Depress me!
September 21, 2007 2:38 PM   Subscribe

Deforestation. Extinction. Soil depletion. Toxicity. Mental illness. Mass imprisonment. Neocolonialism. Etceterugh. What should one read for a better comprehension of just what the hell we're doing to the planet, ourselves, and eachother?

What books or documentaries effectively explain/encapsulate/investigate/contextualize trends such as these? What would you say is essential reading or viewing for anyone wishing to stay conscious of the problems of modern civilization, remind others, and seek out root causes?

Aside from the obvious (An Inconvenient Truth), I suppose other examples could range anywhere from The No-nonsense Guide to the Arms Trade to Silent Spring to The Politics of Experience. Gimme more, new or classic.
posted by poweredbybeard to Society & Culture (45 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and they don't necessarily have to have this as their lone or main goal. Inspiring books would be nice too.
posted by poweredbybeard at 2:47 PM on September 21, 2007

I liked The Creature from Jekyll Island for explaining how the Federal Reserve works and how we've screwed our monetary system.
posted by Durin's Bane at 2:53 PM on September 21, 2007

This may not sound like the answer to your question but I do believe the best way to understand what is really happening (and may happen) is to follow the money--I would suggest regularly reading the Economist and one world class newspaper--Sunday's London Times, NYT, etc. I do believe if you follow the money you get the best view of what is and will happen. Words come easy and are easily mixed with ideology--money tends to create and define what is really happening. I am not not taking an ideological position and am not necessarily suggesting you read the Editorials--but hard news is news. It is much more significant that Dubai has become a major investor in stock exchanges and is shopping for non-petroleum investments than any one polemical essay on peal oil. Good Luck
posted by rmhsinc at 2:59 PM on September 21, 2007

Response by poster: I should be a bit more specific; I'm not terribly interested, for the purpose of this question, in economic theory, political minutiae, or peak oil arguments and the like. It's more a matter of getting a sense of the full spectrum of the "externalities" of our economics - the physical and emotional consequences of the current civilization.

Thanks for the answers so far, though.
posted by poweredbybeard at 3:09 PM on September 21, 2007

I have only recently become more concerned with world affairs and the reason is this little gem of a documentary:

Please watch the whole thing before you judge it. Some people cannot make it through the first part because it challenges religious views.
posted by Brandon1600 at 3:10 PM on September 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: One further clarification to my clarification: Works on the results of "globalization" policies (ie. the film Life and Debt), however, would be perfectly germane. I tend to keep up on such things anyway, but for the purpose of making this a more robust thread, post those too.
posted by poweredbybeard at 3:13 PM on September 21, 2007

For a more positive and realistic look at what's going on in the world, you might check out Ode magazine. Lots of info on what people are doing to transform these issues that "plague" our times.

You might also look at Organic Consumers Association.
posted by healthyliving at 3:25 PM on September 21, 2007

also, the 11th hour, new film from leo dicaprio
posted by healthyliving at 3:25 PM on September 21, 2007
posted by Brandon1600 at 3:26 PM on September 21, 2007

Best answer: Taking a broad view of your question.

Absolutely essential: Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle/Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society.

Really helpful: Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd/People and Personnel/Communitas. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (especially the last essay). Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish/Society Must Be Defended. Juergen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Adorno, Minima Moralia. Goethe, Faust.

Optional, but helpful: Marx, Capital/Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844. Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man. Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture. Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces. Freud, Civilization and its Discontents. Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality (especially the essay "Striking at the Heart of the State"). Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation. John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society. Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology.

posted by nasreddin at 3:28 PM on September 21, 2007 [8 favorites]

Nutrition and Physical Degeneration documents the changes experienced by many traditional/primitive cultures as they adopted a modern, Western diet. It's a bit dated, but still very relevant.
posted by Durin's Bane at 3:33 PM on September 21, 2007

Well, A Short History of Nearly Everything is a great read to understand what has been happening on the planet absent humankind's influence, and it's a good predictor of what we can expect even if we had no impact on the environment: more ice ages (we're just between ice ages right now), massive meteorite impacts, supervolcanoes.

