Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Life on the Mississippi: An Epic American Adventure (Rinker Buck)

In the 1780s, Jacob Yoder faced a dilemma. His traditional market for selling his harvest was England, which was in the midst of peace negotiations to settle the American War for Independence with the former 13 colonies. Yoder decided to improvise on a solution to take goods to market by hauling them to Western Pennsylvania and sailing down to New Orleans by boat. Yoder’s journey was the impetus of revolution in transportation that helped fuel the growth of the new American republic. The flatboat, a small wooden structure with a flat top and square ends, hauled millions of tons of food and countless slaves and helped fuel expansion of America through the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. 

Several years ago, author Rinker Buck reenacted Yoder’s flatboat journey. He constructed his own wooden flatboat, with some modern conveniences such as radio, a boat motor, and an updated American flag, and followed the course Yoder took to New Orleans from Western Pennsylvania. He details his journey and our nation’s history with flatboats through his book Life on the Mississippi. In it, Buck discusses the reasons for his journey, his family, but also the hidden messages that were mixed in the book. First, that you can slow reality down. A two month journey in a wooden boat will certainly do that. Second, that the history of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, like that of our country, is complex and there is a lot hidden just beneath the surface or just out of sight. Third, there is a lot of misinformation out there. From a rogue cop giving their definition of “facts” to a plethora of people warning about the certain death of a river journey, Buck deals with misinformation in numerous forms and shows how to get through it. 

Buck’s journey through our nation and our history is rich and detailed. Life on the Mississippi is a great story of separating fact from myth and learning to adapt.


Monday, October 10, 2022

Fixing the Climate: Strategies for an Uncertain World (Charles F. Sabel and David G. Victor)

In Fixing the Climate: Strategies for an Uncertain World, authors Charles F. Sabel and David G. Victor believe that the world’s current climate policy frameworks (such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement) are not working as they are intended to. As carbon emissions continue to increase, they feel that different solutions are needed to address the climate, arguing for a different course of action that takes the power out of elected leadership.

The authors argue that to reverse greenhouse gas emissions, solutions must arise from local communities through a combination of government and business. In their idealistic scenario, they see the two working together through a model of experimentation, working with new technologies and promoting those technologies that offer the best solutions to address climate change. They cite such examples as the rise of electric vehicles, addressing the ozone layer and acid rain in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and Europe’s successes in combating water pollution from industry and agriculture. Their view is that elected leaders and business leaders should encourage more experimentation and a “bottom up” approach to innovative solutions on the climate issue.

The book has detail and depth on some of the technical examples that they cite, which is useful in understanding some of the issues that face the environment. It isn’t the easiest book to read, but their arguments are well-researched and thoughtfully advocated.


Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower (Michael Mandelbaum)

Michael Mandelbaum’s The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower describes the nation’s changing views towards international relations and its gradual increased influence as a world power.

The four ages are roughly defined into 50 to 80 year periods that correspond with major domestic or international events that see America’s role on the international stage transformed. The weak power phase covers the United States’ history through the Civil War, with the great power phase taking it to the conclusion of World War II, at which point the nation became one of the two global superpowers along with the Soviet Union. The fall of the Soviet Union corresponds with the United States’s transition to hyperpower as the only major power internationally. However, the author ends the hyperpower phase in 2015 as China’s rise and America’s unwillingness to be as engaged in international trade and peace relations is setting the stage for a new phase that is to be determined in length and just what America’s role is.

Mandelbaum does a very good job chronicling major American decisions and policies over the country’s history and how those choices impacted the domestic and world stage. The author  highlights the positives and negatives, offering a fair perspective of the country’s foreign policy history. Summing up over 240 years of history into 450 pages is a tough task. While this book does not get in the weeds on every single part of American foreign policy, the major points and concepts are covered with proper care.