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Overpopulation in fiction and on film

overpopulationMake Room! Make Room!, by Harry Harrison

@@@ (3 out of 5)

In 1973, American filmgoers were shocked by a film entitled Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston and Leigh Taylor-Young. The film depicts New York City in 2022 with a population of 40 million. The streets are crowded with homeless people, but those few with jobs and a place to live in a dilapidated apartment are little better off: starvation is no more than a slender paycheck away. Water and food are rationed. Most people barely survive on food substitutes from the Soylent Corporation. Euthanasia is encouraged. When the Soylent Corporation introduces a nutritious new wafer of “high-energy plankton,” Soylent Green,  the demand is far greater than the supply. At length we learn that the bodies of the aged who submit to an early death are processed in a Soylent Corporation plant and converted into . . . yes, Soylent Green.

Overpopulation is the central issue

The film was loosely based on science fiction writer Harry Harrrison‘s novel Make Room! Make Room!, which had been published six years earlier—emphasis on “loosely.” Harrison did not envision a society fed with the products of human remains. Soylent steaks consist of soybean and lentil. Nor did euthanasia figure into his story; instead, the Eldsters constitute an aggressive pressure group often to be found demonstrating on the streets of the city. Harrison’s concern was overpopulation, a subject of intense public debate in those days. (Paul Ehrlich‘s seminal work, The Population Bomb, was published just two years after the novel, further raising the profile of the issue.)

Other themes enter into Harrison’s story, such as global warming, depleted natural resources, failing government, violent conflict over restricted water supplies, and corruption, and the deterioration of the city’s housing stock and infrastructure. For example, motorized transportation is rare. Pedicabs have replaced taxis, and “tugtrucks” carry commerce around the city. But Harrison could not have been clearer that his central concern was overpopulation. The food shortage has become so severe that the price of a bottle of whiskey is unattainable except to the rich. “There was almost none being made now because of the grain shortage . . . ”

Overpopulation isn’t an issue just in New York City or the USA. “All of England is just one big city . . .” Rural areas in the U.S. are crowded, too—and everyone, everywhere, suffers from the endless crush of humanity. Typhoid and dysentery are spreading rapidly because of the lack of water for sanitation. “The whole country is one big farm and one big appetite.” This is a Malthusian nightmare.

Here’s how one rioter describes the pathetic lives people live in 1999 New York: “The authorities have seen to it that we cannot work no matter how fit or able we are. And they have fixed the tiny, insulting, miserable handouts that we are supposed to live on and at the same time see to it that money buys less and less every year, every month, almost every day . . .” Rations of food, water, and other necessities, even paper, are repeatedly cut. The housing stock is so inadequate that “cavemen” populate the subway tunnels and millions sleep on the streets.

A police procedural that ends in tragedy

The central figures in Harrison’s tale are 30-year-old Andrew (Andy) Rusch, a detective third class in the New York Police Department, and Billy Chung, a teenager driven by hunger to become a burglar. Andy shares a single room with an old man named Sol. Billy lives with his large family in Shiptown on one of the many old Liberty Ships that have been strung across the Hudson River and converted into slum housing. When Billy burgles an apartment in a wealthy housing development—one that’s not just gated but surrounded by a moat as well—he accidentally murders the owner. Unfortunately, the owner is a notorious mob figure named “Big Mike” O’Brien who serves as a liaison between the “syndicate” and the city’s political establishment. Andy is assigned to the case. Almost invariably, murders are essentially ignored; there are simply too many to bother. Most police time goes into riot control. But the syndicate pressures the police department to solve Big Mike’s murder—because the Boss fears that it was the work of a rival mob in New Jersey. Andy grudgingly pursues the case, working 18-hour days for weeks. His only reward is meeting Big Mike’s mistress, Shirl; the two fall in love, and Shirl moves in with Andy and Sol. All’s well at first. But when Andy gets close to tracking down Billy and is working virtually around the clock, Shirl leaves him. The story ends in tragedy. There is no escape from Harrison’s gloomy vision.

Harrison’s view of overpopulation is simplistic

Sol tries to explain the problem of overpopulation to Andy, explaining what he’d observed in Mexico in 1949: “They never baptize the kids until after they are a year old because most of them are dead by that time and baptisms cost a lot of money. That’s why there never used to be a population problem. The whole world used to be one big Mexico, breeding and dying and just about staying even.” What changed was the arrival of modern medicine. “Everything had a cure. Malaria was wiped out along with all the other diseases that had been killing people young and keeping the population down. Death control arrived.” Sol contrasts “death control” with population control, which he asserts is the sole solution to overpopulation. He rails against Congress, which, under pressure from religious zealots, has resisted decades of efforts to legalize population control.

