Review: Dead Aid–Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa

4 Star, Asymmetric, Cyber, Hacking, Odd War, Country/Regional, Diplomacy, Disaster Relief, Humanitarian Assistance, Information Operations, Information Society, Peace, Poverty, & Middle Class, Stabilization & Reconstruction
Amazon Page
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Goldman Sachs Pitch Dressed in Don's Robes,

July 18, 2009

Dambisa Moyo

I bought this book cognizant of the negative reviews, and I break with them in giving this book four stars instead of one, two, or three stars.

This book is worth reading, and it makes points that I summarize below that are in my view meritorious.

Continue reading “Review: Dead Aid–Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa”

Review: The Trouble with Africa–Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working

5 Star, Asymmetric, Cyber, Hacking, Odd War, Atrocities & Genocide, Civil Affairs, Complexity & Catastrophe, Corruption, Country/Regional, Democracy, Diplomacy, Disaster Relief, Economics, Education (General), Environment (Problems), Environment (Solutions), Humanitarian Assistance, Information Operations, Information Society, Peace, Poverty, & Middle Class, Security (Including Immigration), Strategy, Survival & Sustainment, Threats (Emerging & Perennial), Truth & Reconciliation, United Nations & NGOs, Values, Ethics, Sustainable Evolution, Voices Lost (Indigenous, Gender, Poor, Marginalized), War & Face of Battle, Water, Energy, Oil, Scarcity
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Credible, Pointed, Relevant, Useful, Essential,

July 17, 2009
Robert Calderisi
I read in groups in order to avoid being “captured” or overly-swayed by any single point of view. The other books on Africa that I will be reviewing this week-end include:
Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa
The Challenge for Africa
Africa Unchained: The Blueprint for Africa's FutureUp front the author stresses that since 1975 Africa has been in a downward spiral, ultimately losing HALF of its foreign market for African goods and services, a $70 billion a year plus loss that no amount of foreign aid can supplant.

The corruption of the leaders and the complacency of the West in accepting that corruption is a recurring theme. If the USA does not stop supporting dictators and embracing corruption as part of the “status quo” then no amount of good will or aid will suffice.

Continue reading “Review: The Trouble with Africa–Why Foreign Aid Isn't Working”

Review: The Next Catastrophe–Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters

6 Star Top 10%, Capitalism (Good & Bad), Complexity & Catastrophe, Congress (Failure, Reform), Corruption, Disaster Relief, Environment (Problems), Executive (Partisan Failure, Reform), Nature, Diet, Memetics, Design
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Superb, Crystal-Clear, Speaks Truth to Power, April 3, 2008

Charles Perrow

Amazon destroyed this review in error and I failed to keep a file copy. This is a reconstructed review–not nearly as good as the original–nothing I can do about it.

———-reconstructed review————-

This book is a learned essay, and I immediately discerned (I tend to read the index and bibliographies first, to understand the provenance of the author's knowledge) that the author has excelled at both casting a very wide net for sources, and at distilling and presenting those sources in a useful new manner with added insights.

Key points:

Natural disasters impact on 6 times more people than all the conflict on the planet.

Industrial irresponsibility, especially in the nuclear, chemical, and biological industries, is legion, and much more potentially catastrophic than any terrorist attack. Of special concern is the storage of large amounts of toxic, flammable, volatile, or reactive materials outside the security perimeters–this includes spent nuclear fuel rods, railcars with 90,000 tons of chlorine that if combined with fire would put millions at risk.

The entire book is an indictment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which the author says was designed for permanent failure (at the same time that it took over and then gutted the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)).

The author focuses on how concentrations of people, energy, and high-value economic targets make us more vulnerable than we need to be. Dispersal, and moving small amounts of toxic materials (just enough just in time, rather than a year's supply on site), can help.

The author outlines five remediation strategies:

REDUCTIONS of amounts

TRANSFERS from outside the wire to inside the wire

SUBSTITUTION (e.g. of bleach for chlorine)

MIND-SET SHIFT to emphasize public safety and regulation over profit

REFORM of the political system, where federal laws now set CEILINGS for safety rather than floors (one of many reasons we have 27 secessionist movements in the USA–the federal government is insolvent and abjectly corrupt and incapable).

