Slow-tech by Andrew Price

New book by environmentalist and marine biologist Andrew Price: Slow-tech: Manifesto for an Over-wound World (only out in the UK apparently). From the book description: 

The modern world has put its faith in high-tech processes that has left it weakened and ill-equipped to withstand catastrophe. "Slow-Tech" argues for a world with greater robustness, something that is possible in surprisingly simple ways. A sailor crossing the Atlantic in a small yacht would want to minimize excess baggage. But it would be unthinkable not to carry more fresh water than seemed necessary, to survive unexpected calms or storms. Yet the imperative of profit, especially over the last century, has driven modernity towards 'lean, mean' strategies in every area of life; squeezing waste out of commercial, technological and environmental systems may make money in the short term, but is our highly geared, highly strung way of life sustainable? Andrew Price, sailor, explorer and environmental scientist at the University of Warwick argues that in the long-term, spare capacity actually pays. From the destruction of New Orleans to the loss of the world's fish-stocks and intractable problems such as MRSA, "Slow-Tech" demonstrates how the reckless pursuit of efficiency and cost-effectiveness frequently backfires. It makes the case for robustness as an equally important measure of performance in fields as diverse as healthcare, military operations and engineering.Unexpected and counter-intuitive yet convincing and timely, "Slow-Tech" offers an alternative vision for life in the twenty-first century – a rounded vision of balance and robustness that would be healthier for the planet – and healthier for us.

Bryan Appleyard has a review today in the Times. His verdict is mixed (good idea but too much about boats). I like the title.

Lessig’s Prose

Whenever I read something by Lawrence Lessig I feel like my head is filling up with fog. Today I came across a new book by David Post called In Search of Mr. Jefferson's Moose: Notes on the State of Cyberspace, which has the following blurb by Lessig on the back:

"Reading this beautifully written and extraordinarily diverse work
today is what it must have been like to know or read Jefferson then.
Post has crafted an experience in understanding that allows us to
glimpse the genius that Jefferson was, and to leave the book astonished
by the talent this extraordinary writer is."

Back in October I read an article of Lessig's that I believe was excerpted from his new book, Remix (Tom Slee has a good review of it at his blog). The article was called In Defense of Piracy, though it never really offered one. I read the article twice with the intention of writing something about it here (but never managed to). One of the points I wanted to make was that for a lawyer, Lessig is surprisingly vague and muddy in his writing.

Is this fair or even relevant? I think so. It means something when the spokesman for a new culture is such a bad writer. And I don't claim to be any kind of prose master, but I don't think that's a prerequisite for criticism.

Deep Ecology founder Arne Naess has died

Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher who introduced the concept of "deep ecology" has died. (Norway Post, AP.)

His short article from 1973 in which he lays out the principles of deep ecology as contrasted with shallow ecology is online here: The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement (and probably elsewhere). Some excerpts:

The emergence of ecologists from their former relative obscurity marks
a turning point in our scientific communities. But their message is
twisted and misused. A shallow, but presently rather powerful movement,
and a deep, but less influential movement, compete for our attention. I
shall make an effort to characterize the two.

I. The Shallow Ecology movement:

Fight against pollution and resource depletion.
Central objective: the health and affluence of people in the developed countries.

II. The Deep Ecology movement:

1. Rejection of the man-in-environment image in favor the relational, total-field image. […]
2. Biospherical egalitarianism-in principle. […]
3. Principles of diversity and of symbiosis. […]
4. Anti-class posture. […]
5. Fight against pollution and resource depletion. […]
6. Complexity, not complication. […]
7. Local autonomy and decentralization. […]

See also the Foundation for Deep Ecology, which has a good summary of the movement's history.

Aldous Huxley’s Island

Jeffrey Kripal on Aldous Huxley:

I find it strange, and more than a little depressing, that, despite all
of this well-known biographical and metaphysical material, Aldous
Huxley is best known today for his dystopian novel, Brave New World. Why is a man who had so much to say about the synthesis of science and
spirituality and the deeper dimensions of human consciousness known
primarily for a novel about the authoritarian horrors and technological
dead-ends of the modern consumer state? Why is this consummate
individualist, intrigued by the potential for spiritual ecstasy, still
mostly identified with a story of moral despair and fascist political
control? Obviously, part of the answer is because Brave New World
was so incredibly accurate. But Huxley did more than diagnose the
disease; he also provided what he thought of as a realistic treatment
in Island.

I interviewed Laura Huxley about Island a few years ago (she
died last year at the age of 96). She described the novel to me as "the
last will and testament" of her late husband. Island, she
suggested, is where he left his most sincere convictions and deepest
thoughts about what human beings are capable of at their best. He was
very careful, she pointed out, not to include anything in the novel
that was not possible, that had not been practiced somewhere before and
found useful. So he was quite upset when Island was received as
a piece of fantasy rather than a practical program for translating his
abstract philosophy of consciousness and existential mysticism into
effective social, educational, and contemplative experiments. Island was no fantasy for Aldous Huxley. It was, as Laura said, his "ultimate legacy."

This seems like the right time to entertain the possibility that Aldous Huxley is more relevant now than he ever was, that Island is as important as Brave New World,
and that the two novels should be read together. I am particularly
struck by Huxley's vibrant critique of religious literalism and the
whole psychology of belief in Island. "In religion all words
are dirty words," the Old Raja's little green book declared. Hence the
novel's ideal of the "Tantrik agnostic" (Aldous's grandfather returns)
and its scorn for that "Old Nobodaddy" in the sky (the expression is
pure William Blake). Hence the humorous prayer of Pala: "Give us this
day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief." The
scarecrows in the fields were even made to look like a God the Father,
so that the children who manipulated them with strings to scare off the
birds could learn that "all gods are homemade, and that it's we who
pull their strings and so give them the power to pull ours."

Link: Brave New Worldview: The Return of Aldous Huxley (Chronicle of Higher Education)

The full article is much longer and worth reading if you're interested in Huxley and issues of science and religion. I haven't read Island, but I'm tempted to give it a try now, though I think it may still be a wee bit too metaphysical/new-agey for me.

What if the book business collapses?

Hugh McGuire asks "What would happen if, tomorrow, every publisher, and every book store, went out of business? What would you do?"

Link: Hugh McGuire's blog, discussed also at Huffington Post. See also the recent article by David Streitfeld in the NYT: Bargain Hunting for Books, and Feeling Sheepish About It. Related viewing: Paperback Dreams.

I increasingly fear for bookstores. The chains are devoting less and less space to books. Indies I used to visit have closed and the rest are struggling. I confess I still sometimes buy from the chains and Amazon for convenience, but I try to spend more at independent stores or direct from publishers online. Indie publishing will last longer than indie bookstores, I think. They can profit from selling direct or by subscription to the scattered readers who remain (as the excellent Open Letter does). But the physical bookstore, or at least the bookstore that is substantially a bookstore and not a music or video store, won't last much longer. This is not because they cling to an out-of-date "retail experience". The problem is primarily a cultural one — people aren't reading books. We should be grateful that the Internet will continue to make it easier than ever for those who still read to find books, but we should also be sad that the superior experience of buying books in good bookstores is dying.

See also: Tom Slee's series of stories "Mr. Amazon's Bookshop".