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A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis by Vanessa Nakate, a climate justice activist who lives in Kampala, Uganda, is the first selection of the Episcopal Church Climate Justice book club. If you have read this book or just want to join the discussion about it, you can register here — the discussion is this Tuesday 3/22/22 at 7:30 eastern time, online. The book is part memoir, part activism handbook, part guide to the climate emergency from the perspective of someone who will be most impacted because she is young and lives in the Global South. It’s well written, informative, and even uplifting. Despite the dire state of the climate emergency, the challenges of interrelated injustices around gender, race, and culture, and the lack of good governance worldwide that Nakate reveals, I feel confident that young people will do better than older generations have when it comes to helping usher in a more just, equitable, sustainable society.

Nakate is in her early twenties and has already founded an activist network called Rise Up and an initiative to bring solar power and clean cookstoves to schools in Uganda called Vash Green Schools. You may have heard of her as the woman who was cropped out of a photo of young climate activists (including Greta Thunberg) who had come to Davos, Switzerland to bring attention to the climate emergency outside of the World Economic Forum meeting. The AP claimed it was an aesthetic decision because she was in front of a building but she was the only Black person in the photo and also, the only one from Africa. Nakate spoke out immediately about having her entire continent removed from the conversation about climate activism by being cropped out.

She writes about the backlash she faced, not only from people around the world who thought she was making a big deal out of it, but also from fellow Africans who shared views such as as she shouldn’t draw so much attention to herself or that it was nothing out of the ordinary. Nakate is generous in explaining what her critics had to say, and thoughtful in her response. She makes the case for the intersectionality of the climate emergency’s impacts as well as solutions — painstakingly and clearly laying out the ways that injustices compound as well as how steps that can secure resiliency in the face of our changing climate can also secure a more just and equitable future.

In fact, Nakate’s book is so bracingly honest about what’s happening, how much the world has to overcome and how much wealthier countries have to face up to in terms of the impact of our actions on those who are least responsible for climate change but suffering the most from the consequences that it could have been a depressing read. Instead, I found it hopeful,because Nakate highlights how young activists are not waiting for self-serving corporate and political leaders but are taking action and supporting each other in their communities and globally. I learned a great deal about Africa and some of the climate related challenges different areas of the continent face. And I appreciated how the book ends with concrete suggestions for how to step up and get involved.

Nakate is an inspiring, smart, hard working, and gracious leader and I look forward to seeing her work continue to grow in the coming decades. As someone working to raise awareness, reduce my own consumption, and advocate for a better future, I found much to admire and to aspire to in her book. As a geek I appreciated her statistics, use of research, and helpful appendices. As a reader I enjoyed her well told stories and the warmth she expresses towards her family and friends who have supported her work.

I’m looking forward to the discussion tomorrow night.

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I started the new year off with some heavy duty nonfiction. My dad sent me a copy of The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here by Hope Jahren, and our elder offspring gave me Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism by Kathryn Tanner for Christmas. Both were tough in their way, but good reads.

Let’s begin with what everything in America (and most of the world) begins and ends with: capitalism. Tanner’s book examines the idea of the “protestant work ethic” and also looks at capitalism’s morphing into an entirely finance driven enterprise that causes both private and public sectors to cut costs (working fewer employees harder, outsourcing, etc.) in order to please investors by producing greater profit or yielding higher interest rates on bonds. If you’ve wondered why your taxes go up but your city isn’t really providing any more services — and in some cases is cutting them — this little book explains it pretty handily.

She gets into detailed explanations of the crazy financial investment products that led to the Great Recession (if you liked The Big Short, you’ll enjoy her lucid overview) and explains why workers, especially those with few resources, get caught in cycles of debt and employment insecurity. Basically, why most of us are the chaff in the financial elite’s fat harvest. I especially enjoyed the places in the book where she noted that this system actually undermines the long term sustainability of companies that are “succeeding” according to financial capitalism’s rules, because there is only so long they can squeeze out lower costs and higher profits before companies or governments reach unsustainably low staffing levels or simply can’t force suppliers or vendors to price materials and services any lower. And there reaches a point when monitoring and measuring employees limits rather than enhances their productivity.

I was with Tanner as she explained all this, and I understood, to a point, the ways that our relationship to time — our perceptions of past, present and future — are impacted by capitalism’s relentless push for financial gain at all cost. And I followed her lines of thought as she described why Christianity is not aligned with these theories of profit over people, and why God’s creation, including humans, is not enhanced by these systems.

As Tanner writes, “The materials upon which we work have value prior to our activity insofar as they form non-purposive ‘products’ of God’s creative activity. God created them for no purpose or end other than to be reflections of God’s glory. We are similarly not responsible for creating the value of what we are and will be through productive activities, whether on ourselves or other things. . . . With an anthropology of production in which human work is the source of value fundamentally undermined, the heightened work ethic of finance-dominated capitalism collapses. One can no longer expect personal fulfillment through work in any ordinary sense of that.”

Which is more or less the view I came to (without the analysis of finance-dominated capitalism Tanner engages in) last spring, when I had a kind of ah-ha realization that my satisfaction in life comes from my relationship with God and with my fellow members of creation (human and non) and that my satisfaction in life decidedly did not and would never come from work. Which a few months later was a factor in my decision to leave my job (more on that over at Nocturnal Librarian), albeit for another one.

