Explorers on a new planet...

In the preface to his 2010 book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben admits “It’s true that we’ve lost that fight, insofar as our goal was to preserve the world we were born into” (p. xv). We grew up on a planet astronaut Jim Lovell described as “ ‘a grand oasis.’ But we no longer live on that planet” (p. 2). So “we’ll need to figure out what parts of our lives and our ideologies we must abandon so that we can protect the core of our societies and civilizations”(p. xiv).

As you might expect, the first part of this book, where McKibben explains how the old world has been destroyed, is much more detailed than the second part, where he offers some suggestions on how we might move forward. The scientific consensus is alarming: “We now know that the climate doesn’t have to warm any more for Greenland to continue losing ice,” says a climatologist from the University of Ohio (pp. 4-5). There’s a “50 percent chance that Lake Mead, which backs up on the Colorado River behind Hoover Dam, could run dry by 2021 (When that happens, as the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority put it, ‘you cut off supply to the fifth largest economy in the world,’ spread across the American West (p. 6). And “glaciers could disappear from the central and eastern Himalayas as early as 2035, including the giant Gangotri Glacier that supplies 70 percent of the dry-season water to the Ganges River. That would leave 407 million people looking for a new source of drinking and irrigation water” (p. 7). In other words, we have a solid timetable for the water war.

The oceans are “more acid than anytime in the last eight hundred thousand years, and at current rates by 2050 it will be more corrosive than anytime in the past 20 million years (p. 10). “Coral reefs will cease to exist as physical structures by 2100, perhaps 2050.” If I recall, that’s where pretty much all the ocean’s remaining biodiversity is.

McKibben is famous as the man behind
350.org, but even in 2009 as he was writing this he said “we’re already past 350—way past it. The planet has nearly 390 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We’re too high. Forget the grandkids; it turns out this was a problem for our parents…the last time we had carbon levels this high: sea levels rose one hundred feet or more, and temperatures rose as much as ten degrees” (pp. 15-16). And contrary to what others are claiming, McKibben quotes scientists who believe “changes in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than a thousand years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped” (p. 17).

And then there’s peak oil. “One barrel of oil yields as much energy as twenty-five thousand hours of human manual labor—more than a decade of human labor per barrel. The average American uses twenty-five barrels each year, which is like finding three hundred years of free labor annually” (p. 27). “So does modernity disappear along with the oil?” he asks (p. 30).

Already, as only the earliest changes were beginning to be noticed, the World Bank announced “1.4 billion people, it found, lived below the poverty line, 430 million more than previously estimated. What defines the poverty line? $1.25 a day” (p. 76). No wonder “The U.S. military… costs more than the armies of the next forty-five nations combined; the Pentagon accounts for 48 percent of the world’s total military spending” (pp. 144-145). But will that save us at home? According to Nobel winner Steven Chu, “the rapid melt of the Sierra snowpack means ‘we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California…I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going’ ” (p. 156). “And if our societies start to tank, we’ll be in worse shape than those who came before,” McKibben warns. “For one thing, our crisis is global, so there’s no place to flee. For another, most of us don’t know how to do very much—in your standard collapse scenario, it’s nice to know how to grow wheat” (pp. 98-99).

So what’s all this mean? First, we have to stop looking to idiots like Larry Summers, “treasury secretary under President Clinton, now Obama’s chief economic adviser: ‘There are no . . . limits to the carrying capacity of the earth.’ ” (p. 95). (This guy has been president of Harvard!) And Jerry Falwell: “I can tell you, our grandchildren will laugh at those who predicted global warming. We’ll be in global cooling by then, if the Lord hasn’t returned” (p. 12). (Hitchens was right! Religion ruins everything!) And Barack Obama: “speaking about the upcoming Copenhagen climate talks… ‘We don’t want to make the best the enemy of the good.’ ” (p. 81). (That should be his campaign slogan this time around!)

