Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Consolations of Philosophy / Alain De Botton -- N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 2000

The Consolations of Philosophy is a curious introduction to philosophy, if that is what it is intended to be. The subject matter is at least ostensibly philosophy and the writing style is certainly introductory, but it is certainly not a good choice for an introductory philosophy course, unless one would like to assign a chapter or two as "recommended reading" left on reserve at the library.

The title is, of course, derived from Boethius's great work The Consolation of Philosophy. The Consolation of Philosophy was written while Boethius was in prison, waiting to be executed. It remains perhaps the greatest piece of death row literature of all time. Its literary form is a dialog between Boethius and a lady figure personifying philosophy. Philosophy makes the case that Boethius's condition does not justify complaint and that nothing has been taken from him that is the basis for true happiness. It is through the thoughtful examination of one's circumstances (through philosophy) that one can come to this realization and be consoled in the face of misfortune.

De Botton's Consolations of Philosophy, broadly speaking, attempts to make roughly this case, but it does so through the examination of the thought and works of six philosophers: Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. De Botton attempts to show how the thought of these philosophers can help us overcome (respectively) unpopularity, poverty, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart, and difficulties in general. The structure of the work and the selection of the philosophers has some reason behind it, but at times it appears that de Botton has cobbled together a string of mostly lesser philosophers and mined their works for passages that fit his purposes. This is not to say that he has misread these philosophers, but that his project was mostly to write a book -- not to explore an important theme or thesis among philosophical debates. By the end of the book one is left wondering, "so what?" Certainly there were a number of interesting anecdotes (along with some clever illustrations), but was it really worth the time?

The Consolations of Philosophy is less an examination of the philosophy of six (mostly minor) philosophers and more a curio cabinet of objects collected from their biographies.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Our Dying Planet: An Ecologist's View of the Crisis We Face / Peter F. Sale -- Berkeley, Cal.: University of California Press, 2011

When one reads the title of Peter Sale's book -- Our Dying Planet -- one immediately thinks of the paramount environmental problem of the day: global warming, but the subject is much broader than this. Sale admirably connects a host of environmental problems to provide a stark picture of the planet's peril. The title is, in all likelihood, an overstatement. Our Declining Planet might be a better title, but given the gravity of our situation, Sale's hyperbole is excusable.

Sale is first of all a marine biologist, specializing in coral reefs. So global warming certainly plays an important part in his analysis of our environmental plight; but more than anything, Sale emphasizes the striking loss of biodiversity that is being caused by more than just climate change. His first chapter is an account of the collapse of fisheries, due mainly to overfishing. Much of this is rather well known, but the extent of the collapse would, perhaps, surprise many. Industrial fishing techniques used in the Northwest Atlantic have decimated the cod population there. In 1968, 1.9 million metric tons of cod were caught, but just 22 years later, in 1990, only 80,000 metric tons of cod were caught. This led the Canadian government to close the northern cod fishery in 1992.

One might expect that with a ban on fishing, the cod population would recover, but it has not. This is perhaps the most sobering message that Sale delivers. During the first 100 years of research into ecosystems, the paradigm of a "balance of nature" was dominant. Populations were seen to be regulated naturally by homeostatic mechanisms. When a population declined, its predators declined and its food sources thrived, creating the conditions for recovery; however, by the later half of the twentieth century, ecologists began to recognize the "patchiness" of nature. Species inhabit a constantly changing patchwork of habitats that are tenuously connected to create metapopulations. Inside these patches, the success of individual organisms in surviving and reproducing is more significant than was previously appreciated. The result is that populations are not "resilient" due to homeostatic mechanisms, but instead, exhibit a kind of "inertia." Large populations will continue until a powerful external force depletes them and once depleted, they will tend to remain in their depleted state. The consequence of this dynamic is that the numerous assaults that we have committed against populations are causing damages that are not repairing themselves, leading to an unprecedented rate of species extinctions. The North Atlantic cod, while not extinct, is but one of many examples of the loss of biodiversity that is occurring around the planet; hence, the "dying planet."