But as I read Tanner’s book I was hoping for a clearer explanation of the ways Christianity can not only discredit the theory of work upheld by finance-dominated capitalism, but also help people unshackle themselves. Barring that — which after all is impractical when every good and service we need to live a healthy life is produced by the system we’re shackled to — I was hoping at least for more practical advice for how ordinary Christians can take heart in the face of a system so tirelessly devoted to grinding up workers and spitting out profit.

In fairness, Tanner was not out to write a how-to or self-help book. She’s an academic, and she wrote Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism to respond to the work of previous academics and to develop her own theories in a way that allows her to reach not only the students in her classroom but those beyond, including this ex-library director now hourly hospital worker. It is a challenging read, not to be undertaken at bedtime or after your evening glass or two of wine. And definitely one that required re-reading in places. But I appreciated wrestling with the information Tanner presented and I felt validated. I’d had a sense that my “ah ha” was a sign of spiritual/ethical growth and not just being fed up at work, and Tanner helped me understand that better.

Now on to the easier to read but no less challenging to think about book about climate change.

The Story of More takes a systematic approach to examining all of the changes in the world that led to climate change since author Hope Jahren was a child. She’s about my age so I found her data interesting since she’s talking about my lifetime, too. The data is staggering, and she uses a lot of imagery to bring it to life. One example I read aloud to the Computer Scientist that he actually asked me to send him the next morning because he couldn’t stop pondering it (to set the scene is, Jahren is flying from Newark to Minneapolis):

“If instead of flying, all two hundred of us escaped from the plane into two hundred separate cars and drove, individually, from New Jersey to Minnesota, we would have collectively burned 40 percent less fuel than we ended up using for that one plane by flying together. If instead of using separate cars we had boarded a single passenger train, the total journey would have required only half as much fuel as was required for the gas-guzzling airplane that saved each one of us fourteen hours of travel time.”

Vivid, right? The whole books is studded with these kinds of examples. Jahren is a scientist, so she is methodical and thorough. She covers all the things humans use and consume, like food and energy, as well as the impacts we’re having on what’s around us, including, air, water, weather, and our fellow inhabitants of earth (human, plant, and animal). The Story of More is very much connected to the story of capitalism, so reading them both at the same time was a lot.

My dad told me he liked the book because it’s hopeful. Jahren is hopeful, and is clear that the future is in all of our hands. She explains why individual actions to reduce our consumption — to get from more to less — are important, because they add up, especially if those who consume the most cut back. And she lays out a step by step plan for prioritizing, reviewing, taking steps, journaling, etc. so that readers can act on what they’ve learned.

The reasons I find it hard to wrap my head around this as a solution are:

  1. if people can’t be persuaded that their personal actions can help end a pandemic, say by wearing masks, or getting vaccinated, why on earth should we expect that people will voluntarily choose to consume less? And,
  2. see above. Finance-dominated capitalism is pervasive, overwhelms everything in its sight, and is the driving force behind the “more” in The Story of More.

Still, as The Sum of Us so beautifully explains (I still find hope in that book, months after reading it), there’s power in solidarity. Consuming less, like overcoming the most dehumanizing aspects of finance-dominated capitalism, requires working together. Jahren knows this too, and suggests starting a dialogue with others. I agree that talking about this is a place to start. And The Story of More may be a catalyst for those kinds of conversations that can lead to action. It’s definitely a good choice for book clubs, which is why my dad read it.

So what to do with all of this? I’m still processing, but here’s how I spent my day today. I have Wednesdays off at my new job. I chose work that only takes up 36 hours a week, where I can still get health insurance for my family but have a whole extra day for the things that DO bring me satisfaction. I caught up with an old friend on the phone. Got some COVID rapid tests so I can continue to test at the end of each workweek ahead of visiting with our older offspring and his rescue pup. Had a couple of Zoom meetings with new friends in an organization I’ve become involved with, NH Healthcare Workers for Climate Action. Attended a noonday prayer service with friends I’ve met from all over the country over the past two years who are my Companions in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, where we caught up (I’ve missed seeing them for a couple of weeks because I was covering Wednesdays for a sick coworker), brought our gratitude and concerns to God, and laughed together. Took a walk with our younger offspring. Was amused by our two cats. Used up some leftovers to make a delicious dinner. Researched funds where I could invest my rollover of retirement funds from my previous job without supporting the prison industrial complex or fossil fuel extraction. And wrote.

Will any of this break the chains of capitalism or end climate change? No, not these small actions by themselves. But I spent my time on the relationships that do bring me satisfaction, and my small steps will add up with every other person’s small steps. So I guess Dad’s right, that’s hopeful.

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I’ve heard about Walter Isaacson‘s biographies, but had never read one. My dad had read The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race over the summer and sent me a copy because he thought I’d enjoy it, and he was impressed by the stories of the developments in gene science and the potential to protect humans from viruses. If you’ve thought of genetic engineering at all, it’s probably been with some trepidation and uncertainty — it seems like “playing God” in a way, and much of the coverage in the media about it has been relatively alarmist or confusing. This books clears up many of the misconceptions and makes the science a little clearer.

