Some recommendations for summer reading for DKosers

Published online 19 May 2007.

This is my set of recommendations for summer reading for DKosers.  The reviews published here will take the perspective offered by Paulo Freire in his “On The Right And The Duty to Change the World” where he argues:

The future does not make us.  We make ourselves in the struggle to make it.

(crossposted at Progressive Historians)

Some summer reading suggestions for Kosers:

Books reviewed:
Ward-Perkins, Bryan.  The Fall of Rome and the End of
.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.
Diamond, Jared.  Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or
.  New York: Penguin/Viking, 2005.
Johnston, Josee et al. (Eds.) Nature’s Revenge: Reclaiming Sustainability in an Age of Corporate Globalization. Petersborough, Ontario, Canada: Broadview P, 2006.
Funes, Fernando et al. (Eds.)  Sustainable Agriculture and
Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba
.  Milford CT: Food First, 2002.

When I was growing up in the 1970s there was this commonly-used stereotype of the “knee-jerk liberal.”  Today, the US is run by knee-jerk conservatives, and if you believe the economic wisdom of Harry Shutt, the neoliberal “revolution” of the 1980s was “more a desperate ad hoc response to the failure of Keynesianism than a genuine, reasoned attempt to address the problems arising from the reappearance of the business cycle.”  So we are, in fact, living under knee-jerk economics as well as knee-jerk politics.  The whole system, in fact, is motivated by a knee-jerk opposition to popular rule, and is held together by huge and increasing financial support for candidates who swear beforehand to support powerful fractions of capital.  The super-rich cannot simply let go of government, as it is too profitable an investment and its loss to the public will would incur too high an opportunity cost.
Readers of should, then, see rule by knee-jerk conservatives (and other knee-jerk representatives of capital) as fundamentally irrational, that is, as guided by immediate, predatory desires rather than by any concern for the integrity of the systems which they rule.  The existential problem our society’s elites are stuck in is called “presentism,” which shows itself as a tendency of moneyed and empowered interests to capitalize upon the present situation (pun intended) without consideration of the crises piling up in the long term.  So that’s what we should “work on” when we pursue summer reading.  Summer reading, I think, should try as hard as it can to detract from “presentism,” regardless of its origin.  Isn’t the point of summer to give everyone a chance to experience hot weather, relax, slow down a bit, and get away from immediacy?  So, in my opinion, summer reading should focus on the “long run.”  I think that books with titles such as Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century make appropriate summer reading.
For reflections upon the long term one can start by reading history, in which the long term is a historical period.  We can use the recollections that make up history to speculate about the possible shape of the future, and so history is good to read and understand.  I will be reading this history, however, along with the perspective-toward-the-future of the educator Paulo Freire, who in his “Second Letter: On The Right And The Duty to Change The World,” said: “The future does not make us.  We make ourselves in the struggle to make it.” (34)  In short, I use history in the struggle to make the future, and make myself in the process.
In light of this utilitarian motive for reading history, one reflection we should heartily encourage this summer is that of the collapse of past historical civilizations, since we would do well (in light of recent discussions of abrupt climate change) to avoid suffering the collapse of ours.  An especially good text on this subject is Bryan Ward-Perkins’ (2005) The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

When I was little, I used to avidly read National Geographic magazine, and one of the most enchanting issues of “NG” (as I called it) was put out sometime in 1962.  At any rate, this issue of National Geographic had a great article with a series of paintings depicting what the article’s author thought were the defining events of the Middle Ages.  The one which inspired me the most, I imagine with hindsight, was that of Cassiodorus in his Vivarium (!), but there was another one which excited my young mind: the Visigothic king Alaric and his troops ravaging the city of Rome in the year 410 CE.  This, of course, was the defining moment of what is now, with great fanfare, called the “decline and fall of the Roman Empire.”  Bryan Ward-Perkins, in his small and accessible book The Fall of Rome, writes to resuscitate that tradition.
Ward-Perkins writes against the trend in historiography to downplay the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West and to minimize the violence of this collapse and the disappearance of civilization in western Europe that accompanied it.  The argument of The Fall of Rome is that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the west was rather violent, and moreover it ushered in a “dark age” that was more primitive than western Europe before the Roman Empire itself.  The argument assembled in The Fall of Rome is persuasive on the grounds of a wide body of evidence, and moreover this book makes a fun read for all of the controversy it attempts to create.
As for the cause of this decline and fall, Ward-Perkins cites mainly the civil wars and invasions of the first decade of the fifth century after Christ.  The civil wars were pivotal for Ward-Perkins:

