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!

Book review: Three Cups of Tea

October 20, 2009

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

I am so glad that I finally got around to reading Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. This book tells an incredible story, one that is well worth reading. In the early 1990s, Mortenson made a failed attempt to climb the peak K2 in Pakistan. On the way down, he took a wrong turn that changed his life. He ended up in a small village, where the people took him in and offered him food and shelter. While there he saw that the children had no school, but made attempts to do their lessons outside on the freezing ground. He made a promise to build them a school, and since that time has built not only that school but many others in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. His courage and passion for this work is incredibly inspiring.

The book itself is in the third person; essentially it is David Oliver Relin telling Mortenson’s story. It reads like a novel, with edge-of-the-seat gripping action, beautiful descriptions of the people and landscape, and many quotes from the individuals who work with or have been helped by Mortenson. I greatly enjoyed actually reading it and the time passed quickly while I read.

Mortenson’s actions are inspiring, but the book is clearly his story, one that can not be copied. It is not as if any random person could waltz in to Pakistan, say they’re going to build a school, and be accepted in doing in. Mortenson’s grounding for all his work is in human relationships. He built a relationship with the individuals in the village first, and built the school second. While this makes it a story unique to him and his personality and strengths, it also demonstrates better than words ever could the importance of building relationships with other people, whether it is the neighbor across the street or a poverty-stricken family in a developing country.

I have no doubt that Mortenson’s work in building schools where children can receive balanced, non-extremist educations, is doing more for peace in that region than all the bombs my government has shamefully dropped on them. His work particularly emphasizes educating girls and empowering women, and it is clear time and again that when the women in a village become empowered, the quality of life for the entire village improves. And when a village’s quality of life improves, the people in it will be less drawn to extremism. I think Mortenson should win the Nobel Peace Prize and I hope he does someday.

I highly recommend Three Cups of Tea.

Book review: Seeds of Peace

October 17, 2009

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

I picked up Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society, by Sulak Sivaraksa, at a garage sale because it sounded intriguing and I am drawn to books about peace. Unfortunately, I did not get that much out of it. I started it August, but it did not hold my interest that well, so I interrupted my reading of it with The Rabbi. I came back to Seeds of Peace in September because I did want to finish it, but I couldn’t really get in to it.

I found it difficult to tell what exactly Sivaraksa was getting at in Seeds of Peace. The chapters felt somewhat disconnected from each other, each one its own self-contained essay. Several of the earlier chapters address specific historical and political events in East Asian. I am not familiar with recent East Asian history and most of the time did not know the context of what Sivaraksa was referring to. This was not really what I was expecting in this book, and I didn’t find it that interesting.

The last chapter in the book, “A Buddhist Model of Society,” probably summarizes all of Sivaraksa’s main points and is the closest to what I expected the book to be. Sivaraksa starts the chapter by telling two Buddhist myths, proceeds with a discussion of what the ideal Buddhist society looks like and how the myths illustrate that, and then continues with an exploration of what needs to be done in our society to achieve peace. I found this part mildly interesting but most of what he said seemed similar to other things I have read or thought. For example, he says that we need to curb consumerism, strengthen democracy, and work towards both internal and external peace, all of which I have thought about before.

Seeds of Peace has the most non-Western perspective of any non-fiction book I have read. Sivaraksa writes quite firmly from an East Asian perspective when he addresses historical events and politics. He describes Buddhism and the role it plays in East Asian culture from the perspective of someone who is a part of that culture, as opposed to the perspective a Western person might write from. Reading it made me realize how accustomed I am to reading books in which my identity as an American of European descent is taken as a given. I felt more like an outsider with this book and I suspect that this may have contributed to the fact that I did not get as much out of the book as I hoped. It may be a book worth reading again someday.

I am counting Seeds of Peace towards the Culture/Anthropology/Sociology category of the World Citizen Challenge. I definitely feel like I got a view into a different culture. It is my sixth book for the challenge but I still have two more categories.

