The NI bookshelf: eyes to the future

BooksWEBHere at Natural Investments, we’re always looking ahead, yet also aware that we can’t ever quite see what’s over the horizon.  In addition to reading a wide range of the latest economic thinking, we’re curious about bigger-picture guides to our possible futures.  Will we muddle along, or find a way to break through to a saner social order?  What about breakdown – how can we deal with our sorrows about what is already being lost?  Several recent books have nourished our hearts and minds in these realms; perhaps you’ll find yourself drawn to look more deeply into one or more of these prisms through which today’s world can be seen.

Joanna Macy’s new book, written with Chris Johnstone is Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy, helps us to face our sorrow and uncertainty about what is happening in these years, while maintaining our sense of gratitude and connection with things that feed us.  Joanna and Chris don’t pretend that they know we’ll find a way to dodge catastrophe; rather, they invite us into the adventure of the uncertain outcome: “When we know the future isn’t yet decided, there is room for us to play a role in influencing what happens.”

Other recent books paint vivid pictures of the ways that we could succeed in remaking the world, though they approach the knife’s edge of our times from very different places.

Frances Moore Lappé’s Ecomind urges us to reframe our thinking and attitudes, noticing that overarching ideas like “scarcity” and “end of growth” may result from distorted collective and media narratives that highlight the darker news of our time.  The book is full of real world success stories about projects and initiatives that could reshape society for the better. Some of her ideas are yet another echo of the longtime cry that all we have to do is change “the systems” around which we’ve organized our society. Much more powerful are Lappé’s reminders of the many ways that we can reframe our thinking by building on what does work, rather than being trapped in what does not. (Here’s an hour-long video of Lappé talking about the themes of this book.)

Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis, makes a surprisingly strong case for the possibility that the world we inhabit a generation from now will be far less grim than we fear. While sidestepping some of the darker corners of our environmental and social failures, his overwhelmingly optimistic view of the path forward is built on several key themes.  First, he’s enthused by the exponential developments in technology; he sees internet connectivity fostering cooperation and third-world education (and so also diverse life options and social creativity), and he expects currently unforeseen breakthrough solutions to key global issues of clean water, health, and food.  He also has high hopes for the role of do-it-yourself innovators in many realms, with the possibility that big solutions can come from small startups rather than giant governmental or industrial research programs.  And he champions the role of techno-philanthropists, who have a far more global focus than foundation philanthropy of the past, and are jumpstarting new entrepreneurial micro-enterprises that can fill social needs in a more enduring and adaptive way than simple charity funding. His optimism about technology may rub deep greens the wrong way (especially his enthusiasm for careful use of GMOs), but this is the most realistic-seeming of the books that see a “breakthrough” that I’ve yet come across.

On the other side of the coin, a wide range of books peer directly into the most unsustainable aspects of modern society and come up with conclusions that will keep you up at night. Richard Heinberg’s The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, provides a well-researched assertion that exponential economic growth, the bedrock of our modern economy, has already bumped up against ecological limits and debt accumulation that imperil the financial system. (Here’s a half-hour video of Heinberg talking his book.)

Bridging the divide is Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World. He pull no punches about the rough waters ahead, but posits that political and economic institutions will kick into gear as the climate crisis becomes acute, and “drive a response that is overwhelming in scale and speed and will go right to the core of our societies.” Once we tackle climate change, Gilding foresees that we will inevitably be forced to break our addiction to resource-intensive materialism, and create an economy that fosters creativity and a higher quality of life. (And, a Gilding video)

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Jim Cummings

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