20 Books of Summer: Empty Planet by John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker

For a relatively small country, population-wise Canada has produced some impressive writers, especially in the field of politics. Weighing in on opposite sides of the immigration debate are Bruce Bawer with While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within and Doug Saunders with The Myth of the Muslim Tide: Do Immigrants Threaten the West? Back in 2011, before 4chan became a platform for QAnon’s absurd conspiracy theories Jonathan Kay explored and debunked the dark world of conspiracy theories in his book Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground. Lastly, even the ultra-conservative pundit Mark Steyn, author of a host of books including America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It is Canadian, even if he currently resides in the United States.

In that regard America’s neighbor to the North continues to punch above its weight. A few weeks ago at the public library I picked up a copy of Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline. With their 2019 book the two Canadians make a bold and compelling claim: In the near future the world’s population will not explode but precipitously decline.

After being told for years we’ve been sitting on a ticking population bomb at first it’s hard to take the two authors’ claim seriously. You ask why is global population going to decline within the next 40 to 50 years? The answer is everyday, the world is becoming more and more modern.

A key component of modernization is urbanization. The bulk of the world’s population resides or is  predicted to reside not on farms or in villages but in cities. Urban families aren’t engaged in labor intensive farm work, so families are smaller. Living in cities makes it’s harder for conservative elements like their parents and in-laws, churches and mosques to pressure them into having lots of children. It’s also easier for city-dwelling women to obtain reliable birth control and receive helpful family planning advice. Lastly, more and more cities around the world are joining the global economy, leading to an explosion of service sector “knowledge jobs” throughout the world, especially in South and East Asia. These jobs require an educated workforce, prompting more women to delay marriage in order to attend college. Once in the workforce, many women continue to delay marriage and with it motherhood since it’s seen as a career impediment. So, as the world urbanizes it starts having fewer children. Once a country dips below the birthrate of 2.1 children per couple its population begins to contract, then collapse.

According to Bricker and Ibbitson, there’s both good and bad things on the horizon. Lower population should put less pressure on the environment, resources and the global food supply. Potentially, it could also lead to lower unemployment, since there’d be less competion for jobs. With fewer global births, the population ages and the authors speculate this could lead to a “geriatric peace” since there’ll be fewer young hot-heads in positions of power.

On the other hand, without a huge pool of young workers it will be harder for countries, especially in Europe and East Asia to generate the taxes needed to pay for the retirement and medical expenses of a ballooning population of seniors. On a related note, the United States, Canada and the countries of Europe will no longer depend of young immigrants to replenish their employment rolls and help prop-up their birthrates. (This could get worse if today’s anti-immigration sentiment leaves a lasting legacy around the developed world.)

If, after reading Empty Planet you’d like to get another perspective on where the world might be going, I’d encourage you to read Ian Bremmer’s Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism. I suspect Empty Planet is one of those books that will be embraced, debated, attacked, and in the end highly influential. That alone is enough for me to recommend it.

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20 Books of Summer: In The Ruins Of Empire by Ronald H. Spector

Back in June when I announced to the world my 20 Books of Summer did any of you really think I’d stick to my list? Well, neither did I. Sure, it would have felt great to whip through all those books stacked on my porch. Truth is, not only am I a slow reader but I have no self control. That means if I come across a promising book, I wanna read it. But hey, at least I’m reading good books.

I’ve been wanting to read Ronald H. Specter’s In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia for years, ever since a highly erudite former co-worker of mine raved about it. Recently, I came across a copy of Specter’s 2007 book during one of my weekend library visits and whatever intentions I had in sticking to my original 20 Books of Summer promptly went out the window. Luckily for me, In the Ruins of Empire might have been one of the best books of the summer and thus might make my Favorite Books of Summer list.

When Imperial Japan formally surrendered on September 2, 1945 it was a vanquished nation. With its navy smashed, airforce decimated and cities smouldering ruins (two by atomic bombs) many assumed militarily it was a spent force and before long throughout East Asia things would return to how it was before the War. Specifically, the Dutch, French and British would reestablish control over their respective colonies of the Dutch East Indies, Indochina and Malaya. Korea, after a half century of Japanese rule would regain its independence. After years of fighting and occupation Japanese troops would promptly leave China, allowing rival Nationalists and Communists to hammer out a US-sponsored peace deal and jointly rebuild the shattered, impoverished country.