Basically humankind is a beautiful, temporary state of complexity. Like a snowflake falling toward an open fire. We can do all we can to screw up the planet, but it's nothing compared to what the planet is going to do to us.
posted by mullingitover at 3:40 PM on September 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: nasreddin's on the right track, I think.
posted by poweredbybeard at 3:48 PM on September 21, 2007

Best answer: The World Without Us. It's a bit different than most books about extinction, because it doesn't try to find a cause - it assumes that humans just vanished all at once, and examines what happens to the world when there are no humans left on it.

Along the way you get a very strong sense of what we've done to this planet, and it's very sobering.
posted by pdb at 3:51 PM on September 21, 2007

Best answer: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond. Too obvious? Seems to cover the first three items pretty well, along with a wide variety of other stuff that has happened in past collapses of societies of varying complexity. It's often recommended. I'm reading it now, quite enjoyable so far.

The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter. More ambitious theorizing, I gather, which does not strike me as a good thing, but nonetheless it's next on my reading list to provide some contrast with Diamond's take on "collapse".
posted by sfenders at 3:55 PM on September 21, 2007

Seconding The World Without Us
posted by idiotfactory at 4:14 PM on September 21, 2007

Best answer: I would begin by reading a book which first appeared in magazine form more than 33 years ago, and which had then the approximate effect of a seed crystal thrown into a supersaturated solution of concern about the future: An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, by Robert L. Heilbroner. The book should be available in almost any public library.

I think the 24,042 word essay in the New York Review of Books is stronger, more concentrated, and more passionate than the book it begat, however. Its first words are:

There is a question in the air, a question so disturbing that I would hesitate to ask it aloud did I not believe it existed unvoiced in the minds of many: 'Is there hope for man?'

and it is available online for $3.
posted by jamjam at 4:15 PM on September 21, 2007

Best answer: check out Derrick Jensen. Culture of Make Believe is very long but most like what you're describing. Language Older than Words is similar, shorter, and in my opinion a better book.
posted by lgyre at 4:23 PM on September 21, 2007

If you get PBS, you should be watching Bill Moyers Journal religiously.
posted by Reggie Digest at 4:26 PM on September 21, 2007

Who Killed the Electric Car? (Here's the trailer.)
posted by Reggie Digest at 4:34 PM on September 21, 2007

Here's some more of the (obvious, off the top of my head) corporations-control-everything ones:

This Film is Not Yet Rated (Here's the trailer. Here's the whole thing.)
The Corporation (First chunk of 23.)
Roger & Me, and so on.

But if you want "all-encompassing," look no further than Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Nagoyqatsi.
posted by Reggie Digest at 4:58 PM on September 21, 2007

Oh yeah! Manufactured Landscapes is a great doc about (peripherally, but extensively) globalization, raping the planet, etc.
posted by Reggie Digest at 5:04 PM on September 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler (who also blogs).
posted by BackwardsCity at 5:27 PM on September 21, 2007

seek out root causes?

The Population Bomb

posted by damn dirty ape at 6:04 PM on September 21, 2007

Couple of different perspectives:

Ted Trainer
Amory Lovins
posted by flabdablet at 6:39 PM on September 21, 2007

Best answer: Films:

posted by flabdablet at 6:44 PM on September 21, 2007

Science fiction:

The Sheep Look Up

posted by flabdablet at 6:45 PM on September 21, 2007

For a less grim point of view, you could read census abstracts from 1900 or 1910, and see exactly how people lived before all this big bad technology came around. Or you could go a local cemetary and stroll around the 1900 or 1910 burials and see how many of them were of children under 5 and how many of the adults were dead in their 50s and 60s.
posted by MattD at 6:46 PM on September 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

While not a book or documentary, Jason Godesky's Thirty Theses provide a sort of context to this topic.
posted by peeedro at 6:46 PM on September 21, 2007

Best answer: Are you only after non-fiction? Ishmael by Daniel Quinn delves into how we've come this way, and looks at the larger picture of civilisation and society as reasons why we're treating the planet this way. It's not hard science, but it's very interesting reading and very much about the topics you're asking about.
posted by twirlypen at 6:57 PM on September 21, 2007

Best answer: The Weathermakers by Tim Flannery.

Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacob

posted by gingerbeer at 7:08 PM on September 21, 2007

Best answer: Plan B 2.0. Will depress you for the first 6 chapters, and then offers solutions.
posted by dondiego87 at 7:28 PM on September 21, 2007

Best answer: A Short History of Progress. All you really need to read is the following excerpt. Originally posted here, it is not modern, and not global, but nonetheless captures the problem perfectly:
Rapa Nui, as Polynesians call the place, was settled during the 5th century AD by migrants from the Marquesas or the Gambiers arriving in big catamarans stocked with their usual range of crops and animals: Dogs, chickens, edible rats, sugar cane, bananas, sweet potatoes, and mulberry for making bark cloth. Easter Island proved too cold for breadfruit and coconut palm, but was rich in seafood: fish, seals porpoises, turtles and nesting sea birds. Within five or six centuries the settlers multiplied to about 10,000 people - a lot for 64 square miles. They built villages with good houses on stone footings, and cleared all the best land for fields. Socially, they split into clans and ranks: nobles, priests, commoners. And their may have been a paramount chief or king.

Like Polynesians on some other islands each clan began to honour its ancestry with impressive stone images. These were hewn from the yielding volcanic tuff of a crater and set up on platforms by the shore. As time went on the statue cult became increasingly rivalrous and extravagant, reaching its apogee during Europe's high middle ages while the Plantagenet kings ruled England.

Each generation of images grew bigger than the last. Demanding more timber rope and manpower for hauling to the 'ahu' or alters. trees were cut faster than they could grow, a problem worsened by the settlers rats, who ate the seeds and saplings. By AD 1400 no more tree pollen is found in the annual layers of the crater lakes. The woods had been utterly destroyed by both the largest and the smallest mammals on the island.

We might think that in such a limited place, were from the height of Terevaca islanders could survey their whole world at a glance, steps would have been taken to halt the cutting, to protect the saplings, to replant. We might think that as trees became scarce the erection of statues might have been curtailed and timber reserved for essential purposes such as boat building and roofing. But that is not what happened. The people who felled the last tree could see it was the last, could know with complete certainty that there would never be another, and they felled it anyway.

All shade vanished from the land, except the hard edged shadows cast by the petrified ancestors, whom the people loved all the more because they made them feel less alone. For a generation or so there was enough old lumber to haul the great stones and still keep a few canoes sea worthy for deep water. But the day came when the last good boat was gone. The people then knew there would be little seafood, and worse, no way of escape. The word for wood 'rakau' became the dearest in their language. Wars broke out over ancient planks and worm eaten bits of jetsam. They ate all their dogs and nearly all the nesting birds and the unbearable stillness of the place deepened with animal silences.

There was nothing left now but the moai, the stone giants who had devoured the land, and still these promised the return of plenty if only the people would keep faith and honour them with increase. "But how will we take you to the alters" asked the carvers. And the Moai answered that when the time came they would walk there on their own.

So the sound of hammering still rang from the quarries and the crater walls came alive with hundreds of new giants, growing even bigger now that they had no need of human transport. The tallest ever set on an alter is over 30' high and weighs 80 tons. The tallest ever carved is 65' long and more than 200 tons. Comparable to the greatest stones worked by the Incas or the Egyptians, except of course
that it never budged an inch. By the end there were more than one thousand Moai. One for every ten islanders in their heyday. But the good days were gone. Gone with the good earth which had been carried away on the endless wind and washed by flash floods into the sea. The people had been seduced by a kind of progress that becomes a mania, an ideological pathology as some anthropologists call it.

When Europeans arrived in the 18th century the worst was over. They found only one or two living soles per statue. "A sorry remnant" in Cooke's words "small lean, timid and miserable." The Europeans heard tales of how the warrior class had taken power. How the island had convulsed with burning villages, gory battles, and cannibal feasts. Daggers and spearheads became the commonest tools on the island, horded in pits like the grenades and assault rifles kept by modern day survivalists. Even this was not quite the nadir.

