Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Books for the Future

In new nonfiction books I have a prejudice: I look for books that may tell me the future.  Books that might contribute to a better understanding of the most important factors likely to govern the future, and that suggest action and attitudes to make a better future, and certainly to forestall a much worse one.

Environmental topics are prominent among them.  I've reviewed here and elsewhere some of the major and also some of the lesser known but worthy books specifically on the climate crisis.  Here are glimpses of several more pertinent books:

Small, Gritty and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World by Catherine Tumber (MIT Press) is a model of the most valuable books for the future: it is on a specific but under-appreciated topic, it is very current and above all it is a laudable combination of thorough and relevant research (and reporting on such research), and it is well-organized, well written and readable, with useful notes, bibliography and index.

Millions of people live in these smaller cities, mostly in the northeast and midwest, that have rich histories but are neglected and generally ignored.  Tumber makes the case that these cities can not only be saved, but can be vital elements in the low-carbon future we must have if civilization is to have a continuous future at all.  These are cities like Syracuse, Youngstown and Hartford, but some of her findings and ideas can apply to the larger industrial cities now in various stages of confusion or deterioration.  Tumber stresses that this is a personal and even idiosyncratic book, involving personal experience as well as history and journalism.  Yet she comes up with very specific ideas on how these cities can contribute to a clean energy economy.

Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering by Clive Hamilton (Yale). However they reflect the moment, some of these books are destined to become reference works for the near future.  This is certainly one, for intentional climate engineering (as opposed to the unknowing kind that has been going on for more than a century, and still goes on even as we know better)  is still mostly a set of early ideas.  Yet because those ideas and research are being funded largely by the loose billions of fossil fuel and related companies, there is much impetus behind the scenes.  At the same time, Hamilton writes, "There is almost no information on public attitudes to geoengineering for the simple reason that almost no one has yet heard of it."

 This current research is apparently intended to offer technological fixes that won't require a switch from fossil fuel energy. Geoengineering projects are roundly criticized for their ineffectiveness and especially the foolhardy dangers they pose to the global environment.  Hamilton divulges who is doing what right now, and raises the practical and ethical issues involved.  Because such powerful interests are behind geoengineering, and also because some aspects of it may not require much technology or expenditure (and could even become a form of terrorism), this is a necessary book, a primer for the near future.

The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science by Akiko Busch (Yale)  For a long time the observation and even experimentation applied to the natural world was conducted by amateurs, by monks in gardens and part-time naturalists.  They were motivated by curiosity and wonder, and often by an intense involvement and fierce love for the nature in the place they lived.  Busch updates this impulse to the computer age, in the course of describing her involvement with her home grounds of the Hudson river valley.  As a physical book it feels good in the hand, with paper and print meant to last.  Therefore it serves the savoring kind of reading it deserves.  Her fundamental point is itself important: it is the citizen scientist--like indigenous ancestors--who are vital to the future of nature, and therefore to the future.

Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World by Stephen R. Kellert (Yale).  Kellert is something of an expert in the relation of humans to the rest of nature, and in this book he explores ways in which humans at various stages in their lives are naturally affiliated with nature, borrowing E.O. Wilson's term of biophilia.  His observations are wide-ranging, and the book includes personal observations of nature and scenarios of possible futures.  This relation of humans to the rest of nature is essential to our well-being, to who we are.  But we are in danger of destroying our own birthright.  Kellert makes a comprehensive case for why we must be conscious of this and act with it in mind to make sure future generations can claim this birthright.

Those who assume an apocalyptic future often do so based on an interpretation of evolutionary science and natural selection.  It is true that the dominant interpretations have stressed individuals engaged in a selfish survival of the fittest, and those manifest aspects of animal life that counteract this dominant view have been ignored and under-studied.  But new research is redressing the balance.

Two new books from MIT Press are good examples of these newly robust areas of study.  From Groups to Individuals: Evolution and Emerging Individuality, a collection edited by Frederick Bouchard and Phillippe Huneman  reviews research within the context of the move away from organisms as the primary agent of evolution, taking into consideration however not only constituents of what we describe as organisms, but groups.  What makes individuality turns out to be a lot more complicated in biology as philosophers, psychologists and other social scientists have found applied to humans.  This is a nice sized book, sturdy and illustrated with drawings and charts.  This seems an exciting academic field right now, with important implications for our general understanding, and our approach to our future.

The same may be said of Cooperation and Its Evolution, a collected edited by Kim Sterelny, Richard Joyce, Brett Calcott and Ben Fraser.  Topics range from microbiology to human philosophy, and while animal cooperation is explored, the emphasis is on the human.  With more than 500 pages of text in a hefty but easy to handle volume, many current issues and arguments are explored.  This is the latest contribution to bringing research together to see where we stand.  In general, the idea that there is an evolutionary basis for cooperation is becoming more and more acceptable, and freed from the constraints of seeming heresy, how cooperation and conscious decision-making for a better common future can be achieved is an exciting area for creative research and theories.

Within the world of political action, there are books about under-appreciated elements of the present that are forming and in some cases threatening the future.  Occupy the Future, a Boston Review volume published by MIT Press, is a group of essays edited by David Grusky, Doug McAdam, Rob Reich and Debra Satz.  It emerged from the Occupy Wall Street movement, but the book is not about the movement itself.  It describes the current major income inequality in America--the vast proportion of wealth in the hands of a very few--and its current and future implications.  It looks at the causes and effects, and suggests remedies.  In nearly 250 pages of text, it goes into some detail, and at the very least is informative about today's workplace and the effects of computerization, globalization etc.  The breakdown of chapters is well organized, and some individual chapters go into detail.  It's longer than the Boston Review books I've seen, but it's still a handy paperback size, though a sturdy hardback.

Finally, there's the impact of the still evolving universe of computing and cyberspace on the future that is becoming the present every day.  The latest history to provide some perspective is On Computing: The Fourth Great Scientific Domain by Paul S. Rosenbloom (MIT).  But this is more than a history--the author is arguing that computing joins the physical sciences, life sciences and social sciences as a separate domain: information transformation.  The incredible growth of computing has regularly been accompanied by outsized claims that turn out to be both less and more than the truth.  This is a provocative thesis, which will likely occupy speculation and study for awhile to come.

An occupational hazard of books about the fast-changing world formed by computing is instant obsolescence.  Still, reports such as Crowdsourcing by Daren C. Brabham (MIT) are valuable as snapshots of the present (or recent past) and especially as indications of direction for the immediate future, and expression of potential uses.  This is a well organized and thorough treatment of the phenomenon and related research, in a handy-sized volume, a paperback with the publishing quality of a hardback.

Then there are books that reflect an emerging field that makes particular use of computing potential and behavior while advocating for it.  Digital Humanities (MIT) by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp is creative description and manifesto for a view and a field that conceptualizes computing as a transformational technology within the traditional area of study called the humanities. The book includes a "short guide" that defines digital humanities as "an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the primary medium" for the production and dissemination of knowledge. The book, about the size of many children's picture books, contains many examples of such current research as well as directions for future inquiry.

An open version of this book is also available as a free digital download.

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