Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Book Review: Whatever Happened to Thrift

When I spotted "thrift" in the title of this slim little volume I snatched it off the shelves of my local Library. Whatever Happened to Thrift: Why Americans Don't Save and What to Do About It is a 2008 publication from Yale University Press that addresses a few of the topics near and dear to the Greenie heart. I think that this book does have direct applications to understanding the push to consume, and how to restore thrift as a trait to be rewarded and prized in our society.

Wilcox makes several statements that resounded with me about the implications of not saving enough in our personal and household funds. Quite simply, the less we save as people we less we have to give to charity, to donate to new technology and research, and it proves a profound impact on individual support of the arts. Most importantly, it affects out ability to cope with the "expected unexpected" of job loss, economic downturn, or sudden life shifts the likes of which we are seeing. We've seen less of household savings through the years, and the numbers seem to grow tremendously larger among lower income families and those that are borderline poor by U.S. standards.

Wilcox begins to address the "whys" of our lack of savings in his second chapter. Wilcox shoots down two theories that are common in the world of finger pointing. Credit cards are frequently cited as supplying easy credit and causing people to go into debt. Though the free flow of credit is certainly a symptom, he directs our point of view back to the uncomfortable fact that we ourselves are more of the instigating factor.

I liked his discussion of "consumption information" and "consumption cues" that we pick up from other people around us. However he makes a point I absolutely never thought of or realized. That "something happens with this kind of casual empiricism, when we gather information about what we think is appropriate for us based on conversations with others and our observations of their consumption. We do tend to recall the consumption choices that we like and forget the others more readily. When we see something that pleases us, we take notice and this translates into stronger memories. Over time our view of what is normal among our reference group shifts to something that is not entirely representative of actual consumption; our memory is biased and constructs a sort of idealized typical." (page 26)

What this says to me is that people look at other people and think that their level of acquisitions is the norm and want to respond accordingly, but fail to see the complete picture. Did the Jones family have to give up good food to drive their fancy car? Did the Smiths sell out on education to buy designer? Wilcox prods us to look at a deeper picture with our economic choices so that we can view situations with a holistic viewpoint. See the big picture, what our choices provide us and what they limit us to do.

Wilcox provides further information on the psychology of money, our viewpoints of thrift and thoughts on the politics of savings. Financial literacy was a term that I related to.......are we literate? How can we be the one of the wealthiest nations on earth (hello all you APLS) yet have one of the lowest rates of savings? Wilcox has further ideas on household savings and how to reinvent thrift as a prized quality for your household.

I was initially attracted to this book because of the title. Thrift feeds right into Greenie thoughts to me, kind of a use-it-up and wear-it-out philosophy. He made several good points on financial savings, and how it ties into our overall view of ourselves and our future.

I guess at this point I'm further along with the recognition of a renewed need for thrift, and how we've bastardized it to an extent in our consumer society. This book didn't rock my world, but it was a nice read on a topic that I think we can all look further into as we analyze how to best use our resources. Wilcox provides more of a framework for understanding some of the simple psychology of money and savings, and how we can begin to reinvent thrift in our lives and households.

For folks just getting going with more of an economic analysis of their future it is a nice approachable read that doesn't really cast a judgement, but does offer insight on the social, political, and economic outcomes for our excessive ways. I'd rate it as a 3 out of 5 stars for Green readers.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Monday Roundup

Happy Monday everybody! I'm using a picture from my Blog Out Loud homemade bumper sticker series from this summer as my image for this week. The green blogosphere buzz this week has been on embracing our personal responsibility in changing the tide of our country. I'm not going to say that my quasi-obnoxious stickers change the tide, but they certainly got some laughs and hand claps as I doodled about town.

What is on your bookshelf this week? Are you working on something new or something recommended? Share your thoughts. Green readers want to know.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Book Review: Little Heathens

"Little Heathens" by Mildred Armstrong Kadish is a little gem of a book. It is a memoir from the author’s childhood, which was spent on a farm in Iowa during the depression. The chapters paint such vivid pictures of life during that time that I actually recognized remnants of that era in my own family history.

