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

Lastly

I hope that Isolationism leavens the global conversation that needs to take place about the nature of U.S. statecraft moving forward. Given the outsized role that the United States plays in global affairs, Americans as well as many other peoples affected by U.S. policy need a better understanding of America’s role in the world across the longue durée of the nation’s history. And we need to learn the right lessons from that history, drawing on both isolationist and internationalist traditions to find a sustainable brand of statecraft that constitutes the middle road between overreach and underreach.

I lay out a strategy of “judicious retrenchment” as a means of arriving at that middle road. I hope that the book and the debate it provokes help build intellectual and political support for this strategy. Judicious retrenchment entails ending the forever wars in the Middle East and pulling back from the region militarily—while maintaining America’s main strategic commitments in Europe and the Asia Pacific. The United States continues to have an overriding interest in managing great-power competition in Eurasia. Russia and China both pose expansionist threats to their neighbors, which means that the same objective that guided U.S. strategy during World War II and the Cold War—preventing the domination of Eurasia by a hostile power—still applies.

Less reliance on wars means more reliance on diplomacy. Judicious retrenchment entails restoring America’s role as a team player that works with other nations. Only through joint international action can we effectively address the paramount challenges of our time, including managing a globalized and interdependent economy, arresting climate change, shutting down terrorist networks, countering nuclear proliferation, promoting cybersecurity, and advancing public health. Such joint action will often require U.S. leadership to get off the ground.

And judicious retrenchment entails reclaiming America’s exceptionalist calling as a beacon of democracy. Nonetheless, the United States must return to its original conception of exceptionalism and seek to spread its republican experiment by example rather than by more forceful means. Knocking off unsavory regimes usually causes more harm than good. Russian and Iranian influence may be increasing in the Middle East as the United States pulls back from the region. But it is Washington’s foolhardy penchant for toppling regimes, not its self-restraint, that is the root cause of the inroads being made by Moscow and Tehran.

Reclaiming the nation’s original conception of exceptionalism requires more than exercising restraint and coming to terms with the reality that the United States cannot solve all the world’s problems. It also requires putting America’s own house in order. The United States cannot serve as a model for other nations when its political landscape is so deeply polarized and its institutions so dysfunctional. The first priority is to tackle the sources of the nation’s political ills, including the pandemic, inequality, racial injustice, and the profound sense of economic insecurity that pervades much of the electorate.

Exceptionalism is inseparable from the American creed. And with illiberalism and intolerance on the march globally, the world urgently needs an anchor of republican and pluralist ideals—a role that only the United States has the power and credentials to fulfill. But the exceptionalist narrative has for way too long been an excuse for doing too much abroad. Given the dilapidated state of the American experiment, the renewal of the nation’s unique calling must start at home.




 


 

Firmin DeBrabander

 

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

Cover Interview of February 17, 2021

Lastly

Many have observed in 2020 that democracy is endangered, largely by the lure and power of populist autocracy, which is ascendant worldwide—even in the United States, the largest and oldest democracy. Early internet evangelizers believed digital media would be a boon for democracy, enabling different people from across society, even all over the world, to communicate with one another, and build bridges. It did not work out this way: online, people flock to their own kind; they do not want their worldview challenged, but affirmed. They migrate to echo chambers, where they are hardened in their views, and vilify the opposition. Thus, digital media have made for greater political division and partisanship, especially in the United States.

In 2011, during the Arab Spring, it looked like digital media would be a wellspring of democratic revolution; now, autocratic regimes have fully coopted said media. They have learned it is easy to isolate and influence people online, confuse them and splinter them, and prevent popular power from coalescing.

I hope Life After Privacy might make people aware of the dangers and shortcomings of digital technology. We are wrongly urged to put our hopes in protecting privacy, as if that were the way to salvage liberty and democracy. But online privacy is worth little—it amounts to little political power—even if it were possible to achieve, or preserve.