About the author

American science fiction author Harry Harrison wrote 58 novels. He was a popular figure in the science fiction community. He died in 2012 at the age of 87.

For other important dystopian novels, see my post, A brief look at 15 notable dystopian scenarios.

 

 

 

A colony on Mars? Really? An astronomy professor thinks so.

colony on MarsBeyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

A colony on Mars? Really?

Some of us grasp the existential crisis humanity faces today, and fear that global climate change, an asteroid collision, a super volcano, a viral pandemic, or some other easily imaginable catastrophe could put an end to the human project — if not the human race — by the beginning of the next century. By contrast, congenital optimists foresee a glorious future for humanity among the stars. Here, for example, is astronomer Chris Impey, writing about Our Future in Space: “the space industry may be where the Internet was in 1995, ready to soar. . . Leaving Earth may soon be cheap and safe enough that it becomes an activity for the masses rather than the experience of a privileged few.” Others take a similar view — Stephen Hawking, for instance, who asserts that “the human race doesn’t have a future unless it goes into space.”

So, if you’re wedded to a gloomy view of our species’ destiny, you probably won’t enjoy this book. For my part, there’s just enough of the optimist left in me to find Chris Impey’s vision intriguing. Not totally convincing — I’m still wringing my hands over climate change and a possible pandemic — but well argued and totally grounded in a deep understanding of science.

Here is Impey’s thesis: “The itch that led our ancestors to risk everything to travel in small boats across large bodies of water like the Pacific Ocean is related to the drive that will one day lead us to colonize Mars.” This “itch,” Impey argues, arises from our DNA. Today, hardly more than 500 human beings have left our planetary home to venture into space, most of them barely so, in orbital and sub-orbital trips. Tomorrow — by mid-century, Impey believes — tens of thousands will have had that experience and dozens will be setting up our first permanent home on Mars.

Don’t think for a minute that Impey is some starry-eyed fantasist: first and foremost, he’s a scientist. Our Future in Space is laid out in three parts: Present, Future, and Beyond. At each level, the author grounds his story in facts. He describes the origins of the US space program in Wernher von Braun’s V-2 rockets and the arms race with the USSR. In discussing the challenges of the next several decades, he is unrelentingly honest: “traveling into space is four hundred times more dangerous than flying but only twice as risky as driving.” This is not a throwaway line; Impey cites the statistics to prove this. In fact, he draws on a fount of fascinating numbers, explaining that today’s spacecraft are “mostly just hauling fuel around: the actual payload was 4 percent for the Saturn V and 1 percent for the Space Shuttle.” Even in Beyond, where Impey ventures far into a possible future among the stars, his feet remain firmly planted on terra firma. Though he draws analogies from Star Trek and science fiction novels, he never leaves the reader in any doubt that he is fully aware it’s all speculation.

Chris Impey is a University Distinguished Professor and Deputy Head of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona. He’s also a prolific author. Our Future in Space is his eighth book.

If this book intrigues you, you might take a look at Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books. This one is included.

 

What makes social change happen?

social changeA review of The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving Our Most Complex Challenges, by Zaid Hassan

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

“Planning based-approaches — so common across government, civil society, and even business — represent a neo-Soviet paradigm” and have long been shown to be at best minimally effective in fostering meaningful social change.

If that assertion is a revelation to you, you’re sure to find The Social Labs Revolution illuminating. No matter how familiar you may be with economic development, urban planning, or other fields in which disciplined planning is a fixture, you’re likely to discover something new in this challenging book.

The author, Zaid Hassan, has built a consulting business on the basis of his belief that, instead of “strategic planning” by “experts,” the world’s most urgent and compelling problems can be solved only by bringing together large, diverse teams representing every aspect of the population that is most directly affected. Working together over months or years as a “social lab,” a team consisting of as many as 36 people struggles together but, eventually, and after considerable conflict and unhappiness, will arrive at a set of practical approaches to prototype as the first stage in solving the problem they share. At its core, a social lab is characterized in three ways: it’s social, it’s experimental, and it’s systemic (in that the ideas that emerge “aspire to be systemic in nature.”). Work within the lab is based on the “U Process” championed by Otto Scharmer.

