Thursday, January 16, 2014

Two Books on the Future

The Future of Nature
edited by Libby Robin, Sverker Sorlin, Paul Warde
Yale Press

This is an anthology that traces prediction and other aspects of anticipating future consequences and possibilities applied to the natural world.  It presents essays from the past--from Thomas Malthus and Alexander von Humboldt to Rachel Carson and mostly less familiar names--and appends contemporary commentaries by the editors and others.  Meant to "promote conversations," it includes a trenchant introduction that sets the current framework.

The essays and commentaries are divided into sections (population, natural resources, technology and climate among them) that also serve as a rough chronology of issues as they arose in the western world from the late 18th century to now.  Some of these are fairly broad agenda-setting essays, and many are more technical.

As with any anthology, one can argue with the selection.  I found the total absence of Paul Shepard especially troubling for a sufficient perspective.  But the major problem may be suggested by the commentary to Alva Mydral's 1972 essay "To Choose A Future."  Arne Kaijser rightly notes that this period of the early 70s was the heyday of Future Studies, and the attempt to bring together discipline and constituencies to focus on the future.  What it doesn't say is that future studies as an enterprise soon faded, especially in the U.S. but probably in Europe as well.  The future turned out to be a big and complex place, the computer technology of the time wasn't up to dealing with all the categories and data, and political winds shifted.  Academic approaches moved on as well.  Aspects of it continued but focused on more specific areas.

So the broader readership that might enter into this conversation is probably otherwise engaged, or more likely otherwise unengaged.  That's not these editors' fault certainly.  The limitations of this volume are made up to a degree by specificity, and its heartening to know that at least European academics are thinking even this contextually.  This is a solid contribution which should provoke meaningful conversations on the future of nature, which it demonstrates is also the future of the future.

The Future Is Not What It Used To Be:
Climate Change and Energy Scarcity
By Jorg Friedrichs
MIT Press

Author Freidrichs teaches in the department of International Development at Oxford, and his previous books have been on terrorism and international relations theory.  So this book focuses on geopolitical consequences of climate change and energy scarcity.  But in doing so he is focusing on the survival of civilization, and its "core values."

The future is first of all not going to be a continuation or slight variation of the present.  While in the short term industrial countries can "easily mitigate some of the social and political effects of climate change," as the climate crisis becomes more serious, industrial civilization may not be able to "bail out places in mayhem," and will find itself under internal pressures from its own catastrophes.  And once underway (which it is) the nature of climate change leads to unpredictable consequences.  That's due to its dual nature: a set of gradual changes, punctuated by large and sudden disasters.  And that's the best case scenario.  Sudden and extreme climate change overall is still and always possible.  Nobody's done this to the planet before.

I believe his key point is this: "the durability of industrial society cannot be taken for granted in a turbulent world."  He employs arguments and statistics to shake the complacency of those who believe otherwise.  But though he notes in his introduction "Facing the future is not for wimps,"  he believes that facing the consequences of the climate crisis is necessary.  In his final chapter he promotes "resilience" (the latest climate crisis buzzword, and possibly the only good one) and "transformability."  He writes that the human ability to control its environment is an essential feature of civilization, but he doesn't opt for a particular technological solution. He notes that when all is said and done, our civilization depends on qualities such as "goodness." To realize how non-simplistic this is may require reading what comes before it in this book, about the extent and likelihood of future dangers.   He principally argues against the many forms of denial that prevent even approaching this most profound challenge.

Incidentally, the expression "the future is not what it used to be" ( or "ain't what it used to be") I associate with Arthur C. Clarke, but the Internet tells me its earliest known appearance in English is from Laura Riding and Robert Graves in the 1930s.  It's often attributed to Yogi Berra (along with almost everything else) and is the title of a song recorded by, among others, Meatloaf.  It's also been the title of several previous books.  But then, so has The Future of Nature.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

How To Read Literature
By Terry Eagleton
Yale Press

In his preface, Terry Eagleton suggests that the "slow reading"--or reading analytically, conscious of the appropriate literary elements--is fading away, and his goal is to provide a short book to keep it going.  The book is organized into sections: Openings, Character, Narrative, Interpretation and Value.

Eagleton approaches mostly well-known novels and poems with his characteristic wit, though his comedy stylings sometime come at the expense of accuracy. He denigrates Shakespeare's comedies for not being very funny, knowing full well that the term 'comedy' in this context is all about happy endings (marriage usually) and not at all about hilarity.  He belabors some points as analytic philosophers are wont to do, though in his case it seems he's sometimes just setting up a laugh line.  "The Great Wall of China resembles the concept of heartache in that neither can peel a banana." And you know, green ideas sleep furiously. It's Groucho doing G.E. Moore.

So, depending on your taste in humor, this book is entertaining.  It's also informative on a number of classic works.  He's particularly good on Dickens.  I read this in advanced page proofs, so I felt no compunction in marking up the text, and I find a number of highlighted passages, but a few pages with "bullshit" bannered across the top.

Strictly speaking  this is not in form or content a book on how to read literature.  One can learn things about these literary texts and about some analytical tools from reading it, but Eagleton too often states his opinion, his reading, as fact.