Thursday, August 28, 2008

Socialism Before the French Revolution: A History / William B. Guthrie -- Macmillan Co., 1907.

By the time this book was published, Marxism dominated the socialist movement, but the revolutionary movement Russia was yet to succeed. The Progressive movement in the US was in full swing, but corporate control in the US was at one of its historical highs. In Socialism before the French Revolution, William Guthrie examines the roots of socialism, particularly in the work of three important writers: Thomas More, Thomas Campanella, and Morelly. Guthrie places these authors on one side of a rough ideological divide that separates (1) thinkers who believe that the natural workings of society generate the best of all possible social arrangements from (2) thinkers who believe that human ingenuity can improve upon these arrangements. The former strand of thinking comes to its culmination with Adam Smith. The latter has its origins in Plato.

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

The Geological Story Briefly Told / James D. Dana -- NY: Iveson, Blakeman, Taylor, and Co., 1876.

Reading 19th century science books is amazingly fun, particularly when the basic paradigms of the subject of study have not yet been overthrown. Along with a general account of the principles of the subject, you get a sense of what was important in the field at the time. By 1876, when Dana's The Geological Story Briefly Told was published, modern geology had been well established. Dana focuses on the fosil evidence for sequencing the layers of exposed rock. Darwinianism is already accepted, but there is knowledge of neither plate techtonics nor potassium-argon or carbon dating. Consequently, the arguments and conclusions are simple.

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.

Briefly stated "Plan C" is Pat Murphy's proposal for how we can respond to the "triple threats of peak oil, climate change and increasing inequity" in the standard of living of the planet's population. Murphy suggest we must curtail our use of fossil fuels and strengthen the bonds of community. I had expected a bit more practical advice about how to do this, particulary building community, but that's not the book that Murphy wrote. Instead, he mainly describes the the activities and institutions that have promoted our current problems. Along with the "triple threats," Murphy discusses U.S. militarism and imperialism and the corporate control of the mass media.

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.

Design with Nature / Ian McHarg -- NY: Wiley, 1969, 1994.

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.

The book moves back and forth between chapters presenting broad ideas and concepts and chapters presenting case studies. Many of the case studies are set in the mid-Atlantic, with much information on Washington, DC, which I enjoyed. There is a lot of information in this book, and I found the broad chapters a bit heavy on ranting and the case studies sometimes too detailed. Nevertheless, between the rants and the geological inventories, this book is a real nugget of insight on how to think about the world we live in and our relationship to it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind / Michael Axworthy -- NY: Basic Books, 2008.

Overall, Axworthy's History of Iran provides decent accounts of the military, diplomatic, and political history of Iran. He even includes material on Iranian poets. However, the coverages of various centuries is quite uneven. The earliest centuries are given very short attention. As the history reaches recent times, the treatment is more detailed. Iran has seen human settlement for 7,000 years, but Axworthy devotes fully half of the book to the most recent 300 years, and 40% of the book to the last century. This may be plus for anyone interested in gaining a quick background on contemporary Iranian politics, but for the student of Iran, the most interesting material is undeveloped. There is virtually nothing on such matters as the life, customs, social structures, economic conditions of early Iranians. Instead, we are informed of the doings of various rulers and the fates of various dynasties.

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..."