The Blind Watchmaker seems to represent a leap backward from The Selfish Gene. It's as though Dawkins decided he needed to talk not to lay readers who...moreThe Blind Watchmaker seems to represent a leap backward from The Selfish Gene. It's as though Dawkins decided he needed to talk not to lay readers who understood the basics of evolution, for whom he could provide a valuable expansion of their understanding, but instead to wholly ignorant readers who did not know about or were even antagonistic to the theory of evolution. It's not for me, thus. But it seems like it'd be great if you didn't know/believe about evolution.(less)
I first found this book when my friend suggested that the human species has undergone genetic change since domestication (the appearance of permanent...moreI first found this book when my friend suggested that the human species has undergone genetic change since domestication (the appearance of permanent shelters, agriculture, etc). I was trying to find some data on this fact (which I still haven't managed to do - though Jared Diamond's Third Chimpanzee seems promising). However, Wilson's book is about something completely different, though still relevant to my interests.
His thesis is that, since vision is such an important part of human life, the advent of architecture (permanent structures) induced a shift in culture and worldview, as well as in individual relationships and personalities. This is a fascinating thesis, and one that has a lot of potential to help me understand the issues I'm grappling with: how civilization arose and spread and developed. However, Wilson does not do ANYTHING interesting with his thesis. He spends a lot of time discussing a lengthy slew of anthropological culture sketches, presumably presented as evidence for his hypothesis. They are not particularly interesting, and Wilson is not a particularly interesting writer (though he is readable and apparently much better than most social science writers). The problem is not only that this information seemed superfluous - it's that he never seemed to take it anywhere. All of his conclusions seemed either too straightforward and boring, or too speculative and abstract (a problem I see with a lot of what I know of anthropology and social science in general - it reminds me of Freud; ick - I think the way I want to say this is that they are closed systems, which happen to more or less coincide with real elements of the ideological constructs of real people).
So I gave up after about 80 pages. If anyone's finished the book and disagrees with my assessment, please comment and direct me to continue. (less)
This book is interesting and fun, but it very assiduously avoids making any points explicitly - the author frames it as a fun intellectual adventure h...moreThis book is interesting and fun, but it very assiduously avoids making any points explicitly - the author frames it as a fun intellectual adventure he undertook without any real agenda, and this is felt throughout. So while there are takeaway points - history is complex and much of what you know about it is burdened with value judgments that impair deduction from it; the term civilization should be defined on a spectrum, revealing many examples with broadly diverse histories; environment shapes civilizations and is shaped by them, but variation between societies in similar environments belies any determinism that is insufficiently caveated and nuanced.
It just didn't keep my attention - it's 500 pages long and gets repetitive. It doesn't make any points, and it doesn't go into much detail, and each section only includes, it seems, aspects of the society that the author found interesting or romantic. That's great, and it gave the book a really nicely romantic and foreign feel while thoroughly avoiding Orientalist notions. This was a nicely walked line. But it just got boring, and other things took my attention away. I've tried twice now, and maybe I'll finish one day, but it seems unlikely.
Incidentally, this is the only book I've read lately that gave me the chance to keep a list of words to look up. "Pinguid" is a nice one, as is "gyneaceum." (less)
I got this through ILL, hoping to get some idea of what forest gardening actually was, how it compared to the vague idea I got of the "permaculture" c...moreI got this through ILL, hoping to get some idea of what forest gardening actually was, how it compared to the vague idea I got of the "permaculture" concept from perusing Dave Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, and what the state of the art was at the moment. I was also thinking of using it to inform a feasibility study assignment for a class I didn't end up taking, regarding a potential garden at Lawrence's Bjorklunden 'campus.' I don't have time to actually read much of the book now, since I'm overloading and having a lot on my plate, and thankfully I don't really need to, and don't really have much use for the knowledge atm. However, it looks like a great resource.
