Book review: This Side of Peace

April 6, 2011

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I was excited to read This Side of Peace, by Hanan Ashrawi, because I have not read (or even come across) many books by either women or non-Westerners about peace. Ashrawi is a high-ranking woman in the Palestinian movement and served as a spokesperson for the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in the 1980s and early 1990s. In this book she discusses her involvement in the events leading up to the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

I found This Side of Peace at times quite interesting and at other times quite boring. I was most interested in the parts where Ashrawi discussed her background and personal experiences, thought, and feelings. However, there was not as much of this as I expected in the book – a great part of the book was a fairly detailed account of all the negotiations Ashrawi participated in. I was not particularly interested in all the back and forth details of these negotiations and found myself even skimming a little bit at certain points.

There is no question that this book casts Israel in a negative light, but this was not unexpected since it is written by a Palestinian. I have read some critiques of the book that criticize how one-sided her perspective is – how she mentions the harmful things Israel has done to Palestinians but not vice versa. However, I don’t think Ashrawi would deny that the book is one-sided – she wrote it to give us her and the Palestinian’s perspective on the issues, not to present an unbiased look at all perspectives in the Middle East. I believe it is important to hear the Palestinian perspective from a Palestinian, not filtered through what the American media would like us to hear.

This Side of Peace also casts the United States in a negative light – from Ashrawi’s perspective, the United States negotiators who were involved in the peace process were clearly biased towards Israel rather than truely uninvolved third parties. I found this aspect and Ashrawi’s description of the negotiation process quite troubling. Of course Ashrawi’s perspective is filtered through her own desires and beliefs, but I have no doubt that negotiations do in fact follow a process similar to what she described: each side has its position, and does its best to hold firm to that position, demanding that the other side do X, Y, or Z before they will sign any agreement. Reading descriptions of these processes strengthened my belief that true peace cannot be reached through such negotiations. We need to at a minimum move away from position-based negotiation and towards interest-based mediation. As long as the parties stick firmly to their positions the best that can happen is a compromise that neither side is happy with. The “peace” that results is unlikely to be long-lasting, as we have in fact seen in the years since the famous 1993 handshake. The parties involved deserve a truly unbiased third-party intermediary guiding them through the process, rather than people working for a government that has a clear interest in one side.

I felt that the personal aspects of This Side of Peace were most effective in evoking compassion from the reader and allowing the reader to view the Palestinian people as human beings rather than simply the “other.” Ashrawi describes air raids and the complexities they had to go through simply to have adequate schooling for the children in their community. This sort of story needs to be told and heard by people on both sides if we truly want to achieve peace. Ashrawi is clearly a compassionate human being who cares deeply about her family and her people. Scattered through-out the more tedious negotiation descriptions, she had insightful comments into human rights and personal motivations. I was most touched by this passage from the first chapter:

My life has been taking shape as a Palestinian, as a woman – as mother, daughter, wife – as a Christian and a humanist, as a radical and a peace activist, as an academic and a political being. And as a composite of all these constituents, I am hopeful that one day I shall attain the only identity and name worth seeking – that of human being.

Although I was not as captivated by This Side of Peace as I hoped to be, I am glad that I read it and have therefore broadened my perspective a bit more.


Book review: The Lucifer Effect

March 4, 2011

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I was really looking forward to The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo. I had high expectations that it would provide me with a deeper understanding of how “evil” comes about. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed with it, and did not come away with the sense that I had learned much at all.

Before I delve into my critique, let me start with the caveat that I do not think I was the target audience for the book. In college I took several psychology classes, including social psychology. Therefore many of the studies and psychological principles that Zimbardo discusses in The Lucifer Effect were quite familiar to me. This is probably the major reason I did not feel that I learned much from the book; I was expecting it to somehow go deeper than the classic psychology studies. That said, however, there were other reasons that I did not find the book particularly compelling, some of which I think would in fact be a turn-off to the target audience (the general public, and in particular people who believe that individuals are inherently good or evil).