I loved this book. I found it to be a kind of "Little House on the Prairie" set in the ‘30's. What impressed me the most was how hard everyone had to work. If we made our kids work that hard today, it wouldn’t be long before we received a nice little visit from a state social worker! Instead of being harmed by all the hard work, though, it set the author up with character and a work ethic that served her well the rest of her life. Made me wonder if I should be assigning a couple chores to my 4-year-old. :)

I’m not sure how much of the hard work reported in "Little Heathens" was due to the fact that the depression was happening versus how much was normal rural life without modern conveniences like electricity and running water. The main difference I can surmise is that during the depression, the adults lived with the constant worry that if they couldn’t pay their taxes, they would lose their property. (I remember from the "Frontier House" shows on PBS that the kids had a much easier time adjusting than the parents, and I can guess that the same was true during the depression.)

Kadish's family had to make everything, and do everything, from scratch – not unlike what some in the eco-movement are trying to recreate today. In depression era rural Iowa, however, there was no choice. After all that work, is it any wonder that people embraced every time saving and labor saving product invented? Now, of course, we recognize the wastefulness of some of those products. What a gift we have to be able to choose which labor saving technology to embrace and which to reject!

I’d give this beautifully written book an enthusiastic 5 out of 5 stars, recommended for all readers high school and up (there is some language you might not want your kids to read). I couldn’t put it down, and when I finished the last page, I returned to the preface. Before I knew it, I had reread the first three chapters. I would have kept right on reading, but I had work to do.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Monday Roundup

Happy MLK Day, everyone! What a coincidence to have Obama's inaugeration be tomorrow!

On other topics...
Is it cold where you are? Compared to reports coming out of the midwest, we've had balmy weather, but we've been stuck in the '30's for a week and it sure feels cold. Perfect weather to curl up with a mug of hot chocolate and a book! I'd be reading up a storm except that I'm in the middle of a rewrite of my book so I'm editing up a storm.

I did read one terrific book, though, that I'll review later this week: Little Heathens. How about you? What's everybody else reading? Or reviewing? Please drop us a comment and we (well, OK, Chile) will add your book or review to the Bookworm.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Book Review: Hot, Flat & Crowded

I was happy to see the comment last week on the Monday roundup from Heather at Simple Green Frugal that she was going to review Thomas Friedman's latest book. And even happier when she agreed to share her review here. Heather's review is the premier for Hot, Flat and Crowded at the Bookworm. After reading the review I anticipate seeing more reviews for it though. Thanks for being first, Heather!

Although I've seen him interviewed a number of times on The Daily Show, "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" was my first Thomas Friedman read. The premise of the book is that the Earth as we know it today is "hot" (in the wake of global warming), "flat" (technology in communication and commerce has made it a "small world after all" in that we have access to the world, it's knowledge, and it's products with a second's notice), and "crowded" (the Earth's population is growing at an alarming rate).

As global warming meets instant gratification for a world full of people by today's standards of consumption, we get a host of problems ranging from what he calls "petrodictatorship" (the people against whom we are fighting the war on terror are the same people from whom we buy our oil - just a little conflict of interest) to widespread energy crisis (all the coal in the world can't get every human being up to the American standard of living).

Friedman stresses that America has fallen behind in it's status as a world leader; that while other countries have braced for the challenges ahead and are decades farther along in the pursuit of energy independence, economic stability, and sustainable living, the US has become lax. In generations past, we were such a leader and we can become one again, but only with determination, focus, and innovation.

“We have been living for far too long on borrowed time and borrowed dimes. We need to get back to work on our country and on our planet. The hour is late, the stakes couldn't be higher, the project couldn't be harder, the payoff couldn't be greater.”

He goes on to insist that,

“...if all the world's people start to live like us, it would herald a climate and biodiversity disaster. Does that mean that we don't want people to live like us anymore? No. It means that we have to take the lead in redesigning and reinventing what living like us means... Because if the spread of freedom and free markets is not accompanied by a new approach to how we produce energy and treat the environment, then Mother Nature and planet earth will impose their own constraints on our way of life - constraints and limitations that will be worse than communism... Without it, we are not going to be free much longer - and neither will anybody else.”

So far so good. I'm following along nicely. With the middle classes in China and India growing and demanding the "American" lifestyle, the Earth can't keep up with our consumption requirements. The Earth can't meet our demands and unfortunately, we're not really in a position to call the shots (aka Mother Earth certainly has the power to kick us kids out of the house). But then in his solutions, he contradicts himself from one chapter to another. In one chapter he says we can't "force" companies to go green and in other chapters, he says that in a green revolution, companies must be green or die. Ok.

