Charles A. Kupchan

 

On his book Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World

Cover Interview of February 24, 2021

In a nutshell

This is the first book to tell the fascinating story of American isolationism across the full arc of U.S. history. The United States that we know today has dominated global affairs ever since it entered World War II in 1941. But for much of its history, the nation steered clear of strategic commitments beyond North America. From the founding era until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans sought to run away from the world, not run it. They were avid international traders from the nation’s earliest days, yet apart from detours during the Spanish-American War and World War I, they shunned strategic entanglement outside their own neighborhood. In his 1796 Farewell Address, President George Washington set the nation on a clear course: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible.” Thereafter, isolationism had a virtual lock on American politics.

With the United States in the midst of a bruising debate about its role in the world, Americans need to better understand the enduring connection between the isolationist impulse and the American experience. Isolationism is part and parcel of the nation’s creed, and its citizens need to know much more about their long-running aversion to foreign entanglement. To be sure, President Donald Trump’s America First brand of statecraft constituted a sharp break with the recent past. Nonetheless, it had deep roots in the nation’s history and identity. Isolationism, unilateralism, protectionism, racism—these were all defining features of America’s approach to the world from the nation’s birth well into the twentieth century. Trump harkened back to these earlier traditions in American statecraft, sensing the electorate’s discontent with international overreach—too many wars in the Middle East, too much free trade, too many immigrants, too much focus on solving the problems of others. In short, too much world, not enough America.

Yet Trump overcorrected. He should have tapped on the brakes and eased off international ambition. But he took a wrecking ball to the world America made after World War II. He insulted and estranged allies; backed away from the international teamwork needed to address global challenges in the age of inescapable interdependence; launched trade wars that did little to benefit U.S. workers; and fostered nativism and intolerance at home and abroad.

Instead, the United States needs to undertake a “judicious retrenchment” that constitutes the middle ground between doing too much and doing too little. Americans cannot afford to let dangerous overreach turn into even more dangerous underreach. The nation learned the dangers of underreach the hard way during the 1930s. It was a passive bystander amid one of history’s darkest decades, running for cover in the face of spreading fascism and militarism in both Europe and Asia.

The United States cannot afford to repeat that mistake. Yes, Americans need to carefully weigh the pros and cons of both isolationism and internationalism, seeking to bring the nation’s foreign commitments back into line with its means and purposes. But the task ahead is to step back, without stepping away—to do less, but to still do enough.




 


 

Firmin DeBrabander

 

On his book Life After Privacy: Reclaiming Democracy in a Surveillance Society

Cover Interview of February 17, 2021

In a nutshell

Life After Privacy examines the grave threat to privacy in the digital age, and its political implications. Unlike other writings on the topic, Life After Privacy does not lament or hyperventilate over the loss of privacy, nor does it aim to galvanize popular appreciation for this endangered institution. Rather, this book points out that privacy is but a recent institution, which has not been enjoyed for long, and that people have long lived—and flourished—without it.

We have a curious relationship to privacy: we will say we value it, but our behavior suggests otherwise. We seem all too willing to sacrifice data in exchange for the wondrous conveniences of technology—even for menial benefits, too, like sharing on social media.

Privacy advocates are horrified by this state of affairs. There are several reasons we might be less concerned—and place our concern elsewhere. For one thing, privacy is a young institution, and has ever been threatened. For much of its brief history, privacy was the province of the rich. Only in the mid-twentieth century was privacy widely enjoyed, for example, in middle class suburbia; no sooner had we achieved the apex of privacy than the digital age was upon us, and it was routed again.

A closer inspection, furthermore, reveals that privacy is an incoherent notion. Louis Brandeis provided a seminal legal definition when he said privacy is the ‘right to be left alone.’ But what exactly does it mean to be ‘left alone’? When am I ‘left alone’?—and can I be sure? Who ensures that I am ‘left alone’? Isn’t that principally up to me, whether I am resistant to intrusion or interference? In short, privacy is a moving target, impossible to pin down. How can we then defend it with any certainty?

