This is one of those rare books that does more than inform or amuse: it actually has the potential to influence for a lifetime. It is even more rare in that it does this from an entirely positive angle. And though it does occasionally dip into contemporary politics, it does so in a detached and enlightened enough manner so as not to destroy its timelessness. The author does a great job of extolling the good ideas and skewering the bad ones from all ages, including our own, and instilling a sense of awe in the face of enormous human progress.
I really wanted to like this book. I looked forward to reading it after listening to Lierre's talk on YouTube, and observing how much vegans seem to hate her. But ultimately, it just has a few good excerpts, and I would be too embarrassed to recommend it to anyone I respected.
The book does indeed make some very important points about the nature of various flavors of "organic" and "traditional" agriculture. That's where the value is in her perspective: she overcame her irrational beliefs with regard to veganism and its environmental implications, and she has a lot to contribute in debunking that philosophy. There's also a lot of value in the more general points she makes about traditional agriculture being essentially extractive, like a "mining" of topsoil. This point is repeated 100 times in only the first few chapters, with lots of colorful stories and examples, and driven home very effectively. I think that this is an extremely important point to make, and she makes it clear that we can't go back from modern industrial farming to some sort of "traditional" or "organic" alternative with modern population levels, even if eating only plants was viable health-wise.
The most important criticism I have of this book is that along with its brilliant critique of traditional farming, it contains a doomsday message: that modern industrial farming will make the whole world into a big Easter Island, and that when the oil, natural gas, or whatever runs out, which is implied to be soon, it will collapse. She cites the Haber process for fixing nitrogen and the mining of rocks for phosphorous as examples of why this will happen. But no convincing scientific argument is made for why these should become impossible once fossil fuels run out. There is enough nuclear fuel around to keep us going for a few million years, even if we never invent fusion power. Does she think that humanity is going to just let itself collapse into anarchy and cannibalism rather than face the nuclear bugaboo? It seems like she would, but thankfully she is not in charge.
She also seems to reflexively hate fossil fuels as "polluting", but fails to see that humans are in effect doing what those bacteria she loves so much in the soil do. The oil, coal, or whatever was biomass lost to nature, and in a sense, humans are bringing it back into the circle of life.
I had to stop listening before I even finished Chapter 17. The author has figured out a lot about veganism and the nature of life on a human time-scale, but she has not extended this introspection to her wide array of other neuroses. She references and takes for granted a number of noxious and hateful ideologies casually throughout the book, including the gem of a line which caused me to stop listening: "Women the world over need access to contraception and abortion. But they also need liberty. That liberty will only be won when masculinity, its religion, its economics, its psychology, its sex, is resisted and defeated". Lierre hates men, capitalism, trade, "corporations", science, industry, and on some level I suspect, all people.
I am a man. I loved this book. It made me laugh and brought me to the edge of tears in its final discussion of fatherhood. It does seem to be missing some of the advertised stories in the audio book, such as the strip clubs and the monastery.
However, I have to say that it's just as much, if not more so, a study in class as in gender. Vincent explores lower-class milieus in which men really wear their most masculine traits on their wrists, and are directly ruled by their primal urges and insecurities, and that makes for an entertaining story. But, while she acknowledges in passing that this may not represent the world of men as a whole, she implies that the rest of it is pretty much the same, different only in degree. This implies that all men live pathetic lives of utter dependency, basically without wills of their own. That is, that there is basically no core to their personalities but insecurity, no reason to live but to serve or be with women.
I think that it would have been very enlightening if she'd impersonated an engineer/scientist or at least a middle class professional in her own field. She misses a range of male experience and endeavor for which a female perspective could have been quite illuminating. I'm not sure that most women know it exists, and I'm not sure that she does either. That is, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the obsession with mechanical and logical things, and how deeply a man's whole world view and identity can be caught up in his specialization or his field; and that's regardless of the money it makes him, or the family he's able to support with it. One can characterize this as simply a higher-class version of the bowling league easily enough, but for many men, it's not just a hobby or a career, it's who they are.
This book contains some interesting anecdotes, if you can keep your blood pressure down. I only made it half way through. The only way in which I could recommend this work is as an example of everything that's wrong with political and economic discourse. It's not actually a book on economics by any stretch of the imagination. It is an overtly political book, which sets up a straw man in the form of "free market economists" and proceeds, impotently, to attempt to knock it down. Here is a summary of my reasons for hating it:
- It argues against people, not ideas. For example, it argues that opposing protectionism is an invalid opinion because several illustrious American politicians were in favor of it. It then counters the perceived "counter-argument" that Jefferson was for free trade by stating that he was also against patents, which makes him inconsistent with other free market economists. No discussion of the actual merits of free trade seems to be present here.
- It throws around lots of statistics about prices, wage rates, per capita income, and so on very carelessly. No specification is ever even given as to whether the figures are real or nominal ones.
- The book assumes a great deal about the reader. For example, it seems to pander to an audience that desires secure jobs with as little variation in work responsibilities as possible. The book repeatedly characterizes changing jobs often, working part time, or working harder as bad, with no explanation as to why it makes these assumptions.
- Many arguments are not arguments at all, and are easily debunked via reductio ad absurdum. Of course the author seems to be attempting to weasel out of this trap by not presenting any concrete opinions of his own, only attacking others', but that doesn't really improve anything for me. For example, he claims outright that capital flow across borders causes instability and is bad for growth. If this is true, then where is the limit? Should each town have capital flow restrictions to neighboring towns? Why are national boundaries the right lines of delineation?
- Many arguments seem circular. For instance, although lip service is payed to certain historical "collective actions" causing certain countries to become rich, this seems to become a circular argument when it is claimed that the rich only do these "collective actions" because of their existing circumstances. Or maybe the collective actions were something else, and the author was only referring to the productivity of the rich. I have no idea, and the author does nothing to help elucidate his points.
- The author is a big fan of China as an example of a heavily controlled economy experiencing great growth. He never addresses the obvious issues that: 1. Much of this growth is in "special economic zones" with more freedom than the rest of the country 2. Much of it is via foreign direct investment 3. The conventional wisdom is that China began to grow after liberalization under Deng Xiaoping.
- What finally stopped me was the author's quite un-nuanced use of the US as an example of the success of protectionism, while ignoring that the US itself was the largest economic union in history. Given its continual wars with European powers, the only other major economic powers of the time, the US had many security and other non-economic reasons for protectionism. This is ignored.
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