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Falter – Book Review

We don’t have to falter.

In his latest book Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? Bill McKibben is asking us to get real, get to work, and to have hope.

As soon as I spotted Falter on the bookshelf at a Barnes & Noble in downtown San Luis Obispo, CA, I grabbed two copies and headed to the checkout counter without even looking at the table of contents or reading the book jacket.

One copy was for me and the other one was destined to become a raffle prize at the SLO Climate Coalition event my spouse and I attended later that evening.

At the time, I was already reading two books in preparation for a post called Environmental Impact of Sugar, so when we got home I put Falter on a bookcase shelf in the living room.

Book Review

A few weeks ago, I took Falter off the shelf to read it.

After reading the book jacket, I thought “Hmm…This seems rather dismal.” Then I flipped to the table of contents and saw that the book begins with a prologue entitled “An Opening Note on Hope.” So, I read that part.

“A writer doesn’t owe a reader hope—the only obligation is honesty—but I want those who pick up this volume to know that its author lives in a state of engagement, not despair. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered writing what follows.”

Okay, now I was willing to dive in.

Falter Book Cover

Readers, in this book you will learn about and explore the climate crisis, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence.

How do these three topics interconnect? Good question. Read the book.

Here are a few highlights.

Part One: The Size of the Board

This first section will give you a good sense of how the climate crisis is unfolding, not in some distant time, but now. You will also get a synopsis of how we got to this point.

“Climate change has become such a familiar term that we tend to read past it—it’s part of our mental furniture, like urban sprawl or gun violence. So, let’s remember exactly what we’ve been up to, because it should fill us with awe; it’s by far the biggest thing humans have ever done.”

On page 43-45, McKibben quotes parts of a poem by climate activists and poets Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner (Marshall Islands) and Aka Niviana (Greenland). I wanted to read the whole poem so I searched on the Internet and found this video. It is beautiful and heartrending speaking to the very essence of what is at stake.

Part Two: Leverage

Money and power provide leverage. This part of the book puts that maxim into the context of the climate crisis.

“The first thing to say is that current levels of inequality are almost beyond belief…The world’s eight richest men possess more wealth than the bottom half of humanity.”

McKibben devotes a fair amount of page real estate to Ayn Rand and her 1957 book Atlas Shrugged. He suggests that this book is required reading for the people who control the money and power in our country and around the world.

I was intrigued so I checked the book out of my local library. If you are interested in what I thought about that book, read the note at the end of the post.

Part Three: The Name of the Game

Genetic engineering and artificial intelligence enter the dialogue at this point. Here you will get a good overview of the topic as well as McKibben’s opinions.

“For our game, the real power of CRISPR comes with the ability to change people.” (CRISPR is a genetic engineering technology)

Part Four: An Outside Chance

Hope returns to the narrative in this section. McKibben points out that we already have the technologies and tools we need to address the climate crisis, like solar panels and nonviolent movements.

“Even in what seems like the very clinical world of environmentalism, mounds of research and data aren’t ultimately decisive: the fight over climate change is ultimately not an argument about infrared absorption in the atmosphere, but about power and money and justice. Given that industry has most of that money and hence most of that power, it usually wins—unless, of course, a movement arises, one capable of changing hearts as well as minds.”

The Bottom Line

Thirty years ago, Bill McKibben published The End of Nature which is often credited as being the first book about climate change intended for the general public. Since then, he has published 17 more books including Oil and Honey, Eaarth, and Radio Free Vermont (a delightful fiction book). McKibben is a prolific journalist, the co-founder of 350.org, and scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

McKibben’s choice to frame the discussion in Falter using game language and concepts seemed kind of weird to me but somehow it works. He writes as if he is having a conversation with you and explains technical stuff in a way I think many people could understand. I like that. I think it makes his work accessible to a wide audience.

I recommend Falter to any human wanting to continue playing the human game and who wants to protect the game board for their children, grandchildren, and the people who come after them.

A Note about Atlas Shrugged

I wanted to read Atlas Shrugged because I feel it is important to try to understand where people are coming from, especially people with different perspectives and beliefs than me. I also enjoy debate (as long it is friendly).