Isaacson introduces Jennifer Doudna’s career in science by describing how as a young girl she read James Watson’s book, The Double Helix and saw, even in the fairly dismissive remarks he made about Rosalind Franklin, the potential for a woman to be a scientific researcher. Doudna went on to a brilliant career, beginning with the discovery of the structure of RNA. In 2020, Doudna, along with her French collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “development of a method for genomic editing.” Isaacson covers much of her career in The Code Breaker, focusing on the circle of scientists she collaborated or competed with over the decades between her initial work on RNA and the present. At the center of both the book and her career is the way she brought a multidisciplinary and international team together to prove that the protein Cas9, guided by mRNA (messenger RNA, which you may sound familiar from COVID-19 vaccines), can edit a gene by snipping it and fitting programmed DNA into the spot where the snip is. When thought of in terms of snipping and stitching instead of rewriting, this gene editing seems more human and less like messing with evolution and creation, doesn’t it?

From the excitement of discovery Isaacson leads us through the competition between rival labs to publish and to patent the technologies needed to perform this gene editing. And the subsequent efforts to improve upon and expand the discovery, and apply it to real world problems, like curing diseases. He also ventures into the ethical debates and frameworks for setting reasonable limits on gene editing in humans. The idea is to leave the door open to medical breakthroughs without allowing a gene editing free-for-all that may lead to customizable babies. If you like drama, that part of the book may interest you; I found it slow.

Towards the end of the book, the COVID-19 pandemic begins and Doudna pulls together scientists from all over the Bay area to work together in Berkeley to quickly respond. They developed ways to test for COVID and are still working on potential treatments. I found this last part very interesting, and somewhat hopeful. Isaacson, and many of the scientists he got to know as he wrote The Code Breaker, believe the future will be safer for everyone because of the developments of the last few decades and the new spirit of openness and collaboration in science as the world was shaken up by the pandemic.

As Isaacson says, “By honoring CRISPR, a virus-fighting system found in nature, in the midst of a virus pandemic, the Nobel committee reminded us how curiosity-driven basic research can end up having very practical applications. CRISPR and COVID are speeding our entry into a lifescience era. Molecules are becoming the new microchips.” He talks to scientists and “biohackers” who believe that just as the computer era led people to study coding, advances in molecular science will lead more people to study biology, chemistry, and genetics and will lead to personal tools that revolutionize our responses to biological threats to human health the way computers have revolutionized the ways we communicate and share information.

It’s interesting to consider this possibility. It’s also easy to see capitalism reasserting itself over scientific research and universities returning to legal protection of their intellectual property, including work done by their star scientists in well-funded labs. Isaacson did not get into the many pronged misinformation machine that has convinced millions of a whole series of untruths (which I won’t repeat here) about mRNA vaccines. Coupled with an overall decline in science literacy (60% of Americans in 2019 had medium to low science knowledge according to the Pew Research Center), our infodemic, along with decades of gerrymandering, the erosion of voting rights, and the prioritization of profits and power over people doesn’t give me hope that public funding of science will increase. Nor that people will suddenly abandon conspiracy theories and disinformation.

Remember, the previous administration closed a federal science program designed to give us early warning of global pandemics, just before the current pandemic began. And dozens of politicians and celebrities joined together in an anti-vax movement, contributing to the deluge of disinformation and tsunami of pseudoscience that led to the worst outbreaks of measles in the United States in almost 30 years back in 2019. While Doudna’s accomplishments are tremendous, and Isaacson rightly celebrates the people in her orbit who have and continue to make important discoveries that can change the future, they require funding and trust in science.

Maybe science will prevail. But considering the way any national effort to make progress slowing climate change was just scuttled mostly by an egotistical senator in the pay of fossil fuel companies, but also by dozens of senators whose ideology prevents them from supporting such legislation, and considering that a handful of rich nations tried pressuring the UN to “downplay the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels,” ahead of the latest conference on climate change, I am not as hopeful as Isaacson.

Still, it’s an interesting read. I will probably check out his biography Einstein at some point, which has been a long-term “to read” on my shelf for some time.

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I discussed Braiding Sweetgrass with a group of science librarians over the summer, and that group chose Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller as our next read. We only have to have the first half of it read by next week but I sat down with it over the weekend and didn’t want to put it down. By Sunday night I’d read the whole thing.

Miller starts out by telling readers that she began to learn about David Starr Jordan, famed taxonomist, especially of fish species, and first president of Stanford, in earnest (and in great detail — Miller was a history major and she knows how to really dig into research) when she was at a low point in her life. She wanted to know “what becomes of you when you refuse to surrender to Chaos.” She had heard about Jordan early in her science reporting career, and felt it was remarkable that when hundreds of one-of-a-kind fish specimens were broken and jumbled in the 1906 earthquake, representing years of work lost in a few minutes, he was not overcome, but dug back into his work.

While the book jacket and publicity make this sound like a science history book with a dash of memoir, it seems to me to be the opposite. Why Fish Don’t Exist is the story of a young woman trying to understand her family, her life, and her future. She’s seeking something to believe in that can make what her scientist father told her as a child less depressing: you don’t matter (and neither does anyone) in the grand scheme of things. This wasn’t meant to put her down, by the way, he just believes it, scientifically.

