This section displays the books that have previously been read and discussed by the TNA Book Group.
Our read for November, 2018
In 2014, award-winning journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote about her frustration with the way that discussions of race and racism in Britain were being led by those who weren’t affected by it. She posted a piece on her blog, entitled: “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.”
Her words hit a nerve. The post went viral and comments flooded in from others desperate to speak up about their own experiences. Galvanized by this clear hunger for open discussion, she decided to dig into the source of these feelings. Exploring issues from eradicated black history to the political purpose of white dominance, whitewashed feminism to the inextricable link between class and race, Reni Eddo-Lodge offers a timely and essential new framework for how to see, acknowledge and counter racism. It is a searing, illuminating, absolutely necessary exploration of what it is to be a person of colour in Britain today.
September 2018 Book Club meeting
‘In the line of fire. Losing the war on climate change’ is the leader in this August issue of the Economist and our article for discussion this month. Related topics in this edition include,
The Black Hole of Coal: India shows how hard it is to move beyond fossil fuels towards a renewable future.
The Politics of Climate Change: A slow thaw. Some Republicans are inching towards action on global warming.
The read for July
In Wilding, Isabella Tree tells the story of the ‘Knepp experiment’, a pioneering rewilding project in West Sussex, using free-roaming grazing animals to create new habitats for wildlife. Part gripping memoir, part fascinating account of the ecology of our countryside, Wilding is, above all, an inspiring story of hope.
For our May meeting we read:
Meat – A Benign Extravagance is an exploration of the difficult environmental and ethical issues that surround the human consumption of animal flesh. The world’s meat consumption is rapidly rising, leading to devastating environmental impacts as well as having long term health implications for societies everywhere. Simon Fairlie’s book lays out the reasons why we must decrease the amount of meat we eat, both for the planet and for ourselves. At its heart, the book argues, however, that the farming of animals for consumption has become problematic because we have removed ourselves physically and spiritually from the land. Our society needs to reorientate itself back to the land and Simon explains why an agriculture that is most readily able to achieve this is one that includes a measure of livestock farming.
The Meat a Benign Extravagance generated a lot of discussion and food for thought as well as action in our own habits
In March we read Snowy Tower – Martin Shaw
In Snowy Tower, Dr. Martin Shaw continues his trilogy of works on the relationship between myth, wilderness, and a culture of wildness. In this second book, he gives a telling of the Grail epic Parzival. Claiming it as a great trickster story of medieval Europe, he offers a deft and erudite commentary, with topics ranging from climate change and the soul to the discipline of erotic consciousness, from the hallucination of empire to a revisioning of the dark speech of the ancient bards. Ingrained in the very syntax of Snowy Tower is an invocation of what Shaw calls ‘wild mythologies’ — stories that are more than just human allegory, that seem to brush the winged thinking of owl, stream, and open moor. This daring work offers a connection to the genius of the margins; that the big questions of today will not be solved by big answers, but by the myriad of associations that both myth and wilderness offer.
Donut Economics – Kate Raworth
Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century. Explore more on Kate Raworth’s site
The Joy of Tax – Richard Murphy
In The Joy of Tax, tax campaigner Richard Murphy challenges almost every idea you have about tax. For him, tax is fundamentally about the ideas that shape the sort of society we want to live in, not technicalities. His intention is to demonstrate that there is indeed a joy in tax, and by embracing it we can create a fairer society and change the world for the better. Read more at Richard Murphy’s blogspot.
The Descent of Man – Grayson Perry
Having looked at women and their place in the world previously we thought it would be fair to devote some time to the men.
‘Grayson Perry has been thinking about masculinity – what it is, how it operates, why little boys are thought to be made of slugs and snails – since he was a boy. Now, in this funny and necessary book, he turns round to look at men with a clear eye and ask, what sort of men would make the world a better place, for everyone?What would happen if we rethought the old, macho, outdated version of manhood, and embraced a different idea of what makes a man? Apart from giving up the coronary-inducing stress of always being ‘right’ and the vast new wardrobe options, the real benefit might be that a newly fitted masculinity will allow men to have better relationships – and that’s happiness, right?
Our November read was a new paperback collection of essays, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork selected from the first ten issues of Dark Mountain.
The book opens with the project’s original manifesto and the selected works are organised around the eight principles with which the manifesto concludes. For this meeting we concentrated on the Introduction and Sections 1 and 2. The book generated a wide-ranging discussion best summarized by one participant below.
