Animal Agriculture: A Personal Bibliography

Since I first saw the documentary Cowspiracy in early 2015, I keep reading books about animal agriculture.  I read several books on the subject before I published my own in February, and I’ve read several more since.  I’m past the point where I need further convincing, so why do I continue?

(Imagine significant time passing between asking myself this question and coming up with some answers.)

Okay, here are some answers.  First, animal agriculture, a.k.a. factory farming, has been kept under wraps for too long, so there are many truths about it that need to be brought under public scrutiny.

Second, each of the books I’ve read so far has reinforced the others and, as well, added new insight or approached the subject from a new and different perspective.  I continue to learn more from each, and certain nuances of my values and conclusions continue to be challenged, even though I’ve made the most basic decisions already.

Finally, these books tell about more than just factory farming.  They examine the implications of modern industrial-age capitalism on an overpopulated planet.  They raise questions of human nature:  compassion and cruelty; confronting unpleasant truths versus turning a willing blind eye; whether or not humans are superior to other animals and thus entitled to exploit them; whether how we treat other animal species has bearing on how we treat one another.  This is deep stuff.

So here is a brief personal bibliography of books I’ve read thus far – or plan to read soon.  I’ve listed them alphabetically, because it’s impossible to rank them by worth.  I’ve also written a few words about each, so potential readers can decide which they want to pursue and in what sequence.  I’m confident that any one of these books will cause readers to examine their habits and beliefs in a new way.

Fortunately for humanity and the planet, there is a wealth of information available today on the history and the incredible complexity of animal agriculture.  It’s all out there just waiting to be digested by the broader population.

Comfortably Unaware: What We Choose to Eat Is Killing Us and Our Planet – Dr. Richard A. Oppenlander

This is highly readable, concise discussion of the impacts of the food we eat upon climate and the environment.

I own Comfortably Unaware on my Kindle but haven’t read it yet; it’s in my near-term backlog.

Eating Animals – Jonathan Safran Foer

This is a deep, fresh, philosophical look at the practice of eating animals.  The author is an accomplished novelist, and this book is both thoroughly researched and brilliantly written.  It challenges the views of anyone who eats anything, even vegetarians and vegans.

I’m in the midst of reading Eating Animals now, and I’m finding it amazing.  I continue to learn more about animal agriculture.

Eating Earth: Environmental Ethics and Dietary Choice – Lisa Kemmerer

This book focuses on three aspects of our relationship with animals:  factory farming, fishing, and hunting.  The author explores the ethics of these practices, employing a wealth of facts, data, and graphics.  Eating Earth is thoroughly researched, and Kemmerer presents all her findings concisely, in a way that is visually appealing.  If you thrive on data, you will love Eating Earth.

Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food – Gene Baur

Gene Baur has dedicated his life to building awareness of what’s behind the meat and dairy products we consume, through his nonprofit farm animal rescue organization Farm Sanctuary.  This book is a thorough look at animal agriculture – with emphasis on animal treatment – as well as the author’s personal story.

I am honored to know Gene personally.  From his three decades as an activist, he has developed keen insights into human behavior that transcend our relationship with animals.

If Pigs Could Talk: The Case for a Plant-Based Diet – Roger Gloss

Yes, this is my own book, published in February 2017.  It’s intended as a concise handbook (70 pages), an introduction to the entire array of problems resulting from factory farming, and a roadmap to help readers who wish to move to a plant-based diet.  For anyone new to the subject, If Pigs Could Talk is a great place to start.  You can find it here.

Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat – Howard F. Lyman with Glen Merzer

Howard Lyman spent much of his life as a cattle rancher in Montana.  Mad Cowboy is his personal story.  He explains why he no longer eats meat and tells the story of his transition from farmer to politician to activist.

The Sustainability Secret: Rethinking Our Diet to Transform the World – Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn

This is the book version of the documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.  Published subsequent to the release of the film, the book covers all the issues in the film, but in greater detail.  While the documentary builds a strong case against the environmental destruction from animal agriculture, the book reinforces it.

