28 August 2019

A book I loved #7: Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

The final book in this review series of mine is the saddest and most revealing. How did it feel to be in Auschwitz? What were their emotions and attitudes?

We'll never know that about the nicest people. Frankl explains that they were the ones who didn't push someone in front of them in the round-ups for the gas chambers. But Frankl tried to inspire at least some the remainder to live by reminding them what focus on what they had to live for. He maintained that if you have a meaning and a purpose to life, you're happier and more resilient.

He persuaded many of his cabin-mates, at least, by the sound of it, to refrain from giving up (there was always a convenient suicide option in the form of a nearby electrified fence) by getting them to think of this meaning - to transport themselves away from reality into whatever it was they wanted to live for.

For many of them, including Frankl, it was their family. Incredibly sadly, when he dragged the sad remnants of himself back to Vienna after the war ended, he learnt that his wife, parents and siblings had mostly all died at the hands of the Nazis - and the people who had remained in Vienna barely acknowledged what he'd been through: "Oh, we suffered, too."

A lesson I got from this book is that we can do more and bear more than we think we can. Within a few days of arriving at the concentration camps, men who thought that in order to sleep they needed perfect silence and a soft bed were slumbering deeply on a hard platform full of men packed like sardines. All comforts were gone, and they were surprised at what they could bear.

What a comfortable life we live! Let's hope we never have to explore that dark and deeply uncomfortable side of life ourselves.

A book I loved # 6: One Magic Square by Lolo Houbein

For this book, allow me to refer you back to the post I wrote about it a few years ago, here.

22 August 2019

A book I loved #5: Affluenza - When Too Much is Never Enough by Clive Hamilton & Richard Denniss

How could you possibly buy this book? After all, it's a book about the problem of wanting and acquiring too much stuff! (Affluenza = the disease of affluence.)

As a result, I don't own it but read our local library's version of it, which in the meantime someone has pinched, as I learnt when I tried to get it out again. I can understand why they did that - when I read it about three years ago, there was so much I wanted to absorb that I kept writing down certain phrases and taking notes, which is a rare thing for me to do. I LOVED it and it changed my perspective greatly. It's beautifully and insightfully written.

I re-read a couple of pages of it recently - perhaps it was in a bookshop - and it explained how affluenza fuels desire, misery and crime. It hits the poor even more than the rich. The rich kids wear the latest fashionable shoes, the poor kids see them and harass their overworked and underpaid parents for the shoes, and some attack and rob to get them. The nasty ripples spread out from there.

But that was only a two-page snapshot. Elsewhere in it these authors show us ourselves through a mirror we rarely look in, and what shines back at us isn't pretty in terms of our finances, our free time, our overall happiness or our environmental footprint.

I see there is a follow-up book that's no doubt worth a read: Curing Affluenza: How to Buy Less Stuff and Save the World, by Richard Denniss.

21 August 2019

A book I loved #4: Waste-free family by Lauren & Oberon Carter

This visually stunning book written by a Tasmanian family gave me a much-needed shot in the arm when it came to my waste production. The most admirable thing about it was that their knowledge and explanations extend well beyond zero waste to the bigger environmental picture. I find that this big picture is so often lacking.

This book is a visual stunner.

For example, instead of extolling the virtues of waste-free travelling, it points out the massive contribution of aviation fuel to greenhouse gases. It's not just about travelling with a reusable straw - holidaying close to home is going to give vastly bigger gains!

A clean bottom

And when it comes to the frequent task of butt-wiping, they point out how many trees are grown and felled each year to keep our backsides clean. Turning trees into toilet paper is an energy-hungry and polluting practice. Their answer is "family cloth" toilet paper, which is somewhere we're not quite ready to go yet, but we are looking at better alternatives (the latest is this recycled toilet paper because recycling paper is much less environmentally demanding than producing virgin paper).

We're currently using this recycled toilet paper from Pak'n Save.

Daily bread

I don't eat bread any more and my belly is much happier for it. But for the rest of the family, as a result of this book I've dialled back the bread purchasing and resumed making my own. Our bread machine makes that fast and easy.

Canned food

I've also resolved to grow more tomatoes this year - we love tomatoes! I regularly use tins of them in cooking, but when you think about the energy and materials required to produce and then recycle food tins, it's not trivial. This summer I'm keen to preserve enough pureed plain, unseasoned tomatoes in jars to last us the winter.

This book is easy to read - but it's not a shallow, fashionable skim-over that extols products like stainless steel lunchboxes (although interestingly, the family do run a zero-waste shop). They've done their homework and done a great job with this book. It would be a great gift for any environmentalist, including those who already seem to live the life but would enjoy a burst of inspiration - and I think we all do!

19 August 2019

A book I loved #3: The Art of Living by Epictetus & Sharon Lebell

This book describes an ancient, empowering way of thinking that is incredibly soothing. I'm so pleased I found it because once it's absorbed, there's a strength inside you that can never be undone. Although the way of thinking is called Stoicism, it has little to do with the word 'stoic' in the common English sense of the word.

