These are the books that marked the year for me.* Each resonated in one way or another with things I’ve learned as a researcher in Ethiopia and Congo, and as a dad.
1. The landgrabbers: The new fight over who owns the Earth, by Fred Pearce (2012).
Since the food crisis of 2008, there’s been a rush by food-importing countries to buy up land overseas on which to grow food (or fuel) for the folks back home. Pearce, an award-winning science journalist, traveled the world looking into the ramifications of this phenomenon for local people. The crops involved range from wheat to jatropha (used for biofuels), and every continent is represented — though Africa, with the cheapest land and least accountable governments, figures prominently.
2. Full planet, empty plates, by Lester Brown (2012).
This book provides more back-story on the food crisis, and describes how — unless we tackle it quickly — climate change will likely lead to mass starvation over the next century. Under “Business as Usual,” we face a 6-degree rise in average temperatures by the end of the century; and for each degree rise, crop yields fall by 10%. Usefully, Brown has a plan for getting out of this mess. The short version is drastic energy reforms (reducing carbon emissions by 80% in a decade) combined with measures to reduce population growth through combating poverty and spreading education.
3. Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway (2010)
If we are to have any hope of pulling this off, we will have to study a little history, and there are important lessons to be learned from the battles to regulate CFCs, tobacco, and noxious pesticides. The historians of science Oreskes and Conway have studied these cases in depth, and they make two key points: (1) The marketers of the products have never submitted easily; they’ve fought tooth and nail, and in every case action by citizens has been crucial. Carbon pollution is the current front in this war, and given the wealth and influence of the corporations concerned — and the heavy dependence of the industrialized world on dirty energy — this battle dwarfs the others. (2) The “lack of scientific consensus” that has slowed down the transition to cleaner technologies can be traced to a few merchants of doubt — ideologues with scientific credentials who are on the payroll of the companies that profit from the status quo.
4. Raising Elijah: Protecting our children in an age of environmental crisis, by Sandra Steingraber (2011)
This book personalizes the issue of environmental risks, and highlights its special relevance to parents and children. Diagnosed with cancer as a young adult, Steingraber recounts her attempts to raise her son without the risks she faced. Well versed in biology, and with an inquisitive bent, she finds dangers lurking all around, and sets out to remodel her family’s lifestyle to minimize them. “Once you know,” she writes, “you can’t not know.” If we would see our children (and theirs) live well, we will all have to make courageous decisions like her, and push our political representatives to do likewise. As my wife Selam and I are supporting our son through his cancer treatment, this book struck a strong chord.
5. Conservation refugees: The hundred-year conflict between global conservation and native peoples, by Mark Dowie (2009).
After returning from the Congo to London this autumn I learned that the communities who’d hosted us during our research had been evicted from the forest camps they called home, on the grounds that they were engaged in unsustainable hunting. This came as a surprise, but it turns out it’s part of a widespread phenomenon of indigenous people being evicted from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation — becoming conservation refugees. Dowie pulls together many such stories and asks how conservationists became involved in injustices like this. He exposes as a fallacy the idea that people and nature are intrinsically opposed, and proposes a formula for covenants that indigenous peoples might make with governments and conservation organizations, to manage their homelands sustainably.
If the foregoing has depressed you, read on. The rest are more hopeful!
6. One illness away: Why poor people become poor and how they escape poverty, by Anirudh Krishna (2010)
Although it hardly needs saying for anyone who’s familiar with conservation refugees like the !Kung/Basarwa, the idea that poor people are “born, not made” is obsolete. Krishna is an economist who’s done a lot to promote the idea of poverty flows, and here he describes a method he devised for identifying the steps that families pass through on their way down into or up out of poverty. He and his colleagues have applied this method in communities on all four continents, and what emerges is a typology of hazards — snakes and ladders — that can tip people everywhere into poverty or help pull them out. (The book’s title is an allusion to the most common hazard of all: a catastrophic illness that ends up draining a household’s capital.) The logical next step is to put in place institutions (such as nationalised medical care) that protect people from these traps, or buffer them when they fall down.
7. Literacy and mothering: How women’s schooling changes the lives of the world’s children, by Robert A. LeVine, Sarah LeVine, Beatrice Schnell-Anzola, Meredith Rowe, and Emily Dexter. (2012).
One widely recognized route out of poverty is education. Literacy and Mothering shows how women’s schooling also contributes to the health of the next generation, by equipping mothers with a set of linguistic skills that facilitate effective communication in clinics and increase their receptivity to authoritative bureaucratic advice. This is the first systematic demonstration of how “what kids learn in school” translates into improved child survival. It ought to stimulate educators to maximize the contributions that schools make to this process — and motivate clinicians to devise ways of communicating more effectively with patients who lack the skills that schooling provides. (It inspired me to carry out a similar investigation in Ethiopia for my PhD; I’ve written a longer review of the book here.)
8. Whose freedom? The battle over America’s most important idea, by George Lakoff (2007)
There’s a big political dimension to each of the challenges in the books reviewed here — transitioning to clean energy, eradicating poverty, and improving education systems. For that reason, this book by a Berkeley cognitive scientist and linguist is perhaps the most hopeful of the lot. What Lakoff does is break down the very sophisticated communication techniques of the American conservative movement, and demonstrate how they can be harnessed by progressives. His focus is on the radically opposing associations — and therefore, meanings — of the word freedom for conservatives and progressives; and his argument is that reaffirming a progressive meaning of freedom (which includes the freedom to live a healthy life) may be a prerequisite to progress on many other causes.
9. The Neighborhood Project: Using evolution to improve my city, one block at at time, by David Sloan Wilson (2011).
In social work, it’s rare to find compelling “evidence-based” policy that’s framed in terms of evolutionary biology. Wilson (the son of a novelist who grew up to be an evolutionary anthropologist) has made important contributions to the theory of multilevel selection (the idea that natural selection operates at the level of genes and groups as well as at the level of individual organisms) and the evolution of religions; and more recently he’s emerged as an evangelist for evolution as a resource for improving human communities. In this book he describes his first attempts to apply evolutionary ideas to civic life in his hometown of Binghamton, New York. Wilson was recently interviewed about this project on Krista Tippett’s radio programme, On Being.
I first read this work (also known as the Tao te Ching) as a teenager, and something led me back to it this past year. Rather than attempt to summarize the collection of poems, I quote here a stanza from one of my favourites, in the translation of Witter Bynner:
Can you hold the door of your tent
Wide to the firmament?
Can you, with the simple stature
Of a child breathing nature,
* The list doesn’t necessarily draw on things published in 2013. No apologies for not being up to the minute. (I’m still catching up on five thousand years of literature!)