Completed: The Quiet Little Woman

Reader beware: The discussion following references the ends of the stories in a very general way, which might be considered “spoilerish” by some, but I think that a reader familiar with Little Women, or a typical Christmas story, would not be surprised by any of the endings. No specific plots are given away.

The Quest Little Woman: A Christmas Story
Louisa May Alcott

Contains the stories:
“The Quiet Little Woman”
“Tilly’s Christmas”
“Rosa’s Tale”

These three tales were originally published in Little Things, a late-1800s home-produced magazine by the Lukens sisters. Fans of Alcott, they were inspired by Little Women to create their own publication and, after writing to the famous writer of their endeavor, she supplied them with several original stories to include in the magazine.

Such a poor little supper, and yet such a happy one, for love, charity, and contentment were welcome guests around the humble table. That Christmas eve was a sweeter one even than that at the great house, where light shone, fires blazed, a great tree glittered, music sounded, and children danced and played.

(From “Tilly’s Christmas”)

Years ago, when I first received this little book I read and was enchanted by all three stories. Quintessential Christmas stories, each contains a central character who longs for something desperately but with little hope of getting it as Christmas Eve turns to Christmas Day. They are simple tales, ultimately hopeful and optimistic about the human spirit and human nature. They should be perfect Christmas reading, and I looked towards them eagerly this year as the day itself quickly approaches.

But.

This time, I was not nearly as charmed or enthralled. Although each story moralizes, fitting to the era of their first publication, it was not this, but the pat, happy endings that bothered me. Quite frankly, my discomfort with such neat ends is not the story itself, but by my own reality—my experiences with the real world have unfortunately made me a bit cynical and bitter. In the real world goodness and virtue might be its own reward, but isn’t necessarily rewarded. Value is too often placed on things other than those which are good or truly worthwhile.

Alcott’s stories should be a remedy, an antidote to these hard realities, reminding us of people who are benevolent and good and kind. But this year, this difficult year, it just doesn’t work for me. And that’s really sad.

Maybe next year.

Contemplating Walden

It would be some advantage to live a primitive and frontier life, though in the midst of an outward civilization, if only to learn what are the gross necessaries of life and what methods have been taken to obtain them…

I’m only partway through Walden, but I wanted to post on it before Tea With Transcendentalists is officially over. (Hopefully I will finish in the next week or so.)

First, as of the one-third point, I’m not enjoying Walden as much as “Civil Disobedience.” I don’t dislike it, I’m just not as enchanted. I think this is because where “Civil Disobedience” felt to me universal and pertinent, Walden seems more personal to Thoreau. It is his story, his experiment. I’m having a hard time reading his intentions—does he intend a course of simplification, reflection, and mental improvement for everyone, or only for those of his temperament? Does he really mean for all men to build their own home?

This suggests that Thoreau believed his audience limited:

…I do not speak to those who are well employed, in whatever circumstances, and they know whether they are well employed or not;—but mainly to the mass of men who are discontented, and idly complaining of the hardness of their lot or of the times, when they might improve them.

While this seems to indicate that he thought his ideas applied to all:

Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?

Honestly, I’m not sure how seriously to take his words, although I lean towards a less literal understanding. If his intentions are that everyone should follow in his footsteps, I don’t think it is at all practical—although my impression of the Transcendentalists is not one of practicality—if for no other reason than that not all people are inclined to reflection or continual mental edification. Nor, I think, does it seem likely that general society would have achieved all that it has if we all did the minimum possible for survival. While there is plenty of room for debate over the positives vs. negatives of various aspects of “civilization” (to use Thoreau’s word), there are few who would argue that improved health care hasn’t been beneficial, for instance.

I’m also completely flummoxed by this section:

As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full. Moreover, I have tried it fairly, and, strange as it may seem, am satisfied that it does not agree with my constitution.

Thoreau certainly seems to be saying that he doesn’t do anything charitable or “good” and at some points further on I thought he might even be saying it was of no benefit for anyone to do good! Perhaps I am misreading (or not?) or perhaps he is simply trying to get across the same message we’ve been hearing at church lately: don’t give money to people in the parking lot. This is not because we should be cold and callous, but because the people asking are most likely a) cons or b) will just spend it on drugs or alcohol. (Instead we are told to direct them to appropriate agencies, with brochures at all the church entrances.) Is this what Thoreau is saying, that too often good intentions are abused by those with bad intent, or does his belief in self-reliance prompt him to think that no aid should be given regardless?