Democratic citizens must reach across the digital divide. They must step outside their solipsistic digital bubbles, which give the illusion of privacy and solitude, encourage all manner of asocial behavior, and sunder communal ties. This is not to say we must abandon digital technology. That is hardly possible—never more so than in the age of Covid-19, when we rely on digital media to get anything done. Rather, the digital revolution must be balanced by a return to the public square, where we convene and encounter one another in non-transactional, non-commercial relationships, and see people in their full complexity.

Democracy requires that citizens relearn the art of politics, the art of conversing and deliberating with fully rounded peers, who are respected and recognized. This is how we truly see one another in all our nuances; this is where we construct bonds that overcome partisan divides, enable us to live together in peace and security, and preserve and expand freedom.




 


 

Ray Brescia

 

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

Cover Interview of February 10, 2021

Lastly

My hope is that advocates will learn not just from the examples of successful social change efforts from the past, but also the contemporary case studies I highlight. Advocates can learn how to use the technologies at their disposal today, as well as those that are likely to emerge in the future.

Think of examples like the #MeToo movement or the campaign for Marriage Equality. These efforts have stressed shared humanity and shared destiny. Successful coalitions such as these do not always consist of people or organizations that agree on everything or see the world in completely the same way. Instead, successful coalitions often come together around shared interests, even self-interest: Alexis de Tocqueville, that French observer of American life in the early 19th century, described this as self-interest “well understood”.

When this self-interest is blended across different groups, that is, when a movement experiences what the late Derrick Bell called an “interest convergence,” unlikely alliances can form. Bell argued that the victory in the decision in Brown v. Board of Education came about because the Civil Rights Movement shared the goal of dismantling the Jim Crow system with white elites. Civil rights advocates wanted to attack the system because of its impact on the African-American community. White elites saw that system as harming the American reputation abroad as the U.S. was locked in a cold war with the Soviet Union. This interest convergence ultimately led to the demise of the Jim Crow system.

What I try to do in the book is show other examples of groups forming coalitions in light of the shared interests of sometimes oppositional groups. In one case study, I describe the efforts of a union to raise the minimum wage for hotel workers in Long Beach, CA. The workers attracted allies among the small business community as well as local homeowners. Both of these groups wanted to see local workers earning more so that they would spend more in local shops, improving the quality of life for everyone. The workers and these other groups did not see eye-to-eye on every issue but the coalition they formed was so powerful, and it won a ballot referendum on the issue of hotel workers wages so convincingly, that it had union leaders wondering if they should have asked for an even higher wage than that they were able to secure through the referendum.

What this and other examples in the book show is that coalitions can be created among seemingly unlikely allies if leaders search for areas where interests may overlap, and leverage those overlapping interests to fight for real, lasting, and meaningful change. This book explores how to do that in today’s fast-moving media environment.




 


 

Howard Gardner

 

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

Cover Interview of February 03, 2021

Lastly

I believe that my book will initially draw three groups of readers: 1) those interested in my own history (largely family members and friends, perhaps colleagues and former students); 2) those who want to know more about the origins of MI theory, its principal claims, the diverse reactions to it, and how it has been followed up in the last three-plus decades; 3) those who are intrigued by the phrase “synthesizing mind”—the latter readers can learn what it is, how it is developed, how it can be educated and enhanced, and, if possible, how to strengthen one’s own synthesizing powers.

Though not intended primarily as such, the book also contains insights about what it was like to grow up in a ‘depressed area’ (northeastern Pennsylvania, once thriving because of anthracite coal) in the middle of the twentieth century—merely a mile away from my agemate young Joe Biden; to have inspiring teachers and mentors, as well as a smattering of anti-mentors and tormentors, and how one person succeeded in navigating a life in scholarship without following the usual career pathways within the usual scholarly departments.

To my surprise and pleasure, some early readers, reviewers, and interviewers have also found encouragement and even inspiration from aspects of my biography: especially my overcoming some personal and some physical handicaps; surviving a graduate training which was not pleasurable and sometimes quite punitive; being more of a book writer than an author of peer-reviewed, empirical studies; being able to go beyond—not becoming a slave to—what one is best known for, in my case “MI theory.”

