Sunday, December 28, 2008
Retrospect of Western Travel / Harriet Martineau -- Daniel Feller, ed. -- Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.
At first, I had some difficulty with Martineau's style, but in time, her prose read easily and I became engrossed in her descriptions of social encounters, prison condition, stage coach rides, hotels, river boats, and public meetings as she traveled in New York, D.C., Virginia, Charleston, New Orleans Cincinati, Boston, and parts between. Martineau was well enough known as an author to be able to visit and speak with a number of important figures of the time, including James Madison, Henry Clay, and William Lloyd Garrison.
Prior to coming to the United States, Martineau had published criticisms of slavery. Consequently, she was engaged in frequent discussions about the issue. Her initial revulsion to seeing people enslaved made for interesting reading; however, her hosts in the South were invariably slave owners and she developed a personal appreciation for their hospitality. As she was critical of colonization which was the more acceptable path to ending slavery, she often found herself acknowledging her sympathies to abolition. Curiously, this put her in the most danger in Boston, where the high society was at pains to mollify Southern sensibilities by villifying Abolitionists. Indeed, her work is most informative as to how Abolitionists were repressed and, indeed, persecuted during these years.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Fanny Wright: Rebel in America / Celia Morris Eckhardt -- Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Indeed, a champion of the working class, Wright also held many views that placed her easily a century ahead of her time. In a time when "respectable" women could not allow their names to be published with their own work, Fanny Wright became a well-known author, and well-received by prominent progressive figures of her time. She maintained a long and close relationship to Jeremy Bentham, Lafayette, and Robert Dale Owen. She was respected by Jefferson and other prominent American politicians. However, her radical views on marriage and education eventually left her personally and politically isolated.
Wright was born in Scotland, raised in England, and lived for some years in France. She later travelled three times to the United States and became an American citizen. Her first significant social enterprise was to form a community in Tennessee on a plantation she called Nashoba. The community was to be modeled roughly on Robert Owen's community at New Harmony, Indiana, but Nashoba was intended foremost to emancipate slaves and prepare them for colonization in Haiti or Africa. Wright believed slavery could be gradually and peacefully abolished by establishing plantations that would out-perform those based on slave labor. Nashoba and other plantations would be based on the indentured servitude of slaves purchased by or donated to these new plantations.
Nashoba turned out to be a financial failure, due in part to Wright and her partners' inexperience in running a plantation. Furthermore, scandals related to the treatment of the Nashoba slaves and the sexual relations on the plantation compounded the obstacles to success. Eventually, Wright took her slaves to Haiti where they were freed.
The vilification of Wright by the newspapers and journals of her time was stunning. It is hard to imagine anyone standing up to such criticism, and eventually it took its toll on Wright. While publicly rejecting marriage as oppressive to women, Fanny moved to France and was secretly married after she became pregnant. Eckhardt's portrait of this period in her life suggests that she was in a deep depression which lasted several years and resulted in the end of all of her previous friendships.
Wright did eventually return to public life, touring and speaking in the United States during the late 1840s and advocating the re-election of Martin Van Buren. Her reputation, however, had spoiled any real opportunity for her to be effective. As crowds dwindled and those attending were more curious than committed, Fanny eventually retired into a private life, struggling to retain her financial solvency in her conflicts with her husband. Suffering a nervous breakdown in her last years, she died estranged from her daughter and attended only by maids.
Eckhardt's portrait of Wright goes well beyond a factually reliable account and details Wright's inner life and motivations. While this make the book extremely interesting, it sometimes slips into speculative psychologizing. It isn't clear from the end notes how well founded this speculation is. Over all, the work is a sympathetic -- but not uncritical -- examination of an extremely interesting historical figure. Clearly, Wright's talents and determination to advance the cause of liberty everywhere allowed her to achieve more than women could ever hope during her lifetime. Her actions, while damaging to herself, broke seemingly impenetrable ground for women in Europe and the United States.