The problems Hassan and his colleagues choose to address are invariably deep-seated and often life-threatening. The Social Labs Revolution focuses on three long-running experiments, one on sustainable food, a second on malnutrition in urban children (specifically, those living in Maharashtra state in India), and the third on stabilizing the (notoriously unstable) nation of Yemen. For example, the first of these three, a Sustainable Food Lab, was global in scope and participation, bringing together participants from government (Brazil, The Netherlands), civil society (World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy), and corporate food companies (Unilever, General Mills) who worked together for two years. The author credits the team with putting “sustainability” on the radar screens of global food companies.

As Hassan concedes, his consultancy, Reos Partners, is not alone in advancing the social lab technology. He also mentions a Chilean innovation, SociaLab, which addresses new enterprises to alleviate poverty, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT, and points to a number of similar though less structured examples such as Greenpeace’s Mobilisation Lab, set in motion “‘to break through and win on threats to people and the planet.'”

The Social Labs Revolution is blissfully short and easy to digest, with the exception of an annoying digression into an academic discussion of the philosophy underlying the social labs concept. I don’t know about you, but whenever I come across repeated references (13 of them) to the philosopher Martin Heidegger and his disciples, or any other recognizable name from the ranks of dead white philosophers, I head for the exits. Instead of that digression, I would have enjoyed a more detailed discussion of the results that emerged from the three social labs mentioned most prominently in the book. What Hassan offers is spotty and inadequate.

Nitpicking: Someone — the author, the editor, or the proofreader, I know not who, or what potential combination of them — seems to believe that Jack Welch was “the legendary CEO of General Motors.” Fact-checker, please!

 

 

Do vegetarians love animals more than people?

vegetariansEating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a vegetarian. However, living as I do in Berkeley, California, from time to time I find myself in the minority at dinners and potlucks. So, as you might imagine, over the years I’ve come to hear most of the arguments against eating animals. 
One thing has always puzzled me about the torrent of passion that invariably erupts when I question why I, or anyone else, should become a vegetarian (much less a vegan): apart from a few rejoinders that the practice of limiting my diet to plants will improve my health, extend my life, and make me a better person overall, most — maybe 80 percent of the verbiage — concerns cruelty to animals.Now, don’t get me wrong. I like furry little animals as well as the next person. Over the course of my long life, I’ve had dogs, cats, and rabbits as well as a few less cuddly animals such as turtles and fish as (dare I say it?) pets. Nor do I kick dogs or other helpless beasts when I’m angry or frustrated with other human beings.

But why do so many people justify vegetarianism on the basis of animal cruelty when the practice of raising animals for food in factory farms promises to drown our country in shit and spew so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that it may eventually inundate low-lying coastal cities like Berkeley and make our planet uninhabitable for the human race? 

Where’s your perspective, people? Cheez! We’re already eliminating a million species a year from the biosphere by encroaching on animal habitat and screwing with the climate, and you’re worried about hurting chickens and cows?

Do I want to hurt chickens or cows? Of course not! I’ve even petted a heifer or two myself over the years. But still . . .

To give due credit, Jonathan Safran Foer does explain some of the environmental consequences of factory farming in Eating Animals. But his foray into the hidden depths of this tragically misconceived industry is almost exclusively focused on — guess what? — animal cruelty. His descriptions of the way animals are treated are purposely graphic and sometimes hard to take. PETA will love this book. If you don’t have an iron stomach, you might not.

Eating Animals is Foer’s first venture into book-length nonfiction. It’s his fourth book. The novels that preceded it, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, have attracted critical acclaim, including a number of literary awards, and both are being adapted to film. (He also produced a strange  work of fiction that was more a sculpture than a book.) For what it’s worth, I tried reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close but couldn’t get past the first few pages. However, Eating Animals is brilliantly crafted. Foer’s writing style, perhaps even his personality, come through loud and clear. He’s obviously a brilliant young man, and if he can avoid falling prey to the silly experimentalism of some of his early work, he’s got a great career ahead of him.

Oh, by the way, are you wondering why I haven’t become a vegetarian? Well, that’s another story . . .

If this book intrigues you, you might take a look at Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books. This one is included.

