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Important Books

In this list, you'll find quotations from important books we read, along with our thoughts about their place in our ongoing mission.

Tim O’Reilly’s WTF: What's the Future?

“Prosperity in human societies is best understood as the accumulation of solutions to human problems. We won't run out of work until we run out of problems.” – Nick Hanauer

Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists

“Productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring.” – Kevin Kelly

Mike Berners-Lee’s There Is No Planet B

“...a lively and cogent assessment of what is happening to the Earth's biosphere and resources ... All citizens should be grateful for this information-packed and wide-ranging primer” – Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

James Gleick: Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

“A genius, a great mathematician once said, performs magic, does things that nobody else could do. To his scientific colleagues, Richard Feynman was a magician of the highest caliber...”

Barry Lopez: Horizon

“.. . to create a narrative that would engage a reader intent on discovering a trajectory ...a coherent and meaningful story, at a time in our cultural and biological history when it has become an attractive option to lose faith in the meaning of our lives.”

Peter Fiekowsky with Carole Douglis: Climate Restoration - The only future that will sustain the human race

“Meeting the goal of net zero by 2050 in no way guarantees the survival of human society as we know it or even that of Homo sapiens as a species.” (They then go on to offer four simple solutions to get the planet's climate back to 1950 levels.)

Ray Kurzweil: The Singularity is Near

“Most long-range forecasts of what is technically feasible in future time periods dramatically underestimate the power of future developments because they are based on what I call the 'intuitive linear' view. My models show that we are doubling the paradigm-shift rate every decade... Thus the twentieth century was gradually speeding up to today's rate of progress; its achievements, therefore, were equivalent to about twenty years of progress at the rate in 2000. We'll make another twenty years of progress in just fourteen years (by 2014) and then do the same again in only seven years. To express this another way, we won't experience one hundred years of technological advance in the twenty-first century; we will witness on the order of of twenty thousand years of progress (again, when measured by today's [2005] rate of progress, or about one thousand times greater than what we achieved in the twentieth century.”– Ray Kurzweil

The same thing is happening with renewable energy. It’s doubling every 4 years and I’m confident it will meet 100% of our energy needs by 2030.

Marcia Bjornerud: Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World

lengthy extracts from this book can be found here

This short, profound, mind-altering work is brilliant. Had it been read by 10% of the world's decision makers and serious influencers in 1990, we would probably not be in the Racing to Extinction Orgy we now find ourselves in ...Oh, but wait: it wasn't published until 2018. Oh, well. There's another verdant and generous planet just next door, right?

The author, Marcia Bjornerud, speaks in a gentle but insistent voice, telling us that our relationship with Time is messed up, but that listening to the rocks can help straighten us out. Here's a long quote that sums up her thinking:

“As members of a technological society that can keep Nature at arm's length most of the time, we have an almost autistic relationship with the Earth. We are rigid in our ways, savants when it comes to certain narrow obsessions, but dysfunctional in other regards, because we wrongly view ourselves as separate from the rest of the natural world. Convinced that Nature is something outside us, a mute and immutable thing external to us, we are unable to empathize or communicate with it.

“But the Earth is speaking to us all the time. In every stone, it offers an eternal truth or good rule of thumb; in every leaf, a prototype power station; in every ecosystem, an exemplar of a healthy economy. In Aldo Leopold's words, we need to ‘start thinking like a mountain,’ awake to all the habits and inhabitants of this ancient, complicated, endlessly evolving planet.' [p179]”


Cat Bohannon: Eve

This is the most important book I have read this twelvemonth. I am awed by the author’s informed, accessible, caring, conversational voice, and also her candor and deep sense of humor. Reading this fact-thick book was a challenge, and there is no doubt it has changed my sense of my own feminism (not comprehensive enough!) and what it’s like to be a woman in this world.

