Update: The Wilson Quarterly provides a very nice slideshow of Polyface Farm, in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, which plays a key role in Pollan's exam...moreUpdate: The Wilson Quarterly provides a very nice slideshow of Polyface Farm, in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, which plays a key role in Pollan's examination of sustainable agriculture.
• • • • •
I thought when I started this book that a review would be superfluous—after all, it was published many years ago and has been reviewed thousands of times. But the material is provocative, and some reviews on this and similar books induce yet more thinking.
There’s certainly a lot to talk about when it comes to food. I suppose that has always been the case, but two relatively new topics have shoved their way onto the bestsellers list. Well, perhaps “two” is too limited, but it's a good if arbitrary start.
First, the health angle. There are quite a few books exploring how and why today’s food is so bad for us. Here the general idea is to examine how what-we-eat isn’t quite what-we-should-be-eating. This discussion goes in two directions: backwards, into our evolutionary development, to ask why is it we so enjoy food that isn’t good for us; and currently, looking at our consumer “preferences”: why is it our national (and, increasingly, global) diet is even less healthy than even our natural inclinations have historically made it?
The other hot topic examines the many ways in which feeding the human race has become very bad for the planet and its inhabitants, especially those we eat. Again, this can be split many ways: how simply feeding so many billions of humans taxes the planet’s resources and health; how the diets of the developed world exaggerate that effect; and how the industrial food production system further exacerbates the problem.
Threaded through both of these is the ethical problem: what should an enlightened human being be eating, anyway? And if that diet includes meat, how should we treat our meat?
Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma certainly fits within the scope of all of the above, but isn’t really central to any of them. In an important sense, Pollan has written a very different book, one that very gently deals with a deeper problem. One of his few failings is that he doesn’t make this distinction evident enough: most readers will notice the similarities to the avalanche of other food-reform books, and not the differences.
After all, Pollan does investigate the factory farm system, and its horrors are quite evident. And he shows that even “organic” farming can be captured and compromised by the industrial paradigm.
But the title of Pollan’s book hints at the difference: he isn’t delivering a polemic or jeremiad; he is troubled at how the original dilemma faced by everyone has changed and sharpened in our modern world. Carnivores and herbivores don’t have any options regarding what they eat. Our dilemma, in a nutshell, is that unlike many other creatures, we are forced to choose what to eat and what not to eat. We have the advantage over other omnivores that our decision can be informed by culture and education; but we also have the burden that our decision has ethical and cultural consequences.
Pollan divides his book into three meals.
The first is how the industrial “food system” gathers raw materials and manipulates them into “products”, such as a typical McDonald’s Value Meal, or a Weight Watcher’s frozen dinner. Corn, it turns out, plays an astonishingly larger role in this process than one might expect; so much that even a meal that notionally contains no corn might still actually draw the vast majority of its original caloric energy from that heavily domesticated tropical grass. He illuminates the effects of such a factory system on the welfare of cattle, for example, or political and economic distortions induced, or the amount of petroleum required, but he doesn’t come across as preaching — just informing.
(My favorite tidbit from this section was a reminder of the astonishing way corn becomes the source of so many of those other ingredients in processed food: “Natural raspberry flavor” doesn’t mean the flavor came from a raspberry; it may well have been derived from corn, just not from something synthetic. Only a tiny number of additives are actually derived from petroleum—so far...)
The second meal is derived from a small farm that depends, as far as can be managed, solely on solar energy via plants. Specifically, grass plays the central and foundational role in an integrated and carefully orchestrated ecosystem of farm animals. Every “output” is transformed into an “input” elsewhere; cow manure left in a field, for instance, becomes the growth medium for insect larvae (yeah, fly maggots) that are eaten by chickens, whose droppings then become fertilizer for yet more grass.
