The Energy of Slaves, by Andrew Nikiforuk

I was really looking forward to reading this book for two reasons. The first is that I really enjoyed his last one on the Tar Sands. (I tell ya, even if it wasn’t as good as it was, I still would have bought it to support this courageous Albertan dissident.) The second reason was that, with all my reading on the end of oil and climate change, the idea that we are using the energy of coal and oil in the same way we used the energy of slaves popped into my head one day last summer with all the power of a Koestlerian bisociative Ah-Ha! Sadly, my little moment of realization had all the originality of a paint-by-numbers board, as the book amply proves.

First off, let me say that this is one of the best books on the subject of oil, specifically and energy, generally, that has come out in the past decade. While too many climate and energy writers are content to spew page after page of well-researched stats and facts without ever spending any brain power on what they mean (other than predicting mayhem), Mr. Nikiforuk actually took the time to put two and two together and draw conclusions well-worth writing a book about. In other words, the man has a working brain, not just a library card.

I do have a couple of nit picks though. The most glaring is his lack of metaphorical focus. Even in the title vs the subtitle, (The Energy of Slaves, Oil and the New Servitude) he cannot make up his mind whether we are using oil as we would a slave or we are slaves serving the great God Oil. In the first chapter, I found this not only annoying but confusing, as he throws a third type of pepper in the pot: not only are we slaves to oil and oil is our slave, but the engines we have built to run on oil are also our slaves. While all three of these things are worth writing about, they really deserve their own sections or chapters. Or at the very least, their own terms to differentiate them.

I had a laugh over his idea that the biggest difference between American capitalism and Soviet Communism is that one thinks the surplus wealth created from fossil fuel energy should go to the investor while or the other thinks it should be distributed to the people. Without that surplus, it’s a non-issue. It really illustrates how big the stakes are in this carbon-fuelled world we live in. The Cold War, with it’s Bay of Pigs and nuclear stand-offs, is but one example of how the lives of billions of people rest in the palm of the oil giants. Without this great wealth, most of the planet’s seven billion would never have existed. And when we spend all that carbon capital, it’s not going to be pretty.

If you’re at all interested in a bird’s-eye view of the human energy predicament, circa 2012, get this book. It’s rare I would want to read a non-fiction book like this again, but a second reading has already made it onto my do-to list.

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Winner Take All, by Dambisa Moyo

I just finished Dambisa Moyo’s latest book, Winner Take All, and I’m left feeling rather cold on the whole subject of China’s global resource grab. She spends a bit of time defending China’s non-combative, mutually beneficial approach to its deals with other countries, and in general, I’m pretty good with the Asian Onslaught. Unlike the U.S.’s “Gonna Fuck You Up and Take Your Shit” strategy for dealing with Iraq, China has adopted the technique of forming symbiotic relationships with countries who have stuff they want. And they want plenty. Coal, oil, minerals, food, you name it, and they are willing to pay for it. In fact, they are making so many international deals worth tens of billions of dollars that they are single-handedly skewing the world economy.

We’re now in a situation where if China withdraws its big bucks from a country, say the U.S., there will be severe global economic consequences. China now owns 8% of publicly-held U.S. debt, certainly enough to send the world economy reeling if they decide to discontinue investments of that size. Is there a chance that might happen? Well, here’s a scary little scenario. According to Dr. Moyo, the Chinese people were spending more on education and healthcare than the Communist Party liked. The Party wanted them to buy more stuff, more fridges and furniture, so they provided incentives to the populace. The incentives back-fired and the money the people would have otherwise spent on education and healthcare went straight to property, causing a lovely fart bubble in their commie bathtub. If things go south, as they always do with investment bubbles, the government will be forced to stop throwing dollars around the world and instead, fling the big bucks at their own populace to stop a revolution.

