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Allison Cobb’s PLASTIC: An Autobiography

Allison Cobb’s PLASTIC: An Autobiography

Nightboat Books, April 2021, 352 pages, paperback $17.95, Amazon Kindle $10.99)

Early on in Plastic: An Autobiography, Allison Cobb recalls her fascination with a plastic-strewn Hawaiian beach. She and three others have arrived at Kamilo Beach–a site long overrun by debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch–after an arduous journey over miles of treacherous rock. As they approach the remote shore, brilliantly colored plastic pieces of every conceivable size and shape greet them. Cobb is well aware of the damage being done to both animal and human life by the chemicals leaching off this vast slew of toxic detritus, having spent years researching them. Still, she’s consumed by the sight, finding it “kaleidoscopic, mesmerizing.” These same words perfectly describe her book.

Plastic is a beautifully written, intricate mosaic that weaves memoir, poetry, cultural and scientific history, chemistry, biography, etymology, journalistic reportage and self-reflection into a penetrating rumination on humanity’s relationship with plastic. While many of its narratives seem unrelated at first, connections gradually appear among them. Several entries into a detailed history of the development of the hydrogen bomb, for instance, we suddenly realize the bomb’s link to modern-day plastics: namely, that its byproduct, polyethylene, is the main culprit in today’s plastic pollution predicament. Unexpected ties like this abound throughout the book. Even in chapters that don’t directly mention plastic, it’s presence is felt, just as plastic’s long fingers reach into every facet of our modern lives.

A Novel

Cobb is a Portland, Oregon-based poet and writer for the Environmental Defense Fund whose investigation into plastic began years ago when she started collecting and cataloging plastic trash from around her neighborhood. She obsessed over this trash, regularly retrieving it from the bags where she stored it on her back porch. She studied it, arranged it into patterns and photographed it…

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Richard Heinberg’s POWER: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival

If you know Richard Heinberg for his many previous writings on energy, you may initially assume that the title of his latest book refers to power strictly in its physics sense. But as you begin reading, it becomes apparent that he’s using a vastly broader definition of the term. For him, power is “the ability to do something, the ability to get someone else to do something, or the ability to prevent someone else from doing something.” A brilliant and searching probe into power in all its forms, this book shows how our species’ pursuit, overuse and abuse of power is plunging us ever deeper into existential crisis.

Heinberg begins his inquiry into the nature of power by tracing humanity’s present planetary dominance back to its origins. His opening chapter deals with power in nature, from the biochemical processes of individual cells to emotion, intelligence and the use of deception by animals and plants. He goes over the respective powers of physical size, muscles, neurons, warm blood, motion, perception, communication, cooperation and exclusion, among many other things. His summary of the science is engaging, accessible and filled with fascinating Heinbergian asides. (For example, he reveals that organisms have thousands of times as much power as the Sun on a gram-for-gram basis, and muses on what the evolution of eukaryotic cells–i.e., those that make up plants, animals, fungi and protists–on Earth might say about the likelihood of complex life elsewhere.)

A Political Novel

Speaking of asides, the entire book is sprinkled with wonderfully informative sidebars. One of my favorites is titled “The Original Sins of Mainstream Economists.” It describes some of the chief blind spots of orthodox neoliberal economic theory that have led mainstream economists to absurd conclusions…

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The New Possible

The New Possible is an eclectic assortment of essays by activists, experts and other prominent figures from around the world. The thread that ties them together is a recognition that, for all the harm it has caused, the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up exciting new possibilities for societal change. In the course of passionately advocating for their various causes–which include climate change, human rights, social justice and humane technology, among others–the 27 essayists explore some of the ways in which the experience of COVID has helped prepare us for the legion of other threats we face. Taken together, their writings represent a trove of inspiring success stories, fascinating research and insights from frontline change makers.

