The books that most influenced my thinking in 2013

I love books that challenge my thinking or open my mind to new ideas.

In 2013 some of the books that really got me thinking were written many years ago. and Surely the sign of a truly great book is that is seems timeless – it is still fresh and inspirational 10,20,50 years after it was written.

Most of my reading was done on my beloved Kindle, although I defaulted to the ipad for books with significant pictures, diagrams or illustrations. A few of the older books were not available electronically – which is sad, because they deserve to be widely read with no barriers whatsoever to consumption. Although, of course it is still a tactile pleasure to read a “real” book.

About Aboriginal Australia , ancient wisdom & vernacular architecture

In 2013 I continued to pursue my interest in “Lost Wisdom” .

We can learn a lot from traditional societies, their food and methodologies.

The very genius of humans is their ability (as a species) to develop a “business model” of life and over a long period of time to optimise it for a given time and place.

In any given time and place different “business models” may work. Different models of family, tribe, politics, religion, food and trade.

I’m particularly (currently)  interested in traditional food and food technologies and vernacular architecture. There are many lessons to be learned in regards to sustainability

I firmly believe that many traditional diets were far superior to the modern Western diet.The ramifications of the Western Diet (in terms of human damage and litigation) will make asbestos look like a practice run.

It depresses me that modern architecture does not often reflect the wisdom of Vernacular Architecture. Key concepts like Locally sourced materials, Insulation, Thermal Mass, Solar Orientation are all ignored. Instead we continue to build houses that are too large and too expensive to build, operate and maintain. We’ve been sucked into some TV generated image of what will make us happy – and in the main we’ve got it wrong. (with the exception of Kevin McCloud’s handmade house series where he is exploring these concepts).

 

As an Australian I’m ashamed to admit that I know very little about Aboriginal Australia and I’m particularly interested in their “business model” of life pre European contact.

 

Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Aboriginal Australia

Geoffrey Blainey

This book was published in 1976 and in my opinion is a pretty good place to start for a general overview of Aboriginal life – pre contact. It has just a hint of the “noble savage” view but overall I believe that it is quite balanced. I’d love to see an updated version of this book.

I learned many things from this book (and it certainly sparked my interest regarding things I want (need) to understand at a deeper level.

Key ideas :

Abundance & wealth

The sophistication of the Aboriginal food system was amazing. They were seasonally nomadic but their intimate knowledge of their land and ecosystem meant that they moved from one camp to another with extreme purpose and clarity, based on seasonal abundance.

Aboriginals are often described as “Hunters and Gatherers” but after reading this book (and the others below) it is pretty clear to me that they were “farming” but it was just not in a way that was visible to Europeans. They were managing their “animals” without using fences and their crops were managed (by fire) but not necessarily human sown.

When gathering yams, the woman would carefully re-plant the tops of the yams so that they could re-generate.

It was if they had a “living refrigerator”. Their incredible knowledge and skill meant that they knew where the food was to be obtained at any particular time.

There are examples of grain being stored in underground bunkers and it is quite feasible that many other forms of food were stored in small batches that were completely invisible to Europeans. I know – for example that yabbies can live in suspended animation in mud for years during drought – to me it is quite feasible that Aborigines would store yabbies underground in known locations.

Perhaps the food technology that most triggered my imagination were the descriptions of Aboriginal Fish Traps. Imagine a sophisticated trap that could yield a harvest of fresh with reliability almost every day. What an asset ! Who needs a fridge when you have such an asset ?

Most of these traps were made of wood – so that they quickly disappeared but some magnificent examples were made of stone.

The best known example is Brewarrina in NSW.

The traps are believed to be at least 40,000 years old, possibly the oldest surviving human-made structure in the world. The seasonal abundance of caught fish made Brewarrina one of the great inter-tribal meeting places of pre-European eastern Australia and it is thought that up to 5,000 people may have gathered here for special ceremonies and feasts.

See my Pinterest Board on Aboriginal Technology

Why doesn’t everyone in Australia know about this ?

These are the equivalent of Australia’s Pyramids and they should be revered and celebrated as such. In fact they are superior in the sense that they were built for a noble purpose (sustainable food harvesting) by families (not slaves).

Blainey estimates that on average the Aboriginals spent fewer hours per day on food gathering and preparation than most people spend working. (In some cases much less)

In my mind that makes them wealthy. Contrary to many people’s perception in the main they were not “scratching out” a living, they had an abundance.