Though I’m fine with the style of give-and-take deals they’re making around the world, it’s not so good that no one else has the kind of cash they have to prevent inevitable monopsonies. Yeah, I’d never heard that term before either. A monopsony is the opposite of monopoly, where instead of there being only one seller, there is only one buyer. Still, barring their own internal troubles that cause ramifications in my own country, I’d almost rather Canada trade with China than the U.S.. Yeah, yeah, I know. No rule of law, etc, etc. But look how well that’s served the Americans, with their self-serving military incursions, their idiot prison culture, and their blatantly racist foreign policy. Don’t get me started. Yes, the Chinese are famous for their human rights violations. They may trash their own people wholesale from time to time, but I don’t see them killing 100,000 Iraqis to get what they want. The biggest complaint you can level at the Chinese is that they are causing problems because they’re overpaying for commodities world-wide, trying to make friends. And until they mess that up, I think I’m going to choose them as the lesser of two evils.

Anyway, as is my wont lately, I have to point out a few faults of this lovely book, stylistic and otherwise. You can sure tell it’s written by someone who’s spent waaay too much time in the ivory tower. OK, children, can we say, “Compound Sentence?” Nary a paragraph goes by without a parenthetical aside, either with actual parentheses or with dashes. And don’t get me started on the commas. These are the weapons of choice, not of big brains but of insecure thinkers.

Most books of this type inspire the author to either do their own research or at the very least, get their ass out of their office long enough to talk to another human being affected by the subject they’re covering. Not so Ms. Moyo. She could have written this thing from a bunker under the British Library for all the human connection she displayed in the book. A couple of times I found myself thinking some of her views of global problems and solutions were far too money and policy centric. She’s an economist after all, and to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I found it disturbing that in her lofty overview of China vs World Resources she failed to get high enough. It’s obvious even to idiot me that the speed of our Borg-like absorption of the world’s fossil fuels is due to the massive number of people those fuels serve and benefit. And when those fuels go, the party is over. What China is doing is securing everything it can in the face of known future scarcity. Ms. Moyo feels that current and future hunger and unequal distribution of resources can be solved, not by a concerted effort to lessen the number of people on the planet, but by the wealthy not wasting as much and by altering agricultural policies to allow poorer countries to sell more stuff to richer countries. All I can say is, in the face of the end of both oil and globalization, how are you planning to get African wheat to Iowa? Dinghy?

Similarly, in the face of increased demand for and dwindling supplies of water, food, energy, and minerals, she proposes that the U.S. military budget be cut back and the resulting cash windfall be used for R&D investment. Two for one, right? World peace and future prosperity. Well, doc, good luck. I’m sure the U.S. is planning to get right on that. But why the military? Why pick on them? Why not churches? Or the porn industry?

My last nitpick is her suggestion that we all just stop bitching about Monsanto and genetically modified crops. After all, they are basically feeding the world right now. “In 2009 Monsanto released a line of soybeans in the United States that … increase[d] yields by between 7 and 11 percent. More specifically, Monsanto points to yield increases… of 9 percent and 31 percent in Mexico and Romania…” blah blah blah. She feels that “…technologically-based food production must be tempered by costs such as degradation to soil or medical problems arising from genetic mutations. But when we can reduce the suffering of hundreds of millions of people across the world facing hunger and starvation, we should unreservedly do this.”

Right. Don’t educate anyone, especially not on birth control and don’t ever censure big business. Just keep on squirting out babies because Daddy Monsanto will provide. Wow.

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Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond

I saw this thing in the bookstore (yes, I still go to meat-space bookstores, independent ones, if at all possible) about two years before I ended up buying it. It’s 500-odd pages of detailed tales of how various societies went tits up, most through their own fault, some through the fault of their trading partners. I don’t know why it took me forever to read. I was at this thing for a good month, wishing it wrapped up around the two-week mark, but nevertheless glad it I made it to the end.

Is it worth your time? Hell yeah. But be warned the book is long on material and short on analysis. In fact, I would go so far as to say the author is quite self-indulgent when it comes to both his choice of material and how he delivers it. Rural Montana is not exactly high on the list of places one would expect a book on Roman Empire-scale societal collapses to concentrate on. But hey, the author lived there and you bought his book so bleah. Think of this as the Les Miserables of historical non-fiction. Sure the guy won a Pulitzer Prize and deserved it, but that doesn’t stop him boring the shit out of you. In fact, it probably encourages him.

