October 2005
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Month October 2005

Book #54: The Long Emergency, by James Howard Kunstler

Kunstler’s recent book on the post-petroleum world, “The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century”, is written in the same critical mold as his earlier classic, Geography of Nowhere, and is well worth reading. Little Kunstler says is unique — you can read Paul Roberts’s “The End of Oil : On the Edge of a Perilous New World” or half a dozen other books for the basic outlines of “peak oil” theory and the likely course of oil depletion in the twenty-first century. What makes Kunstler’s book unique and well worth reading is the connection to his earlier analysis of American land-use history.

Kunstler points out that a larger proportion of America lives in suburban landscapes than do European nations, which often still have vibrant city cores and strong communities of small farmers. As a consequence, America is far more reliant on long-distance transport for both food and our corporate economy than most other nations. Thus, our economy may be more susceptible to disruptions which arise from fuel cost increases than European countries, or for that matter developing nations which have lower per-capita oil consumption.

Much of the second half of Kunstler’s book discusses the likely consequences of passing the oil peak. He’s relatively pessimistic about alternative energy sources, and I believe quite rightly so. Most alternate energy sources still require large inputs of petrochemicals to manufacture their infrastructure, so it’s unclear what the true net output rates from such sources are. His basic conclusions I tend to agree with: (a) society will become much more locally and regionally focused, as the cost of transport rises due to fuel price increases and oil scarcity, (b) the economy will necessarily de-globalize to some extent, given the impossibility of maintaining 12,000 mile supply chains for consumer goods and delivering low prices. These conclusions are fairly incontrovertible to my mind, barring “miracle” finds of additional easily extractible oil or an alternative energy source usable for internal combustion engines with a good ratio of energy output to input.

What is more speculative, and far less certain, are the social consequences Kunstler forsees. Economic effects are relatively predictable given the pricing and cost structure of our current economy, if one looks at oil hitting ever-higher barrel prices. How societies will respond is something none of us really knows, though social unrest, the unraveling of fragile multi-ethnic nationalities, and potentially repressive responses by governments are certainly something we’ve seen historically in analogous circumstances. The book and the topic — our energy future — deserve more discussion among progressives than it’s getting. In America today, energy is largely a Republican issue in the political arena, and that’s too bad. For it is progressives that need to understand how we will fight to stop repressive responses should the “Long Emergency” come true in some form or another.

Book #53: Woken Furies, by Richard K. Morgan

"Woken Furies" is the latest Richard K. Morgan novel in the Takeshi Kovacs series of novels, and it surpasses the previous, Broken Angels, but not the first, Altered CarbonFuries is set some years after Broken Angels, and has Kovacs back on Harlan’s World, his birthplace and the home of radical revolutionary and political theorist Quellcrist Falconer.  Part of what makes the novel (and the Kovacs series) so interesting is Quellism, which is only partially developed but critical to understanding Kovacs, however much he denies it.  Quellism appears to be part libertarianism, part guerrilla revolutionary tactics straight out of Guevara, part Zen-like acceptance of the generational nature of "popular" struggle.  Quellism is a revolutionary left chastened and chagrined by what power does, regardless of whose hands come to wield it. 

I’m emphasizing this aspect of the series, of course, because I find it interesting, just as I found the left-libertarian economies of MacLeod’s Star Fraction intriguing as social extrapolation.  The novel itself is about far more than just this, and I recommend it (and the remainder of the Kovacs series), to fans of mysteries, science fiction, and the increasingly interesting territory between the two. 

Books #51 and 52: Fillets of Plaice and Two in the Bush

I needed some “fun” reading while up on Saltspring Island, and picked up “Fillets of Plaice” and “Two in the Bush” by Gerald Durrell, at Sabine’s Fine Used Books in Ganges. For those who are unfamiliar with Gerry Durrell, he’s the younger brother of novelist and travel writer Lawrence Durrell (Alexandria Quartet, Bitter Lemons, Reflections of a Marine Venus), and author of what is likely my “most-re-read” book of all time, My Family and Other Animals.

Fillets of Plaice begins with a reminiscence between Gerry and Lawrence (who apparently suggested the book’s title as a terrible pun on his own Spirit of Place), and continues with several very funny stories set during the author’s childhood on Corfu, and featuring the return of Theodore, Spiro, and other well-loved characters from MFAOA. The book also featured a hilarious story about one of Durrell’s early loves, and an animal collecting tale from Cameroon. As with all of Durrell’s books, however, this one was finished far too quickly, and just before I got on the ferry today I picked up Two in the Bush for the ride back to Tsawassen. I just started it, and I’m hooked.

Two in the Bush is more typical of Durrell’s later books, chronicling a trip to New Zealand, Australia, and then-Malaya to film endangered species for BBC television. The stories occupy the space between zoology, humor, and personal reminiscence, and are hilarious.