Yes it was a good discussion. The group just needed the book to act as a catalyst as we tramped between the sunny uplands of hopetopia and the dark mountain while treading briefly on the neo-liberal dystopian swamp only oozing around our feet, for now. Balancing hope , despair and mindful realism is hard especially if one is ideologically committed to give back more than one takes from Mother Earth and all her children. We, children of the enlightenment,seem to sustain a sense of agency still premised on an evidence-defying faith( oddly) that liberal pluralism, science and rationality will make right….Modernity?
This was our book for October. Sharon Blackie leads the reader on a quest to find their place in the world, drawing inspiration from the wise and powerful females in native mythology, and guidance from contemporary women who have re-rooted themselves in land and community and taken responsibility for shaping the future.
For our September meeting we watched a film Microcosmos
Microcosmos (original title Microcosmos : Le peuple de l’herbe — Microcosmos: People of the grass) is a 1996 documentary film by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou and produced by Jacques Perrin. Set to the music of Bruno Coulais, this film is primarily a record of detailed interactions between insects and other small invertebrates. 80mins
The June read was The Myth Gap by Alex Evans.
Once upon a time our society was rich in stories. They united us and helped us to understand the world and ourselves. We called them myths. In this time of global crisis and transition – mass migration, inequality, resource scarcity, and climate change – it is only by finding new myths, those that speak to us of renewal and restoration, that we will navigate our way to a better future. It is stories, rather than facts and pie-charts,that have the power to animate us and bring us together in to change the world.
The May read was ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by Peter Wohlleben.
In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of woods and forests and explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in the woodland and the amazing scientific processes behind the wonders of which we are blissfully unaware. The Group found the book an amazing journey of ‘joined up underground thinking’ and ‘life changing’.
This was the April read and the group felt the following quote best summed up the book.
The 1st of two reads in March. He believed that the market economy will not survive its inherent flaws beyond the early decades of this century, and that its failure will bring great challenges, but he did not dwell on this: we know what we need to do. Surviving the Future lays out a compelling and powerfully different new economics for a post-growth world’
The 2nd book proved a very easy read and Chuck Collins has a very sympathetic voice with which to spend some time. Not always a comfortable read as he dispels the myths the rich tell themselves. Sometimes he is referring to the uber rich but he also refers to the rich ‘most of us’ of the Western world. Some did not like the emphasis on story and anecdote and there is some repetition but overall a great plea for more sympathy and fair dealing from us all.
For Book Club in January we had a bit of a freestyle event, with several books circulating around the club.
A common theme was climate change and living ethically. Issues covered in Leo Hickman’s, A Life Stripped Bare: My Year Trying to Live Ethically. Rather appropriate for this time of New Year resolutions!
‘It is hardly news that a growing number of people want to step back from the brink of Western consumerism and find a way to live an all round cleaner existence. So, how do we go about it?
This did prove to be the most popular topic for discussion. For a group of ‘like-minded’ people what elements people feel they can change in their lives and what they just cannot varied quite widely.
‘Hypernormalisation’ by Adam Curtis.
For December we watched a film instead. ‘We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless migrant crisis, random bomb attacks. And those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed – they have no idea what to do.
This film is the epic story of how we got to this strange place. It explains not only why these chaotic events are happening – but also why we, and our politicians, cannot understand them.
It shows that what has happened is that all of us in the West – not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves – have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us we accept it as normal.
But there is another world outside. Forces that politicians tried to forget and bury forty years ago – that then festered and mutated – but which are now turning on us with a vengeful fury. Piercing though the wall of our fake world.
‘Goat Song’ and ‘Being a Beast’
Book Club in November was a choice of 2 reads. The theme being our relationship with animals. In Goat Song the focus is domestic while in Being a Beast, the very opposite.
Goat Song by Brad Kessler ‘is the story of a year in the life of a couple who abandoned their one-bedroom apartment in New York City to live on seventy-five acres in Vermont and raise Nubian goats. In poetic, reverent detail, Brad Kessler explores our ancient relationship to the land and our gradual alienation from the animals that feed us. His fascinating account traces his journey of choosing the goats and learning how to breed, milk, and care for them. As Kessler begins to live the life of a herder, he encounters the pastoral roots of so many aspects of Western culture how our diet, our alphabet, our religions, poetry, and economy all grew out of a pastoralist setting, a life lived among hoofed animals.”
Being a Beast by Charles Foster is ‘a lyrical exploration of what it is really like to ‘be a beast’, from swimming with otters to burrowing with badgers, and what this can tell us about the beast inside us all.’
Article by Wendell Berry from the Resilience Journal
Ed.note: This is the text of Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities, which was delivered in 2012.
