'Here on Earth,' 'The Forgotten Founding Father,' and Other Books Reviewed
This week: a breathtaking new history of the Earth offers us the path of Gaia or Medea, Noah Webster restored to us as father of the American language and political identity, and a new novel of rapacious capitalism in Latin America.
A Saturn V rocket rises in agonizingly slow motion, spewing an orange stream of fire as it carries three astronauts of Apollo 12 on the second trip to the moon. The first few minutes of Godfrey Reggio's film Koyaanisqatsi, set to a hypnotic Philip Glass soundtrack, place humanity on the boundary of our terrestrial world. From dark and silent orbit the Earth looks harmonious, eternal, a calmly beautiful swirl of blue, white, and green. Below, the chaotic drama of biological activity unfolds on a thin film above Earth's silicate crust, where Reggio's subtitle describes the destructive potential of our species: Life Out of Balance.
For the Australian scientist and environmental activist Tim Flannery in his thoughtful and elegantly written new book Here on Earth, we are at the crossroads: will the next era of our planet be characterized by increasing ecological harmony, as Gaia, or by devastating imbalance, as Medea? Gaia was the nourishing Mother Earth in Greek mythology. Born of the empty void Chaos, she was one of the most ancient Gods. The scientist James Lovelock named his influential theory of global interconnectedness the Gaia hypothesis after her. The world, he argued, is a self-regulating system of tightly coupled actors, ranging from bacteria to trees to the rocks and air themselves, which in aggregate create the planetary conditions optimal for life.
This has the initial ring of new-age holism, but in practice synthesizes the spectrum of evolutionary symbioses into a compelling narrative. The rainbow of life in a coral reef is founded on the partnership between polyps and algae. Through a process first explained by Darwin, they can form protective atoll reefs, creating both a habitat for thousands of species and a microclimate tuned for the reef's growth. More basically, the very world we know has been optimized for life. Life transformed the Earth, and in the process made possible an even greater variety of lifeforms. The seas of ancient Earth were acidic and saturated with heavy metals, and the atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide. Primordial bacteria began to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, reducing the acidity of the oceans and creating a protective ozone layer, and absorbed small amounts of the reactive metals to use as biological catalysts. Over hundreds of millions of years these metals gradually accumulated on the seafloor as the bacteria died, as the crust changes and folds, these became the ore deposits we mine for minerals today. And all of the oil, coal, and natural gas we now burn for fuel are the fossil remnants of billions of years of energy stored by photosynthesis as ancient life removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
The evolution and geology of the planet, then, is intricately linked on the grandest of scales with the evolution of life. And this process, too, has created conditions which are finely tuned for more life: acid-neutral oceans, UV protection, an optimal temperature.
But there is another side to this story of interconnected harmony: the Medea hypothesis of paleontologist Peter Ward is named after the mythological figure who killed her own children, her brother, and her uncle in various acts of accident and revenge. The Medean world is one out of balance, where over competition leads to mass extinction. It is a hypothesis of tragedy and self destruction, which Ward believes has caused many of the major prehistoric extinctions.
One of the defining characteristics of a Medean extinction is the disruption of the carbon cycle. Though there are many ways this could happen, the most common argument goes like this: as the concentration of carbon dioxide approaches 1000 parts per million, temperatures rise and the warmed oceans stop circulating. This deprives the ocean depths of oxygen and allows sulphur bacteria to thrive, which then release large amounts of poisonous hydrogen sulphide into the atmosphere, depleting the ozone layer, and killing 95 percent of species on both land and sea. An event like this happened 250 million years ago.
Gaia and Medea are powerful metaphors, as well, for human evolution and development. We are accustomed to the drastic environmental transmutations of modern agriculture and urban life, but Flannery points out that humans have deeply shaped our environment for much longer. Early homo sapiens was a colonizer too, 100,000 years ago, spreading across the planet from Africa's Rift Valley. Within a few thousand years of human arrival on Australia, all the continent's megafauna were hunted to extinction. The same thing happened on the arrival of homo sapiens to the Americas, where mammoths, horses, giant camels, and sloths all became extinct as well, and this transformed once-thriving grassland ecosystems into barren plains. Humans were too competitive, too good at hunting animals that had yet to evolve defenses against us. This illustrates our Medean flaw: a strong preference for short-term benefits (like lots of fresh meat) over the long-term stability of our environment.