One major issue I had with The Lucifer Effect is that it is extremely long-winded. In fact, while reading it I did something quite rare for me: I skimmed large chunks of it. Zimbardo’s main goal in this book is to demonstrate that situational and systemic factors have a far stronger influence on behavior than we realize or want to believe (people in general tend to attribute behavior to dispositional – inherent to the individual – factors rather than situational ones). To achieve this goal, he presents an in-depth analysis of two situations: his famous Stanford Prison Experiment and the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. I felt that there was far too much detail; it was not interesting to me and I did not need it to be convinced of the results. In addition, I found the writing itself to be long-winded. Often there would be a sentence or even paragraph that I felt like I had read before. He repeats the same important points over and over in slightly differently phrased ways, and it felt tedious.

I do believe that the points Zimbardo makes in The Lucifer Effect are important ones. However, I fear that the length of the book and the details it contains detract from these points reaching the people who are skeptical – would they really spend the time needed to read such a heavy and long book? On the other hand, for those of us already convinced of the general principles and hoping for new insights, it is a disappointment as it seems to mainly re-hash the standard psychological experiments (for example, the Milgram obedience study and the blue-eyed/brown-eyed children experiment).

The other major issue I have with The Lucifer Effect is that I do not feel his systemic analysis, particularly in the case of Abu Ghraib, goes far enough. While he thoroughly covers one systemic aspect – the way in which even the top of the chain of command was aware of and allowed the sorts of abuses that occurred – he spends only a couple pages addressing the fact that the very core of the military is in training people to kill and in dehumanizing other people because they are the “enemy.” The fact is, the individuals who committed these “evil” deeds existed in a culture with an authoritarian and violent mindset, and to me that is an important influence on their behavior that needs to be taken into consideration.

I believe that, while situational factors are certainly important, the picture is not complete without examining the societal context as well. Most cultures, including the American culture, normalize authoritarian, punitive, and dehumanizing behavior at some level. In the American culture, most children are raised using punishment, sometimes physical punishment, people who have broken laws are routinely dehumanized, and we have a powerful military actively fighting wars. Most people act morally in the normal situations they encounter in their life, but this morality is layered on top of the non-verbal messages in our culture that normalize authoritarian, punitive, and dehumanizing attitudes. When a particular situation then provides the additional factors necessary to normalize actually acting in such ways, it is not surprising that many people do in fact then act in ways we label as “evil.”

I suggest that if our culture did not in any way normalize authoritarian behavior – that is, if children were raised using non-punitive discipline, people who broke laws were treated humanely (such as through restorative justice programs), and we did not engage in wars – then far fewer individuals would turn evil even in the situational factors described by Zimbardo. Although as Zimbardo says, we can never know for sure how we ourselves would act in a particular situation until we are actually in the situation, I am fairly sure that I would not treat other people inhumanely no matter what the situation. I was raised non-punitively and any form of violence against another human being is completely outside of my way of being in the world.


Book review: Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

October 1, 2010

Note: I cross-posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community is a collection of eight essays by Wendell Berry. Although each essay is on a different topic, covering subjects such as economics, conservation, tobacco farming, war and peace, Christianity, and sex, all eight essays are closely linked through a centering focus on the concept of community. Wendell Berry is an exceptionally clear thinker and writer, and he presents compelling arguments for why globalization is causing more harm than good and why we must instead return to true, localized communities (and, consequently, economies). In the title essay, he defines community as follows:

By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature… Lacking the interest of or in such a community, private life becomes merely a sort of reserve in which individuals defend their “right” to act as they please and attempt to limit or destroy the “rights” of other individuals to act as they please.

A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness. If it hopes to continue long as a community, it will wish to – and will have to – encourage respect for all its members, human and natural. It will encourage respect for all stations and occupations. Such a community has the power – not invariably but as a rule – to enforce decency without litigation. It has the power, that is, to influence behavior. And it exercises this power not by coercion or violence but by teaching the young and by preserving stories and songs that tell (among other things) what works and what does not work in a given place.

A community as described above serves neither private interests nor “public” interests, but rather the interests of the localized community as a whole. A major point that Berry makes is that it is only in the context of such a community that we will take care of each other and the land and live out the higher human values of respect and compassion. For example, in the globalized economy, where our food comes from thousands of miles away, it does not seem to matter how we treat the land around us, because it does not directly impact our ability to obtain food. On the other hand, when our food comes from the land near where we live, we see the consequences of poor treatment and are therefore are more motivated to care for that land in a way that ensures it continues to produce the food we need.

