Archive for March, 2007

More on Post-Peak Fiction

Sharon March 21st, 2007

One of my former professors, Paul Morrison, used to say observe that never before has the gap between the books that most people read and the books that we consider worthy of attention in literary critical circles been so great, and of course, he was right. And it is a fascinating gap - if you look at the books people buy, they tend heavily to genre fiction (science fiction, mysteries, romances, chick lit, thrillers, children’s literature and the modern sentimental novel of family trauma), but for the most part, literary critics don’t pay much (official) attention to these books. In fact, I would argue based on a wholly unscientific sample, that there’s never been a greater gap between the books that literary critics read for pleasure and the ones they write about.

After a decade or so floating around various halls of academe, I found that while we all read “Paradise Lost” and _The Waves_, when you poke a literary graduate student or professor, they often can talk with astounding skill about the books that everyone else is reading. That’s not to say that we don’t love high art - we do. But just as most musicians have high catholic tastes in music, and appreciate its pleasure in multiple forms, before we were literary critics we were all just passionate, obsessive readers, and have remained so. Underneath the post-modernist taste is often a deep knowledge of Star Trek novels, medieval mysteries, Harry Potter or horror fiction. Heck, I knew at least as many professors and graduate students who wrote genre fiction as published poetry, plays or literary novels - I had a professor who wrote _Sweet Valley High_ stories, several graduate students I knew parlayed their deep knowledge of a historical period into a career writing period bodice rippers, and at least two Profs of my acquaintance write the most formal sorts of mystery, complete with plucky young heroine and resolution on the 280th page.

I mention this, because I happened upon an essay by Erik Curren in the electronic magazine “Conserve”, in which he critiqued my recent call for peak oil and climate change fiction for showing utopian leanings. Utopianism, he observes is boring. He then launches into a defense of high culture dystopian literature, which he happens to teach. I must say I’m grateful to Curren for giving me an excuse to write more in the genre of my old profession, literary criticism. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to spend some time thinking about what kind of writing we might both want and need to read in the future. You can and should read Curren’s essay here: He says,

“Some of us will certainly enjoy reading inspiring visions of how great life can be when every other lawn is a permaculture garden and Wal-Mart is just a bad memory. But if you want to put peak oil and global warming in the classroom – or on Oprah – then maybe you’ll need fiction that’s good literature first and propaganda second.”

On this, I agree with him wholeheartedly, but I don’t think those are quite the only choices.

There are places where I disagree with Curren, but one of them is not in the claim that Utopian literature is boring. But he mistakes (and really, the mistake is mostly mine - my rather hastily articulated call to fiction may well have given the wrong impression) my suggestion that we offer a vision of what life could be as a call to write utopian political fiction. I can understand why he thinks that’s what I’m saying - the juxtaposition of my call to propaganda, the reference to _Little House on the Prairie_ (Which most people have mixed up with the sentimental television show of the same title. Until you read it as an adult you won’t appreciate its bell-clear prose and a vision of what childhood is like as fascinating, in its own way as _What Maisie Knew_ - Wilder’s books are not nostalgic, except for a lost *family* - that others read them nostalgically is interesting, but much more about reader than writer) as representing a call for utopianism.

But what we’re actually talking about is not utopianism, but Romanticism - that is, the genre of literature that represents both a harkening back to an agrarian past and a leftist call to arms to recreate a better society is Romantic literature. Romaticism had traction in just about every Western nation during the 19th century at some point or another - Germany, France, America and England among others all had their Romantic schools. We tend to think of Romanticism as only Wordsworth and Shelley, but in fact it included Gothic novels like _Castle Rackrent_ and _Frankenstein_, American writers like Hawthorne, Germans like Goethe, etc… Romanticism produced really quite lovely poetry, and some good novels too - actually quite a lot of them. It was one of the most artistically productive schools of literary thought in history.

