In Austin, 29 of the 31 days of July featured triple-digit heat. Thus, far be it from me to joke about global warming concern — but reality makes cutting back on oil and natural gas very difficult. Vaclav Smil in How the World Really Works (Viking, 2022) notes that the best offshore wind turbines generate power only 45 percent of the time. Another tough power-generating statistic: It’s only “25 percent for photovoltaic cells in even the sunniest of climates,” and only 12 percent in Germany, where many politicians are all in.
Smil’s summary: “The evidence is inescapable: our food supply — be it staple grains, clucking birds, favorite vegetables, or seafood praised for its nutritious quality — has become increasingly dependent on fossil fuels… Our present situation cannot be changed easily or rapidly…”
We might wish that reality did not stifle some of our dreams, but it would be better to give thanks for what Michael Denton calls The Miracle of Man: The Fine Tuning of Nature for Human Existence (Discovery, 2022). Yes, science labs that teach us to weigh and measure carefully are important, but in high school I missed the romance of science and am just catching up on it now. Think of the highly unlikely way that solar radiation concentrated into a tiny band of the electromagnetic spectrum, plus atmospheric transparency, make possible photosynthesis, oxygen, and oxidation. Denton shows how amazing organs such as our hearts work only because of thousands of such instances of “prior environmental fitness.”
The third of my five favorite books of the past month is Work Matters: How Parents’ Jobs Shape Children’s Well-Being, by Maureen Perry-Jenkins (Princeton, 2022). The miracle of parenting is how everything we do has an effect on children, and we all fall short. Perry-Jenkins clearly shows the particular stresses parents in low-wage jobs face, and how important it is for them to have some institutional supports. Good employers for both compassionate and selfish reasons can do little things that help: As two of the chapter titles declare, “A Little Can Go a Long Way,” and “They Treat Me Right, Then I Do Right by Them.”
Recommendation #4 is Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century (Princeton, 2022). Sergei Guriev & Daniel Treisman’s sprightly account shows how Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face” tyranny is old-school. Thoroughly modern authoritarians do great damage through the use of public relations techniques, concealed censorship, and the appearance of “getting things done.” Spinners include Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Viktor Orban. They and others allow an opposition party to run in national elections. They control media but allow small outlets to offer criticism. They engage in state political killings only when deception doesn’t work.
I usually steer clear of best-sellers, but my fifth book of the month, Mark Leibovich’s Thank You for Your Servitude (Penguin, 2022), has deservedly sold in abundance. The subtitle, Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission, hints at the enormous ethical lapses, delusions of grandeur, and (at best) patriotic impulses that pushed hundreds of people to take positions enabling presidential ego that on Jan. 6, 2021, turned into dangerous craziness. Happily, Leibovich tells the story not in the mean-spirited way but in a manner that practically applies what C. S. Lewis warned about long ago, the temptation to sacrifice values to get into “the inner ring.”
Finally, here’s a non-new book worth resurrecting: The Forsaken, an outstanding history by Tim Tzouliadis (Penguin, 2008) that traces what happened to some of the thousands of American workers who emigrated to the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, some deluded politically and others desperate for work. Page one describes a photo taken in 1934 in Moscow: Two rows of young ballplayers, arms around each other, who made up the Moscow Foreign Workers’ Club and the Gorky Autoworkers.
Most of them by the end of the decade were dead, some by outright execution and others by starvation and despair in Gulag gold mines. They desperately wanted to go home to America, but almost none escaped Stalin’s purges. Tzouliadis writes with solid documentation of their betrayal by not only Communist overseers but the infamous American ambassador in Moscow, Joseph Davies, and pro-Soviet journalists like Walter Duranty of The New York Times.
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