Luckily, privacy is not so essential to democracy and freedom as its defenders think. Civil libertarians claim privacy is critical for developing autonomous, independent minded citizens. It creates that crucial space for free speech and thought, upon which expansions of liberty rely. And yet: civil rights activists never enjoyed any privacy in which to work out their controversial ideas and make plans. They succeeded, rather, thanks to cooperation, coordination of powers, and effective organizing—in the public sphere. The experience was the same for gay rights activists and labor activists, who never had the luxury of privacy, but delivered the most consequential civil rights gains of the past century nonetheless.

The health of the public—not the private—realm is essential to democracy, though it is equally endangered in the digital age today. If we would hope to defend civil liberty, we must learn how to make the public sphere vibrant again, and the internet is a poor substitute. Luckily, evidence abounds that we are hungry to inhabit public spaces again, where we can physically mingle, encounter difference, build resilient connections, and reap the fruits of community life.




 


 

Ray Brescia

 

On his book The Future of Change: How Technology Shapes Social Revolutions

Cover Interview of February 10, 2021

In a nutshell

The Future of Change uncovers the relationships between advances in communications technologies and the rise and success of some of the iconic social movements over the course of American history.

Advances in communications technologies and strategies create what I call “social innovation moments.” The printing press was integral to the American Revolution; the steam printing press supercharged the Abolitionist Movement; the telegraph helped spread word about the Seneca Falls Convention, sparking the Women’s Movement of the 19th century; the Civil Rights Movement and the television were inextricably intertwined.

What I argue is that these advances in communications have created these social innovation moments: times when new means of communicating strengthen the ability of social movements to communicate and coordinate action. What often happens in these moments is that activists, who usually face long odds and significant impediments to success, find themselves reaching for the most modern communications tools at their disposal. They then innovate and use these tools in ways that were not necessarily foreseen.

What is more, the movements not only shape these means of communication, but they are also shaped by them. In one contemporary example of this phenomenon, after the shooting in Parkland, FL, the students there, who were sophisticated social media users, showed a deftness with the medium in their efforts to rally supporters and counter the rather feeble social media efforts of their adversaries. By harnessing this new means of communications, these agile activists took their advocacy to new heights, showing how the medium could serve their efforts in powerful ways.

In the end, the book tries to understand this interplay between social movements and innovations in communications over the course of American history so that we can learn from those successes and emulate them now and in the future, because I believe we currently find ourselves in a social innovation moment—one that requires creativity and inspired action to advance meaningful social change.




 


 

Howard Gardner

 

On his book A Synthesizing Mind: A Memoir from the Creator of Multiple Intelligences Theory

Cover Interview of February 03, 2021

In a nutshell

A Synthesizing Mind is my intellectual memoir. It’s a ‘memoir’ in the sense that I reflect on my life; it’s ‘intellectual’ in that it focuses chiefly on my life as a student, researcher, writer, mentor, and teacher. But there’s plenty on my own personal development as well. Starting with the intellectual: Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by the human mind. Indeed, over half of my many books contain the word “mind” in the title. But until recently, I have focused on “minds” in general or on the minds of other persons—young children, students, political leaders, creative geniuses in the arts and sciences, etc. In this book, in contrast, I focus on my own mind—which I conclude is a synthesizing mind. More on that later.

Back to my life. I begin with an account of growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania at the same time as Joe Biden—in fact we are the same age. I describe the many influences on my early life—my Jewish parents escaping from Nazi Germany in the nick of time, arriving in New York City with only $5 in their pockets; the death of my (highly gifted) only sibling, when my mother was pregnant with me, and the resultant feeling that I was a ‘replacement child’—indeed, for a while, according to them, the only entity that kept my parents alive.

In those early days, I acquired my love of music, my fascination with the written word, and various compensations for a potpourri of visual problems. I speculate about the sources of my most enduring intellectual interests, as well as my critical attitude toward psychological tests. I describe valued mentors, as well as tormentors and anti-mentors. Most important, I detail how I became fascinated by the human mind—to whose study I’ve devoted my scholarly life.