Occasionally as I read the essays I sensed a hint of glorifying the past. However, on the whole Berry maintains a nuanced perspective on the reasons our society is broken and what it would take to fix it. Although his proposal for more localized communities and economies does hint back to lifestyles in the past, I do not think the Berry is proposing that we return everything to exactly as it was 100 years ago. Although Berry does not address this explicitly, I believe that we can take the aspects of life 100 years that will improve our society (e.g. more tightly-knit, localized communities and economies) and leave other aspects (such as oppression of women) behind. Overall, Berry makes important points about globalization and communities that hold a lot of truth.

Although I agree with much of Berry’s arguments, I do not agree 100% with everything he says. Take this perspective on technology:

We must give up also our superstitious conviction that we can contrive technological solutions to all our problems. Soil loss, for example, is a problem that embarrasses all of our technological pretensions. If soil were all being lost in a huge slab somewhere, that would appeal to the would-be heroes of “science and technology,” who might conceivably engineer a glamorous, large, and speedy solution – however many new problems they might cause in doing so. But soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of people. It cannot be saved by heroic feats of gigantic technology but only by millions of small acts and restraints, conditioned by small fidelities, skills, and desires. Soil loss is ultimately a cultural problem; it will be corrected only by cultural solutions.

I do agree that we sometimes try to solve problems with technology when in fact they cannot be solved in that way, because they are cultural and societal problems. However, I think there is a place for science and technology, for example in harnessing clean energy sources. Our extreme overuse of unsustainable energy sources is of course partly a cultural problem, but ultimately we will need sustainable, clean energy, and that requires a technical solution.

Reading Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community left me feeling a bit hopeless. The community-based society he describes is so very different from our current globalized society, and things seem to be going only further in the direction of globalization. I am left wondering how we get from here to there? The obstacles sometimes seem insurmountable.

I do not mean to leave you with negativity, however. Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community contains important, and at times very radical, ideas and one way that we will get from here to there is if more people read it and contemplate the ideas in it. I highly recommend it – you do not have to agree 100% with Berry in order to find his ideas worth thinking about. If you are not already convinced, here are some more quotes:

But a conservation effort that concentrates only on the extremes of industrial abuse tends to suggest that the only abuses are the extreme ones when, in fact, the earth is probably suffering more from many small abuses than from a few large ones. By treating the spectacular abuses as exceptional, the powers that be would like to keep us from seeing that the industrial system (capitalist or communist or socialist) is in itself and by necessity of all its assumptions extremely dangerous and damaging and that it exists to support an extremely dangerous and damaging way of life. The large abuses exists within and because of a pattern of smaller abuses.

Many people would like to think that our diseases are caused by one simple thing, like tobacco, which can be easily blamed on one group and fairly easily given up. But of course they are fooling themselves. One reason that people die of diseases is that they have grown old enough to die of something; they are mortal, a fact that modern humans don’t like to face. Another reason is that as a people we live unhealthy lives. We breathe unhealthy air, drink unhealthy water, eat unhealthy food, eat too much, do no physical work, and so forth.

So long as there is a demonstrable need and an imaginable answer, there is hope.

This war was said to be “about peace.” So have they all been said to be. This was another in our series of wars “to end war.” But peace is not the result of war, any more than love is the result of hate or generosity the result of greed. As a war in defense of peace, this one in the Middle East has failed, as all its predecessors have done. Like all its predecessors, it was the result of the failure, on the part of all its participants, to be peaceable.

The significance – and ultimately the quality – of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.

The difficulty is that marriage, family life, friendship, neighborhood, and other personal connections do not depend exclusively or even primarily on justice – though, of course, they all must try for it. The depend also on trust, patience, respect, mutual help, forgiveness – in other words, the practice of love, as opposed to the mere feeling of love.


Book review: The Promise of Mediation

March 5, 2010

The Promise of Mediation book coverNote: I also posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I read The Promise of Mediation: The Transformative Approach to Conflict, by Robert A. Baruch Bush and Joseph P. Folger, because I am trying to understand why I believe in mediation. When I first became interested in it, completed my training, and started doing mediations, I did not think much about the values and world view underlying mediation. I just felt that it was a positive thing that I could be good at. I discussed my thoughts on why I became a mediator in more detail in my post last week on “Why Mediation?” (written before I finished The Promise of Mediation).