I came away feeling like I’d been to an after-work night class on a topic I really loved and the prof had been sleeping all day and was fresh as a daisy and couldn’t stop relating everything back to his grandkids. Did I learn anything? Hell, yeah. Does Mr. Pulitzer need an editor? Hell, yeah. Life is short. We won’t call the police if you give us more meat and less potatoes.

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Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich

The book is subtitled, On (Not) Getting by in America. It’s a classic social experiment slash investigative journal by one of the finest non-fiction writers in America. It came out in 2001 and now comes with a ten year anniversary afterword. Sorry, I keep describing the book without saying anything qualitatively about it. The reason is, I don’t have much to say. The book is quite capable of standing on it’s own two feet without a lame-assed review from me.

I heard her speak with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now last year and I finally got it together to order the book a month or so ago. I tell ya, I’ll read anything this woman writes. She has such an open trusting style you can’t help follow her every word. She’s like the worldly, highly educated aunt that always has something important to say and never gets shrill in the face of blatant injustice. Usually books like these are heavy on the experiment and light on the conclusions. Not hers. Ms. Ehrenreich has the education, the experience, and the cred to hit the nail squarely on its Frankenstein head when it comes to why America is the way she experienced it. An important, entertaining, beautifully written work. As if it didn’t need anymore fuel, the Occupy Movement would do well to set her books on the top of its reading list.

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X-Events, The Collapse of Everything, by John Casti

I was initially very leery about buying this thing. Even though the author has a PhD, he apparently has no qualms selling to the lowest common denominator with a cover that looks like it was ordered up by Ghost Rider’s check-suited publicist. But, I naively thought, the guy studies complexity for a living, so how bad could it be?

Well, let me just say that I began to regret buying this book when, in the first few pages, he attributes the cause of the Arab Spring to a mismatch in complexity between the citizens and the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. I could think of a dozen better reasons why it happened, none of them involving calling the authoritarian former leaders or their greedy guts lifestyles complex.

Mr. Casti then tries to redeem himself with a discussion of what he means by the supposedly technical scientific term ‘complexity’. For a guy with a PhD, he doesn’t try very hard. For in the very next chapter he says he uses the words ‘complex’ and ‘various’ interchangeably throughout the book. So, I guess the Arab Spring argument comes down to the President of Tunisia having more stuff. Or maybe that he bought his flatscreens from Samsung AND Sony.

He promises that his list of X-Events in the second part of the book won’t just be a dumb list of extreme events. But as it turns out, it is. The subtitle of the book is, “The Collapse of Everything”, giving the impression of either an exhaustive list of things that collapse or a simultaneous collapse of all things. But if he wanted to reflect what it’s actually about, the book should be subtitled, “The Collapse of Eleven Unrelated Things”.

I tell ya, I am now officially embarrassed that I read this thing through to the end. The intro makes promises he doesn’t keep. The middle is a random collection of disaster porn any twit with access to Wikipedia could whip up in three or four days. And the finale where he supposedly ties it all together is an ADD nightmare where he can’t stop the momentum of examples long enough to discuss what any of them mean. Do not buy this book. Do not read this book. And I promise to do your dishes for a week if you forget that I bought the fucking thing and actually read it.

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The Crash Course, by Chris Martenson

Not finding any science books that piqued my interest at my local purveyor of pocketbooks, I had them order this lovely little tome for me. The first part of it kind of put me off. It was a bit didactic, assuming I hadn’t read any other books, ever, and some really basic terms had to be explained to my little pea brain. When I clued in this was the guy’s first book and he has spent a gazillion hours lecturing to businessmen, I kind of forgave him. I didn’t however forgive his editor.