Everything is very clear, there is a ton of information, it's all very practical and based on things Crawford has either done or has seen done by his colleagues, and there's nothing hokey. It seems pretty thorough (though the field is young and there's a ton of experimenting left to be done). I have a much better idea of what forest gardening is (it's what I assumed it was) now. It's pretty cool, an idea that has a lot of potential for low-intensity gardening situations and as a bonus involves a lot more fungi than normal annual-based agriculture. (less)
For some reason, I had the idea that Gaiman's fiction was magical and inventive, like some sort of crazy mix of Lovecraft, indigenous legends, and fai...moreFor some reason, I had the idea that Gaiman's fiction was magical and inventive, like some sort of crazy mix of Lovecraft, indigenous legends, and fairy tales. So I was disappointed by the first 150 pages of this collection, which I read at work today. The stories weren't bad, just bland, mediocre, often gimmick-driven. Gaiman seems nice - he is often the protagonist of his stories, which were often about him writing stories - but not really worth reading. I hesitate to make that prognosis based solely on some of his short stories - what if one of his novels is much better than any of them (seems likely?) - but I probably won't bother picking one up until I get some strong personal recommendation. (less)
I read only the first two chapters of this work, which outline Cohen's thesis broadly. I didn't want to spend the time to dig through the archaeologic...moreI read only the first two chapters of this work, which outline Cohen's thesis broadly. I didn't want to spend the time to dig through the archaeological evidence he musters to support his thesis, which is the bulk of the book, of course.
The thesis is elegant and simple: hunter-gatherers are by and large familiar with the techniques of agriculture (its "discovery" is a misnomer) and have little incentive to adopt it. The only benefit agriculture has, at least initially, over foraging, is the ability to support increased population densities. Thus, Cohen argues, agriculture was merely one in a long sequence of ecological adaptations humans made to adjust for their constantly growing population densities.
The rest of the book seemed to be involved in defending the idea that population densities had in fact risen steadily over time and that they had reached some "critical" level simultaneous in many parts of the world around the time of the agricultural "revolution."
The overall effect (at least on me) was to make my understanding of "prehistoric" humans much more dynamic and ecologically interesting. People weren't merely stagnant for thousands of years until agriculture set in motion "progress." Change happened consistently, and the modes of production immediately prior to agriculture fall along a continuum of optimality that stretches from the large-prey heavy lifestyles humans seemed to adopt preferentially to agriculture itself. Every adjustment was necessary to support growing population densities, and each had consequences for social structure and culture. There was never an "equilibrium" state for humans - growth and consequent adaptations have followed us consistently for as long as Cohen's timeframe encompasses. Hopefully Colin Tudge's The Time Before History will shed more light on the "deeper" prehistory of humanity.
Cohen's perspective also makes it clear that these transitions have been largely negative for most of humanity, and that this trend has accelerated greatly as "progress" has taken off. Yet he never seems to idealize the "noble savage" or anything like that. He has a realistic understanding, backed up by profuse citations of the anthropological literature, that tell a declensionist narrative of the human species as population densities have gradually increased and modes of production have adjusted. Cohen does a beautiful job of contextualizing his ideas in the anthropological literature, presenting the counter to every assertion he makes.(less)
This series of articles on mycoremediation was modestly helpful, but I found that it didn't focus on the things I had hoped it would. Instead of pract...moreThis series of articles on mycoremediation was modestly helpful, but I found that it didn't focus on the things I had hoped it would. Instead of practical, experimental setup-level comments, the book is very much about the biochemistry of contaminant degradation. This is very interesting to me but very much over my head at the moment, and it was of little help in putting together our experimental design. Focus was on the most intractable portions of petroleum, pesticides, and other contaminants - while my research will focus on kerosene, which includes at most a fraction of a percent PAHs. Finally, very little wild fungal degradation was discussed - applicable to the compost portion of my experiment. Only introduced species were addressed specifically.
I read only the chapters that seemed relevant to my research (those on petroleum).(less)
Boehm clearly establishes the book's main thesis: that in nearly all nomadic forager societies, as well as in many horticultural and pastoralist socie...moreBoehm clearly establishes the book's main thesis: that in nearly all nomadic forager societies, as well as in many horticultural and pastoralist societies, egalitarianism is established and maintained by a strong social ethic. The entire community is constantly vigilant against those who attempt to usurp authority over others, wielding various levels of ostracism to discourage would-be despots. Thus, he characterizes egalitarian societies as community-led, rather than without a leader. The dominance of the entire community is strongly maintained and ever-present. An interesting and important lesson for contemporary anarchists, certainly.