Saturday, December 13, 2008
The work is rich in detailed portraits of the eras most important figures and provides a careful guide through the kaleidascopic constellations of political alliances. The reader is emersed a time when national political parties were weak in comparison to state political parties, and when the county's leading politicians could (and would) split political parties and form new ones in pursuit of personal political gain. Along with the familiar "Democrats," "Whigs," and "Republicans," Schlesinger distinguishes such groupings as the "Cotton Whigs," the "Conscience Whigs," "Hunkers," "Barnburners," "Locofocos," "Free Soilers," the "Liberty Party," "Northern Democrats," "Southern Democrats," and the "Know Nothing Party." He is especially good at identifying the role of newspapers in promoting the views of one or another candidate, politician or political party.
What was most surprising to me was how much many of the leading figures of the time sounded like Marx. At least in their rhetoric, many politicians recognized the exploitation of the working class by newly rising corporate interests. Schlesinger quotes numerous politicians as dividing American society into the working class that produces wealth and the capitalist class that lives off of that production. For mainstream politicians of the time, wealth is a product of labor and its maldistribution is the measure of exploitation. In this respect, I am left wondering if Martin Van Buren was not our country's most radical president, and whether the power of corporations might not have been nipped in the bud had he been re-elected in 1840. Schlesinger attributes his defeat to the shrewd Whig strategy to paint William Henry Harrison as a commoner and the power of the Whig campaign treasury.
The last third of the book turns away from economic issues and recounts the struggle over slavery leading up to the Civil War. While interesting, the narrative is well known. I am not so well read as to say how much The Age of Jackson is responsible for that narrative, but surely much of it is in line with previous work on the Civil War.
Two figures stand out in Schlesinger's account that get well-deserved attention. One is David Wilmot, the radical Democrat responsible for introducing a bill to abolish slavery in the territories. The significance of this bill can not be understated. It, perhaps more than anything, was responsible for moving the issue of slavery from a matter for compromise to a nation-splitting controversy. The second figure is Frances Wright, a Scottish immigrant who was the darling of the working class, an early opponant of slavery, and an outspoken feminist. Schlesinger's picture of her is one of a late 20th century woman mysteriously born in 1795. For a fuller picture of this amazing personality, see Fanny Wright: Rebel in America.
I have wanted to read The Age of Jackson for many years. Having read it, I deeply regret waiting so long.
The Life of Charles Sumner: The Scholar in Politics / Archibald H. Grimke -- NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1892.
But Sumner's career is memorable for more than his victimization. Grimke's biography of Sumner, in the style of the times, is a glowing account of the Senator's career. Sumner is described as the most vocal and effective political opponant of "the Slave Power," comparable to William Lloyd Garrison's effectiveness as a moral critic of slavery. Nonetheless, Grimke rightly makes the bludgeoning of Sumner the climax of the biography.
Sumner is portrayed as a reluctant politician, who is drawn to office by his passion to end slavery. His contribution to Abolition is well recorded in the biography. I was, however, left wondering if Sumner was ever occupied with other issues than what brought him to be a leader of the Massachusettes's "Consceince Whigs." Grimke does indicate that Sumner was an early proponent of women's sufferage, but he says little about Sumner's attitudes toward economic questions that were significant prior to the War. Sumner's Whig background and close relationship to Joseph Story would indicate that he was no friend of the Northern working class, but instead an aristocratic Massachusettes politician, defending the intersts of the incipient power of corporations. However, Grimke does point out that Sumner was not sympathetic to the Whig position on banking and tarrifs. Furthermore, Sumner's undogmatic relationship to the Whigs made him acceptable to the faction of Democratic Party that joined the Free Soil Party.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Grimke's work is his descriptions of the potential for violence that lay just below the surface in the halls of Congress. Besides a detailed description of the attack on Sumner, Grimke quotes a paragraph from Henry Wilson's History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America illustrating the climate in Congress. According to Wilson, in 1845, during an anti-slavery speech by Rep. Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio, Rep. E.J. Black of Georgia, "approaching Mr. Giddings with an uplifted cane, said: 'If you repeat those words I will knock you down.' The latter repeating them, the former was seized by his friends and borne from the hall. Mr. Dawson, of Louisiana, who on a previous occasion had attempted to assault him, approching him, and, cocking his pistol, profanely exclaimed: 'I'll shoot him; by G-d I'll shoot him!' At the same moment, Mr. Causin, of Maryland, placed himself in front of Mr. Dawson, with his right hand upon his weapon concealed in his bosom. At this juncture, four members from the Democratic side took their position by the side of the member from Louisiana, each man putting his hand in his pocket and apparently grasping his weapon. At the same moment Mr. Raynor, of North Carolina, Mr. Hudson, of Massachusetts, and Mr. Foot, of Vermont, came to Mr. Gidding's rescue, who, thus confronted and thus supported, continued his speech. Dawson stood fronting him till its close, and Causin remained facing the latter until he returned to the Democratic side." A near gun battle on the floor of the House of Representatives puts our present "partisanship" in perspective.