As Miller goes deeper into Jordan’s story, she begins to realize this man who she looked to for hope, this historical figure who managed to rise from humble origins, and get back up again and go on after many setbacks and personal tragedies, was deeply flawed. He acted unethically and selfishly, ignored or marginalised the indigenous and immigrant people who helped him collect specimens, and it’s even quite likely he murdered Jane Stanford, one of the university’s founders. He was also one of the most outspoken and prominent proponents of eugenics in America.

Miller, still struggling with her own “chaos” — depression that dogged her and her eldest sister, tension in her household growing up, a broken relationship she hoped to patch up for several years — laments, “That’s how his story ends. David Starr Jordan was allowed to emerge unscathed, unpunished for his sins, because this is the world in which we live.” The one her father taught her about. Where there is no “cosmic justice.” Unless there is . . . .

Because just when it seems she’s run the story to its end, Miller learns “that fish, as a legitimate category of creature, do not exist.” I can’t ruin the story by telling you why not — you really have to read the book. But it’s fascinating, and now I think it’s amazing that the category fish persisted for so long, and I followed my husband and grown daughter around the house telling them about it in minute detail yesterday.

What I appreciate is that Miller neither dwells too long in her own chaos nor in Jordan’s; she is thorough without being heavy handed. I learned not only that fish don’t exist, but also a whole lot about the eugenics movement (and I wondered why I’d never learned about such an important and horrible aspect of American history in any depth before). And about “story editing” — the answer Miller found when she wondered whether deluding oneself is ever a good idea. And resilience, which Miller and several other people she writes about appear to have admirable amounts of.

A fascinating read, which you will want to share (whether your current housemates want you to or not). It could have been depressing, since after all this is partly the story of patriarchal hubris. But Miller makes it hopeful and lovely and so interesting.

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After telling a friend about This is Happiness by Niall Williams, she told me that one of her favorite novels, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins, also featured a storyline about electricity coming to a rural area, and was also lyrical. She reads a great deal and spoke so highly of this book that I knew I needed to read it, too.

It’s a novel about love, as well as humankind’s desire to harness science for our purposes. When the story begins, Ray Foster (Fos) has returned to coastal North Carolina where he was raised, to watch the Perseid meteor shower and observe the bioluminescence on the sea. He’s has a theory that there’s a connection between light-emitting creatures and “celestial lights.” He runs out of gas and meets Opal, a bookkeeper, when his truck stops and he asks her father for some gas. They fall in love, get married and travel back to Knoxville, where Fos’s friend and fellow WWI veteran Flash and he run a photography studio.

For a good while the story is about Fos and Opal’s relationship, about Flash’s wildness, his estrangement from his prominent family. Ordinary things. Fos and Opal travel around Tennessee going to fairs where Fos puts on shows as a “phenomenologist,” demonstrating an x ray machine and other scientific phenomena. They long for a child, meet Opal’s cousins in a rural county, learn that she has inherited some land adjacent to her cousin’s farm. Flash takes them fishing, and introduces Opal to his favorite books, including Moby Dick. Opal reads most of them, but not that one (she tries, like many of us, and gives up). They follow along with the Scopes trial, Calvin Coolidge’s election.

This goes on, and Wiggins beautifully spins out the story of these three people, living and working and longing — Flash, to escape his family history, which we get a glimpse of, and live his own life, Fos and Opal to have a family of their own. After almost 200 pages, there is a plot twist that shatters the three friends’ lives.

From there the story focuses on Fos and Opal, how they pick up the pieces and make a new life (in a rural place where the Tennessee Valley Authority promises electricity soon). At long last they become parents to a son, Lightfoot. Fos goes from demonstrating x rays to showing people the toasters and other appliances they will soon be able to use — just as in This is Happiness. Opal gets a New Deal job as a rural librarian. There are a few more plot twists that lead Fos back into photography and ultimately, to Oak Ridge, one of the sites of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. (A few years ago I reviewed The Girls of Atomic City about women at Oak Ridge).

And there, another plot twist is so shattering that I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning first reading, and then thinking about what was going to happen next. By the end of the book, Lightfoot is nearly twenty, meets “Uncle Flash” and the two of them take an epic road trip. A young man full of questions and an older one who tells him, “Life is a series of collisions . . . it’s not a narrative experience. My advice to you is to stop trying to make it one.”

I guess Evidence of Things Unseen is a series of collisions. It’s not a beginning, middle, and end kind of story; we catch the characters in the act of living and we don’t know, when the novel comes to a close, what will happen to them. I said it’s about love, and as I reflect I think it’s really a book about Opal’s love, a steadfast love that transforms Fos’s life and sustains her friend Flash and her son Lightfoot, and touches several other people. And I said it’s about our desire to harness science — Wiggins shines a light on the consequences when the pursuit of that desire, and the belief that science is our salvation, overpowers our natural instinct to love one another and care for each other.

A powerful read, that I am still mulling over.

