Sapiens

Last year, I read 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari, which I reviewed here. Several friends recommended I read Harari’s earlier book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Now I know why. It’s an excellent book.

As the subtitle says, Sapiens is a history of our species from about 70,000 years ago to today. Brief, yes, but sweeping. It contains so many fascinating ideas and themes. I’ll only be able to scratch the surface in this review.

Harari is an author, historian and philosopher who lectures on world history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He earned a PhD in history from the University of Oxford. 

Sapiens is an international bestseller and it’s still on New York Times bestsellers list six years after publication.

Cover of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens
By Yuval Noah Harari
Harper Perennial, New York, 2015

Harari’s main idea is that the history of Homo sapiens has been shaped by three revolutions: a Cognitive Revolution, an Agricultural Revolution and a Scientific Revolution. The book is structured around these three revolutions

The Cognitive Revolution

About 70,000 years ago, we humans were a fairly insignificant species living in a corner of East Africa. Somehow – no one seems to know exactly how or why – something changed in the way our brains work, in the way we think and communicate. The Cognitive Revolution gave Homo sapiens language. Perhaps more importantly, it gave us the ability to talk and think about things that do not exist: it enabled us to tell stories. We tell stories – myths, actually – about our tribes, our nations, our gods, and recently our corporations and local sports franchises. Myths help bind large numbers of us together, even strangers, to coexist and cooperate on common goals. 

These new cognitive abilities enabled Homo sapiens to emerge from Africa and to spread all over Europe, Asia, Australia (around 45,000 years ago) and the Americas (around 15,000 years ago). They enabled us to out-compete other human species like the Neanderthals, and possibly drive them to extinction.

Different groups of humans created their own stories and those stories evolved and developed over time. Different stories in turn led to different behavior patterns, different ways of being within each group. Here we have the beginnings of culture and of history too. Harari argues that starting from the Cognitive Revolution history emerges from biology, meaning that the explanations for human development come primarily from historical narrative rather than from our biological needs or make-up.

The Agricultural Revolution

About 12,000 years ago, Sapiens started to transition from foraging to farming. Key species of plants and animals were domesticated and humans traded their nomadic existence for permanent settlements. The Agricultural Revolution brought about a huge increase in human population fed, literally, by the vastly increased quantity of food that became available.

Harari argues that in fact the Agricultural Revolution was history’s greatest fraud. The lives of individuals probably got worse – they worked harder but enjoyed a less varied and less nutritious diet than their forager ancestors, and they were more vulnerable to disease, crop failure and violent conflict too. But for the species as a whole, agriculture could support exponentially more people than hunting and gathering on the same amount of land.

It also marked a critical turning point in our relationship with the natural world. For the first time, humans began to control their environment and began to see themselves as separate from it.

Yet just as important as changing our source of food, the Agricultural Revolution also changed the way we live with each other. As foragers, Sapiens created myths to bind tribes together, but once we settled into villages and cities we needed more sophisticated stories to organize and regulate our lives. How do we settle disputes about property boundaries? How much tax should be paid to provide for common defense? Who gets to decide?

The Agricultural Revolution led to the creation of social hierarchies, governments, laws, justice and religion. Later on, we created nation states and joint stock corporations. Harari calls them all “imagined orders.” They don’t exist in the physical world. They are entirely creations of our imaginations. They are myths, but because these myths are shared beliefs, they have incredible power. People will work their whole lives, even sacrifice their lives, for these imagined orders.

The Scientific Revolution

The third revolution, the Scientific Revolution, got underway around 500 years ago. Harari argues that the key to igniting the Scientific Revolution was admitting ignorance. When we admit ignorance, we recognize that all our present knowledge is insufficient and we start to figure out ways to acquire new knowledge.

Science, imperialism and capitalism have been closely intertwined, Harari says. All of them start by admitting ignorance: we don’t know the answer to an important question about the world; we don’t know what lands might be found across that ocean.

“The discovery of America was the foundational event of the Scientific Revolution. It not only taught Europeans to favour present observations over past traditions, but the desire to conquer America also obliged Europeans to search for new knowledge at breakneck speed. If they really wanted to control the vast new territories, they had to gather enormous amounts of new data about the geography, climate, flora, fauna, languages, cultures and history of the new continent. Christian Scriptures, old geography books and ancient oral traditions were of little help.” [p. 288]

While the Agricultural Revolution enabled humans to control the environment, Harari emphasizes that the Scientific Revolution enabled us to destroy it, first with atomic bombs, and more recently with climate change and environmental degradation.

A Fourth Revolution?

Will there be a fourth revolution? Harari argues that advancements in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and cyborg technology have effectively ended evolution. Humans are now the “intelligent designers” of our species and whatever may follow. In fact, he predicts that the last days of Homo sapiens are fast approaching.

“Unless some nuclear or ecological catastrophe destroys us first, the pace of technological development will soon lead to the replacement of Homo sapiens by completely different beings who possess not only different physiques, but also very different cognitive and emotional worlds.”  [p. 412]

The question is what do we want to become? And what do we want to want?

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Sapiens is a remarkable book. I think the three revolutions form a really effective framework for explaining human development. Harari deftly weaves important strands of our history through that framework. It’s amazing how much he’s able to cover in just over 400 pages. 

Only one other book I’ve read surpasses Sapiens in terms of how much history it spans. That’s Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian, which traces the entire 13.8 billion year history of the universe. (You can read my review here.) The two books overlap somewhat but I think they’re terrific companions. I highly recommend both of them. 

They share the idea that history progresses through stages of increasing complexity. Complexity is the central theme of Origin Story, but Harari touches on it too. He says that over the course human history smaller cultures have gradually merged into larger, more complex civilizations, until today everyone in the world belongs to just a handful of highly complex “mega-cultures.” Along the way we’ve developed more complex stories and “imagined orders.”

I love this idea of imagined orders. It’s such a powerful concept. So many of the things we consider “natural” and “permanent” are just inventions of our minds, from money to nations to gods. And let’s not forget race, class and gender. And if they are human inventions then they can be modified or replaced. Don’t believe anyone who tells you this or that thing has always been the way it is now and cannot be changed.

Harari writes really well too. This isn’t a dull history text. It’s lively and engaging with occasional flashes of sardonic humor, for example when describing how human language sets us apart from other species:

“A parrot can say anything Albert Einstein could say, as well as mimicking the sounds of phones ringing, doors slamming and sirens wailing. Whatever advantage Einstein had over a parrot, it wasn’t vocal.” [p. 22]

He also suggests that wheat domesticated humans and not the other way around!

He asks compelling questions. Like, has it all been worth it? Until fairly recently, human development through all three revolutions has done little to alleviate human suffering. True, there are a lot more of us now than there used to be, but at what cost to individual well-being?

Certainly the cost to the environment and especially to other species has been devastating. We are “ecological serial killers” he says.

“Don’t believe tree-huggers who claim that our ancestors lived in harmony with nature. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Homo sapiens held the record among all organisms for driving the most plant and animal species to their extinctions. We have the dubious distinction of being the deadliest species in the annals of biology.” [p. 74]

Based on the history he presents so brilliantly, Harari is not overly optimistic about our future prospects. He thinks we have developed too much power without enough responsibility to use it wisely.