For Flannery, though, the greatest threat and greatest example of our shortsightedness is global warming and its possible disruption to the carbon cycle. The costs are high to us, but they are even worse to the incredibly fertile, fragile, and interconnected web of species which has evolved over millions of years and which sustains the Earth as we know it.
Though Here on Earth starts out as a book of natural history, each of Flannery's essays range from geology to history to government and philosophy with stunning fluidity. Like the scenes in Koyaanaskatsi, these transformations occur with subtlety and poetry. At best, Flannery's essays are reminiscent of the beautiful explanations of natural processes of John McPhee or Edward O. Wilson (who was clearly an influence), and Flannery ultimately delivers a cohesive, wise, and quietly impassioned plea for ecological action.
Cultural evolution happens much faster and is more powerful than genetic evolution. Modifying the coinage of Richard Dawkins for the unit of cultural evolution (preferring the Greek-rooted 'mneme' over 'meme'), Flannery sees final hope in the propagation of mnemes that promote environmentally responsible living across societies and individuals. It is deeply appropriate that one of Gaia's daughters is Mnemosyne, a titaness and the personification of memory: science's discoveries are like newfound memories of Earth's past and of our own evolution. We must learn from those memories if we are to build a Life in Balance.
— Alexander Fabry, Contributor
Our Founding Wordsmith
It may be hard for us to appreciate the significance that a dictionary held in the days before everyone walked around with devices in their pockets containing just about the entirety of human knowledge. More than a reference to consult upon encountering a new word, a dictionary was a document encapsulating not only a culture's lexicographical dictums, but also its political and moral ones as well. In Joshua Kendall's biography of Noah Webster, titled The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture he shows how Webster's creation of his eponymous dictionary helped engender a feeling of American identity during a time when many felt that the United States should operate as a loose affiliation of European-style states. Kendall makes it clear that we have much more to thank Webster for besides the extraction of that pesky letter u from words like "colour."
This is a full biography of Webster, not just an examination of his most famous work, and in fact it's not until about two-thirds of the way through the book that we see his dictionary begin to take shape. Logophiles may skim through the earlier stages of Webster's life to get to the good stuff, but they will miss out on the foundation of Kendall's compelling argument; namely that his masterpiece would never have been completed if it weren't for the features (mainly defects, it turns out) of Webster's character that emerged over the course of his life. Time after time, we see Webster retreat from romantic, financial, and professional failure into a world of obsessive analysis. (Whenever he visited a new city, he made sure to personally count the number of houses it contained, which he would record in a table along with other marginalia.) Writes Kendall, "Webster would always prefer doing—whether it be rushing off to war or compiling a massive reference work—to feeling."
Part paean and part take-down, Kendall depicts Webster as both a genius and a fool, a fastidious and arrogant man capable of alienating his supporters and offending his audiences, but also, despite his grandiose literary airs, a man with an incredible capacity for examination and definition. When he finally completed his dictionary after two decades of work, he delivered to his country a text as ingenious and divisive as he was, containing his religious piety along with his fierce patriotism.
The second main argument of the book is that Webster deserves to have his name mentioned with the other heavy-hitters of the American founding, and Kendall makes a convincing case. Readers may be surprised at the company that Webster kept; heir to Franklin, confidant to Washington, and associate of Hamilton, his biography reads almost like an American History textbook. When he was not busy establishing the standard for American English, he also found time to invent the modern book tour, spearhead copyright law, revolutionize literary marketing, found Amherst College, and mount a defense of ratification of the Constitution that was perhaps more influential than the Federalist Papers. Kendall has shown that we would do well to remember Noah Webster, whether we are discussing the American Experiment at large or simply scoffing at the British spelling of "gaol."
