Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Reading, and writing about what I read, helped me stay sane this awful year. I’m glad to wrap up 2020 with Isabel Wilkerson’s acclaimed book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

Caste book cover

Source: //isabelwilkerson.com

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
By Isabel Wilkerson
Random House, New York, 2020

Caste examines the problem of racism in America from a different angle. The main idea of the book is that American society is a caste system and has been since well before the founding of the country. Wilkerson draws parallels between America’s caste system and those of India and Nazi Germany. She compares the experiences of people in the lowest-ranked castes: Blacks in America, Jews in Nazi Germany and Dalits in India.

“A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed superiority of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it. A caste system uses rigid, often arbitrary boundaries to keep the ranked groupings apart, distinct from one another and in their assigned places.”  [p. 17]

In America, race is the immutable trait used to assign caste. In Nazi Germany caste distinctions were based on religion and minor physical variations within the white population. In India, caste is determined by a wider range of factors including skin color and also birthplace and occupation.

In all three instances,

“Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.”  [p. 70]

In a key section titled “The Eight Pillars of Caste,” Wilkerson lays out the mechanisms by which caste systems are created, justified, maintained and brutally enforced. Heritability is one of the pillars; the characteristics used to assign caste are inherited, fixed and unchangeable. Caste is a life sentence. You cannot earn or marry or convert your way out of it. Caste, she stresses, is different than class. A prosperous white man can lose his job or squander his wealth and slide into poverty, but he will still remain a member of the white caste.

Although I can’t be certain, I think Wilkerson uses the term “caste” to describe what other authors such as Ibram Kendi would call systemic racism. Why introduce another term into an already complex subject? And what difference does it make?

Wilkerson notes that race and caste frequently overlap in the US. But she thinks it’s important to use different words to disentangle the structures that separate people and keep them in their assigned place in the hierarchy from the racial antipathy and stereotyping that are used to make value judgements about people. “Caste is the bones, race is the skin,” Wilkerson says. Because she is focused on the structure, on the bones, she mostly uses the terms “dominant caste” and “subordinate caste” rather than “white” and “black” throughout the book.

I think caste is also a more generalizable concept than race. It allows us to recognize instances of similar power structures in other parts of the world where race isn’t necessarily the distinguishing characteristic. In fact, I suspect there are additional caste systems not mentioned in the book, like apartheid in South Africa, or China’s treatment of Tibetans and Uighurs.

It’s less clear what difference this makes. Does a caste-based analysis lead to any different conclusions or insights than a race-based approach?  Does the idea of caste enable agency – taking action to achieve change – any better or any differently than ideas about dismantling systemic racism?  Unfortunately, Caste does not answer these questions.  

Photo of author Isabel Wilkerson

Source: //isabelwilkerson.com

Isabel Wilkerson is an award-winning journalist, author and lecturer.  She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for Feature Writing as The New York Times’ Chicago Bureau Chief. Her 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and numerous other awards.  She’s taught at Boston, Emory and Princeton Universities.

Wilkerson writes with eloquence and power. Caste contains a lively mixture of detailed historical research and personal narratives of her own and others’ experiences.

Over and over again, she uses both history and narrative to describe the horrific impacts of caste on those at the bottom rung. Many of these accounts are painful to read.

She also points out the price paid by those in the privileged castes. After desegregation in the 1960’s there were towns in the South that shut down public schools or filled in public swimming pools rather than integrate, depriving everyone in the community. We are all less safe when our criminal justice system is more likely to convict a Black man simply because he is Black while the real criminal walks free.  Society as a whole suffers when we are deprived of the creativity, talents and energy of people in lower castes who are not permitted to develop or exercise their abilities.

And here in the US, we lack a robust public health system, in large part, Wilkerson argues, due to the caste system. A caste system is toxic to our sense of shared responsibility for caring for everyone in society. People in the dominant caste perceive a threat to their own prosperity and status if the system looks after everyone equally.

“Caste is more than rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.”  [p. 290]

Wilkerson’s analysis of the 2016 presidential election is interesting, but here too I wonder whether the idea of caste helps us understand the results any better.

No Democratic nominee has won a majority of white votes in presidential elections since civil rights legislation was enacted by Democratic President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960’s. (This held true in the 2020 election too.)  Donald Trump appealed directly to the fears and grievances of dominant caste voters in 2016 (and 2020).  Dominant caste groups – white men and women – mostly voted Republican, while subordinate caste groups such as Hispanic and Black men and women mainly backed Democrats.

Democrats are missing the point, Wilkerson argues, if they think white working-class citizens are acting against their own economic self-interest when they vote for Republicans. In fact, they are voting to protect their caste status.

But the most important year in the book isn’t 2016 or 2020, it’s 2042. That’s when the US Census Bureau predicts whites will become a minority in America.  This poses an existential “dominant group status threat” that has galvanized the dominant caste into action. It explains, among other things, the increasingly anti-democratic behavior of the Republican Party, from voter roll purges, polling station closures, voter ID laws, all the way up to numerous attempts to overturn or delegitimize the results of the 2020 election. These actions are aimed at preserving dominant caste status.

Wilkerson quotes the civil rights historian Taylor Branch, who asks,

“If people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” [p. 352]

Unsolicited Feedback

Caste made me ashamed of my own ignorance.  Despite having read several books about racism over the last two years, there was so much in this book about the history of racism and the experiences of Blacks in America – past and present – that I either knew nothing about or was only dimly aware of. As a white male I still have a lot to learn. Being raised in a Jewish family doesn’t give me a free pass and being an immigrant from Canada isn’t a valid excuse.

I do keep coming back to the question of whether the term “caste” makes any real difference. I think it’s a useful concept for separating the systems of dominance from the characteristics used to divide us. And it also enables us to recognize similar systems of oppression in other parts of the world.  But in the US at least “caste” does not seem to add anything substantial to our understanding of the problem.

More importantly, I don’t see how it helps us address those problems.  This is my main disappointment with the book.  Wilkerson says we need to be more empathetic towards each other, look beyond racial characteristics and recognize each other as full human beings, and be vigilant against the ever-present threat of old prejudices and jealousies reasserting themselves. All perfectly valid, but she doesn’t propose any specific approaches for dismantling the caste system.  If anything, the fixed and immutable nature of caste makes the prospects for change even more daunting.

Perhaps that wasn’t Wilkerson’s objective in writing Caste. The book is subtitled “The Origins of Our Discontents” so maybe she was aiming to provide a new paradigm for exploring the history and the impact of America’s racial divisions. I think Caste succeeds admirably there.

In the end, it’s up to all of us to work for change, especially those of us in the dominant caste/race. As Wilkerson says, when you buy an old house you become responsible for it. Even though you didn’t build it, didn’t lay its foundations and are not responsible for causing its flaws, you have to deal with them. Ignoring the sagging roof or the bowed walls or the moldy-smelling basement will not make them go away. And if you pretend those problems don’t exist for too long, they will turn into devastating crises.