During the very important years between 407 and 413, the Emperor Honorius (resident in Italy) was challenged, often concurrently, by a bewildering array of usurpers: a puppet-emperor supported by the Goths; two usurpers in Gaul (Constantine III and Jovinus); one in Spain (Maximus); and one in Africa (Heraclian). (43-44)

If the various Roman armies had fought the Germanic invaders instead of each other, he argues, the Empire might have survived in the West, we are told.  The decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the West is not seen as inevitable.
As for the Dark Ages, moreover, Ward-Perkins cites a wide variety of archeological studies that show a broad decline in economic complexity in the centuries of the Roman Empire’s decline.  The evidence cited especially includes investigations of pottery and coin finds, which are said to have declined or disappeared upon the Roman Empire’s retreat.  But the author summarizes:

We notice Roman jewellery and precious metal work less than their post-Roman equivalents, mainly because we are distracted by a mass of other luxury items that disappeared (or became very scarce) after the end of the empire: marbled and mosaiced private houses, in both town and country; baths with piped water and underfloor heating; a plethora of exotic foods, spices, and wines… (151)

Ward-Perkins shows that the comforts of civilization disappeared with the Roman Empire, not to reappear for centuries.  Great swathes of population disappeared, agricultural productivity declined, new buildings became much smaller, non-monastic literacy disappeared (138-168).  In many places, decline and fall took place over centuries: The decline of North African pottery, for instance, took place over two and a half centuries (106).  But it definitely happened.  The conclusion the author draws about the disappearance of pottery is a spooky one for us: if local production is replaced by mass production, as happened in the Roman Empire, and if that mass production disappears, then local production must be re-learned from scratch, a process which could take centuries.
So what constitutes a threat to our civilization such that it might suffer collapse?  Here I might recommend Jared Diamond’s (2005) Collapse which, although it does not analyze our civilization all too carefully, does examine the historical data of several civilization-wide collapses (not just the Roman one) to discover causes of civilization-wide collapse (though perhaps we ought to think primarily in terms of sustained decline), and apply them to our own society.  Diamond suggests that collapse is basically a matter of failure to solve environmental problems, although at the beginning of his book he suggests that the main problem of the Romans was “hostile neighbors” (13), a problem which does not make it onto the environmental roster at the end. In the last chapter of Collapse, after the main body of the book (which examines how various societies deal with environmental problems), Diamond discusses the environmental problems facing “our society today.”  He makes twelve points, as follows:

  1. “We are destroying natural habitats” (487)
  1. Wild foods such as fish are dying out (488)
  1. Biodiversity is shrinking (488)
  1. Precious farmland soil is being damaged by erosion (489)
  1. Energy resources are being wasted (490)
  1. Precious fresh water is being wasted (490)
  1. Plant communities are shrinking (491)
  1. Toxic chemicals have harmed the global environment (491)
  1. Humans are spreading predator species (which Diamond calls “alien species”) around the world, disrupting native species habitats (492)
  1. Human-produced gases such as carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons are disrupting the Earth’s atmosphere, and thus its climate (493)
  1. Population growth threatens the world’s environment (494)
  1. The human population creates too big an environmental footprint (495).