Between the Dutch visit of 1722 and Cooke's 50 years later the people again made war on each other, and for the first time on the ancestors as well. Cooke found moai toppled from their platforms, cracked and beheaded, the ruins littered with human bone. We do not know exactly what promises had been made from the demanding moai to the people. But it seems likely that the arrival of an outside world in floating castles of unimaginable wealth and menace might have exposed certain illusions of the statue cult. Replacing compulsive beliefs with equally compulsive disenchantment.

Whatever its animus the destruction on Rapa Nui raged for at least 70 years, each foreign ship saw fewer upright statues, until not one giant was left standing on it's alter. The work of demolition must have been extremely arduous for the few descendants of the builders. Its thoroughness and deliberation speak of something deeper than clan warfare, of a people angry at their reckless fathers, of a revolt against the dead.
posted by Chuckles at 7:53 PM on September 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

Critical Path - Buckminster Fuller
posted by goalyeehah at 8:00 PM on September 21, 2007

Best answer: Seconding Wright's Short History of Progress and Kunstler's The Long Emergency (as well as Kunstler's even better The Geography of Nowhere).

And for the opposite effect of your title instruction (Inspire me!), I highly recommend Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit ahead of all of the above. A quick, exhilirating read.
posted by gompa at 9:10 PM on September 21, 2007

nasreddin's list is great. You can pick up snippets of some things on his list in this book.

For an amazing investigation of emotional consequences, check out The Love of Nature and The End of the World by Shierry Weber Nicholsen.

In the hope category, have you have read the essay "Fall Down Six Times"?
posted by salvia at 12:18 AM on September 22, 2007

Best answer: Earth Follies by Joni Seager.

Small is Beautiful by E.F. Schumaker.

No Logo by Naomi Klein, and her latest one, The Shock Doctrine.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:42 AM on September 22, 2007

Not a documentary, but gauging from the UGH part of your question, maybe you should check out It relates to your question, but tends to have some humor, too.
posted by OrangeDrink at 1:13 AM on September 22, 2007

Best answer: Two more: going along with the Foucault stuff, check out Thomas H. Birch's "Wilderness Areas As Prisons" in this compilation; to get a bit at the causes, check out either Nature's Metropolis or Imperial San Francisco.
posted by salvia at 1:20 AM on September 22, 2007

I haven't read it, but I think Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World is about exactly this.
posted by driveler at 9:01 AM on September 22, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the answers so far. Some stuff I'd already read (I second Derrick Jensen, Daniel Quinn, and Ronald Wright), a lot I haven't, and one or two surprising suggestions.

And, of course, a wee bit of snark.

Or you could go a local cemetary and stroll around the 1900 or 1910 burials and see how many of them were of children under 5 and how many of the adults were dead in their 50s and 60s.

Thank goodness there are no children anywhere dying of preventable disease anymore. And for that we certainly have the kind, wealthy technocrats of the world to thank.

Your point is a good one, MattD, but I'd say it's wanting perspective - and answering a question that wasn't asked.
posted by poweredbybeard at 9:06 AM on September 22, 2007

read census abstracts from 1900 or 1910, and see exactly how people lived before all this big bad technology came around. Or you could go a local cemetary and stroll around the 1900 or 1910 burials and see how many of them were of children under 5 and how many of the adults were dead in their 50s and 60s.

Nature's Metropolis narrates Chicago, 1848-1893, and its effects on its environment, so it's less "now vs. 1905" and more "the more things change, the more they stay the same."
posted by salvia at 10:23 AM on September 22, 2007

The first thing I would read, were I you, would be a standard geology text. I think it would put things in perspective a bit.

The second thing to read is this.

Now, don't get me wrong: I think that human activity is definitely affecting the planet. However, what we are doing and to what extent and how we are affecting it is, I think, a very difficult thing to predict (all the more reason to be careful, since we live here, but we still don't know what it is we are going to get as an end result as our de-sequestering of CO2).

Anyway... that's my two cents.
posted by Yellowbeard at 7:27 AM on September 24, 2007

I cannot more emphatically recommend Democracy Matters: Winning the Race Against Imperialism, by Cornel West. It is a great work which addresses this issue directly.
posted by numinous at 5:17 PM on October 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

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