The Promise of Mediation sounded particularly interesting to me because it discusses “the potential that mediation offered to foster and support positive human interaction within conflict.” This book surpassed my expectations, providing me with significant food for thought on what mediation is, what it should be, and what the role of the mediator is. Bush and Folger do not just present a framework for the mediation process itself. They go far beyond that, discussing the values and worldviews that underpin both the transformative framework and the more common settlement-oriented framework. They delve deep into what mediation should be and what its promise is.

In the rest of this post, I will first present a summary of transformative mediation, contrasting it with settlement-oriented mediation, then discuss the presentation in the book, and lastly give some final thoughts. I will likely be posting more of my personal thoughts on the subject in a subsequent post.

Overview of transformative mediation

The transformative framework of mediation is based on a relational worldview, in which “social interaction is a process of discovering and becoming fully ‘who we really are,’ forging an identity that is not fixed or predetermined at life’s beginning.” In this view, conflict is not only inevitable, but can be a positive force: “The essence of this view is that conflict interaction – precisely because it occurs at moments of great challenge to the human sense of agency and connection – offers an unusually potent opportunity to strengthen and deepen both. Conflict interaction can actually enhance social interaction, as well as the human experience of both autonomy and connection in balanced relation.” Transformative mediation works within this worldview to “transform” conflict from a destructive to a constructive force:

The mediation process contains within it a unique potential for transforming conflict interaction and, as a result, changing the mindset of people who are involved in the process. This transformative potential stems from mediation’s capacity to generate two important dynamic effects: empowerment and recognition. In simplest terms, empowerment means the restoration to individuals of a sense of their value and strength and their own capacity to make decisions and handle life’s problems. Recognition means the evocation in individuals of acknowledgment, understanding, or empathy for the situation and the views of the other. When both of these processes are held central in the practice of mediation, parties are helped to transform their conflict interaction – from destructive to constructive – and to experience the personal effects of such transformation.

To achieve this transformation, the mediator is non-directive. His or her main role is to support the parties in going where they want with the conflict. The mediator helps the parties gain clarity through reflection of their individual views and feelings, and summary of their joint points of agreement or disagreement. He or she does not suggest options for “settlement” or carry the parties through a set process.

This view of mediation is very different from the settlement-oriented process in which I was trained. In that process, the mediator takes the parties through a set of steps with the specific goal of having them reach agreement by the end. He or she can at times be quite directive, keeping the parties “on track” and suggesting possible solutions to their problems.

In transformative mediation, settlement may be an outcome, but is not the main goal; the goal is rather for the parties to turn their conflict into a positive rather than a negative interaction. This view of mediation assumes that humans have the capability to work through conflicts themselves, and the mediator should support them in achieving that capability.

The most prominent place in which transformative mediation is currently used is the United States Postal Service REDRESS program, for conflicts within the USPS workplace.

Book presentation

The Promise of Mediation is well-written and describes the many new ideas with clarity. I feel that in reading it I have gained significant understanding of what transformative mediation is and why it is important. I have additionally gained a clearer understanding of what settlement-oriented mediation is, and am now able to think with greater clarity about what I am doing when I mediate.

The structure of the book is, for the most part, logical and progressive. Bush and Folger start by giving an overview of the four predominant views of mediation present in our society, summarizing the perspectives of each. In the second chapter, they dive in to the details of what it means to “transform” a conflict and what they mean by “empowerment” and “recognition.” After finishing this chapter, I felt eager to know exactly what it meant to do a transformative mediation, e.g. what the process actually looks like and what specific actions the mediator takes during it. However, there was one more chapter before they gave those details. The third chapter situates transformative mediation within the field and gives examples of the ways in which it is becoming more widely used and accepted. Although this was interesting, I felt that this content could have come later in the book, with the case study earlier.

The fourth and five chapters present a complete transcript of a transformative mediation, with commentary after each of six segments. It was extremely interesting and enlightening, and a highlight of the book for me. Finally, the sixth chapter addresses some myths and misconceptions about transformative mediation, and the seventh chapter discusses in detail the values and worldviews underlying both settlement-oriented and transformative mediation. These final chapters helped solidify my understanding that was growing through-out the book.

