Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Challenge Begins

I bought Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed after hearing Al Franken interview author Jared Diamond on his Air America radio show in early 2005. My wife read a couple of chapters, but then it sat in one of many piles of books for years. Last October, a friend pointed it out in a bookstore and recommended it. I sheepishly admitted that I owned it but hadn't read it.

It took me a while to read this 500+ page monster, and I made finishing it my final goal of 2008. Alas, although I got within 25 pages of the end over dinner on New Year's Eve, I frittered away the rest of the night on the computer. Instead, Collapse became the first book I finished in 2009 on New Year's Day.*

This fascinating book examines past societies to determine what factors affected their success or failure and then analyzes the challenges facing contemporary societies. Despite differences in technology and other factors, the past and present are remarkably similar. Although Diamond is quick to say it isn't all about the environment (for example, warring or trading with other societies can be critical), it's clear that how a society manages its limited resources is often the difference between life and death. Anyone curious about past societies like the Easter Islanders, the Mayans, the Anasazi, and the Norse Greenlanders would enjoy this book. Diamond also looks at recent events in Rwanda and China and includes chapters about American "societies" in Montana and Los Angeles. He ends with a discussion of good and bad practices by extractive industries like oil, mining, and logging.

As yet another example of my compulsive book shopping, I bought a big stack of books for my wife to give me for Christmas last year. One of them was Greasy Rider: Two Dudes, One Fry-Oil-Powered Car, and a Cross-Country Search for a Greener Future by Greg Melville. This is a combination road trip and environmental book. The author and a friend drive a 1985 Mercedes diesel station wagon converted to run on restaurants' waste oil from Vermont to California. After spending a small fortune driving from Chicago to Portland, Oregon and back in 2007, I can appreciate the author's goal of crossing the country without paying for fuel (actually, I did that once, but it took longer). Along the way and in "errands" afterward, they visit renewable energy sites ranging from wind to ethanol to geothermal. It's a quick, entertaining read that covers some important energy trends without getting too deep into the details.

The Great American Road Trip by Eric Peterson is a small-format photo book of unique roadside attractions, most of them man-made. It is packed with color photos of odd museums, folk art creations, and roadside vernacular architecture (i.e., a hot dog stand shaped like a giant hot dog). It's light on text, but it offers a lot of travel ideas. I have a stack of books like this one that I reference once I have a destination in mind to make sure I don't miss something interesting along the way.

For some reason, I abandoned The Great American Road Trip with 50 pages to go a few months ago. When I found it amidst a pile of clothes next to the bed last weekend (along with several other unfinished books), I saw an easy way to get ahead on the Book Challenge. By January 4, I had finished three books and purchased none.

* I must mention that I didn't come up with my resolution until New Year's Day -- I did not deliberately put off finishing Collapse just to help my resolution. But since I need all the help I can get, it counts!

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