Regaining inspiration

May 24, 2009

For the past few weeks my desires to take positive action towards making a difference in the world have become somewhat dormant (hence my unplanned break from posting for the past month or so). In February I participated in a 40-hour training to be a mediator, after which I felt inspired and eager to pursue a way to develop my mediation skills. At the end of March, I sent an application to be a volunteer mediator to the community mediation program in a neighboring city. I was eager and excited, but as the weeks passed and I continued to not hear anything back about my application, I have become frustrated and my eagerness has gone dormant. I finally reached someone working for the mediation program last week who told me that they did receive my application and the woman in charge would get to it within two weeks, but I am still quite frustrated that it has taken them this long.

However, I have regained a little inspiration from a speaker I heard this morning. She told us, among other things, about a book titled Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity, and Courage in a World Gone Mad, by Frances Moore Lappe. I did not recognize the name of the author until the speaker mentioned that she wrote Diet for a Small Planet, which I have heard of and I believe my parents own. The book sounds incredibly inspiring, and just what I need to regain my motivation and inspiration. From the introduction on the website:

So this little book is about learning to see the killer ideas that trap us and letting them go. It’s about people in all walks of life interrupting the spiral of despair and reversing it with new ideas, ingenious innovation?and courage. It’s about finding that mixture of anger and hope to energize us for this do-or-die effort. Why not go for it?

As I listened to the speaker this morning, I realized something. I often say to myself and others, “I want to make a difference in the world.” I realized that, while this is true, I can say something else, something that is more powerful: “I will make a difference in the world.” I don’t know right now what that difference will be, how small or big it will be, where or when or how I will do it, or even whether I will be aware at the time that what I am doing is making a difference. But as I live my life deliberately, caring most of all about people, I know that one way or another, I will make a difference in the world.

Book review: Small is Beautiful

May 22, 2009

Note: A substantially similar review is cross-posted at Books and Other Miscellany.

After reading Deep Economy, I wanted something that went into more depth about what a small economy would actually look like, so I turned to the book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, by E. F. Schumacher. Schumacher was an economist who wrote this book in 1973. Although parts of it were dated, much of his general point is still frighteningly relevant to today. The book is divided in to four sections, titled “The Modern World,” “Resources,” “The Third World,” and “Organization and Ownership.” I had a mixed reaction to the book. When I started it I was initially quite engaged and read quickly through the first section, finding that Schumacher had many insightful observations about economics, growth, and related subjects. When I hit the second section, for some reason it did not initially hold my interest as well – I found that he was too critical of science, for one thing, and his specific discussions of oil, coal, and nuclear power were dated. However, I found his chapter on “Technology with a Human Face” quite illuminating, as the question of whether technology is progress is something I have struggled with. In the third section, Schumacher again grabbed my interest with his discussions of devlopment in third world countries, but he lost it again in the fourth section, which I found too technical and detailed about how exactly organizations and ownership should be structured.

The basic point that Schumacher is making appears right at the beginning, when he points out that economists treat limited resources such as oil and coal as income rather than capital. Essentially, classic economics ignores the fact that these resources are, in fact, limited. Schumacher’s point is that unlimited growth is simply impossible. This seems to be a lesson that we, especially in the United States, still have not learned. From this basic point Schumacher progresses along several paths, but the other aspect that particularly caught my attention is his discussion of work: he looks at the Buddhist attitude towards work, which says that creative work is important to the well-being of people, and that the goal is not to produce as much stuff as possible, but to ensure that as many people as possible are gamefully employed. This is another point that seems to be lost on Western culture, where the goal is only to make the most money, which is usually accomplished by increasing automation and putting people to work doing drudgery rather than meaningful, creative work. Along similar lines, when he discusses third world development, he points out that the third world does not need all the sophisticated technologies of the first world. It makes much more sense to use more basic technologies that require more people-power (and thus employ more people) and less capital than to use the latest technologies that require a great deal of capital but do not provide as much employment for the impoverished citizens.

As I was reading Small is Beautiful, it was easy to become utterly depressed about the current state of affairs. When you take a step back, most of what goes on in the Western world (and now often in the Westernized third world) seems so utterly meaningless. Many people do distasteful, meaningless drudgery each day simply to earn enough money to buy all the stuff that we produce, much of which is useless and does little to increase our happiness or standard of living. If people were the center of our economy rather than money, things would look very different. Imagine if our entire economic system were designed not for continual growth and profits, but rather to ensure that each individual had the following things: shelter, food, clean water, health care, and meaningful, creative work. This seems so unattainable, but I think it is a worthy ideal to keep in mind.