I am not sure that I would advise anyone to do exactly what I did; but I firmly believe that if you have some talent, a strong will, and can negotiate setbacks, you can survive and perhaps even thrive in a variety of environments. I have long been inspired by the words of French economist and political visionary Jean Monnet: “I regard every defeat as an opportunity.”

Also, because I have studied and written about an unusually large number of topics, the book has given me the opportunity not only to discover links among these seemingly disparate subjects, but also to tie together this ‘network of enterprise’—this “through line”, as it were—in ways that make sense to me and, I hope, to others as well. And, going forward, I may be in a better position to understand what I do, how I do it, what may come next and why, and what may come after that.

Most important to me, I hope to be able to put ‘synthesizing’ on the map: why it is important, more today than ever before; why it has been relatively neglected by researchers; how it occupies an important, indeed invaluable niche, between journalism, on the one hand, and standard experimental social science on the other; how it might be nurtured by teachers, mentors, parents, on the one hand, and how we ourselves may sharpen our synthesizing capacities, to our own benefit and, if we are successful and strategic, to the benefit of those who encounter us and/or our work. Also, while some synthesizing can and should be done by computational devices and programs, the most important acts of selection and of action are and should remain distinctly human endeavors.




 


 

Ruth DeFries

 

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

Cover Interview of January 27, 2021

Lastly

My aim for the book is to give people some different, perhaps non-intuitive ways of thinking about how we organize ourselves as human societies. I do not mean to be prescriptive and pronounce what “should” or “must” happen. Rather, by thinking about the potential parallels between the two complex systems—nature and human civilization—we might be able to integrate some time-tested examples from nature into our human-constructed institutions.

We live in a time when many people are anxious about the future. Of course, the pandemic is very anxiety-producing. But even without the pandemic, with climate change, political upheavals, and blatant displays of the social inequities that the twentieth century created, people might welcome new ways of viewing the world.

Inventors and architects have highlighted many wonderful examples of biomimicry, such as Velcro inspired by burr spikes and cooling towers pattered on termite mounds. The strategies discussed in the book are more at the level of systems. That means an individual alone can’t unilaterally act on these strategies. A single person cannot build a seed bank, save dying languages, or build redundancy into the global food trade network. I’m afraid this book will not satisfy those who want answers to what they can do individually.

But everyone can be part of a society who chooses its leaders and contributes to decisions about its priorities. We can embrace those leaders who think beyond short-term efficiency, appreciate the power of bottom-up organization, and otherwise might work to implement the strategies from nature that apply to human societies.

When I was researching the examples and stories for the book, I was struck by how many times people have learned through trial and error that nature’s strategies pay off. Most of those examples relate to finance, where portfolio diversity and redundant supply chains are clearly in the interest of stakeholders. But even some examples at a more systems-level, such as the 100-year U.S. Forest Service’s backtrack on Smokey Bear’s message that all fires are bad, show the power of human ability to learn and adjust.

I hope that this book brings optimism and hope that inevitable disruptions need not lead to disaster if society builds nature’s time-tested strategies into its human institutions.




 


 

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

Lastly

This book is part of the series, Inalienable Rights, edited by my friend and colleague, Geoffrey Stone, of the University of Chicago (which happens to be my literal birthplace). All the other contributors to this series are professors of law; I am the sole historian who is involved in the project. But I happen to think having a historical perspective on what has become a vexed area of jurisprudence has real intellectual advantages. Many legal observers regard Religion Clause doctrine as a mess, and that situation makes it difficult to appreciate what a great success the radical American departure embodied in the First Amendment has been.

The basic fact remains, I believe, that Madison and Jefferson (and to some extent Madison more than Jefferson, as I explain in the book) were right: the more one does to enable individuals to be their own religious truth-seekers and to maintain a high wall of separation between church and state, the happier we will collectively be. This book does offer a short summary in its concluding two chapters of the leading issues of Religion Clause jurisprudence, though emphasizing “free exercise” more than disestablishment. But its real purpose is to provide a historical context for appreciating and, I hope, validating the American experiment in religious freedom.