Hunting and Gathering is an oversimplified terminology for Aboriginal life.

 

Philosophy / Social Rules

This area is very complex and I need to study a lot more to even claim that I have begun to understand it,

I am particularly interested to better understand :

  • the connection with their land ( a custodian concept rather than an ownership concept)

  • the complexity of tribal and family relationships (and their words)

  • rules and taboos around food

  • marriage and association rules

  • major celebrations and ceremonies where several tribes would come together in large groups

  • war and conflict – how and why it happened and how it was resolved.

 

Trade

Blainey describes quite complex trade routes and arrangements. Some valued products were traded vast distances through complex trade routes. In Northern Australia for at least 300 hundred years (possibly commencing about 1640) the Aboriginals traded with the Makassan people from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi who sought Trepang (Sea Cucumbers).

From Wikipedia :

Studies by anthropologists have found traditions that indicate Makassans negotiated for the right to fish certain waters. The exchange also involved the trade of cloth, tobacco, metal axes and knives, rice and gin. The Yolgnu of Arnhem Land also traded turtle-shell, pearls and cypress pine and some were employed as trepangers.[While there is ample evidence of peaceful contact, some contact was hostile. Using Daeng Rangka described at least one violent confrontation with Aborigines,[ while Flinders heard advice from the Makassans to “beware of the natives”. However, rock art and bark paintings appear to confirm that some Aboriginal workers willingly accompanied the Makassar back to their homeland of South Sulawesi, Indonesia across the Arafura Sea.

 

and further,  in an illustration of the Aboriginal people to rapidly adapt and change :

Some Yolngu communities of Arnhem Land appear to have re-figured their economies from being largely land-based to largely sea-based with the introduction of Makassar technologies such as dug-out canoes, which were highly prized. These seaworthy boats, unlike their traditional bark canoes, allowed Yolngu to fish the ocean for dugongs and turtles.Macknight notes that both the dug-out canoe and shovel-nosed spear found in Arnhem Land were based on Macassarese prototypes.[

A Makassan pidgin became a lingua franca along the north coast, not just between Makassan and Aboriginal people, but also between different Aboriginal groups, who were brought into greater contact with each other by the seafaring Makassar culture.

 

Summary

Why isn’t this book (or an updated version of it) required reading by every Australian High School Student ?

Better understanding the incredible sophistication of the pre-contact Aboriginal Society would be beneficial to everyone, to provide better context (and respect).

The Aboriginal people didn’t focus on material possessions – their sophistication lay in their deep knowledge and skills, theirs wasn’t an “ownership” or “accumulation” culture, it was a “custodianship” culture, it was a “sharing” culture (but not without conflict).

Better understanding the sophistication and nature of their “life model” also gives you some insight into how devastating the coming of the European was. The European “life model” was just so radically different in philosophy and operation it must have been completely incomprehensible.

I suspect that we still have much to learn about pre-contact Aboriginal Society. You may think that all opportunity for this to occur is now lost – but the next two books that I describe should give you great hope that it is possible.

Still it is a tragedy that so much has been lost. Just imagine if every wooden fish trap and been recorded and analysed. If every food storage method had been recorded, every family’s story had been recorded.

I suspect that in some areas large Aboriginal populations existed – much larger than we currently imagine. I believe that “Hunting and Gathering” is a much oversimplified terminology that doesn’t do the reality justice. I believe that they were practicing farming – just not in a way that was obvious to us.

We have much to learn and there is much that is relevant to the next iteration of Western Society.

Note – Blainey has been a key figure in “Australia’s History Wars”. I would suggest that anyone who criticises Blainey’s true feelings or beliefs about the Aboriginal people haven’t read this book.

The Biggest Estate on Earth

Bill Gammage

This amazing book, published in  2012, was a worthy winner of  the 2012 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History (and many others) .

You may know that Aboriginals practiced “fire-stick” agriculture. My personal imagery of this was newsreels that showed a group of Aboriginal men lighting a fire and creating noise to drive wildlife towards a group of waiting colleagues. Pretty basic stuff. Any impact on the flora was merely incidental.

How mis-informed I was.

In an impressive piece of work Gammage has pulled together an array of archival material, eyewitness accounts and early landscape paintings to name a few.

He describes how incredibly sophisticated the Aboriginal use of fire was.

They use fire frequently and with scalpel like precision to engineer, shape and manicure their environment.

