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.

Related Posts

Health and Social Consequences of Sugar

Where do we go from here?

A rare treat for our early ancestors, sugar is now a ubiquitous substance with far-reaching health, social, and environmental repercussions that span the globe.

Several months ago, when I set out to research how sugar affects the environment, I intended to write one post. That was before I discovered that you cannot learn about sugar without constantly being reminded of the human cost of growing, processing, and eating it.

I strongly believe that a healthy planet requires healthy people living in a just society. So when it came time to write the post, I realized that I could not ignore what I had read and watched so I decided to write a second post.

The previous post entitled Environmental Impact of Sugar gave readers an introductory primer on sugar and discussed environmental issues like deforestation, pesticides, and water use. In this post, we will look at the consequences that growing and eating sugar have on our health and our society.

Sugar and Health

First, I want to assure you that it is not my intention to dispense health advice, make you feel bad about your sugar consumption, or to tell you what you should eat or drink.

As you learned in the previous post or perhaps already knew, your body does need some sugar for energy, brain function, and to keep your internal systems humming along.

Sugar, in the form of sucrose, is available from whole fruits, vegetables, nuts and the milk of mammals, including humans. Other sources of sucrose include foods that have had sugar added during processing including spaghetti sauce, bread, yogurt, granola bars, salad dressings, cereal, and ice cream.

U.S. Sugar Consumption

Other than salt, sugar is the only pure chemical substance that we consume. Sugar contains calories but no essential nutrients giving meaning to the term empty calories.

1 gram of sugar = 4 calories. For non-metric readers 1 teaspoon = 4.2 grams, so 1 teaspoon of sugar = 4.2 x 4 = 16.8 calories.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 10% of your daily calories.

If you eat 2,000 calories a day, which is way too many for some people (like me), that means you could choose to allocate 200 calories for foods and beverages with added sugar (about 50 grams or 12 teaspoons).

U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Sugar Chart
Source U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020.

The Guidelines state that the average American consumes 270 calories of added sugar a day, which is about 68 grams or 16 teaspoons. This is 136% of the recommended maximum amount.

Obesity and Disease

Have you ever noticed that eating or drinking something with sugar in it often makes you want to eat or drink more of it either right now or after the initial spike wears off? Sugar makes your brain feel happy, at least for a little while.

Food and beverage industry food scientists and product developers work hard to make foods and drinks sweet enough that you crave more. In the sweetened beverage industry, this is called the soda bliss point.

Tooth decay, weight gain, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure are just some of the health issues associated with eating and drinking sugar.

Rise of Obesity in America Graph
Source CDC/Vox – click here to read the article.

According to the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Human & Health Services, more than two-thirds of adults and one-third of children and youth in the United States are overweight or obese. About half of the American adults, 117 million people, have one or more chronic diseases.

Take a moment to let these disturbing figures sink in.

Sugar and Society

Sugar is a commodity that is traded on the world market. Commodities are raw materials that are widely used or consumed such as petroleum, corn, gold, coffee, soybeans, natural gas, and cotton.

130 countries grow either sugar cane or sugar beets and 10 grow both. On average, sugar cane accounts for about 80% of global sugar production. Brazil and India are the top sugar producers and the United States usually ranks about 6th.

The maps above show sugar cane and sugar beet yields worldwide – source Wikipedia. As you can see, sugar cane is concentrated at the equator and sugar beets in Europe and the Midwest of the United States.

Many, if not most sugar-growing countries, subsidize their sugar industries, including the United States.

Sugar Subsidies

The U.S. Sugar Program has its roots in the Great Depression.

In a February 8, 1934 message to Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recommended the enactment of a sugar quota law with a threefold objective “of keeping down the price of sugar to consumers, of providing for the retention of beet and cane farming within our continental limits, and also to provide against further expansion of this necessarily expensive industry.”

Congress responded by passing the Sugar Act of 1934 also known as the Jones-Costigan amendment to the Agricultural Adjustment Act that had reclassified sugar as a basic commodity. The Sugar Act has undergone many changes over the years.

U.S. and World Wholesale Sugar Prices 2000-2017 Graph

Nowadays, American taxpayers shell out about $4 billion a year in subsidies to the sugar industry. We also pay substantially more for sugar than people in other countries.

Source Market Watch – click here to read the article.

Slavery

The history of sugar is a history of slavery.