 


 

Sujatha Fernandes

 

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

Cover Interview of January 13, 2021

Lastly

I hope that the book encourages people to see beyond Western media representations of Cuba. The media has been preoccupied with the idea of Cubans as trapped within a one-state autocracy, yearning for political and consumer freedoms unavailable to them. Cubans are generally depicted as repressed entrepreneurs: a world of small businesspeople, dissidents, bloggers, and others who want freedom of speech and freedom of commerce. The progression of Cuban society is its journey toward capitalism, the evolution of Cubans to become more like us. Such representations betray a deep failure to understand Cuba on its own terms.

There are many trajectories and models that loom large in the worldviews of Cubans, from the Black Radical tradition in the United States to the model of Chinese market socialism and the Pink Tide revolutions that swept Latin America. Some want more space to speak out critically or engage in commercial activities. And the growing presence of corporations such as Airbnb and Netflix is fostering new capitalist rationalities. But we must also understand the ways that consciousness and modes of being are deeply shaped by values of collectivism, egalitarianism, and voluntarism, derived from the socialist and post-independence past.

We hear much about Cuba’s transition. These essays depict a society in transition, but not necessarily one that is moving in a unilinear direction toward an embrace of capitalism. Rather, they reveal a range of utopic and liberatory visions that often take a socialist worldview as the horizon of the taken-for-granted, while also reflecting the multiple influences that have come to play a role in Cuban society from antiracist, anticapitalist, feminist, and LGBTQ movements to open-source information sharing, gamer culture, rock, hip hop, and reggae.




 


 

Cathy A. Small

 

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

Cover Interview of January 06, 2021

Lastly

In the opening paragraph of the preface, it reads: “Compassion is described as the quivering of the heart in relation to the suffering of others; it is accompanied by an impulse to relieve the suffering witnessed.” I would hope that the book leads readers to a greater understanding of the suffering that homeless people endure and a greater impulse to relieve that suffering.

A study from the Center for Experimental Research on Fairness, Inequality and Rationality at the Norwegian School of Economics found that people in all political camps—conservative and liberal—want to take corrective measures about inequality when they perceive that being disadvantaged is not “earned.”

I wish that the book can offer readers another way to talk about causation, one that focuses more on the impossibly slippery slope on which people teeter before sliding into homelessness rather than focusing on their choice of footwear. I hope readers will come to see the patience and ingenuity it really takes to live homeless. I imagine they will wince, with me, at the indignities of living with the stigma of homelessness. I wish that the book will bring to light the unseen features of being poor and homeless: the businesses that profit from the poor; the countless hoops and catch-22s in the bureaucracies purporting to help the homeless.

I hope insights will prompt some action, although our book is not prescriptive about the changes we expect. I take heart in whatever a reader might be moved to do. Given our different proclivities and resources and positions, this may vary widely. I was moved to volunteer at a homeless shelter (and write a book!) but others might send donations. Perhaps the action taken will be to put issues on one’s radar, like decriminalizing overnight camping or regulating payday loans, that hadn’t been there before. Maybe a neighborhood or a church group might take on the biggest obstacle to affordable housing in their community: NIMBY (attitudes deeming housing as important but Not in My Backyard).

I dream that those in positions of power might help rouse the political will to squarely address homelessness, and the social and economic inequities at its source. But the most real and tender image I hold is that of multiple readers, some of whom have written me, who carry little bags of snacks in their cars, with maybe a pair of socks, or a toothbrush, or a bus pass, to hand out to homeless people they encounter.




 


 

David Badre

 

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

Cover Interview of December 16, 2020

Lastly

Cognitive control is central to our lives, but there is little broad understanding of the science behind it. I hope that readers will be introduced to something they didn’t know before and will gain a better understanding of this core but unfamiliar cognitive function. Though On Task is not strictly a self-help book, readers may also be able to use this knowledge to help cognitive control in their own lives. Cognitive control is within our control, so to speak, and we can structure our lives and environment to help our cognitive control system.