“Even so, land and people have suffered together, as invariably they must. Under the rule of industrial economics, the land, our country, has been pillaged for the enrichment, supposedly, of those humans who have claimed the right to own or exploit it without limit. Of the land-community much has been consumed, much has been wasted, almost nothing has flourished.”
PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future by Paul Mason
PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future is a 2015 book by British journalist and writer Paul Mason. Mason discusses the existential threat posed to capitalism by the digital revolution. The award-winning Channel 4 presenter, Postcapitalism is a guide to our era of seismic economic change, and how we can build a more equal society.
Read the Guardian review – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/17/postcapitalism-end-of-capitalism-begun
The Establishment: and How They Get Away With It – Owen Jones
Owen Jones has a very different idea of how the establishment now works. It has become deeply ideological. Political ties trump social ones. What links the people who presently run British society is their shared interest in maintaining a fiction about what is and isn’t politically possible. Their story goes that only a small state, with pared down welfare provisions and a premium on economic efficiency, can function in our highly competitive, globalised world. It’s a story that serves their interests because it allows them to milk the state for their own protection and benefit. Jones is careful to say that this is not “an organised conspiracy” (any more than the 1950s establishment was a conspiracy). But it is a deliberate con. Unthinking social allegiance is no longer the glue that holds the establishment together. It is now a mutual benefit society, which makes it a lot harder to prise apart.
7 Ways to Think Differently – Looby Macnamara
“Looby uses her solid grounding in permaculture to show how its principles and thinking can help us all be effective and hopeful in an age of change and challenge” – David Holmgren
All the Usual Bullocks – Anton Coaker
Anton Coaker ekes a meagre living farming and sawmilling in the rain on Dartmoor. He’s never happier than when in amongst his cattle, reckoning they’re probably nicer company than most people.
To pass the long winter evenings, Anton Coaker writes about his experiences, and life as seen through a poor-ass hill-farmer’s eyes
Feral – George Monbiot
How many of us sometimes feel that we are seeking to find our way into a wider space beyond? Feral is the gripping story of George Monbiot’s efforts to re-engage with nature and discover a new way of living. He shows how, by restoring and rewilding our damaged ecosystems on land and at sea, we can bring wonder back into our lives.
Making use of some remarkable scientific discoveries, Feral lays out a new, positive environmentalism, in which nature is allowed to find its own way. From the seas of north Wales, where he kayaks among dolphins and seabirds, to the forests of Eastern Europe, George Monbiot shows how rewilding could repair the living planet, creating ecosystems in post-industrial nations as captivating as any around the world. This is a wild adventure that argues for a mass restoration of the natural world – and a powerful call for us to reclaim our own place in it.
Drinking Molotov Cocktails with Gandhi – Mark Boyle
Bestselling author Mark Boyle argues that our political and economic system has brought us to the brink of climate catastrophe, ransacking ecosystems and unravelling communities for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. He makes a compelling case that we must “rewild” the political landscape, as history teaches us that positive social change has always been wrought by movements prepared to use any means available.
This incendiary manifesto strikes at the heart of the world’s crises and reframes our understanding of how to solve them, signaling a turning point in our journey towards an ecologically just society. The three R’s of the climate change generation – reduce, reuse, and recycle – are long overdue for an upgrade. Welcome to resist, revolt, rewild.
A Buzz in the Meadow – Dave Goulson
Dave Goulson tells the story of how he bought a derelict farm in the heart of rural France, together with 33 acres of surrounding meadow and how, over a decade, he has created a place for his beloved bumblebees to thrive. But other creatures live there too, a myriad insects of every kind, many of them ones that Goulson has studied before in his career as a biologist. You will learn about how a deathwatch beetle finds its mate, about the importance of houseflies, why butterflies have spots on their wings, about dragonfly sex, bed-bugs and wasps.
The book is also a wake-up call, urging us to cherish and protect life on earth in all its forms. A Buzz in the Meadow is a call to arms for nature lovers everywhere.
Walden – Henry David Thoreau
Walden, by transcendentalist Thoreau, is a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. It is a mixture of personal declaration of independence, social experiment, voyage of spiritual discovery, satire, and manual for self-reliance.
First published in 1854, it details Thoreau’s experiences over the course of two years, two months, and two days in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, amidst woodland near Concord, Massachusetts. The book compresses the time into a single calendar year and uses passages of four seasons to symbolize human development. By immersing himself in nature, Thoreau hoped to gain a more objective understanding of society through personal introspection.
Ishmael – Daniel Quinn
The narrator of this extraordinary tale is a man in search for truth. He answers an ad in a local newspaper from a teacher looking for serious pupils, only to find himself alone in an abandoned office with a full-grown gorilla who is nibbling delicately on a branch. “You are the teacher?” he asks incredulously. “I am the teacher,” the gorilla replies.