In all, Grmike's Sumner is a wise and selfless paragon of justice, but such sympathy for the subject of a biography is typical of 19th century writing. Grimke's portrait of Sumner is engaging and entertaining, but should be augmented by more recent critical scholarship.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Ohio's Grand Canal: Brief History of the Ohio & Erie Canal / Terry K. Woods -- Kent, OH: Kent State Press, 2008.
Construction of the Canal roughly occurred in the decade following 1825. Prior to the creation of the canal, Ohio's economy was more closely linked to New Orleans than the eastern seaboard. By connecting the Ohio River with the Lake Erie, the Ohio canal system linked the Western United States with New York's Erie Canal, and allowed for the economic and social development of Ohio. However, the usefulness of the canal was short lived. By the end of the Civil War, railroads had replaced canal transit as the primary method of moving both people and goods. Canals were simply too expensive to maintain.
Maintenance was especially problematic in Ohio, since unlike the Erie Canal, the Ohio canals did not have the financial support needed for it to be built to last. Much of Wood's book describes the changing leasing and ownership relations and the obstacles to financing the canals' maintenance. Ultimately, the entire canal system fell into such disrepair that the great floods of 1909 and 1913 completely destroyed its utility. Only recently have sections of the canals been identified and preserved in parks as a reminder of Ohio's past.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion / The Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman -- NY: Times Books, 2008.
Ekman's views on emotion make up the majority of the book, since his conversations with the Dalai Lama were predicated on questions and topics that Ekman had prepared. In presenting his questions, Ekman expounds his views as a kind of starting point. It is only toward the end of the conversation that the Dalai Lama contributes much more than clarifying questions, points of agreement, and brief statements about Buddhist psychology. However, Ekman's work on emotions is engaging and its fit with Buddhism is intriguing. It provides a well-developed, analytic substructure for understanding emotion.
The main topic of the book -- the awareness of emotion -- turns out to be another way of referring to "mindfulness," and so the conversation can be understood as an exploration of right mindfulness, particularly regarding emotions.
By the end of the book, I came to recognize that the Buddhist view of emotions differs importantly from what I understand as the Freudian view or what has become established as the common sense view of emotions in the West. This view holds that if we do not act on emotions like anger, frustration, annoyance, etc., they become suppressed (or repressed) and manifest themselves elsewhere in destructive ways. They become the basis for neurosis.
In contrast to this, the Buddhist view of these "afflictive" emotions is that they are passing mental disturbances, and that acting on them usually results in harming others and perpetuating bad karma. Instead, the healthy approach to such emotions is to observe them, recognize their source, and in so doing, one can recognize that the source is not the actor, but is instead the broader conditions of the action. By understanding this, one can response to the anger in a way that is not directed at others and does not perpetuate bad karma. The result is that one's anger harmlessly passes away, and one is free to respond constructively to the conditions that produced the emotion. By pausing to recognize the true source of the emotion, that is by being mindful of one's emotions, one creates time to choose how to act on the emotion instead of acting in the grip of the emotion.
Until reading Emotional Awareness I had no other framework for understanding emotions but the Freudian framework, though that model never really reflected my own experience with emotions. Emotional Awareness has given me grounds to question this model and has made clear to me the Buddhist psychology that I have always tried to act on.