* * *

As always, thanks for reading.

Best wishes for a happier, healthier and just plain better 2021!

Posted in Books, History, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Rewilding

What would it mean to “restore” Earth’s environment?  Scientists are warning us that climate change, deforestation, mass extinctions and a host of other environmental problems are driving the biosphere to a tipping point. How do we pull back from the brink?  How do we go even further and restore ecosystems so they are thriving and resilient?

One new approach to ecosystem restoration that’s getting some attention these days is called rewilding.

Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery by two British ecologists, Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe, takes a look at the origins, theory, approaches and challenges of rewilding. It’s an eye-opening book that got me excited about new thinking and new approaches to healing the environment.

Cover of RewildingRewilding
By Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe
Icon Books, London, 2020

What is rewilding?

According to Jepson and Blythe, there isn’t a single definition of rewilding yet. It’s a new and evolving field. However there seems to be agreement that its main goal is restoring ecosystem function and resilience. Rewilding focuses on restoring natural processes and capabilities so that ecosystems become self-sustaining and self-regulating again. Rewilding differs from traditional conservation in that successful rewilding results in ecosystems that need no human intervention, support or management.

The result of rewilding is “self-willed” nature.

There are several different approaches to rewilding explored in the book. I think it’s useful to describe them briefly to get an appreciation for how broadly some people are thinking about this and why it’s generated some controversy too.

Passive rewilding:  The simplest form of rewilding involves humans releasing control of the land and its features in a given area. Dam removal is probably the best-known example, at least here in the Pacific Northwest. Another example would be removal of fences when marginal farmland land is abandoned, allowing wild animals to move freely.

Translocation rewilding: The reintroduction or “refaunation” of large animal species into an area where they have been wiped out. For example, moving a small number of tortoises from one Pacific island where they are plentiful to another island where they have been hunted out of existence. The new species will never be identical to the one it replaces, of course, but it should perform the same ecological function.

Trophic rewilding: Here the idea is to restore ecosystem function over a large geographic area under the “management” of apex predators. The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park in the US is the most famous example. Trophic rewilding is also known as the “cores, corridors and carnivores” approach.

Pleistocene rewilding: Now here’s where it gets a little, um, wild. Let’s restore ecosystem function by reintroducing prehistoric megafauna like mammoths, aurochs, and saber-toothed cats that went extinct in the late Pleistocene epoch, or the closest functional equivalents to these species that we can find, breed, or engineer.

Wooly mammoth

Wooly mammoth. Source: britanica.org

These differing approaches all take a holistic view of ecology – looking at nature as a web of interlocking flows and cycles. As the book makes clear, rewilders are not trying to preserve individual endangered species, or protect specific local landscapes, important though that work may be. They’re trying to get entire ecosystems up and running on their own again.

Why rewild?

The main motivation for rewilding is to restore biodiversity. Jepson and Blythe are not the only authors to advocate rewilding for this reason.

David Attenborough says the loss of biodiversity is humanity’s greatest mistake. In his book A Life on Our Planet (book, review), he calls for rewilding the Earth, lands and oceans, to restore biodiversity and stabilize the biosphere.

Biodiversity loss is one of nine planetary boundaries – a set of limits on human activity that define a safe and sustainable operating space for humanity – identified by Johann Rockström and Mattius Klum in their book Big World Small Planet (book, review).

Restoring biodiversity is one of the most important things we can do to enable us to live more sustainably on Earth.

Rewilding can also help address climate change. Rich, healthy, biodiverse soils, for example, sequester far more carbon than forests worldwide.  Restored mega herbivores in Arctic regions could help control dwarf tree growth through their grazing. In the Arctic, reducing tree cover would help fight climate change by allowing more sunlight to be reflected by snow and ice back into space.

And of course, exposure to natural spaces has well-documented benefits for humans too including physical activity, stress reduction and positive emotions.

Forests and herbivores

I was already familiar with the critical role played by carnivores, especially apex predators, in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. But I was really fascinated to learn about the importance of large herbivores too, like wild cattle, horses, deer, and elephants. Rewilding describes how grazing and trampling by these megafauna has profound effects on the landscapes they inhabit. When they’re present in healthy numbers, they probably restrict the growth of forests and enable grasslands to flourish.

When I learned about biology as a kid in school, we were taught that forests represented the final stage, or “climax” of plant development in an ecosystem. But according to research cited in the book, it’s much more likely that a patchwork of woodlands and grazing pasture was the norm before humans emerged from Africa and spread around the world. We hold forests in high regard today, for good reasons, but maybe the extensive temperate forests that covered much of Europe and North and South America grew so large because humans killed off most of the megafauna, removing the “governance” of forests provided by these animals.

The absence of wolves from Yellowstone led to over=grazing of the vegetation by deer and elk. The absence of mega herbivores from temperate and Arctic zones may have resulted in under-grazing and excess forest growth.

Unsolicited Feedback

Rewilding is only 170 pages, but I learned a huge amount from this book. I even read some of the scientific papers listed in the Further Reading section.

Jepson and Blythe do a nice job presenting the thinking and the research underlying the idea of rewilding. They dive into details about several rewilding projects around the world, illustrating various approaches.  They also describe some challenges and resistance to rewilding. Rewilding projects need to consider social, political and economic factors too, they say. This means inviting participation from community members, leaders and other stakeholders in planning and implementation.

One consistent message I got from the book was the need to move beyond traditional conservation towards a more holistic approach, restoring the capabilities and processes of whole ecosystems. And that means we need to understand the subtleties and the complexities of the interlocking systems and flows that make up an ecosystem.

This leads to my main concern about the book and about the whole idea of rewilding – hubris. We need to move quickly and urgently towards ecosystem restoration, yet we also need to be humble. Too many times in the past humans have made changes to the environment without fully considering the potential side-effects.  For example, reforestation seems like a no-brainer, at least it did before I read Rewilding. But perhaps we should focus just as much on soil restoration and encouraging a mixture of wooded and grassland areas to thrive, and maybe even recognize that in some places, like the Arctic, we might need to reduce forest cover rather than enlarge it.

So I like the fact that many rewilding projects are still at the experimental stage.  We should do more of these in more places all over the world.  We should learn and measure and evaluate and proceed carefully, but still proceed.

In his wonderful book Origin Story (book, review), Prof. David Christian notes that humans are now managing the entire biosphere whether we like it or not, and “we can do it well or badly.”

Let’s do it well.

* * *

Thanks to Liz at Librofulltime for an earlier review of Rewilding which pushed this book to the top of my reading list.

