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 Hidden Life of Trees – Book Review

You will discover wonders great and small in a forest.

Surely, a book entitled The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate would draw the interest of anyone who admires trees.

Trees have always fascinated me. I was a tree hugger (literally) long before I became an environmentalist. I observe trees and wonder about things like what it is like to live in the same spot for hundreds of years or to have another tree fall on you during a storm and stay there.

I came across The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben while browsing the Volumes of Pleasure book table during a break at the Central Coast Bioneers conference last November. The title was intriguing. After flipping to the table of contents and scanning the names of the chapters, I smiled and bought the book.

Book Review

Reading The Hidden Life of Trees will give you an opportunity to get to know trees and forests up close and personal. Wohlleben delivers his observations comingled with science facts in easy to read chunks of 12 pages or less over the course of 36 chapters.

Prepare yourself to be entertained and informed, maybe even amazed by some of the things you will read about in this book. I was.

The Hidden Life of Trees Book Cover

For instance, do you know that when a predator starts nibbling on its leaves some trees will begin pumping toxins into their leaves to discourage the nibbler? In addition, the tree under assault will release a scent to warn nearby trees of the danger so they, too, can pump toxins into their own leaves.

Are you aware that fungal networks connect trees to other trees allowing them to share nutrients and information or that they perform other services like filtering out heavy metals in the soil and protecting trees against bacterial attacks? In return, the fungi receive food from the trees in the form of sugar and carbohydrates.

Have you ever considered the challenges facing trees planted in parks and next to streets? These trees are not only separated from their family members, their roots must navigate around concrete, pipes, and other obstructions, and they are constantly in danger of having their limbs cut off.

Wohlleben reinforces the interconnectedness of nature and the importance of biodiversity throughout the book and gives a realistic view of what actually occurs in a forest.

“The forest ecosystem is held in a delicate balance. Every being has its niche and its function, which contribute to the well-being of all. Nature is often described like that, or something along those lines; however, that is, unfortunately, false.”

Did you see that coming?

“For out there under the trees, the law of the jungle rules. Every species wants to survive, and each takes from the others what it needs. All are basically ruthless, and the only reason everything doesn’t collapse is because there are safeguards against those who demand more than their due. And one final limitation is an organism’s own genetics: an organism that is too greedy and takes too much without giving anything in return destroys what it needs for life and dies out.”

Hmm, perhaps humans could learn a thing or two from trees.

The Bottom Line

Peter Wohlleben is a German forester who has written several books about trees. To my knowledge, The Hidden Life of Trees is the first one translated into English making it accessible to millions of people who cannot read in German, including me.

Wohlleben writes in a lyrical and engaging way. As you are reading the book, you can imagine yourself strolling with him through the forest conversing about tree parents and their children or sitting on a tree stump talking about how trees act as carbon dioxide vacuums.

One thing that you will notice as you are reading The Hidden Life of Trees is that Wohlleben writes about trees as beings with thoughts and feelings. Attributing human characteristics to non-humans is called anthropomorphism. A familiar example is treating your pet like a family member.

Apparently, some people believe that anthropomorphizing plants and animals detracts from science or maybe they just think it is silly. To me, that is a shortsighted view.

I believe that Wohlleben’s use of anthropomorphic terms to describe trees and other forest denizens probably contributed to the book becoming a best seller. By writing a book that is easy for people to relate to and fun to read, he has made learning about trees and forests appealing to a wide audience.

Perhaps after being introduced to trees in The Hidden Life of Trees, you and other readers will be inclined to do some further reading or research about trees, get to know trees in your own community, or take action to protect an old growth forest at risk of destruction. Regardless, you will come away having gained knowledge and at least one interesting tidbit to share with your friends.

Reading The Hidden Life of Trees is a delightful and informative experience you do not want to miss.

Featured Image at Top: Beech Tree Forest Canopy in Germany during the Summer – Photo Credit Shutterstock/ Alexandra Theile

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