Tim Flannery After the future
ON THE PILE
Thich Nhat Hanh Peace is every step
Martha Nussbaum Not for profit: Why democracy needs the humanities
(added 2 January 2013)
Once upon a while you read a book that sets out beautifully some thoughts that had been drifting through your mind for a while just waiting to coalesce into a fully formed argument. In other words, a book that seems to say exactly what you yourself have wanted to say. Only far more eloquently than you could have ever managed. For me, this was one of those books.
Martha Nussbaum’s case is straightforward, convincing and, as far as I’m concerned, profoundly important.
I have put the case in a number of my own blog posts that education, specifically critical and creative thinking, is at the heart of solutions to today’s great challenges. Conversely, that its deficit is the root of so many problems.
Nussbaum goes into far greater detail, showing how arts and humanities in particular, through the critical capacities and appreciation of the human condition that they impart, are fundamental to a functioning democratic society. She looks to some of the great educational luminaries from India and the West, including Tagore, and examines all levels of our modern education system. The book provides a damning critique of recent trends while showing we have the resources to do so much better.
The re-gearing of education towards profit does not just detract from the richness of our culture. It takes away the things that are critical to any successful democratic community. The things that are undervalued and brushed aside by our capitalist, consumerist economy can be the most valuable things we possess.
Anyway, that’s enough from me. I’ll let a few quotes from the book do the talking:
No democracy can endure unless its citizens are educated and active. (p63)
The ability to detect fallacy is one of the things that make democratic life decent. (p75)
Democracies all over the world are undervaluing, and consequently neglecting, skills that we badly need to keep democracies vital, respectful and accountable. (p77)
During the era in which people began to demand democratic self-governance, education all over the world was remodeled to produce the sort of student who could function well in this demanding form of government. (p141)
If the real clash of civilizations is, as I believe, a clash within the individual soul, as greed and narcissism contend against respect and love, all modern societies are rapidly loosing the battle, as they feed the forces that lead to violence and dehumanization and fail to feed the forces that lead to cultures of equality and respect. (p143)
Lawrence Krauss A universe from nothing
(added 25 July 2012)
Clearly none among the hoards of facebookers insisting that only a career cosmologist could grasp what the Higgs Bosun discovery actually meant had read Krauss. Indeed, I found it easier to grasp the fundamentals of particle physics than of market economics. I don’t mean to downplay the profundity of what’s in this book, only to emphasize both the brilliance of the author in explaining some of the latest discoveries in theoretical and experimental physics and the amazing achievement of science in elucidating so many fundamentals of our universe.
David Uren The Kingdom and the Quarry
(added 19 July 2012)
Last week Kevin Rudd had an interesting piece on China in New Statesman that immediately had me recalling his days as a self-proclaimed “activist” Foreign Minister with lofty ambitions to help craft a stable future for the Asia-Pacific region through “middle power diplomacy”. (I assume he chose the relatively low-circulation British magazine to avoid charges of interfering in his former portfolio.)
More interesting than Rudd’s article itself was the contrast to today’s attitudes under Julia Gillard and Bob Carr, at least as far as we can discern them from recent initiatives and announcements.
The major initiative of the Gillard government towards addressing the rapid economic and strategic evolution of Asia, including the rise of China and India, has been to commission its white paper on Australia in the Asian Century. The terms of reference for the white paper reveal unmistakably a shift from wanting to play an active and constructive part in shaping the future of our region towards simple opportunism. “We are a decade into the Asian Century,” states the preamble on the website. “Is Australia ready to take advantage of the great opportunities this transformative event will bring?”
Thoughtful recommendations from Australian NGOs on a range of issues from gender equality to media freedom did not make it through to the summary of submissions, except for a brief mention in the narrow context of Australian aid programs.
While I found David Uren’s book very informative, it reinforced for me that the focus of our relationships with Asian neighbours and particularly China has swung firmly back towards cashing in on growing export markets. And little else.
But the revelation for me was the true magnitude of the power wielded by BHP, Rio Tinto, Fortescue Metals and other mining giants. It is popular to think of Australia as being powerless in the face of China’s wishes and demands. Well, these corporations are clearly anything but powerless and indeed held the upper hand through years of aggressive negotiations on iron ore prices. I couldn’t help wonder what sort of gains could be made if such corporations were willing to sacrifice even a tiny fraction of their pricing advantage to bargain for such things as greater media freedoms, human rights protections and other improvements for Chinese people. Though no doubt I’m showing my naïveté again!