Final thoughts

The premises of transformative mediation resonate with me. Reading this book has renewed and inspired my belief that mediation does have the potential to change the world and bring peace. I am continuing to process this new perspective and figure out how it fits in to my own worldview about human interaction, conflict, and the role of mediation. I expect to be writing further posts on the subject soon.

If you are at all interested in mediation, conflict, or social interaction, I highly recommend The Promise of Mediation. Note that there are two editions, with different subtitles, one from 1994 and one from 2005. I read the 2005 edition, which was substantially revised from the first edition, and thus cannot say anything about the 1994 edition. For more information about transformative approaches to conflict, including a more detailed summary of the content of the book, there is an excellent collection of information about it at the Conflict Information Consortium: Transformative Approaches to Conflict.


Book review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

February 13, 2010

Note: I also posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver, may be a memoir, but it is far from light reading. Phew. I thought I was familiar with all the horrors of the food industry from having read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really makes it hit home. It is the story of how Kingsolver and her family embark on a year of growing and raising almost all of their own food, and obtaining the rest from as local as possible sources. They are lucky enough to own a farm in Virginia, and thus had the setting to make such an experiment work. Along the way, they comment on many of the ironies and horrific practices of the food industry. Despite the at times depressing content, the book is wonderfully well-written, with plenty of humor and entertaining passages. I recommend it! If you want to know more about the content of the book and my reflections on what I can do differently, read on.

Barbara Kingsolver and her husband and daughter make the eloquent point that we Americans have become extremely detached from the very thing that sustains us, and that there is much to be gained in rediscovering food from the source. One thing that I had thought about before but had never quite sunk in was how very strange it is for it to be snowing outside but to be able to go to the grocery store and buy fresh lettuce. Our industrialized food system has removed from us the need to know when different fruits and vegetables are in season; fresh fruits and vegetables of all sorts are transported from all over the world to allow us to have things like fresh lettuce in January in Colorado. The enormous environmental impact of this process of moving food around (not to mention the conventional methods of growing the produce, with oil-based fertilizers and pesticides) is highly ignored in our society. As Kingsolver says, “The conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spiritual error, or even bad manners.”

Kingsolver goes beyond the lower environmental impact of eating locally, however. Going into their experiment, her family anticipated deprivation, as many people would: no peaches in April, no lettuce in January, etc. However, they discovered that the pleasures of eating fresh produce in season far surpassed the deprivations. Asparagus grown locally and eaten fresh in April tastes far better than asparagus grown halfway across the country in January (note, I did in fact see asparagus at the grocery store the other day, and I was not tempted to buy any). Winter was not a deprivation either: they canned tomatoes and froze many other vegetables and fruit when they were fresh, to eat all winter along with winter squashes and root vegetables that they stored in their root cellar. Furthermore, many of the fruits and vegetables they grew were heirloom breeds that are not found in the conventional grocery stores, and which have much greater variety and more flavorful taste than the ones that have been bred for the industrialized processes. Kingsolver makes a passionate and compelling case for cooking from scratch with fresh, local ingredients and reconnecting to the source of our sustenance.

So, am I going to make changes in my eating habits after reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? I find that thinking about doing so is a little overwhelming. It is a far from easy thing to do, because the impact of continuing to buy non-local and conventionally-grown food is not tangible. I know, intellectually, that it is having a negative impact that I do not like, but it is easy to disconnect my knowledge of that from my actions and continue to buy that broccoli in January that was grown conventionally in California – in fact, it takes a purposeful effort to make the connection and change my habits because of it. Furthermore, it is difficult to get good information about how sustainably grown something actually was. I know, especially from reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that the big industrial organic companies are sometimes only marginally better than conventional ones – and that they continue to push for loosening of the organic rules.

Kingsolver does point out, thankfully, that the middle of winter is probably not the right time to start thinking about eating more locally. She is right. My town has a fabulous farmer’s market that runs from the beginning of April through the end of October. I do make an effort to buy much of my produce from the farmer’s market during those months, although I don’t succeed 100%. I am thinking that this year perhaps I should try freezing more fruits and vegetables from the farmer’s market for use during the winter. Canning scares me (and I don’t have the equipment for it), but freezing is simple and, although my freezer is not that big, currently it is usually not very full. I would also like to stock up on locally grown winter squashes and root vegetables in the fall, but I am not sure I have the proper place to store them long-term, that would be the right temperature and humidity. The final change I am thinking about looking into is a local source for milk and eggs. We eat a lot of both and it seems so illogical to transport them great distances (and, I would much prefer to know that they came from free-range cows and hens raised and treated in a sustainable and humane manner).

