Review: Dead in the Water*

This book, with the *subtitle “a very angry book about our greatest environmental catastrophe. . . the death of the Murray-Darling Basin” is not subtle.

Richard Beasley is smart (his critiques are top notch), angry (rightfully so, given the incompetence on display), and well-founded (he makes legal briefs digestible) in his critiques of the Australian government’s catastrophic (fucking obvious) and monumental (total failure to deliver) implementation of the Water Act of 2007 and (dependent) Basin Plan of 2012.

tl;dr: You should get this book (which seems to have limited international distribution outside Australia) if (1) you want to learn about an environmental policy failure driven by the greed of a few politicians and short-term thinking of the water-consuming industries (90% farmers and 10% water “optimizers”), (2) you are willing to wade through endless examples — documented — of failure and obfuscation, and (3) you can’t wait to laugh at Beasley’s quips, footnotes and fuck you’s [redacted].

It’s a long book, but never boring, and definitely infuriating (*hence the subtitle).

This book’s theme and the recklessness of its protagonists matches — in terms of frequencies of wtf? and magnitudes of delusion — the water situation  in California (which I know well), as well as maybe 80 other countries, from Saudi Arabia to China to India to Spain, Chile and Mexico. (Just fill in your choice, and there’s bound to be a case where environmental protection — the type that keeps us alive — is discarded in favor of “cheaper” farming or affordable housing urban sprawl.)

So, yeah, anyone can learn from this, in terms of recognizing all the games, lies and shenanigans that politicians will pursue to meet “co-equal goals” of, for example, delivering both “yes” and “no”.

Wait a sec…

I’ve just scrolled through my 30+ notes and highlights on the e-book I have, and I can’t really see the point of copying or commenting on the text. The  book is best seen as a piece — an angry, well-documented denouncement of feckless, relentless, not-accidental corruption.

The fact is, and has always been, that there’s an impact of taking water from the environment. In many cases, that can be “sustainable” as ecosystems can adapt. And food is surely useful. But there are then so many greedy cases in which diversions kill ecosystems for green lawns or cheap cotton, when the trade-off has gone from “socially responsible” to “let’s turn the nation’s water into our paychecks.” That’s a fail. It’s common, and it happens in places as civilized as Australia.

My one handed recommendation: Anyone involved or interested in the management of bulk water for agriculture, the environment or society (all of you, right?) should read this book. FIVE STARS.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: Actual World, Possible Future

I saw a preview of this documentary on the lives and works of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom in 2019. It aired on PBS in 2020 (watch at the link).

The documentary traces their careers from early days (Lin being denied entry into UCLA’s PhD program because she was a woman; Vincent participating in early city planning), to their move to Indiana U, where they set up the Workshop as a means of avoiding disciplinary silos, to Lin’s “discovery” (or recognition) of the commons as an area of effective action, to their joint development of the Institutional Analysis and Design Framework and Policentricity.

I learned a lot about the evolution of their thought in this documentary. I also was charmed by their enduring decency, curiosity and love for each other (they died within three weeks of each other in 2021, after nearly 50 years of marriage).

I strongly recommend this movie. FIVE STARS.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: Mine!

I heard about this book (subtitle “how the hidden rules of ownership change our lives”) via this Econtalk podcast and “acquired” a copy.

The authors (Heller and Salzman, or H&S) turn what looks like a simple topic — ownership (or property rights) — into an engaging and though-provoking essay on the vague borders between what’s mine, yours and ours. (I reviewed Salzman’s 2012 Drinking Water: A History.)

Their main points are that (1) ownership is not always clear and (2) some actors try to leverage this vagueness into profits and/or advantage, i.e., “as valued resources becomes scarcer, people compete more intensely to impose their preferred ownership story, and entrepreneurs find ways to profit” [p 5]. Theme (1) is important in most of the work I do on the commons (where ownership is either unclear or impossible to assert), so I found their examples — coming from both economic and legal perspectives — to be very interesting.

Here are some notes on the book’s contents:

  1. Rights to private property are easier to understand, respect and protect than rights to “digital property,” which is both novel and non-rival. Non-rivalry occurs, for example, when I share my digital photo with you. Now both of us are “owners.” (Read more on different types of goods.)
  2. There are six ways to claim ownership: grabbing it first, physically possessing it, applying effort to it, linking it physically to something you own, its attachment to your body, and inheriting it.
  3. Ownership claims are often upheld by courts and governments, but they can impede larger social goods. Patent rights can keep a useful medicine (e.g., vaccines) from the poor. Slavery was terrible. Musical, fashion, artistic and technical innovations often depend on “stealing” from others. “Too much existing ownership can make it impossible for people to create new, more valuable things… creating ownership gridlock… When too many people own a piece of one thing, cooperation breaks down, wealth disappears, and everybody loses” [p 97].
  4. “All property conflicts exist as competing stories. Each side picks the story that presents its claims as the moral high ground, and each side wants ownership bent toward its view. But don’t be fooled. There are no natural, correct descriptions that frame mine versus mine conflicts. There are, however, better and worse choices that we can make to solve these dilemmas. And if you are not the one choosing, then someone else is making the choices for you” [p 15].
  5. Speaking of rights, their chapter title “who gets what and why” is a direct copy pasta of the title of Al Roth’s 2015 book. Thieves!
  6. Since property rights are complicated (subjective), it’s common for politicians to re-assign them to friends, lobbyists, the rich and powerful. The assignment of rights to the poor, under-privileged and/or deserving  is more the exception than the rule. For example, “Being the first Christian European was what justified, as a matter of law, the claims of Spain to the Caribbean, Texas, Mexico, and California” [p 24] or “The ways some Native Americans hunted and gathered—moving in a seasonal pattern to follow wild game, fish runs, and ripening berries—simply didn’t count [for ownership]… labor led to ownership only if you made New England look like the Old England the colonists had left behind… [this shaky reasoning]… was enough for the Court to justify dispossessing the Native peoples of America” [p 83].
  7. Rights based on possession often lead to over-exploitation of a “free” resource (e.g., water or animals) by those hoping to establish ownership.
  8. Sometimes rights are “unfair” but efficient (e.g., fishers claiming a territory based on historic use), so it may be better to leave them in place.
  9. “Caught food was an important nutritional resource [in Colonial America]. So states favored labor and possession [of animals] over attachment [those animals are on my land]… as a deliberate anti-aristocratic rebuke to England, which reserved rich hunting and foraging lands to large landholders and the Crown” [p 125].
  10. Property rights should change if a resource’s scarcity or value is changing. When water is abundant, then anyone can use it. When it’s scarce, then rights need to change to reflect scarcity. (I wrote a book or two about such reforms 🙂
  11. Employers try to limit employee’s right to work (and increase their profits) with “non-compete” clauses. One reason Silicon Valley is still productive is because California prohibits non-competes.
  12. I can’t even tell you how disgusted I was reading about how Whites in the Jim-Crow South used inheritance laws to “trick” Blacks out of their lands, thereby impoverishing generations. Read this, this, this and/or this about “forced partition sales,” which are neither necessary nor common (German laws avoid the issue). Similar laws took land away from Native Americans. The English also used it against the Irish. I’d say these examples support claims of “systemic racism” more than respect for private property.
  13. “The reality today is that, overwhelmingly, wealth in market economies is held not by individuals focused on exclusion but by groups of people working together. Think about marriage, condominiums and cooperatives, unitization, trusts, partnerships, and corporations. All these are successful examples of… “liberal commons property.” [snip] To be successful, every enduring liberal commons must address three trade-offs. The first is the trade-off between individual choice and group authority… The second is the trade-off between enforcing majority decisions and respecting dissenting views… The last is the trade-off between protecting group values and allowing individual freedom to exit” [p 211].
  14. Lobbyists used lies and deception to convince Americans to weaken estate (“death”) taxes. How? “Nearly 40 percent of Americans mistakenly believed they were in the top 1 percent, or soon would be, and thus were potentially subject to the tax” [p 214]. This is not the first time America’s poor sided helped the rich: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires” — a thought inspired by Steinbeck.
  15. “America sustains the most unequal distribution of wealth of any major country on earth. Make no mistake: this transformation is not happening by accident, by magic, through the free market, or just naturally. It’s a brilliantly designed heist, engineered by family-dynasty lobbyists and accomplice legislators. And lower taxes for the super-rich mean higher taxes for everyone else” [p 227].
  16. H&S give some examples of success (Individually Transferable Quotas with fish) and failures (Certified Emissions Reductions with HFC-23) in creating property rights to address environmental issues. The HFC one is deservedly notorious: “These companies…  duly incinerated every pound of HFC-23 they created. And for every pound of super greenhouse gas they destroyed, the companies were awarded CERs—which they then sold to polluting countries and companies in Europe and Japan” [p257].
  17. Digital rights, micro-ownership, the “sharing economy,” streaming, and other innovations are aimed at profits and consumption, not sustainability and simplicity. Beware the marketers!
  18. “And the sharing economy does not build wealth; for most of us, it consumes wealth. People lose the discipline of saving up for big purchases, taking out loans or mortgages, paying them off, and owning equity—in their jewelry, cars, and, most of all, homes… After mortgages were paid off, homes gave retired people a secure place to live or provided cash if they downsized. By contrast, renters pay month to month, and streamers day to day, accumulating nothing” [p 271].
  19. “Communities also suffer if everyone streams accommodations rather than makes long-term commitments… Community solidarity is intangible, hard to measure, but its loss is a real cost nonetheless. In this tragedy of the commons, individual homeowners rationally choose to profit by listing on Airbnb, but collectively we all lose connection to our sense of place, to what makes us feel truly at home” [p 271]. Read my op/ed  on Airbnb’s assault on community.