The bucolic atmosphere and almost complete lack of industrial inputs makes us consider this form of pastoral farming pre-modern, but the ecological management is so information-intensive that it is also post-industrial. This is clearly an approach that is better for people, for animals, and for the environment... but had its own share of problems. This kind of farm is called a “Management-Intensive Grazing” operation, and the orchestration is almost overwhelming, and requires such a high degree of daily commitment that it is difficult to imagine this becoming more than a niche player in the globe’s food production. Furthermore, getting the food to consumers is another task that has found no easy solutions. Direct farm-to-consumer connections can be found in some areas, but not many. Farmers markets, CSA and the like are exciting developments, but don’t easily scale up to support large and widely distributed populations.
The final meal described is definitely pre-modern; in fact it is an attempt to recapture a pre-industrial mode of eating. Pollan did his best to personal gather all of the ingredients for a meal, including gathering wild mushrooms, harvesting produce and fruit, and hunting wild boar. That last effort brought the omnivore’s dilemma back to the fore again, as he struggled to consciously reconcile his meat eating with his liberal culture and modern critiques of the ethical treatment of animals. He reluctantly abstained from eating meat while he dealt with this, even going so far as to discuss the issue via email with Peter Singer, the contemporary philosopher most associated with animal rights and veganism. In the end, he concluded “What’s wrong with eating animals is the practice, not the principle.”
In examining the vegan choice, he points out that even there the practice can get in the way of the principle. Harvesting grain — even organic wheat — is typically done with a combine: a large machine that will frequently shred field mice and other small critters that get in the way. Modern agriculture is problematic for everyone, not just liberal omnivores.
Pollan never solves the dilemma for us. None of these three approaches will solve the problems we face in our attempt to both feed billions of people and keep the planet and our consciences happy. What differentiates The Omnivore’s Dilemma is how Pollan personalizes the problem. We can eat better—we almost can not eat worse—and we must eat better. But our personal choices create our food culture, and none of these choices are simple. Unfortunately, almost all of us prefer to avert our gaze and let “the market” decide for us.(less)
Mark Hertsgaard wrote an essay for The Nation: Hurricane Sandy as Greek Tragedy which provides yet more evidence of our world's slow-motion train wreck. The name of the hurricane provides the most poignant and realistic note:
Sandy is short for Cassandra, the Greek mythological figure who epitomizes tragedy. The gods gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy; depending on which version of the story one prefers, she could either see or smell the future. But with this gift also came a curse: Cassandra’s warnings about future disasters were fated to be ignored. That is the essence of this tragedy: to know that a given course of action will lead to disaster but to pursue it nevertheless.
Hertsgaard states that “There are signs of hope” — but his threshold must be abysmally low. Does he really believe that “Especially in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there is no reason to continue disregarding scientists’ warnings about where our current path leads”? Of course, there are plenty of reasons, and he knows what they are. There is plenty of money behind the push to deny this, and huge portions of the American demos have passively chosen to believe there is a controversy, either because the issue is tied strongly to their other ideological positions, or because it is more convenient to be too busy to worry about such long-term problems.
Hertsgaard again has the wrong attitude and the wrong tone of voice. This message might be a bit more persuasive if it were delivered in tones of a thundering Mosaic condemnation from Mount Sinai. Because he leavens his message with unwarranted optimism, his message and the tragedy are both left easy to ignore.
Back to my original review —
• • • • •
Mark Hertsgaard’s book covers a lot of ground, and I’d argue that in the coming years there is no more important topic that anyone could study. This book is a decent start, but in the end I was disappointed — primarily because he was too optimistic.
All of the accumulated evidence is that we are so far from any significant mitigation of global warming that it as if someone is writing the script for a very black comedy of errors. But Hersgaard ends in an upbeat mood, asserting that we’ll do this, because… well, because we have to. The alternative is too horrendous to contemplate.
The problem with that prognosis is two-fold. First, even people that believe global warming is taking place seldom have examined how very nasty the latter half of the twentieth century will probably be. Sure, some cautionary descriptions have floated around, but even picking a single example hides the panoramic sweep of the changes and the trauma. Much like looking at the aftermath of a hurricane or tsunami through a telescope, you only examine details by losing the ability to see everything else.