Friday, October 24, 2008
For many years, I have been reading fairly scholarly books on Buddhism. I've been especially attracted to ancient writings and I have shunned more popular treatments, particularly books by Westerners. Much to my dismay, I have found very few works that provide an extended, systematic treatment of the Eightfold Path. (The Ancient Path of the Buddha by Piyadassi Thera is a notable exception.) So I was conflicted when I discovered that Lama Surya Das (a.k.a. Jeffery Miller from Long Island) wrote a 400 page work detailing the Eightfold Path. Well, I am quite pleased that I overcame my prejudice against Western Buddhist authors and read his work Awakening the Buddha Within.
In an effort to bring Buddhism to ordinary Western life, Surya Das's writing is chatty and colloquial. He often employs pedestrian and superficial metaphors to express difficult ideas. However, his honest and unpretentious treatment of the Eightfold Path makes it relatively easy for me to overlook these passages. Through out the work, Surya Das observes that Buddhism has transformed and has been transformed by every culture that it encountered, and so there is no reason to be ashamed of the westernization of Buddhism and its differences from the Asian Buddhist traditions. This, more than any substantive description or analysis of the Eightfold Path, makes the work valuable to me and worth recommending. The fact that his treatment of the Eightfold Path is generally quite instructive makes it all the more worthwhile.
Surya Das provides a clear treatment of the central concepts behind each step of the Path. He illustrates his points with stories of his training in Himalayan monasteries and in a French Tibetan retreat center with traditional stories from the history of Buddhism. His treatment of the wisdom steps of the Path is uneven. He does not give deep expression to right view, missing the complexity and nuances of the Buddhist worldview and its metaphysics. Admittedly, doing so in a popular idiom would be a remarkable achievement; however, he does a very admirable job of expressing the significance of committing oneself to the path of enlightment, i.e., right intention.
His best work is in explaning the ethical steps on the path: right speech, right action, and right livelihood. It seems clear that an important motive for his seeking training in Buddhism was to understand how to live a moral life. It is also here that the westernization of Buddhism appears most significant. Surya Das effectively identifies how Buddhist ethics are in accord with specific Western concerns and moral impulses and how Western ideals, like gender equality, can help perfect the Buddhist tradition.
The sections on meditation steps are perhaps the weakest. The chapter on right effort gives fine inspiration to the reader to remain dedicated to the path of enlightenment, and the chapter on right mindfulness does an adequate job of explaining and stressing its importance to attaining enlightenment, but his treatement of right concentration devolves into (mostly) a series of transcripts for guided meditation. Unless the reader commits these to memory or has a friend read them aloud in a medidtation session, they serve little purpose. It would have been better to present these sections in an appendix, and use the chapter on conentration to explain general principles for right concentration.
Regardless of its weaknesses, Awakening the Buddha Within easily succeeds in the extremely important task of explaining in detail the most practical and important truth a Buddhist can seek to understand: how to follow the Eightfold Path to enlightenment, and it makes an excellent case for the legitimacy of Western Buddhism as a worthy element of world Buddhism.
Friday, October 10, 2008
Admittedly, this is quite a list of events to cover in a single book, but I was left wanting something more than accounts of resistance. Kurlansky recognizes the significant social and economic changes that were underway during 1968, but gives them short attention. Missing is a sense of the general ambiance of the times within which the student movement took place. Furthermore, his treatment of the student movements concentrates attention on a handful of people who came to be picked out as "leaders" by the national media. Despite the insistance of the actors themselves that the movement was driven by spontaneous, decentralized motives, Kurlansky provides biographies of a handful of people as though this would provide insight into the events.
Despite these complaints, 1968 was an engaging read. Much has been written and told about the student movement of the 1960s to make Kurlansky's work unsurprising, but it does conatain enough untold stories to make it quite rewarding, and the story is told well enough that I wanted to follow up reading this with other more complete accounts of specific events.
Monday, September 29, 2008
The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology / Simon Winchester -- NY: Harper Collins, 2001.