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins – Jonathan Balcombe

The world of fish, beneath the oceans’ surface, is even more hidden from most of us than what goes on in factory farms.  Jonathan Balcombe challenges our notions of how different fish are from us, and examines why this matters.

I’m pleased to count Jonathan among my acquaintances.  He owns a signed copy of my book If Pigs Could Talk and has spoken highly of it.  My signed copy of What a Fish Knows is unread as yet; it’s in my near-term backlog.  Stay tuned.

Porcelain: A Memoir

by Moby

Penguin Books, 2016

Moby’s memoir is not my normal reading fare.  My path to Moby and his book was indirect.  It went like this.

Moby is vegan, and has been since 1987.  I’ve been vegan only since last year.  But on my path to becoming vegan I had occasion to see Moby in person three times:  once with Gene Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary (who has been vegan since 1985, a lighthearted point of contention for Moby); again at Soka University in Southern California, at a premier screening of Allison Argo’s stunning documentary The Last Pig; and most recently at Frida Cinema in Santa Ana, where Moby was interviewed by a book critic from the Orange County Register.  At the Frida I purchased my copy of Porcelain, which Moby graciously signed for me, even drawing a sketch of an alien similar to the one on the cover.

Moby’s life is nothing like mine, for which I’m extremely grateful.  He’s an eccentric artist, DJ, and composer of electronic music who immersed himself in the club and rave scene in New York City through the ‘80s and ‘90s.  A disproportionate number of his companions were alcoholics, drug addicts, sex addicts (of all persuasions), and prostitutes.  At times they used him and at times he used them.  Some of them were his lasting friends.  Ironically, he was straight, Christian (for a long time), drug-free (with exceptions), and a teetotaler (in between two enthusiastic bouts of alcoholism, first in his teens and again in his thirties).

Through it all he was insecure, afraid, self-destructive, and suffered frequent panic attacks.  But despite all of the depravity and squalor around him he remained an artist committed to his music.  He sought love in his own admittedly clumsy, desperate way. He is good-humored and refreshingly honest.  His honesty and his wry sense of humor illuminate his writing, along with occasional brief exhibitions of self-pity.  I admire him for his willingness to share his story so candidly and openly.

I should add that Porcelain is only the first part of Moby’s story, covering his life through 1999.  Part two is nearing publication, and I will likely read it, to see how Moby, now fifty-two, has put the pieces of his life together since the relative low point at which Porcelain ends.

Here is the bottom line for me.  From meeting Moby and reading Porcelain, I know that he is vegan over and above almost everything else and that he is refreshingly honest.  This is reason enough for me to want to see where his life goes in part two.

No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need

by Naomi Klein

Haymarket Books, 2017

Followers of my blog might notice that I’m predisposed to feature and praise the works of Naomi Klein.  Maybe even a little obsessive.  There’s a reason for this.  Naomi Klein is one of the greatest minds in North America today (I say North America because she holds both Canadian and U.S. citizenship).  She has dedicated her career – her life, in fact – to delving deeply into the most threatening crises facing modern civilization:  war, inequality, injustice, and climate change, to name but a few.

There are narratives surrounding these crises, stories we have been told for decades by our political and corporate leaders about how we are – or, in the case of climate change, are not – confronting these crises and what sort of approaches we are or are not pursuing.

Well, Klein turns these narratives upside down.  She turns over all the rocks and looks underneath them.  In all three of her prior books – No Logo, The Shock Doctrine, and This Changes Everything – she argues for a new narrative, one that better explains why we as a global society continue doggedly toward our own destruction, one that suggests the need for a radically different and better way forward.

Bringing It All Together

No Is Not Enough represents the convergence of all her prior work.  And Naomi Klein is one of the first to understand this convergence.  She synthesizes the trends and ideas from all three of her earlier works – corporate branding, shock politics, and climate injustice – and shows us how all of it explains how we ended up with Trump.  Thanks to Klein, I already had a good understanding of the pieces, but I still needed her brilliant synthesis to tie them all together.