Further, there is a lot of misinformation out there about concepts like executive function and brain structures like the prefrontal cortex. I commonly see claims being made about executive function that are not well grounded in scientific evidence, particularly among groups known to need aid with their executive function, like children or older adults. This has resulted in confusions and some widely held misconceptions.

Moreover, there are also a number of widely marketed cognitive training interventions that claim to improve cognitive control or executive function. I treat that topic directly in the book and suggest to readers ways that they can evaluate such claims for themselves.

Having a firmer grasp of the science may help readers navigate these topics better when they encounter them in their everyday lives. More generally, this book presents a story about how scientists approach a perplexing scientific problem. I hope reading that captivating tale will contribute to promoting curiosity and an appreciation of science in the broader public.




 


 

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

Lastly

The consumer protection movement has energized the public to reconsider many of the products and services it encounters in the market. Clearly, we have become more discerning consumers of things like food, automobiles, and banking services. And we also have come to care about the laws that regulate our consumption.

Although consumer oversight of Congress and regulatory agencies is increasing in many areas, copyright law remains a hidden determiner of our cultural future.

Copy This Book! explains why we should care as much about the length of the copyright term as we care about the accuracy of organic labeling or the phraseology of consumer lending contracts.

Armed with dozens of studies, consumer advocates now have an arsenal with which to counter the ever-increasing demand of copyright owners for broader rights.

In other fields of law, large firms sometimes serve as surrogates for the public interest. For example, when big Pharma pushes for broader patent rights, Silicon Valley often pushes back, forcing Congress to consider what might be best for the public as a whole.

When it comes to copyright law, however, large publishers, plus the movie and music industries, have faced little or no pushback against their successful attempts to distort the law to their private benefit. Few pay attention to copyright “reform,” and the effect on the market for cultural goods is obscured.

Copy This Book! is not only a call to arms, but a provider of weaponry.




 


 

Robert Bartlett

 

On his book Blood Royal: Dynastic Politics in Medieval Europe

Cover Interview of November 18, 2020

Lastly

If I were asked “why read about the Middle Ages?”, I think I would give three reasons. First, that we can see there the roots of some things that are important in the modern world: representative government, universities, corporate towns, reading glasses, clocks, for example. To look for origins is a natural impulse. Second, that we there encounter a world quite different from our own, sometimes dramatically so. In trial by ordeal, an accused person might be required to carry a red-hot iron three paces, then have their hand bound and inspected after three days. If it was healing cleanly, the accused was innocent, if not, not. This is not a current practice but in the early Middle Ages it was and demands some kind of explanation—both of why it was and why it is no longer. To try to understand societies different from our own is a basic form of human inquiry. The social science of anthropology was born from that impulse, but it applies equally well as a description of the historian’s task. The third reason for reading about the Middle Ages is that it is a period full of wonderful stories and fascinating people.

I would hope that Blood Royal would be of interest under all these three headings. It does explain features of modern Europe, such as why France and Germany are separate countries and why Spain and Portugal are separate countries. In both cases the explanation lies in family disputes: between brothers in the ninth century, between sisters in the twelfth. And the whole book is premised on the idea that the dynastic system is alien to modern western democracies and needs to be explained to audiences in those countries. In the few surviving European monarchies, the royal family is sometimes a subject of interest or gossip, but in the dynastic world it was central to the whole political system. And, of course, I do think the book is full of stories and characters of intrinsic interest.

Before doing research for the book, I had never come across the document issued by Petronilla, queen of Aragon, in 1152. It begins, “I, Petronilla, queen of Aragon, lying and labouring in childbirth at Barcelona…”, and then makes provision for the child that was imminently expected, whether it is a boy that “is to proceed from my womb, by God’s will”, or “if a daughter should proceed from my womb”, and giving 2,000 gold coins to the churches of Aragon and Barcelona to pray for her. She gave birth to a healthy boy who become king after her, and “the royal seed” of Aragon was thus preserved. She was fifteen years old. It demonstrates very well the way that the political system of medieval Europe was founded on the female body. “Dynasty—where kinship and politics meet”, as the kind author of one of the blurbs on the book jacket puts it.




