With summer comes a lightening of my work load, so I’ve finally found some time to dive into a few interesting books. These are all related to my ongoing research interests (I do have some fiction sitting around waiting for a real holiday, with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna at the top of the pile):
The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard
I watched the video along time ago, and even saw a live performance of it at the Oregon Country Fair a couple years ago. Now the book, which puts some much needed meat on the bones of those stick people. Which makes it a compelling popular primer on ecological economics, except while the latter tends to the abstract, Leonard tells the story of everyday Stuff, walking you through the processes of Extraction, Production, Distribution, Consumption and Disposal. She also makes a compelling case that our ecological woes – of which climate change is just one – are systemically rooted in a little thang we call capitalism. But she does not stick to environmental problems, either; she reveals the injustices for workers at all stages in wages, hours and unsafe working conditions so that we can buy a toxic bauble for a dollar.
The Geography of Hope by Chris Turner
I saw Chris Turner speak at a conference last year at Harrison Hot Springs, and even got to chat with him in the hot tub. He was a pretty funny speaker and I committed to picking up his book. But then I assumed I would see it on the shelves in my occasional bookstore browsing, but never saw it anywhere. Which is a shame because this type of book is what we need to shake ourselves out of our fossil fuel addiction. Turner is a fantastic writer, and as a journalist he is able to tell compelling stories from a round-the-world journey in search of real examples of a zero-carbon economy that represents a plausible future – if we can just break the addiction. Working on climate change takes you to some pretty dark places, and this type of book shines some of the light I need to keep going.
The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
When I first heard the name The Spirit Level, it met with a roll of my eyes, kind of like when someone says Mother Earth during an environmental debate. But the book kept coming up from some sources I highly trust, and after picking it up I found it has little to do with the last known residence of Carlos Casteneda. In fact, it is the type of synthesis that is so rare these days, covering a wide range of empirical evidence, and weaving it together so nicely that at the end it just seems obvious. The sub-title gives it away: using cross-sectional international comparisons and states within the US (plus the occasional time series), the book makes its way through an undeniable link between higher inequality and adverse social and health outcomes. As someone who has spent a bit of time researching inequality, and advocating for policies to reduce it, I’ve noticed a tendency for researchers to sometimes fall into “statistical pornography”, or displaying data for its shock value (“just look at that growing gap”). What the Spirit Level does is provide the deep context for why that growing gap matters, linking it to real outcomes rather than ethical ideals, filling in the canvas with research on social determinants of health and life satisfaction. I’m pleased to say I got this one out of the library.
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan
Pollan’s follow up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma revisits some of the critique of the industrialized food system covered in that book, but focuses on our evolving understanding of nutrition. Pollan is a wry writer, and he deftly and humourously argues that the science of “nutritionism” has led us astray because of its reductionist tendencies that miss the big picture of healthy eating in practice, thus leading societies down one food fad after another, plus a lexicon of food-speak that few can relate to. The major lessons seem to be about avoiding the products of the industrial food system, fast foods but also most of the processed foods, especially ones that have health claims emblazoned on the package. Simply put, eat your fruits and veggies, ideally as locally produced as possible, and not too much meat. And slow down, dammit, and enjoy that meal with friends and family.