This post is not a book report, but I’ll mention three key conclusions Klein reaches in No Is Not Enough, to entice you to read this brilliant book of ideas.  First, we were all shocked by the rise of Donald Trump, but we shouldn’t have been.  His election was rather the logical conclusion of three decades of neoliberal ideology, unregulated capitalism, and explosive growth of the corporate behemoth, all at the expense of the public sphere.

Second, the popular energy and level of engagement awakened by Trump’s election, while a “hopeful” sign, would have been far more effective and achieved substantive results had it coincided with the 2008 election of Barack Obama.  We should have been in the streets then.  Had the public demanded massive reform back then, rather than sitting back and expecting that Obama would fix it all, we would be better off today (and Trump would not have happened).  Big mistake.

And finally comes the lesson articulated by Klein’s title, No Is Not Enough.  We – all of us who were disengaged or cynical or resigned too long – need to have a vision of what “yes” looks like.  Klein, in collaboration with other great minds, has laid one out for us.  It is radical; it is bold; it will be incredibly hard to achieve.  But at this juncture, as we run out of time, the path she lays out is, in my view, our only hope to reverse the course of the world we are facing.

What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice

by Wen Stephenson

Beacon Press, 2016
I struggle to describe what lies inside Wen Stephenson’s book, and the impact it has made upon my worldview.  I’ve long been on board with the climate crisis and the fight for climate justice, but Stephenson’s book takes us to a whole new level.

If you could cross Bill McKibben with Chris Hedges – two truth tellers whom, if you follow my website and my blog, you know I hold in high regard – you might get something like Wen Stephenson.  Although his climate epiphany came somewhat recently, he completely understands that it might already be too late for continued human existence on planet Earth.  McKibben understands this, too, but keeps fighting anyway.  Hedges despairs for humanity not only on climate grounds, but on a broader moral basis.  We – humanity – have thus far failed miserably to confront our many ills.

In What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other, Stephenson, too, makes the case for us to keep fighting, keep trying, despite the overwhelming odds against us.  He begins with a philosophical look at Thoreau, followed by some in-depth discussion with Bill McKibben of his fundamental views on the climate crisis.  Through the rest of the book Stephenson highlights the work of lesser known activists for climate justice, men and women – often young – willing to put their freedom and even their lives on the line, rather than meekly step back and await the coming apocalypse.  These are the same kind of people whose stories Hedges tells in Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt.  In Hedges’s terminology, these people are possessed of “sublime madness.”

Stephenson himself grapples with the right words to frame the magnitude of the climate crisis and its intimate interconnections with social justice.  He tries this way:

“What I’m saying is, there’s a spiritual crisis, or struggle, at the heart of the climate crisis and the climate struggle – a crisis we’ve hardly begun to come to grips with, or even acknowledge.  The immense suffering that is now inevitable, within this century, on this rapidly warming planet is the result not only of an ‘environmental’ or ‘economic’ or ‘political’ crisis – or even a ‘moral’ one.  It’s all of these combined, and yet, if possible, more.  It’s what I can only call spiritual.”

Naomi Klein, in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, showed us, in sharp relief, that the climate fight is about powerful forces beyond merely science and nature.  Bill McKibben, in Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, explained to us that the old planet we were comfortable living on and exploiting is already gone.  Wen Stephenson, in What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other, attempts to elevate the intensity of the response to match the intensity of the crisis that Klein and McKibben have illuminated so well.  His book should become the spiritual guide to our conduct from this point forward.

Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In

by Bernie Sanders

Thomas Dunne Books, November 2016

No, this is not Bernie Sanders’s campaign biography; the book wasn’t released until last November, the month of our recent disastrous presidential election.  Rather, Our Revolution is a post-election manifesto, covering three engaging and important topics:  (1) Bernie’s early life and political career, including what molded him into the humble, scrupulously honest man he still is today; (2) a detailed history of his unprecedented grass-roots campaign for president; and (3) a comprehensive presentation of Bernie’s detailed policies to restore some semblance of the American dream for everyone who lives in this country, whether citizen or hard-working immigrant.