Ishmael is a creature of immense wisdom and he has a story to tell, one that no other human being has ever heard. It is a story that extends backward and forward over the lifespan of the earth from the birth of time to a future there is still time to save. Like all great teachers, Ishmael refuses to make the lesson easy; he demands the final illumination to come from within ourselves. Is it man’s destiny to rule the world? Or is a higher destiny possible?
The Biochar Solution – Albert Bates
Conventional agriculture destroys our soils, pollutes our water and is a major contributor to climate change. What if our agricultural practices could stabilise, or even reverse these trends?
The Biochar Solution explores the dual function of biochar as a carbon-negative energy source and a potent soil-builder. Created by burning biomass in the absence of oxygen, this material has the unique ability to hold carbon back from the atmosphere while simultaneously enhancing soil fertility. Author Albert Bates traces the evolution of this extraordinary substance from the ancient black soils of the Amazon to its reappearance as a modern carbon sequestration strategy.
How to Live Off-Grid: Journeys Outside the System – Nick Rosen
Literally, “off-grid” refers to places or people without mains water or power: static or mobile; in a house, a hut, a boat, or a camper van. More metaphorically, to live off-grid is all about loosening the ties that bind us to the familiar world of commuting, mortgages, lack of time, and fast food. In doing so, we may rediscover our place in the natural world.
Complete with camper van, Nick Rosen sets off around the UK to find off-grid heaven and meet people who are living the dream. Along the way he runs into backpackers and businessmen, radical hermits and right-wing survivalists – and plenty of ordinary families too. This is both a travelogue and a guide to going off-grid yourself.
Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth – Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
Our present ecological crisis is the greatest human-caused disaster this planet has ever faced. Though appropriate action continues to be debated, the concept of a spiritual response is rarely discussed. Spiritual Ecology aims to address this imbalance.
Combining the thoughts and beliefs from a diverse range of essayists, this collection highlights the current ecological crisis and articulates a much-needed spiritual response to it. Perspectives from Buddhism, Sufism, Christianity, and Native American beliefs as well as physics, deep psychology, and other environmental disciplines, make this a well-rounded contribution.
The Coming Energy Revolution – Jeane Manning
There is a new and exciting revolution coming. It will dramatically change our landscape, our environment, our economy, and our lives. It will provide us with a truly unique sense of independence. It will mark the end of oil-influenced politics, and the beginning of a bright new millennium – a time in which we all will have our own unlimited sources of non-polluting energy.
The Coming Energy Revolution provides us with an insightful look at the forces behind the free-energy movement, and the fascinating new technologies with the potential to produce cleaner, more effective energy alternatives compared to our traditional energy sources. However, it will not come without a struggle – as history has already shown.
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate – Naomi Klein
In this provocative book, Naomi Klein exposes the myths that are clouding climate debate. You have been told the market will save us, when in fact the addiction to profit and growth is digging us in deeper every day. You have been told it’s impossible to get off fossil fuels, when in fact we know exactly how to do it – it just requires breaking every rule in the ‘free-market’ playbook. You have also been told that humanity is too greedy and selfish to rise to this challenge. However, the fight back is already succeeding in ways both surprising and inspiring.
It’s about changing the world, before the world changes so drastically that no one is safe. Either we leap – or we sink. And we need to decide soon.
Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World – Alan Weisman
The Colombian llanos are among the most brutal environments on Earth – an unlikely setting for one of the most hopeful environmental stories ever told. Here, a visionary named Paolo Lugari set out to create a village that could sustain itself agriculturally and economically. He reasoned that if a community could survive in the Colombian llanos, it would be possible to live anywhere: and so, Gaviotas was born.
The early inhabitants of Gaviotas soon realised that even for basic necessities, they would need to be resourceful. So, they invented energy-producing wind turbines, super-efficient water pumps, and solar kettles that sterilise drinking water using the furious heat of the tropical sun. They even planted two million pine trees as a renewable crop, thereby re-establishing an entire rainforest. In their quest to create a model human habitat, they serendipitously renewed an entire ecosystem. Clearly, there is hope yet for ecological sustainability.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life – Barbara Kingsolver
In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, we follow Barbara Kingsolver and her family on their journey away from the food industry, to a rural life in which they vow to either buy food raised in their own neighbourhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it.
Their good-humoured search yields surprising discoveries about turkey sex life and overly zealous zucchini plants, as they explore a food culture that’s better for the neighbourhood and also better on the table. This book makes a passionate case for putting food back at the centre of family life, and re-evaluating our diets.