My five favorite books of 2013

favorite booksA popular local website called Berkeleyside had asked me to pick my five favorite books for the year just ending. This proved to be a tough assignment. Of the 50 or so books I’d read so far in 2013, the easy route would have been to turn to familiar writers whose work I nearly always love. I could have picked Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behavior), Malcolm Gladwell (David and Goliath), Khaled Hosseini (And the Mountains Echoed), John LeCarré (A Delicate Truth), and Isabel Allende (Maya’s Notebook). I loved them all. But that would have been too easy. These writers all have plenty of readers. So, I decided to select books whose authors are less well known and whose work is all too easily lost amid the hundreds of thousands of new titles published every year in the US alone. Here are my five candidates, then:

Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine, by Diarmuid Jeffreys

As memories of World War II grow dim and its active participants pass away, it becomes too easy to assign blame for the war to a few highly familiar names (Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and so forth) and overlook others whose roles in the conflict may have been equally significant. This compelling and deeply researched account of the intimate between the Nazi regime and German’s largest company is a shocking reminder of how so many genteel and well-educated Germans made Hitler’s war possible. It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic example than IG Farben of business unmoored from any moral purpose — not just supplying the products that literally fueled the Nazi war machine and sponsoring the gruesome research of Dr. Josef Mengele (the notorious “Angel of Death”), but going so far as to build its own concentration camp for Jewish slave laborers at Auschwitz.

Read my full review here.

1The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

Here’s a Western set in California during the Gold Rush that’s more Deadwood than Gunsmoke, a novel imbued with the spirit and the cadences of speech of the real Old West. It had to be: The Sisters Brothers was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and the panjandrums who manage that process aren’t known to show favor to run-of-the-mill genre writing. The Sisters brothers of the title are notorious hired killers in the employ of a mysterious and powerful man known only as the Commodore. They emerge from the page fully fleshed and displaying their own all too believable quirks and idiosyncrasies. I rarely read Westerns, but this one bowled me over.

Read my full review here.

The Night Ranger, by Alex Berenson

It’s hard to find a thriller writer who is more diligent or more ingenious at research than Alex Berenson, a former New York Times correspondent. In The Night Ranger, the seventh novel in his excellent series featuring John Wells (ex-Army, ex-CIA), Berenson casts a spotlight on one of the greatest tragedies on Earth, the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the recurring drought and unending civil war in Somalia. The action is virtually non-stop, and tension builds steadily toward a shattering climax, making the book progressively more difficult to set aside.

Read my full review here.

1Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright

Why is Scientology such an object of fascination when their followers (estimated at 25,000 in the US) are less than half as numerous as those who identify themselves as Rastafarians? Lawrence Wright provides the definitive answer to this question. Just seven years ago Wright’s masterful book about Al Qaeda, The Looming Tower, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. If anything, Going Clear represents an even greater accomplishment, putting to shame previous efforts to tell the story of the notoriously secretive and litigious cult called Scientology. In the pages of this brilliant book, the cast of far-fetched characters who populate the Church come to life, their pretensions, insecurities, contradictions, and (often) mental illnesses on display for all to see — despite Wright’s intensive effort to be fair at every turn.

Read my full review here.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk — winner of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction — is, hands down, the most successful anti-war novel to come out of the Iraq War. It’s a funny book, beautifully written, and I suspect it conveys about as well as any humorless treatment a sense of the war in Iraq from the perspective of the Americans who fought it face to face with insurgents. Ben Fountain finds nearly everyone in sight — Hollywood, Texas billionaires, and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, for starters — to be fair game for satire, and he’s very, very good at it.

Read my full review here.

And if my five top picks — well, ten, really — aren’t enough for you, you might check out an extraordinary list of favorite-book lists here. The sheer number of these lists will blow your mind!

Ten big issues Washington is ducking, and not just under Republicans

This is the time of year when most of us record the New Year’s resolutions that will load us with guilt throughout the year because we never follow through with them. So, for a change this year, I decided to take stock not of my own life but of the state of our nation. What follows is my best effort to list (in no particular order) the ten most significant issues that the White House and the Congress should be addressing – but aren’t, and maybe never will. I write in the wake of a long-delayed compromise between the two parties, a deal that nobody likes and that, in its superficiality, illustrates just how far off the mark our elected leadership has strayed.

1.     Public corruption

The dominance of money in politics is the root cause of much that ails us. Massive campaign spending, combined with lavish lobbying efforts, is largely responsible for corporate welfare, our shockingly inequitable tax code, the dangerous bloating of the financial sector, and the corporate dominance of the news media. It’s also a major factor in the country’s continuing dependence on fossil fuels. Every one of these issues cries out for systemic change, but in a society where the U.S. Supreme Court’s outrageous Citizens United decision holds sway, it’s difficult to see how any meaningful change can be enacted. The source of the problem lies deeper than policy, in the values that corporate money has sold to the public – at heart, the delusion that freedom means independence from government oversight, that society offers a level playing field to all comers, and that success can only be fairly rewarded if the winners take all. In The Self-Made Myth (reviewed here), Bryan Miller and Mike Lapham expose this value set for the illogical and self-serving approach that it is.