Second, collective action is naturally slow in coming when the costs of change will undoubtedly be high. Deniers have been criminal in making things worse by sowing doubt when there really is very little doubt. A reasonable prediction is that people won’t agree on the need for real action until much later in the game. A few hundred deaths from a clutch of tornadoes here, a few billion dollars in damage from hurricanes there, climbing food scarcity due to floods here and droughts there — it will all get shrugged off as just plain bad luck for another decade or more. And by that time…
Hertsgaard has a very well-chosen framing narrative here (although, as other reviewers have noted he gets too bathetic, especially towards the end of the book). He has recently become a father, and there is some cognitive dissonance between the horror story he keeps finding as he has researched this book, and the warm and happy feelings he has when he looks at his young daughter. He’s right to worry. In her anticipated lifespan she could easily witness changes that dramatically reduce any expectation she has for a pleasant life.
It’s too bad that this book hasn’t told the bad side of that story. Many pages were devoted to how, for example, a few tiny parts of the United States and other wealthy countries have made baby steps towards adaptation. And more pages turn to how difficult it is to prepare. But while he notes out that “floods kill thousands, drought can kill millions,” but he doesn’t go much deeper. Drought is potentially a problem in so many parts of the world that he should probably warn about tens of millions of deaths. And once people start seeing that, do we really expect them to peacefully beg for help? Water wars have been a hot topic of study in international relations for many years now — where are the interviews regarding that? With climate change triggering food scarcity, these problems are likely to cascade upon one another.
The book’s single instance of humor is inadequately dark: “You know the joke, don’t you? Under climate change the future is definitely going to be wetter. Or drier. Unless it’s both.”
I think the only honest conclusion is that the future is definitely going to be wetter, drier and much deadlier.
Late breaking addition: Want to read the micro-version of this book? Check out the editorial, Math Lessons for Locavores in the New York Times, August...moreLate breaking addition: Want to read the micro-version of this book? Check out the editorial, Math Lessons for Locavores in the New York Times, August 19, 2010. It doesn’t get into the complexities that McWilliams does, but it encapsulates the first chapter of this book quite nicely.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
In Just Food, James McWilliams goes all heretical on his former fellow-travelers in the food-reform-movement cabal. He looks a bit deeper into the global political realities that are so easy to ignore when arguing for a 100-mile food production horizon, and doesn’t particularly like what he sees.
As Lena points out in her excellent review, his subtitle is misleading. The first half, “Where locavores get it wrong” really only applies to the first chapter here, although it is a note McWilliams returns to several times as a former fervent locavore himself. But the real story is the second half of the subtitle: “How we can truly eat responsibly” – and he will argue that much of the received wisdom in the reform movement isn’t fundamentally responsible.
The faithful might well be very discomfited by his lessons, although those so ideologically committed to their current trajectory probably wouldn’t read this anyway, since it might threaten their trajectory. Those willing to examine his arguments will find many of them very plausible, especially the ones that cast as villains those we are accustomed to putting in those roles. Agribusiness as a recipient of government largess comes in for a spanking, as does the American legislative machine that rewards agribusiness and distorts so many markets.
But quite a bit of McWilliams’ story will still be hard to swallow, although my perception is that in his research he has examined the evidence more carefully than most readers or writers could: he is probably correct on all counts to a great extent.