We learn that post-9/11 we have spent tens of billions on counter-terrorism to ill-effect, while completely neglecting rudimentary precautions and protections against natural and industrial disasters that will inevitably turn into catastrophes for lack of competent organizations.

The author emphasizes that complex systems will fail no matter what, but it is much more dangerous to the public if the government and the industrial executives refuse to do their jobs. The author coins the term “executive failure” to describe top leaders who deliberately decide to ignore federal regulations on safety, and describes a number of situations where near-nuclear meltdown and other disasters came too close to reality.

The power grid, PRIOR TO deregulation, is treated as a model of a system that developed with six positive traits:

1. Bottom-up
2. Voluntary alliances
3. Shared facilities at cost
4. Members support independent research & development
5. Oversight stresses commonality interdependence
6. Deregulation is harmful to public safety

The author sums up the enduring sources of failure as:

ORGANIZATIONAL — flawed by design (pyramidal organizations cannot scale nor digest massive amounts of new fast information)

EXECUTIVE — deliberate high crimes and misdemeanors, seeking short-term profit without regard to long-term costs to the public safety. “We almost lost Toledo.” Buy the book for that story alone.

REGULATORY — the corruption of Congress, now known to be legendary.

The author tells us that globalization has eliminated the “water-tight bulkheads” within industries and economies, meaning that single points of failure (like the Japanese factory making silicon chips) can impact around the world and immediately. The author prefers to nurture networks of small firms, and this is consistent with other books I have read: economies of scale are no longer, they externalize more costs to the public than they save in efficiencies.

The book ends with an overview of the Internet, which is not the author's forte. He notes that our critical infrastructure is connected to the Internet, but I like to add emphasis here: all of our SCADA (supervisory control and data administration) are on the Internet and hackable.

I like very much the author's view that Microsoft and others should be held liable for security blunders that cost time and money to the end users. I recall that Bill Gates once said that if cars were built like computers they would cost very little and run forever….to which the auto industry executive replied: yes, and they would crash every four blocks and kill every fourth person (or something along those lines). We still do not have a desktop analytic suite of tool because of proprietary protections for legacy garbage.

I am certain that We the People can live up to the promise contained in Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace which, as with all books I publish, is free online as well as being offered by Amazon for those who love to hold and read and annotate hard copy.

Here are other books I recommend all of which support the author's very grave concerns about our irresponsibility as a Nation:
Pandora's Poison: Chlorine, Health, and a New Environmental Strategy
The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink
The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead
The Informant: A True Story
Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story
The Republican War on Science
The Price of Loyalty : George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill
The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy
The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century

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Review: Acts of God–The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America

5 Star, Complexity & Catastrophe, Congress (Failure, Reform), Disaster Relief, Environment (Problems), Executive (Partisan Failure, Reform), Nature, Diet, Memetics, Design
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Nature is the What, Culture is the Who–Lovely Analytic Account, April 21, 2008

Ted Steinberg

I am starting to think about a 2009 book on CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE: Faith, Ideology, and the Five Minds (the later from Five Minds for the Future and I am constantly enchanted when I run across a vital reference to how culture is the disaster, not nature.

This book is a magnificent epistle on the folly of mankind and the duplicity of government, business and the media. The author of totally brilliant as he gently sets forth the myth that we are not responsible for acts of God when in fact we are the perpetrators of complex human, social, economic, and political fabrications and decisions that invariably:

1. Screw over the poor and those of color

2. Amortize high risks taken by the rich across the entire taxpayer base

3. Conceal, lie, deceive as to the actual premediated decisions that occasioned the disaster turning into a catastrophe.

I am reminded of that excellent work, Catastrophe & Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster (School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series).

Here is “the” quote from the author, on page xxii:

“The official response to natural disaster is profoundly dysfunctional in the sense that it has both contributed to a continuing cycle of death and destruction and also normalized the injustices of class and race.”