Although the book is a bit heavy on examples, my one-handed conclusion is that anyone interested in prosperity, sustainability and the rules underlying our cooperation and happiness (as well as racism, inequality and corruption) should read this book. FIVE STARS.


Here are all my reviews.

Reviews: Up mountains & over seas

A few months ago, I came across a list of outdoor/adventure books and acquired six of those that I still wanted to read.*

I am writing brief reviews of two to give you a feel for their variety and  encourage you to do more reading and less doom-scrolling in your social media feeds. Most books can be downloaded in the open source .epub format that is useable by various reading apps (I use Apple Books).

Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1956) recounts his “walk” with an exuberant, slightly mad friend to Nuristan, a remote part of Afghanistan. Most of their journey involves pain, confusion and surprises. Only a few chapters actually deal with their attempt to climb a tall peak. To me, the book reminds me the rarity and difficulty of recreational travel — an idea that arose when the British combined colonialism, romance and oddity. I am pretty sure that it is still difficult to get to Nuristan, but their overland journey in a wreck of a car from England to Afghanistan shows how much safer, cheaper and easier it is to travel these days (Covid permitting). Recommended to anyone with a passion for hiking, dry wit, and polluted water sources (4 stars).

Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World (1900) tells how he sailed his 11.2m (36 foot) wooden boat, the Spray, from Boston to Gibralter to Brazil to the Cape Horn (where he was trapped by storms for 40 days), to Australia (sailing 73 days without hitting land), and then around the Cape of Good Hope back to the US. The book is deservedly famous among sailors for his solo voyage (made possible by the Spray’s extremely stable cruising configuration, which allowed him to read or rest while the boat “sailed itself”), as well as his “first” of solo circumnavigation. Slocum’s fluid writing about sailing as well as his ports of call gives readers a number of interesting insights. (I personally am not going to be making that trip anytime soon!) Slocum and the Spray, by the way, disappeared at sea in 1909. Like many old school sailors, he had never learned to swim, and I am pretty sure he saw no tragedy in going down with his ship. Recommended to anyone who has thought of sailing into the deeps (5 stars).

* Try Project Guttenberg, Open Library or — for those still under copyright — Library Genesis, but be careful about what you download from LG.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: Alchemy

I bought this book (subtitle The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life) immediately after hearing Rory Sutherland debate the relevance of economics to normal people’s behavior on EconTalk.

It was well worth buying, as I made more than 150 notes and highlights while I was reading. (Speaking of notes, Sutherland loves footnotes, and they are funny, so I recommend buying the physical rather than the digital version of the book soo you can enjoy the footnotes.)

Sutherland’s main points are that (1) people are not the hyper-rational calculating machines that some economic models suggest and (2), marketing people  are well aware of the many “irrational” ways people make decisions — and they use that knowledge to sell stuff. Claim (1) is not controversial among economists, but claim (2) is, as that implies a “free lunch” that some people can use and others (including economists) cannot.

Such a situation is no surprise for anyone observing the continued (and annoying) existence of advertisements and marketing, but it’s a bit of a surprise to anyone assuming that humans dislike being fooled and manipulated. That said, the entire field of “behavioural economics” (read my review of Thinking Fast and Slow) more or less tests and measures the degree to which we are reliably manipulated right in front of our eyes!

With that preamble, I’ll now give my (typical) series of notes and quotes (“loc” refers to location in my Kindle copy of the book). Oh, and I am curious to know which of these notes/quotes you find to be the most useful/insightful. Please leave a comment 😇

One more thing: Sutherland is far wittier and concise than Danny Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) in discussing  similar topics. Read this book first.