The first chapter, as mentioned, covers the locavore movement. By this point, many of us will have heard the counterarguments: production efficiencies in some parts of the globe are so much higher than in others that it is still better for the planet that some food is produced far from where it is consumed. I’m lucky: I live in San Francisco, and within one hundred miles almost everything I might want to eat could potentially be grown. Bananas and mangoes, no: but that list is pretty short. Unfortunately, much of the world isn’t so fortunate and would find an intolerably dull and perhaps even unhealthy diet. Countering these climatic and geographic limitations can be done with hothouses, for example, but for most of the year it is actually much more resource efficient to produce green beans in Kenya and ship them to England than to grow them locally. The truth is that transportation of the final product is a small portion of the amount of energy that goes in. Other energy costs are often overlooked, such as the cost of irrigating deserts, or of shipping feed for livestock. McWilliams returns to this point in the final chapter as he discusses how “perverse subsidies” make this worse – creating incentives for ranchers to raise cattle on subsidized grazing land and then ship subsidized corn (or soya) (raised with subsidized fertilizer) to fatten ‘em up. The message Mcwilliams’ seems to understand is that while local production is excellent when it makes sense, there are more circumstances where it is irrelevant and quite a few where it is counterproductive.
His second chapter is more reminiscent of the story Pollan tells in Omnivore’s Dilemma: it’s really, really hard to solve the food problem with organics. First, going organic introduces problems. Pesticides and fungicides can prevent food from decaying after it is harvested, but organic producers often have to use energy-intensive refrigeration instead. When herbicides can’t be used, other techniques to keep weeds from destroying yields have to substitute, and some of those, like deep tilling, have nasty environmental consequences of their own. But one aspect that I hadn’t been aware of is that today’s “poisons” are much more targeted and less toxic than they had been decades ago, and we consumers often don’t pay attention to that distinction. One study that he cites noted that “the natural chemicals that are known rodent carcinogens in a singe cup of coffee are about equal in weight to a year’s worth of ingested synthetic pesticide residues that are rodent carcinogens” (p. 64). The author of that study concluded that, effectively, “pesticides lower the cancer rate” by increasing the supply of cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables. It bears remembering that plants have been evolving their own pesticides, herbicides and fungicides for billions of years and we ingest many of those without blinking an eye. Caffeine, anyone? Capsaicin? Allicin? Diallyl disulfide? Maybe some bioflavonoids? We might be guilty of enforcing a distinction between “natural” and “synthetic” toxins that has less than we think to do with our health or the health of the planet. The third chapter is similar, but deals with genetic modification instead of chemical applications. A gene that creates a highly targeted pesticide within a plant generally means much less of an equivalent pesticide would need to be applied externally — where it will also be sprayed on soil, into the air, and on non-targeted insects and other creatures (and recall, once again, that plants have long been fighting this battle on their own as well). For example, a pesticide created within the plant’s tissues will only be directly consumed by the insects that attack the plant, not the many other insects — some of them beneficial, such as bees — that happen to be in the vicinity.
Chapters four and five really hit hard at meat eating. Most grain is grown just to feed animals; reduce the amount of meat in the planet’s diet and many problems would simply go away. This is, really, the key point the whole book is oriented around: we already eat too much meat, and the trend is just getting worse with the changing appetites in formerly vegetarian-intensive parts of the world like China. McWilliams makes a strong case for eating fish if one has to eat meat, because fish are a more means of converting energy into human food. Yeah, there are plenty of problems with global fisheries, but there are some really good potential paths through that thicket, especially with fresh-water aquaculture and herbivore fish such as tilapia and catfish, especially when these are integrated with horticulture. McWilliams’ discussion of how well aquaculture and horticulture can be blended is more hearteningly optimistic than Pollan’s examination of Polyface Farm.
But finally, it bears repeating that one of McWilliams’ two central messages is expressed in the quote: “However close you can be to a vegan diet and further from the mean American diet, the better you are for the planet” (p. 153). Get your meat consumption down to less than a pound a month and you’re probably going to do more for the planet (and your own health).
The other message is that if the burden of feeding ten billion people can ever be done with the least damage to the environment, then we have to look beyond some of the more simplistic prescriptions. Pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, GMOs — all of these will probably be necessary. Reform of how these are used will also be required, but eliminating any of them probably isn’t in the cards.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
Susan Albert’s review of McWilliams’ book has some points that I kept an eye on while I was reading, and I want to touch on them.
