Books I like

I recommend these books. I'll add more to this list in time.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. The book is an extended thought experiment on what would happen to all that humanity has built and what would happen to nature if the entire human race suddenly disappeared. Why would we disappear? Not important. Could be a killer plague. Could be supernatural or alien intervention.

Once we are gone how fast do our skyscrapers, bridges, highways, subways, sculptures, cars, utility poles, nuclear reactors, plastic bottles, and many other products of human civilization crumble, burn, or sink out of site? The answers are surprising. Most of our artifacts won't last long. Bronze sculptures and jewelry made of noble metals such as gold and silver will last extremely long times.

The decay of our artifacts is intimately connected to the restoration of the natural world. To understand how well the wild animals and plants will come back with our passing requires us to learn a lot of natural history and ecology. This is where the book shines. Weisman does a great job on natural history and on the workings of ecosystems. The biggest changes caused by our departure come from rebounds in species and ecosystems. He looks in detail at how we have altered nature, wiped out species, depleted other species, moved still other species around the world. The book contains a very informative series of essays about human impacts on the environment.

We've wiped out species and moved species around. In the process we've changed balances between the species that still survive. While few of our dogs will survive without us we've spread bird-killing cats that will survive and thrive and they will continue to kill huge numbers of birds in areas they never would have reached without us (and the spread of cats is only one of several ways we kill billions of birds). Also, our plastic trash breaks down in the oceans into small pieces that get taken up by microorganisms and absorbed up food chains. What this will do in the long term to the species of the oceans is not clear. But the plastic will cause problems many centuries after many other types of pollutants get broken down.

I come away from the book with an even stronger desire to see a reduction in the amount of pollution we generate into ecosystems. I also come away with a better sense of the myriad ways that we cause the death and displacement other species. We could do better on this score without greatly changing how we live. We could do even better if we were willing to create more wild zones.

Also see my FuturePundit review Alan Weisman: The World Without Us

Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies -- and What It Means to Be Human by Joel Garreau. A book on transhumanism, future human evolution, and the threats posed by artificial intelligence. Garreau, a reporter and editor at the Washington Post is a talented writer and clearly enthusiastic about his subject. Garreau looks at a number of possible futures for humans including:

The Hell Scenario takes a look at Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy's prediction that humans will get wiped out by machines of our own invention. You can read Joy's views in his 2004 Wired article Why the future doesn't need us. The Terminator series of movies represents a popularized vision on technologically hellish futures involving a possible end of humanity.

In the Heaven scenario humanity achieves Ray Kurzweil's most optimistic imaginings of a Singularity where we ascend into a utopian transhumanist state. In this utopia we are unimaginably smart, healthy, and powerful. Technology for good and for humanity wins out. I find this improbable only because I fear super intelligent entities without human moral instincts.

Garreau talks with Bill Joy and prominent futurists. The book is a good balanced introduction to transhumanism and future trends in biotechnology, genetic engineering and other areas of technology that will change the nature of future intelligent life. Whether we humans will be part of that future remains to be seen.

Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime by Aubrey de Grey and Michael Rae was written to popularize the idea that aging can be stopped and reversed with biotechnologies which can be developed within the lifetimes of some of the people alive today. Aubrey is a proponent of what he calls Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) a set of ways to reverse aging in the body. SENS sounds good to me. I want those treatments and to repair anything in my body that works less than perfectly.

Among the elements of SENS he includes stem cell therapies and growth of replacement organs. Also, gene therapies that will deliver genetic instructions for the repair of aged cells make up another key part of SENS. Immune therapies and nanodevices to remove extracellular junk also play a role in SENS.

The book covers the question of why we should want to cure aging. In a nutshell, aging is a lot of disease processes which gradually take away capabilities and cause suffering in a large variety of ways. Dementia, crippling from stroke, and many diseases that cause chronic pain make aging an uninviting prospect. Rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, decayed discs in the spine, tendon injuries, and many other diseases inflict many years of chronic pain on people growing old. Neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disable and make people feel like prisoners in their bodies. Aging is not graceful or dignified. We should want to defeat it. The book calls on us all to support advances in biomedical technologies that will make full body rejuvenation possible.

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior by University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller. The book looks at how our evolutionary past gave us desires for status and wealth. We pursue status because it serves as a fitness indicator for reproduction. This makes us somewhat slaves to a reproductive strategy given to us by evolution. The value of this book: By becoming more aware of what drives us to want status and expensive goods we can (hopefully) gain better control over our desires and possibly make ourselves less likely to make purchasing decisions and other decisions that make us worse off.