  1. The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea. Don’t design for average. It doesn’t pay to be logical if everyone else is being logical… A good guess which stands up to observation is still science. So is a lucky accident. Test counterintuitive things only because no one else will… If there were a logical answer, we would have found it.” Loc 113
  2. Unfortunately, because reductionist logic has proved so reliable in the physical sciences, we now believe it must be applicable everywhere – even in the much messier field of human affairs. The models that dominate all human decision-making today are duly heavy on simplistic logic, and light on magic – a spreadsheet leaves no room for miracles.” Loc 141
  3. “It is difficult for a company, or indeed a government, to request a budget for the pursuit of such magical solutions, because a business case has to look logical.” Loc 174
  4. This book is not an attack on the many healthy uses of logic or reason, but it is an attack on a dangerous kind of logical overreach, which demands that every solution should have a convincing rationale before it can even be considered or attempted. If this book provides you with nothing else, I hope it gives you permission to suggest slightly silly things from time to time. To fail a little more often.” Loc 322
  5. Evolution, too, is a haphazard process that discovers what can survive in a world where some things are predictable but others aren’t. It works because each gene reaps the rewards and costs from its lucky or unlucky mistakes, but it doesn’t care a damn about reasons. It isn’t necessary for anything to make sense: if it works it survives and proliferates; if it doesn’t, it diminishes and dies.” Loc 391
  6. The single greatest strength of free markets is their ability to generate innovative things whose popularity makes no sense.” Loc 457
  7. It is impossible for human relations to work unless we accept that our obligations to some people will always exceed our obligations to others. Universal ideas like utilitarianism are logical, but seem not to function with the way we have evolved… And in reality ‘context’ is often the most important thing in determining how people think, behave and act: this simple fact dooms many universal models from the start.” Loc 476
  8. ‘At the federal level I am a Libertarian. At the state level, I am a Republican. At the town level, I am a Democrat. In my family I am a socialist. And with my dog I am a Marxist – from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ Loc 548
  9. ‘The trouble with market research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.’ … we simply don’t have access to our genuine motivations, because it is not in our interest to know.” Loc 687
  10. Science seems to fall short of its ideals whenever the theoretical elegance of the solution or the intellectual credentials of the solver are valued above the practicality of an idea.” Loc 889
  11. E-cigarettes and cognitive dissonance: “If you have spent the last 20 years as a public health advisor promoting policies designed to create shame, alongside colleagues who all believe the same thing, the last thing you want to hear is ‘Don’t worry about that, because a bloke in China has come up with a gadget which means that the problem to which you have dedicated your life and from which your social status derives is no longer a problem any more.’ Even worse, the inventor was a businessman rather than a health professional.” Loc 910
  12. I am willing to bet that there are ten times as many people on the planet who are currently being paid to debate why people prefer Coke or Pepsi than there are being paid to ask questions like ‘Why do people request a doctor’s appointment?’, ‘Why do people go to university?’” Loc 982
  13. Water! “One of the great contributors to the profits of high-end restaurants is the fact that bottled water comes in two types, enabling waiters to ask ‘still or sparkling?’, making it rather difficult to say ‘just tap’.” Loc 1129
  14. In maths, 10 x 1 is always the same as 1 x 10, but in real life, it rarely is. You can trick ten people once, but it’s much harder to trick one person ten times… Imagine you have ten roles to fill, and you ask ten colleagues to each hire one person. Obviously each person will try to recruit the best person they can find – that’s the same as asking one person to choose the best ten hires he can find, right? Wrong. Anyone choosing a group of ten people will instinctively deploy a much wider variance than someone hiring one person. The reason for this is that with one person we look for conformity, but with ten people we look for complementarity.” Locs 1270, 1298
  15. Metrics, and especially averages, encourage you to focus on the middle of a market, but innovation happens at the extremes… It’s true that ‘what gets measured gets managed’, but the concomitant truth is ‘what gets mismeasured gets mismanaged’…  I have never seen any evidence that academic success accurately predicts workplace success.” Locs 1351, 1360
  16. Nicholas Taleb applies this rule to choosing a doctor: you don’t want the smooth, silver-haired patrician who looks straight out of central casting – you want his slightly overweight, less patrician but equally senior colleague in the ill-fitting suit. The former has become successful partly as a result of his appearance, the latter despite it.” Loc 1380
  17. We may be more prone to ascribe ‘outsider status’ to someone of a different ethnic background, but this does not mean that we cannot easily adopt anyone of any ethnic background into an ‘in group’ in a different setting.” Loc 1398
  18. Architectural quality comes low on the list – and is further devalued because it isn’t quantifiable [such as floor area]. If you can convince yourself to value something which other people don’t, you can enjoy a fabulous house for much less.” Loc 1479
  19. A nervous and bureaucratic culture is closed-mindedly attaching more importance to the purity of the methodology than to the possible value of the solution, which leads us to ignore possible solutions not because they have been proven to be wrong, but because they have not been reached through an approved process of reasoning.” Loc 1527
  20. The more data you have, the easier it is to find support for some spurious, self-serving narrative. The profusion of data in future will not settle arguments: it will make them worse.” Loc 1628.
  21. I asked them what they did to make their telephone operators so good… ‘To be perfectly honest, we probably overpay them.’ The call centre was 20 miles from a large city; local staff, rather than travelling for an hour each day to find reasonably paid work, stayed for decades and became highly proficient. Training and recruitment costs were negligible, and customer satisfaction was astoundingly high. The staff weren’t regarded as a ‘cost’ – they were a significant reason for the company’s success.” Loc 1641
  22. The market mechanism is loosely efficient, but the idea that efficiency is its main virtue is surely wrong, because competition is highly inefficient… The reason this inefficient process is necessary is because most of the achievements of consumer capitalism were never planned and are explicable only in retrospect, if at all.” Loc 1695
  23. We don’t value things; we value their meaning. What they are is determined by the laws of physics, but what they mean is determined by the laws of psychology.” Loc 1743