Her first point is that the locavore movement is an important response to fossil-fuel depletion. McWilliams doesn’t address this head-on, but I think he is still on-point in his attack on the simplistic version of “locavore”. Industrial food production has huge energy inputs, and transportation typically isn’t one of the bigger drains. If the oil is available, it will often make more sense to use it to transport food from where it is most efficiently grown, instead of using it to force production in unsuitable regions. The prospect of near-term fossil fuel exhaustion Susan is concerned about would be catastrophic in so many ways that, frankly, people will automatically become locavores as the global economy crashes around us. Worrying about whether lamb comes from New Zealand or fifty miles away won’t be much of a concern at that point: it’ll be a struggle to keep billions from simply starving.
Her second point is that the use of genetic modification is fraught with problems, including low yields, gene contamination, and amoral corporations.
One by one: yields will change as the technology matures. Gene sequencing is still in its infancy: the state of technology is analogous to electricity back when Franklin was playing with kites, so expectations really shouldn’t be too high.
Gene contamination is more of a theoretical problem than a real one: in most cases, the genes we like are for our benefit, not the plants; if a gene adds beta-carotene to rice, that doesn’t make the rice more evolutionarily fit in its natural environment. If that gene were to contaminate other organisms, it would be an irrelevancy or worse, since any plant that expended energy on create superfluous (to the plant) compounds would be out-competed and doomed. Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc., would be a somewhat different matter, but recall that these are battles that plants have been fighting since before mammals arrived on the planet. We’ve been taking part in this battle since we started selective breeding of crops. GMOs are a new tool that should be regulated carefully, but the potential is there for a radical beneficial change as well. Consider the analog in cancer treatment: imagine using targeted anti-cancer viruses instead of cutting people open or dosing them with chemo or radiation. GMOs in agriculture could provide a more precise and much less toxic way of managing food production.
Amoral corporations are certainly a real fear in agribusiness — together with the oil companies, its hard to imagine companies that have a worse reputation. But when we discuss those nasty oil corporations we talk about reform and regulation — why aren’t these seen as adequate solutions with agri-tech? Furthermore, a great deal of GM-research could be done in the public interest if we funded research universities properly. The research leading to the beta-carotene-enriched rice, for example, was done at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Freiburg. What if the funding for that research had come from governments instead of corporations? But even with corporate funding, the corporations involved (including Syngenta and Monsanto) quickly granted completely free “Humanitarian Use Licenses” to impoverished farmers. Of course, corporations exist to make a profit, not to benefit greater humanity, and so always should be regulated appropriately.
Finally, Susan points out that McWilliams’ book didn’t deal with how global climate change is likely to affect food production. That is certainly true, and it would have been a welcome addition. But I suspect that single topic is too big and important to include in a book that hopes to change how we eat here and now. And, ultimately, it would require too much guesswork and hypothesizing. We barely understand how the global system is gradually changing, and knowing how agricultural practices will adapt would require far more detailed knowledge of changes on the regional and subregional level. For example, California is one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world but depends through its long dry summer on the snowpack in the mountains that ring the central valley. To what extent that snowpack will be replaced by rain (replacing the snowpack with too much flooding in the spring) depends on too many factors that are still unpredictable. And California is probably one of the best studied of the world’s agricultural regions. The information Susan asks is critical, but it is simply too early to know enough detail. (less)
Good points I recall: the author presents an intriguing list of social, economic, environmental and technological changes tha...moreRead this soooo long ago.
Good points I recall: the author presents an intriguing list of social, economic, environmental and technological changes that add up to, more or less, a progressive liberal fantasyland.
Bad points I recall: the political upheaval that made the forgoing possible was implausible at the time, but worse was that the same inventory, above — which was the raison d'etre for the novel — also became tiresome. Think of it as a staged tour of a Potemkin village. Time after time, everything has somehow worked out exactly as the revolutionaries [author] wanted it to, showing how wonderful life would be if only people would share and follow through on the vision! Interfering details such compromises, radical changes that didn't work out so well, or even just the messiness of quotidian existence: none of these are permitted.
