So what is this blog about?

These are the books I would insist everyone read if I were Queen of the Universe. I am not Queen of the Universe, so you don't have to read them, but hear me out. Most book reviews are about new books, but most books are not new. How else are you going to find out about what's out there? Anyway, aren't you just a bit curious about WHY I think these books should be read by everyone?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Myth of Progress: Toward a Sustainable Future, by Tom Wessels

The first thing I realized when I met Tom Wessels was that I should not act like a groupie. He wouldn’t appreciate it. Of course, I was a groupie; I had just started grad school, and one of his books was more or less why I was there--not just why I was at Antioch, why I was in grad school at all. I wanted to jump up and down and squeal, but Tom would have thought that was stupid, and he would have been right. I was good and did not squeal or otherwise treat him like a celebrity, but I have recently given him a number of deserved compliments and I think he might be getting suspicious. So, in deference to his feelings, before I go any further in telling you why I think everyone needs to read his book, there is something I have to say, just to prove I am not engaging in groupie-ism; Tom is not a great writer.

He is a good writer, a functional writer. You read his work, and you clearly understand what he means. This is all you really need to do, because like Tom himself, the writing is not supposed to be the thing you’re paying attention to. Like how you only really need to look at a window if it’s dirty, the only thing you really need to notice when a teacher speaks is what he’s teaching. Tom is an excellent teacher, and his books correspond to his classes so closely they sometimes have the same field trips—descriptions of specific places used to illustrate this or that point. Sometimes I felt in class as though I’d fallen into the book and could walk around in it, a bibliophile’s dream, but Tom’s is an artless art, and the real point is always what he’s trying to teach, in person or in print. In this case what he’s teaching is one of the things I think everyone needs to know, because it will clear some things up.

This is not the book that sent me to graduate school, by the way. That one, Reading the forested landscape, is excellent, and if you are at all interested in natural history you should check it out, but not everyone needs to be interested in natural history. Everyone does need to understand the basic implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and also complex systems science.

I’m sorry, did you just fall asleep? Or maybe run screaming off into the intimidated night? Don’t. It’s entirely unnecessary. Nothing in this book is really hard to understand, and while you do need to put forth some effort to think about it, the thoughts the book will lead you to think will be interesting.

See, there are all these ideas floating around in our society, environmental sustainability, economic growth, cultural shifts, global warming. You hear one thing about them, and then you hear another, different thing, and we’re supposed to elect our leaders based on how they handle this stuff? You can’t very well get advanced degrees in all of them. Yet physics embraces them all near their roots. Pick up a few basic ideas, and suddenly ecology, economics, climatology, and so forth all make much more sense. The way this works is kind of like what happens when you see a movie about something you’re at least halfway familiar with. The plot is about some scary conspiracy theory or some incredibly simple way to attain world peace if only people would have the courage they do in the movies, and if you don’t know the topic you half believe it. But if you know even a little about it, you already know that the conspiracy can’t happen, and that the simple solution won’t work. You have a basic sense of what’s what, and so you can stay oriented even if someone is throwing a lot of new information at you. Of course, in a movie theater the whole point is to get disoriented for a while, but otherwise you want that basic insider knowledge. You need to know a bit about why things are the way they are, so you can see the difference between viable possibilities and flights of foolish fancy. Pick up a little physics, and you’re much less vulnerable to well-articulated bad ideas.

I wish I could explain all of the ideas in the book for you, so you could really see why all this is important and interesting, but of course Tom has already done that, and if I did it again you wouldn’t need to read his book. Here’s one quick example, though, starting with economics, a particularly current hot topic. Turns out, Adam Smith, whom economists often invoke to support the wisdom of the free-market system, was studying a radically different kind of economy than the one we have now. I won’t explain how (read the book), but complex systems (including economies with a large number of independent, specialized businesses) are relatively stable, and simple systems (like economies dominated by a small number of very powerful corporations) are not. The Wall Street bailouts may have helped prevent economic collapse in the short term, but they did not increase the number of major corporations. Instead, the economy further consolidated, with the loss of Bear-Stearns. We are now more vulnerable to collapse than we were before.