The Carbon Fields – Graham Harvey
It is one of the great secrets of our time. A simple and elegant solution to some of the world’s most pressing problems – rising food prices, increased carbon emissions and the health crisis. The answer is here for us if we’re bold enough to take it. No breakthroughs are required, no “fad” diets. There’s no need to throw away the car keys or give up real butter and juicy steaks. So why haven’t we been told about this great natural gift?
Graham Harvey investigates the murky world of food and farming and reveals how global corporations have hijacked Britain’s most basic source of life and health. This book explains how globally-traded grains have been used to promote global warming, obesity and ill-health. It shows how – by reclaiming our greatest natural asset – we can put ourselves and the nation back on the road to health and prosperity.
Pass It On: Five Stories that can Change the World – Joanna Macy
Eco-philosopher and best-selling author Joanna Macy shares five stories from her more than 30 years of studying and practising Buddhism and deep ecology. Gathered on her travels to India, Russia, Australia, and Tibet, these stories testify to Joanna Macy’s belief that either humankind awakens to a new and deeper understanding of our interconnectedness with its planet or risks losing it.
Pass It On tells of encounters with individuals who share very personal stories of sudden awakening, unexpected awareness, and the co-mingling of joy and pain. Each story is imbued with the specific cultural flavor of the places where the stories originate, but all show how each individual counts in the global need for change and awakening.
The Way of Ignorance – Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry is an American man of letters, academic, cultural and economic critic, and farmer. He is a prolific author of novels, short stories, poems, and essays. This is a collection of essays in which Berry talks about what it looks like to live in modern day America, both how it ought to look and how it usually does look.
Contemporary American society is characterized by divisive anger, profound loss, and danger. Berry addresses these issues, responding with hope and intelligence in a series of essays that tackle the major questions of the day. The topics range from animal husbandry and harvesting forests for logging, to political and theological reflection.
Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver
On the mountains above her home, a young mother discovers a beautiful and terrible marvel of nature. As the world around her is suddenly transformed by a seeming miracle, can the old certainties they have lived by for centuries remain unchallenged?
Flight Behaviour is a captivating, topical and deeply human story touching on class, poverty and climate change. Characters and reader alike are quickly carried beyond familiar territory here, into the unsettled ground of science, faith, and everyday truces between reason and conviction. It is Barbara Kingsolver’s most accessible novel yet, and explores the truths we live by, and the complexities that lie behind them.
The Stream’ by Brian Clarke
This novel follows the dramatic events that result when creatures able to act by instinct fall victim to a man-made environmental disaster. The author has been awarded the BP Natural World Book Prize for the year 2000, presented at a ceremony at the Natural History Museum, London.
‘BAD PHARMA’ by Ben Goldacre
Bad Science’ hilariously exposed the tricks that quacks and journalists use to distort science, becoming a 400,000 copy bestseller. Now Ben Goldacre puts the $600bn global pharmaceutical industry under the microscope. What he reveals is a fascinating, terrifying mess. Doctors and patients need good scientific evidence to make informed decisions. But instead, companies run bad trials on their own drugs, which distort and exaggerate the benefits by design. When these trials produce unflattering results, the data is simply buried. All of this is perfectly legal. In fact, even government regulators withhold vitally important data from the people who need it most. Doctors and patient groups have stood by too, and failed to protect us. Instead, they take money and favours, in a world so fractured that medics and nurses are now educated by the drugs industry. Patients are harmed in huge numbers. Ben Goldacre is Britain’s finest writer on the science behind medicine, and ‘Bad Pharma’ is a clear and witty attack, showing exactly how the science has been distorted, how our systems have been broken, and how easy it would be to fix them.
Sea Room by Adam Nicholson
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be given your own remote islands? Thirty years ago it happened to Adam Nicolson. Aged 21, Nicolson inherited the Shiants, three lonely Hebridean islands set in a dangerous sea off the Isle of Lewis. With only a stone bothy for accommodation and half a million puffins for company, he found himself in charge of one of the most beautiful places on earth. The story of the Shiants is a story of birds and boats, hermits and fishermen, witchcraft and catastrophe, and Nicolson expertly weaves these elements into his own tale of seclusion on the Shiants to create a stirring celebration of island life.
