November 23, 2014

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Literary Inspiration: A CSR & Sustainability Holiday Book Roundup

Under the Christmas tree (or Hanukkah bush) there is space for some terrific books that stimulate, warn and inspire.

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by Francesca Rheannon

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Move over, Bill McKibben. My favorite new climate hero is a poor Tennessee farmwife-and-mother named Dellarobia Turnbow.

OK, she’s a fictional character. But the spirited and complexly drawn protagonist of Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, Flight Behavior, is the kind of climate activist the environmental movement should be nurturing -- or at least reaching out to.

That’s because she knows from intimate personal experience the distrust that poor, rural, deeply religious, working people can harbor for the scientific “elite” that is sounding the alarm on climate -- a distrust rooted in long-standing class injuries and nurtured by real elites (like the Koch Brothers and their ilk) who manipulate cultural and religious allegiances to make “science” a dirty word.

Yet, farmers like Dellarobia and her neighbors are among those who are facing the greatest threats to their livelihoods in the short and medium term from climate “weirding” (in the longer term, we are all in the same sinking boat).

The story of how Dellarobia comes upon a bizarre sight in the woods near her home, interprets it at first as a religious visitation only to learn that it is a natural phenomenon gone awry due to climate Barbara Kingsolver: Flight Behaviorchange, and becomes engaged heart and soul in the fate of the planet her children will inherit is the subject of this thought-provoking novel. It is perhaps the first work of fiction by a major novelist to take up global warming and its impacts as its theme.

Flight Behavior is an enjoyable read (although some of Kingsolver’s other novels are better.) But what makes it so thought-provoking is the author’s linking of the issues of class, identity, and environmentalism. Her book is an impassioned plea for the environmental community to stop preaching to the converted, to start listening to the concerns of ordinary people, and to craft a message on the climate that bridges the class divide.

Too Much Magic by James Howard Kunstler

Journalist-turned-futurist James Howard Kunstler is another author who has turned to fiction to package a larger message about the environmental and energy crises barreling down upon us. His novels, Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron portray the near-to-middling future he first laid out in his non-fiction book, The Long Emergency -- the post-peak world that is fast approaching (and may already be here.)

With his latest, Too Much Magic, he returns to non-fiction exposition to skewer what he sees as the complacent wishful thinking of so many: that technology will save us from the consequences of our profligate, polluting overproduction and overpopulation.

Advocates of the green energy transition will find cold comfort in the pages of Kunstler’s book. He James Kunstler: Too Much Magicargues that we will neither have the capital nor the natural resources to be able to replicate the green energy version of our current lifestyle. The twin peaks of peak capital (because of an Everest of debts coming due and the coming collapse of the finance casino) and peak resources (AKA Peak Everything) will cripple the green tech revolution in its cradle.

Kunstler sees a role for advanced green tech like wind and solar power, but it will be reserved for the most critical functions, hampered by the increasing scarcity of the raw materials, like rare earths and silver, upon which these technologies depend. (Aspen Institute acolytes, take note!)

We may not like Kunstler’s message -- and he may be overstating his case -- but it should not be ignored.

The Betrayal of The American Dream by Donald Bartlett and James Steele 

Crack investigative reporters Donald Bartlett and James Steele have been chronicling the decline of the middle class at least since their 1992 book, America: What Went Wrong?

But whereas the former explored the early shift from democracy to plutonomy, as Citigroup termed it, in the U.S., their latest, The Betrayal of The American Dream, details just how far the process has gone. Twenty years of changes in the tax code, offshoring, the giant sucking sound of NAFTA and other trade agreements, and de-regulation have changed the socio-economic landscape considerably.

“We totally underestimated the skill and speed with which the economic elite of this country would continue to grab control of the means of policy change and put in place things that would be so detrimental to so many people,” James Steele said in an interview on Writer's Voice, the radio show I produce and co-host.

Steele and Bartlett travelled across America to talk to Americans who were seeing their aspirations for James Steele: The Betrayal of the American Dream a secure middle class life slip away. They put a human face on those who have been showing up in statistical studies – the growing ranks of the now-poor formerly middle class; stagnating or falling wages; swelling legions of the unemployed, underemployed, and contingent workers; the loss of manufacturing jobs (Ohio Miracle notwithstanding) and disappearing real pensions.

The American Dream, defined as earning a decent living, putting a little away for later years, and steady upward mobility for one’s children, was shipwrecked on the shoals of deregulation, globalization, and trade deficits that outsourced good jobs at home and eroded employee protections for the ones that were left.

There is a lesson here, as well, for America’s renewable energy industry.

So-called free trade policies that allow for the ballooning U.S. trade deficit -- some $10 trillion dollars and counting -- while doing nothing to prevent protectionist policies by trading partners like China, spell the death of innovative manufacturing sectors here at home. Although Obama did finally slap tariffs on Chinese solar cells, it may have been too late to save the U.S. solar cell industry, as the sad case of Solyndra attests to.

The Betrayal of the American Dream doesn’t cover much new territory, but it brings home the human pain globalization and deregulation have wrought in a compelling and comprehensive way.

Days of Destruction

Another book that does the same thing deserves a mention: Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. Sacco’s drawings and text -- he’s a graphic documentarian of the highest order -- of America’s “sacrifice zones” – Camden, Appalachia, Indian reservations, the migrant farm labor camps of the south – along with Chris Hedges’ acid eloquence immerse the reader in a reading experience like no other. It is a powerful warning of where the middle class is headed if we do not wrest control of our political process from the corporate elites that currently hold it captive.

Acting As If Tomorrow Matters by John C. Dernbach

After all this lack of Holiday cheer, is there hope for the future?

Maybe, maybe not. But we need to act as if there were, because otherwise, what’s the point? (And it ain’t over until the Fat Lady sings.)

Environmental law professor John Dernbach wanted to know how we could accelerate the transition to sustainability – because there’s no time to lose. So he asked a group of experts to answer four questions:

  • Where are we now and what progress have we made?
  • What are the drivers for sustainability?
  • What are the obstacles to further progress?
  • How can progress be accelerated?

His book, Acting As If Tomorrow Matters, is the result. In January, CSRwire will publish a series by Dernbach based on the book and include case studies and lessons learned since the book came out. Stay tuned.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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