The middle of the book is a detailed but not at all tedious account of California, Florida, and the Mississippi flood plain. In all three cases calamity was treated as a cultural script to execute:

1. A political agenda on the poor

2. Conceal and deceive outsiders to keep investment coming in

3. Further land speculation, with insurance company as well as state government complicity

I am reminded of the two books, Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin and The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. Our country has lost its moral compass across all of its institutions. This is not new, the price is simply higher now.

The account of how a railroad magnate built a railway from Jacksonville to Miami (which was 200 feet of sand at first) and then on to Key West, with the taxpayer footing the bill, the state government giving away the land, and the speculation leading inevitably to enormous disaster and death, is riveting. Or at least captivating.

He lambasts the federal government for venturing into the political economy of risk, for trying to control weather from the 1950's, and for “writing off” the poor in their mobile homes. Land in hazardous terrain subject to flooding is cheaper, mobile homes are cheaper, the poor cannot afford to evacuate, this strikes me as something only a genocidal maniac would love: “natural eugenics,” only a little connivance needed.

The author tells us that through the 1970's the federal government stunk at both forecasting and warning, in part because of poor budgeting for the National Weather Service, in part because of privatization, in part because of ineptness (e.g. not repairing critical buoys).

He states, and this did not begin with Katrina, but goes back 40 years, that the Federal response to disasters has been consistently pathetic. One explanation is that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has consistently been a dumping ground for political hacks, with nine times more losers than in other agencies.

He explicitly blasts Bush-Cheney for lies in relation to Katrina, which was accurately forecast. Every POLITICAL level of government, from the chicken mayor to the complacent governor to the dumb-s..t FEMA director to the village idiot President failed us.

The books ends by skewering both Clinton and Bush for 16 years of deregulation of all industries having anything to do with public safety, allowing them to increase their profits by increasing the risks and costs to the unsuspecting buyers upon whom they were enabled to prey.

Not a pretty story, but I for one am starting to see the pattern of government and corporate deception, and that is why I have committed the last twenty years of my working life to creating public intelligence in the public interest.

I cannot remember all my past weather and climate books, but here are a few more links:
The Atlas of Climate Change: Mapping the World's Greatest Challenge (Atlas Of… (University of California Press))
The Weather Makers : How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth
Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization

See also:
Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration
The New Craft of Intelligence: Personal, Public, & Political–Citizen's Action Handbook for Fighting Terrorism, Genocide, Disease, Toxic Bombs, & Corruption
The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters

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Review: Chasing the Flame–Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World

4 Star, Asymmetric, Cyber, Hacking, Odd War, Atrocities & Genocide, Civil Society, Diplomacy, Disaster Relief, Insurgency & Revolution, Peace, Poverty, & Middle Class, United Nations & NGOs

Chasing FlamePrimary Research Well Done, Lacks Synthesis

Samantha Power

Book loses one star–perhaps unfairly–for not integrating secondary sources and using the *combination* of this extraordinary biography and the Brahimi Report and other core documents, to illuminate why the UN desperately needs a United Nations Open-Source Decision-Support Information Network (UNODIN).

+ Sergio Vieira de Mello (henceforth SVM) spent forty-years as a UN gad-fly, and his resume of tens of short assignments interspersed with a handful of 2-3 year assignments is a testimony to all that is wrong–not with him, but rather–with UN recruitment, training, continuity of operations, and lack of decision support.

+ The book opens with the observation that Paul Bremer (the ultimate US dilettante who set us back five to ten years while losing tens of billions of dollars) refused most of SVM's suggestions, especially on setting timelines (the same ideas General Garner adopted before he was fired by Dick Cheney and replaced with Bremer). We are told his last words were “Oh shit” and I somehow doubt that.

+ Vague mandates were a constant problem (see Peacekeeping Intelligence: Emerging Concepts for the Future for a full discussion of why the Brahimi Report still needs to be implemented, so the mandate can be informed, the force configured based on ground truth, etc.)

+ UN got into “governing” for the first time in Kosovo, and was completely ill-equipped for the task.