  24. If you declare something highly exclusive and out of reach, it makes us all want it much more – call it ‘the elixir of scarcity’. Frederick knew this and so posted guards around his potato patch to protect his crop, but gave them secret instructions not to guard the patch too closely. Curious Prussians found they could sneak into the royal potato patch and could steal, eat and even cultivate this fabulously exclusive vegetable.” Loc 1822
  25. Framing and gender: “A course previously entitled ‘Introduction to programming in Java’ was renamed ‘Creative approaches to problem solving in science and engineering using Python’. The professors further divided the class into groups – Gold for those with no coding experience and Black, for those with some coding experience. They also implemented Operation Eliminate the Macho Effect, in which males who showed off in class were taken aside and told to desist. Almost overnight, Harvey Mudd’s introductory computer science course went from being the most despised required course to the absolute favourite.” Loc 1878
  26. In Belgium and the Netherlands, he (or she) simply explains I can’t drink tonight, I’m Bob’ – a Dutch acronym* for Bewust Onbeschonken Bestuurder or ‘deliberately sober driver’… creating a name for a behaviour implicitly creates a norm for it.” Loc 1896
  27. Knowledge of the human physique is considered essential in designing a chair, but a knowledge of human psychology is rarely considered useful, never mind a requirement, when someone is asked to design a pension scheme, a portable music player or a railway. Who is the Herman Miller of pensions, or the Steve Jobs of tax-return design?” Loc 1966
  28. We naturally assume that something that only does one thing is better than something that claims to do many things… Google is, to put it bluntly, Yahoo without all the extraneous crap cluttering up the search page, while Yahoo was, in its day, AOL without in-built Internet access. In each case, the more successful competitor achieved their dominance by removing something the competitor offered rather than adding to it.” Loc 2007, 2018
  29. On asymmetric information: “Trust is always more difficult to gain in cities because of the anonymity they afford, and [medieval] guilds help to offset this problem. If it is costly and time-consuming to join one, the only people who enter are those with a serious commitment to a craft. Guilds are also self-policing; the upfront cost of being admitted adds to the fear of being ejected” Loc 2060. Guild members also recover those costs via higher charges.
  30. Solving a problem for a customer at your own expense is a good way of signalling your commitment to a future relationship.” Loc 2144
  31. Bits deliver information, but costliness carries meaning. We do not invite people to our weddings by sending out an email… Imagine you receive two wedding invitations on the same day, one of which comes in an expensive envelope with gilt edges and embossing, and the other (which contains exactly the same information) in an email. Be honest – you’re probably going to go to the first wedding, aren’t you?” Loc 2187
  32. Water! “The psychophysicist Mark Changizi has a simple evolutionary explanation for why water ‘doesn’t taste of anything’: he thinks that the human taste mechanism has been calibrated not to notice the taste of water, so it is optimally attuned to the taste of anything that might be polluting it.” Loc 2197
  33. It is therefore impossible to generate trust, affection, respect, reputation, status, loyalty, generosity or sexual opportunity by simply pursuing the dictates of rational economic theory. If rationality were valuable in evolutionary terms, accountants would be sexy. Male strippers dress as firemen, not accountants; bravery is sexy, but rationality isn’t.” Loc 2233
  34. Economists tend to dislike the idea of branding and are inclined to see it as an inefficiency, but then they might view a flower as an inefficient form of weed. The reason they might not understand the flower’s extravagance in squandering its resources on producing scent and colour is that they don’t fully understand what it is trying to do or the decision-making and information-transfer context in which it is trying to do it” Loc 2344 NB: I oppose advertising (read more) but not branding. Brands, as Sutherland explains, are costly to produce and defend. Advertising is cheap talk that “does whatever it takes” to sell the good. What’s the difference? A brand helps you find a product you know. Advertising induces you to try a product you don’t.
  35. Why does Coca-Cola advertise? It’s in an “empty-promises” arms race with Pepsi. Related: “We find that almost all brands seem to be over-advertising, and that they are earning a negative R.O.I. from advertising in an average week” and “Online advertising wears the emperor’s new clothes” [it’s often worthless].
  36. Modern environmentalists also suggest that status-signalling competition between humans [e.g., flying into space] is destroying the planet… the widespread conviction that humans could be content to live without competing for status in an egalitarian state is nice in theory, but psychologically implausible. Yet the status markers for which we compete don’t have to be environmentally damaging; people can derive status from philanthropy as well as through selfish consumption.” Loc 2436
  37. Most people will avoid giving credit to sexual selection where they possibly can because, when it works, sexual selection is called natural selection… Why are people happy with the idea that nature has an accounting function, but much less comfortable with the idea that it also has a marketing function?” Locs 2472, 2481
  38. The Soviets soon found that, without a maker’s name attached to a product, no one had any incentive to make a quality product.” Loc 2528
  39. Notice that ordinary people are never allowed to pronounce on complex problems. When do you ever hear an immigration officer interviewed about immigration, or a street cop interviewed about crime? These people patently know far more about these issues than economists or sociologists, and yet we instead seek wisdom from people with models and theories rather than actual experience.” Loc 4147 [Seems I stopped highlighting for many pages. Now you have to read the book, to uncover what I censored 😉 ]
  40. You attend a meeting with the UK Government, no biscuits are provided. It saves something like £50m a year. The hidden cost is that every meeting takes on a slightly unpleasant timbre by violating the most basic principles of hospitality. I don’t even like biscuits, but it still pisses me off. Chatting in the absence of biscuits feels less like a cooperative meeting and more like being interrogated by a Serbian militia. Under any Sutherland regime, scones will be mandatory.” Loc 4224
  41. Having various gods and goddesses of fortune – Ganesha, Tyche, Fortuna, etc. – ancient religions were perhaps more objective than modern rationalists, since they were not inclined to attribute all outcomes to individual human rational agency.” Loc 4363
  42. Strictly speaking these [“pocket”] radios were not pocket-sized, but in an early manifestation of his genius, Morita ordered shirts with outsized pockets for his employees. If you can’t make the radio smaller, make the pocket larger.” Loc 4459
  43. Modernism isn’t particularly efficient as an architectural style, by the way. Arches are better than beams for supporting a load, and flat roofs are awful in engineering terms. But modernist architecture, like economics and management consultancy, is good at creating the appearance of efficiency.” Loc 4519