2.     Military overreach

The United States spends more than $700 billion annually on what is characterized with Orwellian skill as “defense.” This amount is reportedly greater than the combined military expenditures of all the rest of the nations on Earth and is certainly larger than the total spent by all our potential adversaries combined. It’s also mostly money that could be so much more productively invested in advancing our true national security – upgrading our educational system, restoring our once-undisputed lead in science and technology, combating global poverty, and tending to our long-neglected public infrastructure. The late Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback series – Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, and Nemesis – illuminate the extent of U.S. military overreach, and the steep price we pay for the dubious privilege of maintaining nearly 1,000 military bases around the world. We put Imperial Rome to shame.

3.     Secrecy in government

Most of what we read about secrecy in our federal government concerns the “classified” documents such as those unearthed by Wikileaks not long ago or the information turned up by investigative reporters, often after years of pursuing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits. Sadly, hiding mountains of written records behind a cloak of secrecy, reprehensible though it is, should be the least of our concerns. Far more threatening to our liberties and our future as a democratic nation are the top-secret operations of the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the Special Forces, as well as numerous other activities carried out both at home and abroad in our name under the veil of black budgets for agencies that have never seen the light of day or through seemingly innocuous contracts with private companies. The Washington Post’s Dana Priest and William M. Arkin did a spectacular job of reporting about this tragically overlooked phenomenon in Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.

4.     Overspending on healthcare

The U.S. currently spends an unsustainable 17% of GDP on healthcare – about one-half more than the second-highest spender in the world (Switzerland, at 11%). Americans frequently brag that we have the finest healthcare system in the world, but that’s true only for those who can afford to pay millions for the most advanced care when a health emergency strikes. Ours is the world’s most expensive healthcare system, not the best. Most of the rest of us would be far better off in France or some other industrialized country where government covers all costs and negotiates fair prices with pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare providers. And all the current talk about “reining in the deficit” is so much pointless chatter without two straightforward policy changes that could make a truly big difference: a drastic reduction in the Pentagon budget, of course, and adopting Medicare for All, otherwise hideously labeled “single-payer healthcare.”

5.     Mass incarceration

One of my greatest disappointments with the Obama Administration is its continued prosecution of the so-called War on Drugs, the congeries of policies, police practices, and court decisions that has resulted in locking away more than two million Americans and subjecting our inner cities to a profoundly racist police regime. Michele Alexander’s landmark study, The New Jim Crow, lays bare the startling dimensions of these problems and their deeply rooted origins in the politics of the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton administrations. That such policies could persist two generations after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s is abhorrent.

6.     Global warming

Rarely do political issues rise to the level of existential crisis. Here’s one that does. As Mark Hertsgaard illustrates in Hot through interviews with leading climate scientists, the scientific consensus about the impact of climate change has become more extreme with every new report – but has never caught up with the private projections of the most knowledgeable experts. Absent dramatic policy shifts on a global scale, which are unthinkable without strong U.S. leadership, it’s possible that Planet Earth will eventually become unlivable for the human race. We’re already destroying a million species a year, and climate change is compounding the problems caused by human encroachment on animal habitat. With or without human civilization, our global environment will be very different in the 22nd Century from what it is today – at a minimum, far less hospitable to homo sapiens.

7.     The culture of violence

In the wake of yet another horrific mass murder that took the lives of so many innocents, public debate is focusing on such “solutions” as banning assault rifles and reducing the number of bullets permitted in an ammunition clip. Even if such measures could be written into law, which is unlikely, they would be laughably ineffectual. More than 9,000 people die every year of gunshots in the U.S. – rarely from assault rifles. Americans possess more than 200 million guns, most of them handguns, and can easily buy more at 51,000 licensed retail firearms dealers (compared to 36,000 grocery stores). None of this should be a surprise in a society that glorifies violence in film, television, video games, and comic books and obsesses about football, one of the most violent of contact sports. It’s time for America to grow up!

8.     Chemical pollution

Most of the 9,000 or more synthetic chemicals now used in everyday products in the U.S. were introduced after World War II. Hundreds of them leave residues in our bodies with largely unknown consequences. (Only seven percent of “high-production” chemicals have been fully tested for toxicity.) In other words, we have been carrying on a dangerous biology experiment with our lives and our children’s lives for more than two generations. What we do know is that health problems that were once unknown or rare are becoming common, including asthma, reproductive abnormalities in infants, many forms of cancer, and autism. A simple idea – the precautionary principle – could address many of these unwanted consequences by stipulating that the burden of proof about the safety of any product falls on its producer. Nearly half a century after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, isn’t it astonishing that we should still have to make this argument?

