May I recommend?

I confess to being an omnivorous reader and that my iPad has only abetted my hunger for new turf, now so easily accessed with the likes of Publisher’s Weekly, Goodreads, and the Huffington Post. On occasion, I’ve drawn on Fareed Zacharia’s recommendations on his GPS weekly telecast. I maintain links to all the nation’s foremost bookstores like Powell’s as well. And, of course, there is always that behemoth, Amazon.

This past week I was delighted to see two authors among those on the 2014 Long List for the National Book Award for Nonfiction.
OsnosThe first is Evan Osnos, whose Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China I read several months ago following upon Zacharia’s counsel. It’s not my intent, however, to give a lengthy book review here. Besides, you can access copious online reviews with Google or at the Amazon site.

Anyway, Osnos is presently with The New Yorker after having been a roving correspondent in China for eight years. He went everywhere, interviewing citizens across the social-political-economic spectrum.

What amazes me is that he did so speaking fluent Chinese, acquired as a major at Harvard, obviously increasing his access enormously.

He’s also a polished writer exhibiting a lucid style along with cogent analysis.

I hadn’t done any sustained reading on China until Osnos, which–sadly– probably includes the vast lot of us, though China rivals the USA on the world stage.

Certainly, Osnos has his hands on that nation’s pulse.   Essentially, its communist government hasn’t changed in its dedication to controlling all aspects of daily life and maintaining its privileged status despite its seeming anomaly of encouraging a market economy so contrary to the legacy of Mao.

It does so, of course, to keep in check any democratic impulses among its citizenry.  Let them eat cake and they’ll overlook pressing for governmental reform. So far, it seems to have kept the lid on, though Osnos notes that many of the populace seethe underneath, as materialism cannot assuage their desire to be free to think and choose. Accordingly, a revival of interest in religion is also taking place, proving again “that man cannot live by bread alone.”

As a consequence, it’s a fine-balancing act for many Chinese, especially among its entrepreneurial classes, intellectuals, and artisans. The thought police are everywhere monitoring, especially the Internet.

The regime even goes so far as to downplay natural disasters that may point to government malfeasance.

Of course, the Chinese know this well to the point of using code terminology to circumvent the censors.

Osnos doesn’t neglect the full picture, however, as there is a growing emergence of rabid nationalism among some that could ultimately pose a danger on the world stage. In the short term, these zealots pose an additional threat to the cadre of brave dissidents at home.

I went away admiring the quiet heroism of many of the Chinese, and sadly, the hard lot of dissidents who have chosen to articulate their concerns for a more liberal China very openly, risking long imprisonment under harsh conditions and sometimes torture.

If you want to take China’s measure, then this is a book you’ll want to read.

wilsonThe second name among others in the 2014 Long List for Nonfiction is that of the renowned etymologist Edward O. Wilson for his The Meaning of Human Existence. I’m familiar with Wilson’s nimble acuity to persuasively and eloquently deliver a manifesto for nature and its myriad creatures under the duress of both man and global warming in his other books.

I’ve also just recently read his In Search of Nature, surely an environmental classic that explains in layman’s terms the complicated interplay between genetics and environment. Like all sociobiologists, Wilson seeks to unlock the biological origins behind human behavior.

In the Meaning of Human Existence, Wilson boldly asserts that no transcendental design is responsible for our existence. On the contrary, “Our species was created not by a supernatural intelligence, but by chance and necessity out of millions of species in Earth’s biosphere.”

No destiny or purpose is assigned to us, and no afterlife awaits us. Our human moment originates in “the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and urgently now, day by day, faster and faster into the indefinite future.”

Creatures with a social intelligence predisposed for social action enhanced by natural selection, we require the humanities even more than the sciences to define the human condition and guide it into effectual relationships, not only among ourselves, but with earth’s other creatures, for surely our future, and our safety, depends upon biodiversity and its preservation.

Wilson’s view is a brave one, given that the religious instinct along with “tribalism” remain rampant with all their insularity and intolerance:

Human existence may be simpler than we thought. There is no predestination, no unfathomed mystery of life….We are self-made, independent, alone, and fragile, a biological species adapted to live in a biological world.