Laura Tingle Great Expectations – Government, entitlement and an angry nation (Quarterly Essay)
(added 10 June 2012)
I’ve read dozens of these Quarterly Essays over the years and found them a great way of deepening my understanding of the issues of the day. They are always well timed, injecting substance into emerging debates. I admit I struggled with this particular one more than most other I’ve read. Its subject – entitlements, government intervention and deregulation – is not one that I tend to get excited over!
However, there are some important points in here. And they shed more light on the frustrating and seemingly rudderless nature of today’s politics.
Our expectations on what the government should deliver are as high as ever. Yet after decades of deregulation the capacity of the government to step in and fix problems is greatly diminished. We want less tax but more services. Privileges have become entitlements. We are quick to blame and reluctant to take personal responsibility. Tracing the routes of entitlement right back to the founding of the colonies, Laura then tracks how the politics of the last three decades have led to today’s disjunct.
Like everyone, I have my own particular axe to grind on government services or lack thereof. Kyinzom recently told me of a friend whose young daughter, an otherwise healthy five year old, had a badly decaying and painful tooth. They were unable to afford the necessary treatment. That an honest, hardworking family should be unable to access dental services in one of the world’s wealthiest counties, and with one particular elite developing monstrous wealth through liquidating the country’s non-renewable natural assets, really pissed me off.
There are no doubt many examples of such inequalities, all of which we must work to rectify. But such situations aside, Laura’s overall case is hard to argue with. We want more and more but are willing to give less and less. In the past we were willing to make personal sacrifices for the sake of future generations. That trait seems to be long done. Our concerns have become overwhelmingly self-centred.
There is nothing here that cannot be resolved through rational debate. But as Laura remarks in her closing lines: “We are fighting so much among ourselves about the personal qualities of our leaders that we cannot rationally discuss the options open to us.”
Marc Lewis Memoirs of an addicted brain – A neuroscientist examines his former life on drugs
(added 6 June 2012)
As memoirs go, this has to be truly unique. Marc has not only lived through extremes of human experience. Through reinventing himself as a neuroscientist, he’s revealed with remarkable clarity and first-person authority what was happening to his mind and brain as he grappled for many years with addiction and near madness.
Indeed, what’s extraordinary about this book are not the crazy tales of a life gone bonkers, revealing as they are, but Marc’s amazing accounts of the neurology and psychology of it all.
These accounts, based entirely on recent, peer-reviewed science, teach us about far more than addiction alone. Though they were not explicitly detailed in the book, Marc’s explanations for his behaviour gave me fascinating insights into everything from why we form habits and have such trouble breaking them to why we form ideologies, how our views become narrow and entrenched, and why we argue.
In journeying to such extremes Marc paid a heavy price. But he leaves us with lessons and insights invalubale to all, addict or not.
While there is no shortage of dark material in the book, I found its overall message to be positive. Understanding helps us to break cycles and alleviate suffering. And his insights might help us overcome our human shortcomings in all kinds of other areas.
Eric Knight Reframe – How to solve the world’s trickiest problems
(added 28 May 2012)
I was lucky enough to catch Eric Knight at the Sydney Writer’s Festival last weekend. Predictably, the interviewer began with a remark about Eric’s age. Reframe is indeed an astonishing achievement for someone born in, wait for it… 1983. However, as I was about half way through the book I found myself wondering whether only a brilliant young mind could write such a book? Any older and we are perhaps too entrenched in our worldviews, too attached a particular agenda to have Eric’s remarkable intellectual nimbleness.
Eric’s central argument – that even the most intractable problems can be addressed if we adopt the appropriate perspective or frame – is I think one that many of us have asserted in our own ways. His brilliance is in both demonstrating the case for “reframing” with many compelling real-world examples and in taking on, one by one, some of our very biggest challenges – financial markets, immigration and, of course, climate change.
His examples of bottom-up governance, social entrepreneurship and cooperative solutions are particularly exciting. But importantly, Eric is not overconfident. He does not pretend to have watertight answers, only ideas for a better process of problem solving.
I picked up this book late Friday evening and finished it the following day. It was that good.