Beyond that, Boehm also develops a series of evolutionary hypotheses that speculate wildly on the nature of the human-chimp common ancestor and the implications of egalitarianism for human evolution. The speculation was too wild for me and I wasn't interested in reading those parts of the book.(less)
I just skimmed this book to find the essence of its argument and pick out excerpts for my Jensen tutorial. The main thesis is that natural capitalism...moreI just skimmed this book to find the essence of its argument and pick out excerpts for my Jensen tutorial. The main thesis is that natural capitalism can do things better for people and the planet in the long term. The premises of natural capitalism are of course intuitive and appealing. However, the book ends up being a bundle of great individual ideas masquerading as a plan for saving the whole economy/society. The ideas on offer could and would be picked up by individual entrepeneurs and make them a bundle of money while saving the planet and helping people. Hawken and the Lovins seem to believe that that's all they can or need to do (which is fine, if that's what they want to accomplish).
Yet their unbridled optimism pushes them to go further and assert that business owners who don't adopt natural capitalist principles will be left behind by the new wave; that the economy will simply shift on its own in the same way that it shifted from coal to oil or into industrial capitalism. I looked through the whole book and came to the conclusion that this is simply an article of faith: they never discuss its likelihood or any evidence about the question. Since natural capitalism is predicated on system-level design and shifts in high-level political policy, this is a startling omission. Individual business owners might make some money using resources more efficiently, but natural capitalism won't come about unless systemic change occurs, and this book offers nothing but faith and optimism about that. They don't even exhort readers to lobby for those system level changes – they seem to think that would be a waste of time, since it's inevitable anyway.
That said, the evidence they marshal is rich and great, and they really do have some great specific concepts and ideas in here. It's just framed in a really idiosyncratic way that makes it seem like more than it can really be.
It was also interesting to me that Hawken just treats the course of history as this series of brilliant innovations that solve engineering and distribution problems, coupled with all these bumbling errors and clumsinesses that cause all these mishaps and make the whole thing fail to achieve its real potential and true goal (which he asserts is to make everyone happier or whatever). What's interesting is that he doesn't ignore social inequality and racism and these issues - he clearly cares about them deeply. But he doesn't ever engage in a class analysis or something that would show that these problems are caused by some to benefit themselves at expense of others. This precludes him from addressing the fact that those who benefit might try to influence the growth of natural capitalism away from the social and environmental values he sees it creating towards a more or less sustainable version of today's social order.(less)
In my Independent Study on the works and thought of Derrick Jensen last year, we imagined the utility of an "Intergovernmental Panel on Global Collaps...moreIn my Independent Study on the works and thought of Derrick Jensen last year, we imagined the utility of an "Intergovernmental Panel on Global Collapse," a group that could use models and environmental and economic data to form a set of rough constraints and scenarios about the path industrial civilization could take. Collapse theorists like Aric McBay and John Michael Greer offer their near-certain prognosis that "collapse" is either with us now or on the near horizon.
However, for lack of data and computational power to predict the future, such analysts end up falling a bit flat because their scenarios and arguments differ only in the personality of the teller - Greer has little evidence to support his claim that collapse is gradual, and McBay and the other catastrophists find it difficult to support their interpretation that there will be a more-or-less datable collapse in the future. They struggle to pin down the specific nature of collapse - will it be a collapse of the American Empire, of the global financial market, of the industrial food distribution system, of fossil fuel extraction as an enterprise? This is not because they don't see the need or value of such predictions, but because they're basically impossible.
Randers seemed to offer the next best thing to a serious, well funded and interdisciplinary effort to examine this most important of all possible questions. The disappointing truth is that his model apparently writes out the possibility of unforeseen state shifts like sudden catastrophic collapses in ecosystem service delivery, financial markets, nuclear war, or the discovery of abundant new gas reserves (some of which are more likely than others).