I think Curren is rather quick to dismiss any representations of a meaningful or interesting future as Utopian - the assumption is that envisioning any future other than abject disaster is a vision of a conflict-less monotony. Not only do I think that’s not true, I think it is a bad way of thinking about the future of people, much less art. If we can’t come up with some meaningful ground between dystopia and utopia, we’re going to have a rather nasty future. But fortunately, there is considerable middle ground in romanticism. The move to a *more perfect* (but not necessarily perfect) future, connected to a meaningful past is a real and useful way of putting together two ways of thinking. In fact, it might be helpful for us to think of ourselves as part of a new Romantic movement - romanticisms specifically believe in the possibility of meaningful cultural change - something that most post-modern literature does not. Instead of detachment, romanticism represents engagement in the most literal sense - which is why the romantic writers wrote political tracts, set up new living arrangements, and fomented revolution. All environmental movements are to some degree romantic - and we’re no different. If we didn’t believe transformation was possible, we’d be getting rich on the other side ;-).

The problem with old-style romantic movements is that they tend to be rather impractical, and their passion is such that one burns out with all that emoting. The 1960s generation has been characterized as a species of romanticism, and after 30, things kind of petered for most of the boomers. So what we need is a literary, and literal romanticism of adulthood - a romantic movement that thinks more carefully and husbands its energies more wisely. Is that achievable? I don’t know. I do think, however it might make for some fascinating writing.

Which brings me to the second thing that I found of interest in Curren’s essay - that he makes such a powerful contrast between high culture literature and low culture literature. The authors he lists are all full-scale, “official” high culture literature, although Atwood hasn’t always had that designation. But she’s something of an exception - the rest of the writers he invokes to make me look silly and the ones he actually teaches are high canonical authors. I was left wondering whether Curren’s students, who, of course enjoy mulling over the end of the world are ever actually connected to the dystopian fiction that shows up on most people’s shelves - for example, do his students read the massive best-sellers, The Left Behind books? They are admittedly dreck, and the dreck of a politics I find nigh-on-unbearable, but they are also important if you believe that literary scholars should have anything to do with the culture at large. If all it is a cataloguing of what constitutes high art, and the reading of those books so that someone will, literary criticism has very little to do with anything other than the preservation of high culture. Don’t get me wrong - I’m all for the preservation of high culture. But there is no inherent distinction between “literature” and “what folks read” - and I would think that a class on dystopian fiction would address the cultural implications of the vision that shapes more dystopian thinkers than any other at present.

Personally, I thought Curren’s list of books was on the limited side. Margaret Atwood isn’t a bad writer, but *two* of her novels? She’s not Shakespeare either. And Philip Roth, having not had a book that people really talked about in a decade or two, uses the conventions of…what else…genre fiction to get a book that people will actually read. The same is true of McCarthy. I like both writers very much, but to a large degree what their books do is make high culture writing accessible by taking on the conventions of genre fiction. It happens all the time - when the culture of New York readers stopped being such that there was a large audience for Susan Sontag, she wrote a straight out romance novel, the _The Volcano Lovers_ - nothing wrong with that (some of the best high and low culture literature has a good romance in it) - but again, a defense of high culture dystopian literature is something of a contradiction in terms - good writers are picking up low culture genres for their own pleasure or for expanded audiences.

But if the genres aren’t themselves low culture anymore (there was a time when no high culture author would consider writing science fiction), then the fact that mystery, children’s literatures and science fiction writers don’t get on Oprah’s book club or get taught in many lit classes isn’t because they aren’t good writers (that we’d have to look at on a case-by-case basis) or because genre writing isn’t worthy of being taught in some inherent way, but because of our prejudices.
That’s not to say that plenty of genre writing isn’t dull and stupid - it is. But there’s nothing inherently less literary about the books regular folks read that you can discern from where they are shelved in the library - that is, Hawthorne may be a better writer than Laura Ingalls Wilder, but only if you can argue that point out - he isn’t a better writer because she wrote for children and he didn’t. And he isn’t a better writer because college teachers teach him. He may be a better writer - I think he is, although not in clarity ;-), but we shouldn’t assume so - we should read them both.