Or not. Even after the Soviets drove the Japanese out of Manchuria and the northern half of Korea by war’s end millions of Japanese troops remained throughout East Asia. (On one Indonesian island alone there were 80,000 Japanese.) Complicating things even more, none of these troops had ever tasted defeat. And now they were expected to surrender and follow orders from the victorious Allies.

In the ruins of Japan’s former overseas empire, a new post-war world began to emerge. Indonesian Nationalists, benefits of a cozy relationship with their former Japanese overlords actively resisted the return of Dutch rule, and did so armed with weapons seized from Japanese armories. The Ho Chi Minh -led Viet Minh proclaimed an independent Vietnam, much to the displeasure of the French. In Korea, Russian forces occupied the northern half of the country while Americans held the rest, leading to yet another war, one that would end in stalemate and produce a lasting division that exists to this day. Lastly, after a brief truce Nationalists and Communists would resume their civil war, both sides fortified in varying degrees by Japanese advisors, weapons and former puppet soldiers.

In the Ruins of Empire is a great companion to Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent. For those interested in modern history, especially that of Asia, it’s hard to go wrong with this book.

20 Books of Summer: War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

When chosing a book to read I usually take backcover praise with a grain of salt. But when Ian Bremmer says it’s a “must-read” I take notice. That’s all it took for me to grab a copy of Ronan Farrow 2018 insider’s look at the State Department War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence when I spotted a copy at the public library.

Over the course of his career, Farrow has worn at least two hats, one as a State Department Iawyer and the other as an investigative journalist. Thanks to the author’s diverse background War on Peace could be seen as two books in one. As a former State Department official Farrow recalls the time he spent at the agency, much of it working for veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke. (Through Farrow’s eyes anyway, the late Holbrooke comes off as an overly driven figure so eccentric I suspect he resided somewhere on the Autism spectrum.) Utilizing his talents as an investigative journalist allowed Farrow to serve up a no-holds barred look at the messy world of international diplomacy. To pull off this feat he interviewed every living former State Department head. Farrow must have some serious street cred becuase he’s able to sit down with Kissinger, Albright, Clinton, Kerry and Tillerson.

Overall, War on Peace is pretty good. I especially enjoyed what Farrow had to say about Afghanistan, Pakistan and those countries’ role in the “War on Terror.” (Regarding Pakistan’s level of dedication in fighting al-Queda and the Taliban, let’s just say it’s no coincidence Osama bin Laden lived comfortably for years in a fortified compound a stone’s throw away from the nation’s top military academy.) The behind the scenes look at the Iranian nuclear deal was another favorite of mine. Lastly, while it angered and depressed me, Farrow’s depiction of the State Department being gutted by the Trump administration made for excellent reading.

2018 In Review: My Favorite Nonfiction

Yikes, the year is almost over and I haven’t done My Favorite Nonfiction of 2018 post. I better get cracking because 2019 is mere hours away. And to make matters worse, 2018 was a strong year for nonfiction and I read a ton of great books. Therefore, limiting my list to just 12 is going to be going to be hard. After a lot of thought I’ve narrowed it down to these outstanding works of nonfiction. Of course, it doesn’t matter when the books were published; all that matters is they’re excellent. As always, they’re listed in no particular order.

As you can see, this list reflects my reading interests. It’s heavy on history, especially that of World War II and the Holocaust. I’m happy to report eight of these books came from the public library, with four of those complete unknowns until I spotted them on the shelf. Three books on this list I purchased years ago. One, Fascism: A Warning, I borrowed from a friend.

As difficult as it was to choose the year’s 12 best, harder still was selecting an overall favorite. For months I went back and forth between Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone. After much thought I’ve decided to break with tradition and declare a tie. These two books will share the honor of being my favorite nonfiction book of 2018.