Related Links

Biophysical feedbacks between the Pleistocene megafauna extinction and climate: The first human‐induced global warming?
By Christopher E. Doughty, et al, published in Geophysical Research Letters, 2010

Rewilding complex ecosystems
By Andrea Perino, et al, published in Science, 2019

Trophic cascades in Yellowstone:  The first 15 years after wolf reintroduction
By William J. Ripple and Robert L. Beschta, published in Biological Conservation, 2011

 

 

Posted in Books, Environment | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Promised Land

I don’t often read biographies, and I almost never read memoirs, but I made an exception for Barack Obama. His presidential memoir, A Promised Land, covers his early life and career through the first two years of his presidency, up to the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It’s over seven hundred pages long, and this is just Volume 1.  But A Promised Land is much more than just a chronological retelling of events.

Cover of A Promised Land by Barack ObamaA Promised Land
By Barack Obama
Crown, New York 2020

Whether you’re interested in politics, history, civil rights, leadership, management, psychology, or the minutiae of campaigning, you’ll find plenty to interest you. It is a long book, and I did skim through some parts of it, mainly the historical background of certain events I wasn’t all that interested in. Despite its length though, A Promised Land is well-paced and does not drag. Obama is a talented writer.

The theme I found most striking throughout this book is Obama’s desire and his ability to bridge divisions – divisions within his Cabinet, the country, and most importantly within himself. He doesn’t always succeed, and he’s often met with obstruction, but this is the impulse that runs through his life.

Race and Identity

The basic facts of Barack Obama’s background are well known by now: the only son of a white mother from Kansas and a Black father from Kenya who was born and grew up in Hawaii and lived for several years in Indonesia.

In the early chapters of the book, Obama openly discusses his struggles as a young man to integrate the contradictory facets of his background and identity into a whole, balanced person:

“It was as if, because of the very strangeness of my heritage and the worlds I straddled, I was from everywhere and nowhere at once, a combination of ill-fitting parts, like a platypus or some imaginary beast, confined to a fragile habitat, unsure of where I belonged. And I sensed, without fully understanding why or how, that unless I could stitch my life together and situate myself along some firm axis, I might end up in some basic way living my life alone.” [p. 9]

He started reading and journaling, first as a high school student and continuing through his time at Occidental College and Columbia University. He became inspired by social movements and leaders like Gandhi, Mandela and Dr. King while trying to figure out, like many young people, how to make a difference in the world, how to marry his ideals to the practical realities of work and life. But he also somehow learned to question his own assumptions and to be wary of the revolutionary fervor of some of his fellow students.

“Certainly that was true when it came to questions of race. I experienced my fair share of racial slights and could see all too well the enduring legacy of slavery and Jim Crow anytime I walked through Harlem or parts of the Bronx. But, by dint of biography, I learned not to claim my own victimhood too readily and resisted the notion held by some of the Black folks I knew that white people were irredeemably racist.”  [p. 13]

Obama fully recognized how often America fell short of its ideals: the horrific injustice of slavery, the slaughter of Native Americans, “the blundering exercise of military power and the rapaciousness of multinationals.” Yet like many leaders before him, especially Black leaders, Obama fell in love with the ideals and the promise of America, with the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

They define, he says, “an America that could explain me.”

Power and Impact

I think Obama’s ability to integrate the contradictory parts of his identity is the key to understanding his political vision too.

It’s clear that he sees parallels between the divisions within himself and the divisions within the country. As he strived to reconcile his internal contradictions, he also envisioned a different kind of politics for the country, a politics that could bridge the gaps of race and class, that could reach across the urban-rural divide. This vision runs through his entire political career and I think it inspired millions and millions of Americans. It inspires me.

He seeks power to enact change, and yet at every step in his journey, he is confronted with the limits of power.

After graduation he worked as a community organizer in Chicago for a couple of years. He says this experience got him out of his own head and served to ground his politics in a connection to the problems of ordinary working people.

But he soon became frustrated by the slow pace and limited impact he was able to achieve as an organizer:

“On every issue, it seemed, we kept bumping up against somebody – a politician, a bureaucrat, some distant CEO – who had the power to make things better but didn’t. And when we did get concessions from them, it was most often too little, too late. The power to shape budgets and guide policy is what we needed, and that power lay elsewhere.”  [p. 16]

“Elsewhere” at first meant the state capital, Springfield, Illinois. Obama launched his political career winning election as a state senator. Democrats were the minority party in the Illinois legislature and even as a senator his achievements were limited to whatever concessions he could wring from the Republican majority. Moreover, to address some of the structural changes needed to really help people, for example with health care, Obama concluded that he needed to “speak to and for the widest possible audience.” That meant seeking a state-wide office: a seat in the US Senate.

Obama won his US Senate seat in 2004, but in that year George W. Bush also won re-election as President and the Republicans retained control of the House and the Senate. Here too Obama found himself in the minority party with only marginal influence. After witnessing the devastation caused by the US invasion of Iraq and the destruction along the Gulf coast caused by Hurricane Katrina, Obama again grew impatient with the slow pace of change. All this motivated his long shot run for the Presidency in 2008.

Winning the 2008 election gave Obama the greatest opportunity to implement his political vision, but even the President of the United States is constrained – by the checks and balances of the US Constitution, by the decisions of his predecessors, and in his case by the utter intransigence of the Republican Party:

“… who would deploy with impressive discipline for the next eight years, a refusal to work with me or members of my administration, regardless of the circumstances, the issue, or the consequences for the country.”  [p. 258]

Despite these constraints, his legislative achievements during his first two years as president were staggering, including the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the $787-billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” Repeal Act, plus signing a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.

(Compare all this to Trump’s signature legislative accomplishment, passed when Republicans held majorities in both houses of Congress: a tax cut that overwhelmingly benefited the rich.)

After the rout of the 2010 mid-term elections, when Democrats lost their majority in the House, Obama’s power became even more constrained, and he began using executive orders more frequently to get things done.  I presume he’ll cover this in Volume 2.

If he’s frustrated by all this, he doesn’t write about it with bitterness, though he does have a few choice words about some of his opponents, like Mitch McConnell:

“But what McConnell lacked in charisma or interest in policy he more than made up for in discipline, shrewdness, and shamelessness – all of which he employed in the single-minded and dispassionate pursuit of power.”  [p. 245-6]

And Lyndsey Graham:

“You know how in the spy thriller or the heist movie you’re introduced to the crew at the beginning … Lindsey’s the guy who double-crosses everyone to save his own skin.” [p. 505]

Leadership

Obama’s ability to hold and to reconcile conflicting perspectives is also reflected in his leadership style. As he and many others have pointed out, the issues that reach the president’s desk are complex and messy. The easy stuff gets taken care of by cabinet secretaries or lower-level bureaucrats.

For presidents, making a decision usually comes down to weighing probabilities and uncertainties. Here, the decisions are rarely either/or and never satisfy everyone. With the ability to hold conflicting ideas in his head, Obama makes a point of considering all the available facts and evaluating the possible options.