The references I made were mostly to books that people actually read. And I think that’s still the right thing - because there is no contrast, despite Curren’s implication - between good books and children’s or genre fiction. There are good writers in every format and genre, and ones who deserve more attention.. But I do think we should focus on closing the gap between high and low culture - there is no reason that intellectual fiction is not or cannot be accessible - having to work hard to understand what is being said is not the definition of good writing. And if literature is to have any influence, it needs to have an audience - as someone like Roth knows. Writing books that 14 literary critics read may add another piece of art to the world and let another fairy get its wings, but its real impact is about nil. Books matter because they are read, and discussed, and thought about - and the way books become read and discussed and thought about it to be accessible (not easy) to everyone who wants to read. There will, of course, always be a place for James Joyce, and I suspect any new Romantic movement will have its Joyces. But it may be that we need its popular - and interesting - voices even more.


100 Children’s Books that Encourage Sustainable Values Part I

Sharon March 20th, 2007

100 Children’s Books that Support Sustainable Values

I began collecting good kids books for my children before they were even born, often bought used at library and yard sales, and I’ve continued. This is the first half of the list, covering books for young children. Older kids books and the second part will be along when I get around to it. I welcome additional suggestions, of course.

Notes on this list - this is not intended to be a comprehensive list of good children’s books, but rather a selection of books that besides being well written and entertaining, also offer important messages that children don’t often hear in our culture. Things like “growing and making things yourself is important and valuable work” and “Cooperation and kindness are more important than competition and consumption.” We’re not interested in books that are simply moralistic, however, but fun, readable, beautiful books that also teach children what their parents value. Children need lots of books, and they don’t always have to be perfect in every way. But it is important for our children to be able to imagine the world we’d like them to live in, and books are an important part of that.

The age ranges here are approximate - use your best judgement. The ideal situation is for parents to read books to their children, or to read them concurrently with older children, and thus be able to discuss them together. We’ve noted when there are issues parents might want to discuss with the children - sometimes older books that are otherwise valuable have ugly racial or cultural messages, and many contemporary children’s books have strongly vegetarian messages that families that raise animals for food might be uncomfortable with. We have tried to include a mix of urban and rural images, although images of people growing food and making objects tend to be biased towards the country. In general, we recognize (and hope you will too) that no book is perfect, but that these are good and important books for children.

-Baby Books:

These are book for children 3 and under - simple language, lots of pictures, simple, quiet stories, potential for interaction.

1. _Maisie On the Farm_ by Lucy Cousins. There are an infinity of ‘visit to the farm” books, but the Maisie ones are especially charming to little people, and among other things, Maisie’s visit includes a chance to shovel manure.

2. _How Kind_ by Mary Murphy. Mary Murphy writes the best books for little children imaginable. In this one, everyone in the barnyard wants to be nice to each other. The perfect book for very small children.

3. _Joy_ by Joyce Carol Thomas An African-American grandmother and grandson enjoy nature together in every season. Lyrical, lovely text with intergenerational images.

4. _A Little Bit of Soul Food_ by Amy Wilson Sanger. This book and the 6 others (among them _Let’s Nosh_ and _Yum Yum Dim Sum_) introduce and celebrate traditional cultural foods to very young children. Funny lyrics and funky quilted visual.

5. _It is the Wind_ by Ferida Wolff. A little boy identifies the sounds of the night with many soothing repetitions. There are comparatively few African American children in most books with rural scenes and this is a pleasant exception.

6. _The Big Red Barn_ by Margaret Wise Brown. The perfect farm book for babies - soothing, peaceful, adorable, full of animals.

7. _Pancakes, Pancakes_ by Eric Carle. Personally, I’m not a big fan of Eric Carle’s books, but this is an exception. Young Jack wants pancakes for breakfast, but his mother is busy, and he has to help - he takes the wheat to the mill, collects the egg, and gets the jam from the cellar.

9. _Farm Tales_ var. authors - A Golden Book Collection. The Little Golden books were the high quality children’s books before Dr. Seuss. Some of them are better than others, but some of the best ones are collected in this single volume. Here is the story of _The Little Red Hen_ who gets no help at any stage of bread making, except the eating. Here are Margaret Wise Brown’s little gardeners (gloss rapidly over the spraying part of the book), and favorite of all of my children, here is _The Boy with the Drum_ who parades through the world with the animals behind him.