I’m personally more optimistic than Harari, but we would be foolish to ignore his warning.

Thanks for reading.

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Amend: The Fight for America

I can’t remember ever reviewing a television show before, let alone recommending one, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.

Amend: The Fight for America is a six-part Netflix documentary hosted by Will Smith. It’s about the on-going struggle for equal rights in America seen through the history and interpretation of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. Amend first aired in February of this year.

OK, I get it — six hours on American constitutional history and jurisprudence might not seem like gripping television. But Amend really is fabulous.

The cast of Amend; The Fight for America
Source: Netflix

Amend includes performances by Samuel L. Jackson, Laverne Cox and other actors playing historical figures, presenting excerpts from their speeches, letters, and debates.

There are interviews with legal experts and historians including Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and civil rights lawyer Al Gerhardstein who acted as lead counsel for James Obergefell in the Supreme Court’s same sex marriage decision Obergefell v. Hodges.

These are all interwoven with archival news footage and original graphic material.

Together they bring to life what might seem like dry academic or legal disputes. In reality, the 14th Amendment lies at the heart of some of the most important and heated debates in the American society today.

A bit of background: The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments are collectively known as the Reconstruction Amendments because they were ratified between 1865 and 1870 during the reconstruction period following the US Civil War. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th established equal protection under the law, and the 15th established voting rights regardless of “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”  These three amendments essentially re-founded the country at the end of the Civil War.

The 14th Amendment guarantees “equal protection of the laws” to everyone in the US, citizens and non-citizens alike. But what does “equal” really mean?

Amend follows the history of the 14th Amendment from before its ratification in 1868 right up to today. Along the way, it looks at important issues such as citizenship, civil rights, women’s rights, marriage equality and immigration, all of which are deeply entwined with the 14th. Each episode takes a deep dive into these questions, examining the what’s at stake, the people involved, and the important legal decisions. It’s both informative and dramatic.

One thing that struck me throughout the series was how often the Supreme Court got it wrong. Especially in the early years after ratification, the Court’s decisions consistently narrowed the interpretation of the 14th upholding racial segregation and Jim Crow laws for example. I suppose it’s not surprising for a court to be conservative – that’s kind of their job. But the downright regressiveness of the US Supreme Court over much of its history should leave no one under any illusions about the Court’s biases and inclinations.

In each generation, new debates about equality spark controversy, anger and sometimes bloodshed in the US. Amend does a wonderful job showing how the 14th Amendment has been and continues to be a focal point for our continuing struggle for equality. It proves that while the Constitution provides the framework for those struggles, progress relies on the active and persistent efforts of the people.

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Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

You’ve probably had the experience of being completely absorbed in an activity, totally focused, losing track of time, your body moving effortlessly, your mind clear of all distractions and worries. You were “in the zone.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state “flow.”

Cover of Flow: The Psuchology of Optimal Experience

Flow
By Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Harper Perennial, New York, 1990

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I think it’s pronounced “cheeks-sent-me-highly”) is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. He is one of the world’s leading researchers on positive psychology.

In this groundbreaking 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he defines flow as,

“… the state in which people are so immersed in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.’  [p. 4]

He says that while in the flow state we have optimal experiences in which our physical or mental abilities are stretched to their limits in an effort to achieve a challenging and worthwhile goal.

Why is this important?

Because when we are in flow, having optimal experiences, we find true happiness.

“But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery – or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life – that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.”  [p. 4]

To be clear, this is not the kind of happiness that comes from watching your favorite sports team win the championship or eating a delicious meal. These experiences, wonderful though they are, bring us only fleeting pleasure.

Flow, and the optimal experiences that occur within flow, lead to lasting enjoyment.

Yet we have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.”  [p. 3].

Flow is based on about twenty-five years of Csikszentmihalyi’s research into happiness. It’s not a “how to” book in the usual sense. It’s an exploration of the principles or foundations on which happiness can be achieved. Because it turns out that happiness, contrary to the US Declaration of Independence, “cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” In other words, happiness isn’t found directly. Instead it’s a by-product of how we lead our lives.

OK, so what are the principles of flow?

Csikszentmihalyi says there are eight characteristics that typify optimal experiences:

  1. They are challenging physical or mental activities that require skills to complete.
  2. They require attention or psychic energy. We must focus on them completely.
  3. The goals are clear.
  4. Feedback is immediate.
  5. They bring order to consciousness; the intense focus blocks out the chaotic thoughts, worries and distractions that usually flash across our minds.
  6. We feel a sense of control over our actions.
  7. We become less self-conscious.
  8. They alter our perception of time.

Looking at this list, it’s not surprising that people often experience flow playing sports or games.

Inline speed skaters
Photo by Indira Tjokorda on Unsplash

For many years, I’ve enjoyed inline skating or rollerblading. Each weekend, weather permitting, I go for a long skate along our local cycling trails. I start at one suburban park not far from my home and skate north about 7 miles (11 km) to another park in the next suburb. I rest for about fifteen minutes and then skate back. It’s a great workout. I hadn’t realized until now that the exhilaration I sometimes feel is an example of flow.

When I first started doing this, my goal was just to cover the distance between the two parks without having a heart attack. The challenge was simply to build up stamina.  Next I started timing myself: could I get faster?  I’ve set a goal; to cover the distance in under 30 minutes. This means I have to develop better skating technique. I need to pay attention to form – keeping my knees bent, back rounded, weight shifted back over my heels.  And I have to stride properly, leading with my hips so that my falling body weight contributes to the push of the opposite leg. These days, I’m trying to learn a skill called “double push.”  I haven’t reached my goal yet, but I know my technique is getting better.

Csikszentmihalyi is clear that flow isn’t just limited to physical activity. We can experience it at work, with friends and family, or during cultural activities like listening to music or reading books.

These optimal experiences lie within a narrow range where skills and difficulty are roughly in balance. If our skills are too advanced or the challenge too easy, we become bored and distracted. On the other hand, a challenge that is way too difficult for our skills will make us feel frustrated or anxious.  But when our skills are matched with the level of difficulty, then not only can we become fully immersed and experience deep enjoyment, we also grow.

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Flow is a profound book. There’s a lot here about how to live our lives to build lasting enjoyment and satisfaction.

The last chapter of the book is about tying it all together to make meaning in our lives, about stitching all those optimal experiences into a coherent optimal life. It echoes some of the themes from Clayton Chirstensen’s book How Will You Measure Your Life? which I reviewed here.

There are also elements of stoicism in Flow, which has come up in a couple of books I’ve recently read.  Csikszentmihalyi advises not being overly concerned about what others think of us, for example. He says we need to break free of the constraints of social conventions because they sap our psychic energy and create chaos in our minds – the exact opposite of flow.

I have to say I did not experience flow reading Flow. This is mainly because Csikszentmihalyi’s style is formal and leans to the academic. I skimmed through several of the middle chapters that look at flow in specific facets of our lives like work and family.