But really, it’s a little hard to see how McKibben navigates from this to a very short description of localism and community-building ending with a retelling of the 350.org event in October 2009. Maybe he wouldn’t have been allowed to publish the book if he had suggested what the world is going to look like. Better to leave to the imaginations of the reader what he means by “dispersed and localized societies that can survive the damage we can no longer prevent” (p. 212). After all, he
did mention Mad Max (p. 146)…

Joel Salatin on slow-local food, and politics

In his introduction to Joel Salatin’s recent book Folks, This Ain’t Normal, Allan Nation says Salatin pulls no punches, which “completely discombobulates” audiences who expect a slow-local food advocate to be a leftist hippie. In this book, Salatin proudly displays his religiosity, his social conservatism, and his political libertarianism — so much so, in fact, that these elements threaten to distract the reader from his central point.

That point is that a food system dominated by multinational corporations, in which local production is seen as eccentric and local markets are discouraged by heavy-handed regulation, is fundamentally abnormal and in the long run, suicidal. And that historically, extended, multigenerational families are normal. Salatin is arguing for old-fashioned values he calls “connection, heritage, tradition.” I agree with him on all these points.

The book is really a series of essays that all circle around this central theme. Some of them are excellent, and would probably work well as free-standing articles or as chapters to read in a class (Environmental History, for instance). “Children, Chores, Humility, and Health” is one of these. It begins with a discussion of firewood that dwells on the physical details and shows an intimate knowledge of the subject drawn from a lifetime of experience, and then continues to a discussion of freedom, responsibility, and growing up on a farm. And it provides this point, for grounding the discussion: “As recently as 1946, nearly 50 percent of all produce grown in America came out of backyard gardens” (p. 13).

In the next chapter, Salatin says “No long-term example exists in which tillage is sustainable. It always requires injection of biomass from outside the system or a soil-development pasture cycle” (20). This is an interesting claim, and it may well have an element of truth to it; but it (and the chapter) seems motivated by Salatin’s desire to debunk the vegetarians who argue against meat (especially beef) production and consumption. “Judgmentalism combined with ignorance is a dangerous combination,” Salatin warns (30). And he makes a series of points I agree with: CAFOs suck, and the fact “That a large percentage of landfilled material is animal-edible food waste” really should “strike us as criminal.” But he goes on to claim “nobody goes hungry due to lack of food. They go hungry due to lack of distribution” (32); which suggests that we could feed as many people animal protein as we could feed vegetable protein, if we could just get the system right. Salatin believes the whole world can be fed on meat, if we would just go back to pasturage rather than grain-feeding. Whether this is true or not, he’s clearly right that a lot of the marginal land that’s in crop production would be more sustainable as rangeland.

Talking about local food production, Salatin points out that it takes fifteen calories to get a calorie of food onto the average American table, and four of those calories are transportation (67). And he points out that the key to local food viability is “a seasonal eating commitment” (68). “Unless and until the East and North step up to their bioregional responsibilities,” he continues, “California will be unable to feed itself” (69) But again, “half of all the food fit for human consumption never gets eaten,” because of long-distance transport and warehousing. This is incredibly inefficient, and will seem more so as petroleum prices rise. And then there’s the frivolous use of resources instead of farming: “America has thirty-five million acres of lawn and thirty-six million acres devoted to housing and feeding recreational horses, and that doesn’t even count golf courses,” Salatin says (76). And if people “really wanted to save water, how about attacking flush toilets that use potable water?” (34) Another good point.

Salatin suggests as a rule of thumb “to only eat food that was available before 1900” (109). He has some very interesting things to say about the Progressive Era and its effect on farming, and also about writers like Edward Faulkner (
Plowman’s Folly, 1943) and Newman Turner (Fertility Farming, 1951) who argued against the agro-industrial model right from the start. These authors all deserve a closer look (129ff).

Salatin says “By denying the herbivores access to a paddock until the grass has rested enough to go through that middle rapid growth period of the S curve, we metabolize far more sunlight into biomass than would otherwise occur…And if every farm and ranch that has cows in the United States would practice this biomimicry, in fewer than ten years we would sequester all the atmospheric carbon generated since the beginning of the industrial age. For more information, visit Holistic Management International and Carbon Farmers of America—two groups doing the empirical analysis and demonstrating the efficacy of these principles” (195-196). If this is true, it is
very cool!