A final thought on changing my habits: I am going to make an effort not to feel guilty, but to just remain aware of things and make changes in one area at a time when it feels doable. So many factors in the structure of our society are against eating locally and sustainably, so it takes more effort and time, at least initially, than just going to Safeway and buying anything I want. I only have so much time and effort, so I can only do so much. The most important thing that I must remind myself, the reason that the effort is worth making and the time worth spending, is that we are talking about what we put in to our bodies. Food is the very core of our existence and we should not take it lightly.

I will conclude my ruminations with a little admission. There are three items that I am highly unlikely to give up any time soon, even though I know that they are transported ridiculous distances to get to me: bananas, avocados, and chocolate. I just love them too much.

In case you couldn’t tell, I highly recommend Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It will definitely make you think, and perhaps make you look at your grocery store a little differently the next time you go.


Book review: A Short History of Progress

January 22, 2010

Note: I also posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

My thoughts on A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright, can be summarized as follows: first, that everyone should read it, and second, that it triggered a minor existential crisis. Why, you might ask, do I think everyone should read a book that has the potential to trigger an existential crisis? Well, first of all, not everyone will react the same way that I did (the are other things going on in my life right now that likely contributed to my existential crisis; if that hadn’t been the case this book may not have triggered one). But in fact I think everyone should read it precisely because of its power to make you think about and question the meaning of existence.

Essentially Wright takes you a giant step back from your daily life and gives you a bird’s-eye perspective on human civilization and progress. He looks at four case studies of civilizations in human history that continued down the path of “progress” to the point of collapse. Over and over, humans have followed the pattern of overusing their environment until it can no longer sustain their numbers, continuing towards collapse even when it should be clear that they are living unsustainably. His point is that we are currently following the same exact pattern – our growth is accelerating in a clearly unsustainable manner, and we are causing environmental change that will be our downfall. However, there is a crucial difference from past civilization collapses: during the time periods of the cases he presents, there were many mostly isolated civilizations on earth, and the collapse of one did not significantly impact humans living on the other side of the world. Now, all humans are a part of one big civilization, and if it collapses it will impact all living beings on the entire earth.

Before I reached the end of the book, I started feeling that all our attempts to reverse climate change and prevent civilization collapse are both helpless and pointless. In the grand scheme of things, why does it really matter if our civilization falls apart or not? Why does it even matter if the human species continues to exist or not? Someday it will not. Someday the entire earth will fall into the sun. Deep in my heart I feel that it does matter, but I lost my grasp of why.

As I said, these questions arose for me before I finished the book. As it turns out, Wright addresses some of these very questions in the last chapter. His answers were interesting, although I think that ultimately each of us needs to figure out answers for ourselves and find our own meaning:

The most compelling reason for reforming our system is that the system is in no one’s interest. It is a suicide machine… I honestly don’t know what… the hard men and women of Big Oil and the far right… think they are doing. They have children and grandchildren who will need safe food and clean air and water, and who may wish to see living oceans and forests. Wealth can buy no refuge from pollution; pesticides sprayed in China condense in Antarctic glaciers and Rocky Mountain tarns. And wealth is no shield from chaos, as the surprise on each haughty face that rolled from the guillotine made clear.

Things are moving so fast that inaction itself is one of the biggest mistakes. The 10,000-year experiment of the settled life will stand or fall by what we do, and don’t do, now. The reform that is needed is not anti-captalist, anti-American, or even deep environmentalist; it is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking. From recklessness and excess to moderation and the precautionary principle.

Wright concludes with a strong call to learn from and avoid the mistakes of the past:

We are now at the stage when the Easter Islanders could still have halted the senseless cutting and carving, could have gathered the last trees’ seeds to plant out of reach of the rats. We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones. If we don’t do these things now, while we prosper, we will never be able to do them when times get hard. Our fate will twist out of our hands. And this new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past.

Now is our last chance to get the future right.