Winchester's prose is often repetative and sensational. The early pages read like a poorly written trailer to a movie that you know can't possibly be as good as the trailer suggests. In the end, though, Winchester portrays Smith's life well enough for the reader to understand Smith to be a complex character, incapable of writing the book that would establish his place in the history of science. Instead, Smith's place is established by his authorship of a magnificent map. Even here, the map is only produced when it is sponsored by the leading map maker of the time.
The book combines biography with accounts of class relations in late-Georgian England and a smattering of the fundamental principles of geology. The main story is centered on Smith's life-long struggle to make a living and his roller coaster relationship with his patrons in the English aristocracy. Smith comes off as a gifted geologist and hydrologist, but a pathetic business person and academic scientist. All in all it was not the page turner I had desired, but it was interesting enough, especially for how it illuminated the circumstances surrounding the foundation of the science of geology. I would have appreciated a bit more geology (or even the technicalities of map making) and a little less biography.
Monday, September 22, 2008
From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East / William Dalrymple -- N.Y.: Holt,1997.
Like Dalrymple, Moschos and Sophronius traveled at a pivotal and dangerous time in the history of the Middle East. The declining Byzantine Empire was being attacked from the west by Slavs, Goths, Lombards and Avars, while in the east Sassanian Persia and raids from desert nomads were disrupting life. Moschos records monasteries burned and populations slaughtered or sold into slavery. Many of the great cities of the East, cities such as Antioch and Tyre, had decayed to mere backwaters. More significantly perhaps, Moschos was an almost exact contemporary to Mohammed. In fact, his young companion on the journey, Sophronius the Sophist was eventually appointed Patriarch of Jerusalem and defended the city against the first army of Islam as it emerged from Arabia to defeat all before it.
The conflict between modern day Islamic states and Israel dominates our current understanding of the Middle East. The fate of practitioners of third major religion to arise in the Middle East, Christianity, seldom occurs to us. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a common heritage. They have many common prophets, holy spaces, and even practices; all are mid-eastern religions. Dalrymple goes so far as to state the Islam actually preserves very ancient Christian ritual; he observes that John Moschos would feel more “at home” with Suni Islamic ritual practices than with those practiced in many of the modern Christian churches. Yet Christians, be they Armenian, Palestianian, Syriac, Coptic, or Maronite are being driven from their historic homelands.
Dalrymple witnesses to their suffering and dispossession. In Turkey and Palestine, at current emigration rates, it is probable that neither Christian community will exist by 2020. In Lebanon and Egypt, the larger size of the Christian population predicts that they will exist longer, but they are experiencing decreasing influence. Only in Syria did he see a “confident” Christian population, but they fear a severe backlash whenever Asad’s repressive regime collapses. Dalrymple points out Moschos’ significance as observer and recorder of the”beginning of the end” for Christians in the historic home of Christianity. He sees his own journey as witness to the end of that fourteen hundred year Christian exodus.
Dalrymple weaves a fascinating blend of history, politics, travel, and spirituality. He successfully evokes the clouds of incense and mystery of Orthodox worship, the dry and cruel landscapes preferred by 6th century ascetics, and the terror of traveling where wandering bands of insurgents shoot foreigners. The stories from The Spiritual Meadow greatly enhanced the story of Dalrymple’s own journey. This is a terrific book (one that I’ve actually read twice). What is missing in this book is a map. Travel books must have maps.
Monday, September 15, 2008
Some of his most interesting passages describe the slow decay of buildings and their eventual complete decomposition. He compares the probable lifespan of specific artificial substances and comes to some rather interesting conclusions. For example, in time, little of Phoenix, Arizona will remain in a regenerated dessert but shards of glass and fire hydrants. The longest lasting materials will be plastics and nuclear waste. Both will continue to be deadly dangers to the remaining, recovering, or newly evolving species left behind.
Plastics will not retain their present form. Instead, they will decompose, but this will mean only that they will fragment into smaller and smaller peices. At first this seems benign, but Weisman points out that while we are familiar with birds and other animals that die because they mistakenly swallow plastic artifacts, the decomposition of these artifacts means that smaller and smaller animals will become the victims of our plastics. Plastic is the substance "that keeps on killing." The long-lived danger of nuclear waste is, of course, well known.