On the other hand, I love Thoreau’s call for:

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.

and his pointing out of a too often forgotten truth:

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.

Although I could approach this from an environmental standpoint and say we’re using too many resources, blah, blah, blah (and one of the books I read this fall did call Thoreau an early environmentalist), it is actually the entire idea of simplicity that attracts me. How many dishes or pans or decorations or clothes (but don’t you dare say books!) do I, does anyone, really need? How busy do I really need to be, how rushed my life? One of my quiet rebellions against the typical American work environment (or at least in architecture) is how rushed, how harried everything always is, always a deadline, always the urgency, yet we have created our own hurry, our own problems.

I do however, disagree with the idea of removing all ornament, not least because I love very old, very ornamented buildings. Reading Thoreau’s thoughts on architecture, it seemed to me that he anticipated the Modernist architects, and Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more.” I don’t know if they were influenced by his thinking, however, but they certainly removed all ornament and gave us rectangular boxes and plain styles.

My favorite chapter so far has been “Reading.” I would imagine this is not an uncommon reaction among readers! I copied down many quotes, as there are so many gems in support of reading as a pastime. Granted, Thoreau is one of that strain of readers who feels only the best and greatest books are worth our time and has nothing good to say about the light entertainments favored by his fellow Concordian. If he could but see what is published now! As a lover of the classics, (which admittedly include books that weren’t even yet published when Thoreau was writing) I do appreciate much of what he has to say, however, and especially those lines which praise reading in general.

Some favorite quotes so far:

  • “And pray what more can a reasonable man desire, in peaceful times, in ordinary noons, than a sufficient number of ears of green sweet corn boiled, with the addition of salt?” [My favorite summer meal!]
  • “Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.”
  • “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.”
  • “Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man?”
  • “To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”
  • “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;—not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.”
  • “Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.”

Some random observations:

  • Walden is one of those excellent examples of why we should all read (if not study) books such as the Bible and the ancient Greeks and Romans. Thoreau includes a ton of references/quotes, and I don’t get all of them. Fortunately, Aeneid and Iliad are on the reading list next year.
  • Do you remember my observation of all those semi-colons in Castle Wolfenbach? Apparently writers used semi-colons differently in the 18th and early 19th centuries, because Thoreau really likes them too, often paring them with other punctuation marks.

I am reading Walden as part of the Tea with Transcendentalist reading month. Please see the comments on this post for other participants.

Completed: “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”

“Resistance to Civil Government” (later titled “On the Duty  of Civil Disobedience”)
Henry David Thoreau
1849

If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.

Even had it not been for the currently on-going Transcendentalist Month, I would have likely picked up “Civil Disobedience” in light of various current events. From Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street, the news this year seems to be filled with modern-day acts of civil resistance (and sometimes not so civil) to established government systems, inspiring my desire to read the original source. Thoreau’s essay is curious in that it is both very much of its time—referencing numerous current events and opinions—and continuously relevant in the more than 160 years since its initial publication. Figures as various as Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were all influenced by its contents and its ideas of non-violent resistance continue to hold sway.

There are two interesting aspects to Thoreau’s line of thought. The first is that he appears to be advocating against any government at all, or at least a very limited one. His belief in the inherent goodness of men (apparently a characteristic of Transcendentalism) is one I find naively idealistic. Perhaps I am too cynical, but from what I see of human nature, we need at least a governing authority to keep us from doing harm to each other or trampling on each other’s rights—the extent and nature of which being, of course, up for debate. From Thoreau’s belief, however, sprang his view that man could eventually do without government.

The second aspect is his call for action against—or rather, separation from—the existing government as a form of protest against what he saw as the biggest injustices of his day: the Mexican-American War and slavery. Thoreau felt it wasn’t enough to merely say “I am opposed to slavery” but that the moral man must take action against it. He rejected change by way of established methods, that is the constitutional process, in part because of the slowness of this path, in part because of the extent of the injustice, and instead advocated for actively withholding a tax (in this case, the poll tax) as a means of protest. If enough men would participate in this protest, he felt that the government would have no choice but to change the laws.

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority?  Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?