He describes how they would identify and share patterns of management for certain types of physical layouts.

How they would use fire to carve “roads” through scrub.

How they would create parks and hunting environments.

He also describes how quickly the flora and fauna patterns changed after the Aboriginals were disrupted by Europeans. Within 10 or 20 years the land became significantly unrecognisable – many more trees and dramatic reduction in soil quality (not helped by the introduction of hooved animals that helped to compact the soil).

An amazing book that every Australian should read.

Gunyah, Goondie & Wurley: The Aboriginal Architecture of Australia

Memmott, Paul

Some uninformed people might expect this to be a small book.

On the contrary this is a large book, richly describing the vast array of vernacular housing solutions that the Aboriginal people developed to cope with different situations, using locally available materials. From wind-shelters (no roof) to simple shade structures, through to quite complex thatched structures.

Memmott describes how the Aboriginal social rules pertaining to spatial arrangement operated in a camp site – so much more complexity than meets the eye.

We tend to have the presumption that all Aboriginal houses were simple and temporary,

This was my presumption.

I didn’t know, until Memmott educated me, that in some places Aboriginal people had structures made from other, more durable materials.

In the Lake Eyre region of South Australia they build structures of quite robust branches that were then covered with mud. Additionally interesting is that they were constructed by specialist builders. These were by no means simple, temporary structures.

From http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/austn-indigenous-architecture

The abundance of basalt stones and rocks around Lake Condah allowed the Gunditjmara people to develop complex stone structures. These structures included not only houses but also eel traps based on a complex system of creeks, ponds, weirs, traps and gates. Local groups owned different estates including eel traps and other structures like a village, which were passed on to descendants.

Overall comments.

To think of the Aboriginal traditional society as “backward” or “inferior” because they didn’t adopt “agriculture” or couldn’t defend themselves against invaders is uninformed.

They had an amazing set of “life models” and skills that were highly suited to their environment and optimised to their “life model”. They were innovative. This is not only evident in their multiple systems for food gathering but also in their willingness to adopt new “technologies” they were exposed to e.g. steel and hunting dogs as Blainey explains. They were open to trade with the Makassans.

We need to remember that they lacked certain advantages available to the Europeans (as per Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel).

They had no major animals that could be domesticated. No cows, sheep, goats, horses, pigs, camels, chickens etc.

They had no prior exposure to European diseases – e.g. Smallpox.

They didn’t have exposure to a large and complex range of other cultures (through trade) and the cross-pollination of ideas that arise.

We also need to remember that many of the innovations of the colonising Europeans were only a few hundred years old in any case.

If not disrupted by the appearance of white man who is to say how Aboriginal society may have changed given some increase in trade contact and another hundred years or so.

How

How things work

Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I’m a big fan of Taleb whom I have been following since his book : The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Antifragile is somewhat rambling, certainly self indulgent but very important nonetheless.

(Like some other reviewers I found the self-edited nature of this book enjoyable – a bit like an “unplugged” musical performance. Maybe next book Taleb should release an “Unplugged” and a “Studio” version.)

The core idea is that things (usually animate or systems) are either fragile, robust or Antifragile).

Systems or things that are Antifragile actually gain from disorder. They get stronger.

At a system level this is a bit like the impact of Evolution – species evolve not individuals.

As an example each fatal plane crash (although catastrophic for victims) actually makes air travel safer because globally we have systematised air safety improvement.

At an individual level Taleb tells the tale of two brothers. One a taxi driver whose earnings are volatile but on average equal his brother a bank employee. The banker thinks that his brother has an “unstable” living and everything is nice and reliable and predictable until the day he gets sacked. A Black Swan event that he didn’t see coming.

So – in reality who has the “most reliable” income stream ? The taxi driver has to survive on his wits, but is more adaptable.

A great read that gets you thinking about the “design” of our institutions, our systems, our philosophies and our lives.

Fragile, robust or Antifragile ? . Do our systems and our lives get stronger from Disorder or are we seriously vulnerable to Black Swans ?

Worth thinking about.

About how cities work (or not)

The Death and Life of Great American Cities – Jane Jacobs

The Economy of Cities – Jane Jacobs

I will review these books together.

The more that you learn the more that you realise how little you know.

I can’t believe that I had never heard of Jane Jacobs until this year (courtesy of Taleb’s Anti-fragile).

Wow – this woman can write ! It’s like reading Peter Drucker. So much depth in every page. Her observations of everyday reality and her ability to put it into a narrative are amazing. And her work is very “on-topic” as to my current interests.