Among Weisman's more interesting observations is that much of the existing built world remains only because of constant maintanence by people. For example, without a constant supply of electricity, pumps that daily evacuate water from the New York subway system would fail, and much of system would flood. Water damage would cause widespread collapse of structures over and around the subway lines.
The World Without Us is not, however, a single coherent story. Weisman runs off on frequent tangents that make grasping the whole of the work difficult. After some of these tangents, he appears to recall that he is writing about the world without us and offers a tenuous link between his tangent and the main theme. Unfortunately, this hodge-podge structure is all too common in books I have read recently. It's as though authors don't quite have enough material on a subject to fill 250-300 pages, and are given the freedom by their editors to throw in whatever interesting padding they can vaguely relate to the book's subject. It makes me long for solid sustained treatments of a single subject.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Nonetheless, Moore gives a fascinating account of his travels in Italy, Egypt, India, and Ceylon, especially the latter two countries. His travels in India take him from Bombay to Dehli, and across the country to Calcutta. He gives lucid accounts of the people and sights along the way, including the Taj Mahal, temples, and a British fort. From Calcutta, he travels north to Darjeeling and the Himalayas where he spends a week at the foot of Kanchinjanga, the world's second highest mountain. Finally, he travels by steamer down the eastern coast of India, stopping at Madras and continuing to Ceylon.
Throughout the account, Moore gives special attention to the religious views, rites, and customs he encounters, particularly those of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Perhaps his most vivid writing comes at the very end of the book, where he describes the capture of wild elephants in Ceylon. The captors (with the cooperation of tame elephants) patiently herd the elephants to an encloser where two ropes are tied around their back legs. In time, they are chained to a tame elephant and taken away for sale.
In the process, Moore describes the death of one man and two elephants. The man, of course, is crushed by an angry elephant. Of the elephants, one received a mortal wound from a rifle. Here is Moore's description of the death of the other: the elephant "writhed, screamed, tore at the foliage, pawed the earth, tossed clouds of dust over her back, flung her trunk about fiercely, and planted her head upon the ground for leverage to rend asunder the bonds. At length she fell, in exhaustion, anguish, and despair, and lay motionless and resigned. The natives well knew that these symptoms forebode the loss of their prize. She panted for an hour or more, sighed deeply, and died--of 'broken heart.'"
Moore's engaging prose is accompanied by drawings and photographs on 52 plates and a fine foldout map of India and Ceylon.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Guthrie acknowledges the utopian tendencies in his subjects, but emphasizes numerous practical proposals in each. Topically, Guthrie addresses their views about private property, surplus value, and -- quite interestingly -- the role of the family as an instituion in opposition to socialism and the general good. The analysis of socialism goes beyond the three central figures and touches on several other radical thinkers, particularly various French thinkers. The entire work leaves one thinking these pre-industrial authors were a lot more modern than one would have thougth.
The work earned Guthrie a PhD in political science at Columbia University.
Sunday, August 17, 2008
Of course, without a good understanding of recent work in the field, the reader must be careful about accepting the conclusions from the 19th century, but even a lay understanding of the field is sufficient to allow the reader to learn a little about geology and the history of science.
The Geological Story Briefly Told provides a clear account of the minerals that constitute rocks, the forces that create rocks, and most interestingly, the history of rock formations through geological time. Without modern dating processes, Dana's only conclusion about the length of geological time is that "time is long."
Friday, August 15, 2008
Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change / Pat Murphy -- Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2008.
There is very little in the book with which I would disagree, but then very little that has not been described better elsewhere. The value of the book is in how Murphy brings together under one cover brief explanations of the most pressing problems of our time; however, I more than a few times wanted more complete arguments for his assertions (as willing as I was to accept them.)
Among the more interesting points was Murphy's criticism of various green technologies as inadequate to resolve our environmental problems. Instead, Murphy has the courage to conclude that our only hope is to drastically "curtail" our greenhouse gas emissions. The term "conservation" is too moderate for Murphy as it does not seem to imply returning to a virtually pre-industrial lifestyle.