Often these pieces begin with an anecdote that attempts to bring into focus some particular aspect of the wake-up call that is COVID. The pandemic has, in the authors’ collective estimation, opened people’s eyes to the gravity of our planetary situation, the gaping vulnerabilities in our industrial supply chains, rampant economic inequalities and political corruption. It has also, the essayists contend, spurred us to broaden our use of technology, brought us together as a human race, elicited a healthy reevaluation of our resource-intensive modern-day industrial lifestyles and served as a proving ground for our ability to change course drastically in response to existential threats.

A Novel

After an editors’ introduction and a foreword by Kim Stanley Robinson–in which the famed science fiction author and futurist crisply summarizes why we now find ourselves in an “emergency century”–the book is divided into 10 sections, each consisting of between one and three essays. The method of each essay is to offer a sort of guided tour of a particular line of activism or area of study related to the maelstrom of converging crises now bearing down on industrial humanity.

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Alice Friedemann’s LIFE AFTER FOSSIL FUELS A Reality Check on Alternative Energy

Alice Friedemann’s

LIFE AFTER FOSSIL FUELS

A Reality Check on Alternative Energy

Fossil fuels are the lifeblood of modern industrial society, and they’re steadily being depleted. Eventually, their rates of production will cease to grow and will begin to permanently decline, spelling disaster for a civilization dependent on ever-increasing quantities of ever-cheaper fossil energy. Their supposed replacements are pitiably inadequate, possessing nowhere near the necessary abundance, concentration, versatility, transportability and/or commercial viability. Given how long it takes to build an entirely new energy infrastructure, the time to begin doing so was decades ago. Since we didn’t do that, we now face not a continuation of our present lifestyles courtesy of alternative energy sources, but an involuntary “simplification” of every aspect of our lives, to quote energy researcher and author Alice Friedemann.

While many of the above facts are well known among those who follow the subject of fossil fuel depletion, they aren’t often presented as accessibly or concisely as in Friedemann’s book Life After Fossil Fuels. Friedemann excels at distilling the intricacies of our energy situation down into short, easily digestible chapters. Her writing is relaxed and witty, and she makes fine use of graphs, figures and future scenarios to illustrate her points. Her policy prescriptions are both eminently sensible and anathema to today’s mainstream sensibilities. (It’s difficult to imagine, for instance, a politician or pundit proposing the replacement of tractors with horses, no matter how great the benefit to fuel conservation efforts and the health of soils.) In short, herein lies a powerhouse of deftly conveyed information and insight into our current historical moment with regard to energy.

A Novel

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GROWTH: From Microorganisms to Megacities

GROWTH: From Microorganisms to Megacities

Vaclav Smil’s latest book explores growth in nature and society. It examines the rules and patterns of growth in four key domains, those of the living world; human energy consumption; human artifacts; and human populations, societies and economies. The author is a passionate advocate of quantitative analysis, and thus Growth is filled with numbers, graphs and mathematical notation. Yet it’s written to be easily understood by non-mathematicians, making brilliant but accessible use of statistics to illustrate salient features of growth in all its terrestrial forms (the book’s scope is limited to Earth). In short, Growth is a compelling read for statisticians and non-statisticians alike.

A favorite author of Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and a Foreign Policy magazine Top 100 Global Thinker, Smil is known for his multidisciplinary approach, energy-related expertise and penchant for packing his many books with all manner of fascinating facts. Growth‘s chapter on the biological realm supplies as fine a sampling of this latter propensity as can be found. Did you know that average dinosaur body volumes declined at the beginning of the final period of the Mesozoic era but then made a near-comeback to their previous highs by the time of the dinosaurs’ extinction? You will after reading this book–and if you’re as much of a nerd as I am, you’ll relish this and innumerable other scientific tidbits. You’ll also be awed by the 100-page bibliography and the fact that scarcely a sentence goes by without some bit of quantitative analysis or scholarly citation.

A Novel

Prehistoric trivia aside, Smil’s chapter on the living world rightly focuses on those life forms most necessary to humanity’s survival and the functioning of the biosphere. These include, of course, modern-day trees and forests, microorganisms, agricultural crops and animals.