Anyway, once you get past the patronizing spoonfeeding at the beginning, he launches into a detailed description of the pickle our economy is in and why he thinks it’s on a steep course for a great big adjustment. Kudos for the level of detail. The guy knows what he’s talking about and gives us oodles of reasons why the exponential growth of our public and private debt is unsustainable. He then pitches himself into descriptions of why energy and the environment are on a similar course: from hockey stick peak to a slapshot into the pit. Again, good job and the farther away the first chapters get the better the writing becomes.

Sadly, he kind of messes up in the last chapters in describing scenarios for the next ten years. The section is called Convergence, but he doesn’t really address any of the obvious possibilities for what could happen if a crashing economy, unsufficient or too expensive energy, and environmental disaster all arrive on your doorstep with flowers and chocolates at the same time. For a book that purports to advise investors in the face of a multifront tsunami-level correction of our bloated lifestyle, his best advice is to buy gold, silver, or land. Well, dude, you party with that. I guess it’s better than an End is Nigh sandwich board for all the hobos who used to be stockbrokers.

P.S.
The more I’ve thought about it over the last few weeks, the more I’ve wanted to revisit this little review and point out that overall, it’s an oustanding book. The best comparision I can make is to Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, and not merely for the breadth of subjects it covers, but for it’s clear writing and well supported arguments.

The best and worst thing about The Crash Course is his reliance on the concept of the exponential. Yes, he belabours the definition. But I’m more than willing to forgive him for that because later, he uses the concept as a great big hammer to nail home the severity of the predicaments are we’ve gotten ourselves into. Unlike a ton of other meat and potatoes books on our various crises, I will likely reread this one because it’s 90% meat.

His Website

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The End of Growth, by Jeff Rubin

I picked this up, forgetting till I’d seen the back cover, that I had read his first book, Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller and quite enjoyed it. I had a twelve hour train ride ahead of me last week and needed something substantial to last me through the trip. I had also forgotten he was the head of world markets for the CIBC for twenty years, but I was reminded of it in the first chapter when he told having to choose to be an author or a banker, as his employer wasn’t keen on him being both, at least not while he was working for the CIBC.

Anyway, this book was right up my alley. A venerable authority giving us all a reality check on the end of economic growth and globalization, the ramifications for climate change and the part played by triple digit barrels of oil. Yeah, we all know it’s the end of the fossil-fuelled juggernaut we erroneously think of as progress. Yeah, says Mother Earth, thank friggin god. But like so many other over-specialized authors with a vision of the precipices within their own discipline, he has failed get high enough to see the big picture.

I like that he bluntly ties energy to growth. There is no magic there. Without oil we’d be carrying around steampunk iPhones and still driving more horses than beamers. I get that. When oil goes (as it’s going now by becoming more expensive and therefore, uneconomical for certain uses), the economy goes, too. But where the book fails is in its central idea that when oil and the economy head south, so too does any worry we might have about climate change. If we ain’t burning oil or coal, we ain’t wrecking the atmosphere. As far as this goes, it’s true. But it don’t go far enough.

The one thing climate scientists are unsure about are so-called tipping points. These are points at which all our warming of the land, the air, and the oceans create a domino effect, so that no matter how much we limit our spewing of heat-trapping gases, there is no going back. We’ve prodded the beast and he ain’t liking being awake. The oceans will reach a point where they can no longer absorb carbon dioxide and heat. Great forests of the world will reach a point where they can no longer absorb CO2 and become net emitters of it. Glaciers reach this point when they melt enough to expose centuries of dirt and crap embedded in them. The darker surface absorbs more heat than snow and ice, and it’s goodbye Charlie. When any one of these things happen, we’re hooped. But when they all happen at once, pretty much all life on the planet is in jeopardy.

Mr. Rubin doesn’t exactly state that everything will be rosey once our economies collapse. He does intimate that culturally, we -and Mamma Gaia – will be better off. If these two ingredients, oil and the economy, existed in a vacuum, he would have the last word. But instead of focussing only on oil’s effect on growth and the climate, how about having a look at climate’s effect on oil and growth. Droughts, floods, famine and hurricanes have a profound effect on the economy, and in the coming years will determine whether anyone is going to risk pumping oil from ravaged seas or ravaged countries. Don’t even get me started on pandemics, water wars, or mass migrations. I just have a tough time reading books where the writer hasn’t read enough. The End of Growth is well worth picking up. Just know that the author is shining a light on only one facet of the global diamond.