In short Atlas Shrugged is a fiction book written as a sort of treatise on libertarianism taken to the nth degree.

I slogged away until I got to page 291 (of more than 1,200 pages) and then I took the book back to the library. The subject matter was not a problem for me but the book is so poorly written I just could not go on.

Featured Image at Top: A hand flipping wooden cubes from the word “change” to “chance – photo credit iStock/marchmeena29.

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Imagine if Everyone Planted One Tree

Connect with your inner tree hugger.

The seemingly small act of planting a tree can help heal our planet and the people living on it. Collectively we have the power to reforest the Earth.

A wonderful aspect of tree planting is that it enables you to do something positive with lasting value using your own two hands. If you can safely operate a shovel and a watering can, you can plant a tree.

“The great French Marshall Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years. The Marshall replied, ‘In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon!’”

John F. Kennedy

This post is a continuation of a tree planting story that began on a cold winter evening last January in the community room of the Rabobank down the street from our house.

My spouse and I had walked to the Cambria Forest Committee meeting to hear Rick Hawley from Greenspace talk about Monterey pine trees (we live in a Monterey pine forest).

Six months later, I am caring for 18 Monterey pine seedlings that we planted in our yard and 78 Monterey pine sprouts that I grew from seeds for a tree-planting project in our public forest.

If you are interested in catching up from the beginning of the story, read the posts Mother Nature Needs Our Help – Let’s Plant Trees and Arbor Day 2019 – Let’s Plant Trees. Or just pick up the thread here.

Caring for Tree Seedlings

My original plan had been to plant 40 Monterey pine tree seedlings in our yard as part of a larger effort to restore our small patch of land.

Fortunately, I came to my senses before buying 40 seedlings.

I was already watching over about twenty pots that I had planted with native plant seeds and a dozen or so plant seedlings growing in our yard. It occurred to me that perhaps trying to keep track of 40 tiny tree seedlings would be a bit daunting.

I decided to buy 20 seedlings and called Rick Hawley to arrange to pick them up at Greenspace’s office.

On a sunny day at the end of January, my spouse and I carefully scouted locations in our yard and planted the 12” tall Monterey pine tree seedlings.

Almost immediately, I realized I would need some kind of markers or I would not be able to find the seedlings as the wild grasses surrounding them continued growing up to 4-6 feet tall.

Walking around the yard installing the markers we discovered that one seedling had had an accident and died and one seedling was never found. That left us with 18.

The first two months or so we continued to have rain so the seedlings did not require supplemental watering. I weed-whacked paths leading to the areas where the seedlings were growing so I could check on them periodically.

Who Needs Water Next?

I knew the rain would stop at some point and that the seedlings would need to be watered during the dry season to help them become established in their new homes.

Our yard does not have irrigation so that meant watering by hand with my 2-gallon watering can.

We had kept a few plants and Rosie our venerable climbing rose bush alive during the drought with the watering can and buckets so this seemed reasonable to me. Besides, I would be able to keep a close eye on what was going on with the seedlings.

Boy was I naive.

When it was only native plants in the yard, pots on the deck, and some house plants needing watering, I could easily keep an informal watering rotation schedule in my head. But, after the first month of watering the 18 tree seedlings, I could not keep track of who needed to be watered next.

Using a spreadsheet program I created a simple schedule and posted it on our refrigerator. At the end of each watering day, I check off what I have watered. Sometimes I do not have time to water on a specific day so I mark the day that I did water. I do not water the plants every week, but I do water the Monterey pine tree seedlings once a week.

Monterey Pine Seedling 10 after 6 Months - August 4, 2019
At about 23″ tall Monterey pine seedling 10 has doubled in height since it was planted in our yard 6 months ago – August 4, 2019.
Time Crunch

Hiking around the yard carrying 16 pounds of water sloshing around in a watering can is good exercise. I enjoyed visiting the tree seedlings to see how they were doing and felt happy that they looked well.