My husband read it earlier this year before he had a piece of his bowel removed (it was nothing scary like cancer - except it was scary to have it done). Just before he went into the operating theatre, he had a wave of terror about the possibility of coming out with a colostomy bag. I simply reminded him that if it happened, we would cope, and in any case, it was out of our control. There was nothing we could do about it. This reminded him of the lessons he'd learnt in this book, and his whole body relaxed.

There was no bag and all went well. But he said that the most helpful thing that got him through the whole deal was Stoicism.

I truly recommend this book.

16 August 2019

A book I loved #2: Movement Matters by Katy Bowman

This book that connected what I do with my body to the world around me. It pointed out what should have been obvious: If I outsource the energy to something else, I miss out on the movement. I therefore get stiffer and weaker. After doing this often enough, I now NEED to outsource the energy to be able to do achieve the task.


For example, when I use an electric beater instead of a whisk (a fork), I outsource the energy to whip and beat. When I sit in an armchair instead of on the floor, I outsource the energy that I'd otherwise use to keep myself upright. When I drive to the shops, I mess up an ancient system that went like this: Feel hungry. Move body to obtain food. Eat food.

But then what? Why does this matter?

For a start, I decry drooping arms, flabby belly, tight hamstrings and a sore back, and I put it down to inevitable aging instead of accumulated years of under-use. (Actually I don't, because this book shifted the gears in my brain which allowed me to shift how I use my body.)

Katy Bowman is the first person to truly open my eyes to this way of thinking. She's let me see the shortcuts I always want to take, such as taking a backpack to the shops instead of a carry bag - yes, the backpack uses less energy! It is more convenient and comfortable! It uses fewer parts of me.

Because it's not just energy expenditure that we instinctively try to cut corners on. It's moving the full range of our body. When we sit in chairs, we spare our joints from using their full range of mobility. And soon that full range is gone. When we never vault over a fallen tree, soon our shoulders can't take the weight or the torque any more. When our bare feet don't regularly mould to uneven ground, our feet grow stiff and weak so we need shoes to support them. When we sit the washing basket on a table instead of the ground when we hang out washing, we don't stretch our hamstrings as we bend down to pick up the garments.

Then we tax the environment again

After many years of under-use, we end up hunched, wearing orthotics, with restricted movement and pain. Having taxed the environment to avoid the movement in the first place (cars, shoes, furniture, appliances, etc.) we compensate for the limitations by taxing it further (orthotics, hospital beds, wheelchairs, mobility scooters, surgery, painkillers).

The best gift I got from this book was the power to shunt away the thoughts "It's too hard; I can't be bothered; how can I do this more efficiently; but it's so comfortable". I am happier with relying more on my own body instead of props and aids - and my back pain is gone. Now, a woollen blanket spread on a wooden floor in front of a roaring fire seems like a blissful place of rest to me.

15 August 2019

A book I loved: Energy and Civilization - a History, by Vaclav Smil

Here's the first post of a 7-day book challenge I've taken over from my greenie friend Alice Bulmer, who writes the Waikato Foodbasket blog. I'm also posting it on my Facebook page, which is where I do most of my posts these days. Please feel free to have a look!
This book drove home for me what a momentous change it was for humans when coal and the internal combustion energy came into being.

Long before that, all our energy came from our own muscles, via the sun that grew the plants and fed animals that we ate. Then we started felling trees for heat and cooking, deforesting the planet as we went. However, most people outside the tropics still spent the colder months absolutely freezing, with incredibly inefficient heating.

We took on farm animals to toil in the fields (but had to feed them) and harnessed water and wind. I was stunned by how the invention of a new yoking system for farm animals massively changed the crop yield - how physically hard people worked once we started farming - how tenuous was their food supply, making hunger an ever-present risk.

And then less than 200 years ago we learnt how to tap into fossilized energy (coal, gas, oil). That energy's given us an ever-exploding source of convenience, comfort and 'stuff'. Inconveniently, the carbon released from burning the fossil energy hangs around in the atmosphere (it's now a bit over 400 parts per million, whereas the highest it's ever been in the last million or so years was 300 ppm). Now half of us are suffering from not enough movement and too much food!

And it's almost impossible to obtain anything at all that doesn't rely on fossil fuels as part of its journey to us.

That palm oil does not grow in New Zealand nor arrive by wind-powered ship.

This book is the most complex non-textbook I've ever read. The author's brain overflows with historical and modern energy-related facts - he can estimate how many calories it took to build a pyramid or haul a load of coal up from a mine - and his book is a massive brain dump. I couldn't read it all. But it truly changed my perspective on what we have and how, compared to the other 250,000 years worth of humanity's existence, it is abundant, luxurious and also somewhat sick.
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