Another example, and a quote I heartily agree with, Friedman says,

“Green is a value that needs to be preserved in and of itself, not because it's going to make your bank account richer, because it makes life richer and always has. At the end of the day that is what the "ethic of conservation" is also about. An ethic of conservation declares that maintaining our natural world that is a value that is impossible to quantify but also impossible to ignore, because of the sheer beauty, wonder, joy, and magic that nature brings to being alive.”

Sounds great, but in an earlier chapter, in a literary illustration of what the future might look like, he describes a very Jetsonian (as in the cartoon the Jetsons) lifestyle where every little nook and cranny of life is managed for us by a computer. Do you remember the Jetsons being very in touch with the "sheer beauty, wonder, joy and magic that nature brings to being alive?" His quote talks about being in touch with nature, yet an entire chapter earlier in the book is about how the green revolution will mean more "stuff" for everyone. Everyone can have the consumeristic American lifestyle. Yeah. Great.

But if I had to sum up Friedman's solution to "hot, flat, and crowded" in four words it would be "technology will save us." This is where it all falls apart for me. Heaven forbid anyone actually reduce their consumption. That would be un-American. Now, I'm not saying that there's no place for technology (in a sustainable future there certainly is); but this utopia he creates where the US government leads the world to create an entirely new infrastructure where the whole world can live the American dream through constant economic growth as well as endless consumption (but who cares because it's all sustainably powered) theory is a bit unrealistic, no?

Not that I believe it's wrong to work toward that utopian dream where the world's supply of products is produced in sustainable buildings, using sustainable resources; and he is definitely on the right track when he explain how and why we need to rethink the way we build buildings, do business, and engineer vehicles... but that's only one piece of the puzzle and frankly, Friedman pokes fun at what I view as a very equal and necessary puzzle piece - the power of the individual to do great things.

In the chapter, "205 Easy Ways to Save the Earth," he remarks that the efforts of the current "green revolution" isn't a revolution at all, but rather a costume party where we all have fun and the only thing that matters is that we "look" green. It's the fashion of the day. To a point I agree. The movement HAS to be more than everyone changing their light bulbs, but at the same time there are REAL people out there making REAL changes. Tell No Impact Man (or the lives he's inspired) that his journey has been for naught because within seconds consumptive demands in China negate anything he has ever done.

We have to fight this battle for life on planet Earth in two ways. Sure, our government (and I agree it HAS to be the US government) MUST lead the world in making innovative changes to reduce our impact on the Earth. BUT (and I think Friedman greatly underestimates us), there are people who know the stakes, they understand the odds, and they make changes in their life every day as well as inspire others in the process. And so has evolved a generation of individuals who see this goal of endless economic growth as the joke that it is. They know that living a simpler, greener, and more frugal life isn't about deprivation, it's about reconnecting with what makes us human. It's about health, and happiness, and quality of life. Great. Fund technology, give us wind and solar power, give us greener options, but don't underestimate the power of a simpler life; a life more in tune with the earth; a life without the distraction of "stuff."

Ok. I'm off my soapbox. Back to the book. Honestly, I learned a lot and it's worth spending the time to read. I agree with his synopsis of the problems, but in the end his solution sounds like a world with just more "stuff." I don't believe that is the answer. Technology can and will help us, but so will good old-fashioned values where nothing goes wasted. If you do check out the book, don't be discouraged that we are wasting our time in pursuit of a more simple-green-frugal life. I believe the only way out of what he calls "hot, flat, and crowded" is mindfulness. The kind us little guys practice every single day.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Monday Round Up

Now that Chile and Green Bean spent the last week cleaning up around here it's time to sit back, put up our feet, grab a warm blanket and start reading.

What books have you got going these days? Are there any new titles out there? It's that time of the year when the new books start hitting the shelves and I've got my antennae up for some great reads.

Or did you finish a green read over the long holiday and post a new review? Let me know and I'll link your review to our ever growing resource of them.

We're always looking to add to this community of readers and reviewers. Please let me know if you aren't on the sidebar but would like to include your blog in the conversations and contribute reviews, thoughts on books and opinions on what we're reading. I'll be happy to make our bloggers list longer.

Non-bloggers are also welcome and we encourage those reviews too. Leave a comment and I'll provide an email if that's the case.