Why, nearing my 9th decade, did I feel the need to understand my own mind? Because I realized that my theory of “multiple intelligences”—for which I am best known—does not explain well my own ways of thinking and performing. I am, and since early childhood have been, a synthesizer. I read (and observe and converse) widely; I reflect on this information and try to ‘connect’ the dots; I discover new questions and ideas, and try to integrate them with one another and with what I had earlier thought. I arrive at a major question or project and bring all of that accumulated information to bear on it. I organize and re-organize that information multiple times. I try out the tentative syntheses on friends and friendly critics. And at last, I go public, typically in a book form—though I have also written hundreds of blogs and well over 1000 scholarly and more popular articles.

So that’s my synthesizing mind. But I agree with the Nobel Laureate in Physics Murray Gell-Mann, who once said: “In the 21st century, the most important kind of mind will be the synthesizing mind.” In the memoir, I describe how that mind works. But I also claim that psychology has largely dropped the ball on how synthesizing operates; and that’s because it’s too unwieldly a capacity to simulate in a laboratory experiment or to probe via a short answer test. Accordingly, in the concluding chapters, I offer my own primer on how to develop and educate a synthesizing mind.




 


 

Ruth DeFries

 

On her book What Would Nature Do? A Guide for Our Uncertain Times

Cover Interview of January 27, 2021

In a nutshell

What Would Nature Do? is unabashedly human-centric. It is about strategies that humans—the big-brained, ingenious animal that we are—can learn from nature’s experience to improve our prospects of prospering on this dynamic planet.

Both life on earth and human civilization are complex systems, meaning that when they are perturbed the repercussions ripple through the system in unpredictable ways. In our modern hyper-connected civilization, as we have seen in this pandemic, for example, a tiny virus in an obscure market can ricochet around the world and bring down the global economy. In nature, when oxygen-producing plants evolved two-and-a-half billion years ago, life could have been doomed. But new forms of life flourished—sponges, corals, and jellyfish followed by insects, reptiles, dinosaurs, and mammals. Life has persisted through asteroids crashing into the earth, wild swings in climate, extinctions, and diseases.

The book’s premise is that nature has a lot more experience than humans do with surviving potentially disastrous, unpredictable shocks. Without intent or pre-planned design, the process of trial-and-error in evolution has led to some key strategies. These strategies might have some applicability to our complex human-created world. As I was researching for the book, I came across many examples where engineers, investors, and businesses have learned that these strategies help their prospects of survival, although they were probably unaware that nature already uses these strategies.

These strategies are: built-in, self-correcting features, a stabilizing strategy pervasive in nature and adopted by the stock exchange to catch a free-falling plunge in the market; diversity, the hallmark of both financial investors and the natural world, to buffer against an unknown future, keep options open, and safeguard valuable knowledge and ideas from coalescing into a homogenous stew of culture, cuisine, and ways of viewing the world; the architecture of ubiquitous networks, patterned on tiny veins in a leaf, to keep the flow of goods, food, information, and ideas safe from cascading failure and, conversely, to prevent lethal diseases from spreading; and leaders who enable decisions based on bottom-up knowledge of local conditions, the way ants and termites build their fabulous structures, rather than top-down impositions from faraway authorities that inevitably backfire. These are nature’s time-tested tactics that maintain life through unknown future.




 


 

Jack N. Rakove

 

On his book Beyond Belief, Beyond Conscience: The Radical Significance of the Free Exercise of Religion

Cover Interview of January 20, 2021

In a nutshell

The argument of Beyond Belief, Beyond Conscience rests on two claims about the importance of religious liberty to our broader constitutional tradition. First, of all the rights we possess, the commitment to “the free exercise of religion” is the one that places the greatest emphasis on the moral autonomy of individuals. Most other constitutional rights set standards that government has to meet when it regulates our behavior. The free exercise of religion, by contrast, assumes that in the realm of belief and conscience, government has no right to act at all, unless individuals commit overt acts that infringe the rights of others.

Second, the idea that religion should be disestablished best illustrates the fundamental constitutional principle that government exercises only the power that the people delegate to it. Most other societies assume that religion deserves public support and regulation because it is so essential to maintaining public order and morality. The American position assumes instead that religion will flourish when all religious associations are wholly voluntary and self-sufficient, and that freeing government from a direct connection to religion would prevent its own corruption.

