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What We’re Reading: November 2013

by Amelia Bryne on 8th November 2013

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Many books with post growth themes require some perseverance and more than one cup of coffee to read through!  Our reviews for this month focus once again on post growth fiction: books that deal with complex economic, ecological and social issues in a different form. Here are three books worth checking out.

Ishmael — Daniel Quinn

As a university student traveling back to school after the holidays I spent an hour waiting at a bus stop in rural Georgia. I fell into conversation with a young man, perhaps 17 or 18 years old, carrying a big duffel bag and a skateboard.  He said, “I’ve just read a book that’s changed my life.” That book was Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Quinn’s loose trilogy, including Ishmael (1992), The Story of B (1996) and My Ishmael (1997), which I read at different points over a period of ten years, present a similar message through three different lenses.

Ishmael (1992) begins with a newspaper ad: “Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” The story that unfolds is written as a lively conversation between the rather unusual teacher and the student – a curious but initially skeptical man disillusioned with the idea that “saving the world” is possible.  As it unfolds, the reader is led to question the stories that our dominant culture tells about how the world works and the human role in it. Quinn illustrates when and how these stories (or “myths”) may have come about and how they are leading to the destruction of the environment as well as other ways of life. I’d highly recommend Ishmael for readers of all ages who are alive with passion for changing the world and interested in exploring deep cultural beliefs behind the crises we face.

Thin Walls (Tunna Väggar) — Anna Borgeryd

Thin Walls (Tunna Väggar, 2013) is a new fiction book by systems thinker Anna Borgeryd. At the helm of one of Sweden’s largest bread companies, Borgeryd is a voice for deep sustainability in the business community as well as an active member of Steg3, a Swedish post growth network whose members include prominent journalists, academics and environmentalists.

Set in 2007, preceding the financial crisis of 2008, Thin Walls succeeds in capturing a very important story of our time that goes beyond national boundaries; the process of realizing that there are deep systemic issues with how we think about the relationship between the economy and the environment. Borgeryd also skillfully illustrates how speaking out about this realization can provoke threatened and very personal reactions from authority figures, including relatives, business people and experts.

The story takes place in and around the economics department at the university in Umeå, in northern Sweden.  In an unlikely and at times comic love story we follow the two main characters, a 30-year old nurse and a 24-year old heir to an adventure travel empire, in the transformation of their relationships and worldviews. Borgeryd captures the emotional aspects of these transitions setting them in the context of Swedish university life and power struggles, family business boardrooms, social gatherings of the financial elite, the downsides of the Swedish medical system, plastic surgery, infidelity, and complex family histories. And, besides all that, the book is simply a pleasure to read!

*Thin Walls is currently only available in Swedish. Get in touch with the author (anna.borgeryd@polarbrod.se) for a reading sample in English. And/or pass along any relevant publishing advice for getting this book out for the English-language-market. It should be read!

World Made by Hand — James Howard Kunstler

Writer James Howard Kunstler is known for his non-fiction work, particularly The Long Emergency, a book on “the end of oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the 21st century”.  He’s also written two novels portraying how some of the trends he writes about in his non-fiction work could play out in everyday life.

The first book, World Made by Hand, published in 2008, is set in a small town in upstate New York in the not-too-far future. In this post-catastrophe world much of the population has died from epidemics, electricity is extremely unpredictable, communication systems have broken down, and people survive by growing their own food, practicing crafts, or banding together in gangs, religious groups, or semi-feudal farm units.

As a reader I found some of the most vivid scenes in book to be descriptions of the physical environment and decaying infrastructure. Kunstler’s attention to detail here perhaps stems from his earlier work on these topics including his book The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (1993), which critically details the rise of the automobile and suburban sprawl in the U.S. and their impact on society. In World Made by Hand, for example, riding bicycles is not a practical option because, for one, there are no machines or materials to keep the paved roads in repair. Instead, walking, horses and waterways have become the main modes of transit.

Kunstler’s vision of the future is certainly dark, but ultimately World Made by Hand does offer a glimmer of hope, showing how we might move from a huge shock to new, post-crash ways of living. The book also offers some food for thought in terms of the importance of practical skills related to growing food, creatively repairing things (or creating new things from the refuse of industrial society), making music, medical care, and negotiating community living.

 

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avatar Amelia is a visual anthropologist (filmmaker & researcher) and is inspired to vision alternative futures, as well as to document the cultural shifts of our time. She is active in solidarity economy work, which celebrates and aims to strengthen ecologically and socially just businesses and economic relationships. She is also a maker of nettle tea, wild berry jam, and divides her time between New York City and a farm near Stockholm.

Amelia has written 7 posts on Post Growth Institute.

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