My one-handed conclusion is that this book is worth your time, whether you’re an economist or normal person, as we need to better understand our  “irrational but powerful” desires and impulses, lest someone else take advantage of our misunderstanding them. FIVE STARS.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

H/T to TM for recommendung this 2009 book (subtitle an inquiry into the value of work) by Matthew B. Crawford, as it’s so good that I have been recommending to many people — whether they have rough or soft hands.

The hook: Crawford got a PhD in political philosophy (U Chicago). After getting a job at a think tank, he decided that work was neither tangible nor useful. So he bought a motorcycle repair shop.

So this book is about two things: debunking the myth that manual labor doesn’t require brains, skill & judgement, and focussing readers on the existential question of “why am I doing this?”

It came to me at an opportune time, as I have been putting more of my time into hobbies like woodworking, boats (1 part maintenance for each part boating), and renovating (e.g., painting ceilings, demolishing a chimney, or installing a new floor).

Top line: The book is short (160 pp), well written and thoughtful. I’m including many quotes because Crawford brings so much concise wisdom to the page. They are merely the appetiser for the main course: reading this book!

Many Quotes & some notes [emph added]

  1. “We want to feel that our world is intelligible, so we can be responsible for it. This seems to require that the provenance of our things be brought closer to home. Many people are trying to recover a field of vision that is basically human in scale, and extricate themselves from dependence on the obscure forces of a global economy.” — p 12
  2. “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous “self-esteem” that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.” — p 17
  3. “Since the standards of craftsmanship issue from the logic of things rather than the art of persuasion, practiced submission to them perhaps gives the craftsman some psychic ground to stand on against fantastic hopes aroused by demagogues, whether commercial or political. Plato makes a distinction between technical skill and rhetoric on the grounds that rhetoric “has no account to give of the real nature of things, and so cannot tell the cause of any of them.” The craftsman’s habitual deference is not toward the New, but toward the objective standards of his craft. ” — p 19
  4. “Parents don’t want their children to become plumbers. Yet that filthy plumber under the sink might be charging somebody eighty dollars an hour. This fact ought, at least, to induce an experience of cognitive dissonance in the parent who regards his child as smart and wants him to become a knowledge worker. If he accepts the basic premise of a knowledge economy that someone being paid a lot of money must know something, he may begin to wonder what is really going on under that sink, and entertain a suspicion against the widely accepted dichotomy of knowledge work versus manual work.” — p 21
  5. “The invention of modern shop class… was recognized as a necessity for the broader working-class population, precisely because the institutions that had previously served this socializing function [also see The Secret of Our Success], apprenticeship and guild traditions, had been destroyed by new modes of labor.” — pp27-8
  6. “The result is downward pressure on wages for jobs based on rules… The intrusion of computers, and distant foreigners whose work is conceived in a computer-like, rule-bound way…  compels us to consider afresh the human dimension of work. …”creativity is knowing what to do when the rules run out or there are no rules in the first place.” — p 31
  7. Scientific management meant converting autonomous skilled labor into scheduled repeated tasks that left workers unfulfilled. The rise of consumer culture (and debt), combined with the regular wages available to those who fit into the system, made it harder to live by the wisdom of Benjamin Franklin: “be frugal and free” [p 38]. These trends also choke most of the creativity and passion that we should be seeing in schools and white collar trades. Instead, we’re seeing more bullshit jobs.
  8. And managers are trying to hide that fact among empty slogans: “The simulacrum of independent thought and action that goes by the name of “creativity” trips easily off the tongues of spokespeople for the corporate counterculture… The term invokes our powerful tendency to narcissism, and in doing so greases the skids into work that is not what we had hoped” [p 43].
  9. “So what advice should one give to a young person? If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level “creative.” — p 44
  10. “…one is urged to consider the “opportunity costs” of fixing one’s own car… Spiritedness is an assertion of one’s own dignity, and to fix one’s own car is not merely to use up time, it is to have a different experience of time, of one’s car, and of oneself.” — pp 45-46
  11. We must be wary of consumerism cloaked in “choice and freedom” as an alternative to autonomy (self-direction) and active engagement with challenges that force us to understand and collaborate. There’s a big difference between “have it your way” (the Burger King slogan) and making your own burger.
  12. “The mechanic and the doctor deal with failure every day, even if they are expert, whereas the builder does not. This is because the things they fix are not of their own making, and are therefore never known in a comprehensive or absolute way. This experience of failure tempers the conceit of mastery; the doctor and the mechanic have daily intercourse with the world as something independent, and a vivid awareness of the difference between self and nonself. Fixing things may be a cure for narcissism.” […many pages later…] But by the mere fact that they [mechanics] stand ready to fix things, as a class they are an affront to the throwaway society. Just as important, the kind of thinking they do, if they are good, offers a counterweight to the culture of narcissism.” — pp 65, 81
  13. Sometimes it’s better to accept 90 percent working than struggle with 100 percent frustration. This wording is mine, but the advice borrows from Crawford, as well as the famous dictum: “do not let perfect be the enemy of good.”
  14. “Further, though the demands made on workers are invariably justified in terms of their contribution to the bottom line, in fact such calculations are difficult to make; the chain of means-ends reasoning becomes opaque, and this opens the way for work to become a rather moralistic place… Throughout this literature one finds an imperative for the manager to care, and to sincerely hold forth to his subordinates the possibility of personal transformation. He is not so much a boss as a life coach.” — p 100
  15. “In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that the expansion of higher education beyond labor market demand creates for white-collar workers “employment in substandard work or at wages below those of the better-paid manual workers.” What’s more, “it may create unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type. The man who has gone through college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.” — p 101
  16. “One’s career depends entirely on these personal relationships, in part because the criteria of evaluation are ambiguous. As a result, managers have to spend a good part of the day “managing what other people think of them.” … This gives rise to the art of talking in circles.” — p 108
  17. “Maybe we can say, after all, that higher education is indispensable to prepare students for the jobs of the information economy. Not for the usual reason given, namely, that there is ever-increasing demand for workers with more powerful minds, but in this perverse sense: college habituates young people to accept as the normal course of things a mismatch between form and content, official representations and reality. This cannot be called cynicism if it is indispensable to survival in the contemporary office, as it was in the old Soviet Union.” — p 114
  18. “Not surprisingly, it is the office rather than the job site that has seen the advent of speech codes, diversity workshops, and other forms of higher regulation. Some might attribute this to the greater mixing of the sexes in the office, but I believe a more basic reason is that when there is no concrete task that rules the job—an autonomous good that is visible to all—then there is no secure basis for social relations. Maintaining consensus and preempting conflict become the focus of management, and as a result everyone feels they have to walk on eggshells. Where no appeal to a carpenter’s level is possible, sensitivity training becomes necessary.” — p 121
  19. “The more children are praised, the more they have a stake in maintaining the resulting image they have of themselves; children who are praised for being smart choose the easier alternative when given a new task. They become risk-averse and dependent on others. The credential loving of college students is a natural response to such an education, and prepares them well for the absence of objective standards in the job markets they will enter; the validity of your self-assessment is known to you by the fact it has been dispensed by gatekeeping institutions. Prestigious fellowships, internships, and degrees become the standard of self-esteem. This is hardly an education for independence, intellectual adventurousness, or strong character.” — p 122
  20. “An apprentice may aspire to be a journeyman so he can enter that circle, quite apart from considerations of pay. This is the basis on which his submission to the judgments of a master feel ennobling rather than debasing. There is a sort of friendship or solidarity that becomes possible at work when people are open about differences of rank, and there are clear standards.” — p123
  21. “The worker’s product is “torn away” from him, and Marx suggests that it becomes an alien thing, hateful to him, because it is used by another. But why should this be? I find Marx unconvincing on this point. If I am a furniture builder, for example, what am I going to do with a hundred chairs? After all, I want to see them in use; this completes my activity of making them, and gives it social reality. It makes me feel I have contributed to the common good.” — p 143
  22. “It is harder to take pride in one’s work as “a Rolls-Royce man,” for example, if the car is assembled from parts made who knows where.
    One remedy is to find work in the cracks; work the market rationale of which is fully contained within a human scale of face-to-face interactions. This is what the speed shop offers; it is a community of making and fixing that is embedded within a community of use. Such enterprises are not “scalable” in the way that whets the appetite of remote investors, much as they might like to explode the happy scene and “take it global.” — p 145
  23. Crawford makes several good points about how abstract work (e.g., repackaging and selling mortgages) can encourage immoral decisions that may benefit the worker but harm society (more on economists’ role in the financial crisis).
  24. This is way grades (and salaries) are so dangerous to our happiness: “The hypothesis is that the child begins to attribute his interest, which previously needed no justification, to the external reward, and this has the effect of reducing his intrinsic interest in it.” [much later] “…the experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the educational process, at least for gifted students. Those who struggle academically experience failure all the time, and probably write off attempts to sugar-coat it with “self-esteem” as another example of how deranged adults can be. But the praising of gifted students for being smart, by parents and teachers, has a far more pernicious effect, especially when such praise is combined with the grade inflation and soft curriculum that are notorious at elite schools. A student can avoid hard sciences and foreign languages and get a degree without ever having the unambiguous experience of being wrong.”– pp 149, 156
  25. “The special appeal of the trades lies in the fact that they resist this tendency toward remote control, because they are inherently situated in a particular context. In the best cases, the building and fixing that they do are embedded in a community of using. Face-to-face interactions are still the norm, you are responsible for your own work, and clear standards provide the basis for the solidarity of the crew, as opposed to the manipulative social relations of the office “team.” — p 152

My one-handed conclusion is that everyone should work on difficult projects (as a hobby if that’s not your job), as a means of learning humility from failure and appreciation of a job well done (or poorly done). FIVE STARS.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: The Ministry for the Future

This book by Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) came out in late 2020. It’s a CliFi story about The Ministry FOR the Future, a (fictional) UN agency based in Switzerland with a mission to protect future generations from our current (climate-changing) selves.

The book is long (577 pages; my page numbers are from the digital version), with interwoven stories that sometimes peter out and sometimes take up more space than you’d expect. It’s a bit operatic.

KSR has a deep understanding of the political and economic forces driving climate chaos (CC), various mitigation and adaptation options, and the science of what will is happening to ecosystems and humans as the chaos intensifies.

The book begins with an (entirely believable) heat wave in India that kills millions. NB: The difference between India and the Pacific Northwest (recently hit by a heat wave that killed hundreds) is the same in the book as now: wealth. CC will kill far more poor than rich, on a per-capita basis.

The undercurrent in the book is a struggle with adapting to worsening CC and attempts by the MftF, as well as many other actors, violent and diplomatic alike, to mitigate worse damages. I found the adaptation struggles and CC damages to be entirely believable. [SPOILER ALERT] I found the mitigation success to be a bit too fast and easy, although KSR at least builds a reasonable excuse (a carbon coin) for 200 or so nations to cooperate in reforming their economies, cities, transportation and infrastructure.