He stresses the importance of having a good process for making decisions. For example, when deciding on implementing a set of “stress tests” for major banks during the 2009 financial crisis, he says:

“Just as important, I felt assured that we’d run a good process, that our team had looked at the problem from every conceivable angle, that no potential solution had been discarded out of hand, and that everyone involved – from the highest-ranking cabinet member to the most junior staffer in the room – had been given the chance to weigh in.” [p. 293]

Obama was often criticized for making decisions so slowly, such as sending more troops into Afghanistan. But he makes no apologies for this and I, for one, am grateful he took the time to consult, gather facts and consider a diversity of viewpoints. It might take longer but it leads to better decisions:

“But with a sound process – one in which I was able to empty out my ego and really listen, following the facts and logic as best I could and considering them alongside my goals and principles – I realized I could make tough decisions and still sleep easy at night, knowing at a minimum that no one in my position, given the same information, could have made the decision any better.” [p. 294]

This emphasis on process reminds me of Oxford professor Archie Brown’s book The Myth of the Strong Leader.  Brown points out that so-called strong leaders who disdain experts, ignore facts, and “go with their gut” often make disastrous decisions.

Politics is Personal

A Promised Land is a deeply personal book. Obama is remarkably open about his inner struggles and self-doubts.  In addition to detailing his effort to define himself as a young Black man, Obama also reveals the strains that his chosen career placed on his marriage and the burdens that fell on his wife Michelle.  He questions his motivations for running for president:

“Why would I put her through this? Was it just vanity? Or perhaps something darker – a raw hunger, a blind ambition wrapped in the gauzy language of service? Or was I still trying to prove myself worthy to a father who had abandoned me, live up to my mother’s starry-eyed expectations of her only son, and resolve whatever self-doubt remained from being born a child of mixed-race?”  [p. 71]

He worries also about the effect growing up in the White House and in the public eye will have on his daughters.

Yet when Michelle challenges him to explain why he needed to be President when there were plenty of qualified candidates in the race, Obama responds:

“I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around this country – Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fin in – they’ll see themselves differently too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone … that would be worth it.”  [p. 77]

He was right. Obama changed the trajectory, bent the arc of history, for Black Americans and for Hispanics. And for girls and women too. And maybe even for middle-aged white guys like me.

Was it a permanent change?  After all, the country elected Donald Trump too.

It was.

A Black man named Barack Hussein Obama was elected US President, not once but twice. America did that. We did that. Nothing can ever take that away, not even the election of Donald Trump.

I find that inspiring and hopeful for the country.

Posted in Books, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Nonfiction November: New to My TBR

autumn autumn leaves branch bright

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Nonfiction November 2020 wraps up with the 4th week, which I’m kind of stretching into a 5th, hosted by Katie @ Doing Dewey. And the prompt is:

It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!

So many blogs, so many books! There’s enough to keep me reading well into next November, so I’ll just highlight a few that especially sparked my interest.

A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook (Katie @ Doing Dewey) a study of four cities around the world that have tried to leap forward by emulating the West.  

Update (Feb. 14, 2021): I’ve posted my review of A History of Future Cities here.

How to Kill A City: Gentrification, Inequality and the Fight for the Neighborhood by Peter Moskowitz (Eva @ The Paperback Princess) sounds like a strong critique of gentrification and its impact on cities and neighborhoods.

Into Thin Air by John Krakauer (Athira @ Reading on a Rainy Day) a classic story about a disastrous climb up Mount Everest.

Pleased to Meet Me: Genes, Germs and the Curious Forces That Make Us Who We Are by Bill Sullivan (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction) about the influence of genes and epigenetics on who we are and how we behave.

Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery by Paul Jepson & Cain Blyth (Liz @ librofulltime). Can we help restore the environment by making it wild again?

Update (Dec. 23, 2020): My review of Rewilding is posted here.

This was my first time participating in Nonfiction November.  It’s been a lot of fun and a real motivator to get me posting a little more frequently than I normally do.  Plus I’ve discovered lots of new blogs, and tons of new books. Thanks to all of you.

Special thanks to Katie, Rennie, Julie and Leann for organizing and hosting the event!

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A Life on Our Planet

David Attenborough has spent his entire career making documentary films about life on our planet. Series like Life on Earth, and The Blue Planet set the standards for outstanding film-making and educated hundreds of millions of people about the beauty, diversity and fragility of our world.

Now, at age 94, Attenborough has written a book called A Life on Our Planet.  The book is a companion to the Netflix film of the same name.  He calls it a witness statement and a vision for the future.

Cover of A Life on Our PlanetA Life on Our Planet
By David Attenborough
Grand Central Publishing, New York, 2020

The witness statement, which takes up roughly the first half of the book, is mostly autobiographical.  In it, Attenborough chronicles his career and key moments from filming some of his documentaries.  But alongside his biography he also tells us about the changes he’s witnessed in the natural world during his lifetime.  He describes the bleaching of coral reefs, deforestation in the Amazon, the decimation of fish stocks, and the worldwide collapse of biodiversity — all due to human activity.

“Since the 1950s, on average, wild animal populations have more than halved. When I look back at my earlier films now, I realise that although I felt I was out there in the wild, wandering through a pristine natural world, that was an illusion. Those forests and plains and seas were already emptying. Many of the larger animals were already rare. A shifting baseline has distorted our perception of all life on Earth. We have forgotten that once there were temperate forests that would take days to traverse, herds of bison that would take four hours to pass, and flocks of birds so vast and dense that they darkened the skies. Those things were normal only a few lifetimes ago – not any more. We have become accustomed to an impoverished planet.”  [p. 100]

He calls the loss of biodiversity our greatest mistake.

“The natural world is fading.  The evidence is all around us.  It has happened during my lifetime.  I have seen it with my own eyes.  It will lead to our destruction.” [p. 7]

Attenborough reviews some of the important scientific writing about what we must do to live sustainably on Earth. This includes the idea of  planetary boundaries developed by Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center and his colleagues.  (You can learn more about planetary boundaries from Rockström’s book Big World Small Planet which I reviewed here.)  Attenborough also cites Oxford University economist Kay Raworth’s doughnut model describing a safe and just space for humanity. (I reviewed Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics here.)

Above all, Attenborough calls for rewilding the Earth. Rewilding is a fairly new idea. It’s about humanity restoring and retreating from significant portions of Earth’s land and seas.  To restore stability we must restore biodiversity, he says.  Earth’s ecosystems are resilient. If humans just got out of the way nature can recover effectively and surprisingly quickly.

Attenborough cites the famous example of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in the US.  The restoration of this apex predator, absent for 70 years, had a profound affect on the animal populations of the park, on its vegetation and even on its physical geography.

Wolf in Yellowstone National Park

Source: yellowstone.org

There’s a short video about this that’s worth watching if you’ve never seen it.  Go watch it now. I’ll wait right here.

How Wolves Change Rivers

I must have watched that video at least a dozen times and it still leaves me awestruck.