9.     A dysfunctional education system

For decades, it’s been widely recognized that many high schools are simply warehousing young people to keep them off the job market. Now it’s beginning to seem as though that’s the case with so-called higher education as well at many colleges and universities. When employers (myself included) complain that some recent college graduates can’t write or spell and either can’t read or simply choose not to do so, you’ve got to figure there’s some truth to these observations – and that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way our country educates its youth. Whether the root cause is that schools teach the wrong things, that they teach in the wrong ways, or that the wrong people are doing the teaching is impossible to tell, but clearly the truth lies in some combination of these notions – dramatically compounded by our society’s failure to invest enough money to do the job right. Taking into account the number of hours that American teachers work, they’re paid far less than teachers in almost any other industrialized country. Shame on us!

10.  A costly and dangerous food production system

An occasional outbreak of e coli infections or a newsmagazine exposé on the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in farm animals reminds us that all is not well with the way we Americans produce and procure our food. However, truth to tell, the scale and extent of the problem is far bigger than most of us understand. Ninety-nine percent of the meat we eat is produced in ways that are inhumane, ecologically unsound, and dangerous to our health. Our unrelenting hunger for meat is responsible for producing more greenhouse gases than all modes of transportation combined and is thus one of the single most significant factors in global warming. Pollution from factory farms is poisoning the water table in agricultural areas throughout the United States, and the dramatic overuse of antibiotics in farm animals that aren’t sick is exposing us all to ever more deadly antibiotic-resistant diseases. Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent book, Eating Animals, exposes these and other truths about our food production system.

If any of the above leads you to believe that I think the United States is in worse shape than other countries, you might consider the neglected issues I’d identify, say, in Bangladesh or Tanzania. If you don’t know from direct observation, take my word for it: they’re in far worse shape than we are.

December 20, 2012

Animal cruelty, pigs in shit, and the end of the human race

Animal crueltyEating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a vegetarian. However, living as I do in Berkeley, California, from time to time I find myself in the minority at dinners and potlucks. So, as you might imagine, over the years I’ve come to hear most of the arguments against eating animals. 

One thing has always puzzled me about the torrent of passion that invariably erupts when I question why I, or anyone else, should become a vegetarian (much less a vegan): apart from a few rejoinders that the practice of limiting my diet to plants will improve my health, extend my life, and make me a better person overall, most — maybe 80 percent of the verbiage — concerns cruelty to animals.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like furry little animals as well as the next person. Over the course of my long life, I’ve had dogs, cats, and rabbits as well as a few less cuddly animals such as turtles and fish as (dare I say it?) pets. Nor do I kick dogs or other helpless beasts when I’m angry or frustrated with other human beings.

But why do so many people justify vegetarianism on the basis of animal cruelty when the practice of raising animals for food in factory farms promises to drown our country in shit and spew so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that it may eventually inundate low-lying coastal cities like Berkeley and make our planet uninhabitable for the human race? 

Where’s your perspective, people? Cheez! We’re already eliminating a million species a year from the biosphere by encroaching on animal habitat and screwing with the climate, and you’re worried about hurting chickens and cows?

Do I want to hurt chickens or cows? Of course not! I’ve even petted a heifer or two myself over the years. But still . . .

To give due credit, Jonathan Safran Foer does explain some of the environmental consequences of factory farming in Eating Animals. But his foray into the hidden depths of this tragically misconceived industry is almost exclusively focused on — guess what? — animal cruelty. His descriptions of the way animals are treated are purposely graphic and sometimes hard to take. PETA will love this book. If you don’t have an iron stomach, you might not.

Eating Animals is Foer’s first venture into book-length nonfiction. It’s his fourth book. The novels that preceded it, Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, have attracted critical acclaim, including a number of literary awards, and both are being adapted to film. (He also produced a strange  work of fiction that was more a sculpture than a book.) For what it’s worth, I tried reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close but couldn’t get past the first few pages. However, Eating Animals is brilliantly crafted. Foer’s writing style, perhaps even his personality, come through loud and clear. He’s obviously a brilliant young man, and if he can avoid falling prey to the silly experimentalism of some of his early work, he’s got a great career ahead of him.

Oh, by the way, are you wondering why I haven’t become a vegetarian? Well, that’s another story . . .

