Sunday, September 21, 2014

Margaret Atwood, Payback

I'm always keen to read the books produced out of the CBC's Massey lecture series: not that I'm very good at rushing out to buy them, but I've read about a third of them over the years, and I've commented on a few of them here at Book Addiction HQ. They're consistently thoughtful, provoking examples of committed writing, skewing sometimes toward the academic, with their authors standing publicly for something and expressing their own perspectives on the world in a really appealing hybrid mode that, while being a heavily edited and expanded version of the lectures, still (usually) emphasizes their speech rhythms.

Margaret Atwood's 2008 Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth precisely fits this description, and if that's good for you, then you'll appreciate her efforts in the volume. Mostly she's unpacking the history of ideas of debt, focusing on concepts like revenge and honour and non-monetary debts, so if you're expecting a discussion of, say, the 2008 financial crisis, you're out of luck. (And that's a real shame, because it would've been great to hear her reflections on that, while events unfolded during her lecture series!)

For me, the most interesting sections were speculative rather than historical. Atwood's thoughts on what the world would be like now if the United States had responded differently to 9/11, well, those are worth the price of admission all on their own, even if it's only a couple of pages long. Her lengthy narrative of a 21st-century Scrooge will get your eyes rolling on occasion, but she's in on the joke, and it's intentionally cartoonish in the same way that Dickens' Christmas Carol can be at times: but it also offers some incisive remarks on the alternative futures that we're refusing to choose between. The ideas of her closing chapter connect neatly with those she dramatized in her MaddAddam trilogy, with social decay and environmental collapse being integrally related to each other in a catastrophic feedback loop.

Still, I read this book with the spectre of my book club on my shoulder: we've not had a lot of luck with nonfiction, since an unfortunate year where we tried to be Serious Gentlemen and inflicted a lot of Very Bad News on ourselves, and I'm gun-shy as well about anything that sounds the least bit academic. Worrying, but we'll see on September 30th!

Plus it became a movie, which I learned while standing in a Victoria video-rental shop (remember those?) telling a clerk how much I enjoyed Manufactured Landscapes, only to have the mother of its filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal chime in and say that her next project was in pursuit of Atwood's book. The world being, of course, a very small place to house seven billion people.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Jon Mooallem, Wild Ones

The deep desires of the human species exhibit the wildest, widest biodiversity imaginable: we want everything, and we want it so very, very much.

In his 2013 book Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, Jon Mooallem documents his time spent with activists of many kinds, each with a fascination with either polar bears, Lange's metal-mark butterflies, or whooping cranes. The tale he comes away with has no more to do with the miracles of non-human evolution than it does with the vagaries of human passions.

Really, the book's about the fundamental paradox of a culture that's aware of its debts to nature: "wildness fulfills certain human needs and is also trampled by them; how easily we can wind up short-circuiting and celebrating it at the same time" (p.271). Or to be vastly more complimentary about it: "The best of us are cursed with caring, with a bungling and undying determination to protect whatever looks like beauty, even if our vision is blurry" (p.293).

Depression is a ready companion when you dip regularly into stories about wildlife, so many of which raise the spectre of extinction. Mooallem confronts and welcomes this depression, since extinction is one of the sparks that generated this book, but it's a bracing read. There's a lot to worry about, but it helps just to know that so many of us are worried -- especially when so many of us are unrepentant weirdos. Weirdness is biodiversity, if I may say, a phrase that just might become my first tattoo.

Incidentally, this book ended up being part of the COOLEST PROMOTIONAL MATERIAL EVER, namely an EP of Mooallem performing stories from the book with the band Black Prairie, in the form of a CD covered in artificial fur. Let's see John Vaillant top that! (Or alternatively, there's Mooallem's TED talk, because of course.)

It's an excellent book, Wild Ones, very appealing in its blend of frank humour and nerdish learnedness. You're really going to enjoy it.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Richard Alley, The Two-Mile Time Machine

Climate change: it feels not entirely unmanageable, doesn't it, if we think of it in terms of gradual change occurring across a span of decades, maybe generations. The oceans will rise by [x] centimetres by 2050 here in Victoria, but by a full [y] centimetres in Miami, and while that's big news, most of us will be dead or will have shifted residence a couple of times since then, Jeffersons-style.* There just has to be enough resilience and redundancy in the underlying system to let humanity survive this type of climate change with a pretty low ratio of cannibalism, or we would've been doomed multiple times in the past.

Which is why we need, so very much, books like Richard B. Alley's The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future. We need to be much more afraid than we are, and Alley's book is very helpful in that respect.

I should say, first, that Alley's book is engrossingly and endearingly nerdy, in the way that it tries so very hard to be accessible to The Casual Reader. Not many casual readers are going to wade through lengthy explanations (even if in relatively accessible prose) of the history of the Antarctic ice-core drilling projects, or of the forms of mathematical analysis that allow for the interpretation of ice-bubble gas composition as representative of particular historical climatic conditions. One sentence at a time, it's a very helpful book to understand climate change and ice-core research, but overall it's an awful lot to take in.