The central stories in the book involve Mary, who leads the MftF, and they focus on her work in the Ministry, building solutions with outsiders, and her relation with Frank, a near victim of the heat wave who travels to Switzerland to shock Mary and others into taking action. It’s difficult to combine fiction with science, but I think KSR does a good job (not that I could even get within miles of his writing!), putting this book firmly into my CliFi canon. (You know that I edited two books of short CliFi stories, right? Go download them; they’re free.)

So let me get to my usual set of bullet-point highlights and comments:

  1. Mary reminds me of Mary Robinson, another Irish leader, but I don’t know much about MR.
  2. KSR is absolutely right that fossil fuel reserves are mostly owned by national (not private) companies, that they must stay in the ground, that evolution will refill the Earth (after it recovers from the Anthropocene) in two million years (or more), that CC will break insurance markets, and that our overconsumption (not basics) is driving CC:

    “To be clear, concluding in brief: there is enough for all. So there should be no more people living in poverty. And there should be no more billionaires. Enough should be a human right, a floor below which no one can fall; also a ceiling above which no one can rise. Enough is a good as a feast— or better.
    Arranging this situation is left as an exercise for the reader.” P 75

  3. There are several instances of “eco-terrorism,” all aimed at the rich middle classes, with their flying, shopping, overfishing, etc. The MftF may — or may not — be supporting these attacks, which are (in the book) effective at changing behavior.
  4. Geoengineering plays a big role, as it must if we’re going to have “negative emissions,” and it takes both coordinated and go-it-alone forms.
  5. The Half Earth [for Nature] and 2000kWh [per year, per person] Society are existing ideas that deserve attention for their potential benefits.
  6. There are many vignettes in poor countries and poor communities in rich countries. Those people suffer but they also cooperate in mutual defence.
  7. Scientists are super excited to finally make progress against CC, using ideas and techniques that mostly (in 2021) exist.
  8. As I’ve advocated, the tide turns when money (bribes) are used to persuade incumbents.
  9. KSR’s scenario of converting all currency into crypto that can be tracked on the blockchain is not that believable, but central banks are trying!
  10. The recovery of ecosystems and species that comes with their protection doesn’t surprise me. It’s the protection that surprises me. KSR does not consider most of the difficulties of protecting commons. That said, consider this reality:

    “In a fight between sociopathic sick wounded angry fucked-up wicked people, and all the rest of them, not just the good and the brave but the ordinary and weak, the sheep who just wanted to get by, the fuckers always won.” — p510

  11. KSR  blames the Washington Consensus for many things it’s not about. Maybe the WC is a handy reference point but I would have preferred he attack crony capitalism (corruption) rather than the WC’s helpful macroeconomic policy suggestions.
  12. KSR highlights the many contradictions and hypocrisies within CC-discussions as well as everyday politics. He’s a good tutor.
  13. I was happy to see user data privatised away from social media leeches (e.g,  Facebook, YouTube) and back to users. This system links in with (9) above.
  14. Co-operatives, UBI and many other progressive-popular ideas get implemented. They work. As with (10), it’s the implementation more than the function that surprises me, but what’s the point of CliFi, if not to work through the implications of “what if” thought experiments.
  15. LA gets hit by an atmospheric river that drops so much water on the land that the weight causes faults to slip… and earthquakes. I’ve long thought that earthquakes would be ONE disaster not correlated with CC, but I now have reason to doubt 🙁
  16. A good summary:

    “A tax on burning fossil carbon, which could be called not a tax but rather paying the true cost, could be set progressively, or offset by feebates, to avoid harming the poorest who burn less carbon but also need to burn what they burn to live. A fossil carbon tax set high enough would create a strong incentive to quit burning it. It could be set quite high, and on a schedule to go even higher over time, which would increase the incentive to quit burning it. Tax rates on the largest uses could be made prohibitive, in the sense of blocking all chance of profits being made from any derivative effects of these burns” — p386

  17. Psychology (also see my “7 reasons we’re failing to stop CC“):

    “This was yet another manifestation of racism and contempt for the South, yes, but also of a universal cognitive disability, in that people had a very hard time imagining that catastrophe could happen to them, until it did. So until the climate was actually killing them, people had a tendency to deny it could happen. To others, yes; to them, no. This was a cognitive error that, like most cognitive errors, kept happening even when you knew of its existence and prevalence. It was some kind of evolutionary survival mechanism, some speculated, a way to help people carry on even when it was pointless to carry on.” — p405

  18. Think about it:

    “Europe is just punishing the victims. Sudan takes care of more refugees than all of Europe, and Sudan is a wreck. People come to Europe and they get called economic migrants, as if that wasn’t just what their own citizens are supposed to do, try to make a better life, show some initiative. But if you come to Europe to do it you’re criminalized. You’ve got to change that” — p458

  19. The Chinese, Russians, and Americans also suffer so much, they decide to address CC. (The already suffering young and poor area already favor action).
  20. Farms, roads, cities need to go if “Half for Earth” is going to work.
  21. Migration also needs to be more flexible. KSR proposes “world passports” (with settlement rights in proportion to national capacities), which matches my 2012 idea.
  22. Hong Kong wins in this telling. Interesting that it was already dead (in the name of “national security”) before this book came out.
  23. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is finally returned to Nature (and taken away from rapacious farmers), much as I recommended in 2008.
  24. KSR ends with “we will keep going, because there is no such thing as fate. Because we never really come to the end.” — p639. True.

My one-handed conclusion is that anyone interested in their future, the science and political-economy of climate chaos, and good writing should read this book. It’s long, but always interesting. FIVE STARS.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: Economics, a Crash Course

I bought this 2019 book by David Boyle and Andrew Simms with the hope that I could lend it to students to give them a decent introduction to economics (the book’s subtitle is “become an instant expert”).

Sadly, the book is too polemic — and too misleading — to fit this role. In fact, it’s terrible.

Disclosure: I only read the first 15 or so of the book’s 52 chapters, as the authors’ constant insinuations (see examples below) and biased “balancing” getting in the way of the economics. Skeptical of my method? Complain to Tyler.

I started off with hope that Boyle and Simms, both associated with the New Weather Institute and New Economics Foundation (see a pattern?), would explain “old” (neoclassical) economics and then bridge into the “new” (heterodox, post-autistic) economics that, they claim, are necessary for living in a post-2008 Financial Crisis world. They arranged the books into four chapters (history, ideas, people, planet) that each have 13 sections.

The trouble is that they — like Kate Raworth and Ha-Joon Chang (both appear in the acknowledgements) — are too quick to condemn on shallow or biased understanding of economic ideas and the history of economic thought. These weaknesses in comprehension, which they might portray as “cutting through” or “David vs Goliath”, mean that readers are less likely to become “instant experts” and more likely to come across as shallow and opinionated. That’s a pity, as the book’s aim and structure are laudable. Its execution, alas, is flawed.

Some issues I ran across:

  • Harry Truman, not Woodrow Wilson, asked for a “one-handed economist” (I take this personally 😉
  • The authors are quick to blame economists for the financial crisis but appear to have forgotten (a) the role of politicians and regulators and (b) that many economists are (were) very critical of the causes of the crisis.
  • I doubt Adam Smith was a “controversial figure in Western {?!] economic thought.”
  • In their biographical sketch of Mary Paley Marshall (the wife of Alfred), they offer the dodgy (and only) note on Principles of Economics, i.e., that it was “published in 1890 under Alfred Marshall’s name” [p 53], without offering any evidence.
  • Indeed, it would have been better if the authors had at least documented their claims. They instead sound like slightly drunk undergrads, egging each other on, hoping that they can overthrow The Man.
  • They do not understand that we (humans) gain “utility” from actions and choices, not just “spending and acquiring” (p 57).