Cat’s thesis – you don’t mind if I call her Cat? – is that starting with Lucy, the famous African fossil, the evolution of Homo sapiens was accomplished primarily by (and on) women. Although paternalistic science has for centuries focused its attention on men’s bodies, Cat shows how the real action was being taken by women. While she expresses dismay at how difficult and fraught with danger child bearing is (and how easy it is for the men to do their squirt and go away) she doesn’t express, as far as I could tell, a gram of anger toward the males of the species, with the single exception of the comprehensive stupidity of the sexism that currently discriminates against women, especially poor and pregnant ones. For example, how does the following read in the context of the (so-called) Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision?

Before Roe v. Wade, 17-18 percent of all maternal deaths in the United States were due to illegal abortions – that stat was as true in 1930 as it was in 1967. Meanwhile, as many as one in four maternal deaths in today’s malarial countries are directly tied to the disease. During our worst outbreaks, the same was true in the United States.

“Isn’t it wonderful for women to live in a place where both ways to die have been basically eradicated? What a thing, to choose to be pregnant, in a place where it’s significantly less likely to kill you.” [p114]

Cat takes us through the evolution of the human body, system by system (Milk, Womb, Perception, Legs, Tools, Brain, Voice, Menopause, Love), explaining how women evolved this first, how we know this based on the evolutionary biology of other species, and what it means to us. Here’s a bit about the very thing you are doing right now:

First, reading itself is a deeply strange activity. You’re asking a human brain to tune out nearly all sensory information from the outside world for a long stretch of time in order to focus on a small area of somewhat obscure black markings on a white background, carefully shifting the eyes across those markings in a given direction. And while the eyes are so carefully focused, the ears are supposed to ignore any sounds in the environment so the mind, meanwhile, can discern those markings as bits of language without any of the usual cues speakers give: no facial expressions, no hand gestures, no useful variation of pitch. . . . Reading is an extraordinarily difficult thing for the human brain to learn how to do.” [p257]


Ed Conway: Material World

Fascinating I-search into six materials – sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, lithium – that dominate global commerce. (I-search as contrasted with research, the difference being that in I-search it's expected that the searcher's personal experiences are a part of the report, where in 'research' one does one's best to disappear. And if you knew that already, please pardon my pedantry.)

Two important ideas impressed me: first the idea underlying so much of the breakthrough technology we rely on, that we don't understand what's going on. In the Sand chapters, Conway writes 'Philip Anderson, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1977, wrote a couple of decades later: 'The deepest and most interesting unsolved problem in solid state theory is probably the theory of the nature of glass and glass transition.' It remains unsolved to this day.' Conway continues, 'You could say something similar about much of the Material World. Our species has mastered and affected the natural environment more than any other in history yet our understanding of precisely what's happening to it when we experiment with it–burning this or reshaping that– remains surprisingly shallow.' He concludes this paragraph, 'Mysteries abound.' [p40]

Indeed. The result of this ignorance is that when we adopt a new tech (example: internal combustion motors) to save ourselves from the unintended consequences of its predecessor (in this example, horses) those old consequences (streets filled with horse dung) are replaced with new consequences (global warming). This thread winds itself through each and every chapter.

So why do we do it? Toward the end of the book, Conway explains: 'The Material World is the bedrock of our lives today, sparing most of us from the hard work and drudgery of our ancestors. Back in 1801 it took us, on average, 150 hours of human labour [he's British, y'know] to produce a hectare of wheat; today, thanks to steel plows, diesel engines and semiconductors guiding combine harvesters, it takes us less than two hours–and we pack much more wheat into each hectare. A century ago it took 230 hours of human labour to produce a tonne of copper; today it takes about 18.' [p441]

Despite the book's daunting 443 pages (seasoned appropriately with on-page footnotes and copious reference endnotes) I found this an engaging read. Knowing where my stuff comes from, and how progress is being made toward more humane but still ecologically damaging extraction and processing, makes me a more mindful consumer and steward of the mysteries and treasures in my hands.