måndag 16 juli 2012

Books I've read on my vacation


"Books I've read recently" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). For the summer I have taken a pause in my "regular" reading schedule (I have the next seven books lined up and they will keep me busy for the major part of the fall). Below are some books I've read in Swedish about what's wrong in society today. Usually I read (at least) 25 pages every weekday (≥ 125 pages/week), but I've put in an overdrive and read (at least) 25 pages every day right on my vacation (≥ 175 pages/week). I'm basically reading one book per week right now. 

I sprinkle my reading of non-fiction books with (predominantly science) fiction and have during my vacation re-read John Barnes' disaster novel "Mother of storms" (1992). I have decided to mix in and re-read some old favorites from my bookshelf - books that I read (at least) 10 years ago and that I like a lot back then. I hope I will like them as much the second time around and "Mother of storms" was just as good as when I read it in 1996. I wholeheartedly recommend it - except for one reason. I've read several books by Barnes and he has lively imagination and a, well, sadistic streak, so some passages in the book are extremely unsavory and "disturbing" (mixing hybrid/virtual reality, sex and violence). It's a great book, but it's not a book for children, adolescents or other "sensitive" persons. The basic plot revolves around the effects of an inadvertent-but-human-triggered release of vast amounts of methane (Siberian methane clathrates) into the atmosphere. This leads to a rapid increase in global warming and an immediate effect on sea temperatures. Hurricane-formation areas (with water temperatures of at least 26.5 °C down to a depth of at least 50 meters) expand vastly, producing hurricanes of unheard strength: "In the middle of the Pacific, a gigantic hurricane thousands of miles across is forming, larger than any in human history. A storm with winds of supersonic speed. A storm that changes direction at whim. A storm that refuses to die. A storm so vast is spawns dozens more in its wake." These super-hurricanes basically scour any Islands or even whole countries that come in their way (goodbye numerous Pacific islands and goodbye Hawaii, Bangladesh, Ireland). I think the book is more relevant today, with all the worries about global warming and climate change, than when it was published 20 years ago.

Moving on to non-fiction, I read Barbara Ehrenreich's "Gilla läget: Hur allt gick åt helvete med positivt tänkande" (2009) with pleasure. I actually planned to read it last summer, but didn't come around to it (other books took precedence). The English title varies between "Bright-sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America", "Bright-sided: How positive thinking is undermining America", and best of all, "Smile or die: How positive thinking fooled America and the world". Based on her own experiences as a breast cancer victim, Ehrenreich lashes out against the culture of positive thinking that pervades (primarily but not exclusively) the US. Apparently lots of people think that good things will happen to them (automatically?) if they adopt a "positive attitude" in their daily lives. There are lots of coaches and other snake oil salesmen of pseudo-scientific theories around who will explain why that is the case and (for example) why God wants you to be rich. If individual suckers fall for it, so be it, but most frightening of all is how this sort of mystical thinking has been adopted even in the highest circles of business (think pre-financial crisis meltdown) and politics (think Bush's invasion of Iraq or current Eurozone woes). A tale like this - a global civilization fooling itself into thinking that nothing can go wrong as long as we fervently wish for the best - just can't have a happy ending...

Which brings me to the last two books in this blog post, David Jonstad's "Kollaps: Livet vid civiliationens slut" [Collapse: Life at the end of civilization] and Björn Forsberg's "Omställningens tid: Tillväxtens slut och jakten på en hållbar framtid" [The Age of transition: The end of economic growth and the pursuit of a sustainable future]. Both books are published 2012 and their contents overlap quite a bit. They both take as their starting point the assumption that we've come to the end of road in terms of economic growth and material wealth, and that we are entering an age of something very different. Call it "degrowth" or call it "decline" or "collapse" - both Jonstad and Forsberg assume it will be the end of the world as we know it, i.e. the end of advanced and advancing industrial society. 

For someone not acquainted with these ideas, Jonstad's book is the more basic and pedagogical book to pick up. It tells a very thorough (and convincing) story of how we came to be where we are, why it's not possible to proceed any further in the same direction and then sketches out what societal "collapse" actually means (hint: it's usually a slow process, unfolding over decades) and what we can expect ahead of us. Jonstad's crutch is archeologist Joseph Tainter's classical book "The collapse of complex societies", but where Tainter only looked back in time, Jonstad projects into the future. Forsberg's book is to a higher extent written for those who are already familiar with these ideas, and the basic question he poses is "where can we find examples of what life will look like in a post-growth world"? Who is leading the way and where can we find the inspiring examples of how to handle coming societal changes? Let's just say that the answers to these questions are not to be found in "the center" (Brussels, or Washington D.C. for example), but rather in the periphery. Forsberg's search takes him to different parts of Sweden, to Denmark and even to small-scale ecological urban gardens in Detroit and Cuba. Forsberg is very good with formulations and it is sometimes a pure joy to read select sentences or paragraphs. Despite this, I felt that his previous book, "The last days of economic growth" (2007) was even more forceful as it was fueled by red hot fury against a society enthusiastically sawing off the branch we are sitting on. His new book continues where the previous book ended. I very much recommend both of these books.

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