Attenborough makes a compelling case for rewilding as a way to rectify much of the damage that humans have done to the Earth.

It’s not that he thinks climate change is a less important problem — he’s all for moving away from fossil fuels and reducing our carbon footprint.  In fact he says that “the living world has never been able to deal with significant increases of carbon in the atmosphere.”  More ominously,

“A radical change in the level of atmospheric carbon was a feature in all five mass extinctions in the Earth’s history and a major factor in the most comprehensive annihilation of species — the Permian extinction, 250 million years ago.” [p. 88]

Yet he emphasizes rewilding because it can help reduce atmospheric carbon as well as restore biodiversity.  Healthy forests and oceans can capture enormous amounts of carbon — if we let them.

What would rewilding look like?  What would it mean?  Attenborough looks at some successful small-scale examples around the world and then extrapolates.

Let’s make all international waters a no-fishing zone, he suggests.  Sounds crazy?  Well he argues that letting fish stocks in the open ocean regenerate will seed the coastal fisheries that provide protein for over a billion people.

What about allowing farmland to revert to wilderness?  Techniques like vertical farming urban farming, and adopting a more plant-based diet, could reduce the need for farmland.  Letting it go wild and letting forests regenerate would not only provide new animal habitat, it would also help remove carbon from the atmosphere.

These and many other ideas make up Attenborough’s vision for the future.  None of them are impossible, and none require radical technological breakthroughs.  Taken together they form a revolutionary vision for how we live on Earth.

“The rewilding of the land is within our gift, and it is undoubtedly a valuable thing to do. Creating wild lands across the Earth would bring back biodiversity, and the biodiversity would do what it does best: stabilise the planet.”  [p. 188]

However, we cannot achieve sustainability with a continuously growing human population. Population growth is already slowing, as he and many other authors have observed.  We need to encourage that slow-down to happen all over the world as quickly and as justly as we can. For Attenborough that means educating and empowering women so they have the freedom and the security to choose to have smaller families.

Although this might sound a little flippant, I think you could boil down Attenborough’s recipe for achieving sustainability to just two points: add wolves, educate girls.

Unsolicited Feedback

A Life on Our Planet is a great book.  If you’re never read anything about sustainability, I highly recommend it. I was familiar with most of the ideas from prior reading but I still enjoyed it immensely. Attenborough writes really well and speaks with both authority and humanity.

What a life he’s had!  Attenborough is 94 years old.  He has seen so much of the world and witnessed so much change during his lifetime that his perspective is invaluable. I’ll consider myself lucky to live that long, let alone have the physical energy and mental capacity to write books and go traipsing off around the planet.

His warning is clear. we’re approaching a tipping point beyond which we may not be able to recover.  We don’t have much time.

If biodiversity loss is our greatest mistake, then rewilding represents our greatest opportunity.

 * * *

If you’d like to share your thoughts on A Life on Our Planet or any other books on sustainability, please leave a comment.

Thanks for reading.

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Nonfiction November: Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert

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Week 3 of Nonfiction November is hosted by Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction. And the prompt is:

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Over the past couple of years I’ve been trying to learn more about sustainability.  Humanity isn’t acting fast enough or boldly enough on climate change and other environmental issues.  But even just understanding the problems is daunting, let alone taking meaningful action.

I won’t claim to be an expert, but I’ve now read enough that I can at least recommend a few good books.    

Big World Small Planet

Cover of Big World Small Planet

A great book to start with is Big World, Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries.  This is the book where I first learned about the idea of planetary boundaries. These are the upper limits on how far we can stress Earth’s critical ecological systems. Keeping average global temperature to no mare than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels is one boundary. Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center, outlines nine of them. Together they form a “safe operating space” for humanity.

If we can live 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 system to become destabilized, wildly unpredictable, and possibly even hostile to human life.

Big World Small Planet makes a call for urgent action, but it’s also surprisingly optimistic.

The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs by Mattias Klum.

Doughnut Economics

Cover of Doughnut Economics

If the planetary boundaries form upper limits that we must not exceed, then the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015, form a floor or a foundation for addressing hunger, poverty, disease, illiteracy and other social development issues. Taken together (and bent into circles) these two sets of boundaries form a doughnut, a “safe and just space for humanity.”

In Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth, an economist at Oxford University, presents both an in-depth critique of economics as a whole, and a framework for thinking about economics in a new sustainable way. One key message is that we need to move away from our “take-make-use-lose” pattern of consumption towards a more circular flow of resources.

Living within the Doughnut is the task Raworth sets for us. As I mentioned in an earlier Nonfiction November post, Doughnut Economics is the most important and far reaching book I’ve read in 2020.

More From Less

Cover of More From Less

One thing we must do in order to live more sustainably is to consume less of the Earth’s resources. Good news: we’re already starting to do this.

More From Less, by MIT researcher Andrew McAfee, examines a growing trend called “dematerialization,” producing the same goods from less material and energy.  For example, McAfee asks us to consider the humble soda can. Back in the early 1960’s aluminum cans weighed about 85 g,  By 2011 they weighed just 12.75 g. We now use about 80% less metal – less material — to make a can.  The soda can makers did this to cut costs, but it has environmental benefits too.

McAfee is unabashedly pro-capitalist and he takes the time to carefully define what he means by “capitalism.”  Still he’s not opposed to appropriate government action either, such as a tax on carbon emissions. Instead, he argues that combined with the right policies, dematerialization can enable us to have both continued economic growth and a sustainable environment.

I think he overstates the case for dematerialization, but it’s real and it’s a step in the right direction.

A Life on Our Planet

Cover of A Life on Our Planet

I’ll end with a book that I’ve just started reading: A Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough. The book is a companion to the Netflix film of the same name. So far it’s both autobiography and an environmental vision statement.  He has seen so much of the world and witnessed so much change during his lifetime that his perspective is invaluable.

And what a lifetime! The man is 94 years old! I’ll consider myself lucky to live that long, let alone have the physical energy and mental clarity to write books and go traipsing off around the planet.

I’ll post a full review when in a week or so once I’ve finished reading.

Update (Nov. 28, 2020):  I’ve posted my review of A Life on Our Planet here.

I still want to learn more. So if you can recommend any books on sustainability, especially on concrete steps individuals and families can take, please leave a comment.

Thanks for reading.

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21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Humans are storytellers.  We tell stories to understand our place in the world and to give our lives purpose and meaning.  Shared stories help bind us together into communities, tribes, nations and civilizations.  We understand stories better than facts.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari is about humanity’s search for new stories that are meaningful and relevant and effective in the 21st Century.

Harari is an author, historian and philosopher who lectures on world history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His 2014 book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, became an international bestseller.

Cover of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century21 Lessons for the 21st Century
By Yuval Noah Harari
Spiegel & Grau, New York, 2018

20th Century Stories

In the 20th Century, Harari says, humans created three great stories: communism, fascism and liberalism.