+ SVM reflected with the author that the world was too big to ignore but too complex to manage quickly or cheaply. Later in the book he is cited as recognizing that the UN is so dysfunctional that governments work around it (while foundations beg for effective focal points for their giving totaling $500B a year), but that governments are not prone to support long term interests in eradicating the ten high level threats as lain out in A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility–Report of the Secretary-General's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change

+ SVM was an impressive scholar. He finished first out of 198 at the Sorbonne in Philosophy. He did a Masters in moral philosophy (a tautological redundancy I would have thought) and then a doctoral in two levels, one in 1974 and one in 1985. It was here that he understood that governments are not adept at preventing crises nor as rebuilding failed societies.

– First level doctorate: “The Role of Philosophy in Contemporary History,” with key line “Not only has history ceased to feed philosophy, but philosophy no longer feeds history.”

– Second “Etat” doctorate: “Civitas Maxima; Origins, Foundations, and Philosophical and Practical Significance of the Supranational Concept.” Those wishing to learn more about the failure of the nation-state and the mistakes of Westphalia can begin with The Health of Nations: Society and Law beyond the State with Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush as the aperitif, and Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health as the strong finish.

+ He composed his speeches on hotel note pads, observing that if he could not fit his argument to a hotel pad, he probably did not know what he was trying to say.

+ At this point I have a note, overall a very good use of biography to offer a “sense” of the UN, but lacking in synthesis, recommendations, or secondary sources.

+ Early in the book and throughout, one senses that Lebanon is the UN's modern birthplace, and where it has been permanently hospitalized if not euthanized.

+ SVM is quoted as saying that constructive change required “a synthesis of utopia and realism.” I urge the reader to visit Earth Intelligence Network to see this being implemented.

+ Pages 87-89 provide a marvelous condemnation of satellite surveillance as a panacea. SPOT Image which does ten meter or 1:50,000 multispectral imagery, identified land “suitable for resettlement.” Actual ground inspection failed the satellite findings, which did not see the land mines or the malarial mosquitoes.

+ SVM valued local staff, actively cultivated their inputs regardless of rank or function, and he is described as having a keen eye for symbolism.

+ We learn from this book that UN “teams” are assembled in an ad hoc fashion reflecting the whims and past good relations of the ubber boss, and I for one recognized what chaos and discontinuity this represents for all elements of the UN System.

+ We learn that when the UN arrives the cost of everything skyrockets, not least because UN employees get $140 a day, which in the specific instance of Cambodia or Kosovo, I forget, was the average ANNUAL income for any given person. I point to William Shawcross's unforgettable Deliver Us from Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict. Read my review of that book to see the relevance.

+ SVM proves clever in one instance, suggesting that smugglers not only be hired to get around a blockage against blankets, but that they be given dignity in the form of a UN consultant certificate. From many such accounts the author excels at painting a portrait of a complex and very intelligence UN official.

+ It is at this point that I check the index to discover that neither the word “information” nor the word “intelligence” nor the compound word “decision-support” appear.

+ The author cites SVM as saying that he was fed up with American bullying–I can certainly understand that–and that the hardest part of peacekeeping was internal peacekeeping (within the UN's dysfunctional family).

+ It is here I note: “At every turn: ‘We don't know; ‘We don't have the information; ‘We are too few to certify….'”

+ Then I see the golden nugget, on page 219, in his words: “We are so remarkably ill-informed. We go into a place, we have no intelligence, we don't understand the politics, and we can't identify the points of leverage. See the PKI book cited above, and also the forthcoming book, PEACE INTELLIGENCE: Assuring a Good Life for All, with a Foreword by MajGen Patrick Cammaert, who with this book and a decade of effort, got many at the UN to understand that Brahimi had it exactly right: intelligence is decision support using legal ethical open sources, and it has nothing to do with espionage. The raw book is at OSS.Net/Peace, just add the www. at the beginning.

+ The book continues with many vignettes where the UN elements are uninformed, therefore they do poor planning (lousy mandates, crummy force structures, no tactical combat charts for landing zones, etc) and hence they are often over-whelmed.