$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner. Steiner takes an interesting approach to explain what Peak Oil will mean to our lives. Every chapter is based on a price for gasoline at $2 per gallon intervals in price. Starting with a $6 per gallon chapter he explains in each chapter what will change about our lives at each price point. So, for example, at $6 per gallon many roads change to toll roads because gasoline sales drop and with their decline go the gasoline tax that fund much of highway maintenance and construction. At $8 per gallon

In spite of the accumulating list of losses at higher and higher prices he offers a surprisingly optimistic take on Peak Oil. Yes, oil production will decline and oil prices will skyrocket. But he provides a litany of painful changes he also lists many changes that will benefit us as we move on to cleaner fuels and walkable communities. He expects cleaner air and a huge drop in car accidents for example. Speaking as a rare person in my neighborhood who actually walks to nearby grocery stories and drug stores I think a lot (though by no means all) people will like walking once necessity forces them to spend less time in cars. But not everyone lives near markets and not everyone can afford to move in close to their workplace and shopping. Plus, suburbs have provided many advantages to their residents. I expect much financial pain from peak oil (e.g. massive unemployment and declining living standards) and for many adjustments will not be easy. Also, even once people have restructured their lives I'm not convinced most people will enjoy the result as much as Steiner expects to. Read this book for ideas that will prepare you to adjust far in advance. With earlier warning you can adjust at lower cost and with less trauma and loss.

Also see my FuturePundit review $20 Per Gallon Gasoline: Book Argument Plausible?

Oil 101 by Morgan Downey explains the business basics of the oil industry. It starts out with a history of the first systematic efforts to drill for oil in Pennsylvania and describes the development of drilling methods, drill bits, seismic searching methods, and other aspects of oil exploration. Want to invest in oil stocks? This book will mentally equip you to begin to understand your choices.

After outlining the history of the industry Downey moves on to covering each sector. By breaking the industry into a variety of sub-industries and processing stages Downey lets you see the oil industry as something much more complex and fragmented than the evil monolith as some populist politicians like to portray it. To do this he first delves into the chemistry of oil at a level that lay readers can understand and also explains all of the uses of the various components of oil.

In a chapter on refining Downey describes just what oil refineries do and how refineries fit in to the larger oil industry He covers the problems refiners face in dealing with heavier oils and with oils which have high undesired sulfur content. Curious to know what percentages of oil go into making gasoline, diesel, or chemical feedstocks? See chapter 7. Curious about the geology of oil fields? See chapter 6. Storage, transportation, petrochemicals, finished products, reserves, and environmental regualtions are among the topics that each warrant their own chapters. Does the oil industry seem too mysterious in its complexity and yet too important to ignore? This is the book to read.

The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. Lots of fun stuff in this book. Based on studies of genetic data they argue that the rate of human evolution sped up by a factor of 100 starting about 10,000 years ago.

They advance a number of hypotheses about human evolutionary development. For example, they argue a single genetic mutation (read the book to find out which one) enabled the spread of the root Indo-European language. Also, they argue that Ashkenazi Jews are so smart because in the only economic niches allowed for them during the European Middle Ages it just so happened that brain power was key for success in those niches. So the Ashkenazi Jews underwent several hundred years of evolution that made them into the world's smartest ethnic group. Contrary to the conventional wisdom humanity did not stop evolving tens of thousands of years ago. Rather, evolution accelerated.

More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement by Ramez Naam is another book on transhumanism and the prospects for body rejuvenation and enhancement. Naam takes a tour through recent advances in biomedical research abd biotechnology to paint a picture of trend in technological advances that will allow us to remake ourselves. Naam is optimistic and expects a future of better living through technological advancement.

This is a quicker intro to rejuvenation therapies and transhumanism than some of the other books on my list.

In Plagues and Peoples William H. McNeill first introduced me to the idea that diseases serve a large role in driving the development (and lack thereof) of human civilizations. What I found most interesting is that European explorers ventured out and kept bringing back one disease after another to Europe. Also, diseases traveled across the Eurasian land mass. So European populations had time to develop (mostly through natural selection though goes too light on its role) the ability to handle many diseases. But when Europeans first traveled to the New World they brought many diseases at once. The indigenous populations were devastated and this enabled the Spanish and Portuguese to establish empires over huge areas.

William H. McNeill's The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000 introduced me to the idea that technological changes caused shifts in the balance of power back and forth across history favoring the defense or offense. Kings had less or more power as compared to Dukes as castles rose and then ways of breaching castle walls came in response. Horsemen raided farmers until technological developments shifted in favor of defending foot soldiers. The book reinforced my view of governments as macro scale parasites and the book goes well with his Plagues and Peoples which deals with the micro scale.

William H. McNeill's The Rise Of The West: A History of the Human Community is a conventional (albeit very talented) historian's take on why the West rose up. This serves as a useful foundation before moving on to Gregory Clark and other modern explainers of why the West rose.

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