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A. Siegel

A. Siegel

Posted: November 14, 2009 05:16 PM

Energy Bookshelf: Ten More Worth Your Time Than Super Freaky Crap

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There are many (many) serious problems around the globe. And there are real opportunities to be had from taking on those challenges in smart ways.

Sadly, too much attention is given to those who deceive about the challenges and distort the implications of the options before us.

It truly is a travesty. Best-seller lists, the air waves, op-ed pages, and blog posts have been filled with Steven Levitt's and Steven Dubner's shallow, truthiness-laden Superfreakonomics. And there is a challenge here: do you ignore the deception in the book, so as not to give more attention to it, or challenge it directly and give it even more attention? In this case, the challenges are necessary since the authors' super(freaky)star status means that they and their travesty of a book will continue to get attention despite its non-truthful truthiness and misleading mediocrity on climate-change science and other issues. There are, essentially, innumerable works more worthy of our attention and engagement, even if we constrain ourselves simply to books also published in 2009.

We should be giving our attention elsewhere. Thus, here are ten books published this year that are more worthy of your time and money that the shallow distortions from the Super Freaky Economists of Superfreakonomics.

Policy / Science Discussions

Stephen Schneider's Science as a Contact Sport is a work that the Super Freaky Economist should have read before writing his work. Schneider's entire career, in essence, has been centered on the challenge of developing adequate models of the climate to enhance understanding of system dynamics and to enable better decision-making about future policy paths. Schneider owns up, directly, to mistakes through his career. Those mistakes and his owning up to them, as he highlights, show the very essence of the scientific process with the willingness to put out hypotheses to be tested by others, ready to learn from mistakes and errors and gaps to then be able to do work that stands up to scrutiny. Schneider has suffered from more than his share of 'he changed his mind' and 'he used to say' soundbites from global warming deniers. In this book, he provides windows on the science and the battles that have gone on without and around that science for the past 30+ years.

Schneider lays out "five easy pieces" as to why we've seen no action to avert climate catastrophe: "ignorance, greed, denial, tribalism, and short-term thinking." Each is quite simple, yet highly complex, and they combine to create serious obstacles to the necessary changes to enable a sustainable and prosperous future for humanity.

Perhaps my favorite single line is Schneider's description of what has changed through his career, that comes at the end of a paragraph outlining changes around the globe from wildfires increasing to the melting Arctic sea ice:

What has changed is not the basic science so much as the fact that nature is cooperating with theory.

Schneider is someone worth listening to and learning from.

James Hoggan's (and Richard Littlemore's) Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming should be, simply, required reading of every single journalism and marketing student, advertising executives and media editors. Building on the work of DeSmogBlog, they lay out details of the concerted efforts to distort the public discussion and understanding of climate change in a deliberate effort to inhibit action to mitigate climate change. As David Suzuki put it

"Climate Cover-Up documents one of the most disgusting stories ever hidden about corporate disinformation. What you'll discover in this book amounts to proof of an intergenerational crime."

Greg Craven's What's The Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response To The Climate Change Debate is the one work here that could, legitimately, be said to be targeted at the 'rational' climate skeptic (e.g, someone who truly merits the title "skeptic" rather than those Climate Cover-Up discusses). Craven provides a structured way to consider Global Warming as a non-scientist in a way that could, quite literally, provide value throughout one's life (from buying a home to deciding what job to take to ...). In essence, Craven posits that we face four possibilities: Climate Change isn't occurring and we act as if it is or isn't; Climate change is occurring and we act as it is or isn't. Craven then walks through his path of thinking through the problem and why it is, in the end, the best bet to act as if Climate Change is occurring -- no matter what one thinks about the state of the science.

I have to give Greg a lot of credit. He is a high school science teacher and reading this book makes me hope that my children encounter teachers like him.

And, well, this is a book that would not exist without YouTube.

Keith Farnish's time's up is a challenging read. Not challenging due to his writing style, which is something to relish, but to where Keith seeks to take us. Farnish lays out a compelling case not just for the seriousness of our energy and climate challenge, but also that our entire Industrial Culture stands of the way of taking serious action to forestall utter climate catastrophe. Keith is arguing not just that the current system will collapse, but that we should work to hasten that collapse, sooner rather than later, to reduce the extent and devastation of that fall. Keith ties in science, philosophy, and a call for serious political activism. While unlikely, due to what follows, Keith's first section on "the scale of the problem" should be on the reading list for every high school and college student globally, and of merit for reading by all. Keith starts at the 1/10th millionth of a meter, with micro-organisms, and provides a compelling integration of the challenges and interconnections moving up an order of magnitude each time through 100 meters and beyond. This is a window on our problems that would be eye-opening for most. [Note: You can find Keith at Unsuitablog.)