That said, he explains his ideas clearly. He puts a name to something most of us have experienced from time to time, and he shows how important those experiences are to our lives.

Flow is well worth the effort.

Thanks for reading.

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The Sum of Us

In the 1920’s and 30’s, towns and cities across the United States built large, beautiful public swimming pools for their communities. Montgomery, Alabama was one such town. Its Oak Park pool was one of the largest in the region.

It was open to whites only.

Civil rights lawsuits in the 1950’s eventually led federal courts to order the desegregation of public pools. In Montgomery, the town council reacted decisively: they closed down the pool rather than integrate with their Black neighbors. In fact, they closed the entire Parks Department, including a community center and a zoo. For ten years. 

Even when the parks reopened the pool did not. The town filled it with concrete and planted grass on top of it.

This is batshit crazy, right? Everyone lost, Blacks and whites.

But it wasn’t an isolated incident. Public pools were drained or filled in all over the country. 

I first learned about white communities shutting pools rather than sharing them with Blacks when I read Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (review) last year. But I had no idea the practice was so widespread. And I certainly didn’t understand it as a template for how racism has harmed and impoverished so much of American society, whites included.

Heather McGhee understands. McGhee is the former president of Demos, a think tank focused on advancing a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy in America. She now chairs the board of Color of Change, the largest online social justice organization in the US. McGhee holds degrees from Yale University and UC Berkeley. 

Her book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together looks at how the self-harming racist behavior of white “drained pool politics” has been repeated over and over again in areas such as health care, education, housing, voting rights and even the environment. The book also illustrates how communities working together across racial divides can improve their lives and win substantial “Solidarity Dividends.”

Cover of The Sum of Us

The Sum of Us
By Heather McGhee
One World, New York, 2021

After reading about the Oak Park pool, the first question that popped into my head was why? Why would whites do this to themselves?

McGhee argues that most whites see racism as a zero-sum game. Any gains by Blacks must come at the expense of whites, whether it’s a monetary gain or a gain in status. I’ll try to explain this briefly.

It starts, like most things in US history, with slavery.   

Even before the country’s founding, whites justified the atrocities of slavery and Native American genocide with racial and religious prejudices: natives and slaves were “heathens”, “savages”, and “uncivilized.” As the Colonies grew with their economies built on slave labor, a race-based hierarchy became firmly entrenched in American society: whites on top, Blacks and Natives at the bottom. In a slave economy, any gains by Blacks would have meant direct financial losses for whites. 

Waves of European immigrants to the US were slotted into this hierarchy too. Even though they were mostly too poor to own property, let alone slaves, they were still white and still ranked above Blacks in the racial hierarchy. Gains by Blacks might not have imposed a direct economic cost on them, but it threatened their status, threatened to place them on the same footing as Blacks – at the bottom of the hierarchy.

In this light, Black access to public swimming pools represented the loss of a privilege held exclusively by whites. Rather than incur a loss of status, whites chose to drain their pools. 

Yeah, it’s still crazy.

McGhee’s main idea in The Sum of Us is that this zero-sum calculus within a racial hierarchy explains and perpetuates many of the disparities in American society, even though whites are often harmed too.

Take health care.  Why can’t we fix the US health care system? 

“Healthcare works best as a collective endeavor, and that’s at the heart of why America’s system performs so poorly.  We’ve resisted universal solutions because, when it comes to healthcare, … racism has stopped us from ever filling the pool in the first place.”  [p. 49]

McGhee notes that most states of the former Confederacy have so far refused Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). You can see it on this map. Why would states turn down federal funding? She cites research showing that as the percentage of a state’s Black population increases, the likelihood of that state adopting Medicaid expansion decreases. 

This zero-sum calculus prevails even though, in some states, whites outnumber Blacks who would be eligible for Medicaid if their states adopted it. And it prevails even though lack of funding in these states is forcing the closure of rural hospitals that serve primarily conservative white residents. 

In detailed chapters on public education, minimum wage laws, voting rights, mortgage lending and environmental protection, The Sum of Us shines a glaring light on how disparities in key areas of American society – driven by racist policies – primarily harm Blacks and other people of color, but also harm whites.

The book would be unrelentingly depressing, but McGhee remains hopeful. She describes some uplifting examples of people coming together across racial divides to work for their common benefit, a benefit McGhee calls the “Solidarity Dividend.”  For example, in Maine a multi-racial grassroots coalition won a 2017 ballot initiative that required the state to adopt Medicaid expansion over the vetoes of its Republican governor.

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The Sum of Us is impressively well-researched; there are about a hundred pages of notes at the end of the book. While you could argue that there are other factors contributing to inequality in America – like globalization and technological change – McGhee makes a compelling case that racism lies at the heart of it. 

In the last couple of years I’ve read a few books about racism but I know I’ve only just scratched the surface. (You can find my reviews here.) The Sum of Us reinforced some ideas that I’d read elsewhere, in particular that racism has been designed, even engineered. The concept of “race” did not exist until the seventeenth century when it was created and refined to justify slavery and genocide. Since then it’s been exploited by the powerful (people, corporations and governments) to maintain power through division and intimidation.

While slavery has been abolished in the US, deliberately racist government policies have carried on, and their lasting impact continues to this day. McGhee dives deeply into the history and consequences of many of these policies. Large parts of this were new to me. Even seemingly benign policies like the GI Bill have unequally benefited whites because of the way they were administered.

To dismantle the racial hierarchy, we need to dismantle racist policies. We will all benefit, but it will require a long coordinated effort across racial lines.

As McGhee says, the sum of us is stronger than just some of us.  

Related Links

Drained Pool Politics
An interview with Heather McGhee on the Strict Scrutiny podcast, May 10, 2021

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How to Avoid a Climate Disaster

Around the world we humans are adding an average of fifty-one billion (51,000,000,000) tons of greenhouse gasses to Earth’s atmosphere every year.

To avoid a climate disaster, we need to get to zero. 51 billion to zero.

That’s how Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates opens his new book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is the clearest and most straightforward explanation of the climate crisis I’ve ever read. Gates lays out the enormous and unparalleled challenges we face. Yet he’s optimistic about our chances of success and he presents ambitious yet plausible proposals for how to solve the problem.

Cover of How to Avoid a Climate DisasterHow to Avoid a Climate Disaster
By Bill Gates
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2021

Before I go any further, a disclosure: I used to work at Microsoft.

I think the most important idea in this book is the “Green Premium.”  The Green Premium represents how much more you have to pay if you switch from today’s conventional carbon-emitting products to a zero-carbon alternative. For example, today electric vehicles (EVs) cost several thousand dollars more than comparable fossil fuel powered cars. That’s the Green Premium. The good news is that the Green Premium for cars is coming down fast. Gates predicts that within a few years it will actually be negative – EV’s will be cheaper than gasoline powered cars.

For other products the Green Premium is extremely high because we don’t yet have practical climate friendly alternatives. Take cement. Today there’s just no way to eliminate the carbon that’s produced when we make it. There’s no such thing as “green cement.” The best we can do is try to capture and store the carbon that’s released when cement is made. But as Gates points out, carbon capture is expensive. Adding the cost of carbon capture to the price of cement results in a very large Green Premium; cement so expensive no one will buy it.

