Wow, it’s already Week 4 of Nonfiction November! Our host this week is Rebekah @ She Seeks Nonfiction and the topic is Worldview Changers:
“One of the greatest things about reading nonfiction is learning all kinds of things about our world which you never would have known without it. There’s the intriguing, the beautiful, the appalling, and the profound. What nonfiction book or books has impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way? Do you think there is one book that everyone needs to read for a better understanding of the world we live in?”
I love this topic because it aligns so well with why I read nonfiction. The books I enjoy most are the ones that provide frameworks for understanding some important aspect of our world. Sometimes they help us recognize previously unseen patterns or put fragmented pieces into a coherent whole. Some help us see events or information from an entirely new angle. Others provide new theories or concepts that lead to better understanding. They change our view of the world in fundamental ways.
Of course I can’t pick just one — that would be like eating one potato chip. So here are three books that have changed my worldview.
Every religion and every culture has an origin story. Origin stories tell us who we are, where we come from, and how we should live with one another.
The problem is traditional origin stories, especially religious ones, don’t seem relevant or credible in today’s globalized technological world. They’re just myths and fables that few people believe anymore.
Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian is a scientifically based origin story for a modern secular world.
The fundamental idea of Origin Story is that history is all about the development of complexity in the Universe. Christian arranges his origin story around a few pivotal events that mark the creation or emergence of a new, increased level of complexity. He calls these events thresholds. There are eight of them, starting with the Big Bang and ending with our current era, the Anthropocene.
It’s a beautifully written awe-inspiring story that spans 13.8 billion years.
Big World Small Planet
Are we doomed? From CO2 emissions to deforestation to species extinction, it seems like we humans are totally screwing up the planet. So many things are happening at once, all of them bad. And everything is connected to everything else, tangled together in a great big ecological hairball. Worse, it seems like we’ve only got about 30 years to turn things around or the Earth may become inhospitable to human life. What are we supposed to do? Where do we even start?
Big World Small Planet: Abundance within Planetary Boundaries aims to answer these questions. Written by Johan Rockström and Mattias Klum, the book offers a brilliant framework for understanding and tackling the threats we face. That framework is the idea of planetary boundaries.
Planetary boundaries – there are nine of them including climate change and biodiversity loss – form a “safe operating space” for humanity. If we can stay within these boundaries we have a chance of a sustainable and even a just future. Exceed these boundaries and we will cause the Earth’s ecological systems to become destabilized, wildly unpredictable, and possibly even hostile to human life.
Big World Small Planet was written in 2015 and I’ve seen the idea of planetary boundaries appear quite often in more recent books. I think that’s because it’s such a powerful organizing paradigm for thinking about and taking action on the environment.
The Road to Unfreedom
On the surface The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder is a detailed history of key events in Russia, Ukraine, Europe and America during the five-year period from 2011 to 2016. In places the detail gets to be a bit overwhelming for such a short book.
But more importantly, I think Snyder is using these events as illustrations of what he calls the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity.
The politics of inevitability is the belief that we are moving along a clear and predictable path towards a defined and desirable future. The capitalist version of this story is that markets lead inevitability to democracy and to greater happiness and prosperity. The communist version is that capitalist exploitation leads to a worker’s revolution and the withering away of the state.
If inevitability is a straight line to the future, then the politics of eternity is a circle, endlessly looping back to a mythologized past, glorious and innocent. Under eternity politics, there is no future. Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are both consummate eternity politicians.
Snyder shows how the conflict between these two approaches to politics – both deeply flawed – explains broad historical trends that are unfolding today, right in front of us.
Thanks for reading.