10. _Good Bread: A Book of Thanks_ By Brigitte Weninger and Anne Moller. A little girl and her mother bake bread, and the history of the loaf is shown in beautiful illustrations, beginning from seed, and including the growing of the wheat, hand grinding it, and an expression of thanks and hope that other children have such good bread. It is a lovely, lovely book, with a message that doesn’t require faith but lightly invokes it.

11. _To Market, To Market_ by Anne Miranda. A woman goes shopping and keeps coming back with inconveniently alive animals who wreak havoc in her house. She resolves the difficulty by going shopping for fresh vegetables (admittedly at a supermarket, but the book is so good this is worth overlooking) and making soup for the lot. All of my children *adored* this book.

12. _A Ride on Mother’s Back_ by Emery and Durga Bernhard. Asher, my 16 month old likes to look at the pictures of children all over the world being carried by parents, siblings, grandparents in the course of their daily activities. His big brothers like the descriptions of what it is like to live in each place.

13. _Carry Me, Mama_ by Monica Devine and Pauline Paquin. The glorious paintings show a little girl coming to terms with not being carried all the time as she gets stronger and more independent.

14. _Jamberry_ by Bruce Degen. A silly fantasy about a world covered in berries, it glories in the pleasures of simple things like a ripe strawberry. Another family favorite.

15. _The Farmer’s Alphabet_ by Mary Azarian. The perfect first alphabet book, friendly woodblock prints of farm animals and other things familiar to northern children in agricultural regions look out. Even babies love this book. The book was specifically created by Azarian because many alphabet books represented a world the Vermont school children she taught had never seen. All her books are wonderful, including _The Gardener’s Alphabet_.

16. _Hush Little Baby_ by Sylvia Long. Instead of Papa buying things for his baby, Mama helps here little rabbit see beautiful things in the world around him. Gorgeous illustrations.

17. _Summertime_ by George Gershwin and Co., illustrated by Mike Wimmer. Stunningly painted, a rural, obviously poor African-American family has a wonderful time enjoying the summer. I sing this song to my children every night.

18. _Naamah, Noah’s Wife_ by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso. If you don’t object to the Judeo-Christian story content, this is an excellent book. It shows Naamah’s part in the Noah story, based on a story from the Talmud. Naamah is told by G-d to gather seeds and plants, while her husband gathers the animals. She almost forgets the dandelions, and because of that, they are given special gifts to spread. She then replants the earth. A potent metaphor, and simple enough for young children.

-Picture Books

These books are for children from 2-6.

19. _Oxcart Man_ by Donald Hall. If I could recommend one single book for this age group, this would be it. It is a beautiful book, with lovely folk-art illustrations and the poetic language Hall is deservedly famous for (he’s a major poet). My children love this book, and can recite the text with me. In it, a 19th century farmer and his family collect “everything they had made and grown that was left over” to sell.

20. _Tomorrow’s Alphabet_ by George Shannon . Alphabet books are a dime a dozen, but this one is truly fascinating when teaching children that things don’t just magically appear in their world - that everything comes from some source. The book shows an item, and “tomorrow” it becomes something beginning with each letter. So, for example, for “A,” an apple seed is “Tomorrow’s Apple” and for P, clay is “Tomorrow’s Pot”

21. _This Land is Your Land_ by Woody Guthrie. The Classic Folk song, with lovely illustrations by Kathie Jakobson. Includes the full lyric text, with its call to personal action and social justice.

22. _Miss Bridie Chose a Shovel_ by Leslie Connor. Like all of Connor’s books, and like nearly everything illustrated by the sublime Mary Azarian, this is a lovely book. “She could have had a chiming clock or a porcelain figurine, but Miss Bridie chosen a shovel back in 1856.” Miss Bridie sets out from Ireland to the new world, and her shovel helps her in every stage of her life.

23. _Just Enough and Not Too Much_ by Kaethe Zemack. Simon the fiddler wants more and more…and then he doesn’t anymore (I suspect we can all identify).