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The Age of Insight, by Eric Kandel

I saw this book on a high shelf in my local bookstore. (Having a sore back and being unable to bend down has it’s advantages.) Since it had a Klimt painting on its cover and the promise of the marriage of art and brain science in its subtitle, I was more than a little intrigued. In fact, I felt a warm thrill run through me, loving, as I do, serious (i.e., non-pop tart) psychology, the study of grey matter, and all things Symbolist. Even flipping through the table of contents was a joy, and thumbing the illustrations even moreso. Did he write this friggin thing for me? What the hell?

Well, it’s taken me weeks to read this big hardcover, and I’m very happy to say the book has lived up to its promise and I did not drop it on a toe. The author is a Nobel Prize winner, as it says on the cover, but I really didn’t expect such fluid prose and the fatherly leading down the – for me – unexplored paths where Freud, Klimt, and hardcore fMRI neuroscience walk in concert. My god, did I ever learn alot. I was always a Jungian (by way of Northrop Fry). I read everything of his I could get my grubby little mitts on and really didn’t read much Freud. Truth be told, I read more words analysing and shredding old Sigmund than words written by him. Now I have a serious appreciation of him (and an even greater appreciation of my ignorance, which on the best days could sink ships).

After reading Insight, I now feel thoroughly updated on what we know of the brain in the 21st century. We can now localise all the major bits of sensory input and processing, which I’m sure the U.S. military will put to great use – knowing where to clobber their enemies. A few things I thought were pretty cool:

  • Scientists now seem to have a clear handle on the mechanics of consciousness and creativity. I’m not entirely sure why that gets to me.  I suppose it’s for the same reason mapping the whole world with satellites gets to me. My inner poet really doesn’t want everything to be known. And no, I don’t have a stash. I never had stash. Oh, that? That’s not mine.
  • All that apocryphal baloney about “sleeping on it” and waking with the perfect solution to a problem? Yeah, well, there’s a very good neurological reason why it works. (Personally, I’m afraid of it getting bent if I sleep on it.)
  • Afraid of getting in an accident and losing part of your brain and never being able to play piano again? The truth is, some injuries actually release your secret savant and increase creativity. Who knew? Well, I guess people it has happened to knew. The brain-damaged rapper who got a million dollar recording contract, for instance. Which one, you ask?

I think my wife got a bit tired of me blurting paragraphs at inopportune moments. I’m sure she’s now soured on reading it herself now that I’ve spilled all the best bits. If you like science books, get this thing. If you like brain science, trip over your dog and hie thee to the bookstore. If you like art history, well, you can’t do better than this for a look at what “liking” and “art” really are at their biological roots.

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Spook, by Mary Roach

I will read any and every book this lady writes (this is the third for me). Far and few are such good-humored people in any sphere, and thank god she’s a writer. I had half a dozen serious chuckles reading this book and an amused smile from beginning to end.

Her deciding to tackle some of the more obvious subjects and proponents of an afterlife were a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. How could you not poke fun at these ‘tards. And while I know there is a heck of a lot more detail to be had on all of topics covered, I understand this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive study of people studying souls, astral bodies and life after death. This is ever-jolly Mary Roach having fun researching another goofy subject and we get to watch. And who could ever take issue with that?

Her Website

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The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

This little novel was given to me for Christmas this last year and the person who gave it to me spoke reverently about it, saying it was her favorite novel, ever. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that – I’ve read quite a few novels that moved me far more than this one did. But I did thoroughly enjoy it, especially the poetic opening chapter where the author actually lists the things these American soldiers in Vietnam carried, the chapter entitled, “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”, and the “timeless” device where the author continues to tell stories about characters long after they have met their demise. I’m no war novel afficionado, but I’d say the author is either a Vietnam vet, or he has killer interviewing and visualization skills. Either way, his book deserves a high number of reviewer stars.

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