Together these two points identify what I call “the radical significance” of religious liberty. Ordinarily when we discuss this question, we think primarily about how courts resolve the conflicts that still inevitably arise. We are at one such moment today, when we are actively disputing whether state and local governments can restrict and regulate religious services as a necessary measure to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Though this book examines leading legal conflicts over the free exercise of religion, its focus is primarily historical in nature. My major concern is to explain why American ideas of religious freedom went further than the comparable efforts of Europeans to develop new modes of religious tolerance to replace the bloody conflicts that accompanied the Reformation. This is not a simple story of how American colonists were always committed to broad principles of religious liberty. The liberty they initially sought was meant for their own particular denominations, not for dissident groups like the Quakers and Baptists (or later, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) whom mainstream Protestants found so offensive.

Yet by the eighteenth century, freedom of conscience was perceived as a universal right that everyone (men and women alike) possessed. And a commitment to that right was fundamental to the thinking of such leading revolutionaries and constitutionalists as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, whose thoughts on religious liberty still influence us today. The movement to disestablish religion that Jefferson and Madison pioneered created the thriving marketplace of denominational competition that sets the United States apart from other societies.




 


 

Sujatha Fernandes

 

On her book The Cuban Hustle: Culture, Politics, Everyday Life

Cover Interview of January 13, 2021

In a nutshell

The Cuban Hustle documents the myriad ways in which ordinary Cubans have sought to survive, hustle, and invent alternative cultures in the twenty-year period following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Exploring the idea of the “hustle,” which draws on contemporary Cuban vernacular of luchar (to struggle), inventar (to invent), and jinetear (to hustle), I show how Cubans have devised alternative strategies for daily survival under conditions of shortage and how this spirit of creativity and imagination has been carried into Cuban cultural life.

In the post-Soviet period, the ongoing isolation of Cuba and the desperate need for outlets of expression, combined with the high quality of Cuban arts education, state funding for culture, and the new ideas flowing into Cuban society in the digital era turned the island into a crucible that fostered all kinds of dynamic cultures. In the book, I argue that conditions of scarcity have provided the impetus for a culture of spontaneous improvisation.

One unique feature of the book is that it is comprised of short essays that introduce the reader to a wide swath of Cuba’s subterranean cultures and social movements. The essays cover urban Black cultures such as rumba and hip hop; the feminist movement; new Cuban cinema; art collectives and public art; cultures of documentary filmmaking; the Weekly Packet, or, the Cuban version of the internet; the Afro-Cuban movement; children filmmakers in a Cuban rural town; and a hairdressers’ project for social change. There are reflections on the urban barrios, the Cuban response to 9/11, US attempts to infiltrate Cuban cultural movements, the death of Fidel Castro, and relations between Afro-Cubans and African Americans.

The first essay in the book tells the story of my first trip to Cuba in 1998, and my stay with Afro-Cuban artist Agustín Drake in the town of Matanzas. In response to my frustrations with the stasis that seemed to pervade Cuban society, Drake gave me a tour of the city. He showed me how it has evolved historically and how we can see it from many different perspectives. “When you are in one particular place, you can’t see some things,” he told me. I would like the reader to approach my book this way, with an open mind to seeing and appreciating Cuba from a multitude of angles.




 


 

Cathy A. Small

 

On her book The Man in the Dog Park: Coming Up Close to Homelessness

Cover Interview of January 06, 2021

In a nutshell

The Man in the Dog Park describes the experience of homelessness from a homeless point of view. Co-authored with a homeless man, the book is based on scores of interviews and encounters with individuals without homes; its chapters lead the reader into a world that most have never seen.

The reader travels as an intimate observer in this world. What is unique about the book is what a reader is able to witness: the details of a day at a homeless shelter; what happens to you on a “day labor” job; a trip to a pawn shop to exchange a ring for needed money, and what you really get and owe. Readers spend time with a panhandler, as he shows us how he negotiates living in his car; they hear the interview questions asked at the federal housing office, when my co-author Ross is trying to qualify for shelter. Privy to more than just homelessness statistics or even to interview narratives, readers will encounter the realities and issues of homelessness as they are lived.

