Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Story of Stuff

by Annie Leonard

After seeing Annie Leonard's popular 20-minute web movie, The Story of Stuff, like a lot of people I wanted to know more. If each link along the chain of our economy - Extraction, Production, Distribution, Consumption and Disposal - is broken, dysfunctional, and harmful to us, what can we do to change things? Leonard, who has traveled the world tracing the path of consumer goods from their creation to their disposal in landfills, expands greatly on her video, showing us both the extent of the problems facing us, and lots of great ways to correct them.

Unlike a lot of environmental books, Leonard doesn't put a lot of emphasis on trying to change our lifestyles, buying greener products, voting with our dollar, etc. While she certainly tries to live sustainably (eating locally-grown foods and sharing a lot of material goods with her neighbors) and non-toxically (keeping PVC and other toxics out of her house) she knows that there's only so much we can do on an individual level. It's not enough for us, as citizens, to choose from a menu of unhealthy or unsustainable offerings. It's time for us to change the menu itself.

How does this happen? Corporations (such as Interface carpet tile company) sometimes voluntarily decide to invest in converting to more sustainable business models, and it's inspiring to see. More often, however, corporations only make changes when it's more immediately profitable, or when they're forced to by government regulations. Leonard points out that there are great models around the world of governments steering corporations towards sustainability in ways that benefit both the corporations and the citizens who live and work with them. In a finite world, we can no longer afford to waste so much of our resources. Leonard shows a path towards a much more realistic future.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

by David Mitchell

This may end up being my favorite novel of 2010. I've been a David Mitchell fan since I read "Cloud Atlas," and always find both his ideas and his language exquisite, but I'd forgotten just how fun his novels could be. Jacob de Zoet is an early 19th-century Dutchman, a young accountant who is sent to help clean up the corruption at the Dutch trading post of Dejima, in Nagasaki Harbor, Japan. He's a good man, but obviously in over his head. The tiny, man-made island is a virtual prison for the Dutchmen, who are almost never allowed over the bridge and onto the mainland. De Zoet's cohorts cast a wary on him -- many of them were rounded up, against their will, to join the ship's crew, and are doing what they can to earn a little money on the side in Dejima.

Orito Aibagawa, a midwife, is one of the few Japanese women allowed onto Dejima, so that she may study Western medicine with the mysterious Dr. Marinus. She catches Jacob's eye, and he soon finds himself searching for ways to spend a few scraps of time with her.

The second part of the book follows Orito into a dark adventure on the mainland, and I won't say more about the plot. Fascinating setting, memorable characters and a complex, but exciting, story. Loved it.