Books to Read Now

Seed Picks / by Edit Staff /

June releases follow cave divers into the bowels of the Earth; chart the geography of hunger; and explore the science of false memories, inflated confidence, and distorted senses.

The Atlas of World Hunger
By Thomas J. Bassett and Alex-Winter Nelson (University of Chicago Press)
In March 2008, angry demonstrators gathered before the national palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti to protest rising food prices. More than two-thirds of Haitians earn less than $2.00 a day—the poorest eat mud cakes of dirt, oil, and butter. Still, President Rene Preval dismissed their complaints, saying that if they could afford cell phones, they could afford to feed their families. As riots broke out across the island, and soon after, across the globe, rising energy prices, biofuels, and climate change-induced drought were all pegged as instigating factors. Yet many questions remained unanswered: What are the root causes of food insecurity? Why is there so much hunger? And why is it so widespread? This book is an attempt to shed light on those questions. Utilizing dozens of colorful maps, charts, tables, and graphs, geographer Thomas Bassett and agricultural economist Alex Winter-Nelson elucidate patterns of hunger within countries and basic indicators of malnutrition before tackling its myriad sources: from climate change, literacy, and arable land to neocolonialism, gender inequity, and population growth. Challenging the common assumption that hunger is primarily a supply problem, the authors combine food availability, household access, and nutritional outcomes into a single metric—one, they argue, that offers a more accurate gauge of hunger’s underlying mechanisms. While this innovative look at the geography of hunger is likely to stir controversy, it will undoubtedly lend a more accurate picture of food security, and what it will take to achieve it. 

Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization
By Spencer Wells (Random House)
The World Wide Web and cell phones. Hybrid cars and curbside recycling. Google, the iPod, the LEED-certified building. None of these things were available just two decades ago, and yet today, it’s hard to imagine life without them. We live in a time of enormous technological and social change—one that geneticist Spencer Wells argues, “promises to be another turning point in our evolution.” But along with the many goods (overall decrease in poverty, declining birthrates in the developing world), have also come a bevy of evils. While developed societies no longer die of smallpox, polio, or cholera, they are now plagued by chronic disease, obesity, and depression. Why has Westernism has taken hold, and why does this culture seem so fatal a mismatch with our biology? The search for answers takes Wells on a geographic and history tour of the planet, back to a seminal event in human history: The advent of agriculture, when our hunter gatherer forbears decided to settle down and began putting seeds in the ground for food. The decision to control our own food supply, he argues, set in motion a chain of events that has not only transformed our species at the DNA level, but has transformed human culture, with downsides we are just beginning to recognize: with industrialization comes global climate change, with increased connectedness comes SARS and avian flu; with more social mobility comes loss of tradition. A broad-sweeping look at the genetic, anthropological, and technological changes that have defined human progress, the book offers a unique glimpse at the problems of modernity—and defines the key challenges for those who seek to overcome them.

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth
By James Tabor (Random House)
In the human quest to explore the extremes of the Earth—and beyond—one endeavor is consistently overlooked, though not for lack of danger, excitement, and intrepid exploits. While most people know the details behind the first ascent of Mount Everest, the first dive to the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench, and the first footsteps upon the Moon’s Sea of Tranquility, few know the story of how the world’s deepest cave was discovered and explored. Blind Descent spins the tale as an epic competition between two men, the larger-than-life American caver Bill Stone and his rival, the mild-mannered Ukrainian Alex Klimchouk. Each man had his obsession: Stone’s was Cheve Cave in southern Mexico; Klimchouk’s, Krubera Cave in the Republic of Georgia. Both caverns are gargantuan “supercaves,” but until 2004 it was unclear which was the longest and deepest. With seamless, action-packed you-are-there prose, Tabor takes readers inside these mammoth underground labyrinths and into the hearts and minds of Stone, Klimchouk, and their fellow spelunkers.

The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps
By Peter Ward (Basic Books)
When the great poet Robert Frost considered the world’s end, he famously pondered whether its final death throes would be in fire, or in ice. In The Flooded Earth, paleontologist Peter Ward posits a third bleak scenario, not for the planet itself, but for modern civilization: Cities, countries, and societies will gradually drown beneath rising seas. Through a compelling narrative mixture of present-day climatology, geological evidence of past climate-induced sea-level rises, and possible future outcomes, Ward argues persuasively that the coming deluge will be the most devastating side effect of anthropogenic climate change. Yet despite all the evidence, planning for this eventuality has so far been minimal at best. In a weak gesture of optimism, the book’s final section outlines actions humanity could take to forestall catastrophe. But Ward makes it clear that he believes even the most extreme of these—depopulation, massive geoengineering, and a profound transformation of the global economy—are insufficient to hold back the sea.

The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us
Christopher Chabris and Dan Simons (Crown)
If you’re not already familiar with the experiment alluded to in the title, take two minutes to try it yourself here. If you’re among the 50 percent of people who don’t notice a woman in a gorilla suit pass though the basketball players, you already know why the experimenters’ work is so important. In Chabris and Simons’ book, the psychologists explain the phenomenon that makes that illusion possible — inattentional blindness — as well other everyday occurrences that implant false memories, artificially inflate our confidence, and distort our senses. Whether on a chessboard or in the courtroom, these illusions constantly influence the choices we make, sometimes with lives in the balance. Though Chabris and Simons threaten to pull the rug of reality itself from under us, their fascinating experiments and well-chosen examples keep our feet on the ground, perhaps even more than before.

Originally published June 1, 2010

Tags agriculture climate food geography innovation neuroscience psychology technology

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