Lester Brown's Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization should be, but sadly is not, on the desk top of every single politicians and business leader around the globe. While some might question the resources this would take, Lester lays out the seriousness of our challenge and provides a series of steps and tools that could help extricate us from the disaster we've created and are creating. While most around the globe are speaking of an 80% reduction in carbon emissions from 1990 (or, sigh, 2005) levels by 2050, Plan B lays out a rational path for achieving those reductions by 2020. That is the sort of effort and sort of timeline that might enable us to avoid climate catastrophe.

Personal stories with larger implications

Novella Carpenter's Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer lays bare her experiences building a full-fledged farm environment via, in essence, squatting on a neighboring lot for an extensive garden. From the colorful description of her neighbors and neighborhood, to discussions of collecting manure which make you almost want to clean off your shoes, to the powerful sections about slaughtering various animals (rabbits, fowl, pigs), Carpenter will draw you into her life and make you wonder whether 'urban farming' is a path for you to take. Truth be told, urban farming is one of the silver BBs to help solve numerous challenges (from water runoff, to urban heat islands, and so on. Carpenter provides a window, of both wondrous (sharing the joy of that warm tomato with neighbors) and problematic (filth in the home), on the tribulations and triumphs of an aspiring farmer.

Colin Bean's No Impact Man looks at the challenge of transforming a life (actually, three lives) in the center of New York from take-out heavy and full-trash bag life-style to one having 'no impact' on the planet. The core question for the whole experience: "Can you have a good life without wasting so much?"

James Glave's Almost Green is a look at the reality of 'trying to go green' and the obstacles that stand between an individual home owner's desires to do a green extension and the realities that the infrastructure doesn't exist, for most of us, to do this easy. Having done a small renovation, with its green triumphs and failures, I saw much of myself in parts of the discussion. Often a hilarious read, Glave provides a window on social, informational, building code, and other challenges that stand between 'the average' person and doing better by the environment.

To add to your 'beach' reading, there are two works of Fiction for consideration

Eric Lotke, 2044: The Problem isn't Big Brother, It's Big Brother, INC, looks to the challenges of bringing tangible solutions to fruition in the face of (serious) competing corporate financial (and power, as if that is different) interests. This dystopian novel takes us through an engineer's discovery of a free way to desalinate water in (seriously) water constrained future. His willingness to sacrifice everything in an altruistic desire to improve humanity's condition slams face first into a logical, albeit terrifying, projection of current corporate powers and policies. The result is, well, not necessarily predictable.

As Eli put it in his review,

The world Eric Lotke has created in 2044 is a progressive's nightmare. Almost every exasperating trend we see today has been extrapolated to its logical extreme ...

the world of 2044 is not as nakedly dystopian as that of 1984. The corporations rule through manipulation rather than overt oppression -- as long as everyone stays in their lane and does what they're supposed to, they can be perfectly happy. Where 1984 was a bleak prison camp with guards and cameras and barbed wire, 2044 is a well-manicured lawn with an invisible fence.

S. Terrell French, in Operation Redwood, provides a window on the fight to protect some of the magnificent forests on the planet: the spectacular Redwood forests in California. French's novel is an engaging story of four children and the fight to save one grove from clear-cutting. A quick and amusing read which, based on the four sixth-graders who reported on it to me, has the potential to open eyes of young people about individual action and the use of media action to help turn the tide on devastation of our environment. At times, for this reader at least, the writer made me close my eyes and think.
a game his fifth-grade teacher had taught the class: He tried to imagine how the land might have looked five hundred years earlier ... It was harder than it seemed at first.

The telephone poles and buildings and fence and cows were the easiest to erase. But it was almost impossible to imagine away the highway. The road, with cars and trucks and buses racing along it at seventy miles per hour, seemed like something permanent, an eternal passageway ...

Even the trees and plants might have changed. That was the trickiest part, his teacher had said. San Francisco, for example, was covered with eucalyptus trees. But those trees came from Australia! They wouldn't have been there five hundred years ago.

Five hundred years wasn't so long. But everything had changed ...

Remember, of course, that a redwood's age can be measured in thousands of years.

FYI: This is not necessarily a 'top ten of 2009 list', but a varied list of books taken from the Energy Bookshelf that each have greater value for advancing our national discussion than distortions and deceptions from the Super Freaks of Economics profession. The list of published 2009 books that are more worthy of your attention would not go on for pages, but 100s of pages. All of the above, however, each have their values for providing a window on the challenges we face and paths to seize the opportunities from those challenges.


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