Sugar cane was first cultivated in the South Pacific roughly 2,300 years ago and eventually spread to tropical regions around the world. During most of its history, sugar was exorbitantly expensive. Only royalty and extremely rich aristocrats could afford to buy it.

Near the middle of the eighteen century, sugar made its way to the tables of even poor underfed working-class people.

“Sugar played a nefarious role of opiate of the people. It was a psychologically addictive substance that energized and delighted; it deadened appetite and satisfied hunger pangs, and it opened up new possibilities of consumption and social respectability previously unattainable to all but the privileged classes.”

excerpt from Sugar: A Bittersweet History

Sugar only became affordable and widely available because millions of people were enslaved on sugar plantations around the world.

During the 400 years encompassing the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, 13 million people were ripped from their homes and families on the African continent. 2 million people died and those who did not die were sold as slaves to other countries around the world.

Almost half of those people, some 6 million, ended up on sugar plantations in the West Indies, the United States, and other countries growing sugar cane. Working under brutal inhumane conditions these enslaved people made a very few people enormously wealthy.

Cross-Section of the Brazilian Slave Ship Veloz in 1830
This diagram shows a cross-section of the Brazilian slave ship Veloz that was published in a book by Robert Walsh in 1830 – source Wikipedia.

I am not sure I can adequately convey the horror and grief I felt while reading about slavery on sugar plantations, especially first-hand accounts of the people enslaved. It disturbs me that history books refer to the “slave trade” as if it was the same as the spice or tea trade.

Human suffering did not end when slavery was abolished.

Human Rights Abuses

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that as of 2018 there were 152 million child laborers and 25 million forced laborers being exploited worldwide. Reread that sentence.

Some of these children and adults are forced to work in the sugar industry where they endure unsafe working conditions, toil for long hours with inadequate food, water, and rest, are not paid what they are owed, and may have been trafficked or are in debt bondage.

Worldwide Goods with Most Child and Forced Labor Chart
Source U.S. Department of Labor 2018 List of Goods Produced with Child and Forced Labor – click here to read the report.

“Sometimes these abuses happen behind closed doors, and other times they are hidden in plain sight. A family with children harvesting crops may seem, on the surface, very ordinary; in reality, the family may be in debt bondage to a landowner or employer, unable to escape. A teenage boy fishing on a boat is an everyday sight in Southeast Asia, yet he may have been trafficked there—tricked, threatened, or even drugged into submission.”

excerpt from 2018 List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor

What Can You Do?

This post covered a lot of ground from health to subsidies to human rights abuses.

I know the desire to turn away from things you would rather not know can be strong. I feel it, too. Fortunately, each one of us can choose to take action (or not). There are billions of us so collectively we should be able to achieve positive change.

Below are some ideas to help you consider what action you might want to take.

  • Share what you learned with your family, friends, and coworkers.
  • Read package labels. Starting January 1, 2020, a new nutrition facts label will be required on packaged food that may make it easier to understand how much added sugar you are consuming.
  • Contact your U.S. senators and U.S. representative to demand an end to sugar subsidies.
  • Go to a school board meeting to find out what is being served in the cafeteria and advocate for food and beverages with less sugar.
  • Buy organic, Fairtrade, or Rainforest Alliance labeled sugar and products made with sugar whenever you can. This supports better environmental and worker standards.
  • Find out where sugar cane or sugar beets are grown in your state or country and advocate for farmworker human rights.

What are my own conclusions about sugar?

I think my choice to eat less sugar is a good one, at least for me. I also received a powerful reminder that the food I choose to put in my mouth can have a positive or negative effect on the people who grow, process, and transport it.

If you want to learn more about sugar, there are links in the resources section below as well as in the previous post. I included a list of books I read and films I watched at the end of this post.

Featured Image at Top: A human-shaped figurine sinking into a pile of sugar cubes – photo credit iStock/Moussa81

Related Posts

Resources

Resources – Books and Films

  • Sugar: A Bittersweet History – by Elizabeth Abbot, published by Penguin Group (Canada), 2008
  • Sugar Blues – directed by Andrea Culkova, 2014, documentary
  • Sugar Coated – directed by Michéle Hozer, in association with TVO, ZDF Arte, 2015
  • That Sugar Film – directed by Damon Gameau, Samuel Goldwyn Films, 2015, documentary
  • The Case Against Sugar – by Gary Taubes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2016