I intend to resume semi-regular postings in the near term, and am sitting on a couple dozen post ideas in various stages of development. In puzzling out what order I should put them in, I decided to start with something of a meta-post that lays some groundwork for a number of the future entries.
What I have in mind is to recapture my own journey over the last couple of years, which has resulted in an unexpected shift in my emphasis and awareness. By sharing key elements of my own journey, perhaps you can experience something similar. In any case, you might treat it as a belated (bloated?) summer reading list.
Let’s start just by capturing the chronological list, and then I’ll say a few things about the significance of each item.
- Energy and Human Ambitions textbook; especially Epilogue; Appendix D.5 and D.6
- Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
- Human Exceptionalism (Do the Math post)
- Daniel Schmachtenberger on The Great Simplification
- Daniel Quinn’s books: Ishmael; The Story of B; My Ishmael; Beyond Civilization
- Post-Ishmael Do the Math posts (Sticks; Love; Cults and a Story)
- An Inconvenient Apocalypse, by Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen
- We Are the Middle of Forever by Dahr Jamail and Stan Rushworth
- Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- The Myth of Human Supremacy by Derrick Jensen
- Bitter Harvest by Lisi Krall
- Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira
Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet
I’m not asking you to start by reading a whole textbook! But this textbook sticks a flagpole in the ground to mark the end of one journey and the start of another. Here, I highlight the beginnings of new thinking (for me) that foreshadows developments to come.
First, the dedication reads:
This book is dedicated to Earth,
whose value is beyond measure.
May we learn to live within its bounds,
to the enduring benefit of all life.
The bulk of the textbook recaptures the largely quantitative approach that was the original basis for this blog series. So it reflects what got me into this subject area, pointing out that it’s not clear we can carry on living like we do via technology and cleverness: biophysical limits will assert themselves.
The Epilogue starts to synthesize a new vision that looks beyond modernity—without realizing that’s what I was doing. I ended by suggesting that we learn to treat nature at least as well as we treat ourselves.
Also of potential interest is Appendix D.5 on the long view of humanity (which motivated posts on Ultimate Success and To What End?), and Appendix D.6 on whether evolution’s experimentation with intelligence may have found the point of diminishing returns in our own species (followed up by the post In Breach of Contract).
Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
This book has generated mixed reviews and some strong feelings. Whatever. For me, the uncontroversial elements were educational. The book helped me internalize the timeline for humans on the planet as middle-of-the-food-chain scavenging members of the ecosystem, the emergence of anatomically-modern Homo sapiens, the cognitive revolution, and the appearance of agriculture and settlements (civilization/history).
A crucial piece was the labeling of various modern constructs as “fictions.” Money, nations, and even human rights are nothing but figments of our imagination, with no biophysical backing. These insights—obvious in hindsight—got my wheels turning.
I had to put down the book when I reached the last two chapters: and still have not read them. They immediately struck me as biophysically blind—which surprised me, given the tone of the 18 preceding chapters. Oh well. I don’t like to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and found plenty to admire and inspire in the bulk of the book.
Human Exceptionalism (Supremacy)
It was at this point that I wrote the post on Human Exceptionalism, and it marks a course change for me. I have since realized that “exceptionalism” is not the ideal term, as humans are certainly exceptional—as is the octopus, the bat, the dandelion, and any other species we care to name. Each can do something unique that others cannot. The problem emerges when one species imagines itself to be the master over all creation and enacts destructive behaviors on the ecosphere as a result— up to and including eliminating (many) entire species from the planet.
Daniel Schmachtenberger on The Great Simplification
Okay, this one is not in written form, but Nate Hagens’ The Great Simplification podcast has often featured Daniel Schmachtenberger as a guest. Similarly to Harari, I don’t subscribe to everything he says, and listening to the sequence does require patience (and tolerance of some unusual word usements). But I believe it was in the second installment (Episode 20) that the discussion touched on the “obligate” nature of technology from a game theory point of view. Those who adopted technologies that conferred advantages (agriculture, weapons, systems of organization) out-competed those who—perhaps more wisely—elected not to partake. Thus, genetic survival pairs with technological adoption, for better or for worse. Also impactful was the notion that animistic beliefs are incompatible with enslavement of animals to do our work (e.g., pull a plow). This helped reinforce the notion that the adoption of agriculture brought about changes in almost every aspect of human life: values, behaviors, philosophy, etc. The corresponding Do the Math post was The Ride of Our Lives.
Daniel Quinn’s books: Ishmael; The Story of B; My Ishmael; Beyond Civilization
Now we get to what might fairly be classified as the most compelling influence of the lot. In the summer of 2022 I read Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, after years of people recommending it to me. I was ready for it, having begun to develop many similar perspectives by my own pathways. What it did for me was sharpen my ability to differentiate human behaviors that are sustainable from those that are not. Spoiler alert: most of the behaviors enacted by our culture are manifestly unsustainable—founded on attitudes that lead straight to ultimate failure. It also made it clear that our culture rests on plenty of mythology, even when we imagine ourselves to have outgrown such silliness.
I followed up with The Story of B and My Ishmael, both worthy sequels. The Story of B delivers another truck-load of insights (mostly in the form of lectures interspersed into the story), and My Ishmael adds a final few key points, while also putting the sadness of the first novel’s plot into greater context.
Beyond Civilization is not a novel, but a series of interconnected one-page statements/analyses acting to crystalize principles that succeed or fail within civilization. Having read the three novels, nothing came as a surprise, but it was a nice way to encapsulate and systematize some of the key lessons from the series.
The posts I wrote for Do the Math following my reading of Daniel Quinn’s works surely contain imprints of his ideas (Death by Hockey Sticks; A Climate Love Story; The Cult of Civilization, and The Simple Story of Civilization). In the last one, I call out the Quinn series as a key influence.