24. _A Chair For My Mother_ by Vera B. Williams. A hard-working family saves and saves to buy a beautiful, comfortable chair to sit in at the end of the day. A great book, with several sequels.

25. _Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus_ by Mo Willems. This might seem like an odd choice for this list, but the techniques the pigeon uses to try and convince the reader to let him drive the bus are a classic laundry list of peer pressure and manipulation techniques (often the same ones used by children to get stuff from their parents ;-). My four year old thought this was the funniest book on earth (plus, you can sing it to the tune of John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt…Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus/It’s not a good idea….), and found it completely ridiculous that anyone would ever believe these comments. There are many sequels, including the rather sweet but funny _The Pigeon Has Feelings Too_.

26. _How Groundhog’s Garden Grew_ by Lynne Cherry. This is my favorite gardening book for children. The illustrations are stunning, including drawings of plants at every stage of development, and the story is endearing. Concepts like thinning and perennials are included. Little Groundhog learns he can’t just take food, he has to grow his own. A wonderful book.

27. _Joseph Had a Little Overcoat_ by Simms Taback. Based on a folktale, Joseph has a lovely overcoat, but one day it gets old and warm. What does he do about it? The cutout illustrations show it becoming a vest, a scarf, a handkerchief, a button and finally… a story about making things out of other things. Good even for younger kids, but has lasting value.

28._Snowflake Bentley_ by Mary Azarian. I know her name appears often here, but that’s only because her books are so invaluable. This is the true story of the first man to seriously study snow crystals, and besides being a lovely book, it is also a reminder that the local is just as important and magical as the distant. The book allows children to understand that close knowledge of a single place is at least as valuable as wide knowledge.

29. _Keep Looking_ by Millcent Selsam and Joyce Hunt. This is my three year old, Isaiah’s favorite book. He is our noticer - he is always the first to hear the bird or see the flash of a deer’s tail. And this book is all about the small creatures and life one can find in an ordinary winter landscape.

30. _Agatha’s Feather Bed_ by Carmen Agra Deedy. Agatha operates a small shop in New York city, and spins and weaves. She tells children “Everything comes from somewhere/nothing comes from nowhere,” but forgets that this dictate applies to her as well. She orders a feather bed from a catalog, and one night, some angry, cold geese appear. Her resolution to the problem is wonderful, and the illustrations in the corner show the origins of many common items. The reminder that we cannot pretend things just come into being is essential.

31. _Cook-A-Doodle-Doo_ by Janet Stevens and Susan Stevens Crummel. An ambitious rooster, grandson of The Little Red Hen, famed in story, decides that he wants to learn to cook too. He has the same difficulties getting the cat, the dog and the goose to help him that his grandmother did, but fortunately, Potbellied Pig, Turtle and Iguana are there to “help.” The book provides careful and very funny instructions for cooking, and also a good reminder that mistakes happen in the kitchen. Recipe for strawberry shortcake included.

32. _A House Is a House For Me_ by Mary Ann Hoberman. This lovely poem is an invitation to think of the whole world as home to someone or something. Children are shown over and over in their own “houses” crafted of boxes and tables.

33. _Homeplace_ by Anne Shelby. This gorgeously illustrated (by Wendy Anderson Halperin) tale shows a grandmother telling her granddaughter the history of their home over the last two centuries. Each generation improves the home and adapts it to meet their needs, and the little girl learns that she too will be part of her history.

34. _The Tale I Told Sasha_ by Nancy Willard. All Nancy Willard’s books are surreal and beautiful, but this one was Eli’s favorite for many years. A little girl in a small house on a rainy day is given a yellow ball by her busy mother, and magical, Lewis Carrollesque journeys ensue in her imagination. We are told, “Our house is quiet, small and plain,/and yet its rooms run far and wide.” The book is truly magical, as are David Christiana’s illustrations. Another one of hers to check out, _Pish Posh said Heironymous Bosh_ doesn’t really have anything to do with sustainability but is so terrific I have to mention it.

35. _Stone Soup_ by Marcia Brown. This classic folktale tells the story of an impoverished community where everyone is afraid to share. The travellers show that it is possible, working together, to create something more than the sum of its parts.