Accordingly, Wilson movingly pleads that humans in their unique social intelligence extend their embrace to include nature:

We alone among all species have grasped the reality of the living world…. We alone have measured the quality of mercy among our own kind. Might we now extend the same concern to the living world that gave us birth?

As always, Wilson writes a reasoned, yet passionate prose, acute in its honesty, telling in its empathy for both man and his beleaguered companions.













After we Murder Nature, then What?


After we murder Nature, then what? I know some of you may think this a dubious assumption as to possibility, and I would be among you–that is, until recently.

As is, Nature has atrophied and we live increasingly in asphalt environments, with Nature relegated to a few urban parks and, even then, they tend not to be passive parks given over to Nature, but to ball fields, children’s playgrounds, etc.

As evidence of our increasing sequestering of Nature, consider that more of us in the USA and Canada visit local zoos than attend professional sports events combined!

The pity is that Man is himself the evolutionary outcome of millions of years of a once teeming biodiversity. The question then follows as to what happens to us when we marginalize the very sources of our being and our future.

I’ve seen science estimates of the number of species of existing plants and animals as somewhere between 5 and 100 million. We know that invertebrates vastly outnumber vertebrates like ourselves, perhaps some 10 million, of which only a million have been identified.

Zoologist Edward O. Wilson tells us that if humans were to suddenly disappear, all would still be well on earth; conversely, were the invertebrates to disappear, life would soon revert to its initial state a billion years ago of myriad algae, bacteria, and a few multi-celled organisms (In Search of Nature, 153).

In short, we are intertwined with nature right down to the tiniest organism.

Our mistake is to think that even the smallest entities of Nature, so staggering in numbers, cannot be vulnerable to human excesses:

When a valley in Peru or an island in the Pacific is stripped of the last of its vegetation, the result is likely to be the extinction of several kinds of birds and some dozens of plant species. Whereas we are painfully aware of that tragedy, we fail to perceive that hundreds of vertebrates will also vanish (Wilson, 145).

 As is, humans from their earliest beginnings up to the last century had already wiped out an estimated 10% of flora and fauna species. Alarmingly, bird population is declining rapidly, with a drop of 25% in bird species. Presently, the drop-off in all species, not only birds, is occurring 100 to 1000 times higher than in pre-human times.

Consider the continuing decimation of the Amazonian rainforest, the world’s foremost repository of biodiversity with huge implications for pharmaceuticals, agriculture and oil substitutes and, of course, climate change. Each year, we lose to chainsaws an area approximating half the size of Florida!

Unfortunately, we’ve inherited a primordial disposition that prioritizes personal safety, followed by family, tribe, then outsiders ((Wilson 186), a selfishness that unless it gives way to altruism expressed in environmental regard, is likely to doom us.

Today, we’re hearing a lot about climate change, and it certainly can’t be minimized, since we are largely responsible for it. But it’s not just a matter of carbon, but our burgeoning numbers, with corresponding exponential demands on limited resources. The more population increases, the more decimation, with habitats reduced and species extinguished, many of unknown importance to our survival. Consider Nigeria with its present population of 175 million (2013). PEW research estimates it will reach 440 million by 2050, exceeding the USA population.

Although population rates are declining, the world’s population will be just under 10 billion by 2050, with sub-Saharan Africa experiencing explosive growth, an area already confronted by widespread poverty, disease, and ethnic conflict. Unfortunately, in many places, cultural traditions and religious beliefs continue to dominate.

We can still save the day, but it’s unlikely that we care enough to act meaningfully and quickly.

Take where I live, Kentucky, where we have two senate candidates, Democrat and Republican, trying to shout down each other in denouncing President Obama’s policies affecting environment, especially coal. Accordingly, reducing the powers of the EPA is a foremost goal for both.

Unfortunately, evolution gave homo sapiens a well-developed brain, but pulled up short in maximizing a moral prowess vital to its long term survival.






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