 


 

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

Lastly

One thing that surprised me when I was writing the book was the way that race was an unspoken undercurrent in all that the advertising industry did—something that perhaps should have been obvious, but that I wasn’t expecting in undertaking a biography of a woman advertiser. When I first started the project, I thought the “scoop” would be teasing out how Rindlaub balanced the contradictions implicit in preaching domesticity while being a powerful public presence, or how she was a vital link in the ad industry’s efforts to weaponize women’s sentiment, divert their moral feeling into the private realm of consumption so as to stop it from spilling over into more public, political venues of social critique. What I found was what Kyla Schuler has persuasively argued: that gender is a raced concept, and the ideal of American “femininity” was developed and honed over the course of the nineteenth century partially in order to shore up the structures of white supremacy.

The racialized underpinnings of the make-up industry were obvious: Jean Rindlaub’s ads for Marvelous Make-up in the 1930s took place against the backdrop of nativism, eugenics, and an expanding Hollywood film industry where racial codes for whiteness were part and parcel of the larger image-making system. Her make-up ads used whiteness and cleanliness—a quality always associated with whiteness—as their main “emotional” selling point. But even where the question of skin complexion was seemingly less obvious, race was an unspoken driver of her work. In her testing and polling to make sure she had her finger on the pulse of the “average American” housewife, whiteness was assumed. National opinion polls and the expanding media of radio and film sought to construct the average American as white and middle-class.

And perhaps most importantly, all her work in favor of privatized, consumer-driven responses to social reform—her belief that an untrammeled free market mechanism alone was the best way to guarantee America’s pledge of equality and freedom—helped shore up white economic dominance. Rindlaub helped create a narrative by which support for broad state-sponsored social programs, in the tradition of nineteenth-century women’s reform movements among poor and immigrant communities, was coded “unfeminine.” True (white) femininity could only function as moral voice within the home and through private purchasing power. This was all, of course, built on the racist premise that government social programs disproportionately helped low-income, immigrant, and Black communities.

If there is anything, in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter protests, that I think is important about this history I have written, it is this: it shines a light on how an ideal of white middle-class femininity has for over a century been continuously exploited—increasingly and ever-more tightly allied with Christian “family values,” free-market faith, and small-government ideology—in order to buttress the structures of American white supremacy. Remarkably, after she retired, Jean Wade Rindlaub herself came to recognize the racism and classism that was embedded in her previous free-market faith, and she tried to make amends for it. She’s a cautionary tale for us today.




 


 

Gerald R. North

 

On his book The Rise of Climate Science: A Memoir

Cover Interview of October 13, 2020

Lastly

My life and career should be interesting to many people who are considering a life in science, or persons in position to advise young people interested in science. I grew up in the golden age for my choice of science as a profession. I was a late bloomer who could not have made it in many countries or times. I managed to squeeze through all the traditional gates. Although it seems that my path was unique, I found that I was among a cohort of ambitious kids from the lower middle class that were successful. I fear that this path is closed now for this group that I remember so well. I fear that the current concentration of wealth elsewhere shuts the gates on this route for all too many to the detriment of our nation.

Climate science began with geographers and geologists collecting and organizing data. It took an abrupt change in the late sixties to a paradigm of putting physics (mostly through meteorologists and oceanographers, but others as well) into climate models, as they evolved from weather forecast models. Theoretical models required physical, mathematical, and statistical skills for their solution. A key ingredient was the parallel growth of digital computers and other technologies such as drilling cores from the sea floor, lake bottoms and coral formations. Satellite observing systems enabled us to gain a global view of our planet’s climate and how it works. The giant computers, the internet, and satellites systems also corralled the gushing flow of information that was needed by the models.