Now, which book was I going to read?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Unveiling the New Book List

As you may have noticed, a great deal of information has disappeared from the sidebar. Do not fear, however, it is now all contained in one big list of the ecologically relevant books on our website. Subtitles and authors' names are now included on the list for all the books.

All of the reviews by Blogging Bookworms are also included in this index, listed under each book that has been reviewed. The reviews are listed in chronological order since some reviews take up where others left off.

Please check out the new and improved list of Ecologically Relevant Books. I welcome any feedback you have on this new format.

If you have suggestions for additional books to add, or a review of something on the list, please let us know on the Monday Round Up post! Updates to the "Big List" will happen approximately once a week.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Review: The Green Collar Economy

Dear Mr. President-Elect.

In less than two weeks, you will be inaugurated and will have more power to change the world than most of us dream of. I am sure you are being bombarded by pleas, petitions, and emails. Well, I know you are because I've signed a number of those.

The American people have big plans for you and a lot of hope. We are looking for real change and you have signaled that, at a minimum, with respect to Climate Change, you will give it. You are proposing billions of dollars for new green jobs in an effort to stimulate the economy. A Green New Deal, in effect.

I hope that, before making that proposal, you and/or your advisers read The Green Collar Economy by Oakland activist, Van Jones. It's a great book that emphasizes the importance of growing a greener, cleaner economy and doing it by including all segments of the population - those in the inner cities, the rural dwellers, the incarcerated, the highly educated and those without a degree. Mr. Jones explains that, to be successful, this movement needs to be about providing economic opportunities and a better life, and not just "saving the earth."

Mr. Jones lays out all kinds of green jobs - from increasing energy efficiency and building renewables to mass transit, reducing waste and farming, the greenest job of all. He explores how we can train a legion of new green collar workers and how we can transition more highly skilled workers into greener careers.

I'd be happy to lend you my copy of the book but my husband wants to read it first. He's interested in green business ideas and boy, oh boy, is this book overflowing with lots of those. For instance, Mr. Jones talks about a Los Angeles-based group called Tree-People that works to reduce water pollution by building cisterns to capture water and reduce polluted storm run off while creating hundreds of jobs. It is estimated that, over a period of thirty years, the city and country will save $300 million in water and other costs. Imagine if we expanded that from the LA area to state or country-wide. We'd be rolling in green dough and reveling in fresh water.

The great thing about this book is that Mr. Jones gets it. He understands that we are in the midst of an economic melt down. That we are facing a dramatically heating planet with dwindling resources. But he also gets that if we all work together - and that includes the government, Mr. Obama - then we can come up with some really inventive solutions that will not only create jobs and stimulate the economy but also provide us with a cleaner, healthier planet and a better lifestyle.

You might want to ask all members of your Cabinet to read this and, heck, go ahead and recommend it to the public at large. Everyone can find something useful from this book. Personally, I'd rank it 4.5 out of 5 and recommend it for anyone interested in living green or getting a job.

Good luck in the next four years. I'm counting on some real green changes.


Green Bean

Friday, January 9, 2009

There's a New Vegetable in the Worm Bin

It's hot and spicy and Chile from Chile Chews all over. Chile has been kind enough to volunteer her famous de-cluttering skills for The Blogging Bookworm's unwieldy sidebar lists.
You'll be seeing some changes around here. A cleaner blog, easier to find books by topic and more readable links to reviews. Please give Chile a big bite, I mean hug, and thank her for her help.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Calling All Brainiacs

Our good friend, Chile at Chile Chews, alerted us to an uber cool Science-Book Challenge. As there are a ton of books that are both "ecologically relevant" and science books, we thought we'd give all you bookworms a heads up.

The rules for the Science Book Challenge are as follows:

1) Read at least three nonfiction books in 2009 related somehow to the theme "Nature's Wonders". Your books should have something to do with science, scientists, how science operates, or science's relationship with its surrounding culture. Your books might be popularizations of science, they might be histories, they might be biographies, they might be anthologies; they can be recent titles or older books. We take a very broad view of what makes for interesting and informative science reading.

2) After you've read a book, write a short note about it, giving your opinion of the book. What goes in the note? The things you would tell a friend if you wanted to convince your friend to read it--or avoid it. Naturally, you can read some of the existing Book Notes for ideas. You might like to read our Book-note ratings for ideas about how to evaluate your books.

3) Don't worry if you find that you've read a book someone else has also read; we welcome multiple notes on one title.