Each of these trends duly counts as a possible cause of civilization-wide decline.  Perhaps problem number ten is the most obviously catastrophic of the bunch: abrupt climate change could disrupt weather patterns, causing widespread famines or plagues.  When I read about global warming I imagine the US in the grip of a malaria epidemic, as tropical diseases (West Nile virus for instance) move northward.  I can, when reading about this stuff, imagine several lousy growing seasons in California or on the Great Plains, one after the other in worsening succession.  It could really suck.  All of the other problems Diamond cited are doubtless going to make life even worse than that.
As an author, Diamond is a fun, environmentally-sensitive, geographical historian.  He has a comprehensive grasp of a wide variety of geographic locations.  His previous magnum opus Guns, Germs, and Steel was a colorful look at the effects of botanical variation on history.  This book is a look at the Viking settlement in Greenland, the Easter Island civilization, and of many others.  Moreover, his environmental sensitivity is greatly to be applauded as relevant to the matter of “collapse” that forms his title.  If the current world civilization faces the possibility of a long-range decline and fall, this is mainly because of the environmental damage it is doing.  In the current political climate, war does not look like it will destroy us all, though it certainly could.  And economic downturns, though serious, will probably not become dangerous enough to threaten civilization itself.  So environmental devastation is probably the worst thing we might face in the future, and Diamond is to be applauded for seeing this.
His vision of the world-society, however, is not focused enough that he can write up, in Collapse, a fair calculation of the odds for (or against) its collapse.  Instead, he spends plenty of ink praising the efforts of the Chevron (Texaco) corporation (443-452), while avoiding confrontation with the main environmental problem – not Chevron’s extraction methods, certainly, but world-society’s addiction to Chevron Texaco’s crude oil.
At the very end of Collapse, we are given a list of reasons for hope.  One of the most important of these reasons is that, according to Diamond, our problems are solvable:

Because we are the cause of our environmental problems, we are the ones in control of them, and we can choose or not choose to stop causing them and start solving them.  The future is up for grabs, lying in our own hands.  We don’t need new technologies to solve our problems; while new technologies can make some contribution, for the most part we “just” need the political will to apply solutions already available.  Of course, that’s a big “just.”  But many societies did find the necessary political will in the past.  Our modern societies have already found the will to solve some of our problems, and to achieve partial solutions to others.  (521-522)

Diamond makes it seem so easy!  The problem with his analysis, here, is that of figuring out what “political will” is needed to bring world-society to a sustainable state.  In another example in the second-to-last paragraph, Diamond shows how easy he thinks it is:

…the world would not even have to decrease its current consumption rates of timber products or of seafood: those rates could be sustained or even increased, if the world’s forests and fisheries were properly managed.(525)

Diamond uses these “signs of hope” to undercut the danger warnings which form his twelve-point list at the beginning of the chapter.
This points to a contradiction in his logic – if the idea of “civilization-wide collapse” doesn’t apply to our civilization, because it is more versatile than all those that preceded it, then “civilization-wide collapse” is just an obsolete relic of history.  On the other hand, if our society could collapse, then it may not be as easy to stop social decline as Diamond thinks it is.  We might just mismanage our resources into oblivion, with Jared Diamond praising the behavior of Chevron Texaco all the way down.
An alternate understanding of “resource management” is given by Josee Johnston et al. in a recently published book titled Nature’s Revenge.  Nature’s Revenge is a collection of essays which connect the operation of local environmental defense movements to the movements of global capitalism.  The authors of this collection tend to critique the ideology of “sustainable development” as an excuse for predatory businesses to stay in business.  In the second essay in this edited volume, Josee Johnston discusses “sustainable mining” in this way:
A general progress toward sustainability is assumed, leaving continuing acts of ecological devastation unmentioned and unnamed (e.g. the powerful business lobby blocking progress toward climate-change controls and the aggressive marketing of fossil-fuel automotives around the world).

What the case of a “sustainable” mining industry reveals is how the sustainability discourse works to maintain and legitimize an overall system goal of economic growth.  Once a few minor adjustments are made to account for the most noxious externalities, such as untreated sulphur dioxide emissions, the global economy can feel free to grow exponentially.  Here the sustainable-development discourse works to facilitate commodification and capital accumulation by mandating sustainable profits over the long term. (45)