I was surprised to find that E. F. Schumacher actually explicitly discussed peace at a few places in Small is Beautiful. It did not seem out of place, and I do feel that this topic is closely related to that of peace, the most obvious relationship being that wars are frequently about resources. If we used fewer resources, then we would have less of a motivation to go to war. More generally, an economy that is people-focused rather than profit-focused would be more likely to promote peaceful resolution of conflict.

If you are interested in a rational, logical discussion of a different approach to economics, I recommend Small is Beautiful. I think it is an important book that should be read by all economists. Keep in mind that while parts of the book may seem dated or tedious, other parts are quite insightful and relevant.

I wrote down several quotes from the books. Here is a sample:

At present, there can be little doubt that the whole of mankind is in mortal danger, not because we are short of scientific and technological know-how, but because we tend to use it destructively, without wisdom.

What makes us think we need electricity, cement, and steel before we can do anything at all? The really helpful things will not be done from the centre; they cannot be done by big organisations; but they can be done by the people themselves. If we can recover the sense that it is the most natural thing for every person born into this world to use his hands in a productive way and that it is not beyond the wit of man to make this possible, then I think the problem of unemployment will disappear and we shall soon be asking ourselves how we can get all the work done that needs to be done.

No doubt, a price has to be paid for anything worthwhile: to redirect technology so that it serves man instead of destroying him requires primarily an effort of the imagination and an abandonment of fear.

It is of little use trying to suppress terrorism if the production of deadly devices continues to be deemed a legitimate employment of man’s creative powers. Nor can the fight against pollution be successful if the patterns of production and consumption continue to be of a scale, a complexity, and a degree of violence which, as is becoming more and more apparent, do not fit into the laws of the universe, to which man is just as much subject as the rest of creation. Equally, the chance of mitigating the rate of resource depletion or of bringing harmony into the relationships between those in possession of wealth and power and those without is non-existent as long as there is no idea anywhere of enough being good and more-than-enough being evil.

thoughts on Palestine/Israel

April 24, 2009

I recently read City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, by Adam LeBor. It was an interesting book, that made a mostly successful attempt to humanize the conflict in Palestine/Israel by presenting the 20th-century history of Jaffa through a focus on the stories of several Jewish and Arab families. You can read my full review here, at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany; here I want to discuss some thoughts the book triggered.

I was reminded of how the conflict stems from not only from the direct interactions in the Palestine/Israel region, but from the centuries-old histories of each group. Jews lived in diaspora for hundreds of years and have frequently been persecuted, with the Holocaust the worst of it. This cultural history informs how they behave and what they believe today. In order to understand the conflict in the region it is important to understand this history as well. This goes well beyond what was presented in City of Oranges, but he does manage to convey this point to some extent, at least with regards to more recent persecutions: he relates the stories of individual Jews who came to live in Jaffa from Europe during the 1930s, when the Nazis were beginning to persecute them.

I knew generally speaking that there has been almost constant conflict in Palestine/Israel in the 20th century, but City of Oranges really made this clear. I feel more strongly than ever that they are stuck in a cycle of violence that must be broken out of. Each side continues to take actions that antagonize the other side, and continues to refuse to address the painful history. City of Oranges humanizes the conflict, and humanizing is the only way that peace will eventually be reached. Each needs to come to terms with their painful histories and learn to see the other side as human. They need to aknowledge the harms they have caused, in a way that allows the other side to reach a sense of closure. Peace is not going to be reached through continued violence, nor through negotiations and concessions that do not address the many-faceted and painful historical factors informing the conflict.

I did not realize the extent to which the British caused problems in the Middle East. Their power-hungry era of colonization is to a great extent responsible for destroying the (somewhat precarious) balances of relationships between multiple cultures in the region. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Jews and Arabs did live in relative peace in Palestine before the British Mandate. Unfortunately, there is no way to turn back history. Instead, we must work to heal the past and build a future in which once again Jews and Arabs can live together in peace.

The history of Jaffa and the individuals that LeBor interviewed demonstrate that it is possible for people of different religions and cultures to live together in a community. Peace will not happen by ignoring or shunning “the other”; it will happen only when people from different cultures can see each other as human.