I thought I already knew everything I needed to know about this man and his policies, but reading Our Revolution has taught me even more.  There are countless lessons, small and large, to be learned from the first page to the last.  A striking feature of his narrative, for me, was that as I read it, I could hear Bernie himself speaking every word.  Maybe that’s a sign of how much respect I have for this unique government servant and his refreshingly unique integrity.  The book also puts on display his personal warmth.  Contrary to the prevailing view during his campaign, Bernie Sanders is not grumpy.

Our Revolution is important because it represents two things: (1) a golden opportunity for the Democratic Party to recapture the hearts – and votes – of progressive Americans, an opportunity that it has taken a Party outsider, an independent, a self-described Democratic Socialist, to demonstrate to them; and (2) a clear roadmap in every area of national policy to truly – really! – “make America great again.”

As Bernie Sanders told us over and over again during his campaign, it was never about Bernie Sanders.  I’m forever grateful to him for continuing to pour his heart and his energy into spreading his message.  The revolution must continue, and this is how it must happen.

March – Books One through Three

by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

Top Shelf Productions, 2013, 2015, 2016

march-v1-3_2This amazing trilogy is a multi-year project of former civil rights leader and longtime U.S. Congressman John Lewis, in collaboration with his advisor Andrew Aydin and graphic novelist Nate Powell. John Lewis’s purpose in publishing this work is to ensure that future generations of Americans remember the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and continue to learn from our nation’s not always proud past. March is written as a three-volume graphic novel, totaling about five hundred pages, with the intent to make it more accessible and interesting to young people.

Lewis’s objective is similar to that of contemporary Germany, which continues to teach its high school students about the Holocaust. In the words of Spanish philosopher Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Racial segregation and denial of equality to blacks in the South is arguably in the same realm of moral contemptibility as the Holocaust, minus the nationally sponsored genocide. Southern states and cities, employing their own law enforcement agencies, enforced inferior treatment of blacks, resisted black voter registration, and intimidated and beat those who struggled against segregation. Southern whites and the Ku Klux Klan burned homes and churches, beat and sometimes killed black citizens while the criminal justice system looked the other way or gave them a pass in the courts. The federal government under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson acted slowly and sometimes reluctantly, but it was the nonviolent civil rights protests – lunch counter sit-ins, voter registration drives, the freedom rides, the march on Washington in 1963, and the march to Montgomery two years later – that finally drew the attention of the nation and compelled the Johnson administration to intervene emphatically, culminating in Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

March was written for those of my generation as well. While all the turmoil of the Civil Rights Movement was unfolding, I was in high school in upstate New York, followed by my freshman and sophomore years of college at UCLA. I confess I was only tangentially aware of what was transpiring in the South. And even had I understood and fully appreciated the importance of this struggle for social justice, I’m sure I lacked the courage to travel there, as many northern whites did, and join the fight. I have a good friend, a few years older than I, who served in the Air Force and was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1961. He was more or less in the thick of it, but he told me recently that he, too, was oblivious at the time.

Although March is written with younger generations in mind, nothing is held back. The story is often angry and violent, and strong language is rampant because it was real. For those northerners who did have the courage to join the movement, “nigger lovers” were as detested by white southerners as “niggers.” Blacks died. Whites died.

Politics of course plays an overarching role. There is one moving scene where Nelson Rockefeller (remember him?) addresses the Republican National Convention in 1964. He warns the convention against the takeover of the Republican Party by “radical, well-financed, highly disciplined” conservative extremists – led, at the time, by Barry Goldwater. Rockefeller’s speech is greeted with a chorus of boos. And Lyndon Johnson, of course, fully realized when he signed civil rights legislation that the South would be lost to the Democratic Party for decades to come.