…indeed, I can open the book on nearly every page and find errors and bias that don’t just mis-state what economists say and teach, but also deceive any reader from understanding economics. This book is more of a car crash than a crash course.

Just to put this into context, consider how they distort Adam Smith’s  “invisible hand.” First, they claim he introduced the idea in his 1776 Wealth of Nations (WoN), when he actually introduced it in his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments (ToMS). I have read both books, but anyone on the internet could discover these facts within 2 minutes. Second, they brutalise a quote from ToMS (my strikeout shows what they omitted), which they claim came from WoN:

The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.

So, they misquote Smith to fit their ideology: claiming Smith thought  “nothing should obstruct the pursuit of self interest because it would prevent markets from working efficiently” [p 54] when he wrote an entire book (ToMS) about constraining self-interest. It also seems they did not even read Smith’s update on the idea in WoN:

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

Note that the main idea (selfish acts help all) has not changed, but Smith has applied it to every individual.

I could go on, but I’m already tired of the fail in this book.

My one-handed conclusion, which should please both Mr. Wilson and Mr. Truman, is that this book is a waste of time. I won’t be able to lend it to my students as I’ve tossed it in the bin. ONE STAR.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

This book is better than its charming title suggests, although I am a strong advocate of swearing where appropriate. It draws on the author’s “growing up” process, experienced via many years of living the dream, psychotherapy and failure.

Here’s a summary of my notes:

  • You can’t give a fuck about everything. You need to choose when and where to give a fuck.
  • People without problems will invent them, so do give a fuck about something.
  • I just bought a sailboat (De Doffer, or The Pigeon), which I’d rename 90 Percent if renaming was not taboo. Why 90 percent? Because 90 percent of the boat is fine (it floats), so the other 10 percent is not worth worrying about because the “return on concern” is so low. Accept a few defects and issues and move along. Live wabi-sabi.
  • Happiness comes from solving problems, so get some and solve them!
  • You’re not special, not even when you “earn” your medal for participation, so stop comparing yourself to others, influencers, et al. Watch the “Century of the Self” to see how marketers hijacked self-regard. Read my paper on Google [pdf] to remind yourself that it’s impossible to compete with the world’s best.
  • Improve yourself. Set goals. Reach for them.
  • We are always choosing. You can chose to be a victim, or you can chose to accept reality and move along.
  • Every time you admit you’re wrong, you get the chance to improve and learn something. Accepting reality is easier than avoiding it.
  • The best way to improve is to fail. The best way to succeed is to start. Don’t know how to start? Doesn’t matter. Just start. (My boat kinda terrifies me, as it’s 77 years old and I’m not quite sure how to manage it, but the only way to learn is to do.)
  • Saying “no” is making a choice. You need to make choices and prioritise. In your relationships, you need to be honest about what you want and accept responsibility, just like your friend/partner does. Neither of you are responsible for the other’s happiness, since it’s impossible to do right and unethical to even consider.
  • “You need to be able to say no and hear no” in relationships (p177).
  • Some people are addicted to fixing others’ problems. Those people are never happy with folks who have their problems under control. They will make problems so they can have something to work on. Move on (I have).
  • Cheaters probably have issues that need more to fix than “I’ll try harder”.
  • You can lose trust in a fraction of the time it takes to rebuild that trust. Should you stick around to rebuild or more on? As someone accused of “betraying” someone (who happens to be deluded), I needed to hear this. There’s probably nothing I can do to rebuild trust when that person’s reality (and my role in it) is a fantasy.
  • Commitments to places, activities or people liberates you by helping you focus,  reducing the number of things you need to consider, and signalling to others where you need their support. I own my flat, have a permanent contract at work, and have a meaningful relationship. Now I can focus my energy on deepening those commitments, coping with surprise challenges, and trying new things — like sailing a boat!

My one-handed conclusion is that this book is well worth your time. Life is too short to give a fuck about the wrong things or too many things. Stop giving a fuck about useless shit and focus your fucks given on your priorities. FIVE STARS.


Here are all my reviews.

Review: A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold’s daughter published this book (subtitled “…and sketches here and there“) in 1949, just after he died from a heart-attack at the age of 61.

The book has a strong reputation in the environmentalist community, but this reputation only came in the 1970s (Earth Day, etc), which is why Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) is credited with sparking the environmental movement.

Leopold’s book is not as pointed or lyrical as Carson’s, but it’s well written, insightful, and yes — decades ahead of its time.

The book’s 226 pages fall into three parts: an “almanac” reflecting on 12 months of natural and human phenomena around the Leopolds’ Wisconsin farm (located in a region with sandy soils); “sketches” from Leopold’s travels in North America; and the “upshot” of what it all means. Leopold’s daughter chose the mix of topics and their order for the book. I found the contrast of different times and places (followed by a call for new thinking) to be a natural progression.

The book opens with Aldo’s main point: The rate of “progress” is slowing as  human increase their burden on Nature. Leopold’s claim was a minority view in 1949, and it is perhaps a minority view today, but I see it as extremely perceptive. Although many people think our environmental problems began with the Industrial Revolution (true if you’re talking about fossil fuel consumption), I date them to the post-WWII surge in destruction (courtesy of modern machines) and consumption (courtesy of excess prosperity). Leopold ends with a call for more nature and less artificial, more wild and free, and less tame and confined. Sadly, 70 years of loss and negligence confirm his worries.

Almanac

The struggle for survival delivers balance. The “circular economy” is a zero-waste system because resources are fought over and completely consumed. Every death brings new life. He reminds city folk that food and wood do not just appear in stores. Farmers know that food comes from struggle. Wood is precious to those who spend hours cutting, chopping, hauling and stacking. Wildlife chasing scarce resources will migrate to survive, spreading diversity and connecting distant places. A fisherman must work the waters and take his chances. For the fish, it’s life and death, so it’s only fair if your hunger endures because a fish’s life continues.

Leopold trained in forestry as a means of studying wildlife, and he quantifies his hunches. He compares, for example, the variety of flower species on his (weekend) “backward farm” to the (weekday) suburbs and campus. The farm has roughly double the species count throughout the year, mostly due to its open, unmanaged (“backwards”) spaces.

Leopold is sly:

Getting up too early is a vice habitual in horned owls, stars, geese, and freight trains. Some hunters acquire it from geese, and some coffee pots from hunters. It is strange that of all the multitude of creatures who must rise in the morning at some time, only these few should have discovered the most pleasant and least useful time for doing it… Early risers feel at ease with each other, perhaps because, unlike those who sleep late, they are given to understatement of their own achievements. (p 59)

The shovel giveth and the axe taketh away, which is why the thoughts of the axe-wielder are so important: Is the chop going to improve or deface the land?

