by Patricia Miller, CPL Librarian
Originally published by the Columbia Daily Tribune.
As the United States and China each embark on a census in 2010, there is a growing sense that our planet and humanity are at a critical juncture. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 4 billion people, more than half the world's population, live in cities, and 1 billion are slum dwellers. Some 862 million don't have enough to eat and are deficient in nutrients and protein, making them more susceptible to disease. And, as recent tragic events in Haiti have shown, many crowded cities lie in major earthquake zones, where dense living conditions, environmental degradation and flimsy housing predict future disaster.
Even the confidence of the western world is shaken in the wake of the global financial collapse. Many recent works examine the "end of opportunity society" in the West, the shift in global dominance to China and the tensions between exploitation of global resources and an environmentally sustainable future. In The Genius of the Beast (Prometheus, 2009), Howard Bloom asserts that "only capitalism delivers what faith promises." However, in his new book, Hoodwinked (Broadway, 2009), John Perkins, author of the best-seller Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (Berrett-Koehler, 2004), maintains that the financial collapse was caused by an unsustainable form of predatory capitalism serving foreign policy interests and global corporations. He points to Reykjavik, Iceland, as the latest new "hit," where rows of empty corporate buildings are testimony to a few years of explosive growth fueled by the corporation Alcoa, financed by banks and ending in near bankruptcy. Other voices address the rise of China as a contender for global economic supremacy. Martin Jacques' "When China Rules the World" (Penguin, 2009) questions the presumption that China is becoming more like the West, first articulated in Francis Fukuyama's influential The End of History and The Last Man (Free Press, 1992), in which Fukuyama proposed that the world would converge into a western liberal democracy "as the final form of human government."
The search for resources continues to create new tensions between geopolitical maneuvering and environmental protection. China Safari by Serge Michel and Michel Beuret (Nation, 2009) examines China's investment and infrastructure-building projects in Africa, of which the West, tainted by past colonialism, is only now taking notice. In After the Ice (Harper Collins, 2009), Alun Anderson chronicles the battle for Arctic resources, adding a cautionary tale about the abandoned Russian coal-mining town of Pyramiden. In Antarctica 2041 (Broadway, 2009), Robert Swan fears the expiration of an international treaty now protecting Antarctica from mining will end like the anticipated Arctic scramble for minerals and oil. But his greatest concern is that Antarctica is "the global version of a canary in a coal mine" as more melt, glacial retreat and ice breakup are indisputable signs of climate change.
For Steven Solomon, another sign of planetary distress is water scarcity. In Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization (Harper Collins, 2010), he documents how irrigation, water power and improvements in sanitary hygiene have been key to demographic transformations in human history.
Another rising concern is epidemic disease. Stephan Talty's lively account, The Illustrious Dead (Crown, 2009), maintains that typhus might have changed the course of history. Less than one-quarter of Napoleon's army died in military action; the rest were decimated by typhus, cold and hunger. As Cormac Ó'Gráda notes in Famine: A Short History (Princeton, 2009), famine today is more often "linked to wars and ideology than to poor harvests," although malnutrition leaves people vulnerable to pandemics. In Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics From the Black Death to Avian Flu (Public Affairs, 2009), Philip Alcabes counters that fears of epidemics are hyped by the media and originate in the "human predilection to imagine diseases as convenient explanations for deep-seated anxieties."
For Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Built in Hell (Viking, 2009), although economic privatization of modern life tells us "we are not each other's keeper," all that changes when disasters bring people together in a sense of community, purpose and even joy. Other recent accounts of the resilience of the human spirit include Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (McSweeney's, 2009) and Strength in What Remains (Random House, 2009), by Tracy Kidder. Greg Mortenson's Stones Into Schools (Viking, 2009) continues the story of his efforts to change the fate of women in Afghanistan, and Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's Half the Sky (Knopf, 2009) issues a moral challenge to end the "gendercide" of girls through economic empowerment.
Finally, Alan Weisman's The World Without Us (Thomas Dunne, 2007) imagines how quickly humanity's impact on the planet could be obliterated. One reviewer summed up Weisman's work as "a very important book for a species playing with its own destiny."