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, March 21, 2012

The Letters of John and Abigail Adams, by Abigail Adams and John Adams, edited by Frank Shuffelton

Five years ago, I was vaguely aware that there had once been a President John Adams, but that was about it. I picked up this book largely because I thought someone else would like it, and read it mostly because that's what I do. I read books.

I was living in Vermont, for work, while my then-boyfriend lived in Maryland, for work. We wrote letters, made phone calls, missed each other, and planned to get together for his birthday, in July.

I saw this book in a bookstore and grabbed it. My guy liked history, and I'd heard vaguely that the letters were romantic, and his birthday was coming up. That was all. And from such humble beginnings, oh, what a romance has blossomed!

Since that day, we've both read this book, seen the HBO mini-series, the A&E two-part special (which isn't very good), toured their house, read a separate biography of John and Abigail each...and I, who read faster, have read a second biography of John, a book about the Revolutionary War, and some of the collected letters of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. We're kind of besotted. Oh, and we've gotten married--I'm not sure if that's related, but maybe the Adamses helped.

There are three reasons I'm recommending this book to everybody in the world. First, doing so gives me an excuse to tell you all that we've just had our first anniversary, and I love my husband dearly. I think the Adamses would approve of my using them as the (something of a stretch) reason to celebrate that. Second, many people saw the HBO mini-series, and it had some shortcomings. If you saw the series, you really should read up on the Adamses. Although this book doesn't cover the part where the series was weak, it's charming enough to get you interested in reading about this family. Third, both John and Abigail Adams did just about everything right that a person can do, and as such they are important role models.

I don't mean that they never made mistakes. John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were patently unConstitutional, wrong, and stupid, and he should have known better. Abigail Adams refused to write publicly, as she considered her writing poor and her opinions less important than her husband's, neither of which was true. She actually begged John to burn her letters, which he obviously did not.

But they were excellent parents, loving partners, great friends, and they changed the world. We could all learn a thing or two.

Abigail--it is impossible not to think of them in familiar terms after reading this book--gets a lot of press as a kind of proto-feminist. She is, certainly, a feminist hero for good reason. She was, for her day, extremely radical in her advocacy for women's rights and in the assertive way in which she lived--especially toward the end of her life. Further, she was a shining example of female excellence. She was a business woman and farm manager in a time when women were expected to be neither, she spoke three languages (English, French, and Latin), she could quote long passages of literature from memory, she could argue coherently about the Constitutionality of party caucuses (among other issues), she raised four children to adulthoood, and in a day when slavery was still legal in every state, she had the gumption to ask General Washington if perhaps his military problems were divine punishment for the sin of slavery. Remember, Washington was a slaveholder. AND she had only a third-grade education.

But she did not believe men and women were, or should be, equals. She might well have been scandalized by the idea of the Women's Movement, if she could have known about it. She was a woman of her time, as he was a man of his time. That means racism and sexism mild only in comparison to what was typical of their day. We must see them wholly if we are to respect them.

But man were they brave. You see that here. John, as a signer of the Declarations of Independance, would have been hanged if the revolution had failed. Abigail spent many nights, early in the war, lying awake listening to cannons. Both lived through the war, and they were both quite old when they died, she of typhus, he of a stroke, but in a very real way they gave their lives to their country with a selflessness and faith few people have. There are writers who see their modesty as a fiction they used to cover their ambition, and certainly they were ambitious in some ways. John, particularly, wanted to be noticed and remembered for his service. But I think the modesty was also genuine. They just really liked this country. They were the real deal.

And in this book, you get to see the ordinariness inside that strength. Philosophy, politics, spirituality, and which kid took a puke this morning and the horribly high price of butter these days. This is the nuts and bolts of greatness. This is how it works.

And it IS romantic, at least sometimes. Like when Abigail says she's spent all morning with John, meaning that she's been rereading his letters, and says that if she can't have real pleasures, at least she can have her thoughts. Or how he often addresses her as "my dearest friend."

Or, when Abigail finishes a letter with;

"Heaven grant that I may continue to receive its blessings. One of its greatest is that I can subscribe myself wholly yours."


Adams, A., Adams, J., (2004). The letters of John and Abigail Adams. Penguin Books: New York, NY.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Our Ecological Footprint, by Reese and Wackernagel

There are advantages to being a writer named Wackernagel, and chief among these must be shear memorability. Some years ago, when I was explaining the concept of ecological footprints to my then-boyfriend (now, husband), he, in frustration, demanded to know where I'd gotten this stuff.

"Mathis Wackernagel!" I retorted, proudly.

This sort of thing is very encouraging for writers with strange names. If mine ever comes up in an argument with your mate, it's easier to pronounce than it looks; A lan thus. The "i" doesn't do much, so you can ignore it.