As dire as our circumstances are, Sale provides a few chapters that hold out hope or at least suggest ways to confront the problem. The two primary responses he recommends are to reduce our use of fossil fuels and to slow the growth of the human population. Though his chapter on slowing the growth of the human population is brief, it is clearly his most important concern. Sale writes, "Unchecked population growth presents substantial (I am tempted to say insurmountable) impediments to our need to achieve sustainable use of the earth's goods and services. If those of us who understand this do not speak up concerning our population problem, who else will? I fear we have been complacent for far too long." Given that we are already pressing up against the limits of the world's resources, it is hard to believe that we will be able to support the 9.2 billion people expected to be inhabiting the planet by 2050 and so, it is hard to disagree with Sale.

At a time when climate change is the focus of so much attention, it is useful to look at other ecological problems that we face, though certainly a changing climate will exacerbate whatever harms we are doing to the world's biodiversity. The obvious conclusion is that all of these concerns are interrelated and that we must address them all at once. There is no single policy or approach that will mitigate the coming disasters.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Spice: The History of a Temptation / Jack Turner-- N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

In the penultimate paragraph of Spice: A History of a Temptation, author Jack Turner describes his work as a "long ramble" through the history of spices. There could be no more apt description of the work, though it might be better titled A History of Europe's Encounters with and Responses to South Asian Spices, as the work is more limited than its actual title suggests.

In general, the work begins with a chapter covering the Age of Discovery and the efforts of European seafaring powers to acquire Asian spices. Following this are two chapters on spices as used in cooking, a chapter on spices used for health and funerary practices, a chapter on spices as aphrodisiacs, and a chapter on spices used for religious and spiritual rituals. Two concluding chapters describe the reaction against spices and the decline of their importance in international trade and European culture from the twelfth century to the eighteenth century.

To its credit, the work is a scholarly tour de force. Turner uncovered numerous references to spices in wide variety of European literary and historical sources and in practically every major European language. Unfortunately, Turner's organization of his material is blunt and his conclusions are limited. One is left with the sense that in the course of his research he collected every reference to spices he could find, drafted brief descriptions of their import, and filed them into a few categories: food, health, sex, and religion, etc. Then within these categories, he linked his references with whatever connective discussion he could devise. The result is a long ramble indeed.

Perhaps the most valuable element of the work is the 24 pages describing his sources and bibliography. These pages will give a serious scholar an excellent starting point for doing more in depth and hopefully more consequential work in one or another of Turner's subjects. Unfortunately, many of Turner's sources will be hard to acquire outside of the extraordinary libraries that served Turner's research.

One particular avenue of research the begs examination is the relationship between class, economics, and spices. Turner make frequent mention of how expensive spices have been through out history and how this affected their popularity or desirability, but he does not take this up in much detail. One is left wondering just how the purchase of spices was supported and how it affect the European economy and social structure. One gets only an inkling of a sense about how Asian spices competed with European spices and who were their main markets. Much of the work covers the period of the Middle Ages, and while there is a relatively fine chapter on the reactions of the Christian Church to spices, one does not get a clear picture of role that spices played in the interrelations of the Church, the European nobility, commercial enterprises, and the great mass of people who composed European peasantry.

There are occasional sections in which a more extended story is told, e.g., Colombus's voyages, Magellan's voyages, Bernard of Clairvaux's criticism of spices, and Pierre Poivre's efforts to steal clove and nutmeg plants from the Dutch monopoly for the benefit of France. There is also a fascinating description of the mythical medieval "land of Cockayne" where "the only virtues were gluttony, leisure, and pleasure, the only vices exertion and care." The churches in Cockayne "were made of pastry, fish, and meat and buttressed with puddings. There were rivers 'great and fine,' flowing not with water -- a rarity in Cockayne -- but with 'oile, milk, hony and wine,'" and of course spices were a pervasive.

One must admire Turner's scholarship. His mastery of classical, medieval, and modern sources on spices is genuinely delicious, but in the end, one wishes the meal he serves was little more nutritious.