To get from 51 billion to zero, Gates says we need to drive Green Premiums down below zero for basically everything so that people and organizations have available and affordable green alternatives.

OK, how?

Like a good software engineer, Gates breaks the problem down into smaller chunks and then attacks each chunk one at a time. He divides the 51 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions into five slices shown in this pie chart.

Pie chart showing how much greenhouse gas is emitted by the things we do

Source: How to Avoid A Climate Disaster, p. 55

He devotes a chapter to each slice, looking at what we’re doing today, what zero-carbon alternatives already exist, and what innovations we need to deliver solutions that don’t yet exist, like green cement.

From reading the book, I’d say the most important slice of the 51 billion comes from “how we plug in,” how we generate electricity. Partly that’s because it’s one of the largest slices. But it’s also because many of the methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the other slices rely on electrification. For example, instead of using heating oil or natural gas to heat and cool our homes and heat our water, Gates recommends switching to heat pumps. Heat pumps run on electricity. But if that electricity is generated from natural gas, or worse yet, coal, then there’s not much benefit from switching.

Generating clean energy not only reduces carbon emissions from “how we plug in,” it’s part of the solution to most of the other slices too. Generating clean energy cheaply will help reduce the Green Premium of everything that uses electricity.

Innovation is the primary way to reduce the Green Premium, but Gates suggests we can also make traditional products more expensive by putting a price on carbon emissions (either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system) and by stricter regulations. He has plenty of suggestions for both approaches throughout the book.

Gates acknowledges he’s an “imperfect messenger” on climate change. He doesn’t deny being a “rich guy with an opinion” who owns big houses and flies around in private jets. But, as he points out, his opinions are well informed, and he keeps learning more. He also says he’s taking steps to reducing his family’s carbon footprint.

Gates is a technophile, and the main focus of the book is unapologetically about technological approaches to climate change. Yet he doesn’t ignore the social and political aspects of the problem. The last couple of chapters suggest actions that governments can take and that we as individuals can take. His philanthropic work on global health has made him keenly aware of the impacts of climate change on some of the world’s poorest countries. He’s very clear about the responsibility that rich countries have in helping poorer ones adapt to climate change,

That said, if you’re looking for an in depth analysis of how economic, racial and other social justice issues intersect with climate change — an important topic for sure — be aware that’s not what Gates is writing about in this book.

Gates also does not discuss ecosystem restoration approaches such as rewilding that could repair the Earth’s capacity to absorb and retain carbon.

Nonetheless, I think everyone should read How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. Literally everyone: you, your partner, your kids, your in-laws, your city council, and most definitely your provincial, state and national legislators.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster describes the daunting challenges we face in clear and simple terms. It also presents a hopeful roadmap that shows how we can preserve our planet for future generations.

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A Year at Home

March 5, 2021 is an anniversary of sorts. Today marks one full year since I started working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When I said goodbye to my colleagues at work on the evening of March 4, 2020, none of us knew how long we’d be out of the office. All we knew was that the county Department of Health had just recommended that anyone who could work from home should work from home, and our company, along with many others in the Seattle area, had agreed.

I figured we’d be out for a couple of months. I thought that once we got comprehensive testing and contact tracing in place, we’d get a handle on the disease. Then, with proper safeguards and procedures, we’d be able to come back to the office. There would be occasional outbreaks, I imagined, when we’d have to work at home for a few days or a week. But we’d come back once things settled down again. I guess I thought we’d end up like South Korea or Australia.

Fat chance!

If you had told me back then that we’d be working from home for at least a year, maybe eighteen months, I would have thought you were nuts.

I had no idea.

Picture of empty downtown Seattle streets

Downtown Seattle streets emptied during the COVID-19 pandemic, March 18, 2020. Source: Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut

In early March, there were signs of spring all around. The camelia bushes at the front of our house were showing their first blooms. In the backyard, a couple of deer visited every few days to nibble on new shoots at dawn.

Do you remember the fear of those early days? The first COVID deaths in the US occurred near Seattle. We were all on edge. No one really knew how contagious COVID was or how it was transmitted. Was it like SARS? Could you get if from surfaces? We didn’t know but we kept wiping down countertops, faucets and doorknobs anyway. Did we need to wash our groceries – fruits, vegetables, canned goods, all of it? And what about those Amazon packages?

Asthma runs in our family. We’ve been very cautious. We started getting our groceries delivered, take-out food delivered, even wine and liquor delivered. We try to tip generously but I’m well aware that we’re paying people to take risks that we’re not willing to take ourselves right now; people who may not have the same luxury of choice that we do. Similarly, we rely on everyone behind the scenes, all those people keeping the packages moving, the shelves stocked, and the cash registers staffed. I’m in awe of the courage of doctors and nurses everywhere.

In the early days my wife made cloth masks for everyone in the family. N95’s weren’t available and in any case we were encouraged not to buy them so they could be distributed to frontline health care workers. It seemed shameful that the world’s supposedly most advanced country had to rely on a cottage industry to produce face masks. It’s still shameful.

Late one evening we heard a rumor that Trump was going to declare martial law the next day. From a reliable source, or so we thought. I’m ashamed to admit that at 11:00 pm we rushed out to our local 24-hour Safeway and bought a couple of shopping carts worth of supplies, yes, including toilet paper.

Gradually routine settled in, and monotony.

Fortunately our house is spacious and comfortable. It’s been our safe haven this past year but also our self-imposed confinement. My wife and I each have our own offices. We got used to spending the day on Zoom or Teams or BlueJeans.

I still get dressed for work in the same business casual clothes that I used to wear to the office: usually a button-front shirt and chino pants. At the end of the day, I change into jeans. The routine helps me keep a clear separation between work time and personal time. I think it helps.

I go out for a walk almost every day after work, through my neighborhood and down to a small nearby lake. About forty-five minutes. It’s calming to watch the ducks paddling around on the gently lapping water. I’ve watched the seasons change on my walks, seen the cherry and dogwood trees blossom and the leaves come out. On one corner there’s a house that looks unoccupied with a big old apple tree in the front yard. It dropped hundreds of apples on the ground back in September. One time, someone I didn’t know said hello to me and said they saw me walking past their house every day.

Since April, my wife has been cutting my hair. She’s got really good at it. Amazing what you can learn on YouTube.

Speaking of hair, I think mine is getting thinner. Maybe it’s stress. Or it could just be age.

One bright summer day I had to go to the post office to get a document notarized. As I was getting out of the car I reached into my pocket for a mask and realized I’d forgotten to bring one. Drove back home. Grabbed a mask. Drove back. Since then I’ve had dreams where I’m going somewhere and I realize I don’t have a mask and wake up feeling panicky.

When Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the country after the murder of George Floyd, we wanted to join the local marches but our health concerns, our fears, held us back. We made donations instead. It’s not the same, I know.