So Salatin makes a bunch of really good points, which for me are slightly marred by the number of times he says “Jesus never said” this or that. And I got the point about the food police without needing to read quite so much about how Salatin and his friends have been inconvenienced by the USDA and FDA. And calling Abraham Lincoln “an idiotic dreamer” is going a bit far beyond what was needed to make his point. This type of “pulling no punches” just annoys and alienates people. I’m surprised Salatin’s editors let him indulge himself to this degree. And when he goes after “the tax-and-spend crowd [who] dishonor hardworking Americans” and “government manipulation of the housing market, by demanding that high-risk loans be made to unqualified people,” Salatin is exposing his dependence on the Fox echo-chamber for his perspective on recent events. Again, how the editors thought these passages were a good way to advance his theme is just beyond me.

Maybe Salatin has become to big a celebrity on the speaking circuit, to the point where he thinks he’s got something to say on any topic, not just the ones where he has a lifetime of experience and a thorough command of all the details. The excesses he allows himself in this book detract from its force, but
Folks, This Ain’t Normal is still an important contribution to the slow-local food cause.

A Popular Portrait of Jefferson

Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (2009).  

In a short volume that seems to have achieved both commercial success and good reviews, Hitchens portrays Jefferson as not only the author of America (writer of the Declaration and purchaser of Louisiana), but as a symbol of the conflicts that have always been close to the heart of the “republican experiment.”  Given Hitchens’s notoriety, it’s impossible to completely separate author from subject; so this is not really a standard biography.  It’s sort-of half biography and half Hitchens’s reflections and evaluations.  But in this critical role, Hitchens may be providing a useful corrective to the hagiographical (or anti-) chronicles of Jefferson’s life we’re more accustomed to reading.

Although Hitchens is not a historian, he does a pretty good job of inserting names, dates, and events that provide both context and a sense of the culture Jefferson involved himself in.  This is a short book (208 pages), so there’s a limit to the amount of detail that can be jammed in, but Hitchens chooses some elements that illuminate Jefferson’s character.  And he offers perspectives you wouldn’t normally get from a historian, such as when he observes that the fact Thomas and Martha delighted in reading passages from Sterne’s
Tristram Shandy to each other suggests “we are studying a man with very little sense of humor.” 
In another interesting moment, Hitchens describes Jefferson as the “republican equivalent of a philosopher king, who was coldly willing to sacrifice all principles and all allegiances to the one great aim of making America permanent”  (p. 14).  While this sense of a permanent guiding mission may be ahistorical (although we find it in some academic biography, too), Hitchens makes a strong case for long-term connections in Jefferson’s story.  At one point, he recounts Jefferson’s dismal performance as governor of Virginia during the Revolution, which he contrasts with Alexander Hamilton’s record.  Too frequently, we seem to lose sight of the ongoing political weight of issues like these – if only in the sheer volume of data coming at us in traditional biographies.  And when Jefferson wrote his famous
Notes on the State of Virginia, Hitchens calls attention to the important fact that he was responding to a questionnaire sent him by Francois Barbé-Marbois, who not coincidentally was the future negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase.  The sense of continuity and relatedness of events Hitchens brings to such a short retelling of Jefferson’s life is really helpful.
As one of America's leading atheists, Christopher Hitchens would of course be expected to show his interest in Jefferson as a prototype of the secular American, and he doesn’t disappoint.  But his coverage of Jefferson’s anticlericalism and “Enlightenment” orientation is much less strident than it might have been.  Hitchens does connect Jefferson with Edward Jenner and the cowpox vaccination, and he
does point out that “Dr. Timothy Dwight, then president of Yale and to this day celebrated as an American divine, was sternly opposed to vaccination as a profane interference with God’s beneficent design” (p. 44).  But he also goes after Jefferson’s hypocritical attitudes about slavery and race.  “A bad conscience, evidenced by slovenly and contradictory argument, is apparent in almost every paragraph of his discourse on this subject,” Hitchens concludes (p. 48).  But he grants, quoting Jefferson, that a “The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances” (p. 49).
Hitchens tells the story of Jefferson as a remarkable human being, who achieved incredible things while failing to completely transcend his nature as a male mammal living in the eighteenth century.  And he calls attention to parts of Jefferson’s historical role (in abandoning the Haitian Revolutionaries and in sending the Marines to North Africa) that it might be useful for us to remember.  In a passage that I found funny, Hitchens suggests that Dumas Malone (the ultimate academic biographer of Jefferson) “had great difficulty considering the question of carnal knowledge at all” (p. 61).  This seems a little harsh, until Hitchens reminds the reader that as late as 1985 Malone insisted that “for Madison Hemings to claim descent from his master was no better than ‘the pedigree printed on the numerous stud-horse bills that can be seen posted around during the Spring season’” (p. 65).  I appreciate the freedom Hitchens had as a non-academic author, to trash “Jefferson’s most revered biographer” in a way that clearly needed doing. 
In the end, Hitchens’s conclusions about Jefferson match his understanding of his adopted nation.  “The truth is,” he says, “that America has committed gross wrongs and crimes, as well as upheld great values and principles” (p. 186). 
Thomas Jefferson: Author of America is part of Harper-Collins’s “Eminent Lives” series for general readers, but it might be useful as a short, accessible supplementary text for high school and undergraduate students in a U.S. survey.  For that purpose, I think the author’s perspective as a non-academic and the fact that he has a clearly-stated position are among the book’s most valuable assets.  