I might be mis-remembering. The downside of the revolution might have gotten more airplay than I recall, but that certainly wasn't what has stuck with me after twenty-five or thirty years. I also have no recollection of a plot, so I suspect it was mostly there in service to the guide tour of the author's vision.
One detail I do remember is that San Francisco's Market Street was torn up and the (supposedly) ancient stream that used to lie along that path was brought back to life. In the intervening years while on a congested and chaotic Market Street, I've often tried to imagine a stream and a garden path there instead.
Nice fantasy, but not really plausible enough to be an important book. (less)
With global warmingclimate change, malaria will undoubtedly return to the United States, so this looks like a good book to preview coming attractions. As the New York Times reports, Dengue fever is already back in Florida and likely to move up the eastern seaboard, and — astonishingly — the United States Centers for Disease Control is closing its “vector-borne” disease branch:
The disease centers confirmed that the 2011 budget does eliminate financing for the “vector-borne” disease branch, which tracks dengue, West Nile virus, plague, encephalitis and other illnesses carried by insects.
Is malaria one of these “other illnesses carried by insects”? Itching minds want to know...
Note: malaria is carried by mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles, whereas dengue, as well as yellow fever and Chikungunya come courtesy of the genus Aedes. Both genii survive in North America, and these diseases are almost non-existent becase "transmission has been interrupted through successful control/elimination programs", per the CDC. However, as temperatures rise, "transmission will be more intense" and will be "transmitted year-round". Combined with declining budgets, declining scientific awareness and the many other critical problems "climate change" is likely to bring, it seems like a good bet that malaria (et al) will become endemic in the southern United States. (less)
Stumbled on a visit from the author to the SFPL, and was quite impressed by the prose. A tiny bit disappointed that he read from the mountain lion-Big...moreStumbled on a visit from the author to the SFPL, and was quite impressed by the prose. A tiny bit disappointed that he read from the mountain lion-Big Sur passage instead of the geology-of-the-Sierras passage, but I guess that's what his quick survey indicated the audience preferred. (It's just I'm planning on doing the JMT in six or seven weeks...)(less)
The conception of this book was brilliant, but while writing the author—or at least his editor—should have realized that the execution was muddled.
Ima...moreThe conception of this book was brilliant, but while writing the author—or at least his editor—should have realized that the execution was muddled.
Imagine several of your favorite foods. Perhaps Kung Pao chicken, a spinach salad, blueberry pie, beer and peanuts, coffee and biscotti, shrimp etouffee. Very nice individually, some might be made even better with artful blending. Now toss them all in a big bowl and mix thoroughly. Appetizing?
Weisman's title teases us with a singular view of human existence. Like me, you may have heard fascinating highlights regarding how quickly New York's transit system would be flooded, or what combination of factors would take down a highrise. Or perhaps that our pets would suffer very different fates: our pet dogs would all be killed by real predators, whereas housecats would be successful by staying in the trees and preying on birds.
It is certainly true that almost every nugget here is intriguing—just as that goulash consists of individually tasty bits. But it doesn't hold together, mostly because the author wasn't able to firmly keep in mind what book he was writing.
The best parts are those that follow the title, such as the tales urban decay. How nature has taken hold of the DMZ in Korea is good; even better was the unexpected equivalent in Cyprus, where the description of suddenly abandoned buildings is haunting.
Some portions would better be described by the title The World We've Really Screwed Up. It is understandable, of course: while researching how things will be after we're gone, the author must have done a great deal of research into how things got that way, and some of those stories are juicy. For example, Chernobyl's history and the fate of the world's other nuclear power plant is mostly treated as a tragedy waiting to happen. But at the same time, nature seems to be thriving amidst the radiation. While it is clear that we'll leave behind plutonium wastes that will last forever, it isn't at all clear to what extent nature would shrug this off as an irrelevancy.