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff

I’ve never read any Joseph Conrad, but like a lot of people I was unknowingly introduced to his writing thanks to the wonders of Hollywood. I was exposed to Heart of Darkness courtesy of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory Vietnam War epic. The sci-fi-fi movies Alien and Aliens served as preludes of sort to Conrad’s novel Nostromo, since the first film featured a spaceship of the same name while its sequel Aliens, stared a group of space marines from the U.S.S. Sulaco, named for the fictional Latin American town in the Conrad novel. But these cinematic borrowings never inspired me to read any Conrad, despite for years having a copy of Heart of Darkness a good friend gave me for my birthday.

About a year ago I came across several favorable reviews of a new biography of Conrad, namely The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by Maya Jasanoff. The reviews mentioned he’d found literary success only later in life after he’d effectively retired as a merchant seaman. During those impressionable years at sea he not only visited countless exotic locales around the globe but did so during an era when the world experienced its first wave of globalization as foreign peoples were colonized, markets expanded and international trade exploded. Duly intrigued by what I’d read, I vowed to borrow a copy of The Dawn Watch from my public library. Who knows, maybe if I read it, I’d finally get off my butt and read some Conrad.

Last week my library obtained an e-book version of The Dawn Watch which I quickly borrowed. I have to say it’s quite good. And yes, it’s probably inspired me to finally read some Joseph Conrad.

The writer we know today as Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in what’s now Ukraine. His parents were minor Polish nobility and ardent Polish nationalists opposed to Russian subjugation of their homeland. As a young boy he was homeschooled in French, English as well as Polish romantic poetry. After losing both his parents to tuberculosis he was sent to live with his Francophile uncle. By the time Józef became conversant in French he’d also developed a yearning to sail the ocean. At the tender age of 16 at his uncle’s behalf he moved to Marseilles to sail on a French vessel. After a few years of sailing under a French flag he feared he’d be deported to Russia to serve in the Tsar’s army. To escape military conscription he signed on with British ship. In all he’d spend over two decades as a merchant seaman visiting every continent save Antarctica.

According to Jasanoff it was these travels that provided Conrad with the material for his books. Working on a steamship in SE Asia served as the inspiration for Lord Jim. The horrors he witnessed while chugging up the Congo in Belgian-held central Africa provided him the template for Heart of Darkness. A story about a stolen shipment of silver he heard during a brief foray into the Gulf of Mexico would eventually form the nucleus for Nostromo. Lastly, his experiences living in London living among the city’s huge Polish expat community would greatly shape The Secret Agent.

I walked away from The Dawn Watch feeling Conrad’s life was bookended by transition. When he began his maritime career, sail was gradually being phased out in favor of steam. The British led the world in this arena thanks to their then state of the art coal-powered steamships and extensive network of coaling stations spread throughout their empire. Later in his life, as an English-language writer living in his adopted country of England, he witnessed the rise of the United States as a world power, made evident by its continental expansion, acquisition of foreign territories like Guam and the Philippines, increasing economic might and blistering industrialization. Meanwhile, closer to home fear abounded that Great Britain was slipping into decline. As America’s stature rose, British assertiveness in Western Hemisphere became a thing of the past. A surprisingly costly Boer War and a rapidly growing German navy challenged the once universal belief the British Empire was invincible.

The Dawn Watch is a great book. It reads with ease and is well-researched. Don’t be surprised if it make my year-end list for Best Nonfiction.

A Trio of Political Books

I enjoyed doing my post A Trio of Books About China so much I thought I’d do another one and feature three books of a similar nature. This time, instead of focusing on China I’d like to spotlight three recently published books that look at the world-wide rise in populist-fueled authoritarianism and the threat it posses to the established democratic order.

  • Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism by Ian Bremmer-  I’ve been fan of Bremmer for years. I loved his 2010 book The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations ? and last February I reviewed his 2006 book  The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. He’s probably the only “thought leader” I follow on social media. I’ve reposted tons of his Facebook posts and retweeted more than a few of his Twitter offerings. As soon as I heard he’d written a new book I requested my public library purchase a digital copy for Kindle download. Luckily for me I was the first in line to read it. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer looks at the impacts of “globalism”: increased trade, (not just in goods and services but also knowledge and ideology) immigration, mass refugee migrations, and the rise of supranational organizations the EU but also the backlash they create leading sometimes to authoritarian regimes at home and abroad.
  • How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – I couldn’t resist this one when I saw this one on the “New Books” shelf at my public library. Written by two Harvard professors, one an expert in European politics and the other Latin American, the authors take history and recent current events as their guides warning us of the risks facing democracy and how to protect it.
  • Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright – A good friend of mine was kind enough to loan me her AUTOGRAPHED copy, purchased the night she saw Albright speak on her recent speaking tour. This is the second book by Albright I’ve featured on my blog. Back in early 2013 I briefly reviewed her Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. Much like How Democracies Die it’s a warning that democracy is under attack in America and around the world and what to do about it.