Complex systems are stable because they are capable of actively resisting outside pressure to change. You are a complex system; when the weather gets cold, your body shivers to heat itself up and you make various behavior changes to better insulate yourself. You are capable of maintaining the same temperature, within a few degrees, for decades on end, regardless of what the weather can do. Complex systems grow, increasing in complexity and size, then maintain themselves for a while, and then grow old and die—this happens to hurricanes and rock bands and well as to living things. Babies are simpler than they will become, which is why they must wear cute little hats and socks to keep warm. Their relative simplicity makes them vulnerable. The aged and the ill also need more supportive care than the healthy, because as systems they are destabilizing, like wobbling tops (happens to the best of us, I’m afraid). One simple way to measure whether an organism or an ecosystem is growing, in mature equilibrium, or dying is by measuring the energy it takes in and comparing it to the energy it gives off; kids eat a lot for their size, and a lot of that energy is stored in the body in the form of more pounds of kid. Forests put away more and more biomass until they mature, at which point they level off. A forest on fire, on the other hand, gives off a lot more energy than it takes in, and a lot of its mass flies away as smoke and carbon dioxide.

The biosphere as a whole also put away biomass as it grew, until it reached maturity and equilibrium. The biomass it put away became coal and natural gas and petroleum. Fossil fuels are fossilized sunlight, in effect; burning it liberates energy that was originally captured from sunlight by plants millions, or even billions of years ago. As the biosphere loses this energy, it becomes simpler. One implication is that, in becoming simpler, it also becomes less stable, more like that wobbling top, more likely to fall down.

Another implication is that, like a burning ecosystem, the planet is dying. Or at least very, very sick. This is not a metaphor.

I’ve already said that I’ve taken the classes that correspond to the books, so I’ve gotten this material both in print and in class. Some passages stick in my memory most forcefully as lectures or class exercises.

One I remember most vividly included the concept of the world as a dying system. Tom did not mean that life on earth will cease any time soon; in terms of physics, the biosphere is going through a process equivalent to dying, but it can and almost certainly will rally. Life rallied before following each of five major extinction events, most notably the one that did in the dinosaurs. It will rally again. But recovery could take many millions of years, so the problem is not trivial. For comparison, our own species is not quite one million years old.

But Tom also did not mean that life is hopeless. Hopeless people don’t talk about this stuff; they make hay while the sun shines. See, it turns out that when complex systems do change, they tend to do it fast, suddenly, and unpredictably. Think again about a baby; there is a stage in human development where we are hollow balls of identical cells. Then, suddenly, we twist into double-walled tubes and then rapidly differentiate into many types of cells. This isn’t exactly unpredictable because we all do it, but if you didn’t already know what to expect there’s no way you could figure out a hollow ball could do that. These sudden shifts can be disastrous or miraculous, the point is that when you push a system to change you usually don’t see any results until suddenly you get a lot of results. Tom explained this, and also explained that human societies, too, are complex systems. The hour is late, and it may be later than we think—we can’t predict what troubles might come next. But our culture’s tenacious commitment to business as usual in the face of global warming (and in the face of a growing economic and political disparity) isn’t proof that we aren’t going to change. Cultures, too, can shift suddenly, occupied, perhaps, by new and different things.

All this Tom explained as the afternoon sun slowly sank behind the still-bare trees, and the already rather gloomy classroom darkened. No one turned any extra lights on, so that finally Tom, sitting backwards in his chair, spoke softly simply to shadow. Academics don’t often talk directly about hope, let alone action, but action was always implicit at that school, and sometimes people do the unexpected.

“If you want a fight,” Tom said, “this is a good one.”

Wessesls, T. (2006). The myth of progress: Toward a sustainable future. University of Vermont Press: Lebanon, NH.

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