The 5 best novels I’ve read in 2012

best novelsTruth to tell, I haven’t read all that many trade novels during the past year, and, anyway, in general I tend to stay away from the literary “masterpieces” trumpeted so loudly by the likes of the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review. More often than not, I find the darlings of the literary set are writing not for me but for, well, the literary set. I’ve seen far too many impenetrable tomes lauded as fine literature. Give me a good, gripping story any day of the year, and I’ll gladly forego pretty much any one of the Booker Prize winners of recent years. I truly enjoyed reading all five of the books listed below.

1. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, by Christopher Buckley

Political satire of the highest order. I found myself laughing hysterically, sometimes for pages at a time. But, like all superior satire, this book isn’t just funny — its droll treatment of politics in Washington and Beijing is spot-on accurate.

2. The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. Set in Bangkok in the 23rd century, this wildly inventive story examines humanity’s plight once the oceans have risen twenty feet, and most of the human race in in thrall to the American and Chinese “calorie companies” that have killed off virtually all traditional sources of food with genetically engineered plagues.

3. The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

A chilling novel set in Geneva, where a brilliant and eccentric American physicist has teamed up with an unscrupulous English financier to use the scientist’s breakthrough techniques in artificial intelligence to manipulate the financial markets.

4. The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

The Orwellian story of a North Korean “tunnel rat,” trained in kidnapping and hand-to-hand combat in the tunnels leading under the DMZ to South Korea, who briefly becomes a confidante of the country’s elite military commanders and of the Dear Leader himself, only later to find himself confined to a prison mine, where citizens who run afoul of officialdom are worked to death underground.

5. Incendiary, by Chris Cleave

A deeply unsettling novel structured as an open letter to Osama bin Laden from a devastated young mother whose husband and young son have died in a massive terrorist attack on a soccer game in London.

Tea Party politics may not be what you think

Tea Party politicsSteep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you know nothing about the Tea Party other than what you’ve picked up from the daily news and a magazine article here and there, chances are excellent that you’ll learn a great deal from reading Steep. Here are just a few of the insights I gained from this superb collection of scholarly articles that examine the Tea Party from the front, the back, upside down, and sideways:

  • There is, really, no such thing as “The Tea Party.” The term encompasses thousands of organizations at the national, statewide, and local levels that at any given time may well be found squabbling with one another about ideology, tactics, or just plain personality differences. I knew about the proliferation of groups but not about the diversity of views among them.
  • The Tea Party phenomenon first surfaced less than a month after Barack Obama’s inauguration as President in 2009 — yes, less than four years ago — as what one scholar calls a “test marketing” campaign backed by money from the Koch Brothers and mainstream Republican operatives such as former Congressman Dick Armey, which we all knew very well at the time. However, the movement spawned by this intentional investment in destabilizing the fledgling Obama Administration grew so quickly and with such spontaneity that its original backers soon lost control. Whatever else it might be, the Tea Party is a grassroots phenomenon.
  • Unlike the Christian Right before it, the Tea Party brought few new voters into the Republican column. As several of the authors in Steep make clear from their studies of a wide variety of poll results, the Tea Party is populated largely by Right-Wing Republicans who usually vote, anyway. (They also tend to be white males at or nearing retirement age.) The Tea Party brought passion to the Republican grassroots base, providing the necessary motivation to draw more foot-soldiers to the conservative cause.
  • The old John Birch Society, which we all thought had gone the way of the Cult of Isis in the 1960s after William F. Buckley, Jr. consigned it to purgatory, somehow managed to resuscitate itself and become engaged in Tea Party activities. So did former leaders of the White Citizens Councils, the militia movement, and other assorted cranks, kooks, and eccentrics and the delusions they brought with them. Since nearly one-half (44%) of Tea Party adherents professed to believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim and was not born in the United States, using the term delusional is not out of line.

The most intriguing chapter in Steep is University of Michigan political science and women’s studies professor Lisa Disch’s, in which she “advances a counterintuitive argument: The Tea Party movement is sparked, in part, by the threat its supporters perceive to their share in two key programs of the liberal welfare state [i.e., Social Security and Medicare]. Tea Party politics is conservative, but its supporters’ material commitments and even aspects of their rhetoric place them in a liberal genealogy.” Disch argues that, during its first two decades, Social Security was explicitly racialized — farmworkers and domestic workers were specifically excluded from benefits (and guess who they meant by that!) — and that for decades afterward Social Security was seen as largely a benefit to white people, even after the coverage was broadened. “This makes Tea Party mobilization a ‘white citizenship’ movement: action in defense of material benefits that confer ‘racial standing’ in a polity that purports to deny precisely that — special standing based on race . . .  [T]he Tea Party movement belongs to liberal America even as Tea Party rhetoric denounces liberalism and liberals denounce Tea Partiers.”