36. _The Boat_ by Helen Ward and Ian Andrew. In a brilliant variation on the Noah’s Ark story, an old man rescues animals, but dislikes and fears humans, who in turn fear him. When a flood occurs, a young boy enables his community to cross the barrier of fear and connect.

37. _We Gather Together_ By Wendy Pfeiffer. A history and narrative of harvest festivals all over the world. Emphasizes that harvesting food is always a time for celebration and joy.

38. _Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs_ by Tomie de Paolo. I remember my parents reading this book to me, and now I read it to my children. It resonates especially with them because until recently, their great-grandparents lived with them. Tommy loves his grandmother, who cares for his great-grandmother, who he also loves very much. This book does talk about death, and also about the obligations extended families have towards one another. Many of Paolo’s other books are suitable as well - _Quilt Story_ for example.

39 _The Quilt-Maker’s Gift_ Stunning fairy tale about a magical quilt maker who teaches a king to be unselfish. There are companion books of quilting patterns and techniques available (and a prequel in which the insulated young quilt-maker discoveries she cannot enjoy her privelege in a world of poverty and suffering), and this is an excellent book to introduce handwork with, as well as a beautiful story.

40. _Pumpkin Circle_ This wonderful, clever book describes the seed cycle, including the transition back to compost and saved seeds. It is exuberant and fun, and very popular in my house.

41. _The Three Questions_ by Jon Muth (based on a story by Leo Tolstoy). Nikolai wants to know how to be a good person, and he finds a variety of answers, and then discovers he has known all along. Tolstoy’s short story _The Three Questions_ is excellent reading for teenagers.

43. _It Could Always Be Worse_ A classic Jewish folktale - a man who is too crowded in his small home goes to a Rabbi to ask what he should do. The Rabbi says, move your goats and chickens into your house! Of course, that only makes it worse, and the man returns, and more and more things are added to his house. Finally, the man who could not manage in his house with his wife and children is permitted to remove all the animals, and miraculously, the house is spacious and comfortable. An important message for our times.

44. _The Mitten_ by Jan Brett. Brett’s astounding illustrations and clever texts are a real pleasure. Nikki wants mittens as white as snow, but his grandmother thinks he’ll lose them. She knits them anyway, and one finds itself lost, a home for many silly animals. Also check out _On Noah’s Ark_ which has one of the most complete visual catalogs of animal life I’ve ever seen in a book, and gently reminds us how important it is to preserve all that life.

45. _The Patchwork Quilt_ by Valerie Flournoy. There’s a reason there are so many books on quilting in this list - it is one of the few popular ways of linking us to the handmade past. This is a particularly good book. Tanya’s grandmother is making a scrap quilt, and Tanya’s mother doesn’t understand why this hand made quilt is so important to Grandma. Grandma makes the quilt out of the pieces of Tanya’s life - her favorite old clothes, the fabric used to make her African princess outfit. When Grandmother becomes ill, Tanya helps finish the quilt. Light Christian religious content, but well worth it for non-Christians because of the strong images of extended families, and commitment to maintaining the past.

46. _Horton Hatches the Egg_ by Dr. Seuss. I bet you thought I was going to go for _The Lorax_, no? But as much as I like the old truffala-guy, I think the message of Horton is equally important. Horton is a faithful, kind and nurturing guy whose courage and generosity are rewarded in the end. And, of course, like all Dr. Seuss books, a great deal of fun to read.

47. _Let’s Eat_ by Beatrice Hollyer. This book, produced by Oxfam, is a terrific introduction to the food and the culture of other places. It gently helps children recognize that not everyone has enough, but does so in the context of showing the way everyone participates in food production all over the world. Recipes are included. _Wake Up World_ is a related book that tells about the lives of children everywhere.

48. _Soil_ by Christin Ditchfield. Author of five books on natural resources including ones on oil, coal and water, Ditchfield’s books are wonderful, clear-eyed introductions to science and sustainability. The book is on the complex side for younger children, but accessible and smart, and allows children to begin understanding the differences in soils and how to grow things in them.