So, for Johnston, “sustainable development” is being used as a façade for unsustainable business behavior.  Oil-pumping, like mining, is an unsustainable industry per se – once you pry something out of the Earth, it’s no longer there, and you can dig deeper into the ground for more of it (after you’ve extracted the good stuff at the top), but that can get expensive.  And both oil-pumping and mining can harm the surface ecologies on top of the Earth, too.  Maybe “sustainable development” is supposed to mean something more than the excuse that “we’ll try to be more responsible in the future” from ecologically-irresponsible businesses.
The rest of Nature’s Revenge, written by various contributors, carries much the same attitude as Johnston’s piece: its authors defend local interests against politicians and big capital, while pursuing the defenders of capitalism into a theoretical cul-de-sac.  For instance, in an article on electricity restructuring in Canada (Marjorie Griffin Cohen’s “Electricity Restructuring’s Dirty Secret,” pp. 73-95), the author makes the important point that, within capitalism, politicians can’t be trusted:

If business has been strong enough to bring about a deregulated electricity market, it will be strong enough to oppose new regulatory measures.  The proposals of environmentalists who support deregulation are, in many cases, good proposals, but they are used politically more as selling points for deregulation by politicians who have no intention of re-regulating for “green.” (94)

Or from an article discussing “sustainable development” as seen from the perspective of local residents of Oaxaca, Mexico:

Although the sustainable discourse – promoted, largely, by the international community and some NGOs in industrialized countries – is generally a camouflage for the capitalist rationale, it has been an inspiration for an alternative approach based on the local appropriation of these comments.  (184)

Generally, Nature’s Revenge is eco-socialist (269), but its essayists argue from the perspectives of local activists who would seek a sustainable society from where they stand.  The perspective in Nature’s Revenge prompts me to ask questions of Jared Diamond’s book like this: what kind of “resource management” would address both the ecological attention Chevron gives to its oil derricks, and its inattention to the climactic effects of all that oil burning?
Given global society’s unsustainable daily burning of 85 million barrels of crude oil, it might be good to look for supports for a global civilization that would otherwise collapse.  One of these supports might be sustainable agriculture, to be achieved through ecologically harmonious crop formations.  One place where experimentation with sustainable agriculture has had great success is Cuba.  Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba gives the reader a hint of what can be accomplished in terms of “resource management” under the conditions of a command economy.
Most of this volume, a collaboration between the Institute for Food and Development Policy (“Food First!”) in Oakland and the Cuban government, is a detailed list of the things Cuba is doing to promote sustainable, low-input agriculture.  The principles of an “alternative paradigm” of agriculture, applicable not just to Cuba but to the rest of the world, are spelled out in an introduction by two of the American authors (xix):

  1. Agroecological technology instead of chemicals: “Cuba has used intercropping, locally produced biopesticides, compost, and other alternatives to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.”
  1. Fair prices for farmers: the complaint given in the book is that “farmers everywhere lack incentive to produce when prices are kept artificially low,” but this is typically a byproduct of the inundation of markets with cheap grain by large producers forcing smaller producers out of business.
  1. Redistribution of land: “In Cuba redistribution was relatively easy to accomplish”: I think this is listed as a condition because Cuba differs from many Latin American conditions in which patterns of land ownership are the legacy of prior conquest by powerful families.
  1. Greater emphasis on local production: As the text argues, “People should not have to depend on the vagaries of prices in the world economy, long distance transportation, and superpower `goodwill’ for their next meal.”  The implication is that in the world economy, large producers with powerful government support can control prices and ship food over large distances whereas small producers cannot compete economically.

Generally, this is a non-ideological, nuts-and-bolts-oriented discussion of agroecological practices in Cuba, in which the “crisis-induced scarcity of external inputs for agriculture” (i.e. the effect of the US embargo upon Cuban agriculture) and the legacy of a command economy (“Communism”) combined to push Cuba into “the transition to a new model” (i.e. Cuba is starting to adopt sustainable agricultural practices).  (90-91)  One can read between the lines, however, to see why Cuba (and not somewhere else) is the birthplace of national agroecological policy, such as is needed in the rest of the world.

What it comes down to, IMHO, is this: Cuba, through its socialist traditions and through its exposure to the US embargo, has been sheltered from the worst effects of the global market, and so Cuba has had the opportunity and the necessity of putting its agriculture on a sustainable, organic system for the sake of reducing its dependence on external inputs and getting away from the immediacy of having to provide for the market.  What the rest of us ought to be doing, politically, is seeking some sort of shelter from the rule of marketized politics and economics, which destroys lives with every jerk of elite knees.


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