Since I’m not bound by the strictures of academic “objectivity” (whatever that is), I can sum up all this information with my own conclusion: The Tea Party is the latest and the most extreme expression of the Right-Wing Republican movement that has been growing since its inception in the 1940s and 1950s in McCarthyite anti-Communism, the John Birch Society, and Southern opposition to civil rights, and in the backlash to the New Left, feminism, and the anti-war movement. Though the Tea Party is heterogeneous in many ways, and its focus nationally has been on advancing the Republican agenda of small government and rolling back taxes, the overwhelming majority of its adherents also embrace the social politics of the Christian Right (anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-women’s rights) and the suppressed but all too real racial resentment that has been the centerpiece of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy since the days of Richard Nixon.  

As I write this, however, I wonder whether anyone but historians and political scientists will care much about the Tea Party five years, or even a year, from now. It remains to be seen what impact the Republican losses of 2012 will have on the spirit and the cohesion of the Tea Party.

Steep is a product of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California’s flagship campus, edited by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, the Center’s director and associate director, respectively. More power to them!

Does technology promise humanity a bright future?

bright futureAbundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Peter Diamandis envisions a world in which humanity triumphs against all its challenges, from climate change, overpopulation, and poverty to the planetary deficits in energy and water.

This is not science fiction. It’s an eye-opening survey of what one celebrated technology visionary perceives as a feasible future for our species.

As Diamandis writes, “Abundance is a tale of good news. At its core, this book examines the hard facts, the science and engineering, the social trends and economic forces that are rapidly transforming our world. . . The point is this: When seen through the lens of technology, few resources are truly scarce; they’re mainly inaccessible. Yet the threat of scarcity still dominates our worldview.”

Diamandis is unusually well qualified to write this book. He is a Harvard-trained physician and an aeronautical engineer with a master’s degree from MIT. Ever since the age of 8, he has been preoccupied with space exploration. He has founded or co-founded a half-dozen businesses and organizations involved in that field and is widely credited with being the seminal figure in jump-starting the private space exploration business with the $10 million Ansari X Prize that led to the flight of SpaceShipOne.

In Abundance, co-written with Steven Kotler and published February 2012, Diamandis veers far from the course he set in space, settling down to earth to explore how humankind can leverage emerging technologies to confront its most pressing problems. Though Diamandis’ focus is squarely on the exponential growth in speed, capability, and spread of information processing technologies, he is not a gadget freak. He recognizes the social and political context in which technology is brought to light, although he may downplay the ferocity of humanity’s innate resistance to change. He writes about “game-changing” technologies, such as the “Lab-on-a-Chip . . . a portable, cell-phone-sized device [that] will allow doctors, nurses, and even patients themselves to take a sample of bodily fluid (such as urine, sputum, or a single drop of blood) and run dozens, if not hundreds, of diagnostics on the spot and in a manner of minutes.” He cites other potential breakthrough technologies now being developed by such luminaries as inventor Dean Kamen and biogeneticist Craig Venter.

For anyone but a Luddite, Abundance is exciting to read. Diamandis clearly believes that the technological advances he writes about hold promise of a much brighter future for humanity despite the anticipated growth in the world’s population to nine billion by 2050. (He even points to growing “in vitro” meat as one solution to the fast-rising demand for protein by ever more prosperous people.) For a science fiction fan such as myself, it’s difficult not to get starry-eyed.

However, the flaw in his line of reasoning is that, no matter how promising these new devices and processes might be, it’s not practical to assume that they’ll be quickly adopted around the world. That Lab-on-a-Chip sound wonderful? Great! But how many years will it take to put one billion copies of that device into the hands of the nurses running rural health clinics in Western Kenya and Uttar Pradesh and everywhere else in our wide, wide world? And how much will that cost? And will the spread of the device be rapid enough to prevent what other futurists see as the inevitable pandemics of new communicable diseases? Similar questions arise about nearly every one of the marvelous inventions cited in Abundance.

Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation and cofounder of Singularity University, laid out his vision of abundance in earth’s future in a brilliant TED2012 talk. The themes he introduced onstage at TED are explored in depth in this book.

To give some sense of the exalted circles in which Diamandis travels, here are some of the trustees of the X Prize Foundation: Larry Page, Elon Musk, James Cameron, Dean Kamen, Ratan Tata, Ray Kurzweil, Arianna Huffington, and Craig Venter, every one of whom would figure in anyone’s list of the brightest and most innovative thinkers and doers in the world.