Each of the book’s central chapters focuses on a slice of homeless life: the stigma felt by those without homes (3), shelter life (4), street life (5), making money (6), negotiating the bureaucracy (7). But these chapters are framed by a larger argument: that none of the realities of homeless life happens apart from “us.” As described on the Cornell University Press website: “The Man in the Dog Park points to the ways that our own cultural assumptions and blind spots are complicit in US homelessness and contribute to the degree of suffering that homeless people face. At the same time, Small, Kordosky and Moore show us how our own sense of connection and compassion can bring us into touch with the actions that will lessen homelessness and bring greater humanity to the experience of those who remain homeless.” To see Small and Moore discussing their book see this video on YouTube.

I would want the reader to read this in whatever way that invites their attention and their compassion. Although this will differ for different readers, a few members of diverse book clubs have offered me this advice:

One reader: “Read in small chunks, maybe 2-3 chapters only at a time. When you truly take in the material, sometimes the enormity of suffering or frustration there can be overwhelming. A shorter, slower, “read and process” strategy can be useful for balance.”

Another reader: “Try to note and relax your own judgments. This applies not only to viewing people who are homeless but also to yourself. There is a lot you may not have noticed or known. Join the club.”

Ignorance, delusion, indifference. It is these qualities, I have found in myself too, that undergird the writing of this book, so please appreciate your own willingness to engage with painful places that can all too easily be ignored.




 


 

David Badre

 

On his book On Task: How Our Brain Gets Things Done

Cover Interview of December 16, 2020

In a nutshell

On any given day, we accomplish a wide range of tasks from big long-term goals down to the simplest chores like making a cup of coffee. If we have a new goal in mind, we can even perform tasks that we have never done before. (I’m doing that right now). This all seems routine to us, but no other species on the planet and no Artificial Intelligence yet built comes even close to this ability. On Task is about how we do this; in other words, the book explains the science behind how our brains get things done.

At the heart of this ability to get things done is a function that neuroscientists term cognitive control or executive function. Cognitive control is what allows us to bridge our knowledge with action and to perform any task that meets our goals. Neuroscience and psychology have taught us that it is not enough to want to do a task or even to be able to state the rules for doing so; our brain needs a way of taking that knowledge and building a plan to execute it. And it needs to adjust what we are doing along the way to keep us on track. Ultimately, it needs a way of mapping what we want to do to how we actually do it. That is the function that cognitive control serves, and humans do it better than any other species.

This is why we can do just about any task that we can conceive. But this gift of nimble cognition also comes with some costs and limitations, which likewise impact our lives. For example, the difficulties we have in multitasking, the exhaustion we experience when we exert mental effort, the everyday slips and errors we commit in our actions, and the years we spend as children growing and developing toward independence are all consequences of this unique system for controlling our behavior.

My book is for readers who are generally curious about the brain and cognition, as well as those with interests in specific topics, such as decision making, memory, productivity, child development, aging, the benefits of “brain training”, and the challenges of mental health. The book addresses all of these topics through the lens of cognitive control. On Task invites readers to explore this unfamiliar aspect of cognitive function and to ask how the brain translates what we know and conceive into how we act.




 


 

Paul J. Heald

 

On his book Copy This Book! What Data Tells Us about Copyright and the Public Good

Cover Interview of December 02, 2020

In a nutshell

Our earliest attitudes about copyright law are probably formed by elementary school teachers admonishing us not to copy. Seeing little Johnny and Suzy sent to the principal’s office for plagiarism sends a pretty clear message about the consequences of borrowing someone else’s work!

Copy this Book! What Data Tells Us About Copyright and the Public Good hopes to nudge the reader into questioning that ingrained anti-copying instinct. In fact, numerous recent studies show that modern copyright law stifles creativity, raises prices, and diminishes the availability of works to the public.

But mere statistics are pretty dry, so the book goes far beyond graphs and charts and tells the deep story of copyright with numerous illustrative anecdotes and stories. Think Bill Bryson or Neil deGrasse Tyson!

Copy this Book! starts with the alarming results of a random sample of new editions of books being sold on Amazon.com. Why are there so many more new books from the 1880s for sale than from the 1980s (and, no, it’s not because the older books are literary “classics”)?

Other chapters discuss (among many topics):

How Lunch atop a Skyscraper, the iconic photo of men perched on a steel beam high above Manhattan, reveals the disastrous law of copyright in images.