The nature of modeling is to take existing trends and extend them into the future; thresholds and deep feedbacks can only be elucidated by serious research. Randers further disappoints by extending his forecast only to 2052: as he points out, all the interesting and catastrophic things are likely to happen in the second half of the century and beyond, when climate change feedbacks kick into gear.
The result is modestly interesting - Randers predicts no reduction of carbon emissions until peak oil, increasing use of renewable energy and biofuels, stable and then declining global population, China's emerging hegemony, rising GDP in the developing world, increasing starvation and malnutrition, etc. Nothing new or interesting or particularly compelling. That's why I just skimmed the bulk of the book.
Early in the book, Randers recounts the time he realized that humans weren't going to change their behavior in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, and global poverty. He says that at that time, he kept the realization a secret: some more optimistic people needed the hope to keep doing good work that he wanted them to do, so he felt it would be ill-advised to spread his bad news. However, now he apparently sees more value in coming to terms with our place in the vast machinations of history. This book represents that coming-to-terms, moving beyond the cloying and obnoxious need most authors of such books have to craft a narrative that compels readers to vague, likely short-lived, and ultimately ineffective action.
In contrast, his advice at the end of the book is actually quite refreshing and seems rather helpful. Most serious environmental writers who acknowledge the hopelessness of the situation either conclude that we should fight anyway, because trying is the only moral option (Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet), or that we should do some vague environmental value-building for our selves and communities (http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.ph...). Randers instead offers pragmatic advice: learn to accept the tragedy, and ride it out as best you can.
He suggests that we base happiness on non-monetary satisfaction, learn to enjoy video games and movies, avoid teaching children to enjoy wilderness, and move someplace with a reasonably proactive government and away from the worst projected impacts of climate change. Overall, he suggests learning to like the way the world will be in 40 years in advance, to save you the trouble of adjusting when that future comes. (less)
Altieri's book is one of the foundational texts of Agroecology, and it seemed like a logical read to pursue my interest in that field. But it turns ou...moreAltieri's book is one of the foundational texts of Agroecology, and it seemed like a logical read to pursue my interest in that field. But it turns out that it's not really a very good book. I skimmed it, reading a few of the examples they give.
The flaws: Way too many flowcharts, graphs, charts, etc. They rarely convey information but instead express these typologies and lists. The text is filled in with the exposition of the same ideas - few specifics, huge generalizations, and nothing concrete to grab on to. This is really problematic because of the complexity of agroecology. There are no generalizable solutions, and everything that is done ought to be deep place-based, with a thorough understanding of the natural history of your crops, of your markets, and of the environmental history of the area. All of that makes the discipline fascinating, but it makes it almost incomprehensibly abstract when discussed in non-specific terms.
The examples themselves are essentially just lists of crops with some basic descriptions of interactions. Difficult to focus on and without any concrete lessons.
The book comes from the early days of the field, so it suffers from an incredible dearth of data. Techniques used by traditional farmers are appropriately respected, and the authors usually just take the benefits and values of their systems at face value. That's fine, but data is one of the few relatively objective and convincing ways to present this stuff, and it really helps tie observed phenomena to the places and environments where they have been proven (this is key because much of this research is so underfunded that it is rarely reproduced in multiple places - extrapolation is the de facto best-case habit but it is not always justifiable).
Worse than all that, but not a fault of the book's, was that everything that was interesting or compelling was stuff I already knew. Having been to the MOSES Organic Farming conference three years in a row, using cover crops, biological pest management, and intercropping was no news to me. Having toured the Chagga homegardens, I understand the logic of perennial polycultures fairly well. The book may have been interesting and revelatory when it was first published, but this stuff has all been worked into the mainstream of the sustainable ag movement by now.(less)
This was really not a compelling environmental history. The author kept hinting at the fact that weeds might be plants that are adapted to disturbance...moreThis was really not a compelling environmental history. The author kept hinting at the fact that weeds might be plants that are adapted to disturbance, and therefore ecologically beneficial in the short term, but there was no hint that anything interesting was coming.(less)