A Short History of Progress is a compelling and important book. One way you can look at the present human situation is that we can either choose to change now and become a sustainable civilization, or we will be forced to change later by unpleasant circumstances out of our control. We have the opportunity to learn from the past, but will we take advantage of it? I believe humans are capable of much more than we currently demonstrate, and if we do not make the necessary changes now we will be failing our own capabilities.

I cannot more highly recommend A Short History of Progress. To conclude, here are a few more insightful passages:

At the gates of the colosseum and the concentration camp, we have no choice but to abandon hope that civilization is, in itself, a guarantor of moral progress.

Civilizations have developed many techniques for making the earth produce more food – some sustainable, others not. The lesson I read in the past is this: that the health of land and water – and of woods, which are the keepers of water – can be the only lasting basis for any civilization’s survival and success.

Capitalism lures us onward like the mechanical hare before the greyhounds, insisting that the economy is infinite and sharing therefore irrelevant. Just enough greyhounds catch a real hare now and then to keep the others running till they drop. In the past it was only the poor who lost this game; now it is the planet.

We should therefore be wary of technological determinism, for it tends to underestimate cultural factors and reduce complex questions of human adaptation to a simplistic “We’re the winners of history, so why didn’t others do what we did?” We call agriculture and civilization “inventions” or “experiments” because that is how they look to hindsight. But they began accidentally, a series of seductive steps down a path leading, for most people, to lives of monotony and toil. Farming achieved quantity at the expense of quality: more food and more people, but seldom better nourishment or better lives. People gave up a broad array of wild foods for a handful of starchy roots and grasses – wheat, barley, rice, potatoes, maize. As we domesticated plants, the plants domesticated us. Without us, they die; and without them, so do we. There is no escape from agriculture except into mass starvation, and it has often led there anyway, with drought and blight. Most people, throughout most of time, have lived on the edge of hunger – and much of the world still does.

The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.

[T]errorism cannot be stopped by addressing symptoms and not the cause. Violence is bred by injustice, poverty, inequality, and other violence. This lesson was learnt very painfully in the first half of the twentieth century, at a cost of some 80 million lives. Of course, a full belly and a fair hearing won’t stop a fanatic; but they can greatly reduce the number who become fanatics.

Archeology is perhaps the best tool we have for looking ahead, because it provides a deep reading of the direction and momentum of our course through time: what we are, where we have come from, and therefore where we are most likely to be going. Unlike written history, which is often highly edited, archeology can uncover the deeds we have forgotten, or have chosen to forget.


Book review: The Other

October 24, 2009

Note: I also posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

The Other, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, is collection of six lectures written and delivered by Kapuscinski between 1990 and 2004. He was a Polish foreign correspondent who spent a great deal of time in the developing world reporting on the events taking place there. I had never heard of Kapuscinski when this book caught my attention while browsing at the library (although I have a vague memory of seeing the title of one of his other books, Travels with Herodotus, somewhere before, perhaps on a blog). I was intrigued by the subject matter, as “othering” is something I have thought quite a bit about, and I was not disappointed. Kapuscinski draws on his own experiences and various philosophical lines of enquiry both to acknowledge our experience of “the Other” when we encounter someone who is different from us and to make a strong case for recognizing our common humanity as our world becomes more and more globalized and multi-cultural.

One section I found particularly illuminating was his breakdown of the possible reactions when we encounter “an Other.” He points out that all options have always been there, and that we choose which one to take:

And so the three possibilities I have mentioned have always stood before man whenever he has encounter an Other: he could choose war, he could fence himself in behind a wall, or he could start up a dialogue.

Over the course of history man has never stopped wavering between these options; depending on the situation and culture he makes now one, now another choice; we can see that he is changeable in these choices, that he does not always feel certain, and is not always standing on firm ground.

It is hard to justify wars; I think everyone loses them, because it is a defeat for the human being. It exposes his inability to come to terms, to empathise with the Other, to be kind and reasonable, because in this case the encounter with the Other always ends tragically, in a drama of blood and death.

These paragraphs immediately resonated with me because it puts in to words something I have felt for a long time, that war represents a human failure. The perspective that Kapuscinski offers is an important contribution to the discussion of peace.

The Other is under 100 pages and a quick read. The translation from Polish is good: the language flows easily and it does not feel translated. I highly recommend it!