Economics in the Age of Fracture

I’ve started re-reading Daniel T. Rodgers’ Age of Fracture.  I glanced at it in the final run-up to my PhD comps, but it didn’t make much of an impression.  Then Jane Kamensky mentioned it during her closing talk at The Historical Society’s recent conference, and I thought I ought to pick it up again. 
This closer reading led me to a couple of thoughts.  First, that there’s probably a whole lot more in many of those books we powered through in grad school; it’s probably worth revisiting some of them and digesting them slowly.  Second, what doesn’t seem relevant when you’re under the gun and trying to absorb the historiography of a field may be really useful when you’re thinking about teaching or writing – especially for the public.
I’ve only scratched the surface of Age of Fracture so far, but it strikes me as a very interesting attempt to argue a complicated point for a more-or-less general audience.  This fascinates me, since I think historians really need to help us all understand how we got to where we are today.  I hope to pick up some ideas about how to do this, especially about where the boundary is between assertion and explication: how much of an argument you can carry with an authoritative voice and how much you need to demonstrate with evidence and analysis.  At one point, for example, Rodgers says, “What precipitates breaks and interruptions in social argument are not raw changes in social experience, which never translate automatically into mind. What matters are the processes by which the flux and tensions of experience are shaped into mental frames and pictures that, in the end, come to seem themselves natural and inevitable: ingrained in the very logic of things” (Kindle Locations 125-127).  This is an interesting claim; very close to the idea I just found in Giambattista Vico’s New Science (another book I picked up as a result of the conference), “Every epoch,” Vico wrote, “is dominated by a ‘spirit’, a genius, of its own. Novelty, like beauty, recommends certain faults which, after fashion changes, become glaringly apparent. Writers, wishing to reap a profit from their studies, follow the trend of their time” (quoted in Anthony Grafton’s Introduction).  It’s a provocative idea, and it obviously has a lineage – but is it true?  And can it be used to explain social change over time?

Another thing Rodgers does, in the early pages of
Age of Fracture, is to provide a schematic for a “historiography” of the field of Economics.  Beginning with Alfred Marshall (Principles of Economics, 1890), Rodgers traces the development of economic thinking (and college economic teaching) through Paul Samuelson (Economics, 1948), and then into the variety of competing interpretations resulting from the failure of macro-economic prediction in the 1970s and 80s.  Along the way, Rodgers mentions many of the relevant texts in this development: popular texts such as Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom and F. A. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom as well as academic titles like Ronald Coase’s “The Problem of Social Cost” and Richard Posner’s Economic Analysis of Law.  It would be interesting to organize a syllabus around these titles, and read them one after another.  In addition to tracing the development of economic theory, the themes of such a class might be to examine whether theory or contingency really moved society, and more importantly to test the point made above by Rodgers and Vico: to see if the explanations offered by economists in their historical moments contain “faults which, after fashion changes, become glaringly apparent.”  

Energy and Progressivism

Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us, Maggie Koerth-Baker, 2011

I’m going to be critical of this book, so I ought to say at the outset that it’s a really effective introduction to the issues, and it’s a good thing that Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote it! She makes several really interesting points, and raises a bunch of questions that more people need to be thinking about.

That said, I think she leans too heavily on the Progressive idea that the only way to change things is from the top down. This is old-fashioned Progressivism, from a hundred years ago (not whatever the word is supposed to mean when politicians hurl it at each other today). It includes a degree of faith in central planners and technologists that I find uncomfortable, given where they’ve taken us in the past. Also, I think it puts the cart in front of the horse, in terms of how social change happens.