California Poppy Growing in Our Yard - May 1, 2019

This constant traipsing through the yard also enabled me to spot wildflowers here and there and even an occasional California poppy before a mule deer cruising through the yard spotted it and ate it.

Unfortunately, all that watering was more time consuming than I had anticipated. As much as I love being outside in the yard, like most people, I have many other commitments so I needed a way to make watering take less time.

Using hoses seemed like an obvious and simple solution so my spouse and I headed to the local hardware store where we purchased two hoses and two brass nozzles. We attached the hoses to spigots on the exterior of our house.

About half the seedlings cannot be reached by either hose. In this case, I drag a hose as far as I can and then fill up the watering can from that location reducing the distance I need to walk back and forth refilling the can.

Problem solved.

Next, we will look in on the progress of the Monterey pine tree sprouts that germinated from the seeds I planted for the forest tree-planting project.

Growing Trees from Seeds

Rick Hawley Helping People Plant Monterey Pine Seeds at Earth Day on April 21, 2019
Rick Hawley (blue shirt) from Greenspace helping tree enthusiasts plant Monterey pine seeds at Earth Day on April 21, 2019 – photo courtesy of Greenspace.

When my spouse and I arrived at the Greenspace Earth Day festival on April 21, I was excited to see Rick Hawley at his Monterey pine seed booth. He handed me a rack of 98 tubes mostly filled with soil and a plastic bag containing 100 seeds.

Linda Poppenheimer Planting Monterey Pine Seeds at Earth Day - April 21, 2019
This is me sitting in the shade of a tree planting Monterey pine seeds in a rack containing 98 tubes at Earth Day on April 21, 2019.

When we arrived home with our precious cargo, we discussed possible locations for placing the rack where it would get sun and a bit of shade. The deck outside our kitchen and dining room seemed an ideal location so we put two small slatted wooden tables together and set the rack on it.

Mindful of what Rick had said about birds grabbing the seed casing attached to the top of sprouts and then “accidentally” ripping the sprout out, I asked my handy spouse to make a cover for the seedling rack. Several days later, I placed a removable chicken wire box over the rack.

I watered the seed tubes weekly and waited.

It Takes Many Seeds to Grow a Tree
Monterey Pine Seed Rack First Sprout - May 13, 2019

On May 13th I was thrilled to spot two sprouts. The seed casings were still attached so I was glad for the protective cover. By mid-June, 16 tree sprouts were visible growing above the rims of the tubes.

To me, this seemed low considering that I had planted 98 seeds.

I felt like a loser like I had done something wrong but I had no idea what. Would the seeds have done better in a different location or with more or less water?

Hmm, perhaps my feeling of failure was a holdover from the decades I had spent working in corporate America where performance metrics are used to determine your value and measure you against other employees.

When I thought about it some more, I realized that a Monterey pine tree produces pine cones with thousands of seeds in the hope that at least one will make it to maturity.

I contacted Rick and asked him if I could have more seeds. Of course, he said yes.

On June 18, I carefully planted 82 seeds in the empty tubes. By July 11, there were a total of 49 sprouts growing in the rack. A couple of days later, I planted the remaining seeds in the empty tubes.

As of yesterday, I am tending 78 Monterey pine tree seedlings of various ages.

Monterey Pine Seed Rack with Cover - August 4, 2019
This is the chicken wire cover my spouse made to protect our Monterey pine sprouts. In the sixth tube from the left in the front row you can see a seed casing attached to a new sprout – August 4, 2019.

Every morning, I walk out onto the deck greeting the seedlings and asking them how they are doing. Yes, I am one of those people who talks to plants. I also converse with the birds, deer, and other animals who visit our yard.

Come November, I am looking forward to meeting and talking with the other tree growers and planting our trees.

Imagine if you, I, and everyone else who is old enough to use a shovel planted just one tree. We would have billions of additional trees generating oxygen, being beautiful, sequestering carbon dioxide, giving shade, and helping heal our planet—and us.

“When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and hope.”

Wangari Maathai

Featured Image at Top: This is my rack of Monterey pine sprouts on August 4, 2019.

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