49. _Tops and Bottoms_ by Janet Stevens. A very funny book in which a hare (who got into trouble losing a bet with a tortoise) tricks a lazy bear into “sharing” a garden with him.

50. _The Errant Knight_ by Ann Tompert. In a magical world, a noble knight sets out to serve his king, willing to fight dragons and slay giants if necessary. He does not want to be an errant knight, but one who concentrates on serving his ruler. But on his journey to his king, he keeps encountering people in need - a lost child, a church in need of rebuilding, a serf who needs freeing…the knight keeps doing good deeds until he grows old, never reaching his king. Until, one day, at the end of his life he arrives to see his king, ashamed that he never made it to the king’s side to serve him. But the king raises him up and lets him know that each time he served someone in need, he also served their rulers.


On Market Failure

Sharon March 14th, 2007

Sir Nicholas Stern, the current greatest authority in the world on the economic consequences of global warming visited congress recently, and during his testimony reiterated his phrase that global warming is “the biggest market failure ever seen.” The economists on the panel didn’t much like the claim, of course, because they didn’t think that things like loss of species diversity and extinctions really could come under the definition of market failure. But Stern held his ground on this one.

But, of course, global warming is not an example of market failure in the classical sense: market failures happen when the market does not efficiently allocate goods and services, and when some kind of central organization would work better. But that would imply that the failure to address externalities (carbon and methane emissions included) is a market failure, an error in a functioning system, rather than an integral part of the markets themselves. No wonder the economists don’t like the idea that this is market failure - because the markets are failing because they are operating as intended.

Acknowledging this is an indictment of the system, and a recognition that the problem of global warming is fundamentally a problem of the way markets do business. The markets of growth capitalism operate efficiently because they are able to offload consequences on to the general public. Admitting that externalities are the origin of a big old, planet destroying market failure might make us reconsider whether we should be letting human beings with brains and ethics decide how our economy works rather than magic fairies with invisible hands.

I’d be inclined to argue with Sir Nicholas on one point though - global warming may not be the biggest example, at least if we’re talking about scale. In terms of, oh, potential destruction-of-all-human-life, climate change is the biggies, but in terms of markets creating the largest possible failure to allocate goods and services wisely, in a way that could have been better handled by a six year old with an abacus, that market failure prize would go to the gigantic economic disaster known as industrial agriculture.

Because, of course, it turns out that the most efficient way to grow food is to have a lot of people grow it in small scale organic polycultures. I’ve pointed this out before but even the World Trade Organization now admits that this is true, so there really isn’t that much dispute. Peter Rosset’s research on agricultural scale took place in dozens of countries and in every agricultural model conceivable shows that small scale, polyculture farms of 4-100 acres have a per acre output many times greater than industrial agriculture.

In study after study in journals like Nature, organic agriculture yields the same or better than industrial agriculture. In trials traditional rice paddy cultivation methods outyielded industrial models. Why don’t we know this? Because we’ve been lied to. We’ve been told that GMOs and Cargill are our only hope. But right now, 2 *billion* people on this planet (according to the UN) are living entirely off of small scale organic or largely organic polyculture - this methodology is feeding more people than lived on the planet for most of human history. And they are doing it on marginal land for the most part, having been pushed off the best land by export crops and industrial farming. What could they, what could we do if the best land in the world was used for feeding the people who lived on it?

It also is the case, as again even the evil WTO has to admit, that when agricultural jobs are lost, only about 1/2 of what is lost is made up in the rest of the economy - most of the people displaced from their farms end up much worse off, which is, of course, bad for the economy as a whole. The next billion people added to the planet are almost all going to be urban slum dwellers, and they don’t contribute a lot to the overall wealth of the world. So even if you have no scruples about displacing farmers from their land, it doesn’t make anyone richer or better off to do so.

And it doesn’t make people happier either. Farmers who are conveniently relieved by the industrial economy of the terrible burden of their work have a disquieting habit of killing themselves. It turns out that terrible drudgery was something they loved passionately, and their relationship with their land was central enough to their lives that giving it up destroys them. Whether the farmer lives in Wisconsin or India or Korea or Columbia, they often die or end up impoverished and miserable when you take away their land to feed the growth economy. Again, whether or not you have any ethical scruples about killing people and destroying their relationship with their land, it turns out that it doesn’t make anyone’s lives better, except, perhaps the tiny number of rich people who always benefit. Coincidence, huh?

