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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Investing for a Better World

There is more to investment returns than money.

Imagine what we could accomplish if each one of us invested even a small amount of money towards making the world a better place to live now and in the future.

Before we get started, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that you invest any amount of money in any particular way. It is your money so you are the person best equipped to determine if and how you want to invest it.

My goal for this post is to you encourage you to think about your own investing philosophy and to evaluate whether it aligns with your values and the world in which you want to live.

Until the last ten years or so, I would say my investment focus was on growing my money (return) and trying to avoid losing it (risk). I am not saying this is a bad thing, but it is a rather narrow way of looking at financial investments.

I cannot pinpoint any particular event or even a year when my view of what constitutes an investment began expanding but I think it co-evolved with my desire to live more lightly on Earth.

For instance, in 2013, my spouse and I invested in a rooftop solar panel system for our home. Mostly we wanted to help build renewable energy capacity in our community; however, the free electricity down the road was also an enticement.

We joined the SLO Natural Foods Co-op in 2014 because we wanted to buy and eat delicious organic food and support local and regional farmers and food businesses.

After talking about it for years, in 2015, my spouse and I finally rolled our IRAs out of traditional bond and equity mutual funds into fossil fuel-free socially responsible investments. In this case, our goal was to invest in companies and organizations that are screened for environmental, social, and governance performance as well as risk and return criteria.

Last year, we began looking for a small investment opportunity where we live in San Luis Obispo County, CA. Two weeks ago, this quest landed us in an all day Saturday workshop entitled Align Your Financial Portfolio with Your Values hosted by Slow Money San Luis Obispo.

That day I realized something that I think has been percolating in the back of mind for some time. There is an investment space between charitable giving and traditional investing.

Financial people refer to this as impact and/or regenerative investing. I like to think of it as making-the-world-a-better-place investing.

Before we talk about the workshop and regenerative investing, it will probably be helpful for you to have a bit of background about the Slow Money movement.

Slow Money Movement

The Slow Money movement is led by the nonprofit Slow Money Institute whose mission is catalyzing the flow of capital to local food systems, connecting investors to the places where they live and promoting new principles of fiduciary responsibility that “bring money back down to earth.”

They accomplish this through a variety of approaches including public meetings, on-farm events, pitch fests, peer-to-peer loans, investment clubs and, most recently, nonprofit clubs making 0% loans.

Slow Money SLO Farm to Buyer Mixer Event Sign

Slow Money groups are independent organizations that adhere to Slow Money principles and facilitate investments and loans within their community and region.

I met Slow Money San Luis Obispo founder, Jeff Wade, at a Central Coast Bioneers conference last November and signed up for the email newsletter list. When the workshop announcement landed in my email inbox, I knew I wanted to go so I talked my spouse into attending and signed us up.

Values-Based Investment Workshop

Marco Vangelisti

Our instructor for the day was Marco Vangelisti, a founding member of the Slow Money movement. For a mathematics whiz and former investment manager, he was a surprisingly down to earth and humorous speaker and kept me engaged throughout the day.

Some of the things we learned during the workshop included how in traditional investing a tree only has value once it becomes lumber, how banks create money using accounting entries, and how corporation stock prices are inflated because they benefit from free ecosystem services provided by Mother Nature.

Marco gave us a crash course in portfolio management and due diligence. He explained regenerative investing and gave us examples. We also talked about direct investing, which is where you make an investment directly with an entrepreneur or business.

Investment Compass

Just before lunch, Marco asked us to determine our personal investment compass. He handed out pieces of flip chart paper and colored markers. Using my limited artistic skills, I drew my investment lens (see featured image at top), which are things I consider now when making an investment.

The SLO Natural Foods Co-op prepared a delicious lunch for us and Jeff provided reusable coffee mugs, napkins, and tableware in the interest of making the workshop a low impact event.

Regenerative Investing

The word regenerate means reborn, renewed, restored, reformed, and reestablished. Regenerative systems keep going indefinitely.

When you make a regenerative investment, you are purposefully investing with the intention of generating a positive social and environmental impact.

The main return is not financial. It is things like bringing a grocery market to an inner city food desert, helping a young organic farmer obtain access to farmland, or enabling a school to install solar panels over their parking lot.

Regenerative investing is democratizing investing because it enables people to make small investments (as little as $25) or large ones and gives a wider range of entrepreneurs and businesses access to financial capital.

You might get your money back. You might get your money back with a small amount of interest. You might not get your money back at all. This is true for other kinds of investments, too.

As we were wrapping up the final Q&A session of the workshop, Marco asked each one of us to tell the group one thing that we learned or got out of the workshop.

Colorful Handprints Surrounding Earth
Shutterstock/Holmes Su

The idea that stuck in my mind is that when you make regenerative investments you are investing in “livable future insurance” for you, your children, and people of the future.

I hope reading this post challenged your view of what constitutes an investment return and inspires you to create your own personal investment compass.

Featured Image at Top: This is my investment lens drawing from the workshop.

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