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I finished another book on the Yale Climate Connections blog “12 books about climate change ‘solutions’ that belong on your summer reading list,” Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living. Presented by the Union of Concerned Scientists, this 2012 book is a non nonsense action guide. Nearly the entire book focuses on what we can do as individuals, in our communities, and as a society to reduce our carbon footprints, slow the pace of global warming, and protect the future. If you feel paralyzed or just uncertain about what concrete steps you can take, this book, and the accompanying website, is for you.*

The Computer Scientist and I have taken some steps already — some deliberately to reduce our footprint, like investing in hybrid vehicles, and some accidentally beneficial because they also make sense and save money, like trip-chaining or replacing our old drafty windows and adding insulation to the house when we replaced the rotting siding.

Although I found Being the Change very compelling, I’m not Peter Kalmus. Some of the changes he has made are impressive but not for me, like gleaning from dumpsters, converting an old diesel car to burn recycled vegetable oil,  or composting human waste. I admire his knowledge and commitment but I was left feeling like even if I took modest versions of his actions, things may not necessarily work out. Cooler Smarter‘s recommendations seem more accessible to me, a person with very few DIY skills who lives in a much colder climate than Kalmus.

Please don’t get me wrong — you should still read and enjoy Being the Change, learn what you can from itand feel glad for people living with this kind of passion for his values. Kalmus also addresses issues of justice and equity related to climate change in his book, and that is a key piece to understand. My advice: read both books!

Anyway, at my house, we’re going to try to take further steps, like eating less meat, installing programmable thermostats and living with colder winter temperatures in the house, and thinking carefully when we have to replace the water heater and our roof (both likely in the next decade) about energy use and conservation. Mainly we’ve committed to thinking more intentionally about climate change and the way all of our actions contribute to global warming.

As Cooler Smarter notes, “Can we accomplish the transition to a low-carbon society? Of course we can.” This isn’t a matter of not knowing enough, or not understanding what needs to happen — scientists have been telling us for decades. It’s a matter of will.

There is some good news. Cooler Smarter‘s team of science writers goes on to laud the progress already made around the world and shares their conviction that “Working together, we can step back from the brink of ecological disaster and move toward a more sustainable balance between the natural world and human civilization, ensuring a healthier planet for our children and grandchildren.” That is something very much on my mind these days, and in my prayers. I agree that it’s not too late, although it’s getting pretty darn close. If you’re frustrated by the inaction of our national government, take heart — there is so much happening in towns and cities across America to reduce the human impact on our world. And you can easily do so, too. Start by reading. You’ll be inspired to get going with this work.

*If you know anyone who is not yet convinced we should worry, Cooler Smarter also includes a very clear, 20 page chapter called “The Weight of the Evidence” that paints a compelling picture of the scientific consensus, although since this book was published, the situation has become more urgent and dire for earth’s climate.

 

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Recently I’ve been digging into some climate change booklists.  The first book I checked out is Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution by Peter Kalmus. I was drawn to the description in Michael reading list at Yale Climate Connections: “The core message is deeply optimistic: living without fossil fuels is not only possible, it can be better.”

Kalmus is a climate scientist. He writes in a very personable way, not only telling the science like it is, in enough detail that I had to go back and re-read some of the more technical sections, but also telling his own story. The book is a sort of hybrid memoir-popular science-how-to. Kalmus writes of his own awakening to the reality of global warming, not only because he studied it but also because he began to practice meditation.

With his new awareness of reality, Kalmus felt called to live what he believes: that we owe it to all of life on Earth (including future life), to stop extracting, processing, and burning fossil fuels. Even though he has taken actions that will seem like too much for some readers he repeatedly suggests starting with what you can do and going from there. Humanure is probably a bridge too far for some, but he explains honestly that it was for his wife, until eventually, she used his “leaf toilet” too. But he goes on to say if you can’t imagine that, just compost. 

Kalmus offers lists of more accessible actions people can take and tips on taking them, not because he believes that individual actions will end global warming but because his own story illustrates the way his commitment to making changes grew as he continued to explore our culture’s addiction to fossil fuels. The book is as philosophical as it is scientific, grounded in Kalmus’s sense of justice and practical insights into human nature. He reminds readers regularly that his life is more rewarding, happy and fun since he began reducing his use of fossil fuels.

Towards the end of the book he describes bigger cultural and collective steps to take and alludes to his motivations:

“Our predicament is the result of a vast industrial-commercial system of living, which can be viewed in various ways. It’s the systemic fossil-fuelization of almost everything. It’s the replacement of interpersonal transactions with money and debt. It’s the redirection of distributed natural cycles with linear, centralized monetized flows of energy and resources . . . . It’s as if humanity’s cyclic connections to the land were cut by the scissors of the industrial system. We then plugged ourselves into the matrix, and we must now rely on that system for our survival.

Part of my response is to opt out of this destructive system. Opting out brings me the satisfaction of transitioning from consumer to producer. It can be playful, or delicious; sometimes it can be frightening; ultimately it’s fulfilling. Opting out is another form of reconnecting; as I lessen my dependence on global corporate systems, I naturally need to opt in to local biospheric systems.”

He goes on to say that imperfection is fine. He himself does “remain deeply intertwined within the industrial system . . . . But that’s OK; this is a path of transition . . . . Cultivate stillness, listen, go where your principles lead you — and do what brings you satisfaction.”