The first important distinction Koerth-Baker makes, though, is between the difference between “what the activists thought the public believed” and what actually inspired people to change (p. 2). This goes part of the way toward mitigating her own assumptions, if the reader keeps it in mind. And it’s a good point. Opinions about the sources of (or even the validity of) climate change can get in the way of finding
actions people can agree to take. Do we care that some people conserve out of a sense of stewardship or nationalism or a love of efficiency, rather than because they’re alarmed about global warming? Should we?

“Americans used only a little less energy per person in 2009 than we did in 1981 (and in 2007, we used more),” Koerth-Baker says. “Basically, our energy efficiency has made us wealthier, but it hasn’t done much to solve our energy problems” (p. 4). And probably the increase in wealth wasn’t spread too evenly across the population. The way changing energy use affects the growing inequality of American life is outside the scope of this book, but it’s probably important to think about.

One of Koerth-Baker’s big points is that the energy system is very complicated. The national electrical grid, which she spends most of her time on, is limited by the haphazard way it was built. Electricity is not stored, but is generated and used in real-time. This means central managers in several key locations have to balance supply and demand. This means it’s difficult adding local alternative sources to the grid. It seems intuitive, until you remember that if these local sources remove demand from the grid, they’re self-balancing.

Rural America didn’t get electricity, she reminds us, until the government stepped in. And life will go on, whatever society does: “it’s not the planet that needs saving. It’s our way of life. More important, I’m not going to save anything, and neither are you. Not alone. The way we use energy is determined by the systems we share” (p. 28). Koerth-Baker insists we “won’t get a 21 quadrillion BTU cut in our energy use in eighteen years by relying on everyone to do his or her small part on a voluntary basis” (p. 31). And she may be right, but that doesn’t exactly square with the changes she reports in places like the military, without accepting some big assumptions about what initially motivated the changes and why individuals responded to the institutional initiatives the way they did.

Energy isn’t obvious, Koerth-Baker reminds us, and it’s hard to see in spite of being all around us. “People don’t make a choice between ‘undermine the efficiency and emissions benefits produced by my utility company’ and ‘go without a DVR,’” she says. “They simply decide how they’d prefer to watch TV and don’t have the information they need to make an energy-efficient choice even if they wanted to” (DVRs use as much energy as refrigerators! p. 158). Koerth-Baker wants to try to maintain current standards of living by becoming more efficient at a systemic level: “Conservation says, ‘Don’t do it.’ Efficiency says, ‘Do it better.’ That’s a really, really, really important distinction, because it gets to the heart of where we—human beings, that is—have been, where we’re going, and what we’re afraid of,” she says (pp. 143-144). We can’t seem to get to the point of admitting that things can’t go on as they have – can’t acknowledge the elephant in the living room. So we’re left with improving the efficiency of the system; rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

“You have to give people insights, not data,” she says, quoting Ogi Kavazovic, VP of Opower (p. 164). And it would definitely help to make efficiency (or even conservation) the default option, as Koerth-Baker suggests. But she also says, “There were downsides to the rural Industrial Revolution, but given the benefits industrialization brought his family—free time, health, educational opportunities, financial security—I don’t know that my grandpa would have traded those drawbacks for a less energy-intensive world where he’d have had to work harder at an already hard job and maybe not done as well” (p. 144). Okay, that’s true as far as it goes, but it assumes the only choices her grandpa had are the ones she has in mind. This is anachronistic, and it hides the fact that her grandpa dealt with limited information, and that these really big
systems she puts so much hope in pretty much guarantee that regular people are not going to be able to see all the externalities and effects of their choices. But not telling people and relying on the technocrats is not the option people like the folks at Opower seem to be trying to choose.

At one point, when Koerth-Baker is arguing for carbon taxes, she says “A price on carbon would tell us what we want to know instantly, with up-to-the-minute accuracy—like trading out that beat-up Rand McNally for an iPhone” (p. 171). The core of my problem with this book is right here. An iPhone? Wouldn’t another metaphorical option be using the old map (which, after all, still gets most of the roads right), with a few penciled-in corrections and additions? Wouldn’t that be the best way to do efficiency
and conservation?