The model simulations and the data streams set up a dance of iterating between models suggesting data, data testing, and adjusting models. This beautiful picture is now clear enough for us to believe what climate scientists have been telling us for decades. The planetary climate is changing for the warmer with negative ramifications. It is so obvious now that the number of scientifically educated supporters denying the change has nearly vanished. In the terms of Thomas Kuhn, climate science is in the stage of normal science.

Basic climate science is now blessed with funding from numerous governmental agencies in the United States and in nearly every other country in the world. The largest corporations are agreed on its inferences. Climatic conditions evolve on multi-generational time scales. The changes are gradual to the observer, but the manifestations of it are becoming clear to the laypersons at last, and they should begin to deal with it with a mix of adaptations and mitigations.




 


 

David Sepkoski

 

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

Cover Interview of September 30, 2020

Lastly

My assumption is that readers of this book are aware of and concerned about the impact of climate change and other crises linked to human activity. I did not write this book to question the seriousness of these developments, but I do want my readers to think critically about the relationship between science and culture.

While there are certainly isolated examples of rogue scientists who have distorted their findings to serve the interests of industry or politicians, science is more often cultural or political in other, less dramatic ways. The relationship between fact, theory, and belief is extremely complex: facts, like the reality of mass extinctions in the geological past, have contributed to theories, like the nuclear winter scenario, which in turn have conditioned beliefs, like the certainty that biodiversity is an inherently good thing. If we look, say, at the development of the biodiversity movement in the 1990s and beyond, which is the subject of the last chapter of the book, we see that all of these concerns are combined in the practice of science itself.

Importantly, general receptiveness to scientific ideas is strongly conditioned—among scientists as well as the public—by prevailing cultural attitudes. It was no coincidence, the book argues, that the reality of past catastrophic mass extinctions gained widespread acceptance in the era of nuclear proliferation, whereas Victorian naturalists like Darwin rejected such proposals in favor of a model of earth’s history that reinforced wider beliefs about progress and cultural superiority in human society. Likewise, the current belief that biological and cultural diversity is essential for the survival of humanity was conditioned by studies—in ecology, genetics, and paleontology—suggesting that ecological systems are more stable when they are more diverse.

This shouldn’t convince us to mistrust scientists—who are only human, after all—but should give us pause when reflecting on the cultural authority of science. By providing a window on the complex relationship between scientific authority and cultural values, this book encourages readers to be critical and reflective about the sources of some of the deepest values we hold. In the twenty-first century we will increasingly rely on science to help us understand and hopefully overcome the challenges we face, but we must understand that science itself cannot tell us what to care about or how to act.




 


 

Francesco Boldizzoni

 

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

Cover Interview of September 16, 2020

Lastly

Umberto Eco has shown us that a book can have different implications to different readers, often beyond the author’s intentions. This is perhaps inevitable, but I would nevertheless like to take this opportunity to say two or three things about the spirit in which I wrote it and what I think are the main points to take home.

First of all, this is a book written from the left and to remind the left of its responsibilities. There is not the slightest complacency on my part in narrating the misadventures of thinkers who hoped for a world liberated from capitalism and exploitation—a world in which human beings could be truly free—if anything, there is pain. I sometimes receive interview requests from conservative media eager to use the book’s conclusions to back reactionary agendas. Those looking in it for evidence to legitimize the status quo have taken the wrong direction.

My main point is that capitalism has survived so many predictions of its demise not because it is a particularly efficient system, nor because of some magical virtues of the markets, as the cliché would have it, but because it is rooted in the hierarchical and individualistic structure of modern Western societies. These elements—hierarchies and individualism—have taken shape over many centuries and cannot suddenly go away. No matter how much one fights the system, social institutions cannot be ended by acts of will.

The awareness that there are limits to what can be done, but that at the same time the existing order isn’t a fact of nature but a human construction, leads one to abandon both unhelpful feelings of resignation and pointless utopian fantasies and instead take the path of reasonable political change. The political message of the book is, therefore, an invitation to rediscover and practice radical social democracy. Capitalism can be governed by the state and forced to work to the advantage of the many. It is not an easy road, but one that has proved its value in the past and is worth trying again.