I’m not sure about this. I find it hard to reconcile being motivated by personal satisfaction with the kind of community building and awareness of the interconnectedness of living things that Kalmus espouses. I suspect doing what feels good is not necessarily going to lead everyone onto the path to doing what’s right, but I absolutely admire Kalmus’s commitment and conviction and the way he is living according to his values.

This is a very interesting book. It will (and should) alarm you, but it’s also very thought provoking and I don’t think anyone can come away from reading it without feeling at least slightly empowered to begin breaking fossil fuel’s grip on their lives and communities.

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The director of marketing at my college, who also teaches a communication course, asked me to order The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread. It turns out this book discusses many of the things I’m studying in my “Science and the Media” course right now. The title might lead you to think this book is about fake news, but it goes far beyond that, covering the many ways that real information can be manipulated or shared selectively in ways that alters what people think.

A couple of things stood out for me as I read this book. First is something we talk about a lot in the library world — inaccurate or misleading information is a far greater problem than outright fake news. Really fake news — like the Pizzagate story — is often sensational and headline grabbing, and we usually indulge in some collective hand-wringing after one of these stories explodes. What’s more dangerous, and Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall detail this carefully in their book, is deliberate or even inadvertent spread of information that is factual but shared in ways that give people the wrong idea. For example, the tobacco industry knew it couldn’t undo or entirely discredit the research linking smoking and cancer, but decided on a different strategy, as summed up in a memo that O’Connor and Weatherall quote: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the public.”

In other words, the tobacco companies not only didn’t care that their product caused cancer, they also worked to make the public doubt the truth, so they could go on selling cigarettes. The book goes into a fair bit of detail about their misinformation campaigns. It wasn’t all through advertising — they recruited scientists to do research and then shared only what they wanted to from the results. So it wasn’t untrue, but highly selective, and it deluded people into thinking smoking was healthier than it is.

That is the root of The Misinformation Age. O’Connor and Weatherall share mathematical models that explain how scientists and others share and assess information. The way we do this — ostensibly to get to the most accurate view we can of something — is informed by a number of psychological tendencies related to how we decide who and what to trust. When bad actors, like the tobacco industry, or other commercial or political operatives, interfere with the way we receive information, we sometimes never even have the chance to reach the right conclusions. The second thing that stood out for me as I read is that these social influences impact not only the public, but also experts in science and the media, often slowing, if not completely obscuring, these experts progress towards truth.

And this is a book that doesn’t shy away from the idea that there is such a thing as truth. O’Connor and Weatherall are philosophers of science, so they come from a science perspective, but it’s worth remembering that many fields also boil down to this: there are facts, which encompass what happened, when, where, and with whom, which can be measured, quantified, described and verified. And then there is how we view the facts. Truth is the raw material, and our conclusions can contain the truth but are not themselves necessarily the truth. So when we take in only selected facts, or facts that have been manipulated to help us reach a particular conclusion, or facts produced in a particular way to benefit a particular person, group, commercial or political entity, we will form views based in only part of the truth. Online media (both traditional and social) makes it very easy to package truth according to a particular frame or value and share it widely.

And that is much harder to fight than “fake” news. As O’Connor and Weatherall note, “Merely sussing out industrial or political funding or influence in the production of science is not sufficient. We also need to be attuned to how science is publicized and shared.” This means watching out for balance bias: “If journalists make efforts to be ‘fair’ by presenting results from two sides of scientific debate, they can bias what results the public sees in deeply misleading ways.” I recently gave up listening to national NPR coverage because I’d had it with how often someone is invited on air who has prepared talking points that are not based in fact, and then is allowed to say those things without the reporter or host being able to note that the view expressed is unsubstantiated.

Las week I did tune in to an NHPR show, The Exchange, to hear a show on vaccinations. I was delighted that the host and the panel responded to uninformed callers the way media should — they acknowledged that the anti-vaxx view exists, and then calmly and factually explained why it is unsubstantiated. The host of the show even responded to a caller who claimed the show was on- sided by noting that because of the level of consensus among medical professionals that vaccination is safe, effective, saves lives, and eradicates disease, it would be wrong to present “both sides” as if they are equal. This is responsible media. Especially in reporting science, rather than creating the false impression that all theories have merit, the media should explain when a consensus has been reached, how certain it is, and what conclusions can be drawn, even if it means discrediting views that aren’t evidence-based.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s a tough read, and you’ll be angry when you’re through — after all, you are part of this: “Public beliefs are often worse than ignorant: they are actively misinformed and manipulated.” But you may feel better equipped to seek evidence and resist misinformation, which is good for all of us, after reading this well-documented, well-reasoned book.

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I haven’t looked at trees the same way since reading The Hidden Life of Trees. So when Richard Powers‘ latest novel, The Overstory, came out, I was immediately interested, because the reviews mentioned how Powers incorporates a lot of what’s in that book — trees have the ability to communicate, to adapt, to care for each other — in this novel. And he does, to amazing effect. 

Reviewers have also referred to The Overstory as “magisterial” and “operatic,” both of which may be code for “really long.” It takes just over 500 pages to tell decades of stories, about characters whose lives don’t even begin to intertwine until about a third of the way through.