In the The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jacobs describes what makes a sustainable, dynamic city and how that dynamism can be easily destroyed by wrong-headed urban planning interventions.

Whilst this book was written in 1961 it is pretty much as fresh as a daisy.

Surely that is the sign of a truly great book. Written in such a way as to be timeless. Surely this is much harder to achieve in a work of nonfiction but boy does Jacobs pull it off.

The solution ?

The disorder that Taleb describes in Antifragile and the non-interventionist approach that Fukuoka (see below) describes.

I have a particular interest in “ecosystems” of cities – but surely we all should understand this subject better.

In The Economy of Cities (published 1970) Jacobs launches headlong into one of her main concepts – that agriculture was enabled and demanded by cities not the reverse.

That is to say that cities didn’t emerge because we figured out how to “industrialise” agriculture but rather cities emerged for other reasons (e.g. proximity to “in-demand” natural resources) and agriculture was “invented” to satisfy the increasing demand for food by people doing other work.

Wow – in a few pages she puts the sword to the established wisdom.

She then goes onto to outline how cities provide (or don’t) the required environment for entrepreneurship and innovation.

Jacobs also describes that cities experience economic growth when they commence import replacement. Import replacement occurs when a city begins to locally produce goods that it formerly imported, e.g., Tokyo bicycle factories replacing Tokyo bicycle importers in the 1800s. Jacobs claims that import replacement builds up local infrastructure, skills, and production. Jacobs also claims that the increased production is subsequently exported to other cities, giving those other cities a new opportunity to engage in import replacement, thus producing a positive cycle of growth.

This a great work.

Public Transport

Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives

Jarrett Walker

Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age

Paul Mees

These books are basically signing from the same hymn sheet.

A quality, effective Public Transport system is not only eminently feasible but desirable and affordable, particularly when the “true” cost of an automobile dominant society is costed in.

If you get it wrong – as we have – then you are locked into low critical mass and essentially a death spiral of decline.

The answer ?

Pretty simple – make the Public Transport system a useful alternative to owning a car.

Not just a way to get to work – but a realistic alternative to owning a car. Realistic.

Make it a grid, presume transfers and remember that frequency trumps absolute speed.

Both books provide heaps of examples of success stories. This is really quite doable. It’s not about mega-infrastructure  – it just needs some design thinking and a few politicians with some balls.

Here’s my thinking on the subject : Reimagining Adelaide’s Public Transport.

 

Sustainability & Regeneration

Sowing Seeds in the Desert: Natural Farming, Global Restoration, and Ultimate Food Security

Masanobu Fukuoka , Larry Korn

Fukuoaka was a Japanese farmer and philosopher celebrated for his natural farming and re-vegetation of desertified lands. He was a proponent of no-till, no-herbicide grain cultivation farming methods traditional to many indigenous cultures,[from which he created a particular method of farming, commonly referred to as “Natural Farming” or “Do-nothing Farming”.

His influences went beyond farming to inspire individuals within the natural food and lifestyle movements. He was an outspoken advocate of the value of observing nature’s principles.

His most famous work is The One-Straw Revolution.

This is a follow up and if you have read his earlier book this is a reinforcement with some additional insights about the application of the method in deserts.

In an “interventionist” world Fukuoka’s philosophies are a welcoming, gentler different way of looking at things. Often it is easier to let nature to do the heavy lifting. It might not be as organised or as quick but ultimately you probably get a more sustainable result.

More about philosophy rather than “how to”.

Economics : Past, Present & Future

A Short History of Financial Euphoria (Penguin Business)

John Kenneth Galbraith

If you’ve never read any Galbraith – do yourself a favour.

Insightful and witty this book illustrates that there is nothing new under the sun.

Helpful in recognising patterns of emerging excess. Should be read by all.

As should his other great book The Great Crash of 1929. Click on the link to read my review.

 

Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation

Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen is a US Economist.

In this book he argues that in the Western World we are going to see a squeezing of the middle class. Many more people will find that the days of reliable wage increases are over and that they will likely experience downwards pressure at least in real terms. (This trend has actually been underway for sometime).

The winners will be those (probably with significant education) who can leverage technology to dramatically improve their effectiveness. They will be in demand globally.

The losers (in an age of increasing performance metrics) will be those of low skill and particularly those who are unreliable. (often young men).

Well worth a read.

 

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