Peter Hartcher The Sweet Spot – How Australia made its own luck and could now throw it all away
(added 25 May 2012)
Earlier this year I realised that I could listen to the entire finance segment that typically follows a news bulletin without understanding a single thing. Whether it was the ABC or Channel 9 made little difference. I was, it seemed, completely illiterate in the language of finance. Only the sports report could leave me less interested.
So reading this book was in part an effort to fill this glaring gap in my knowledge. And while I’ll admit I struggled through the chapter after chapter on Australia’s economic performance and reform agenda, thanks to Peter I finally have a working knowledge of such things as inflation, interest rates, currency markets and all the rest.
More importantly, Peter’s case that Australia, for all its remaining problems, is today in far better shape than many (perhaps all) other developed countries is very convincing. For he does not build the case solely in terms of growth, debt and other popular indicators but gives due consideration to factors such as fairness and equality of opportunity.
Indeed, it is consideration of these broader factors that leads Peter to caution against getting carried away in our praise of China, showing us that China’s growth and accompanying success in poverty alleviation has come about in spite of its authoritarian order, not because of it. Furthermore he reminds us that China’s “success” is more fragile than appears from outside.
According to Peter, while problems in the US and EU have caused some developing countries to doubt the viability of liberal democracy and look to the “China model”, Australia stands out as proof that you can have stability, prosperity, equality and the world’s highest living standards while still having full human rights and democratic freedoms.
Peter also shatters the myth that it is largely the mining boom and growing demand from China that saved Australia from the worst effects of the so-called global financial crisis, showing us that this had more to do with good policy than any natural or geographical advantage. I’ll be adding this to my case against those who see the promotion of human rights and democratic freedoms in China as in conflict with Australia’s national interest.
If I have one major criticism of this book it’s that Peter fails to tackle the issues of climate change, overconsumption and the inherently unsustainable nature of the current economic order.
Australia may have made an outstanding success of itself within the growth-oriented global economy but is no less constrained by the finite nature of resources, the myth that growth can be wholly decoupled from consumption, and the fact that the economy will forever remain a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment.
The book gave me a new insight into economic forces and the policies through which we’ve reached today’s standards of health, longevity and material comfort. But it left me in no more doubt about the need to ask that hardest of all questions – how do we remove the imperative for growth? And if Australia is really, as Peter shows, the most well-off and least troubled place on the planet, surely we are the people to be asking that question.
Anna Rose Madlands – A journey to change the mind of a climate sceptic
(added 20 May 2012)
Understanding the psychology of climate change denial is a pretty urgent task right now. And if we simply can’t all accept the basic facts, we at least need to find some other common ground on which to get moving.
I had high expectations for this book, having seen some of Anna’s awesome work within the climate movement. It didn’t disappoint. In fact, it way surpassed these hopes. In short, I think it’s a bloody good book.
While studies such as those by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (whose director Anna and her fellow traveler Nick Minchin meet in Chapter 14) have already given us some important, indeed really quite profound insights into what lies beneath our polarised positions on climate and energy, it’s just not the same as seeing these realities come to life, epitomised in Anna and Nick. Stories, journeys, real life narratives, are always more compelling than data alone. If you want a priceless insight into why many individuals still choose to ignore the basic science of climate change, along with a good dose of hope for the future, then you have to read this.
Check out the website: www.madlands.com.au
Wade Davis The Wayfinders – Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world
(added 20 May 2012)
I first heard Wade Davis in a recorded lecture on ABC’s Big Ideas. His ideas and research resonated with me immediately. I knew straight away that I had to read this book. The subtitle – Why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world – could well have been the title of my PhD thesis, though it would have had only a tiny fraction of Wade’s decades of observations and his knowledge of cultures from every corner of the earth. The Wayfinders may also be the only work I’ve come across in which two of the cultures that most fascinate me – Tibet and Polynesia – are both examined in the same book.
All in all, I think this is the most eloquent and most substantiated work on the richness and contemporary importance of traditional knowledge and culture that I’ve read. To me, the basic thesis of Wade’s work, that culture matters, is so timely, so logical, and it’s implication so broad and positive, that I can’t understand why it doesn’t get more traction.
While you may find that this page is full of rather glowing reviews (for I’ll probably only review the books I really like), I have to say that in this case, I have not been more excited about a book for a long long time.