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Kenneth S. Deffeyes’ HUBBERT’S PEAK: The Impending World Oil Shortage

This is the first of three books that the late geologist Kenneth S. Deffeyes, who passed away a year ago this week, wrote about the coming global oil crisis. The goal of these books is to provide readers a rudimentary understanding of oil, where it came from and what’s involved in finding and producing it, in order to raise awareness about the peril we face as oil depletes. All three books deftly achieve this aim courtesy of Deffeyes’ expertise, his gift for communicating science information and his great wit.

Part of what makes the books so accessible is that they’re almost as much autobiographies as textbooks, allowing us to get to know their author personally. Chapter one of Hubbert’s Peak tells of how Deffeyes’ career began at the prestigious Shell Oil research lab in Houston, Texas, in 1958. An oilman through and through, he felt at home in the field; but while at Shell, he met someone whose research persuaded him that the U.S. oil industry didn’t have long to live. The person in question was Marion King Hubbert, a preeminent geoscientist who today is best known for his theory of peak oil. In 1956 Hubbert accurately predicted that U.S. conventional oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970, then begin an irreversible decline. Based on Hubbert’s numbers, Deffeyes concluded that the U.S. oil industry would shrink drastically in coming decades.

A Novel

So, in the late 1960s, he decided to leave the oil business and become a geology professor at Princeton University. In 1997, after teaching there for 30 years, he retired, became an emeritus professor and commenced writing his books about oil. By that time, Hubbert, who had become a close friend of Deffeyes’, had long since passed away.

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Matthieu Auzanneau’s: OIL, POWER, AND WAR: A Dark History

In Oil, Power, and War, French journalist Matthieu Auzanneau presents a comprehensive, provocative history of humankind’s relationship with oil. His account takes us from the first references to oil in ancient literature and scripture, to its current status as the lifeblood of the industrial economy, to its inevitable future demise as a usable energy source for our society. The book was first published in France in 2015 as Or noir (meaning “black gold”). This new edition is a nicely rendered English translation that extends the original narrative to the present.

The book uses the four seasons of the year as a metaphor for the life cycle of the modern oil era. The first season, spring, was preceded by a centuries-long “germination” in which all the factors that led to our current, utter reliance on fossil fuel slowly fell into place. For most of this time humankind’s use of oil remained small-scale, but it launched into an ever-upward spiral with the development of the first commercial oil wells during the late 1850s. Spring began in 1945, when America’s post-World War II economic boom propelled world oil consumption to meteoric new heights. Summer saw America lose her status as the world’s oil production powerhouse and become dependent on overseas oil. Today we’re 20 years into autumn, a season defined by the peaking of global oil extraction. We’re woefully unprepared for the winter we face, in which oil will begin its irreversible decline.

A Novel

The learning curve involved in humankind’s exploitation of oil was especially precipitous in the beginning. Auzanneau describes how those who produced the first oilfields did so at what today would be considered a reckless pace, not yet understanding that extracting the oil too quickly damages the reservoir, greatly reducing how much oil can ultimately be recovered.

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Frank Kaminski reviews two peak oil documentaries from 2008

Frank Kaminski reviews two peak oil documentaries from 2008

BLIND SPOT: Peak Oil and the Coming Global Crisis

A Documentary Directed, Written, Photographed, and Edited by Adolfo Doring–1 hour, 26 minutes

and FUEL

A Documentary Directed and Narrated by Josh Tickell–1 hour, 52 minutes

These two documentaries on the world oil crisis came out in 2008, a time of growing concern over humankind’s energy future. In the decade since then, public interest in the issue has waned, but the relevance of these films hasn’t–they remain valuable, engaging portraits of the quandary we face at the end of the oil age. Blind Spot provides the proverbial 30,000-foot view of our situation, whereas Fuel gives a personal, on-the-ground account of one man’s activist crusade. Both films are far from perfect. One fails to adequately address how we should respond to our crisis, while the other is unrealistically optimistic about the responses it suggests. Still, both are important films, and they’re all the more compelling when viewed together, given their disparate but complementary perspectives.