A notable problem the book fails to address is hinted at in the words of Doug Erwin, when Weisman looks back at the geological record. Displaying a chunk of limestone that shows evidence of prolific life on one side and nothing on the other, Erwin points to the faint white line of ash between them and explains that this is the P–T boundary, when the vast majority of the world's species were snuffed out. Erwin shrugs and says "Life here was good. Life here got really bad. It then took a long time for life to get better."
Without us, the planet would revert to its timeless ways of spawning and destroying life. Without a sentient species to observe, the pace at which this happens becomes irrelevant. Without a sentient species to evaluate and judge, "biodiversity" and "beauty" become meaningless sounds.
Weisman has a lot of great material here. With a different presentation, it might have been made into a better book. Or, better yet, as a continuing series of essays in a magazine such as Scientific American. But as a coherent book, it just doesn't work.
Partner book to his "Ecotopica". Better in some ways, but mostly more-of-the-same in too many ways. Daydream fulfillment to such an implausible extent...morePartner book to his "Ecotopica". Better in some ways, but mostly more-of-the-same in too many ways. Daydream fulfillment to such an implausible extent that it gets tiresome. The problems of the time, as bad as they were, didn't signal the end of the world, much to many liberals' surprise.
The only detail I can clearly recall is that some fellow invents a solar cell that can be made in a backyard kiln but has astonishing efficiency; enough that petroleum can be dispensed with, and it can be made by neighborhood craftspeople, not in billion-dollar corporate-own fabrication plants. How convenient!(less)
I have a lot of respect for Kim Stanley Robinson the massive information dumps he produces. But affection? Not so much. I think his Mars trilogy was t...moreI have a lot of respect for Kim Stanley Robinson the massive information dumps he produces. But affection? Not so much. I think his Mars trilogy was the first I read, and I note that I gave it four stars. At the time, I’m certain that I was overawed by his encyclopedic approach.
Where this is both a big win and a big loss is in the science. The action is centered at the top of the National Science Foundation and their efforts to get a grip on how the climate is changing and what mitigation strategies might work, both scientifically and politically. The strength here is that such people would be this geeky, talking and thinking science with every breath. But Robinson falls into that information-dump trap: he has his characters telling each other stuff the scientists would already take for granted in an effort to inform the readers. This reduces the verisimilitude, and slows down the action to that of molasses during one of his epic cold snaps.
This burden might have alleviated if he’d included endnotes discussing the science he so blithely tossed in. How much is rock solid, which parts are stretching the limits, and which are flights of fancy? I was surprised that there appears to be no reference guide.
Marvelously, despite his academic approach, his characters are still quite well fleshed out. In this one, the only ambiguity is that some of the Khembalis weren’t individuated.
Of course, all the scientists think too much. To that, one can only echo the words of the wise man:
You worry too much You make yourself sad You can’t change fate But don’t feel so bad Enjoy it while you can It’s just like the weather So quit complaining brother ... No one lives forever!!
This slim book is required reading for anyone who lives in or loves San Francisco. It is also highly recommended for anyone who lives in the region af...moreThis slim book is required reading for anyone who lives in or loves San Francisco. It is also highly recommended for anyone who lives in the region affected by San Francisco’s thoroughly confusing summer weather, which can include the entire bay region, the delta, and even much of the central valley and the Sierras.
There’s no evidence that Mark Twain actually said “The coldest winter of my life was the summer I spent in San Francisco,” but the idea is correct. Several oddities of the geology and climate combine to give San Francisco very curious summer weather: a typical day is chilly and windy, much to the surprise of tourists expecting “California weather.”
Although I only gave this book three stars, I can recommend it a little bit over that. I found it interesting, but not quite as compelling as I might...moreAlthough I only gave this book three stars, I can recommend it a little bit over that. I found it interesting, but not quite as compelling as I might have if I wasn’t already familiar with some parts of the story. I took graduate classes in International Relations, specializing in China as well as international political economy, so I didn’t find any surprises in the abstract background to Collapse.