It is this second aspect that seems the more applicable to our society. We may look at his essay and think that we are doing so much better now: we no longer have institutionalized slavery—but slavery, even in the US, still exists, most commonly in the sex trade, and there are many other social injustices still present across the world, from unfair labor practices to human rights violations. I’m sure at least some of the Occupy protestors are arguing about injustices inherent in our political-economic system, not to mention the protests themselves are acts of civil disobedience.

It is easy to read “Civil Disobedience” as advocating for anti-government action in all (any) cases of perceived injustice or violations of our conscience, but this, I think, is a misinterpretation of Thoreau’s essay, and is rather, what one of my professors referred to as taking an argument to its “illogical conclusion.” Thoreau is not speaking of the everyday injustice—and most certainly not mere dissatisfaction with government policies—but the more harmful, broader injustices. In his essay, Thoreau makes clear that he would not have protested the British tax on goods which precipitated the Boston Tea Party, but rather would have done without if he didn’t wish to pay the tax. In contrast, slavery impacted not just the conveniences of life but the entirety of the lives of those enslaved. It is not about individual, selfish dissatisfaction, but the broader social good.

If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it.

It should also be noted that Thoreau understood and accepted the consequences of breaking the laws, however unjust he perceived them. In fact, he embraced the idea of imprisonment: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Most striking to me in the essay is the idea of the need for action by everyone who sees injustice or wrong. Thoreau condemns nearly all of us, for I think almost all have seen an example, large or small, corporate or individual, of an injustice that we have not acted upon. It is an uncomfortable reminder, and one which I will be ruminating over for quite some time.

Some additional quotes:

“The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.”

“…who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico…”

“It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders.”

The end of R.I.P. & Rereads

So, as usual (it seems lately), I’m running a little behind with getting to my latest post. I had intended to write the final R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril post on Monday, the actual last day, but after finishing my final book, I somehow lost the motivation.

This is the first year I’ve participated in R.I.P., and I had a lot of fun. I wish I had had more time in September to read suspenseful and Gothic reads, and I may carry on with some to end out the year (after all, I’m still trying to get to my planned Dracula reread). I also enjoyed reading many R.I.P. posts and trying not to add too many more books to my to (re)read list!

When I first signed up, I thought it likely that I would only make it through two, maybe three novels, and so only set my sights on Peril the Second. However, as of Oct. 31, the very final day, I had successfully met

Four books! I’ve already discussed Death at La Fenice and Castle of Wolfenbach, but I thought I’d take some time to comment here on my final two reads, both from the same series, Storm Front and Fool Moon.

Some years ago, my brother introduced me to Jim Butcher’s Dresden novels. I don’t know if it was the setting (contemporary Chicago) or the mystery element that suggested to him the idea that this was a fantasy series I might be interested in. Likely a combination of both. Regardless, I read the first three…and then mostly forgot about them. Whether it was the crisp of autumn air or the need for a little silliness in my reading, I finally decided to return to them. I’m hoping to finish out the series (those published to date) by the end of the year, but that’s largely dependent on library availability. However, I quickly realized that starting with book four wasn’t going to work out so well: my memory for the first three books had faded enough that I decided to start from the beginning.

There are many reasons readers choose to reread a book: The feeling of returning home or meeting with an old friend, the ability to further analyze or study a great piece of literature, the feeling that something was missed in the first read that a subsequent read might find. I’ve reread books (or plan to) for all these reasons, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone mention, when they write about rereading, the idea of rereading because they’ve plain ol’ forgotten the book they’ve read. I suppose this forgetting could suggest that perhaps the book in question isn’t really that good. But I have to reject that because there are “great books” I’ve read that I don’t really remember, so this can’t be indicative on its own. I seem to just have a faulty rememberer for some things. (Now unimportant trivia that I will never use—and that I probably don’t even care about—that I can remember. Sigh.)

I’m not about to rush out and say the Dresden novels are great literature, however. No, much like Castle of Wolfenbach, they are just plain fun. (As long as you can overlook the, er, slightly gory bits. Monsters can be messy.) They do tend to reference events in previous books, though, so it’s helpful to actually be able to remember what happened. At least, I find it less annoying when I remember what happened.