So similar are these three books it’s probably easier to write about what they have in common as opposed to their differences. To these writers authoritarianism, or as Albright calls it fascism comes gradually and not overnight. It might begin with a tough-talking nationalist leader claiming to speak for the ignored and pure hearted, who might ban a rival political party but goes on to ban the others. The leader, calling a newspaper or a TV network a threat to the nation will force its shutdown or worse, make it a propaganda organ for the state. Judges are forced to retire and courts are packed with the leader’s hand-picked judicial replacements. A constitutions is rewritten and presidential term limits are abolished. Eventually, you wind up with a dictator for life unaccountable to no one.

There’s also the potential for things to get even worse in the future. In Us vs. Them, Bremmer predicts advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and 3D printing will lead to widespread unemployment in both the developed and developing world, causing unprecedented political and economic instability. Governments around the globe will be forced by their citizens to address crippling problems of unemployment, income disparities, public unrest and mass migrations.

Us vs. ThemHow Democracies Die and Fascism: A Warning are all good books and must reading for the civic-minded. Since they compliment each other so well I can’t encourage you enough to read all three. If, as these four writers claim democracy is under pressure, if not under attack around the world then it’s best to educate oneself. Reading these three books would be a great step in that direction.

A Trio of Books About China

As the year draws to a close and I frantically try to review, no matter how briefly, as many books as possible I noticed three of the books I’ve been wanting to write about deal with China. All three are backlist titles and I found them at my public library. The first one, Fortunate Sons, deals with China’s past while the second, Michael Levy’s memoir Kosher Chinese deals with everyday life as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in China’s interior region during the mid 2000s, while the third Age of Ambition is a collection of interviews with a wide array of Chinese individuals and their ambitions to succeed in today’s ascendant China. If I group these books together to me it begins to resemble a play in three acts: China’s past, it’s transition and it’s present.

  • Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization by Liel Leibowitz and Matthew Miller – I’ve been wanting to read this one since 2011 when it was published. For centuries China was the richest and most powerful kingdom on earth. But by the 19th century, China found itself eclipsed by the industrializing powers of Europe. In hopes of catching up, China needed to learn from the West. Dozens of young Chinese men were sent to American high schools and top-flight universities like Harvard and Yale to learn science, engineering, mathematics and such in hopes of returning China educated men who could jump-start the backwards country. This is a pretty good book and it taught me more than a few things. (For instance, I learned in China’s Taiping Rebellion, waged roughly around the time of the American Civil War, close to 30 million died.)
  • Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion by Michael Levy – Like Ken Silverstein’s Turkmeniscam and Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy this is a backlist title I’d never heard of till I saw it at on a library shelf. Levy was teaching in America in the early 2000s when, in the wake of 9-11 he wanted to do something significant with his life. His solution was to join the Peace Corps, earning him a stint teaching English at a third tier college in Guiyang, an out-of-the-way town deep in China’s interior. I was pleasantly surprised by this memoir and found its combination of humor, honesty and slice of Chinese life a light and enjoyable read.
  • Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos -This book won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer AND an Economist magazine’s best book of the year. It deserves all the awards. Osnos spent close to a decade interviewing Chinese citizens and learning their hopes and dreams. (Who knew there’s a thing in China called “Crazy English” in which you learn English by yelling it.) Not only is this one of the best books I’ve read this year it’s one of the best books about China I’ve read.

In retrospect, for me 2018 has been a year for reading about China. In addition to the three above-mentioned books I also read Paul French’s Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China as well as Robert Kaplan’s East Asia-centric Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. After getting a taste of these kind of books I think in 2019 I’d like to read more.