Murphy argues that we, as pioneer individuals, must transform our lifestyles before a wider political commitment can form to make wholesale societal changes and it is the role of small, ecologically aware communities to support these pioneer members.
The notions are compelling for me. For several years I have worked to create and strengthen the Maryland Green Party, thinking that having a political institution that could champion a radical political and ecological agenda would be an important avenue for change. I have, however, come to the conclusion that such a political institution can not flourish without more or less permanent social groupings that will sustain the connections between people while they are politically active, and for such social groupings to succeed, they must be based in geographically compact communities. Murphy does not write about the extension of his vision of lifestyle and community into politics, but such and extension seems natural and beneficial.
I would recommend Plan C to anyone with a curiousity about and slight knowledge of Climate Change and Peak Oil for its concise summary of these problems. However, Murphy's "curtailment" response to these problems may be more than anyone who is not already convinced of the depth of the problem can handle.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change / Reid Ewing, et al. -- Washington, D.C.: ULI, 2008.
As the subtitle suggests, Growing Cooler provides statistical evidence to support the claim that compact development is a necessary element of a U.S. effort to stabilize the climate. The book notes the transportation sector’s sizeable contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and the inability of technological changes to meet the necessary reduction targets. It argues for the need to significantly reduce vehicle miles traveled, and the importance of compact development in accomplishing this. Compact development’s significance is compounded by the long time horizons of the built environment relative to policy measures.
As someone already fairly convinced of the benefits of smart growth, I found the information very clearly presented but not revelational. What I found most valuable in Growing Cooler was its definitions of the sometimes nebulous elements of sprawl and of compact development. The book is optimistic that increased compact development will occur given rising gas prices, changing demographics, and an emerging paradigm shift related to climate change.
The last chapter prior to the conclusion presents policy recommendations for federal, state, regional, and local governments, many of which will be familiar to those who follow or are involved in smart growth advocacy. I recommend this book to those who are new to the idea of smart growth or are looking for hard evidence to site to skeptics.
My introduction to Landscape Architecture, Design with Nature gives me a sense of the field as being where geology meets the built environment. McHarg’s “ecological planning method” identifies geological features such as slope, drainage, bedrock foundation, et al., for a given region and uses these factors to determine what type of development is appropriate for what land. Although the emphasis is on ecological factors, McHarg also recognizes historic value and leaves room for other social values to be considered in the process.
I found myself frustrated that the process does not address certain planning questions such as how to build communities that promote transit and non-motorized transportation. McHarg allayed these frustrations by repeatedly noting that the ecological method does not generate a plan, it simply lays the environmental basework; other goals can be addressed when the plan is made. Indeed, the method seems a far more sophisticated base than either sprawl or geometric concepts such as greenbelts, wedges, or even spider-web networks.
Monday, August 4, 2008
Axworthy's more recent history will be at times quite informative for anyone whose knowledge of Iran is from accounts of journalists and pundits, but as a rule, it is not especially revealing and at times the perspective of the author seems to over determine his analysis. This is even true (and especially so) in his treatment of the Iranian religious leader Mani. Axworthy dubs Mani "the Dark Prophet" and his treatment of Mani is so hostile that Axworthy feels the need to write, "It would be foolish to attribute all evils of religion to Mani, but he does seem to have done a remarkably good job of infecting a range of belief systems with the most damaging and depressing ideas..."
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Exploring similar themes as her previous works, Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent set of short stories evocatively illuminates the immigrant experience. Although thematically repetitive, the fresh characters and scenarios keep the writing from becoming stale. The details of the cultural conflicts are distinctly Indian (or perhaps distinctly Bengali), yet the characters’ experiences of nostalgia, rebellion, and loneliness are both compelling and universal.
As a civil war unfolds in Somalia, family events uncover secrets that redefine these longstanding relationships. Peppered with dream sequences, the plot line itself takes on a dreamlike character. Although it contains many beautifully written passages, I found the novel disappointing. The unraveling of the family secrets was drawn out without developing any real sense of suspense or anticipation. The background of the incipient civil war is only slightly revealing in its effect on everyday life and even less revealing of the broader political implications.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Rather than laying out hard and fast rules for transportation planning, the book offers a wide and impressive array of methods. The only absolute offered is that transit should support land use policies and not vice versa. Although repeated pointing out that quality services attract more riders, Cervero does not couch this as a universal recommendation, noting that pricing transit affordably may mean lower quality vehicles in poorer cities.