How Kurt Vonnegut’s successful battle with Random House opened the door for older authors (and their estates) to publish ebooks for the first time.

How porn parody movies teach us about fair use and the proper length of copyright.

How music ratings studies show a counter-intuitive effect of piracy on the music business.

How a study of images on Wikipedia (which required a valiant effort to reverse engineer the Google search algorithm) can teach us about the value of the public domain photos.

How publishers and firms like Getty Images convince the public to pay for free public domain works.

Sure, charts and graphs and data are presented, but the book is a narrative, a story most happily told through the experiences of authors, artists, musicians, and consumers.




 


 

Robert Bartlett

 

On his book Blood Royal: Dynastic Politics in Medieval Europe

Cover Interview of November 18, 2020

In a nutshell

Most countries in medieval Europe were monarchies, ruled by a royal or imperial family, a dynasty, so politics at the top level was shaped by the births, marriages, and deaths of the members of that family, and by competition and cooperation within the dynasty. This is no surprise to anyone who knows a little bit about the history of the period and any account of a medieval reign will discuss such things. However, I had never come across a book that analyzed this fundamental feature of the medieval world in a systematic and thematic way, although there are such studies for other periods, notably Jeroen Duindam, Dynasties: A Global History of Power, 1300-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 2016). A distinctive feature of the book is its wide scope, since it covers the whole medieval period (500-1500) and deals with most of Europe, namely Latin Christendom and the Byzantine empire. By the year 1100 Latin Christendom, that part of the world recognizing the authority of the pope, covered western, northern, and central Europe (I exclude the East Slavs because of my own linguistic limitations).

The dynasty was not only a biological unit but also a political or ideological one. Family structures varied across time and place, most notably between systems such as that of the Merovingian kings of the Franks (c. 500-751) or the Irish royal dynasties, where kings had many sexual partners and all the children were eligible for rule, and the system that, with the backing of the Church, came to predominate in most parts of Europe, where kings were expected to have one wife at a time, could dissolve the marriage only in very specific circumstances and a sharper line was drawn between legitimate and illegitimate children. Succession practices were very different in the two systems and the former tended to produce high levels of competition and violence within the dynasty but meant that dynasties rarely died out biologically, the latter having less intra-dynastic violence but being more vulnerable to biological extinction.

My book concentrates on the second, predominant system, and does so in two ways, which give the book its two-part structure. In part one, “The Life Cycle,” I investigate the whole process of family reproduction, starting with “Choosing a Bride”, then pursuing such themes as “Waiting for Sons to be Born” and “Waiting for Fathers to Die”, ending, naturally enough, with “Royal Mortality”: life expectancy, the frequency of violent death, choice of burial place and forms of commemoration. Part two is titled “A Sense of Dynasty” and discusses ways that ruling families expressed their identity, through such visual cues as heraldry, newly invented in the twelfth century, choice of personal names, or the graphic family tree, and how they shored themselves up in this unstable political world through the supposed guidance of astrology and prophecy.




 


 

Ellen Wayland-Smith

 

On her book The Angel in the Marketplace: Adwoman Jean Wade Rindlaub and the Selling Of America

Cover Interview of October 28, 2020

In a nutshell

The Angel in the Marketplace is a biography of Jean Wade Rindlaub, a mid-century adwoman widely recognized on Madison Avenue for her success in marketing household products to American housewives, from silverware to make-up, to cake mixes and bananas. I wrote the book to be a fun read on its own terms, each chapter detailing one of Rindlaub’s colorful ad campaigns to show how an “ideal” of American womanhood was constructed from the 1930s through 1960.

The reader gets to see how the birth of Hollywood cinema in the 1920s created a burgeoning cosmetics industry, and how Rindlaub appropriated the rags-to-riches Hollywood star story in order to market Hudnut’s Marvelous Makeup in the 1930s. Or how Rindlaub’s hokey, sentimental wartime “Back Home for Keeps” ads for Oneida silverware set the standard for mid-century ideals of American womanhood as bound to home and hearth—an ideal that helped fuel the postwar economic boom. Another chapter takes a deep dive into the campy allure of Chiquita Banana, and how Rindlaub’s use of this sultry Latina icon not only sold bananas, but also sugarcoated the impact of a CIA-led coup in Guatemala.