The fascist story was all about conflict between nations. It aimed for the violent triumph of one nation over all the others. Fascism was defeated in World War 2. The communist story was about class conflict and the coming victory of the working class led by a centralized authority which promised equality but not necessarily freedom.  It collapsed at the end of the Cold War.

The liberal story was about the fight against tyranny. It envisioned a world of great freedom with minimal centralized authority at the expense of some inequality. At the end of the 20th Century it seemed that liberalism had triumphed.  But the global financial crisis of 2008, rising inequality around the world, rapid technological advancement and climate change have led to disillusionment with liberalism too.

So what is the right story for the 21st Century?  Do we need just one?  Can the liberal story be reformed? Or should we abandon the idea of stories altogether?

Harari explores these questions and more in a set of 21 wide-ranging, thought-provoking essays. They don’t provide clear answers so I wouldn’t call them “lessons” exactly. But the book will give you a broader historical perspective and greater clarity about what the important questions really are.

21st Century Challenges

Harari is very concerned with the problems of technology. When AI can make better decisions than humans, and when it can deliver precisely targeted advertisements and news feeds, do any of us really have free will anymore?  How can we have equality when improvements in biotechnology mean that the rich not only have more money than the rest of us, but also live healthier and longer than us?  And most concerning of all, how many people will be displaced by the automation of both physical and cognitive work?  Will the problem of worker exploitation be replaced by the problem of worker irrelevance and the emergence of a “useless class”?

Failed Stories, Wrong Answers

We don’t seem to be making much progress on addressing these questions, and some of the answers, some of the new stories we’ve come up with, are not helpful at all. Take nationalism for example. Harari does not advocate the end of the nation state. In fact, he thinks national identity is essential for democracy to function. We’re unlikely to accept the results of democratic elections involving millions of strangers without some common identity, he says.

But the rising nationalism we’re seeing in many places around the world (America, Britain, India, Turkey, Hungary) is incapable of responding to the global problems we now face. Nationalism, Harari says, suffers from a failure of imagination. It concerns itself with local questions such as, “will Israelis or Palestinians rule Jerusalem?” or “can women in France wear the hijab?” Nationalism has nothing useful to say about global problems such as nuclear war, climate change or technological disruption.

“… the nationalist wave sweeping across the world cannot return the world to 1939 or 1914. Technology has changed everything by creating a set of global existential threats that no nation can solve on its own. A common enemy is the best catalyst for forging a common identity, and humankind now has at least three such enemies – nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption. If despite these common threats humans choose to privilege their particular national loyalties above everything else, the results may be far worse than 1914 or 1939.” [p. 127]

Harari is even more skeptical of religion. None of the five major world religions escape his critic’s scalpel. Religions have lost a lot of their influence, he states, because they “weren’t very good at farming or healthcare.”  But they still create powerful identities.

“So in the twenty-first century religions don’t bring rain, they don’t cure illnesses, they don’t build bombs – but they do get to determine who are “us” and who are “them,” whom we should cure and whom we should bomb.”  [p. 137]

As a result, Harari explains, the world’s major religions are part of the problem because they create identities that divide us and make it more difficult to work together to solve global problems. It gets even worse when religious and national identities are combined.

Harari dismisses the need for another one of our stories: God.  Humans have created two kinds of gods. First, there’s the mysterious god, the god we know nothing about. When we confront questions we cannot answer, like “what created the fundamental laws of physics?” god is our fallback answer. In other words, “we give our ignorance the grand name of God.” [p. 202] Then there’s the lawgiver god; stern and demanding.  This god is said to be the foundation of all morality.  Harari rejects this. He says, and I agree, that we don’t need gods to act morally. “Morality” isn’t about obeying god; it’s about reducing suffering.  And we can all do that without god.

Better Stories

So what stories will help us in the 21st Century?

21 Lessons for the 21st Century does not offer a prescription, but it does point out some ideas that, while not perfect, are likely to help us address humanity’s problems.

Harari starts with humility. The Universe is 13.5 billion years old.  Humans have existed for a mere 100,000 years. The religions we have created are just a few thousand years old and our nations are at most a few hundred years old.  Yet our stories ignore all this and start with the birth of our nation, or the founding myth of our religion. Each one concerns just a small segment of humanity. Rubbish, says Harari. We are not the center of the Universe. We need to start thinking about humanity and the Earth as a whole, not just our little corner of it.

Harari favors secularism. He quickly and clearly sketches secularism’s core values of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage and responsibility.

On courage, for example, Harari notes that it takes courage to fight oppressive regimes but even greater courage to admit ignorance. Yet that’s exactly what secularism teaches – if we don’t know something we should admit it and look for new evidence. We shouldn’t be afraid of the unknown, and we should certainly not put our faith in a fixed set of absolute answers.

“Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.”  [p. 214]

But even secularists can become dogmatic and Harari advises us to beware of this shadow.

Side note: Harari’s list of secular values is very similar to the principles that Stuart Kauffman proposes for a new global ethic in Reinventing the Sacred.  Kauffman is a scientist rather than a historian so it’s interesting that both authors arrive at a similar place.

While the book criticizes many of the shortcomings of liberalism and democracy, Harari does so out of a desire to see them both adapt and improve.  He thinks liberal democracy is,

“… the most successful and the most versatile political model humans have so far developed for dealing with the challenges of the modern world. While it might not be appropriate for every society in every stage of development, it has proven its worth in more societies and in more situations than any of its alternatives. So when we are examining the new challenges that lie ahead of us, it is necessary to understand the limitations of liberal democracy and to explore how we can adapt and improve its current institutions.”  [p. xix]

Better Yet, No Stories

Humans have always created stories to find meaning in life, but Harari concludes the book by telling us that the important question facing humans is not “what is the meaning of life,” but rather “how do we stop suffering?”

He says we first need to understand ourselves – our bodies, minds, desires and emotions.  He’s a strong advocate for meditation and mindfulness as a place to start.  From there we can begin to understand suffering.

“So if you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is.

The answer isn’t a story.”  [p. 315]

Unsolicited Feedback

There’s so much in this book I feel like I’ve only touched on a few of its themes in this review.

I really liked Harari’s overarching message that our task in the world is to reduce suffering. That perspective forces us to look critically at our own personal impact on each other and on the world. It motivates both action and humility.

I’m an atheist so I really liked the chapter on secularism and its values. To be clear, I don’t think Harari is saying people should completely abandon their religious beliefs or practices or the community and comfort they provide. But he is saying we need to recognize that all our stories, including religions, are just that, stories, fiction, not true. And if we want to address the global problems facing humanity, we do need to overcome our religious divisions.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century was published in 2018, before the Covid-19 pandemic.  (Incidentally, I think the acronym BC should be redefined to mean “Before Covid.”) But the pandemic proves Harari’s main points. The virus doesn’t care about your religion or your nationality. It will infect communists, fascists, liberals and conservative equally and without mercy. It’s a global problem that requires a global response.