Surviving and Thriving on the Land – Rebecca Laughton
This book is a virtual tour of the world of contemporary smallholding. The conclusions which emerge are gold-dust for prospective and actual smallholders, while for the rest of us the book is a fascinating insight to a way of life which will become increasingly important in the future. –Patrick Whitefield, author of The Earth Care Manual and How to Make a Forest Garden. An invaluable and inspiring guide to anyone who seeks to return to their hard-working roots. A rich resource upon which to reflect. Henry Thoreau would have been proud of the analysis. –James Crowden, author of Ciderland and In Time of Flood. It s a dream come true when you finally get a piece of land or join an eco-community, and start to plan your sustainable land-based enterprise; but all too often the dream is spoiled by lack of money, stress, exhaustion and poor time management, and your work and future plans can dissolve into discord, illness and poverty. Smallholdings provide food, home, fuel and employment for those who run them, and local, seasonal, often organic and ethical food and timber for an expanding market. Surviving and Thriving on the Land looks at ways in which projects can be designed that care for the people involved in them as well as the earth that they are trying to protect. If land-based ecological projects are to offer a realistic solution to the problems we face in the twenty-first century, it is imperative that they should be sustainable in terms of human energy. This book offers a framework, backed up by real life examples, of issues to consider when setting up a new project, or for overcoming human-energy-based problems in existing projects.
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
The term Black Swan originates in the belief that there was no such thing – an impossibility. Then explorers discovered Australia, where they found a lot of Black Swans. So now the term has come to mean an event that actually happens that was previously not thought possible.The Black Swan’s central premise is that man has a tendency to hang onto simplistic explanations to explain away rare, often catastrophic events. We fit such events into the theory, and walk away feeling pleased with ourselves – we’ll never be caught out that way again, because we can now predict and contain the effects of such an event. Taleb recommends that instead we must try to see world as realistically as we can, and not to try to predict the future too exactly. We must be agile enough to cope with unexpected disasters, and to take advantage of unexpected opportunities. This is contrary to our nature because we evolved in a relatively predictable world with comparatively few extreme events. We now live in a world where extreme events (outliers) are so common as to be almost expected.The book is stuffed with excellent examples of comical examples our arrogance at interpreting events, and over-confidence in our judgement. One of the most startling is that punters don’t get better at predicting winners if they are given more information. They become worse, but more convinced that they are right.Taleb presents two imaginary characters to illustrate the Platonic, lazy-thinking side of our natures (Dr John) and the nimble, realistic side (Fat Tony). He illustrates ‘bad’ and ‘good’ thinking by an ingenious example. A coin is flipped 49 times – heads every time. Dr John and Fat Tony are asked to predict the 50th flip.Dr John: “Statistically, the chances are still 50:50. I can ignore the unlikely past results, and focus on the next.”
Fat Tony: ” The coin is fixed. And guess what? The 50th flip will be heads too.”The trouble is, Taleb is such an annoying writer. Self-belief and self-righteousness gush from his pen. But just when you are ready to write him off as just another wise-guy, he comments in passing (in this, a book written just before the credit crunch) that the next Black Swan might be as a result of the world banking system being so widely, dangerously linked….maybe he is worth listening to after all.
Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives by Carolyn Steel
Whatever its mercurial promise of bright lights, shared experiences and multicultural exoticism, the city can be an isolating place. However: everyone’s got to eat – and therein lies the opportunity both for life-enhancing human engagement and for equally life-sapping process-led commercialism. Carolyn Steel’s book, which interprets the city through food, highlights both the despair and the hope implicit in the idea of the city. By her clever tracing of food’s journey from land to urban table and thence to sewer, Steel makes us reflect on past and present social satisfactions and injustices which our most basic human need can inspire.Contrast the image of joyless contemporary supermarket shoppers – strip-lit lone prowlers debating forlornly with themselves about which highly packaged factory offering to microwave tonight – with the heady possibility of outdoor urban market-goers discussing food, tasting and learning. It’s clear which one we’d all rather participate in, and yet Steel urges us not to be misty-eyed about the turn of the 21st century emerging market culture either. London’s Borough Market is described as `food tourism’ – laudable, but not affordable – a middle class aberration rather than a sustainable way of life for most of us. This typifies Steel’s approach to her two-pronged subject: she is not afraid to slaughter sacred cows in her search for authenticity and meaning. This search takes her from London to the Middle East, from high flown ritual to domestic minutiae and from the mediaeval dining table to McDonalds without exhausting or overwhelming the reader.As I read through Steel’s journey, many similar food-inspired conflicts on the despair/hope axis spring to mind and make me feel at once revolutionary and impotent. Growing food locally could be such a positive collective activity, but the space to do it is scarce and prohibitively expensive. Selling and shopping for that food could rekindle the relationship between city dwellers and those who work the land, but the supermarket has become an unthinking way of life. Cooking and eating food are two of the few remaining ways in which urbanites can be hospitable, trusting and generous. But Steel’s vivid descriptions of ancient cookshops and taverns offer a far richer vision of city-dwellers bawdily conversing over shared fare than Wagamama’s ubiquitous but uneasy shared benches can ever do. Minimising waste is surely essential (and creative!) if we are to optimise increasingly meagre global resources. But as Steel points out, we currently throw away a shocking 30% of the food we buy. The massive reversals required in existing supply chains, educational priorities and even basic social interactions in the city are horribly daunting. One cannot but feel that a pan-national crisis will be the only possible trigger for a new, sustainable food market.Steel’s concluding chapter tenders myriad ideas, both utopian and pragmatic, about bottom up behavioural change and top down political leadership on food that might seek to avert such a crisis. Whilst her book is certainly a campaigning one, it is also realistic and discursive and not given to promulgating slick solutions to complex agricultural and societal problems. Potential readers will know that there are already a host of excellent polemics about contemporary food culture (Shopped, Fast Food Nation et al) and an equal canon about cities. What Carolyn Steel’s book achieves is to bring these two axiomatic subjects together for the first time with a hugely enjoyable melee of academic care, passion and a jocular, accessible style. You feel like you would like to have her round for dinner to discuss further. And she would probably accept…
