks not long ago or the information turned up by investigative reporters, often after years of pursuing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits. Sadly, hiding mountains of written records behind a cloak of secrecy, reprehensible though it is, should be the least of our concerns. Far more threatening to our liberties and our future as a democratic nation are the top-secret operations of the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the Special Forces, as well as numerous other activities carried out both at home and abroad in our name under the veil of black budgets for agencies that have never seen the light of day or through seemingly innocuous contracts with private companies. The Washington Post’s Dana Priest and William M. Arkin did a spectacular job of reporting about this tragically overlooked phenomenon in Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State (reviewed here).

4.     Overspending on healthcare

The U.S. currently spends an unsustainable 17% of GDP on healthcare – about one-half more than the second-highest spender in the world (Switzerland, at 11%). Americans frequently brag that we have the finest healthcare system in the world, but that’s true only for those who can afford to pay millions for the most advanced care when a health emergency strikes. Ours is the world’s most expensive healthcare system, not the best. Most of the rest of us would be far better off in France or some other industrialized country where government covers all costs and negotiates fair prices with pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare providers. And all the current talk about “reining in the deficit” is so much pointless chatter without two straightforward policy changes that could make a truly big difference: a drastic reduction in the Pentagon budget, of course, and adopting Medicare for All, otherwise hideously labeled “single-payer healthcare.”

5.     Mass incarceration

One of my greatest disappointments with the Obama Administration is its continued prosecution of the so-called War on Drugs, the congeries of policies, police practices, and court decisions that has resulted in locking away more than two million Americans and subjecting our inner cities to a profoundly racist police regime. Michele Alexander’s landmark study, The New Jim Crow (reviewed here), lays bare the startling dimensions of these problems and their deeply rooted origins in the politics of the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton administrations. That such policies could persist two generations after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is abhorrent.

6.     Global warming

Rarely do political issues rise to the level of existential crisis. Here’s one that does. As Mark Hertsgaard illustrates in Hot (reviewed here) through interviews with leading climate scientists, the scientific consensus about the impact of climate change has become more extreme with every new report – but has never caught up with the private projections of the most knowledgeable experts. Absent dramatic policy shifts on a global scale, which are unthinkable without strong U.S. leadership, it’s possible that Planet Earth will eventually become unlivable for the human race. We’re already destroying a million species a year, and climate change is compounding the problems caused by human encroachment on animal habitat. With or without human civilization, our global environment will be very different in the 22nd Century from what it is today – at a minimum, far less hospitable to homo sapiens.

7.     The culture of violence

In the wake of yet another horrific mass murder that took the lives of so many innocents, public debate is focusing on such “solutions” as banning assault rifles and reducing the number of bullets permitted in an ammunition clip. Even if such measures could be written into law, which is unlikely, they would be laughably ineffectual. More than 9,000 people die every year of gunshots in the U.S. – rarely from assault rifles. Americans possess more than 200 million guns, most of them handguns, and can easily buy more at 51,000 licensed retail firearms dealers (compared to 36,000 grocery stores). None of this should be a surprise in a society that glorifies violence in film, television, video games, and comic books and obsesses about football, one of the most violent of contact sports. It’s time for America to grow up!

8.     Chemical pollution

Most of the 9,000 or more synthetic chemicals now used in everyday products in the U.S. were introduced after World War II. Hundreds of them leave residues in our bodies with largely unknown consequences. (Only seven percent of “high-production” chemicals have been fully tested for toxicity.) In other words, we have been carrying on a dangerous biology experiment with our lives and our children’s lives for more than two generations. What we do know is that health problems that were once unknown or rare are becoming common, including asthma, reproductive abnormalities in infants, many forms of cancer, and autism. A simple idea – the precautionary principle – could address many of these unwanted consequences by stipulating that the burden of proof about the safety of any product falls on its producer. Nearly half a century after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, isn’t it astonishing that we should still have to make this argument?

9.     A dysfunctional education system

For decades, it’s been widely recognized that many high schools are simply warehousing young people to keep them off the job market. Now it’s beginning to seem as though that’s the case with so-called higher education as well at many colleges and universities. When employers (myself included) complain that some recent college graduates can’t write or spell and either can’t read or simply choose not to do so, you’ve got to figure there’s some truth to these observations – and that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way our country educates its youth. Whether the root cause is that schools teach the wrong things, that they teach in the wrong ways, or that the wrong people are doing the teaching is impossible to tell, but clearly the truth lies in some combination of these notions – dramatically compounded by our society’s failure to invest enough money to do the job right. Taking into account the number of hours that American teachers work, they’re paid far less than teachers in almost any other industrialized country. Shame on us!

10.  A costly and dangerous food production system

An occasional outbreak of e coli infections or a newsmagazine exposé on the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in farm animals reminds us that all is not well with the way we Americans produce and procure our food. However, truth to tell, the scale and extent of the problem is far bigger than most of us understand. Ninety-nine percent of the meat we eat is produced in ways that are inhumane, ecologically unsound, and dangerous to our health. Our unrelenting hunger for meat is responsible for producing more greenhouse gases than all modes of transportation combined and is thus one of the single most significant factors in global warming. Pollution from factory farms is poisoning the water table in agricultural areas throughout the United States, and the dramatic overuse of antibiotics in farm animals that aren’t sick is exposing us all to ever more deadly antibiotic-resistant diseases. Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent book, Eating Animals (reviewed here), exposes these and other truths about our food production system.

If any of the above leads you to believe that I think the United States is in worse shape than other countries, you might consider the neglected issues I’d identify, say, in Bangladesh or Tanzania. If you don’t know from direct observation, take my word for it: they’re in far worse shape than we are.

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