We’ve almost completely stopped watching television. My wife and I have always been avid readers and we’ve become even more fond of books this year. It’s not just escapism. In fact I read mostly nonfiction. I think it’s because we spend all day online involved in our own real life streaming video shows. The last thing we want to do in the evening is turn on another screen and watch another show.

In the fall we had our back deck replaced. It had been slowly rotting away for years. We were able to enjoy a couple of socially distanced gatherings with family and friends on the new deck before the rain and the cold drove us indoors for the winter.

We’ve done Zoom calls and FaceTime calls with local friends we can’t hang out with and international friends we can’t visit. Family too. It’s nice. It helps maintain connection. But it doesn’t really cure the isolation.

At Christmas we hosted a family lunch. In our garage. With the doors open.

It’s a particular cruelty of COVID-19 that it turns friends and loved ones into potentially lethal threats.

We got a dump of snow in February. In a normal year the schools would have declared a “snow day” and the kids would have stayed home.  This year every day has been a snow day.

This week there are signs of spring again. Daffodils are blooming in the parks. Our camelias are starting to bud, and the deer have returned to sample our shrubs once more.

Picture of a lake with ducks

A year into the pandemic, I’m much calmer. I think it’s a combination of vaccines starting to roll out and Trump getting booted out. It feels like there’s an end in sight.

I know I’m one of the lucky ones. One of the privileged. I have a lot to be thankful for.

I’m alive.

No one in my family has had COVID (unless they were asymptomatic). We had one close call over Thanksgiving when a neighbor who I walk with about once a week got COVID. After twenty-four hours of near panic our tests came back negative. Our neighbor recovered.

We have great health care coverage.

I still have a job. A good job. I work with terrific people. My company has been very supportive.

The internet is working remarkably well. We’ve had a few outages, but mostly they’ve been brief. When you think about how much additional bandwidth has been required to support all that video conferencing, it’s amazing how resilient and reliable the internet has been.

Here again, I need to acknowledge my privilege: There are lots of people who cannot afford or cannot access high-speed internet.

I don’t have school-aged children at home. I know that home-schooling young kids is incredibly demanding on working parents, especially moms who inevitably bear more of the burden. And I’m not a student myself facing disrupted classes, delayed graduation and uncertain career prospects.

And then there are the vaccines! The fact that scientists have developed not one vaccine, but many, in just over a year is a stunning scientific achievement. The way these new mRNA vaccines work, getting your cells to manufacture some of the coronavirus spike protein to stimulate your immune system to create new antibodies, is just incredibly clever. I’m fortunate to be alive at a time when we have developed all that scientific know-how.

Picture of Pfizer COVID Vaccine Vials

Vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. Source: Sebastien BozonAFP via Getty Images

I’m eagerly awaiting my turn to get vaccinated. Actually, I’m starting to get antsy. I’ve tried to live in the moment as much as possible this year, not making any plans, not thinking too far ahead. Now with the vaccines so close, I’m feeling restless this spring, wanting to break out of my lockdown cocoon and fly.

I’m looking forward to seeing – and hugging — family and friends again.

I’m looking forward to traveling.

To dining out.

Going to concerts, visiting galleries and museums.

And doing it all without fear.

Still, I don’t really know what life will look like after the pandemic is over. I don’t think we’re going back to “normal” because the old normal doesn’t exist anymore.

I think we’ve all been traumatized to some extent by the pandemic. I can see myself wanting to wear a mask indefinitely in certain situations. It’ll be a while before I feel comfortable getting onto a crowded bus or a crowded elevator.

I don’t think we’re going back to the old 5-days-a-week at the office routine either. I imagine most organizations will adopt some sort of hybrid model. There are some disadvantages to working from home: the inability to quickly ask a question or clear up a misunderstanding, the lack of serendipitous conversations or impromptu meetings, the loss of social contact, but video conferencing works remarkably well.

I think we could see permanent hybrid education too, at least as an option for some students. One thing is virtually certain: there won’t be any more “snow days.”  Classes will just switch to remote learning on days when bad weather prevents students from getting to school.

Frankly, the old normal needed some shaking up anyway. So we’re going to have to create a new one.

What could it look like?

I hope it’s a new normal where we’re a little humbler and a little more compassionate.

I hope we’ll recognize that we need to take better care of each other, starting with fixing our broken, inequitable public health system. Because we’re all at greater risk when any of us can catch or transmit a deadly disease. I hope we understand that whatever the cost of health care for everyone, it’s cheap compared to the trillions spent recovering from this pandemic.

I hope we realize that we must take better care of our planet too. The pandemic has shown us that Nature doesn’t care about borders or political affiliations. Human activity is disrupting Earth’s entire biosphere. Like it or not, we must now take responsibility for looking after it.

I hope we’ve learned that we’re all knit together into one global community living in an increasingly fragile world. We need to find better ways to collaborate on solutions to our common problems.

Lastly, I hope we can hold on to the memory of this year — the fear, isolation, loneliness and boredom – as a reminder of what a blessing family, friends, colleagues and community really are.

In the past year over half a million people have died in the US and hundreds of thousands more around the world.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I got off lightly.

A year at home. It doesn’t feel right to celebrate. But we should still commemorate.

Stay safe, everyone.

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The Good Ancestor

We were warned.

Lots of people warned us about the possibility of a global pandemic years before the outbreak of COVID-19. But we didn’t listen and we didn’t prepare.

We’ve known for decades about the catastrophic effects of greenhouse gas emissions on Earth’s climate. We are starting to listen and act, but we’ve left it dangerously late.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we so often fail to take action on these and other long-term threats?

One reason is that most of the time, most of us are caught up in the short-term, in the here-and-now, and we don’t really know how to think about global scale long-term problems.

The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking by Roman Krznaric shows us how to think long-term by teaching us to be better ancestors to future generations.

Roman Krznaric (pronounced kriz-NAR-ik) is a public philosopher who grew up in Sydney and Hong Kong. He studied at Oxford University and earned his PhD in political sociology at the University of Essex.  He’s the author of several books and a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation.

Cover of The Good AncestorThe Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking
By Roman Krznaric
The Experiment, New York, 2020

I first learned about the idea of being a good ancestor from Bina Venkataraman’s book The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age (book, review). She suggests that we should think about the Earth as if it were a precious family heirloom; something to be used but also cared for and passed on to future generations. We should aim to be good ancestors, she says, by preserving for our children and grandchildren the resources and the freedom to make their own choices for themselves and for their children.

While The Optimist’s Telescope takes a journalistic approach, Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor is more prescriptive: it provides a toolkit of six different ways to develop long-term thinking.

The book is divided into three parts. First, Krznaric looks at the question of whether humans are even capable of long-term thinking. Good news: we are. He dives into history, anthropology and sociology to show how we developed that capability over millennia.

The second part, the core of the book, is about the six approaches to thinking long-term. I’ll come back to these in a moment.

Finally, Krznaric looks at how small groups of activists, organizers, students and policymakers – he calls them “time rebels” – are putting the six ways into practice in various places around the world.

Six Ways to Think Long-Term

Krznaric devotes a chapter to each of his six ways to improve long-term thinking. They’re all detailed and interesting. I’ll just summarize them briefly.