The basic premise: our main character and narrator, Harry Dresden, is a wizard and private investigator—the only practicing wizard in the greater Chicago area. The books are set in a largely gritty world where the crime not only comes from seedy supernatural characters, but organized crime as run by Johnny Marcone. They are part mystery, part fantasy, and mostly non-stop adventure. And with all the vampires, werewolves, demons, and wizards, a perfect R.I.P. read. Also, I mustn’t forget the humor (which I found more noticeable in Storm Front than Fool Moon). Beyond the magic/fantasy creatures, there’s not really anything I found special compared to any other mystery-adventure novels. As fun reads, though, they are just the thing to get one out of a reading slump (or through a read-a-thon). So as the haunting season draws to a close, I will let my supernatural reading bleed over into the approaching holidays. And maybe pick up something a little more seasonal come late December!

On Progress 2: 24-hour Read-a-thon, Oct ’11 edition

And so arrives the fall 2011 edition of Dewey’s 24-hour read-a-thon. As I did last spring, I will just have one post that I will edit as I go. Up first? I’ll let you know when I decide! Possibilities this year include Dracula and Storm Front (the first in the Harry Dresden series). Or anything I decide to pull off the bookshelves. To everyone else participating, enjoy the reading!

Introduction meme (late, as I only just now checked the read-a-thon site):

1)Where are you reading from today?
2)Three random facts about me…
3)How many books do you have in your TBR pile for the next 24 hours?
4)Do you have any goals for the read-a-thon (i.e. number of books, number of pages, number of hours, or number of comments on blogs)?
5)If you’re a veteran read-a-thoner, any advice for people doing this for the first time?

1. NE Ohio
2. I’m hopelessly addicted to chocolate; my other major hobby is knitting; I’m a bit of a tea snob as I will only drink loose-leaf tea (unless desperate)
3. Just 2, but plenty of others on the shelves if I need them
4. No goals, just to read lots & have fun!
5. This is only my 2nd read-a-thon, but I’d say stay away from non-fiction and pick fun reads!

Start of Hour 5 Update:
Time Spent Reading: +/- 2.5 hours
Book(s) Read: Storm Front (Jim Butcher)
Pages Read: 106
Thoughts: Outside of a few interruptions, it’s been a great start so far. Storm Front is a reread and I had forgotten how much humor there is in it! I’m taking a little lunch & blogging break right now, and I haven’t decided yet if I’ll continue with Storm Front or switch it up with a little Dracula. Decisions, decisions.

Start of Hour 9 Update:
Time spent reading: +/- 2.5 hours
Book(s) Read: Storm Front (Jim Butcher) & Debt: The First 5,000 Years (David Graeber)
Pages Read: 72
Thoughts: After recommending against NF, I picked up a NF book for the first half-hour of my second round of reading! Of course, I needed a bit of a break from my other book, and I knew to limit my time with it to avoid becoming depressed by my lack of pages finished. There were a few more outside distractions the past few hours, so I didn’t make as much progress. I’ve decided to finish Storm Front (I’m about halfway) before picking up Dracula. Hopefully that will be early tonight! I hope everyone else is having as much fun with this as I am!

Hour 14 Update:
Time spent reading: +/- 3.5 hours
Book(s) Read: Storm Front (Jim Butcher) – finished!
Pages Read: 185
Thoughts: Yay! I finished a book. This is the first time in forever I’ve had the time to start and complete a book all in one day. Moving on to Dracula next. Since we’re past the half-way point, I guess it’s time for the mid-event survey:

1. What are you reading right now? Dracula
2. How many books have you read so far? 1 completely
3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon? Dracula, which will almost certainly be the only book I read this half.
4. Did you have to make any special arrangements to free up your whole day? Not really—just make sure I did my cleaning yesterday.
5. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those? Not really. Just my natural ability to be easily distracted!
6. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far? How fast it’s gone.
7. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year? Not at this time.
8. What would you do differently, as a Reader or a Cheerleader, if you were to do this again next year? I’m not sure I would do anything differently. Maybe get more sleep the day before!
9. Are you getting tired yet? Not currently, but I did doze off briefly about hour 9 (4:00 pm local time). Oops!
10. Do you have any tips for other Readers or Cheerleaders, something you think is working well for you that others may not have discovered? Pick books that aren’t too difficult, have options on hand (that are different) to break things up. Sometimes I don’t need a break from reading so much as a break from the specific book/type.

Hour 16/Final update:
Time spent reading: ~ 1/2 hour
Book(s) Read: Dracula
Pages Read: 15
Thoughts: Well, this is it for me! I’ve been fighting dozing off the last half-hour or so and haven’t made much progress at all. Good luck to everyone else continuing on through the final hours!