Harari calls attention to urgent global problems but I wouldn’t say he’s a pessimist.  He notes that the world has already knit itself together into a single global civilization.  Despite our differences there are remarkable similarities in how countries are organized and operate, and how people communicate with and relate to each other around the world.

That’s a hopeful foundation to build on.

Related Links

A Guide to Worrying in the 21st Century
Bill Gates’s review of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

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Nonfiction November: Book Pairing

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It’s week 2 of Nonfiction November and this week’s prompt comes from Julie @ JulzReads:

This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

I thought about this for a while and decided to pair up The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien and Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose.

I think they make a good pair becasue what they have in common is The Quest.

Cover of The HobbitThe Hobbit
By J.R.R. Tolkien
Unwin Books, London, 1966

Almost all fantasy stories are built around a quest. The hero or heroine takes up some daunting task that invariably requires them to set out on a long, adventure filled, actuarially dubious journey. They endure countless hardships, encounter dangerous beasts, fearsome enemies and merciless weather. They’re often accompanied by one or more companions and occasionally they find new friends and allies along the way.

Of course, frequently the quest is as much about self-discovery as it is about completing the task. Just ask Luke Skywalker. Or Bilbo Baggins.

The Hobbit fits this pattern exactly. Bilbo sets off with thirteen dwarves to help them reclaim their ancestral home (and its treasure) under The Lonely Mountain from the evil dragon, Smaug. They encounter trolls, orcs, giant spiders and ferocious snowstorms. They’re aided by eagles and shape-shifting bears. And Gandalf, of course.

In the end, Bilbo discovers he’s cleverer and braver and more adventuresome than he ever imagined.

Cover of Undaunted CourageUndaunted Courage
By Stephen E. Ambrose
Touchstone, New York, 1996

Undaunted Courage is the story of a real-life quest.

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory – all the land stretching west from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains – from the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte for $25-million.  Possibly the greatest real estate deal in human history.

The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States. Much of the territory was unmapped terra incognita. Jefferson commissioned his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition to find out what he’d bought.  Jefferson was especially keen on discovering a navigable water route across the American continent to the Pacific Ocean.

Lewis and his friend William Clark assembled and co-captained a company of about 30 men called the Corps of Discovery. They left St. Louis in May of 1804 and headed up the Missouri River.

There were no dragons on this quest, but Lewis was one of the first white Europeans to encounter a grizzly bear. (Lewis’s musket shot merely pissed off the bear and he had to run for his life when the bear charged after him.)  They had no wizard guide either but Sacagawea, a young Shoshone Indian woman, traveled with the Corps from North Dakota to the Pacific and proved to be indispensable in establishing connections with many of the tribes they encountered along the way.

The Corps reached the mouth of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean in the fall of 1805. They spent that winter at what is today Fort Clatsop, Oregon, returning to St. Louis and a hero’s welcome in late September 1806, completing a 3,700-mile journey.

Lewis & Clark never found a navigable water route to the Pacific. There isn’t one. In that sense they failed in their quest, but they explored and charted much of what became the Western United States.

I first read Undaunted Courage shortly after I moved to the Pacific Northwest. I wanted to learn something about the history of the area.  It was spellbinding.  Stephen Ambrose tells the story of the Lewis & Clark Expedition with flair and enthusiasm. You can’t help getting swept up in the journey.

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Election Reflection:  A Narrow Escape

New York Times front page on November 8, 2020

New York Times front page, November 8, 2020

What a relief!

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been elected President and Vice President. Although the last few votes are still being counted in a couple of states, and there will still be some legal challenges, it’s clear they have won both the popular vote and the electoral college.

Their speeches Saturday night were eloquent and hopeful.

It’s a huge relief that we won’t have to endure another four years of Donald Trump.  But somehow, I don’t feel like celebrating. This doesn’t feel like a victory. It feels like a narrow escape.

It should have been a landslide

Over 70 million people voted for Donald Trump. That’s about 8 million more votes than he got in 2016.  Despite his execrable behavior over the last four years, despite his Administration’s appalling human rights violations on our southern border, his catastrophic mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, and his blatant disdain for democracy and the Constitution, still 8 million more people voted for him.

As Tom Friedman points out in his November 4 column in the New York Times, there was no moral victory. America did not say “enough is enough!”  There was no resounding repudiation of Trump’s divisiveness, racism, “alternative facts”, or autocratic ambitions.

There was no blue wave. Democrats actually lost about ten seats in the House. Clearly Democrats have not yet figured out how to respond to the economic concerns of white, male, working-class voters.

Republicans retain control of the Senate, at least until Georgia holds run-off elections in January. Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham both won re-election.  McConnell will probably be re-elected as Senate majority leader. A GOP-controlled Senate is unlikely to be any more cooperative with a Biden Administration than it was with Obama’s. Expect more obstruction. A total blockade on judicial appointments wouldn’t surprise me.

Democrats have not flipped control of any state legislatures. This means Republicans will control the redistricting of most Congressional seats based on the 2020 census. There will be little change in the extreme partisan gerrymandering in many of these states. (Democrats, I should note, are guilty of gerrymandering too.)

In the end, Republicans paid no price for enabling Donald Trump. They therefore have little incentive and no apparent inclination to reform themselves.

Reasons for hope

I don’t want to be a complete downer, however. There are some bright spots.

We will have a President who respects facts and science and truth. That hopefully means he will appoint competent, qualified people to his Cabinet and to senior posts in his Administration.  It should lead to a medically sound national approach to the coronavirus pandemic. It should give rise to an environmental policy that recognizes climate change is real, caused by humans and needing an urgent response.

The Administration will tilt in a more progressive direction. Although Democrats received no mandate for a leftward leap and the progressive wing is bound to be disappointed, at least the orientation will more progressive and more compassionate.  We should expect attempts to shore up the Affordable Care Act in response to the pandemic. We should see efforts to address racial injustice and police reform. There’s even an opportunity for the Biden Administration to address some of the economic concerns of working-class Trump supporters who feel they’ve been left behind by globalization and technological change.

I’m less hopeful about any meaningful changes on immigration legislation. But the Biden Administration should be expected to roll back much of Trump’s harsh, blatantly racist treatment of immigrants and refugees.

The Trump Administration’s cruel and senseless persecution of transgender people will end.

The Equal Rights Amendment could be enacted as the 28th Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing equal rights regardless of sex.

More optimistically, the 2020 election reflects on-going demographic trends in the US.  According to demographer William H. Frey, author of Diversity Explosion, in 2011 more non-white babies were born in the US than white babies for the first time. The US Census Bureau reports that as of this year, 2020, less than half the children under 18 are non-Hispanic whites. And by the mid-2040’s, Frey projects America will no longer have a single racial majority. We will be a “majority-minority” country. These demographic trends are “baked in.”  Even Trump’s immigration policies will do little to shift them. That’s because natural growth of minority populations is now larger than growth from immigration.