A Documentary

Blind Spot is uncompromising about the realities we face as we leave the era of cheap, abundant oil behind. A formidable cast of geoscientists, physicists, environmental analysts, inventors and other experts details the essence of our plight. Our modern world, which requires ever-increasing quantities of easily obtainable oil, faces a future of ever-dwindling supply. Because oil is finite and the rate of new oil discoveries has been dropping since the early 1960s, logic and mathematics dictate that its production will eventually reach an all-time high, followed by permanent decline. The numbers indicate that the point of peak production, a phenomenon called “peak oil,” is imminent. And, sadly, alternative energy sources, for all the hype they’ve generated, are powerless to save us. They are nowhere near as energy-dense as oil, and we’ve already waited too long to invest meaningfully in them.

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Book Review: Energy Return on Investment by Charles A. S. Hall

Book Review: Energy Return on Investment by Charles A. S. Hall

ENERGY RETURN ON INVESTMENT: A Unifying Principle for Biology, Economics, and Sustainability

In Energy Return on Investment, systems ecologist Charles A. S. Hall argues that to truly understand most investments, one must view them in terms of energy. This is perhaps most obvious when considering the physical survival of wild animals and human hunter-gatherers. In both these instances, the food obtained through foraging or hunting must yield more energy than was required to procure it, or starvation ensues. Another way of understanding this is by applying the concept of energy return on investment (EROI). As with the more familiar metric of return on investment (ROI), EROI is a ratio of profit–in this case, energy profit–to resources expended. It is calculated by dividing the amount of energy obtained in the course of a given activity by the resources that went into recovering that energy. A positive EROI is one above the break-even point, whereas a negative EROI is one that fails to break even.

This principle extends beyond the individual sphere to encompass entire human societies. Like the lone animal or hunter-gatherer of the previous example, a civilization must maintain a positive energy balance to survive. Most ultimately fail to do so, as evidenced by the long line of failed past civilizations. Consider the ancient Easter Islanders, whose downfall was described so well in geographer Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond recounts how the Easter Islanders relied heavily on fish, and to catch the fish they needed wooden boats. They were depleting their wood supply faster than it could regenerate, and eventually their efforts to obtain more wood no longer yielded positive energy returns in the form of food. Now fast forward to our time and reflect on what’s happened with the EROI of our primary energy source. The oil that powers modernity once came out of the ground easily, but it now requires herculean investments of both money and energy (think offshore drilling, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling) to obtain.

A Political Novel

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Courtney White’s THE AGE OF CONSQUENCES: A Chronicle of Concern and Hope

(Counterpoint Press, January 2015, 261 pages, $21.99)

Reviewed by Frank Kaminski

“I consider myself to be a professional daydreamer,” reads the opening line of Courtney White’s Internet bio page. And indeed, White–a fine, imaginative thinker and writer who happens to be related to the legendary William Faulkner–has done a prodigious amount of fruitful daydreaming about the future. This dreaming isn’t of the blithely pie-in-the-sky variety, though. The term White has coined for the era in which humanity now lives, the “Age of Consequences,” will have an ominous ring to many ears. Yet his book of the same title brims with such well-founded optimism that potential readers who yearn for the “hope” promised by its subtitle, A Chronicle of Concern and Hope, won’t be disappointed.

White is very good. Even apart from the stellar literary quality of his books and articles, he has vast amounts of firsthand experience in the things about which he writes. A longtime rancher and conservation activist, he has worked extensively to develop and promote nature-based approaches to solving environmental problems. Some examples include using cattle (often assumed to be a menace to land health) to restore desertified landscapes; devising rainwater collection systems that, even in desert settings, can meet a household’s water needs; and harnessing the natural process of photosynthesis to mitigate climate change. In his writings, talks and activism, White strives to show how small, practical steps like these, rather than ever-more-grandiose advancements in industrial-age technology, are the real answer to meeting the calamities before us.

Marching Gas PumpsThe pieces collected in The Age of Consequences were all written for the millennial generation, to which White’s two children belong. White first started writing them on Earth Day 2008, driven by a need to preserve some record of today’s issues for posterity.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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