But the book is really a microhistory, and Rindlaub’s life and work a lens through which I examine how the ad industry’s appeal to gender roles helped consolidate what period supporters called the “American business system,” or free market orthodoxy, as political and economic gospel during the 1940s and 50s. I don’t use the term “gospel” by accident here. Efforts on the part of the advertising industry and their corporate clients to discredit New Deal “big government” economics aligned with conservative Christian appeals to individual responsibility and private morality. The book thus shows how free market faith, conservative gender roles, and a certain mainstream brand of Protestant Christianity all reinforced one another at midcentury, creating a potent politico-cultural ecosystem whose effects can still be felt today.

A key argument underpinning the book is that the triumph of the American “free market” system by 1960 was not a foregone conclusion. Two different models for the relationship between government and the economy had been vying for dominance ever since the emergence of corporate capitalism at the end of the nineteenth century. The two competing visions of economics weren’t just battling it out in some abstract sphere of economic theory. Rather, they took the form of deep-seated cultural battles between “big” and “small” government, between public and private womanhood, between two visions of Christian duty. Through Rindlaub’s career, I show how the free market camp’s appeal to the emotional value of “liberty” in American political discourse was reinforced by a sentimental, privatized vision of woman as presiding “angel” of the Christian home. This is really the larger story of the book.




 


 

Gerald R. North

 

On his book The Rise of Climate Science: A Memoir

Cover Interview of October 13, 2020

In a nutshell

The Rise of Climate Science is about my life and its parallel with the rise of climate science. The book starts with my early life as an only child in Knoxville with my sailor father in the Pacific and my mom at home worried. I was a frail child, awkward, insecure, skinny, and spoiled by a brooding mom—polio was raging as well.

I attended the University of Tennessee in my hometown. To pay my way I became a co-op student at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the chemistry division dealing with uranium solutions at high temperatures. Lack of lab skills drove me to physics and math. Wonderful mentors at ORNL sent me off to Wisconsin for a PhD in high energy theoretical physics, which I completed in 1966.

After a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania and tenure at a midwestern branch campus, I took a life changing sabbatical year (1974-75) at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder where I started a new career as a climate scientist when the field was about to explode. In 1978 I moved to a research scientist position at the NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center as a small group leader in climate science.

I served on five extended visits (1976-85) to the USSR doing research and as part of delegations sharing information and warming relations with Soviet Scientists. At NASA I was lead scientist in proposing and conducting feasibility studies for a satellite program called the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, which turned into a partnership with Japan. In promoting the mission, I made presentations at many sites around the world. TRMM was launched in 1997 and orbited successfully for 17 years. The data were used in the improvement of climate models and other applications. While at Goddard Space Flight Center my group worked in several areas of climate research including the creation of climate models for the study of ancient climates of Earth, predictability and other estimation procedures. Aside from the satellite my most influential work was on the error analysis of data systems.

I moved to Texas A&M University in atmospheric sciences in 1986, where I have worked on mathematical and statistical issues in climate science ever since. I taught classes and mentored graduate students at all levels. As department head, 1995-2003, I helped build a strong program in atmospheric sciences at A&M.

The book recounts these experiences through stories of awe, family, friends, failures, successes, discoveries, forks in the road, good luck and bad. I also visited most of the important hot spots of climate science. I try to tell what it is like to do this kind of work and what it is like in those labs and countries. In chairing committees and serving on boards I learned how big institutions work. I have lots to say about trends in science and academia. I relate and evaluate the history of climate science from my viewpoint from its origins to its establishment as a mature science and the compelling case that anthropogenic climate change is real and that it has been driven by human activities.




 


 

David Sepkoski

 

On his book Catastrophic Thinking: Extinction and the Value of Diversity from Darwin to the Anthropocene

Cover Interview of September 30, 2020

In a nutshell

“Why do we care about diversity?” Assuming that biological and, to a lesser extent, cultural diversity are accepted as important values in current Western society, how did this come to pass, and have we always thought this way? That is the central question addressed in this book.