The first step to developing long-term thinking, he says, is to stop obsessing about the short term, about the latest meme on social media, the latest fashion trend or must-have gadget, even the latest election cycle. We need to develop deep-time humility, an understanding that all of human history is just an eyeblink in the lifespan of the universe.

Krznaric quotes the writer John McPhee who puts this into perspective brilliantly:

“Consider the earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the King’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.” [p. 49]

We need to think about time differently. In the modern era we perceive time as linear, like an arrow, but this has disconnected us from natural cyclic rhythms – tides, seasons, lifetimes, generations. Lines can be shortened, he says, but circles are inherently infinite.

Take a walk in the woods and look at the trees, he suggests. Trees are in a sense slow running clocks with their leaves and rings marking the passage of seasons and years. They can be hundreds of years old. Tress can reconnect us with longer-term cyclic time. Maybe, we should start thinking in “tree time.”

The second approach, a legacy mindset, helps us think about how we want to be remembered by future generations and what gifts or bequests we would like to pass on to them. Krznaric emphasizes that the most important legacy is a healthy planet on which future generations can thrive and flourish. This echoes Bina Venkataraman’s suggestion about treating the Earth as a family heirloom.

If you shoot an arrow through the woods and injure someone you didn’t see, you’ll be judged guilty of negligence. To improve long-term thinking, we need to extend our concept of justice across time as well as distance. We need to develop norms of intergenerational justice. Nuclear waste, for example, is like an arrow flying through the woods for thousands of years, posing a constant danger to everyone and everything. So are greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have a responsibility to take action today to mitigate the future impact of the arrows we fire. In fact, the fewer we fire, the better.” [p. 81]

Krznaric urges us to consider the consequences of our actions not just on our children and grandchildren, but on our descendants down to the 7th generation, about two hundred years into the future. And not just our families but all of humanity.

Exterior picture of the Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain. Source: sagradafamilia.org

Have you ever been to Barcelona and seen the Sagrada Familia, the basilica designed by the renowned architect Antoni Gaudi? Construction of this amazing building started in 1882 and it’s still not finished. It’s a perfect example of cathedral thinking: the idea of undertaking multi-generational projects. So is planting trees that take generations to mature.

Krznaric’s fifth tool for long-term thinking is holistic forecasting.  How do we plan decades or even centuries ahead?  One way is to consider historical patterns of growth and development. The most prominent of these patterns is the S-curve, also known as the sigmoid or logistic curve. You’ve seen this before: a slow gradual take-off in the adoption of some new technology, say mobile phones, followed by a period of rapid exponential growth, followed by a plateau and sometimes even collapse. Economist Vaclav Smil gives many more examples of the S-curve phenomenon in his encyclopedic book Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities (book, review).

Nothing grows forever, Krznaric warns, and we should use the S-curve as the template for long-term forecasts.

Finally, to focus our long-term thinking and to be good ancestors, we need to adopt a transcendent goal for humanity. Krznaric advocates the goal of “one-planet thriving”, which means not using more resources than the Earth can generate nor creating more waste than the Earth can absorb.

In practice, it means living within “the Doughnut”; a set of outer boundaries defined by Earth’s critical ecological systems that we must not exceed, and an inner set of goals for human well-being that we must not fall below.  The Doughnut was conceived by economist Kate Raworth and explained in detail in her terrific book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. (book, review)

Krznaric and Raworth are married, and you can certainly see the influence that each has had on the other’s work. The two of them must have very interesting dinner table conversations.

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It’s hard to argue with any of Krznaric’s six ways to develop long-term thinking. They’re all sensible and useful and clearly explained with lots of background deail and examples. And the overarching idea of thinking and acting like a good ancestor is a real paradigm shift.

It’s adoption that’s the problem. How do we get people, especially elected officials and policymakers, to start thinking long-term?  Krznaric gives some examples in the book that are encouraging, but we really need to scale this up. In some cases structural changes to our political systems will be needed. The two-year cycle for congressional elections in the United States virtually guarantees short-term thinking in perpetuity.

Here’s one simple suggestion for long-term thinking that you can start right away: place a leading zero in front of the year whenever you write a date.  Instead of February 28, 2021 write February 28, 02021. Looks different doesn’t it? It tells you that this year is part of a much longer timespan. OK, it’s not going to change the world, but I think it’s a useful mental nudge.

We need to start thinking like good ancestors ourselves. We need to let long-term thinking inform our decisions about what we buy, how we live and who we vote for.

The Good Ancestor is a great guide to getting started.

Future generations have no voice in the actions we take, or do not take, today. Yet they will be profoundly affected. Instead of bequeathing them radioactive waste, acidic oceans and an overheated climate, shouldn’t we leave them a planet that can sustain them, a world in which they and their children can flourish?

Related Links

How to Be a Good Ancestor
TED Talk by Roman Krznaric, October 02020

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Always Day One

Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever by Alex Kantrowitz takes its title from an Amazon corporate motto. “It’s always Day 1” is designed to inspire Amazon employees with a startup mentality; lean, fast, and driven.

Always Day One, the book, examines how Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft have created corporate cultures that aim to preserve their industry dominance by capturing that Day 1 spirit.

Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter at Buzzfeed News. He writes the Big Technology newsletter and the Big Technology podcast.

Cover of Always Day One
Always Day One
By Alex Kantrowitz
Portfolio / Penguin, New York, 2020

The Engineer’s Mindset

Kantrowitz distinguishes between two types of work:

  • Idea work: inventing, designing, problem solving, engineering, and creating
  • Execution work: production, manufacturing, ordering, data entry, accounting, product support

A hundred years ago, employees at an industrial company would perform almost exclusively execution work. One or two people would have had an original idea or invention and turned it into a business.  Everyone else worked on execution.

Today’s tech giants are different, Kantrowitz says. They continually invest in automating or eliminating execution work in order to free up people and time for idea work. They know that a new technology or a new competitor could emerge tomorrow that might make their current business obsolete or uncompetitive.  They know they must keep inventing in order to survive.

For a glimpse into the awful fate that awaits Amazon, or any company, that fails to maintain its Day 1 work ethic, check out this 1-minute YouTube video of Jeff Bezos explaining what day 2 looks like.  Go ahead, it’s worth watching.

So the tech companies have created corporate cultures and internal systems to ensure that new ideas get the chance to be developed into new products.

At the heart of these corporate cultures, Kantrowitz says, is the engineer’s mindset. The engineer’s mindset consists of democratic invention where anyone in an organization can come up with new ideas, a flat hierarchy that values direct communication with senior leaders instead of a chain of command, and deep collaboration within and across organizational boundaries.

Using the engineer’s mindset, these companies have honed their capacity for invention, for idea work, and turned it into an economic moat – a lasting competitive advantage.

Always Day One gives us a peek into the inner workings of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft, looking at how the engineer’s mindset plays out at each of them.

You might think it odd to include Microsoft in this group. It has the reputation of being staid and past its prime. I thought it odd at first too. I worked at Microsoft for 19 years and witnessed some of its internal dysfunction. But its new CEO, Satya Nadella, is changing the company’s culture to be far more collaborative than it used to be.