Completed: Castle of Wolfenbach

Castle of Wolfenbach
Eliza Parsons
1793, England
Folio Press edition: London, 1968

The clock from the old castle had just gone eight when the peaceful inhabitants of a neighbouring cottage, on the skirts of the wood, were about to seek that repose which labour had rendered necessary, and minds blest with innocence and tranquillity assured them the enjoyment of. The evening was cold and tempestuous, the rain poured in torrents, and the distant thunders rolled with tremendous noise round the adjacent mountains, whilst the pale lightning added horrors to the scene.

So begins Castle of Wolfenbach, on a “dark and stormy night.” Abandoned castles, damsels in distress, kidnappings, murders, lost children, despair—it has everything one could want in an early Gothic romance except the desolate and rugged landscapes favored by later Romantics. Indeed, description is scarce, as Parsons was seemingly more concerned with telling a fast-paced dramatic tale—nay, melodramatic tale—than with her settings. Melodrama certainly reigned supreme, with our heroine and one of her earliest protectors falling pray to their emotions on seemingly near a once-a-page basis. Halfway through this brief novel, I began to feel that a more apt title (for the titular Castle made but a brief appearance) would have been She Fainted (Again). Marketing doubtless determined Castle of Wolfenbach would sell more copies.

Although the plot is almost ridiculous to the point of farcical, I did find it ridiculously fun, even prompting audible laughter at times. Admittedly, this was for the silliness of the prose or the excessive sentiments of the characters rather than any wit in the plot itself. Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe, I’m sure, were more impressed by the danger the innocent Matilda found herself in than I, 21st century reader that I am: I was never in doubt of the outcome.

Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”

“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?”

“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”

“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”

“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them…”

(Northanger Abbey)

I mention the Misses Morland and Thorpe, creatures of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, because it is only thanks to the Austen work that I discovered the earlier novel. Both Miss Morland and Thorpe are avid readers of the sensational works of the day, and while the Radcliffe remained well-known, it wasn’t until the 20th century that scholars realized a list of seven obscure works, of which Castle of Wolfenbach is one, were actual novels of the era. I only learned this history earlier this year, and knew as soon as the present Classics Circuit Gothic Literature tour was announced I would have to read one of the “Northanger Horrid Novels” as they are now known.

There is plenty for the 21st century reader to critique: the aforementioned excess of fainting, the implausibility of the plot, the moralizing (too much for those extremely allergic to moralizing, but easily ignorable in the context of the story—although I did find it a bit more hammered home at the end), the stereotyped characters—innocent damsels, valiant heroes, dastardly villains. (Only one character, a minor personage who could almost have been omitted from the story, showed any evidence of a rounded character.) My absolute favorite element however was Pasons’ fondness for the semi-colon; I found sentences with as many as five of these joining independent clauses together. Surprisingly, this did nothing to affect the readability of the work. I merely found it an amusing style. (And yes, I was very tempted to string the last three sentences together in imitation.)

Despite any criticisms to be found, it is as I noted an enjoyable (and fast) read. I envision Parsons as perhaps a Dan Brown or Brad Meltzer of her day, the writer of fast-paced suspense thrillers that are a joy to read but forgotten as the years pass. I am curious  to read the remainder of the “Northanger Horrids” and will doubtless be returning to them down the road.

Read as part of the October 2011 Gothic Lit Classics Circuit tour. My first! Find other tour participants here.

Castle of Wolfenbach also qualifies as my second R.I.P. read of the season—I’ve successfully completed Peril the Second!

Completed: The Great Disruption

The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World
Paul Gilding
Bloomsbury Press: New York
2011

I feel like I’ve had an interest in environmental issues forever. My mom has always been an advocate for organic gardening and “green cleaning.” My dad has spent the last 30+ years biking or walking to work—in all weather. My 5th grade teacher was an environmentalist and so led the school in a P.E.P. week (“Planning Environmental Protection”) every spring. I had a semester-long required course in college that dealt with environmental issues from a building standpoint (and for extra credit I went to visit a completely off-grid house). In the architectural world, “green” has been a growing trend, and I have participated in two projects which earned LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for meeting certain environmental standards. So when I first heard about The Great Disruption I was intrigued.