Anyway, the idea of the ecological footprint starts with the fact that a certain portion of the Earth's surface is dedicated towards your personal upkeep. Imagine that you are a subsistence farmer, and that all the water you use falls as rain on your farm, all your fuel wood comes from your farm, all your waste is composted there, and so forth. In such a scenario, your ecological footprint is the area of your farm. If you start buying hay from your neighbor, then your ecological footprint, or EF, grows to include part of your neighbor's hay field. If you sell produce to raise money with which to buy hay, then part of your vegetable garden is transferred to the EF of whoever buys your produce, and tracing the location of your EF very quickly becomes impossibly complicated. It is still possible to calculate the rough size of your EF, however, if you know how much land is necessary to support all the things you do. For example, If you eat a loaf of wheat bread every week, you can calculate the size of the wheat field necessary to make your bread, because you can find out the average yield per acre of wheat.

The reason ecological footprints matter is that there is a finite surface area of the Earth. The total surface area of the Earth is the maximum total ecological footprint. Dividing the Earth's total surface area by the total human population yields the "fair Earthshare," or the size that everyone's EF would be if resources were distributed equally. If your EF is bigger than a fair Earthshare, then either someone else is using less, to subsidize you, or you are borrowing against the future by using resources too fast. It has nothing to do with how much you deserve, how good a person you are, or how much you care about the planet, it's just a measure of how much you use in comparison to how much there is. It's just math. Ecological footprint calculation is a way to make ecology personal.

This book is an introduction to the concept, and also a detailed description of how to calculate your own footprint. You can also get a rough estimate of your footprint through any number of online EF calculators, though the online calculators simplify the calculation by making a lot of assumptions, which may not be relevant in your case. Reading this book will give you the context to understand that calculators better. Ecological footprint is different from carbon footprint, by the way; your ecological footprint includes your carbon footprint in that one of the things you need Earth's surface area to do is to re-sequester the carbon emissions freed by your lifestyle. EF distills your entire ecological impact to a single measure; surface area.

The book's descriptions are clear, and the pictures are thought-provoking and funny. The authors explore a number of different implications of the EF concept, far more than I have space to summarize here. If the authors have a weakness, it is their tendency to announce periodically that EF calculations are fun! which they aren't, but at least the whole thing is important food for thought.

And no, ecological footprint calculations are not as simple as the online calculators, or even this book, make it seem. For example, the carrying capacity of an acre quite obviously varies, not only across space but across time. A degraded ecosystem can't support as many people as it once could. A related complication (and one the book does address, at least in part) is that resource use is rarely about absolute amounts. Sustainable resource use is a matter of rate. It's a bit like finance, to use a metaphor Wackernagel and colleagues also use. If you've got $100,000 invested and earning 1% interest per year, then you can spend $1000 every year forever. If you spend $2000 a year, you will eventually run out of money. With environmental decisions, the big question is always are you spending the interest or are you spending the principle? Since not all acres on the planet have the same sized endowments, and the size of the endowments changes as the principle is spent, calculating a sustainable rate of use that is valid all over the planet and then expressing that rate as an area is at best an estimation tool.

There are other complications. The ecological footprint is not a tool one can use without a great deal of thought--but that's not really the point.

The point, first and foremost, is that ecological limits may be complex and difficult to understand, but they are not arbitrary or subject to debate. It's like driving a car (and this is my own analogy). If you hit a patch of ice on the highway, what happens next to your car has nothing to do with how much you deserve to have a good day or how important it is for you to get where you're going. What happens to your car is a matter of physics, and physics dosn't care what you think. Environmental issues are equally non-negotiable. There is only so much of the planet to use, and that's all we get.

Secondarily, the concept of the EF gives environmentalism a clearly defined goal, at least in theory. Much of the talk of "green" living these days is entirely relative; you hear about saving so many trees or keeping so many tons of greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere, but there is really no way to put any of this in context. On a bad day, it's possible to conclude that no one can ever be green enough, so why bother? On an entirely different kind of bad day, it's possible to conclude that since you recycle and do other "green things" periodically, you're already doing enough. EFs are the antidote to this kind of relativistic thinking. If your EF is equal to your fare Earthshare or smaller, you're done! You're sustainable! You've arrived! In practice, you might not be able to work through the various complications well enough to define your EF that precisely, but at least that finish line exists, and you can approximate it.

And in the process of finding your way to living within your fare Earthshare, you'll probably make it easier for the people around you to find their way there, too.

Reese, W.E., Wackernagel, M., Testemale, P. (1998). Our ecological footprint, by Reese and Wackernagel. New Society Publishers.