No, the outlier in the group is Apple. It’s a company designed around a visionary leader, Steve Jobs. But Jobs is dead and Tim Cook, despite being a a very capable executive, is not a product visionary like Jobs. Apple’s products under Cook have essentially been enhancements of products created by Jobs.

I think the most interesting aspect of the book is the comparison between Amazon and Apple. Kantrowitz dives into the details of some of Amazon’s innovative practices, like its famous six-page memos, showing how they enable anyone in the organization to propose an innovative idea. In contrast, Apple, as Kantrowitz describes it, is divided into rigid silos where collaboration is difficult if not outright discouraged.  And designers rather than engineers dominate the company. Just like it was when Jobs was CEO. Apple appears to be struggling to develop an innovative culture like the other companies profiled in the book.

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Always Day One is a quick read but a little lighter than I had hoped.

I think the chapter on Amazon is the most detailed and the most interesting. The other chapters tend to focus more on the company leaders, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Sundar Pichai at Google, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Microsoft’s and Satya Nadella.

While Kantrowitz doesn’t shy away from exploring some of the controversies surrounding each of these companies, Always Day One is not a critique or exposé.

His sources for the book were often ex-employees of the various companies. Not surprising really since most firms don’t want to discuss their internal workings with journalists. But it does mean that some of his information may be a little out of date.

And then there are the last two chapters. The first explores a few dystopian scenarios that could arise given current technology trends, especially the use of AI. The second looks at some topics in corporate leadership and management. These are interesting and worthwhile topics, but they seem like complete non sequiturs here. They left me wondering if Kantrowitz ran out of material and tacked them onto the end of the book.

He does make an interesting point right at the end though. The five tech giants have nurtured the engineer’s mindset to develop sustained competitive advantage. But it’s not their exclusive property. If the engineer’s mindset were adopted more broadly, Kantrowitz suggests, then more companies would be more inventive, more competitive and more successful. And that could mean that the power and wealth concentrated in these five companies might be distributed more widely.

I’d make one final observation: The cultures of direct communication and deep collaboration at these companies produce not only new kinds of products but also new kinds of employees. Kantrowitz describes how the culture at Google, for example, enabled an engineer named James Damore to argue on internal discussion forums that women are inherently less capable engineers than men. It also enabled employees to protest against Google selling AI technology to the Pentagon and to organize an employee walkout sparked by a $90-million payout to a departing senior executive accused of sexual misconduct. Cultures change how people behave and not always in ways that leaders want or expect.

Thanks for reading.

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A History of Future Cities

People make cities, but cities also make people. That’s one of the key messages from Daniel Brook’s 2013 book A History of Future Cities.

The book tells the stories of four cities, St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Dubai. All four cities are in the East but were designed by their rulers or occupiers to look Western, to be Western. All four were deliberately catapulted into the future from small, undeveloped towns or settlements into advanced, modern cities designed to be gateways to the rest of the world.

Brook starts with St. Petersburg.

Hermitage Museum, St. PetersburgHermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Photo by Victor Malyushev on Unsplash

In 1697, the Russian Tzar Peter the Great toured Europe incognito to learn about modern cities. He was particularly fascinated by Amsterdam, then the wealthiest city in Europe.  Upon returning to Moscow, he decided to build himself a new capital, a modern city that would emulate the European ones he had visited; a port city that would connect Russia to the outside world.

He chose a swampy location where the Neva River flows into the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. The fact that there was already a small Swedish fort at that location was a minor inconvenience. Construction of St. Petersburg began in 1703, led by hundreds of imported European architects and artisans. Within a few decades it becomes one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe.

“And yet Russian autocrats soon had to reckon with the modern people their city had made. The new Russian capital had been built as a stage set of modernity, an experimental metropolis where, liberated from the constraints of budget and existing cityscape, if an architect could draw it, he could build it. But the modern city with its newly erected universities and science museums, all built and initially staffed by imported Western experts, changed the city’s people. And as they became broad minded and literate, they grew less willing to accept a social contract that offered them futuristic wonders in exchange for medieval obedience.” [p. 7]

It’s no surprise that the Russian Revolution started in St. Petersburg.

In Shanghai, already a bustling regional market town, the British, French and Americans carved up the land amongst themselves after the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing forcibly re-opened China to trade with the West. There they built replicas of British, French and American cities which eventually merged into a vibrant cosmopolitan Western outpost on China’s shore.

The pattern repeated in Mumbai where the British built the largest most cosmopolitan city in India starting in the 1850’s. They also educated and trained a new middle class of Indian administrators and professionals to run their city; talented and capable people who grew to resent being perpetually subordinated to their British overlords.

Modern Dubai is probably one of the most diverse cities on Earth today, but its population is over 90% expatriates who don’t have citizenship and can be ejected from the country at the whim of the government. It’s a fascinating experiment in building a cosmopolitan city from the ground up, starting in the 1960’s, but it’s too early to tell what social or political impact the city or its people will have on the United Arab Emirates or the larger Arab world.

Cover of A History of Future CitiesA History of Future Cities
By Daniel Brook
W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2013

Daniel Brook is an author and journalist. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine and The Nation. In writing this book, he lived for a month in each of the four cities.

They’re all port cities, looking outward, with their backs to their own countries.  They all tend to produce people with more tolerant, liberal, occasionally rebellious viewpoints.

Sometimes their outward looking, cosmopolitan make-up has alienated them from their own countries.  St. Petersburg, Mumbai and Shanghai have, at times, been ignored and even suppressed by their national governments. Yet at the other times, national leaders have come from these cities.

Brook details the history of the four cities, right down to their evolving streetscapes and architectural styles. He charts how they were shaped by autocrats and occupiers, but also by larger political forces from their countries and the world. In fact, one thing seems clear from the book: while cities and their people can be powerful agents of change, they can never entirely escape those forces.

This makes it all the more strange that Brook appears so optimistic about the liberating influence of these cities and their people.

For example, writing about St. Petersburg under the autocratic rule of Vladimir Putin (himself a Petersburger), Brook says,

“But one thing is certain: despite the miserable slog of Russian history, as long as there is St. Petersburg — a city where even at midnight, a glimmer of sunlight still peeks out over the horizon — there is hope.” [p. 294]

Hope for what? A more liberal, tolerant, democratic Russia?  Unlikely. Maybe he means that the mere existence of St. Petersburg can give hope to the rest of Russia, but the evidence he presents in this book doesn’t leave me very optimistic.

Similarly, on Dubai, the newest of the four future cities, Brook says,

“Yet if Dubai is truly the latest chapter in a tale begun in St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai, the only question is when, not if, its people will seize the opportunity its autocrats have unwittingly created. As with the great East-meets-West cities before it, ultramodern metropolises built by dictatorial fiat with coolies and serfs, Dubai has assembled a stunningly diverse cast of characters who can seize the reins and build a true city of the future.” [p. 386]

This strikes me as nonsense. I’m not sure what a “true” city of the future is, but I strongly doubt it will be created by the corporations and temporarily posted expatriate contract workers who make up the bulk of Dubai’s population.

