Must-reads for the retired campus hippie

April 28, 2015

Another old campus hippie passed along a Facebook chain letter, asking for a ten-item book list. I never could stick to the assignment. This is what I wrote.

John LeCarre, Smiley Trilogy. These espionage procedurals are really about any workplace. George Smiley understands better than his careerist bosses why the “Circus” does what it does, and he’s better at it. He also recognizes that his work affects human lives and is corrupted by the job’s demands. If you can only read two, skip The Honorable Schoolboy.

E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. I didn’t read this until 1994, when I interviewed David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He recommended it, and I told him I was afraid it might be smarmy hippie crap. It isn’t. It values work as a human need and develops a program for satisfying it.

Joann Sfar, The Rabbi’s Cat. A French comic book about a Sephardic rabbi in pre-war Algiers. The cat may stand for the rabbi’s doubt, or maybe this is just a quirky story about a talking cat.

Donella Meadows, The Limits to Growth. An MIT team that included Meadows and her husband, Dennis, modeled the world economy and could not avoid collapse without limiting births to deaths and industrial investment to depreciation. For the most part, criticism amounted to “This is too horrible to be true,” and, “Somebody will discover something.” More responsive critics noted over-simplifications, such as including fuels and metals under the single heading of “non-renewable resources,” but supported the argument that unlimited growth is anything but smart.


Image by Thomas Roark

Alec Guinness as George Smiley in the CBC’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, Sex at Dawn. Makes the case that we are sexually promiscuous by nature and there’s an energy cost for maintaining a monogamous lifestyle. One objection to this is “I don’t have time now to read a book!” Another is that there would be an energy cost in converting back to a more free-floating sexuality. This is the first place I saw the idea developed that humans began objectifying each other with the birth of agriculture. Another is Steven LeBlanc’s Constant Battles.

R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path. Technology can stave off nuclear war and make us all rich. Could we really satisfy the needs of seven billion? Could making envy obsolete reconcile capitalism and its current enemies?

Allison Bechdel, Fun Home. Bechdel uses apt references to Wilde, Proust, and Joyce. She returned with a more sympathetic but unsparing portrait of her living mother (who must be very tolerant). Bechdel is the credited author of the “Bechdel Test.” To pass, a film must have at least two female characters who speak with each other about something besides a man.

Edward Espe Brown, Tassajara Bread Book. These days I bake no-knead bread, but this book taught me how to make the staff of life. Its involved, sensuous process went well with peyote buttons one Watergate-era Saturday. There’s a Tassajara Cookbook, too.

Howard T. Odum, Energy, Ecology, & Economics. Odum was an ecologist who invented those system diagrams that look like electrical circuits. He argued that we need to account for the fuel it takes to get fuel. Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well using mules, human muscle, and tools that Longfellow’s village smithy could have forged. Deep-water oil platforms cost multiple billions. In 1930, we got 100 barrels for every barrel invested, but now we only get 11. Odum used this argument in discussing nuclear and solar as well as oil. Odum doesn’t tell us what to do, but he did in 2001’s A Prosperous Way Down, written with his wife, Elizabeth.

Garret Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons. Population isn’t subject to a technical fix, but to a moral one. Hardin recommends “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon” to limit population. The metaphor is a common British pasture. All the local families ran cattle on the meadow, which could support a definite number of cows. If one family ran more than its share, all the benefit was theirs, but only some of the cost in damage to the meadow. If one added cattle, the others would too, and ultimately, the meadow would crash. People who are sensitive about this miss Hardin’s point and argue that the peasants respected the commons’ long-term health. In the mid-’90s, I heard a power industry spokesman use Tragedy to argue for private ownership of—and therefore responsibility for—the commons. He missed the point, too.

Anything by Gregory Bateson. During his final illness, Bateson’s 10-year old daughter, Nora, asked him if she would understand his recently published anthology of scholarly articles, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Bateson replied that she could probably follow the “Metalogues”—dialogues between “Father” and “Daughter” about things like instinct, sacrament, and evolution. New metalogues appeared in Where Angels Fear, posthumously assembled and co-written by his other daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson. Reading Gregory Bateson can be difficult, but sometimes he articulates vague ideas or makes me see something in a new way. If I could, I would make “The Pattern Which Connects,” the introductory chapter to Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, a requirement for high school graduation.

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