— Nicholas Mancusi, Contributor
The origin story of Peter Mountford's debut novel, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, is a good one. Mountford was living in Ecuador, where he wrote economic reports for an American think tank. Eventually he quit—he was only earning $10 per hour—and returned to the United States. One day, he found his reports appearing with a byline stating that he was a "senior associate" for a mysterious hedge fund. He later learned that his former employer was secretly running the hedge fund, an activity directly counter to its nonprofit legal status.
Such a story makes for a good hook when marketing a novel, and it offers a kind of gloss on A Young Man's Guide, i.e. the events contained herein are based in truth and eminently possible. Caveat lector.
Mountford's novel concerns Gabriel Francisco de Boya, a young hedge-fund analyst trying to uncover the economic plans of Evo Morales, in the early days after Morales' December 2005 election to Bolivia's presidency. Gabriel is the 26-year-old son of a fervidly leftist Chilean mother and a Soviet father whom he never met. He was raised in the college town of Claremont, California, where Gabriel's mother teaches anthropology and occasionally writes newspaper op-eds and freelances for The Nation.
While in Bolivia, Gabriel must keep his identity a secret (he holds himself out as a freelance journalist). Any premature revelation could jeopardize his ability to gain insider information for his employer—a rapacious, shadowy outfit known as the Calloway Group and headed by Priya Singh, one of those fearsomely alpha personalities endemic to high finance. Gabriel, who previously worked for an online, business-news publication, hasn't told his mother about his new job; he fears that she'd be disconsolate if she found out that the revolutionary spirit she had attempted to instill in her son had been so quickly cast aside.
Gabriel is not a mindless servant of Calloway, which has a reputation for stock manipulation. He justifies his work for Calloway—which pays him about $19,500 a month, with a promised six-figure bonus for good results—as a way to get beyond the rat race. Fully cognizant of the attendant ironies, Gabriel has decided that by devoting himself to an emblem of capitalism, he can eventually escape its strictures. He just has to put in a few years—and to survive the job's stressors and Priya's intolerance for failure—and he could be set for life.
As Gabriel works to learn more about Morales' plan to nationalize Bolivia's gas industry, he embarks an impassioned relationship with Lenka, Evo's press secretary. The lines between source and paramour blur irrevocably.
The dramatic potential seems high, but for much of the book's first half, the narrative feels schematic, telegraphing its themes and concerns—a condition that isn't helped by some detours into Bolivian history that are interesting but resemble travel-guide vignettes. We can see the Lego blocks of conflict being piled one upon the other, as the close third-person narrative continually reminds us that Gabriel's fractured identity, his growing web of lies, and his abuse of Lenka's trust threaten to undo him. As if to highlight these varied, and converging, difficulties, Gabriel thinks in terms of game theory when evaluating the fix he's in.
An added problem is that, despite the powerful hedge fund lurking in the background, the stakes are in fact rather low. Should Gabriel fail at his mission, he'll be fired and return to the U.S., already having earned a mid-five-figure sum and able to fall back on his Brown degree. One gets the sense that everyone involved, including Lenka, will be better off for it.
The novel also suffers from some prose that seems provisional, as if the current words are placeholders, waiting for something more precise. For example, Gabriel makes a "naughty/funny flirtatious suggestion" to Lenka; a professor is described as "smallish… reptilian—not metaphorically, or pejoratively, but literally lizardlike"; regarding Gabriel's relationship with Lenka, the narrator opines, "he was who he was, and she was who she was—an oblique but apt statement.' Later, the prose improves markedly, such as when a mining magnate is described flying in a helicopter, "surveying a gash he'd recently cleaved into the planet.'
By the novel's climax, Gabriel has won our sympathy, if grudgingly. He's survived a small explosion, leaving him with some minor but gruesome wounds. He's enmeshed in a scheme that could send him to jail and cost him the love of Lenka. The disapproving specter of his mother also looms. But this reckoning is built on a wobbly foundation. Mountford shows an admirable grasp of his subject: the potentially toxic consequences of first-world capitalism meeting developing-world markets. And while this global sensitivity and a gift for research mark him as a writer to watch, his narrative voice too often resembles that of an analyst, rather than a novelist.
— Jacob Silverman, Contributor