Oddly, the city that seems to disappoint Brook the most is Mumbai – the only one within a democratic country.

A History of Future Cities will probably appeal to a fairly narrow audience, but, despite what I think is Brook’s misplaced optimism, I found it rewarding. I’ve never visited any of these places so I learned a lot from this book. I had intended to read about just one of the cities, but Brook’s well-paced storytelling got me hooked. After all,

“While it was once a tiny, largely self-selected percentage of Russians who moved to St. Petersburg, Chinese who moved to Shanghai, and Indians who moved to Bombay, the journey from developing-world hinterland to globalizing city has become the defining journey of the twenty-first century.” [p. 387]

* * *

Thanks to Katie @ Doing Dewey for an earlier review that prompted me to read this book.

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Meditations

Meditations, written nearly two thousand years ago by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, is one of the most influential books in Western philosophy. It deserves years of study. I’ve read it just once.

So I won’t be “reviewing” this book in the normal way. I’ll refrain from critiquing the writing style or the flow of idea. And I won’t be giving my usual unsolicited feedback either — that would be an act of, well, hubris.

But I do want to share my impressions of the book, what I learned and how it impacted me.

Regular readers of this blog (bless you!) may remember that, a few months ago, I reviewed Eric Weiner’s wonderful book The Socrates Express (book, review). In it, Weiner explores the lives and ideas of fourteen philosophers. The very first chapter is about Marcus Aurelius and stoicism and getting out of bed each morning. I had heard of Marcus Aurelius and stoicism before but I didn’t know much about them. The book intrigued me. Then a friend suggested listening to The Daily Stoic, a podcast written and produced by Ryan Holiday.

Anyway this stoic slippery slope led me to Meditations.

Cover of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Meditations

By Marcus Aurelius, translated, and with an introduction, by Gregory Hays
Modern Library, New York, 2002

I read the Modern Library edition translated by Gregory Hays. Hays provides a lengthy and useful introduction which sets the context for the book. He covers Marcus Aurelius’ life and times, and the prevailing cultural and philosophical ideas, including an overview of stoicism.

Meditations is not really a book in the conventional sense. It’s essentially a collection of Marcus Aurelius’ journals, written, so far as anyone knows, between 170 and 179 CE. The entries are short, often a single sentence, rarely longer that a couple of paragraphs. He’s writing notes and reminders to himself, sometimes encouraging, sometimes scolding himself. Though Meditations is divided into twelve short books, there’s no apparent organization within or between them. Marcus – everyone seems to call him by his first name – would probably be horrified that anyone is reading his scribblings today. Or maybe he wouldn’t care. After all, he was a stoic.

Stoicism

These days, when we describe someone as stoic, we mean they’re able to endure suffering and adversity calmly and without complaint. But that only hints at the full meaning of stoicism as a philosophy.

The ancient stoics, according to Hays, believed that “the world is organized in a rational and coherent way.”  One of the more profound implications of this belief is that most of what happens to us during our lives– say, for example, a pandemic — is entirely outside our control. Since these events occur as part of an ordered universe, they must be good. The only rational course is for humans to accept them without complaining. One event in particular which Marcus repeatedly stresses we should not complain about, nor fear, is death.

We can control our actions, however. Here the stoics believe that we have a duty to be active in our communities and in the world. We should gracefully accept the destiny that the universe has assigned to us and devote our thoughts and our energies to fulfilling it.

A few meditations

Meditations was never intended to be a textbook on stoicism, but you can certainly learn a lot about stoicism reading it. You can learn a lot more too, about life and living and work and standing up straight.

Here are a few excerpts from Meditations. They’re surprisingly modern. And practical. The numbers refer to book and entry.

On work:

5.1: “At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do?”

2.1: “Concentrate every minute like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions.”

6.19 “Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.”

On living fully:

7.56: “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”

12.1: “And if, when it’s time to depart, you shunt everything aside except your mind and the divinity within … if it isn’t ceasing to live that you’re afraid of but never beginning to live properly … then you’ll be worthy of the world that made you.”

Here’s a two thousand year-old reminder that is particularly apt, especially for us here in the United States:

10.33: “And keep in mind that nothing can harm one of nature’s citizens except what harms the city he belongs to. And nothing harms the city except what harms its law. And there is no so-called misfortune that can do that. So long as the law is safe, so is the city – and the citizen.”

“Straight, not straightened.”

I think this one is my favorite entry in the whole book, at least based on my first reading. It appears a couple of times, in 3.5 and 7.12.

I think what Marcus means is that we should stand up straight as an act of will, not in response to some external force or pressure. We have a duty to stand straight. And not just to stand, but to speak straight and act straight. We should do what is right because it is right, not because we are forced.

If I ever create a family coat of arms, I think this might be the motto.

Modern yet ancient

As I said earlier, many of Marcus’ notes are surprisingly modern. This may be partly due to Hays’ translation, but I think it’s also because Marcus was writing for himself in plain language.  Yet it’s still very clear that this is an ancient work. Some of the underlying ideas just don’t fit into our modern worldview.

First and foremost is this assumption that the universe is rational and ordered.  Few would believe this today. I think many people would accept the stoic idea that much of our lives is beyond our control, but not because of some natural force imposing reason and order, but because of sheer, blind, uncaring randomness. You can blame Schrödinger and Heisenberg I suppose for putting an end to this ancient belief. And while lots of people still equate “natural” with “good” when it comes to food or medicine (often mistakenly, I think), I doubt most of us would extend this benefit of the doubt to diseases or disasters.

Second, although Marcus and the stoics encourage us to work and be active, they don’t specify any purpose other than leading a good life. In the modern world, we are, for better or worse, obsessed with the idea of progress. We work to advance the human condition, to reduce suffering, to have impact, to make a difference, “to make a dent in the universe” as Steve Jobs once said.  Listen to any talk or read any article by Bill Gates and count the number of times he uses the word “innovation.” I’m no classical scholar but I think the idea of progress would have been completely foreign to Marcus and to everyone before about 1750.

Lastly there’s the idea throughout Meditations that we each have a destiny, that we’re born to do something that has been predetermined for us. “But wait,” you say, “what about a growth mindset?”

“A whatset?” Marcus asks, incredulously. You cannot change who you are. And you certainly cannot avoid your destiny, at least not if you endeavor to live a life of virtue. It is folly to think that you can make your own destiny. Oh! you incorrigible modern, fuggedaboudit!

All that said, stoicism is still very influential. In fact, stoicism seems to be enjoying – dare I say it – a renaissance these days. It resonates strongly with me too even though I’m just learning about it.

Meditations is a great introduction to stoicism and to so much more. It lets us peek into the life and mind of one of history’s greatest philosopher-kings.

I have a hunch that I’ll discover something new, many things actually, each time I read Meditations.

One thing is certain: after this last year of disaster and strife, there is some peace to be found in accepting, as gracefully as possible, what we cannot control and in focusing our efforts and our energies on the things we can.

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