Anyone who believes the civil rights struggle was won in 1965 is deluded by the false narrative we still tell ourselves about American exceptionalism. The Supreme Court recently struck down provisions in the Voting Rights Act requiring Justice Department review of changes in voting regulations by certain states that, in the past, discriminated against minorities. No sooner was this ruling handed down than these same states cynically passed voter ID laws and restrictions that were blatantly crafted to suppress minority and Democrat votes. North Carolina and Texas are two leading examples. Lower courts have ruled against many of these states’ legislation and, thanks to the 4-4 deadlock in our current Supreme Court, North Carolina’s rules will not be in place in the November 2016 election.

Because of the same dysfunctional 4-4 Supreme Court deadlock – held firmly in place by Mitch McConnell’s refusal to hold a confirmation vote on a ninth justice to replace Antonin Scalia (this in our dysfunctional Republican Congress) – the Texas law remains in place, since, unlike the North Carolina law, it was upheld in the lower courts. So if you have a concealed carry permit in Texas, go vote (Republican); if you have a student ID, too bad.

Mass incarceration and subtly entrenched bias by law enforcement, both north and south, are further evidence that insidious discrimination is still rampant in America. The transgender bathroom dilemma is yet another example, proving that our underlying penchant for intolerance is not restricted to race.

So John Lewis’s important graphic work March ends with Book Three, but the state of America, here and now in 2016, clearly calls for a fourth volume. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

America’s War for the Greater Middle East

by Andrew J. Bacevich

Random House, 2016

WarForGreaterMiddleEastCoverAndrew Bacevich, Vietnam veteran with a PhD in American diplomatic history and retired professor of history and international relations, has become a well-recognized wise man of American foreign policy.  In 2008 he wrote The Limits of Power, a semi-philosophical look at what he calls “American exceptionalism,” a symptom of which is the persistent employment of American military might to exert our will upon the rest of the world.  That small, compelling book has reshaped my worldview.

Now, with America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Bacevich has undertaken a history of our modern wars since Vietnam, all of which he convincingly aggregates under a single “War for the Greater Middle East.”  With the advantage of hindsight, Bacevich begins with a thorough analysis of the little remembered Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, in which the United States meddled (sometimes on both sides) throughout the Reagan administration.  In Bacevich’s lexicon, this was the “First Gulf War.”

He then connects the dots to all of America’s subsequent misadventures in the Greater Middle East.  The lack of overall strategy in the Iran-Iraq War – and consequent failure of America’s efforts to achieve its desired results – then sowed the seeds for Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91.  Desert Storm is commonly known as the First Gulf War, but in Bacevich’s history it is the Second Gulf War.  Desert Storm is also commonly viewed as an American military success, but Bacevich shows how it fell short, in turn sowing the seeds for Bush, Jr.’s ill-advised Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The latter endeavor, also known to us as “shock and awe,” thus became the Third Gulf War.  It consumed Bush 43’s entire two terms and much of Obama’s presidency as well.  Iraqi Freedom was unique only in that it was undertaken for even more naïve, shortsighted objectives than previous Middle East endeavors, and involved more hubris and incompetence than anything prior.  Bush 43 and his arrogant foreign policy advisors doubled down on earlier failures.  So much for learning from history.

In this narrative, Bacevich treats Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria as well.  The genius of Bacevich’s work is his considered analysis of how each of these misadventures is connected to every other.  True, Bacevich has the advantage now of hindsight, but few foreign policy analysts possess either the insight or the courage to explore these unflattering connections.

Since Barack Obama is our current president, and since this is an election year, it is fashionable today to lay the entire Middle East failure at Obama’s feet.  Bacevich’s answer to this exemplifies his wit and his depth of understanding.  “Washington suffered from the inverse of early-onset Alzheimer’s,” he writes.  “Short-term memory going back a week or ten days was perfectly intact; everything else was gone.”

In the end, almost forty years of effort by the nation with the most powerful military on the planet have yielded nearly nothing in the way of progress, whether it be quelling terrorism, spreading democracy, or stabilizing the Middle East as a region.  Bacevich argues rather that we’ve achieved the opposite.  In the final chapter, “Generational War,” he raises two obvious questions:  Why can’t we win?  And since we haven’t won, why can’t we get out?  I’m sure most of us have asked these questions.  For plausible answers I urge everyone to read this excellent history.