The Dispossed by Ursula le Guin
Quite conceivably the best SF novel ever written – if that phrase means anything at all. There are two different achievements in this novel. Firstly, it is a superb portrayal of the mind of a scientist, showing the slow conceptual struggle towards a new idea (instantaneous communication). Worth reading just for that. The second achievement is that UlG explores the balance between the individualistic and collectivist strains in all societies. The device that she uses for this is a world (Urras) much like earth which contains mixed economies and socialist states around which orbits a moon (Annarres) containing an exiled colony of anarchists. The protagonist, Shevek, is a physicist on Annarres who becomes aware of the constraints of the anarchistic society and journeys to Urras. Here he sees the limitations of state power, whether capitalist or socialist. The superb, and vitally important, narrative structure that is used is Shevek’s concept of simultanaeity: the novel intertwines two narratives (Shevek’s experiences on Annares and his decision to leave, and Shevek’s experiences on Urras and his decision to leave) which allows UlG to raise the problems with both types of system simultaneously. This is not a political rant (or Rand, perhaps) but a story about an enquiring mind. And yes, it does have characters. It does what SF is supposed to do: it frees us from the tyranny of present fashion.The Moneyless Man, a year of freeconomic living by Mark Boyle
Imagine a year without spending or even touching money. Former businessman Mark Boyle did just that and here is his extraordinary story. Going back to basics and following his own strict rules, Mark learned ingenious ways to eliminate his bills and flourish for free. Encountering seasonal foods, solar panels, skill-swapping schemes, cuttlefish toothpaste, compost toilets and – the unthinkable – a cash-free Christmas, Boyle puts the fun into frugality and offers some great tips for economical (and environmentally friendly) living. A testament to Mark’s astounding determination, this witty and heart-warming book will make you re-evaluate your relationship to your wallet.Mark Boyle founded the ‘freeconomic’ movement in the UK. An economics graduate and former business director, his website (justfortheloveofit.org) receives 30,000 hits a day and has become a hub for community sharing with over 10,000 members. He is a columnist for the Guardian and Ethical Consumer magazine.Author’s proceds donated to charity to set up the world’s first Freeconomic Community.”Essential and enjoyable reading. The fascinating story of an important social experiment, told with humility, insight, and great humour.” Chris Cleave, Sunday Times bestselling author of The Other Hand and Guardian columnist”Living with less need not be austere and miserable; rather it left Mark Boyle leaner, more skilled, and, ultimately, wiser. This is the greatest lesson of this inspirational book.” Rob Hopkins, author of The Transition Hanbook and founder of the Transition Movement”It’s not difficult to admire the philosophy and the infectious home-spun and passionate tone of this book.” Benedict Allen, TV survivalist and author of The Faber Book of ExplorationFind Your Power by Chris Johnstone
This book describes how to strengthen your ability to bring about positive change in your life and our world. Drawing on insights from addictions recovery, positive psychology, storytelling and holistic science, it includes proven strategies for improving mood, building strengths and increasing effectiveness. Chris says, “My book Find Your Power– a toolkit for resilience and positive change presents strategies and insights that help us in the journey of making things different”.Do come along and join us, even if you don’t manage to read the whole book. All welcome. www.chrisjohnstone.info/book.htmThe Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett
Why do we mistrust people more in the UK than in Japan? Why do Americans have higher rates of teenage pregnancy than the French? What makes the Swedish thinner than the Greeks? The answer: inequality. This groundbreaking book, based on years of research, provides hard evidence to show: – How almost everything – from life expectancy to depression levels, violence to illiteracy – is affected not by how wealthy a society is, but how equal it is – That societies with a bigger gap between rich and poor are bad for everyone in them – including the well-off – How we can find positive solutions and move towards a happier, fairer future Urgent, provocative and genuinely uplifting, The Spirit Level has been heralded as providing a new way of thinking about ourselves and our communities, and could change the way you see the world.Soil not Oil by Vandana Shiva
Climate change will dramatically alter how we live and is already affecting the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people. In Soil Not Oil, bestselling author Vandana Shiva connects the food crisis, peak oil, and climate change to show that a world beyond a dependence on fossil fuel and globalization is both possible and necessary. Bold and visionary, Shiva reveals how three crises are inherently linked and that any attempt to solve one without addressing the others will get us nowhere. Condemning industrial agriculture and industrial biofuels as recipes for ecological and economic disaster, Shivas champion is the small, independent farm. What we need most in a time of changing climates and millions hungry, she argues, are sustainable, biologically diverse farms that are more resistant to disease, drought, and flood. Calling for a return to local economies and small-scale food production Shiva outlines our remaining options: a market-centred short-term escape for the privileged, which will deepen the crisis for the poor and marginalized, or a people-centred fossil-fuel-free future, which will offer a decent living for all.