+ SVM saw a need for and proposed that the UN address the constant law enforcement gap by maintaining a roster of pre-trained and available multinational police, judges, lawyers, and prosecutors. See Policing the New World Disorder: Peace Operations and Public Security, my review includes notice of the fact that most UN “police,” e.g. those from Nigeria, can neither read nor drive.

+ We learn that SVM was acutely aware of how the UN's reputation for competence plummeted in the 1990's and how he learned in East Timor was that Legitimacy was Performance Based. As a side note, when East Timor went down I led one of 40 different efforts to answer the same three questions: 1) where are the bodies; 2) where can we land; and 3) who is is coming when, and what are they bringing. That was when I realized the need for a Multinational Decision-Support Center. On legitimacy, see The Search for Security: A U.S. Grand Strategy for the Twenty-First Century

+ The book comes to a close with several useful notes.

– Law and order gap a constant recurring theme.

– SVR saw Iraq as a peer nation meriting respect rather than patronizing from the US

– Excellent discussion of the days leading up to the attack on the UN headquarters; to the dismissal by the US of all UN requests for information or security, and the realization, too late after the attack on the Jordanian embassy, that the UN HQ was a “soft target.”

– KUDOS to LtCol John Curran, whose foresight and rehearsal to include identification of all relevant helicopter med-evac landing zones, ensured that no one died for lack of very rapid medical evacuation. I certainly hope the UN put him for a Legion of Merit, at the very least.

The Epilogue is bland.

+ UN is a broken system.

+ SVM said “the future is to be invented.”

+ Legitimacy matters

+ Spoilers must be engaged

+ Fearful people must be made more secure

+ Dignity is cornerstone of order

+ Outsiders must bring humility and patience.

Two other books (see also my many lists):
High Noon 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them
Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Third Edition

Review: The Shock Doctrine–The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

5 Star, Capitalism (Good & Bad), Corruption, Disaster Relief, Empire, Sorrows, Hubris, Blowback
Shock Doctrine
Amazon Page

5.0 out of 5 stars Easily one of the top ten on the death of the American dream

September 30, 2007

Naomi Klein

I read this book while crossing the Atlantic. The author has done something extraordinary, the equivalent of Silent Spring for industrial-era capitalism as an immoral form of human organization. This book is unique but also tightly linked to the books that I list below.

The conclusion of the book focuses on how Wall Street has discovered how to profit from mega-disasters and financial melt-downs, and contrary to popular belief, Wall Street makes money from these economic down-turns. It is the individual, and the indigenous owners who are forced to sell below market, that lose, every time.

The author's opening focus is on privatization, deregulation, and deep cuts in social spending, each as mandated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, with other nasty triggers demanded by the World Trade Organization, that have been systematically used to loot entire nations and their commonwealths–this is apart from the immoral predatory capitalism that uses bribes to clear areas of indigenous peoples so they can steal all the gold or other natural resources, and their only cost is the bribe, while the host peoples lose billions in natural resources.

The author teaches us that “disaster capitalism” is the next step above immoral predatory capitalism, in which wars and disasters have been privatized and the global military-industrial-prison-hospital complex has moved one step closer to displacing all governments.

She spends time discussion torture by dictators as a silent partner to the free-market crusade, and this is a good time to mention that the book is a standing condemnation of all that Milton Friedman and “the Chicago boys” inserted into the IMF and World Bank via their students.

She provides a helpful discussion of how believers in Armageddon, including the neo-conservatives, are motivated by the belief that there is such a thing as a clean slate, and that Africa without Africans, or Iraq without Iraqis, are both desirable for that reason.

She does a tremendous job of outlining the three shock waves of disaster capitalism:

1. Government Disaster/War out-sourced
2. Corporate looting
3. Police terrorism

A portion of the book focuses on the urgency of restoring unions and the middle class, unions because they protect fair wages that create a middle class. She stresses that the 1970's through the 1990's saw a global (but particularly southern hemisphere) campaign to use the cover of counter-terrorism to murder and terrorize union leaders. As a graduate of the Central American and Andean wars, I can certainly testify to the fact that government death squads were as about looting and killing opposition leaders, and I for one saw no terrorists, only indigenous people's at the end of their rope.