But if you persevere you’ll begin to understand, perhaps in a muted and not very clear-eyed human way, how the characters are connected to each other and to the heart of the story — the overstory — of man’s inhumanity not only to man, but to the planet. The message is, there are some of us who see and understand that we’re on a self-destructing over-consuming mission, and some of us who don’t, but if we would just pay attention, trees, with their long memory, learned through thousands of years of interconnectedness and cooperation, could teach us to live. 

I’m still not exactly sure of all the characters’ roles — it may take me some time, and conversation with someone else who has read the book, to get how Ray and Dorothy connect with the others. And whether Patricia, the independent, earthy scientist whose work on tree communication is discredited and decades later, celebrated, is based on a real person. 

But a little uncertainty doesn’t detract from enjoying The Overstory. It’s a work of fiction that incorporates science and philosophy and economics, that digs into the way we and our world works and why, and what we can do about it. It’s a reflection on how much we don’t know, and how many of us live blindly, and might not even choose to know what we don’t know. Powers manages to work into his characters’ lives many of the seminal shifts in our lifetimes — communism, terrorism, globalization, environmental degradation, the computer age. And he works in the history of human threats to trees, which can be summarized as environmental mismanagement and cluelessness.

I love his writing, too. Take this description of Ray and Dorothy’s reading tastes: “Ray likes to glimpse the grand project of civilization ascending to its still-obscure destiny. . . . Dorothy needs wilder reclamations, stories free of ideas and steeped in local selves.” Or this description of two characters with a tenuous relationship: “Douggie steps from the car with that stupid, air-eating, sun-eating grin Mimi has come to enjoy,  the way you might enjoy the yips of a dog you’ve rescued from the pound.”  

In the end, I’d describe this as a literary psychodrama in parts. There is the central thread, about five people who come together as environmental activists and turn to eco-terrorism after being ignored by the public and challenged by corporations and the law. That leads to a cataclysmic event. On the periphery are the stories of the aforementioned tree intelligence scientist, the married couple who seem to me to represent the ability of people to grow and change, and a brilliant computer programmer who creates a smash hit game that he comes to see as reflective of all the worst human instincts.

The programmer and the tree scientist are the people whose legacies may turn the tide. But Powers doesn’t say their work will be enough. He leaves us with a clear understanding of only one thing: it’s not over. Nick, one of the environmental activists, is in an unnamed place using downed branches and snags to create an art installation that consists of a giant word — STILL — on a forest floor. He’s done, ready to move on, when he hears a whisper: “This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.”

 

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During the time that I worked as the events coordinator at my local indie bookstore (Gibson’s in Concord) and then wrote a book review column (for the Concord Monitor and later for the New Hampshire Union Leader) I had the pleasure of getting to correspond with authors of all kinds of books, and their publicists. A few stand out as real people, the kind of people who like to connect as humans and so chat a bit in an email, or before an event. Even rarer are the ones who wrote me later to say they appreciated my reading and caring about their work, or who helped me feel as if my own writing was making the world a very slightly better place. Today I bring you some of the loveliest of those people and their latest books.

First, even though her book will be published last of the three, Tod Davies. It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned her and her wonderful Exterminating Angel Press but longtime readers of bookconcious may recall my review of Jam Today Too and even farther back, Snotty Saves the Day (both of which came to my attention because of another really lovely person in the literary world, Molly Mikolowski). Well Tod remembered too, and sent me an email with an e-galley of her new revised edition of Jam Today: a Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got. Confession time: last year around this time I finally bought myself a print copy of the first edition of Jam Today and . . . it’s still on my “to read” shelf. So I decided Tod’s email was a sign that it was high time I read it. I don’t love reading e-books, but needs must.

One more aside before we go on — Tod and Molly were two of the kindest people when I was working on finding a publisher for my debut (and still unpublished) poetry collection, and they, along with Erika Goldman, the thoughtful publisher at Bellevue Literary Press, took time out of their busy lives to give me advice, even though they knew it was probably unlikely I’d ever get that book published unless I wanted to pay for it myself. The publishing world needs more people like these three wonderful women, who probably don’t even remember the emails they sent me, but who helped me see that being a bookless poet wasn’t the end of the world.

Ok, enough digressing already, let’s eat!

Jam Today is part cookbook — in a nontraditional this-is-how-you-do-it rather than a here’s-a-list-of-recipes way — part memoir and part philosophy book. I say that because right from the first pages readers find out that for Tod Davies, the way we think about food, not just the way we acquire or grow and prepare and eat it, is “direct political action.” She says in the book’s opening section, “Why I Love Food:” “If you’re well fed — if you’re well loved — well, that makes it easier to do just about anything. And if you have an entire population that is well fed — and well loved — and believes it can do just about anything . . . this may not be good for those who would rather lull and manipulate us into doing what they think best. But it’s definitely good for us and our world.”

Throughout the book, Tod’s advice is to pay attention; “. . . every moment of everyday life is what our world is made of . . . . Paying attention to what’s right in front of you is what life is about. No other way.” And “. . . food feeds both my physical and my spiritual selves.” She goes on to address what she means by spiritual and that she believes there is a “basic set of principles that all human beings can discover . . . indeed that I think all human beings are trying to discover.” Amen, sister. If only we set aside our quibbling about spiritual matters by focusing on this truth, that we all seek “the Good!” How and in what way wouldn’t matter so much if we all really tried to be, in the moment, human to, and open to the human in, each other.

