— Anh NGUYEN
Here are some more suggestions on books and reading materials for your upcoming holiday. Let’s go!
1. Winners take all – Anand Giridharadas
The book investigates how the efforts of the world’s wealthiest individuals to “change the world” actually help preserve the status quo and cover their role in creating the problems in the first place. All businesses people know about wealth inequality, and almost all Silicon-Valley businesses claim to have humanitarian projects. Yet, visibly, no one wants to get off the back of others (not willing to pay more tax, pay people more, or stop lobbying or commit to communities, etc.).
Anand’s argument is that the system we are living in has inherent winners and losers. And winners will adopt the thinking that allows them to continue being winners. They will tell women to stand straight and change their postures so that they do not have to pay them more. They will pay millions of dollars to build schools or give scholarships somewhere else instead of paying more taxes to better the situation of households in the local region…
2. The longing for community – The School of Life
This one is not a book but an article whose ideas were one of the reasons I was a nomad for one year and a half, being in different communities in France.
The main argument is: for most of our time on this planet, homo sapiens lived in communities – that is, “groups of 20 or 30 people who worked together, cooked communal meals, and lived and died around each other. For most of history, we’d watch the sun going down with the same people we knew deeply, trusted, and sometimes bickered with but overall felt overwhelmingly connected to.”
Only recently, we have started living in separate houses or apartments, commuting to work in offices with people whose values we don’t really share, and eating alone in cities of ten million strangers.
The article then suggests a return to the community-based way of living before, through different housing and residence designs.
3. The uninhabitable earth: Life after warming – David Wallace-Wells
Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us, poisoned oceans – those are the consequences of a warming planet. Reading this book is definitely not a walk in the park. The author describes lives (and the end of lives) with different climate scenarios – from seemingly habitable ones with many difficulties to the 8th circle of Dante’s hell.
On economic collapse, after the 2008 crash, there was a growing number of historians studying what they call “fossil capitalism”. They suggested that the entire history of swift economic growth at the beginning of the 18th century is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of global capitalism but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power — a one-time injection of new “value” into a system that had previously been characterized by global subsistence living. Of course, that onetime injection has a devastating long-term cost: climate change.
But why can’t we see it? Because of what we call “the environmental uncanny’, the author suggests. Because the dilemmas and dramas of climate change are incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, especially in novels, which tend to emphasize the journey of an individual conscience rather than the poisonous miasma of social fate.
This notion of social collapse due to environmental collapse and overexploitation was also discussed in the book Collapse – How societies choose to fail and succeed (Jared Diamond), in case you want to take a look.
In case you don’t have time to read the whole book, here’s a very good summary on New York Magazine.
4. The Blue Commons: Rescuing the Economy of the Sea – Guy Standing
It was not an easy read either, as the situation of marine biodiversity loss is heart-wrenching. It was personally touching to me, as I live in a small coastal town in Brittany, France. Even though the area is protected (the Iroise Natural Marine Park) and there are laws to ensure sustainable, small-scale fishery, it is definitely not the case for many other coastal zones and high seas in the world.
Beyond painting the gloomy picture of pour once-was-full-of-lives oceans, the author points out, through 500 pages, why neoliberal mechanisms such as financialization or privatization can never be solutions to sustainability. Another hard pill for me to swallow personally, as I was trained by this neoliberal thinking throughout my years studying economics and finance.
The author argues that natural resources belong to everyone (res communis). Therefore, the extraction and utilisation of these “things” must be accessible for everyone, to benefit everyone (we can argue whether “everyone” here is humans or every living thing) by receiving “dividends”. This means that all efforts to financialisation or commodification (ex: offset, “natural capital”…) are 1) therefore against the very nature of these resources and 2) trying to keep the capitalistic models alive, with the same logic of growth and private gains.
The question now is, if these “market” mechanisms – the blue economy or the sustainable, responsible investments do not work, what kind of framework should we opt for in order to revive the marine biodiversity that we all depend on?
The author proposes the notion of blue commons (commoning, to common), in which marine resources belong to everyone. With this framework, financial instruments such as Blue common capital fund, who receives revenues from taxes from polluters and destructors and shares dividends to all the blue commonwealth (communities and beings whose lives depend on the ocean).
5. For profit – A History of Corporations – William Magnuson
An outstanding history book on the good, the bad, the ugly of corporations, whose existence has been affecting massively our lives and societies. I personally like the non-judgemental, matter-of-fact tone of this book.
The author walks us from the ancient history of the Roman republic to the Medici bank in the Renaissance, then crossing the sea to the joint-stock East India Company in the 17th century and to the monopoly of Union Pacific railroad in the 19th century, from the mass production method of Ford to the monstrous growth of the multinational Exxon throughout the 20th century, from crazy stories of the shark-like private equity giant KKR to the friendly-looking startups of the Silicon Valley such as Meta (Facebook).
By the end of the book, the author also suggests alternatives to monitor the activities of corporations, once all the lessons have been learnt and examined throughout its long history.
6. Degrowth can work – Jason Hickel
This is an article in the science journal Nature. Degrowth has been a much-discussed concept in recent years among economists and environmental activists. Many have been enthusiastic advocates, for example, Timothée Parrique, an economist and degrowth expert in France. Meanwhile, others are very much against the notion, for example, this diss track in a form of a 300-page book called “Growth for Good” by Alessio Terzi.
The problem I had with Degrowth back in the day was that many authors did not really suggest alternatives and clear guidelines for the next steps. We can imagine the virtues of Degrowth, and we have learnt the destructive nature of our obsession with GDP growth. But without concrete suggestions, with measurable actions, all arguments are just ideologies masked as logic.
It was only until this article by Jason Hickel and his colleagues that I found that missing piece. I also recommend this article, also on Nature, “GDP is getting a makeover — what it means for economies, health and the planet” in case you seek alternatives to the one-single-metric approach of GDP.
Have fun reading!