Interestingly the author singles out visionaries as being among the top targets for being hunted down and “disappeared.” Visionaries counter the government lies that seek to rule by secrecy, impose scarcity, and concentrate wealth within a small elite.

The author damningly documents how eager corporations have been to work with dictators to create police states that eliminate unions and enslave peoples at wages that cannot support a family, much less create a middle class.

She focuses on national debt and on government corruption as the two pillars of social destruction. As a student of E. O. Wilson and Medard Gabel, and many others, I can testify that there is plenty of money for all of us to be virtual billionaires, but it is corruption and greed at the top, enabled by secrecy, that have allowed a handful to create a global class war and impoverish the 90% that do the hard work (see my list on this one).

I am utterly blown away by the author's overall assessment, in the middle of the book, to wit, that crisis is now used routinely to side-step reasoned democracy and completely halt political and social reform while furthering the ends of those who seek to concentrate wealth and power exclusive of the larger body of We the People.

The author is damning across the board of the failures of neoliberalism, which has been a “second pillage” of the looting of state-owned enterprises, following the first pillage, the looting of the natural resources of the commonwealth being targeted.

As part of this the author explicitly accuses the IMF of deliberately fostering crises in part by fabricating and manipulating statistics, or as the author puts it, “statistical malpractice.”

The author suggests that unlike the Mexican bail-out, when Rubin was seeking to protect Wall Street investments, Asia was allowed to collapse financially because the US wanted to put an end to the prospects of their being a “third” way that was more balanced than either capitalism for the few on one side, or socialism for all on the other. This is especially noteworthy because Latin America is today pursuing a similar “third way” and very likely to succeed.

The author declares that Donald Rumsfeld's over-riding objective as Secretary of Defense was the privatization of war. The author tells us that he declared war on the Pentagon bureaucracy on 10 September (this is the same day that Congresswoman McKinney's was grilling him on the missing 2.3 trillion dollars). On 11 September the missile won Rumsfeld his war with the Pentagon bureaucracy *and* it destroyed the computers with all the records on the missing money.

The author goes on to document how the Bush Administration privatized Homeland Security across the board.

As the book draws to a close she reviews the history of corporate-driven foreign policy, summing it up in three steps:

1. Corporation suffers set-back in a foreign country
2. Politicians loyal to the corporation demonize the foreign country
3. Politicians “sell” US public on the need for regime change.

The author scorns political appointees, noting that their “service” these days is little more than a pre-raid reconnaissance.

She concludes by suggesting that disaster apartheid is leaving 25-60% of the populations as an underclass, destroyed middle classes, and creating walled cities for the elite, death and suffering for everyone else. Dubai is one such walled city.

Corporations are red-lining the world, using stocks, currency, and real estate markets to crash economies, buy cheap, and then restore with a sharp re-concentration of wealth.

Ending on a positive note, she suggests that We the People are in the process of reconstructing our own world, and while I did not see mention of the World Index of Social and Environmental Responsibility (WISER) or Interra and the other community-oriented systems, I believe she is correct, and that the Earth Intelligence Network, the Transpartisan Policy Institute, the People's Budget Office, are all part of taking back the power and the commonwealth.

This is a great and necessary book. Others (the first two DVDs) listed below reinforce her findings.

The Corporation
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price
The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy
Confessions of an Economic Hit Man
The Global Class War: How America's Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future – and What It Will Take to Win It Back
The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead
The Working Poor: Invisible in America
Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It
Breach of Trust: How Washington Turns Outsiders Into Insiders
Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency

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Review: The Myth of Progress–Toward a Sustainable Future

Atlases & State of the World, Capitalism (Good & Bad), Complexity & Catastrophe, Complexity & Resilience, Disaster Relief, Economics, Science & Politics of Science, Strategy, Survival & Sustainment, Values, Ethics, Sustainable Evolution

Amazon Page
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End of Immoral Capitalism, Rise of Sustainable Societies,

January 10, 2007
Tom Wessels
I pulled this book from my waiting stack after reviewing Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency While all that we do wrong is rooted in corrupt politics such as Dick Cheney represents so well, I wanted to get away from the personalities and focus on the underlying truths of the greatest challenge facing all of us, preserving the planet for future generations.