Some very intriguing parts were the stories of collapse of vanished societies, as many have noted in other reviews. But also quite enjoyable were the explanations for why others did not collapse, especially the near-miss of the Tokugawa Shogunate as prosperity almost led them to devastate their forests — it is almost an accident of history that the Japanese home islands aren’t as barren as Easter Island.
The chapter on modern Australia was also quite eye-opening. After reading this litany of miseries, all I can say to my Australian friends is “Good luck, mate. You’re gonna need it.” I think everyone living on the edge of the Pacific Ocean needs to spend more time studying the ENSO — El Niño Southern Oscillation. It will certainly have a major impact on California, too.
Perhaps my favorite portion of the book were Chapters 14 and 15, in which Diamond explores societal responses to these threats.
Chapter 14 is titled “Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?” and begins with a tidy discussion of decision theory and cognitive biases. I suspect a professional Decision Theorist might scoff at the oversimplification and lacunae of his explanation, but Diamond can place it in a riveting real-world context that cements how a careful analysis can help us understand such twisted and paradoxical situations. (In this I am reminded of the fascinating classic Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis.)
This chapter allowed him to answer a question he was asked by a student: “When that person cut down the last palm tree on Easter Island, what on earth could they have been thinking?” turns out to have a rather obvious answer: by the time that last palm was cut down, centuries of deforestation had already taken place, and the crucial cultural importance of those trees would have long since disappeared.
Chapter 15, “Big Business and the Environment,” is also quite absorbing. Diamond contrasts the very different environmental impact of two oil fields, and continues with the particular problems of hardrock mining, coal mining, logging and fisheries. His inquiry into why some corporations and industries are are more amenable to social pressure casts a minor hopeful note into the symphony of despair.
There are a few complaints that need to be aired.
First, Diamond could really use a forceful editor with an eye towards clarity. The professor is very prolix, with a pedantic tendency to repeat himself. For example, every time Diamond referred to palynology, he felt compelled to explain it again. In such a large book which undoubtedly took many years to compose, this is understandable — but not in the final draft. That’s why editors are supposed to employed. Perhaps asking him to be succinct is asking too much, but it would be nice to nudge him in that direction.
Second, while his “Further Reading” appendix is welcome, it doesn’t excuse the lack of a bibliography, especially since index doesn’t seem to cover that appendix.
Finally, the book starts out on a weak note in Montana. His affection for the Bitterroot Valley is understandable, but its problems are nowhere near as engrossing and dramatic as those that follow, and the relevance of a struggling rural community tucked deep inside the world’s wealthiest nation makes it hard to understand its relevance. It would have been best left to personalize and clarify a concluding chapter, perhaps, although the chapter on Australia did a more than adequate job of showing how pressing the threats of collapse can be in a modern first-world society.
In the end, while this book was adequately absorbing, it didn’t bring me much closer to my quest. No book I’ve yet found has adequately discussed the question “How likely is it that the entire global civilization will collapse in the coming century, leading to centuries of a new ‘dark age’ of reduced life expectancy, welfare and technology?” (less)
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This one is beautifully poetic, but Abbey shows his true misanthropic colors in The Monkey Wrench Gang — his years of solitude in the desert might hav...moreThis one is beautifully poetic, but Abbey shows his true misanthropic colors in The Monkey Wrench Gang — his years of solitude in the desert might have given him gorgeous visions, but they ultimately made him a bad fit for civilization.(less)
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(Potential read for a book club which, thankfully, doesn't want to meet in the middle of a sunny weekend, when any sensible person is hiking, sailing,...more(Potential read for a book club which, thankfully, doesn't want to meet in the middle of a sunny weekend, when any sensible person is hiking, sailing, or otherwise getting exercise and vitamin D.)(less)