I will, though, drop a hint, in Bacevich’s own words:

At the end of the day, whether the United States is able to shape the Greater Middle East will matter less than whether it can shape itself, restoring effectiveness to self-government, providing for sustainable and equitable prosperity, and extracting from a vastly diverse culture something to hold in common of greater moment than shallow digital enthusiasms and the worship of celebrity.

Thus America’s War for the Greater Middle East, too, is about American exceptionalism, not merely a philosophical look, but where the rubber meets the road.  Andrew Bacevich tells us the truth, and his keen insight into the destructiveness of our long-held myth of American exceptionalism merits our fullest attention.

Dark Money

The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

by Jane Mayer

Doubleday, 2016

DarkMoneyCoverJane Mayer’s book was recommended by Naomi Klein when she spoke at USC’s Visions and Voices last February, so I read it.  I do pretty much everything Naomi Klein tells me to do.

Dark Money is a compelling, enlightening, but extremely depressing book.  It explains, in as much detail as Mayer’s research has been able to fathom, the inexplicable dysfunction that has come to dominate our national and state politics, especially since the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the Supreme Court’s abominable decision on Citizens United barely a year after he took office.

Dark Money explains how the Republican Party has lost control of politics, but deserve what they are getting because they invited the support of the Koch brothers, and others like them, into the Party.  It explains why Congress opposes policies that are supported by a majority of Americans and supports policies the majority opposes.  In a word, the will of the majority has been preempted by the cascade of money dumped into our political system by the wealthy.  It also explains why House Speaker John Boehner ultimately gave up his position and resigned from Congress; his caucus was simply out of control, beholden to any number of wealthy donors, each with their own self-serving agendas.

Frighteningly, dark money has also infiltrated our colleges and universities, funding economics programs and academic courses espousing unregulated free market capitalism.

The collapse of the Republican Party – dare we hope? – would be highly gratifying, except for the fact that the concept of functional federal and state governments that actually serve their citizens will probably collapse along with them.

Dark Money reveals, in gory detail, that the Koch brothers and their influence are even worse than we thought. They are greedy ideologues with too much money, using their power to impose their will on the entire United States of America.  It’s of little importance whether they really believe that their libertarian views are what is best for America (I doubt it).  The point is that no one or two men – or even a “handful of billionaires” – should be able to decide what is best for a nation of 300 million people.  Sadly, this is what our politics have come to.

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

by Ashlee Vance

Ecco, 2015

ElonMuskCoverThis is the most fascinating, entertaining, and hopeful biography I’ve read in a long time, perhaps ever. Its subject, Elon Musk, is one of the most brilliant and complex characters alive today, providing ample raw material for a good book.  But what really makes this book shine is that author Ashlee Vance, who had unprecedented access to Musk, his employees, family members, and supporters as well as detractors, has portrayed Musk with a thoroughness and insight that only a dedicated, skilled researcher and writer could pull off.

Musk has turned the traditional idea of capitalist entrepreneurship on its head by taking financial risks greater than most conventional CEOs, with MBAs in their pockets, would dare.  In his successive companies and business ventures – Solar City, Tesla, SpaceX – he has repeatedly taken sizable chunks of his personal fortune, accumulated from the success and subsequent sale of a previous venture, and sunk them into his next bold idea.  He has attracted outside investors as well, but much of his ability to do that has been based on his willingness to put his own wealth on the line along with theirs.  Musk is clearly driven not by money but by a genuine desire to make a positive impact on civilization, which he believes is in serious trouble.  Musk’s drive is almost obsessive; it has brought him more than once to the brink of financial and personal ruin.  He is infamous for committing to impossible deadlines and missing them, which puts unbearable pressure on his managers and employees.