This thoughtful careful author from New Hampshire has created a really special book, small, readable, and packed with fact (superb footnotes). He gives all due credit to his predecessors in the field–Georgescu-Roegen, Meadows, Dalay, Hawken et al.

He brings out the nuances of complex systems and how our linear reductionist thinking, and our false assumption that technology will resolve our waste creation and earth consumption issues, combine to place all that we love at risk. I was personally surprised to learn that even if we fund 100 water desalination or decontamination plants, and resolve our shortfalls of clean water, that the energy required to do so would result in entropy and further losses.

The author brings up the need for better metrics (see my reviews of “Ecology of Commerce” and “Natural Capitalism” as well as my list on “True Cost” readings. He points out that the GDP does not reflect the non-cash economy or the degree of equality/inequality in the distribution of new wealth. I would add to that the importance of counting prisons and hospitals as negatives rather than positives.

A good portion of the book (a chapter for each) is spent discussion the three fundamentals: the limits to growth; the second law of thermodynamics (entropy); and the nuances of self-organization and what happens when you reduce diversity.

The author lists the attributes of complex systems as being emergent properties that arise from the interactions (i.e. the space between the objects); self-organization, nestedness, and bifurcation into either positive or negative consequences.

The bottom line for the first part of the book is that in complex systems, especially complex systems for which we have a very incomplete and imperfect understanding, “control” is a myth, just as “progress” is a myth if you are consuming your seed corn.

The author excels at a review of the literature and demonstrating the flaws of economic theories that are divorced from reality and the “true cost” of goods and services (e.g. a T-shirt holds 4000 liters of virtual water, a chesseburger 6.5 gallons of fuel).

I have reviewed a number of books on climate change, in this book the author makes the very important point that the annual cost of weather disasters has been steadily increasing, and is the annual hidden “tax” on our reductionist approach to clearing the earth, losing the forests and mashlands, and so on.

He points out that concealing or ignoring true cost does not make it any less true, it simply passes the cost on to future generations. In the same vein he is optemistic in that he believes that if we take positive action now, however small, the benefits of that action as the years scale out, will be enormous.

This is actually an upbeat book for two reasons: first, it makes it crystal clear that the classical economics that have allowed corporations to pilage the world, bribe dictators and other elites, and generally harvest profit at the expense of the commonwealth; and second, it ends on a note of hope, on the belief that we may be approaching a dramatic cultural shift that embraces reciprocal altruism, true cost calculations, equitable wealth distribution, and so on.

He cites other authors but gives very positive insights into public ownership (by stakeholders, not the government), essentially repealing the flawed court-awarded “personality” of corporations, and re-connecting every entity to its land-base and the people it serves. He recommends, and I am buying, David Korten's “Post-Corporate World.” By restoring the populace to the decision process, we stamp down the greed that can flourish in isolation.

The book ends hoping for a cultural shift from consumption to connection. I believe it is coming. Serious games/games for change, fed by real-world real-time content from public intelligence providers including the vast social networks from Wikipedia to MeetOn to the Moral Majority, could great a wonderfully distributed system of informed democratic governance that implements what I call “reality-based budgeting,” budgeting that is transparent, accountable, and balanced.

This is a much more important book than its size and length might suggest. It is beikng read by and was recommended to me by some heavy hitters in the strategic thinking realm, and I am disappointed at the lack of reviews thus far. This book merits broad reading and discussion.

See also:
A Power Governments Cannot Suppress
The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People
Society's Breakthrough!: Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People
Escaping the Matrix: How We the People can change the world
All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (BK Currents)
Imagine: What America Could Be in the 21st Century
The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World
The Average American: The Extraordinary Search for the Nation's Most Ordinary Citizen

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