The frightening thing about The Great Disruption is how much it appeals to commonsense—frightening because the environmental outlook as painted by Paul Gilding may well be bleak. Reading it, I couldn’t help but be swayed by Gilding’s arguments: that the earth is already full, that we are fast approaching the limits of growth (if we haven’t hit them already), and that when the crash comes it won’t just be environmental but economic. Fortunately, Gilding offers up an optimistic view of what he thinks will happen next: a swift and effective response by humanity that will transform the world and our lives for the better. That said, the book is written in such a conversational manner and without the rigor of a scientific paper that I don’t think it would sway anyone not already inclined towards his viewpoints. (That is, if you don’t believe that global warming is a real phenomenon, you’re not going to be moved by his arguments.) However, it wasn’t the environmental warnings—and Gilding’s background is largely as an environmentalist, including a stint with Greenpeace—that really made an impression on me, it was the economic arguments. In some ways I felt as if the subtitle should have been “It’s the Economy, Stupid!”

In all this though, there is a surprising case for optimism. As a species, we are good in a crisis, and passing the limits will certainly be the biggest crisis our species has ever faced. Our backs will be up against the wall, and in that situation we have proven ourselves to be extraordinary. As the full scale of the imminent crisis hits us, our response will be proportionally dramatic, mobilizing as we do in war. We will change at a scale and speed we can barely imagine today, completely transforming our economy, including our energy and transport industries, in just a few short decades. Perhaps most surprisingly we will also learn there is more to life than shopping. We will break our addiction to growth, accept that more stuff is not making our lives better and focus instead on what does.¹

The bulk of the book deals with the intertwining of the environment and economics. His view is that we can’t use economic excuses to avoid dealing with environmental issues because the environment itself is what provides our economy. For example, if we chose to continue to overfish because we don’t want to put anyone out of work, eventually there will be no fish and the industry will collapse anyways, as happened in Newfoundland in the 1990s. Further, the resources on this planet—renewable and nonrenewable alike—are finite. We only have one planet; we are in a closed-loop system. Gilding points to research by the Global Footprint Network as showing that we are already using a total of 1.4 earths of resources per year—we are borrowing against the future. From there he draws the logical conclusion that growth cannot continue indefinitely, including economic growth. I don’t have enough background knowledge to know whether Global Footprint Network’s conclusions are disputed or not, but the logic that we are in a closed system and therefore growth has a limit is sound. The only question is how soon before growth must stop. Gilding suggests that the recent economic crisis (both 2008 and the continuing unease today) is due in part to humanity bumping up against the limits.

This of course flies in the face of just about every government leader out there. They see growth as a way to strengthen their economy, create jobs, and therefore maintain stability and power—which makes sense. So the question is, what happens if we can’t grow anymore? Gilding takes an optimistic view that we will, with some bumps and bruises admittedly, simply change the system to a better system. It was here, in the second half of his book that he lost me a bit. I didn’t necessarily have any issue with what he was saying, as his logic usually made sense, but I can’t wrap my head around the idea of a steady-state no growth economy, even while I acknowledge the concept of growth limitations. I’m also didn’t feel as convinced for Gilding’s state of optimism as to how we will react. If I assume he is correct, that the crisis point is soon, well, I find myself highly skeptical that we as a world will react on time. Too many people are skeptical that a problem is coming and there are too many vested interests (economic) in maintaining the status quo—assuming it is maintainable. I can’t say for certain though, whether my skepticism arises from my own cynicism or from a breakdown in Gilding’s logic.

One surprising thing as I read this book was how relevant it felt. Granted, it just came out in April, but as I read the earliest chapters especially, I felt that some of the statements could be coming straight from Occupy Wall Street. So I wasn’t all that surprised to find a quote from Gilding in a New York Times opinion column about the demonstrations. Just as Gilding sees the financial difficulties as a sign we are reaching our limits, he sees Occupy Wall Street and other protests as a sign of this as well:

Our system of economic growth, of ineffective democracy, of overloading planet earth — our system — is eating itself alive. Occupy Wall Street is like the kid in the fairy story saying what everyone knows but is afraid to say: the emperor has no clothes. The system is broken.²

While this certainly doesn’t go down well with those dependent on the current economic structure (oh shoot, that’s all of us!), it certainly provides something sobering to think about. What does it mean if Gilding is actually right?

1. From The Great Disruption, Chapter 1 (page 2, U.S. first edition).
2. Quoted in Thomas L. Friedman’s Oct. 11, 2011 New York Times op-ed “There’s Something Happening Here”