But to business: How abrupt is the sub-titular "abrupt climate change" Alley's talking about? Well, that all depends, but the Antarctic ice-core data illustrates pretty conclusively that at least a few times, global temperatures increased by 5 to 10 degrees Celsius within a decade or two. The last ice age ended within three years. Climatic variability means that some places would have warmed by considerably less than that, but others would have warmed by considerably more: maybe 20 degrees Celsius.

Generally, it takes centuries for the gradual cooling to ratchet things back down again, and for sea-level to drop by the few metres by which it would almost certainly have risen.

If you've read this far into the post, you'll be nerdy enough to know already that all of human history -- well, the comfortable bits, anyway, since the invention and spread of agriculture -- has occurred within a period of relative climatic calm. If there's any native resilience in being human, it evolved to suit a change of a few degrees. Richard Alley, in The Two-Mile Time Machine, gives us a world that seems more likely to destroy us than to spur our creativity:
"the climate of the last few thousand years is about as good as it gets--most of the last 110,000 years have have involved larger, faster, more wide-spread climate changes." (p.192)
Good times.

It does give you perspective on those deadlines that zoom up at you.

* "Yeah, we're moving' on up
(Moving on up!)
To the East Side …."

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey

In the current contest to see whether humanity will make the necessary effort to avoid cataclysmic spasms of extinction and refugee, it's easy to see that Bill McKibben is one of the hardest-working characters in climate-change show business. He has been thinking about these issues for years, of course, since before his 1989 book The End of Nature, but it's a huge change for a writer to move from the realm of words into full-on activism, and that's the trajectory of McKibben's career. We're fortunate, then, that McKibben has now written about how he came to make this transition, and in a really enjoyable book, too.

Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist does savour a bit of the aw-shucks and it's-only-me, but it's not false modesty, or it doesn't read that way. Instead, it feels (to me, anyway) like the genuine story of how McKibben came to understand that people had accepted him as a leader before he recognized that they saw him that way. He knew he was becoming an activist, and abandoning his writing in order to do so, but since he didn't think this entitled him to a leadership role, he kept looking elsewhere for authority and for approval of assorted actions (marches, protests, petitions, and so on).

And then we were all looking to him, and he got to work.

But this memoir, of a short period in McKibben's life, isn't about the activist mission, at least not directly. While it's certainly about his work in opposition to the oil industry and the American petrostate apparatus, it's just as much about the honey side of the book's title pairing. See, McKibben has put his money where his mouth was on locavorism and community agriculture. He bought a farm, and immediately deeded a life interest to a bee-keeper he respected but who was having difficulty getting out of the difficult situation of renting land rather than owning. Recently savaged by 76 wasp stings in a single attack, McKibben nonetheless charges ahead into collaboration with bees -- with the bee-keeper, obviously, but in fact he has begun working directly with the bees, with the suit and everything.

Local action matters, he's unsubtly telling us.

It's not an especially subtle book, nor even a particularly artful one, and yet I found it deeply, deeply engaging. Me, I'm teaching environmental humanities courses that focus on the reading experience, constantly aware that this is an awfully long way from direct action. There's something in McKibben's apparent transparency in Oil and Honey, both the plain-spoken appeals and the eschewing of manipulative narrative structures, that cheers me enormously.

Plus McKibben's contesting the Keystone XL pipeline, along with anthropogenic climate change generally, and he's not sure what'll happen. I'm opposed to the Enbridge pipeline from the tar sands to the BC coast, and I'm sure that this pipeline will not happen. I need his doubt, to feed my will.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Kathryn Shevelow, For the Love of Animals

What a lovely, lovely book of scholarship! All kinds of readers should discover Kathryn Shevelow's For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement, so I hope that eventually it'll escape academics' bookshelves into the larger world. Presumably publishers have some sort of metrics to predict the likelihood of this happening, but I have no idea why this one failed to break larger in 2008 when it was first published.

Not that all of For the Love of Animals is easy to read, mind you. When you spend any time learning about animal rights or animal welfare, you find yourself being dragged through some seriously dark passages, and Kathryn Shevelow takes you down those necessary roads into bull-baiting, cockpits, a monkey who killed dogs in the ring, horses worked until they starved in the street and beaten until their bones shattered....

And, okay, if I'm honest, maybe there aren't all THAT many people who want to read a history of British legislation, sprinkled with toxic images of violence against animals. As accurate a description as that might be, however, it's also a terribly, terribly limited way to characterize the reading experience of For the Love of Animals. Shevelow turns legislative history into a fairly chatty narrative of outsized personalities who happened to spend a lot of years failing to convince legislators to pass one law or another, and offers tips on which chapters and sections that the sentimental reader should skip over. The potential weight of these subjects simply isn't there.

Shevelow is a scholar of 18th-century studies, and that does skew her book toward her period of expertise. As academic reviews of her book point out, she doesn't spend as much time with 19th-century history as might be appropriate, and she luxuriates a bit with colourful 18th-century personalities (like my own favourite, Christopher Smart). Still, it's a thoughtful, engaging, powerful book, and I'd absolutely recommend it.

And if you need more evidence, there are some very thoughtful reviews out there:

Or maybe just watch Shevelow talk about the book, when she was summoned to chat with the good people at Google HQ: great stuff in this video, to match what you'll see in the book.