The political impact of these changes is already visible in the 2020 results. There has been a narrowing of Republican majorities in some southern states with large Black and Latinx populations.  Most important of course are Biden’s wins in Arizona and, most likely, Georgia. In Texas, Trump beat Hilary Clinton in 2016 by 9%, but he beat Biden in 2020 by just 5.8%. In South Carolina, Trump beat Clinton by 14.2%. His victory over Biden in 2020 shrank to 11.7%.  On the other hand, in Florida Trump increased his margin and, apparently, his support among Black and Latinx voters.

Democrats cannot take the support of minority voters for granted. And Republicans cannot long remain viable as the party of white males. Both parties therefore have a strong incentive to court non-white voters. This should lead to a gradual reduction in the differences between the parties on issues like immigration, policing and racial justice. But I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. It’ll take decades to play out.

So much damage has been done to institutions like the State Department, the Department of Justice, the CDC and the EPA.  Our reputation and our influence abroad have been trashed. The damage will take years to repair. But at least we escaped the complete subversion of our democratic institutions. Trump’s autocratic ambitions were well-documented by writers like Masha Gessen of The New Yorker, and The Atlantic’s David Frum.  Fortunately, America has taken a last-minute off-ramp from autocracy. But our system of government is sorely in need of reform. In particular, the power of the Presidency needs to be scaled back. No one person should have the power to threaten our democracy or wreak havoc on our institutions and our lives like Trump has.

All US Vice Presidents and Kamala Harris

All US Vice Presidents and Kamala Harris

I think the most significant and the most hopeful outcome of this election is that America has elected its first woman and first person of color as Vice President. Kamala Harris’ election sends a hugely important signal to everyone, here and abroad, especially to women and people of color, because I do think it shows America at its best, as a place of possibility.

It’s this idea of possibility that gives me the greatest hope. We’ve had a narrow escape from Trump. With the election of Biden and Harris, the country has changed course. Incrementally, but still meaningfully. We’ve rejected a doctrine of anger and hate and instead chosen hope and decency. We’re no longer spiraling inward, downward and backward. Progress may be slow, uneven and frustrating, but we have an opportunity to move forward. Let’s seize it.

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Nonfiction November: My Year in Nonfiction

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I’ve been informed by reliable sources, namely Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction, that this month is Nonfiction November. Great idea!

Apparently there will be weekly prompts throughout the month.  Even better!

This week’s prompt comes from Leann @ Shelf Aware: 

Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

This is the first time I’ve participated in one of these events. I’m hoping I’ll make some new connections with nonfiction readers and bloggers. So without further ado:

I had planned to focus my reading this year on the environment and sustainability. This continued a trend from 2019. I started off the year very much on track.  I read several books and a couple of academic research papers on the subject.  By far the most profound was Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. This book is both an in-depth critique of economics as a whole, and a framework for thinking about economics in a new sustainable way.  “The Doughnut” refers to a safe and just space for humanity between a ceiling of planetary boundaries on critical environmental systems and a foundation of minimum standards for human development and justice embodied in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Living within the Doughnut is the task Raworth sets for us. This is the most important and far reaching book I’ve read in 2020.

I’d say The Optimist’s Telescope by Boston Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataraman gets an honorable mention even though it’s not completely focused on the environment. The Optimist’s Telescope is about making smarter decisions for the long-term. Many of those decisions concern how we take care of our planet. I loved her idea that we should strive to be good ancestors by treating the Earth as a family heirloom to be cared for and handed down to future generations.

All Hell Breaking Loose by Michael T. Klare rounds out the environment category giving us a look at the Pentagon’s perspective on climate change.  The generals are worried, folks. Very worried. We should be too.

Cover of Doughnut EconomicsCover of The Optimist's TelescopeCover of All Hell Breaking Loose

The murder of George Floyd on May 25 made me want to learn more about racism and other forms of discrimination in America.  I had read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist last year, and I followed up with three more books this year.

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, is about the defensive emotions and behaviors like anger, silence and withdrawal that white people often resort to whenever they are confronted with racism. These defense mechanisms close off uncomfortable yet meaningful discussion about the systemic nature of racism, she says.  If we want to make progress, and be allies, whites must accept the fact that even though we may do our very best not to commit individual acts of racism, we still benefit from the system of white supremacy and we have the responsibility for changing it.

Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny is a highly academic work that deeply analyzes the systemic nature and operation of misogyny, how it enforces female subordination and upholds male dominance.  It is not light reading in any way, but the analysis is brilliant.

I think So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo is a more approachable book. It’s essentially an FAQ for white people on how to talk about race, drawn from Oluo’s own work and life experiences.  I like how Oluo gives practical and immediately useful suggestions for understanding and taking action.

Still, I have to say if you have never read anything about racism, start with Kendi’s book.

Cover of White FragilityCover of So you want to talk about raceCover of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny

As the year progressed and the election drew closer, I started reading more about America’s political and judicial systems including Supreme Inequality by Adam Cohen. It’s about the how the Supreme Court’s decisions over the last fifty years have favored the wealthy, the powerful and the white, dramatically increasing inequality in the United States. I shudder to think what the Court will do now with a solid 6-3 conservative majority

The most eye-opening and the most alarming book in this category is Surviving Autocracy by New Yorker contributor Masha Gessen. It’s a stark warning about Trump’s autocratic actions and ambitions. Gessen worked as a journalist in Moscow for over ten years tracking the rise and rule of Vladimir Putin. He knows an autocrat when he sees one. The book traces how frighteningly far Trump has progressed, and how resistance has proved largely ineffective so far. This book is my second choice for most important book of 2020, especially with the Presidential election still up in the air as I write this.

Lastly, The Socrates Express by former NPR foreign correspondent Eric Weiner isn’t about politics, at least not directly. It’s about philosophy. Weiner takes us with him as he journeys around the world seeking wisdom, exploring the lives and ideas of fourteen philosophers from ancient thinkers like Socrates, Epicurus and Confucius, to modern ones like Gandhi, Rousseau and Simone de Beauvoir. I found it comforting and entertaining. I even discovered some ideas for coping with the turmoil we’re living through right now.  You might too.

Cover of Supreme InequalityCover of Surviving AutocracyThe Socrates Express cover

There’s still nearly two months to go in 2020 and I hope to read a few more books this year. I’m looking forward to Barack Obama’s forthcoming memoir A Promised Land, and David Attenborough’s A Life On Our Planet.

2020 has been a truly horrible year. At times I’ve felt like reading and blogging were utterly pointless activities. But I’ve kept at it for two reasons. First, to preserve some sense of normalcy. I just want to stay curious and keep learning. And second, books have always been my refuge, ever since I was a shy young kid with thick glasses. I think I needed to read this year as much as I ever have.

I hope you found what you were looking for in your 2020 reading.

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