From the case studies, it seems clear that cities with good transit are primarily wealthy cities outside the United States. For those primarily interested in the United States, comparison with U.S. cities is provided in many of the case studies, and the final chapter provides shorter examples of U.S. cities recently improving their transit systems. My own interest is primarily with developing cities, and I was disappointed not to have any examples from Africa or from poorer Asian cities (Singapore and Tokyo were the Asian examples). Nonetheless, the case studies clearly presented ways of designing transit systems that suit local conditions and aims.
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood / Taras Grescoe -- NY: Bloomsbury, 2008.
I say force, singular, because, as with almost all of humankind’s other problems, the main driving mechanism behind the vanishing seafood is industrial capitalism (including, of course, the Chinese version, these days). Fishing and fish-farming are now dominated by huge corporations, able to marshal vast resources to catch (devastate) entire species, and much of the demand for many threatened species is due to increasing numbers of very wealthy consumers. Global warming, pollution, exploitable cheap labor, artificial (toxic) growing conditions and feeding habits, waste, externalization of costs, etc, all play interconnected roles in helping reduce what were once thought to be effectively infinite numbers of fish down to near extinction levels in case after case. And, of course, all the above factors are caused or exacerbated by industrial capitalism, whose course, if unchanged, will make it very unlikely that much healthy seafood will remain in the world within a few decades.
Grescoe is a very engaging and interesting writer on all aspects of the issue, so the book is a “pleasure” to read in that sense, with large amounts of local color and fascinating facts about seafood and the social relations surrounding its production and consumption. He himself both consumes, and visits the production sites of, many types of seafood, including some extremely exotic and even dangerous ones. Although not explicitly ideological, he is intrepid and successful in analyzing what could be done “rationally” to remedy the situation, and in listing ways by which one can make individual consumption choices that promote health, quality, sustainability, and fair labor conditions. The title refers to the fact that smaller fish at the “bottom” of the food chain in the oceans, such as, say, anchovies, are generally much better consumer eating choices than large predators such as tuna. And he lists some environmental organizations' websites for "certifiably" good product choices, which are again very helpful to the individual consumer.
The catch, of course, is that the profit motive of industrial capitalism is arrayed against such rational, individualistic solutions, and is of vastly greater potency, at least so far. Unless an alternative to growth-oriented industrial capitalism is found (and soon), no solution to the problem of vanishing seafood (or global warming, or so many other current environmental problems) will be remotely feasible. I highly recommend the book, depressing as it is, for it makes very clear both that we have little time left to begin to seriously address such problems, and what we will be losing if we fail to do so.
Friday, July 4, 2008
His argument for how to end poverty is superb. While some (e.g., Bill McKibben) have criticized Sachs for his enthusiasm for globalization and free markets, Sachs's actual views on these issues are nuanced and at least defensible. Sachs embraces globalization as the context in which countries with extremely poor population can escape "the poverty trap" by gaining access to investment and markets. Sachs's history of championing debt cancellation for poor countries gives credibility to his claims. Presumably they would be even stronger if he were more explicit about making the World Trade Organization less an instrument of rich counties.
Sachs's support for free markets is also very qualified. While he supports free markets in some goods and services, he recognizes that markets cannot be relied upon to distribute necessary goods and services to the extremely poor. Consequently, other arrangements must be put in place to guarantee that the poor are not left without these. Sachs recognizes that there is no single prescription for ending extreme poverty, but that many factors are involved and differently so in different places in the world. In general, however, he argues that if the rich contries of the world would fulfill their past promise to provide .07% of their income to alleviating poverty then the human capital, infrastructure development, natural capital, knowledge capital, and public institutional capital could be developed in the poorest countries. With these resources, their economies would be sufficently stable to allow them to participate productively in the global economy and see their economies grow.