Sketches

Cranes and other birds were cousins of the dinosaurs. They have evolved with ecosystems over millennia eons, and their intricate adaptations to ecological niches are rightly confused with miracles. The paradox, notes Leopold, is that we, in our fascination with wilderness, are often the cause of its destruction. He is no fan of economists. Obsessed with marginal gains, they are blind to the efficiency of the messy chaotic system. (This perception is generally true today — and made worse by over-specialisation within and across academic disciplines.*)

Leopold’s descriptions of man’s interruption of circularity and ham-handed attempts to replace it are poetic but sad:

The old prairie lived by the diversity of its plants and animals, all of which were useful because the sum total of their co-operations and competitions achieved continuity. But the wheat farmer was a builder of categories; to him only wheat and oxen were useful. He saw the useless pigeons settle in clouds upon his wheat, and shortly cleared the skies of them. He saw the chinch bugs take over the stealing job, and fumed because here was a useless thing too small to kill. He failed to see the downward wash of over-wheated loam, laid bare in spring against the pelting rains. When soil-wash and chinch bugs finally put an end to wheat farming, Y [an atom] and his like had already traveled far down the watershed. 

When the empire of wheat collapsed, the settler took a leaf from the old prairie book: he impounded his fertility in livestock, he augmented it with nitrogen-pumping alfalfa, and he tapped the lower layers of the loam with deep-rooted corn. But he used his alfalfa, and every other new weapon against wash, not only to hold his old plowings, but also to exploit new ones which, in turn, needed holding.

So, despite alfalfa, the black loam grew gradually thinner. Erosion engineers built dams and terraces to hold it. Army engineers built levees and wing-dams to flush it from the rivers. The rivers would not flush, but raised their beds instead, thus choking navigation. So the engineers built pools like gigantic beaver ponds, and Y landed in one of these, his trip from rock to river completed in one short century. (pp 107-8)

Leopold traversed the Colorado River Delta in 1922 and vowed never to go back, for fear of the loss he would see. He was right. In 1922, the Colorado River Compact divided its waters among US states, without any reserve for the river itself. In 1935 Hoover Dam opened, its hydropower used to push water to Los Angeles via the Colorado River Aqueduct (opened in 1941). In 1938, Imperial Dam and All-American Canal opened, diverting a majority of the river’s remaining water to irrigators in the desert. “Since 1963, the only times when the Colorado River has reached the ocean have been during El Niño events in the 1980s and 1990s.

Speaking of *disciplines:

There are men charged with the duty of examining the construction of the plants, animals, and soils which are the instruments of the great orchestra. These men are called professors. Each selects one instrument and spends his lifetaking it apart and describing its strings and sounding boards. This process of dismemberment is called research. The place for dismemberment is called a university. A professor may pluck the strings of his own instrument, but never that of another, and if he listens for music he must never admit it to his fellows or to his students. (p153)

…and another comment on “progress”:

The marshlands that once sprawled over the prairie from the Illinois to the Athabasca are shrinking northward. Man cannot live by marsh alone, therefore he must needs live marshless. Progress cannot abide that farmland and marshland, wild and tame, exist in mutual toleration and harmony. So with dredge and dyke, tile and torch, we sucked the combelt dry, and now the wheatbelt. Blue lake becomes green bog, green bog becomes caked mud, caked mud becomes a wheatfield. (p162)

Upshot

Part three generalises from earlier examples. Leopold contrasts a “conservation esthetic” to a drive-by attitude that has choked natural areas with a ring of car parks (in 1949!) and valuations that favor spending on gasoline, diners and tents rather than Nature’s priceless value.

Crowd-pleasing commodification favours hatchery trout over migratory birds, even if that means replacing webs of natural species with “managed” single-species. Staff are paid to create artificial habitats and manage fish hatcheries. Ecosystems that provided diversity free of charge are replaced by landscapes that can be counted and collated in reports.

Rather than reflecting over the causes of failures, managers double down on interventions. Fences fail to limit pests whose population explodes without natural predators. Simplified managed spaces replaces ecosystems diverse with uncountable species. Businesses encourage the spread of roads and trails that will bring more cars to parking lots. Farmers do not “husband” the landscape for their descendants; they follow theoretical guidelines written at a distance and collect subsidies for chasing errant targets.

Hunters shoot many animals to get the 12-point buck whose head hangs on their wall. The rest of the animals rot. Secret hunting, fishing and camping places are overrun by tourists visiting guidebook highlights. Economists contribute to these problems by measuring known knowns and ignoring the unknown unknowns that make the knowns possible.

For the first time in the history of the human species, two changes are now impending. One is the exhaustion of wilderness in the more habitable portions of the globe. The other is the world-wide hybridization of cultures through modern transport and industrialization. Neither can be prevented, and perhaps should not be, but the question arises whether, by some slight amelioration of the impending changes, certain values can be preserved that would otherwise be lost. (p 188)

Shrinking ecosystems collapse roads and development encroach on food chains stressed by missing keystone species and voracious invasives.

The disappearance of plants and animal species without visible cause, despite efforts to protect them, and the irruption of others as pests despite efforts to control them, must, in the absence of simpler explanations, be regarded as symptoms of sickness in the land organism. (p 194)

Leopold calls for a science of land health to replace failing land management. This science would begin by understanding (and protecting) wilderness areas that have evolved and persisted for millions of years. The contrast with the “sick” lands humans are trying to save cannot be clearer:

In 1909, when I first saw the West, there were grizzlies in every major mountain mass, but you could travel for months without meeting a conservation officer. Today there is some kind of conservation officer ‘behind every bush,’ yet as wildlife bureaus grow, our most magnificent mammal retreats steadily toward the Canadian border. (p 198)

Leopold is known for espousing (inventing?) a “land ethic”, which “simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land… a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such” (p204).

In calling for such equality he (rightly) criticises alternative value systems:

One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbirds are examples. Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 per cent can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use. Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance.

When one of these non-economic categories is threatened, and if we happen to love it, we invent subterfuges to give it economic importance. At the beginning of the century song- birds were supposed to be disappearing. Ornithologists jumped to the rescue with some distinctly shaky evidence to the effect that insects would eat us up if birds failed to control them. The evidence had to be economic in order to be valid.

Leopold’s land ethic replaces corrupt and poorly functioning extrinsic motivators (regulations, subsidies) with the intrinsic motivation (respect for the entire ecosystem) necessary to respect and protect the wholeness of ecosystems:

To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts (p 214)

These days, Leopold’s ideas are echoed in the concepts of “spaceship earth,” industrial ecology, the circular economy, and so on:

Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit is not closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, some is added by absorption from the air, some is stored in soils, peats, and long-lived forests; but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life (p 216)

Sadly, most people are not just ignorant of this miracle of sustainability; they actively avoid contemplating or respecting it:

Your true modem is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow. Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a ‘scenic’ area, he is bored stiff. If crops could be raised by hydroponics instead of farming, it would suit him very well. Synthetic substitutes for wood, leather, wool, and other natural land products suit him better than the originals. In short, land is something he has ‘outgrown.’

These words are over 70 years old! Leopold’s perceptions were far ahead his time and his warnings have only grown more relevant. His wise recommendations have only grown more urgent. The sad thing is that he has been so right while most of humanity has continued on paths that are so wrong. We cannot claim “we did not know.” We were warned by Leopold and others (all five of his children became academics devoted to sustainability), but we have ignored those warnings. A land ethic would not just save nature in all its glory, but also save humanity. But we have continued to trash, shrink and ignore ecosystems that have brought us so much joy and prosperity. Humanity’s futures is now threatened, and we only have ourselves to blame.

I give this book FIVE STARS. Read it — and appreciate what we’ve lost and what remains.


Here are all my reviews.