So we are growing less food than we could, creating less wealth than we could, making more people unhappy about their food choices than we could, plus killing some farmers. That, folk, would be major, large scale, serious market failure. Because in agriculture, for the most part, economies of scale - aren’t. Makes me wonder whether it might not be true for other things. It certainly is true of global warming, where we’re considering sacrificing our own lives to keep the economy going - because we can’t imagine our lives without the magic market faeries to save us.
Here’s the real, sneaky truth. If the free market is willing to kill us, and let people go hungry for its functioning, then human beings have come to serve the markets, rather than the other way around. We’re the slaves of something that has no mind, no soul, no ethics, nothing other than an endless, gaping need for growth. In fact, the growth economy devours its young. Way back when in the middle ages, Christians used to have this thing about interest - they believed that allowing money to make money without anyone doing any work was creating something out of nothing, and that was territory only for G-d, not for man. It allowed money to take the place of G-d. Well, it turns out that the early Christians were right. Not only does it take the place of any other gods, but it isn’t a friendly, long hair and a robe kind of divinity - we’re talking Cthulu with the dripping fangs, people.

It isn’t market failure. It is our failure - our failure to recognize that we have devoted ourselves to a god that will destroy us. And the best solution to that one is a good, rousing, old fashioned, throw-the-golden-calf-on-the-fire rout of the false gods.

Where’s my pitchfork and torch?

Sharon in upstate NY

Still Think We Should Keep Flying…?

Sharon March 11th, 2007

From The Sunday Times
March 11, 2007
To the end of the earth

This is our future - famous cities are submerged, a third of the world is desert, the rest struggling for food and fresh water. Richard Girling investigates the reality behind the science of climate change

Mark Lynas rummages through his filing cabinet like a badger raking out his bedstraw, much of the stuff so crumpled that he might have been sleeping on it for years. Eventually he finds what he is looking for - four sheets of printed paper, stapled with a page of notes.
It is an article, dated November 2000, which he has clipped from the scientific journal Nature: “Acceleration of global warming due to carbon-cycle feedbacks in a coupled climate model”. Even when they are mapping a short cut to Armageddon, scientists do not go in for red-top words like “crisis”. If you speak the language, however, you get the message - and the message, delivered by the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Change, was cataclysmic.

“There should have been panic on the streets,” says Lynas in his new book, Six Degrees, “people shouting from the rooftops, statements to parliament and 24-hour news coverage.”
In layman’s language, Hadley’s message was that newly discovered “positive feedbacks” would make nonsense of accepted global-warming estimates. It would not be a gradual, linear increase with nature slowly succumbing to human attrition. Nature itself was about to turn nasty. Instead of absorbing and retaining greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the figures suggested, it would suddenly spew them out again - billions of years’ worth of carbon and methane, incontinently released in blazing surges that would drown or incinerate whole cities. Ice would melt in torrents, and the Earth’s essential green lung, the Amazon rainforest, could be moribund as early as 2050. A vicious spiral would have begun which would threaten not just our way of life but the very existence of our own and every other species on Earth. Lynas’s notes, still fixed to the report, have the dour humour of the gallows: “The end of the world is nigh, and it’s already been published in Nature.”

Read the rest of the article folks - very, very carefully. Time to riot.


Part II of The Next 100 Things You Can Do…

Sharon March 9th, 2007

Is up over at Groovy Green:

Things are a little crazy here - trying to _A Nation of Farmers_ up and running and early chapters off to the publisher. So I doubt you’ll get much new content from me until next week - of course, I didn’t intend to write the last piece, so you never know.

It is starting a long, slow warm up - yay!! Spring is coming, and with it the garden. We’ve got kale growing now, and tatsoi and mizuna ready to pick in the house, but it will be lovely to touch dirt (the three feet of snow has been something of a barrier).

Much to do. Much to plant. Maybe I’ll get a list of what I’m planting up soon.


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