While many existing books on biodiversity have examined various dimensions of the current crisis, mine takes a different approach. Catastrophic Thinking reconstructs the historical process by which diversity came, over the past two centuries, to be held as an intrinsic value. Ultimately, I argue that the celebration of diversity—in both biological and cultural forms—is a fairly recent invention. And the key concept running throughout this story is extinction.

We care about biodiversity in large part because we fear the consequences of its loss: the loss of plants that might provide the basis for new medicines, the depletion of environments that provide so-called “ecosystem services” on which our own species depends, the disappearance of animals we value for food and recreation. In other words, the single, unified threat to biological diversity is extinction—or more precisely, mass extinction, which involves the coordinated and cascading extinctions of many groups of organisms in a relatively short period of time.

Surprisingly, however, extinction was not a major area of scientific study prior to about 50 years ago, nor did Western culture attach much significance to the general phenomenon. Indeed, during much of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Western scientists regarded extinction as a slow, piecemeal process that punished nature’s “losers” and rewarded those species that are better adapted for their environments. Charles Darwin, for example, rejected the notion that mass extinctions had ever occurred in the geologic past, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that scientists began to take extinction seriously. Because extinction was not seen as a threat to the health of the environment, the preservation of biological diversity—and, by extension, cultural diversity—was simply not considered an important value in Darwin’s day.

Clearly, we see things very differently today, but this enormous shift in values has not been documented in a comprehensive way. Catastrophic Thinking tells the story of how a major scientific and cultural shift in thinking about the consequences of extinction—and ultimately, diversity—took place over the last 200 years, from a culture that valued diversity very little to one in which it is held up as a central value. One of the key points of transformation occurred during the 1970s and 1980s, when the reality of past global, catastrophic mass extinctions was accepted. This scientific shift was conditioned by a broader set of political and cultural debates and events spanning the twentieth century: two world wars, nuclear proliferation, political upheaval, and environmental disasters all contributed to the sense that human history had entered an age of crisis.

Scientific consensus about catastrophic change, in other words, was influenced by and has reinforced a broader “catastrophic thinking” about the fate of human civilization. It is in this context, I argue, that we have come to value diversity, because only at this later date have Westerners tied the fate of our own species to that of the broader natural environment we inhabit. Our current moment, in which the threat of anthropogenic climate change and species loss challenges us to consider whether we have permanently altered the geological and evolutionary trajectory of our planet, is both a consequence of this longer history, and an opportunity to conceive of new ways of thinking about our future.




 


 

Francesco Boldizzoni

 

On his book Foretelling the End of Capitalism: Intellectual Misadventures since Karl Marx

Cover Interview of September 16, 2020

In a nutshell

This book seeks to explain the persistence of capitalism despite all the trouble it has created. For several years now, every crisis—even crises not directly caused by capitalism, such as that of Covid-19—has been accompanied by a plethora of recriminations: capitalism is unsustainable, it cannot go on like this. It makes our societies intolerably unequal, fuels racism, destroys the environment, and so on. Everything will have to change. Thus, expectations of structural change arise which, as soon as the crisis is over, are invariably frustrated.

To make sense of why capitalism is still with us, I perform two separate yet related operations. The first is to review unfulfilled prophecies about its end that have been repeated over the past two centuries. Surprisingly enough, they came not only from the left but also from the right. I endeavor to contextualize them historically but also to identify their mistakes. The idea is that from these mistakes something can be learned, certainly about the limitations of our understanding, but more importantly about capitalism itself. Half of the book can therefore be regarded as a work of history, of intellectual history in the broadest sense.

The second operation is to outline a theory of capitalism and the forces that sustain it. Besides what keeps capitalism alive, a good theory should also explain its origin and, possibly, give us some indication as to where it is or isn’t headed. This part of the work, which is more theoretical in nature, culminates in the final chapter, “How Capitalism Survives.”

I wrote Foretelling the End of Capitalism in such a way that it could be accessible to any intelligent reader, regardless of their background. It’s a book deliberately devoid of jargon, where even important concepts are put into a narrative. This isn’t a work of economics, a discipline that—at least in its present form—has little to say about capitalism, but nor does one have to be a sociologist or philosopher to make the most of it. Any person interested in the subject should be able to read this book, be they dentists or kindergarten teachers. Capitalism touches the lives of us all.