4) Get your book note to us and we'll post it with the other notes in our Book Note section. Use the book-note form or the comment form to get in touch with us.

5) Tell other people about the Science-Book Challenge:

So if you are interested in eco-books with a science bent, wiggle on over and sign up. If you would like to cross-post your reviews on The Blogging Bookworm as well, please give me a shout at greenbeandreams(AT)gmail(DOT)com.

Happy non-fiction reading.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Book Review: Three Cups of Tea

Many thanks to Joyce from tallgrassworship for sharing yet another review with us. This time, she's reviewed a Blogging Bookworm favorite. It is wonderful to get so many perspectives on the book. We all seem to come to the same conclusion, though . . .

Over the past year, several friends have highly recommended Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time. I finally finished it this week, and I agree with them; it's a very inspiring read.

Greg Mortenson is a son of missionaries who spent a good part of his childhood in Africa. After a tour of duty in the military, he was pursuing his hobby of mountaineering in the Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan in 1993 when an aborted climb landed him in an extremely remote mountain village. The relationships he developed there, and his recognition of the deep desire the villagers had for an educated future for their children, ignited a passion in him for building a school for the village. Single-handedly, and against tremendous odds, he raised the funds, located the materials, and oversaw the labor of the villagers themselves to bring the first educational opportunity to their children. When word of this accomplishment got out in the surrounding area, other village leaders came to him to beg that he would help them do the same.

Eventually he formed the Central Asia Institute, a foundation set up to continue building schools in the most remote and politically fragile areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the Taliban attempts to deny access to education for girls, and where radical madrassas train boys in the most extreme form of Islam. Mortenson's schools are open to girls as well as boys, and offer a standard secular education. Many who have followed the progress of the Central Asia Institute recognize it as the best hope for opening the area to peaceful relations with the West, as well as offering opportunities for these remote villagers to raise up teachers, medical workers, and leaders from their own ranks.

Mortenson's work in a region of the world that is currently in conflict with the U.S. has drawn the attention of Congressional leaders. He has been asked to brief Congress on conditions in the Afghan-Pakistan border area. He has put a human face on the people of Central Asia, and championed their desire to find ways to raise themselves up and interact peacefully with the West.

Reading the book is a terrific way to gain an understanding of a part of the world that may be daily in the news, but remains a mystery to most Americans. The ruggedness of the terrain, the misunderstandings of culture, the differences between the various strains of Islam, and the challenges the West faces in dealing with the emergence of radical Islam are all explored in Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson was in that part of the world when 9-11 occurred. He was captured and held by the Taliban at one point, and feared for his life. Yet, his love for the ordinary villagers caught in the maelstrom of war shines through in his work for them.

I came way with two thoughts: first, that the fruit of his efforts is only now beginning to ripen, as the first students of his schools reach adulthood and go on to higher education, leaving their villages for further training, and having interaction with the wider world. We will see the snowball effect of this as we move into the future. Secondly, as horrifying as 9-11 was, and perpetrated by those bent on evil, this one good has come from it: the attention on Mortenson's work that resulted has brought his organization the recognition and funding it deserves, and has lead to a burst of school building that will be, in my opinion, impossible to be erased by the Taliban, no matter how much they may try to eliminate the CAI schools. It is possible that the ultimate effect of bin Laden's attack on the U.S. will be the cultural and political opening of Central Asia to the rest of the world. It will be fascinating to watch.

I highly recommend this book, giving it five stars.

To learn more about CAI and it's work, check out their site. If you order the book through that site, or through Amazon, a portion of the cost will go toward Mortenson's work.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Monday Roundup

Now that we've all got our green book resolutions going, anyone actually start reading anything? Reviewing anything?

I still have Big Box Swindle in my car, waiting for a spare moment. So far, it's fantastic and I'm hoping January yields some quiet time that allows for more than reading seed catalogs. I hope to get a review of Green Collar Economy up this week too.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Resolve to Read a Green Book

Environmentally relevant books can open your eyes, shift your paradigm, educate your mind and spark a movement to save the planet. Are you planning on reading any green books this year? Skim the reviews to find out what other eco-bookworms think of various book worms or check out the various sidebar categories to find books on subjects that matter most to you: green marketplace, sustainable food, the list is a long one. Add reading a green book to your list of New Year's Resolutions and share what you plan to read this coming year (or month).

Happy New Year from the wormers.