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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The Landscaping Ideas of Jays – Book Review

Meet Mother Nature’s gardening experts.

If you do not usually seek gardening advice from the native flora and fauna in your community, you will after reading The Landscaping Ideas of Jays.

Yes, you read that correctly. I do mean the plants, insects, trees, birds, bees, animals, and grasses that are native to where you live. “How so?” you ask.  Read the book and you will understand.

There were two reasons that I felt certain I would enjoy reading Judith Larner Lowry’s book The Landscaping Ideas of Jays: a Natural History of the Backyard Restoration Garden.

The first is that I too am a backyard restorationist, although unlike Lowry, I am an amateur.

The second reason is that I had previously read and loved her book Gardening with a Wild Heart. As she waxed poetic about coyote bush (the first native plant I learned to identify) and talked about coveting her neighbor’s wood chip pile, I felt we were kindred spirits.

The copy of The Landscaping Ideas of Jays I just read was loaned to me by a native plant enthusiast named Linda whom I met through the San Luis Obispo chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

I must have mentioned to Linda that Gardening with a Wild Heart is one of my favorite books during a stint working with her behind the book table at a chapter meeting because she told me she owned another book by Judith Larner Lowry and offered to loan it to me.

I accepted and she brought the book to the next meeting.

Book Review

Before you begin reading The Landscaping Ideas of Jays, I suggest that you lather on the sunscreen, fill up your reusable water bottle, and grab some seed collecting envelopes because you will be wandering about with Judith Larner Lowry in her garden and the wild. You might want to bring along some snacks, too, as there will be many side trips and times to dawdle and reflect.

The chapters in the book are loosely grouped into seasons beginning with fall and ending with what Lowry calls the fifth season.

The Landscaping Ideas of Jays Book Cover

The setting for the book is California and the characters are mostly native California plants and animals with cameo appearances by California indigenous people both past and present. However, the book’s ideas and messages are universal.

Fall

Perhaps you are familiar with the term keynote speaker, meaning the speaker who sets the tone or theme for an event. In this part of the book, you will learn about designing a garden around keynote birds and plants and how California quail and coyote bush fill the keynote roles in Lowry’s restoration garden. The following excerpt is about quail.

“In exchange for room in our gardens, they give the graceful gift of thriving among us. As they skim fences, ignoring property rights and heading for what they need regardless of who owns it, they stitch neighborhoods together, providing a local totem and a topic of much conversation.”

Wherever you live, there is sure to be a keynote bird and/or plant that would love to visit or find a home in your yard or garden.

Winter

This segment begins with a chapter intriguingly called “Eating the Rain” and quickly moves to wintertime storytelling as Lowery acquaints you with the histories of three botanical women and their contributions to California native plant knowledge.

“In the winter I read long hours, dipping into the California native plant literary canon. It seems that the three women whose lives and contributions I describe in this part, Lester Rowntree, Edith Van Allen Murphey, and Gerda Isenberg, have been with me for a long time, inspiring and supporting my endeavors, and those of many of my fellow native plant lovers, though of the three I knew only Gerda.”

Reading the winter section you will also receive lessons from the forest and learn how salmon nourish the woods.

Spring

You will be introduced to spring through flowers and the expansive fields of California wildflowers that draw people from all over the world, most holding a camera or smartphone.

“Visitors from other galaxies might understandably conclude that placing small rectangular objects between our eyes and the world is the way we humans worship natural phenomenon.”

Other tales include the “you’ll be sorry” plant, weed-free neighbor zones, and what a rock knows.

Summer and the Fifth Season

The summer and fifth season sections contain advice about designing and caring for restoration gardens. This includes discourse about plants, trees, ponds, pollinators, paths, animals, and praise for bare dirt (in moderation).

The fifth season will remain a mystery until you read the book however; many Californians may be able to guess what it is.

Near the end of the book, Lowry will caution you about embarking on gardening endeavors that exceed your financial, physical, or time-related limitations and suggests taking on significantly less than you think you can handle.

The above advice is followed by Lowry’s First Law of Gardening.

“The law is this: The land requires our attention. Either you pay attention, or you hire somebody to pay attention, but attention, one way or another, must be paid.”

The Bottom Line

Judith Larner Lowry is the longtime owner of Larner Seeds in Bolinas, CA, which carries over 200 species of California native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees. In addition to caring for her own garden, she designs gardens using California native plants, conducts workshops, gives talks, writes articles, and is the author of several books.

Often when I am reading a book, I think how interesting it would be to meet and talk with its author. Lowry strikes me as not only a person I would enjoy meeting and discussing native plants with but also someone who would be a wonderful neighbor.

Although not a step-by-step guide for designing a restoration garden or growing native plants, The Landscaping Ideas of Jays contains a lot of useful information and practical advice. It is a beautifully written book filled with inspiration, stories, humor, ideas, and Lowry’s musings about how our yards or gardens can connect us to the places where we live.

I recommend The Landscaping Ideas of Jays to anyone who wants to pay attention to their yard or garden and to make it place where native plants, flowers, trees, grasses, bees, birds, and animals can thrive.

Featured Image at Top: This is a California scrub-jay (Aphelocoma californica) grasping an acorn in its beak – photo credit iStock/pchoui.

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