An Inconvenient Apolcalypse, by Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen
Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen teamed up to write this guide to how we might react to the inevitable unraveling of modernity. I really appreciated its no-nonsense tone, and its characterization of hubris and techno-optimism. It did a good job handling the idea that equity and justice are secondary to “upstream” concerns—in that those things will not be at all possible if we don’t handle the higher-level meta-crisis gracefully. I especially liked the sentiment that (modern) humans are a “species out of context.” This meshes quite well with many of the books on this list. We were not born/evolved doing “totalitarian agriculture,” as Daniel Quinn puts it. Ours is a very recent development and represents something of a trap that has taken us far from our comfortable origins.
We Are the Middle of Forever, by Dahr Jamail and Stan Rushworth
Daniel Quinn’s books opened a new door for me, allowing me to see Indigenous lifestyles in a completely new light. A key element of this awareness is no longer assuming a linear story of obsolete hunter-gatherers being replaced (upgraded) by civilized people. It’s more of a split than a succession. Yes, civilization developed such power as to make life hard or impossible (or over!) for Indigenous people. But—thank the stars—not all people practicing this ancient and time-tested lifestyle have been eradicated from the planet by the menace of modernity. I came to sense that wisdom and choice (not ignorance) often formed the basis of resistance to modernity. I became more interested in what I’ve been missing all these years: what concepts have I not had the mindset to even comprehend?
We Are the Middle of Forever, by Dahr Jamail and Stan Rushworth collects statements from a number of Native American thinkers on how we might respond to challenges such as climate change. I especially resonated with Gregg Castro’s perspectives on our place in the world and the delusions of modernity.
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
I must admit that I was not expecting a bestseller to be powerful in ways that I would appreciate, but this book had a sneaky way of making one profound point after another in a gentle, unassuming way. Kimmerer is a talented wordsmith, and clearly enjoys playful constructions. Tucked into the stories are many important lessons that helped reinforce my sense that better, largely forgotten ways to be partners on this planet are patiently waiting for the idiots among us to rediscover.
The Myth of Human Supremacy by Derrick Jensen
Given the central role that human supremacy has played in shaping my recent viewpoints, it seemed fitting to read a book all about the subject. Derrick Jensen put together a relentless case against human supremacy. Some of what humans in our culture have done is rather shocking. I really enjoyed sections that talked about the amazing capabilities of other species. Nature is truly mind-blowing. I had to essentially ignore a large component of Chapter 3: I wasn’t having it. But again: baby/bathwater—lots to admire in this work.
Bitter Harvest by Lisi Krall
Agriculture of the form practiced by our culture is intimately connected to many of our ills: human supremacy; patriarchy; hierarchy; property rights; disconnect from nature; disconnect from community; and almost every other cultural malady one cares to name. Given this, I wanted to learn more about the consequences of our flavor of agriculture (grain, or “totalitarian”). In Bitter Harvest, Lisi Krall paints grain agriculture as a sort of all-consuming trap, and points out that humans are not the only species to be “captured” by intense agriculture (some ants and termites also). Many similar traits emerge in all such cultures, including a self-referential disconnect from the larger ecosystem.
The book is written in a something of an academic style, which as a simple physicist I am not that accustomed to reading. But I was definitely able to extract what I hoped to learn from it.
Hospicing Modernity by Vanessa Machado de Oliveira
One of the reviewers admiringly described this book as “rude.” The author definitely doesn’t cater to a reader’s fragile sense of righteousness. The style is very interactive and full of exercises, inviting the reader to acknowledge their entanglement in a system based on colonialism, violence, and human supremacy.
The central idea is that modernity is destined to fail, and in some ways that’s just what the planet’s inhabitants most need. But modernity is not total garbage that can just be tossed out. We need to tolerate a dignified passing for this system that has brought so many of us into the world, and to do the hard work of disentangling ourselves from dependencies on a deeply problematic societal structure.
While the book is tough on the reader (no passes/absolutions), the author is well-intentioned. She wants us to accept ourselves and each other as we are: faults and all. To do otherwise is to build on a lie, and we’ve had enough of that. Having some Indigenous heritage in Brazil, de Oliveira (also goes by Vanessa Andreotti) is connected to ways of thinking, knowing, and being that help frame the disconnects that create trouble in modernity.
More than a Reading List
I hope this is helpful, and seen as more than just a reading list. I don’t want to be that person who basically says: “Hey, I’ve read these books and think you should as well.” For me, these have been key pieces in what I feel has been a profound journey. I feel like I’ve finally emerged from a decades-long tunnel of concern—the associated anxiety being quite palpable in all those Do the Math posts.
The message was: “This isn’t as easy as you might have been led to believe, and I have good reason to think we may be screwed.” This frightened me. It smelled like failure, and nothing but loss.
Now the message is changing to: “Okay, sure, modernity—not humanity—is certainly screwed and obviously can’t browbeat its way into the future. But why lament the disappearance of something that never could have lasted? There will be something on the other side, and that may be something we can be proud of. Getting through adolescence is tough, but growing older and wiser has its perks.”
While surely it’s not necessary (or even possible) for anyone to replicate my steps exactly, hopefully these “tracer bullets” will help illuminate your own customized journey and bring us to something approximating the same page.
Postscript: Reading List or Shopping List?
One regret I have about sharing this list is that many of the items are commercial books, rather than open access. Before instinctively heading to Amazon, consider two alternatives that may not have occurred to you (if you’re like me). First, see if you can borrow from a library. Second, check out bookshop.org, which partners with independent bookstores. You can even designate a local independent bookstore to receive the cut they would have scored if selling from their shelves.