And, I loved the way she addresses the way coming back home after visiting at the holidays we need to “heal up from the holidays.” And how a meal she made “was absolute crap” after a friend died, “I could see my body running away from the basic facts of my life, because those basic facts killed my friend and would kill me.” Do you see what I mean? This isn’t just recipes — although those are mouth watering — it’s a manifesto, a statement of faith, a guide to living intentionally and loving life and each other, while eating well. Also, she is complimentary towards Millennials (admiring the way “they’ve got this trend going of getting by with as few possessions as possible”) which as a mother and manager of millennials I appreciate. Too many people write off that generation without looking for the Good.

I haven’t tried cooking any of these recipes, but I’ve made paella from Jam Today Too and followed the spirit of Tod’s cooking in many other ways, although lately we’ve been just making food and not feeding ourselves and Jam Today was a good reminder that when we feel we are least able to make cooking a big deal si probably when we most need to. Tod’s spirit of intentionality is inspiring. That’s the key to keeping calm in difficult times, I think, being intentional, living deliberately, sharing love. I wish I lived closer because I’d invite her over for a meal — and you’ll want to do that too, when you’re done reading this delightful book.

If you’ve read any of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas‘s and/or Sy Montgomery‘s books you know they have much in common and that they refer to each other (and each other’s animals) in their writing. What I didn’t know until I read Vicki Constantine Croke‘s forward to Tamed & Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind is that they became friends when one of Sy’s ferrets bit Thomas.  Croke explains, “The essays here are mostly collected and adapted from their joint column in The Boston Globe . . . .” Croke goes on to say, “They are, one might say, the kettle corn of nature writers,” by which she means they are “sweet” but share “a real saltiness to their skepticism.”

Whether you’ve read some of these essays before or not, this spirit, which Croke alludes to and which shines through both women’s writing, is a pleasure to encounter or re-encounter. Their lovingly writing on everything from snakes to dogs is accepting of animals as our equals in many ways (and our betters, as Sy explains, in others. Can you re-grow a limb?), and yet they are ready to zap irrational human arguments about mistreating or disrespecting animals. Both Thomas and Sy deploy warmth and wit, philosophy and science. They share stories of animals they have observed or loved, and they question much of the habits of thought and misinformation that lead us to flawed human-animal relations.

Thomas writes, “Our species is just one in 8.7 million. How many of these can we name? How many do we know or understand?” If you read this collection you will know about some of them, you will learn to look at things through animal eyes, and you may be less quick to judge (or misjudge, really) what seems like contrary or mis-behavior but which is understandable if you try to think from the animals’ perspectives. And if you love animals you will feel a kindred sense of understanding with these authors who have between them done so much to advance human understanding of both the wild and domestic creatures we are so fortunate to share this planet with. You’ll also be amazed — even the most devoted naturalist is going to learn something from this book. Have you ever heard of water bears? Me neither. And now I am dying to know more! Did you know that rats laugh, we just can’t hear the frequency? Me neither, but it makes me want to re-read Charlotte’s Web. E.B. White was brilliant in many ways but I wonder if he was tuned into rat frequency?

Finally, Sy Montgomery’s husband Howard Mansfield also has a new book out, from the wonderful New Hampshire small press Bauhan PublishingSummer Over Autumn: a Small Book of Small Town Life. Most of these essays were new to me, but are collected from Howard’s writing for magazines and the Boston Globe. He is one of those writers who is not only gracious to bookstore staff and part time book reviewers (and probably everyone else) and whose writing is warm and funny but also, as they say in these parts, wicked smart. He’s a kind of a people’s intellectual, whose cultural and historical knowledge sparkles on the page but whose ability to read other human beings, and not surprisingly since he is married to Sy, animals, infuses his essays with a generosity that makes you feel like you’re sharing in his brilliance, not having it bestowed upon you, the lowly reader. 

Plus, he’s writing about one of my favorite topics: New Hampshire. The Computer Scientist and I tell people this is the only place we’ve lived twice on purpose. It feels like home — for no good reason, since neither of us is “from” here, nor as far as we know are any ancestors. Besides sharing an outsider’s love of our adopted home, I just really admire the way Howard takes ordinary things like yard sales or his local garage and creates something beautiful on the page not only because he notices things and writes well but because he cares about people’s stories. In “On Going Late to Yard Sales,” for example, he writes about the “puzzles that are left when the boxes are nearly empty,” and the way the sellers seem to have “watched themselves scatter to the winds.” Something I had never really thought about, but I recognized when I read his essay.

It’s a good time to read this book as we’re in what Howard refers to in the title essay: “Summer Over Autumn isn’t a season. It’s a glimpse, the moment when we see the skull beneath the skin, the death that is always a part of life.” A few leaves are changing, but it’s still warm, even sometimes hot during the day. Evenings and mornings are chilly enough to cause us to think about a coat was we rush to the car. There are both wonderful tomatoes and wonderful apples at the Farmers’ Market. There is both observation and deep human truth in Howard’s essays.

So, this Summer Over Autumn afternoon you could’t go wrong reading any of these books. Or more importantly sharing time with people who care not only about the books they write, but also the people they ask to be a part of bringing those books into the world. Enjoy!

 

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