Musk is a hard man to work for, because he expects everyone else to be as smart as he is and willing to work as hard as he does.  That said, he has been a magnet for attracting the best talent in American business, from Silicon Valley tech companies, from universities, from aerospace and the automobile industry.  His supporters are willing to go to the brink with him to make his bold ideas work.  Some of his employees, on the other hand, burn out and move on.  The same could be said of his former wives, one of whom he divorced, remarried, and divorced again.  His interpersonal and leadership skills are not without controversy.

Traditional automotive and aerospace company managers have often pronounced his ideas and business ventures laughable, only to discover a few years later that he is breathing down their necks, or even surpassing them with his innovative products and approaches.  Part of Musk’s ability to do that comes from his commitment to controlling every aspect of manufacturing, which has meant building rockets, cars, batteries, and now solar panels in the United States, with American labor.  This approach – which, we know too well, runs counter to modern corporate thinking – has made his companies far more nimble and cost effective than the established automotive and aerospace giants.  Musk is able to implement fixes and changes to his products far faster than other companies tied to offshore suppliers and burdened by contracts, trade agreements, and their own bureaucracies when they want to make changes in their components or processes.

Vance is obviously a Musk fan (mainly, it seems, as a result of genuinely getting to know Musk while writing this book), but he is also honest and forthright about Musk’s foibles and shortcomings. All in all, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future is an outstanding experience that has helped, at least a little, to shore up my faith in humanity and my hope for the future.

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

by Bill McKibben

Henry Holt and Company, 2010

EaarthCoverI should have read Bill McKibben’s Eaarth upon its publication five years ago – so should everyone – but somehow I missed it. In a word, “Eaarth” is the new planet that human civilization has created over two centuries, perhaps with the best of intentions, but a planet now irreversibly compromised by resource extraction, environmental destruction, and resulting climate change.  This new planet is not coming – it’s already here. McKibben argues that we humans need to learn to live differently on our new planet.

The first half of Eaarth nearly drove me to despair. It is a litany of bad news, everything we have done to degrade our living conditions by spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and how we continued to do the same things – even accelerated the damage – over the past three decades, when we should have known better. I’ve read much about this before, but every time I revisit the story it strikes me as even more tragic.

The second half of the book focuses on adaptation. In McKibben’s words, “… we’ll need to change to cope with the new Eaarth we’ve created. We’ll need, chief among all things, to get smaller and less centralized, to focus not on growth but on maintenance, on a controlled decline from the perilous heights to which we’ve climbed.” These are fighting words to the captains of free market capitalism. In that respect McKibben’s message is just as explosive and polarizing as Naomi Klein’s in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

In truth, McKibben’s and Klein’s prescriptions for human survival are quite similar, but with different emphasis. Klein argues that dealing with climate change provides us with our best opportunity to advance environmental and social justice, while McKibben lays out in some detail the benefits of simplicity, control, security, and community that would result from decentralization of our food and energy production.

McKibben makes an additional point that, to my knowledge, no one has thought of before, or no one has thought significant enough to mention. The Internet has helped us connect with and learn about diverse peoples around the globe whose values, beliefs, and backgrounds are sharply different from our own. This has helped us, over time, to bridge cultural gaps and, sometimes, to understand, lift, and support one another. (At the same time the Internet has been used as a polarizing force, too. In these respects the Internet mirrors the society it serves.) McKibben says that, on this new Eaarth we’ve created, we won’t be jumping on airplanes much or traveling long distances to make physical connection with people outside our own locales. The Internet, though, and the computers we use to access it, run on a tiny fraction of the total energy we now consume. On our new Eaarth it should still be possible to maintain the Internet, and thus avoid becoming isolated within our communities, relapsing into suspicion and intolerance of outsiders.

You may think this new planet is a poor substitute for the one we Americans have enjoyed for the past six decades or so. I disagree. But whether we agree or not, our choice is clear. Either we can ease carefully, gracefully – and quickly – into the new world that Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein envision, or just stand idle and brace ourselves, as nature imposes upon us a kind of life and death that no one wants.