Local food, how to make it happen in your community by Tamzin Pinkerton and Rob Hopkins
Many people already buy their vegetables as locally as possible, eat organic and seasonal food when they can, and are perhaps even getting to grips with managing an allotment. However, with current economic pressures and mounting concerns about climate change and peak oil, there is a growing feeling that we need to do more to reduce dependence on the global market.Local Food offers an inspiring and practical guide to what can be achieved if you get together with the people on your street or in your village, town or city. It explores a huge range of local food initiatives for rebuilding a diverse, resilient local food network – including community gardens, farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture schemes and projects in schools – and includes all the information you will need to get ideas off the ground.Drawing on the practical experience of Transition initiatives and other community projects around the world, Local Food demonstrates the power of working collaboratively. In today’s culture of supermarkets and food miles, an explosion of activity at community level is urgently needed. This book is the ideal place to start.
Small is Beautiful, Economics as if people mattered by E.F.Schumacher.
First published in 1973, this controversial study looks at the economic structure of the western world in a revolutionary way. Schumacher maintains that man’s current pursuit of profit and progress, which promotes giant organizations and increased specialization, has in fact resulted in gross economic inefficiency, environmental pollution and inhumane working conditions.
He challenges the doctrine of economic, technological and scientific specialization, and proposes a system of intermediate technology, based on smaller working units, communal ownership and regional workplaces, utilizing local labour and resources.
The Carbon Fields by Graham Harvey
It ranks as one of the great secrets of our time. A simple and elegant solution to some of the world’s most pressing problems – rising food prices, increased carbon emissions and the health crisis. The answer is here for us now if we’re bold enough to take it. No breakthroughs are required, no “fad” diets. There’s no need to throw away the car keys or give up real butter and juicy steaks. So why haven’t we been told about this great natural gift?Award-winning author Graham Harvey investigates the murky world of food and farming and reveals how global corporations have hijacked Britain’s most basic source of life and health. This book explains how globally-traded grains have been used to promote global warming, obesity and ill-health. It shows how – by reclaiming our greatest natural asset – we can put ourselves and the nation back on the road to health and prosperity.This book will surprise you. You’ll wonder how something so vital to your health and well-being can have been kept hidden. But once you know you’ll be in a position to act. You can use your power as a citizen and consumer to reclaim this stolen treasure. At this time of threat and uncertainty our country needs it as never before.Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart – ‘Reduce, reuse, and recycle’ urge environmentalists; in other words, do more with less in order to minimize damage. But as architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart point out in this provocative, visionary book, this approach only perpetuates the one-way, ‘cradle to grave’ manufacturing model, dating to the Industrial Revolution, that creates such fantastic amounts of waste and pollution in the first place.Why not challenge the belief that human industry must damage the natural world? In fact, why not take nature itself as our model for making things? A tree produces thousands of blossoms in order to create another tree, yet we consider its abundance not wasteful but safe, beautiful and highly effective. Waste equals food. Guided by this principle, McDonough and Braungart explain how products can be designed from the outset so that, after their useful lives, they will provide nourishment for something new – continually circulating as pure and viable materials within a ‘cradle to cradle’ model.Drawing on their experience in redesigning everything from carpeting to corporate campuses, McDonough and Braungart make an exciting and viable case for putting eco-effectiveness into practice, and show how anyone involved in making anything can begin to do so as well.