Saturday, March 20, 2010

Reading

Being somewhat grounded, I am doing a lot of reading lately. I seem to have an endless supply of books on hold at the Toronto Public Library, I may never buy another book again.

A couple of books that particularly grabbed my attention lately were Whole Earth Discipline: an ecopragmatist manifesto (2009) by Stewart Brand and Filthy Lucre: economics for people who hate capitalism (2009) by Joseph Heath.

Stewart Brand is of course that Stewart Brand, the one of Whole Earth Catalog fame, and Joseph Heath is a philosophy prof at the University of Toronto.

I love the title of Heath's book. As he says in his introduction, this is not an Economics 101 for all of us who avoided the course at college, or a even a diatribe against capitalism. Heath is no cheerleader for free markets and the capitalist way, but neither is he a blindly wholehearted supporter of environmentalist and leftist causes. He writes about why some favourite environmentalist or leftist policies are just as shortsighted and ill-conceived as the right-wing capitalist prevailing dogmas they oppose. I found the book refreshing and educational. He suggests that we may be stuck with capitalism in a Churchillian sense, as being the worst economic system except for all the others.

Heath goes through a number of examples of shortsighted thinking on environmental, social and libertarian issues. He also deals with the fact that we are not simply mindless consumers and entrepreneurs looking out for Number One, we are moral and social creatures with complex motivations. The assumptions by ultra-conservatives and neo-cons that "enlightened self-interest" (usually shortened to just plain self-interest) will bring health, wealth and happiness to us all have largely been exposed by recent events to be just another suit of the Emperor's clothes, but Heath explains that some of the antidotes proposed by well-meaning leftists are equally shortsighted and disastrous.

One example of this is the campaign for fair trade coffee. Paying higher prices for coffee encourages producers to produce more, but there is already a glut of coffee on the market, which is why prices were low in the first place. While raising coffee prices hasn't affected the rate of consumption, the risk is that if you pay producers more, they will naturally want to produce more. A similar campaign was conducted by The Body Shop a few years ago around the trade in Shea Butter, this resulted in a rather disastrous (for the producers) collapse of the trade due to overproduction. Perhaps a more useful thing to do would be to encourage producers to grow crops that people actually need, such as food.

I found Heath's explanations of how the market really works clear and understandable. He also explains some of the current economic theories, and how well they have worked (in explaining market behaviour) so far. I recommend this book as imminently readable, surprising, and thought-provoking.

Stewart Brand has always been on the bleeding edge of change and innovation. He sticks his neck out while others watch to see if he will be decapitated this time 'round. Whole Earth Discipline is pretty far out there. Brand suggests that we need to go beyond simply being green, we need to mix some blue (as in blue planet) in with that for turquoise ("Turqs" to supporters, "turquies" to detractors). He is pro-nuclear energy, pro-genetic engineering (genetic modification to others), pro-urbanization. He sees all of these as the ultimate "green" strategies.

Even before reading his book I was inclined to agree with Brand on nuclear energy, based on reading several years ago an absolutely fascinating book by Mary Mycio called Wormwood Forest: a natural history of Chernobyl (2005), not to mention books by James Lovelock of Gaia hypothesis fame. Brand supports Lovelock's perspective and provides interesting supporting evidence. He notes that while Nevada, the home of Yucca Mountain (the very controversial proposed site for burial of nuclear waste), is vehemently opposed to development of nuclear energy based on the issues surrounding the handling of radioactive waste materials, New Mexico is quietly accepting nuclear waste without protest. He suggests that there may be an historical reason for their opposed positions: Nevada was the state where most nuclear bomb testing occurred, New Mexico was the state where nuclear labs for developing the bombs were located. New Mexico benefitted from job creation in the nuclear industry, Nevada suffered the fallout, so to speak.

Brand suggests that we may not want to bury nuclear waste, we may actually want to hang onto it for future use. He writes about the state of nuclear energy development in other countries (France exports nuclear power, Japan is heavily invested in nuclear energy). It is interesting that Japan is so pro-nuclear, being the home of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One would think that if any country had a reason to fear or oppose nuclear energy, it would be Japan. While Lovelock supports nuclear energy as the best way to forestall climate change, Brand provides a number of other reasons to support it, including but not limited to safety and economics.

I don't care to argue the point here, I know this is very controversial to many people, but I would urge you to read Brand's book, he is a credible defender of the technology.

A few years back I did a fair bit of reading about genetic modification (Brand refers to it as genetic engineering), trying to determine for myself whether this was as evil as many environmentalists make it out to be. I never really came to a firm conclusion but my gut feel about it was that the most valid argument against it was around the issue of property and intellectual rights. This is a problem not only for GE organisms but for many other organisms, not to mention music, data and text. Brand argues that GE in combination with organic agricultural practices could be the best answer to our problems around global food supply and food quality. Genetic engineering is basically a fast-tracked and highly nuanced breeding program that allows specific characteristics of other varieties and even species to be incorporated into the target species, for example to improve drought-resistance, pest-resistance, and low nutrient requirements. A GE variety of rice can withstand prolonged periods of submersion in water, which allows farmers to use flooding of rice paddies for longer periods of time in order to drown potential pests of young rice plants.

The major problem is that GE technology is largely in the hands of corporations who are not necessarily trying to use it for the "good of humankind". As long as environmentalists are vehemently opposed to the use of GE at all, we cannot expect organic farmers to embrace it, and it will remain in the hands of corporations such as Monsanto, who will impose their own rules and limitations on how it can be used.

Brand associates the worldwide liberation of women with urbanization. He explains that the huge squatter slums surrounding fast-growing cities in developing nations are actually hotbeds of innovation, co-operation and liberation for women. As women move from small villages dominated by traditionally sexist elders to the free-for-all of urban squats, they have access to jobs and information, their paid labour gives them status, and the incentive or requirement to produce babies is significantly dampened. As the world urbanizes, population growth slows. A woman in a squatter town can build her own home, start her own business, and associate with other women doing the same. Authoritarian elders lose their grip on women's bodies and minds.

Urbanization is also, ironically, associated with the return to nature of vast tracts of land formerly occupied by small farms and villages. Wherever desertification has not already occurred due to overfarming, reforestation is taking hold. Eastern North America is a good example of that, the growth of mega-cities on the eastern seaboard has corresponded with the return of the Eastern Deciduous Forest over large parts of the eastern United States and southeastern Canada.

I have several other books on the go at the moment, including a book of poems by Mary Oliver (Thirst, 2006). I wish I was a poet, I wish I could express myself the way she can.

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