Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Tired of all Trump, all the time? Enlighten yourself with these books

by Leigh Pomeroy

The problem with our news media — whether it's print, TV, radio, internet, whatever — is that it is nearly always focused on the "now". There is very little perspective given to the past, and even less on the future.

I confess that I am an anti-news junkie. I do read the Mankato Free Press everyday because I happen to live in Mankato, Minnesota, and I like to keep up with what's going on locally. And I do listen to Minnesota Public Radio when I'm driving and when I'm cooking dinner. And since I contribute to this blog I stay attuned to certain internet-sourced news, particularly on environment and climate issues.

But I don't watch TV news. Don't have the patience for it.

For information I rely on something very antiquated in our society: They're called books. I love reading books, preferably if they're recently released and have to do with environment, science, economic and political issues. With that said, I am going to give you my three favorite books so far this year.

But first, let me qualify "favorite". For some people, "favorite" implies enjoyable. For me it means "packed with stuff I didn't know before AND well written." Anyway, here they are:

Dark Money by Jane Mayer

There have been numerous reviews on this book, ranging from the "love it!" to the "hate it!", depending upon the reviewer's political point of view. But what I like about the book is this: While I had been aware of the Koch influence on politics, I had never been acquainted with the exact details, only bits and pieces, and those too often came from sources that were avowedly anti-Koch.

What Mayer lays out in the book is a detailed history of the Kochs' dealings so that the reader might draw his or her own conclusion. Further, she doesn't paint the Kochs as bad, per se, but rather details what their companies and various so-called nonprofits do to put forward their libertarian vision, the vast majority of which is quite legal. Her indictment is as much one of our political system than of the Kochs themselves. She doesn't pound the reader with anti-Koch rhetoric, but rather lays out the details and lets the reader decide.

I have a friend, an emeritus professor of physics, who said that after reading each chapter he had to take a three-day break before reading the next one, the book made him so angry. Enough said.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

I first read about Hope Jahren while leafing thru TIME magazine's Most Influential People in 2016. This immediately led me to her book, Lab Girl, which was not only packed with information pursuant to my interests but entertaining and exceedingly well-written as well. On top of that, Jahren was born and raised in Austin, Minnesota, about an hour south of Mankato. (In the book, she describes the town but does not mention it by name. Interesting.) I have since recommended this book to all my scientist friends, both young and old, and particularly stressed it to young women either studying or working in the sciences.

In the media Jahren has been portrayed as a campaigner for women scientists and against the old-boy network in the sciences. But the book is more of a treatise on her love of science, of friendship and commitment, and of her own personal challenges apart from gender bias in the academic world. The chapter on her pregnancy and giving birth will tear your heart out, but other chapters will have you laughing out loud. How many books, fiction or nonfiction, can do those things?

Tipping Point for Planet Earth by Anthony D. Barnosky & Elizabeth A. Hadly

Also titled End Game: Tipping Point for Planet Earth?, depending whether one has the U.S. or U.K. edition, this is an overall compendium of all the reasons we should be afraid … very afraid … of the havoc humankind is wreaking on the planet. Other books have covered biological tipping points (e.g., The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert) and climate tipping points (e.g., Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen), but Tipping Point puts these together — plus population, food, water, pollution, disease, war and hyper-consumerism) — all in one volume updated to 2015. And what they cover is all scary shit indeed.

The lessons of the book are twofold: First, tipping points are not new to Planet Earth. There have been many throughout time, which the authors, as researchers in paleoecology, put forward in the book.

The second lesson is that since humanity has brought on the threat of the tipping points facing us today, it is up to humankind to hopefully eliminate the possibility of those tipping points. In other words, while we probably can't do anything about the eventuality of an asteroid crashing into the earth, as one did 66 million years ago leading to the extinction of three-quarters of all species, we can do something about overpopulation and climate change.

In sum

None of these books are what one might call light reading. But it's important for those of us who are baby boomers to understand the legacy of how we are leaving earth. It may not be our fault that the homo sapiens population has nearly tripled in our lifetimes, nor is it perhaps our fault that we have pursued the highly material-focused lifestyles that most of us have led. Quite simply, until now, most of us didn't know any better.

But now many of us have come to realize that our comfortable lifestyles have come with costs, and that most of those costs are going to be put off on our children and their children. Is this fair? Or even logical?

Reading books is not yet acting, but at least it's educating and not focusing on "all Trump, all the time." That's at least a good first step.

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