A note on “My Family and Other Animals”. I first encountered the book at a young age, in first or second grade, finding a used copy for sale at my elementary school’s annual book sale. I was immediately entranced by Durrell’s adventures in Corfu collecting animals and enjoying childhood in the Greek sunshine. At the time I had no clue who Lawrence Durrell was, other than apparently being a writer of some sort. Over the years I’ve lost — more likely worn out — that original copy, but I still have the book and have likely re-read it more than any other. For some reason it speaks to me, not necessarily of my own childhood, but of the innocence of childhood scientific wonder and discovery. As an adult, the book is now also overlaid by a wistfulness for a world, landscape, and people now gone, destroyed both by World War II and by the “shrinking” of the world by modern transport and technology. Durrell captured and preserved a sliver of the world that we would all be lucky to recapture, even in little pieces.

Fifty Book Challenge Stats

Looking back over the first fifty books I’ve read this year showed me some surprising things (actually, the total was 52 individual books because the three I was reading over last New Year’s were counted as one).

First, I read a lot more fiction that I usually think of myself reading. 28 of 52 books were fiction, and only 24 non-fiction. Of the fiction, for some reason this was a big year for speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy: 27 of the 28 fit in this general category, and 1 (Banville) as “mainstream literature.” Of the speculative category, only one was real “fantasy”: Book 6 of the Harry Potter series. I’m hooked, what can I say? Of the remainder, Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon probably dominate by page count, but not by book count. In terms of book count, I’d say that the authors most read are Ken MacLeod, Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow, and Richard K. Morgan.

Of the non-fiction, the vast majority of it continued to be centered on European and American history, constitutional law and political history, and political philosophy. Biology accounted for two books thus far this year, law/political science by 14, straight philosophy by 7, and history by 16. Three lonely books covered poker, travel, and economics with one each.

My reading in much of the rest of the year is likely to cover more non-fiction — I seem to be running out of speculative fiction I care about reading. I’ll probably try to pick up Rushdie’s latest novel, and a series of essays by Wendell Berry. Other than that, I’m looking forward to Stone’s history of free speech, Amar’s “biography” of the constitution, Hawkin’s On Intelligence, James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, Phillip Pettit’s Republicanism, and one of several histories of progressivism in early twentieth century. But who knows — the unread book stack is tall, and there may be other gems lurking in there, waiting for the perfect moment to grab my attention…

Book #50: Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon

OK, my 50th book of the year is a re-read, but it had been a few years. But after the Baroque Cycle, I needed to catch all the references between the two. And it was a massive re-read. I’m exhausted after roughly 3600 pages of Stephenson since Labor Day. Re-reading “Cryptonomicon” this time had the effect of underscoring the fact that, while it was a terrific speculative novel, Stephenson’s achievement in the Baroque Cycle is really much more amazing and significant. Cryptonomicon, which once felt like a weighty novel of ideas, now feels lightweight in comparison.

My reading rate, measured in books completed, has necessarily slowed in the last month as I plowed through four massive tomes. My “inbox” pile has grown as the rate of inflow failed to be matched by corresponding outflow. I neglected non-fiction for a temporary foray into fiction. But I’m back, and over the last months of the year, I expect to spend more time focusing on economics, history, some political theory, and a bit of biology.

As for the 50 Book Challenge, next year I think I’m going to bump that up to 75 or more, depending on how my reading goes between now and December. In any case, I’ll set some “stretch” goals for myself.

Changes in my life…

Well, it’s been a busy month, and I haven’t written much. But events are shaking out a bit, and I’m free to write about them now. My aunt passed away last week, seemingly in her sleep. She was our mother’s twin sister, and was always a “second mother” to Scott and I. Somewhat eerily, she died 9 months to the day after our mother, her twin, of natural causes. She had no children — other than Scott and I — so we’re handling her affairs and will have a dual ash-scattering ceremony for her and our mother fairly soon, which is something they’d have liked.

In other news, we’ve closed up shop at Network Clarity, a decision that was stimulated by slow business conditions and our inability to sell the company to a larger software firm. It was a difficult decision, obviously, and in many ways I’m very sad to see the fruits of our efforts these last three years go unrealized. But it was the right decision for everyone involved, and part of me is simply looking forward to whatever comes next.

I’m going to be looking for “what comes next” fairly soon, but in the meantime I’m going to enjoy whatever time off I can. I’m signed up for the LSAT exam in December, most just to pressure myself to get moving on the next (or “next next”) chapter of my life. More on this later. It’s too nice to sit inside at the Allegro, even to do some writing. Just needed to stop in and deal with some final Network Clarity business. Now it’s back out to enjoy the crisp, sunny autumn afternoon.