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Mixed Media: Trees, Billionaires, and Irish Female Leaders

Here’s what we’re reading, watching, and listening to.

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In a letter to a friend, the iconic Romantic poet William Wordsworth once commented on how daunting it felt to live in “a period big with the fate of the human race.” We feel you, Will. And so our quarterly column on books and media casts a wide net in search of those concerned with how human industry engages with natural rhythms, how economic systems liberate and oppress in unequal measure, and how language and art remain some of our best weapons against the world’s evils. This roundup spotlights a handful of voices that bring us perspective, wisdom, and insight in turbulent times.

The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth

St. Martin’s Press

By Ben Rawlence

If one hero has emerged from the shared social trauma of climate change, it is the tree. Reforestation, with its enormous potential for global carbon capture and its promise to buy us some time in our efforts to reach carbon neutrality, seems one of the few concepts that can shift communities from apathy to action.

Corporations plant trees to celebrate employees’ birthdays. Ecosia plants a tree every time you use their web browser. Aspiration plants a tree every time you use their credit card. TenTree bests them all by planting—you guessed it—ten trees for every tank or tee. The books in Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling series have introduced millions to the sophisticated inner lives of the towering organisms. Suzanne Simard’s viral TED talk invites us to imagine how forests form harmonious societies. We’ve come a long way from chaining ourselves to sequoias in protest. Our inner dendrophile awakens.

If we are going to give the trees such attention, Ben Rawlence would like us to grapple with the fact that there’s at least one place on earth we don’t need any more of them: the boreal forest, Earth’s largest land biome. Looking down on Earth from above the North Pole, the boreal forest forms a set of asymmetric parentheses, a ring split by oceans, hosting an agro-multitude, an incalculable multitude of trees that grow atop permafrost preserved by long months of freezing temperatures. The treeline stops at the tundra’s edge, tracing what we’ve long called the Arctic Circle.

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That circle is contracting at an alarming rate. The white tundra is turning green. As temperatures rise, Rawlence writes, “the trees are on the move. They shouldn’t be.” Why does it matter if young pine, spruce, and fir leave their forests to encroach upon the ice? Because “even more than the Amazon, the boreal is the lung of the world,”—the patterns of atmospheric circulation, cycles of water and oxygen, ocean currents, and polar winds are shaped by the functioning of this forest. And the forest has lost its way. We are all of us Macbeth, watching an unnatural movement of woods and wondering what ill the proceeding pines portend.

Across 300 pages, Rawlence travels the circumboreal belt, mining the geological history of these ancient, impenetrable regions and seeking to understand the odd behaviors of the trees in each location. Scots pine in Scotland. Birch in Scandinavia. Larch in Siberia. En route, he blends adventure chronicle, science journalism, nature writing, and meditation on Earth, both past and future.

He is a generous guide. On one page, an expansive, poetic flourish in the tradition of Annie Dillard dilates the pupil of your imagination. On the opposite page, he’s Bill McKibben, leveling a devastatingly clear-eyed description of the fate that awaits on the other side of 1.5 degrees global temperature rise. Everywhere, he sways like a documentary filmmaker: in frame just long enough to nudge the narrative before disappearing behind the camera to center those who live among the forests.

In those portions, the book shimmers like ice in the sunshine. In the stories of humans on the edge of the world, Rawlence welcomes the wise histories and prophetic visions of Indigenous and First People accounts. Alongside scientists and explorers, these voices serve Rawlence’s larger rhetorical aim: to position the humans of our epoch in our geological arc. This is not, as advertised, a book about trees. Instead, this a story of wonder and ingenuity, the drive to know, and the limits of understanding. It is a book about time and how much we humans have of it, of the unfathomable millennia that shaped this blue and green and white dot, and the barely unimaginable future that may one day see the boreal ruling over a planet they have primarily to themselves.

Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World

Custom House

By Peter Goodman

At some point, things were looking up. Steven Pinker declared that we had listened to our better angels and defeated violent tribalism. Hans Rosling insisted that—our feelings be damned—the facts support the celebration of our humanistic project. Yuval Noah Harari made it evident to anyone with a pulse and an Audible account that since humans had triumphed over all mechanisms of apocalypse, it was time to invent some new horsemen. It was good while it lasted.

On the boomer apologists, Goodman calls bullshit. And not so gently. Discarding specious data and curated optimism for a no-punches-pulled indictment of the avatars of late-stage capitalism, the New York Times’s Global Economics Correspondent suggests that, if we did, accomplish some great Pax Whatever, we enabled a tremendous “looting of the peace” along the way.

In Goodman’s dim view, the thieves are Davos Men: a cohort of condemnable caricatures whose puppeteering and profiteering is masked by philanthropy and perfumed by performances of virtue. Their muscles pull the levers that ensure a permanent underclass is held outside the castle grounds by the looming hedgerows of income inequality, earnings gaps, homeownership rates, retirement savings, student loan debt, lopsided educational opportunities, skewed asset-building subsidies, and dozens of other structural thickets.

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Goodman’s as funny as he is angry, with an ironist’s touch that must be necessary when covering economics. And he lacks even a drop of the moralistic. His complaints aren’t petty, nor a lamentation of the world’s endemic unfairness. The crime for Goodman isn’t wealth, greed, or a pseudo-intellectual obsession with Friedman of Mandeville. The real enemy isn’t the Davos Man or the free market sunshine that gave him his powers. The enemy is bad policy, poor logic, a lack of second-and third-order thinking, and a fundamental miscalculation that capitalism, in Scott Galloway’s words, could ever thrive when not atop a bed of empathy.

To recover that empathy is to find the modest, sensible solutions that combat the collective fecklessness that has plunged tens of millions into poverty and relegated their progeny to an economically immobile society on the brink of breakdown. Meanwhile, its kings board rockets to the stars, above a republic so enthralled by its own mythology of wealth that its better angels are now privately owned, waiting to be gilded by the gates.

Mothers of Invention

Mary Robinson, Maeve Higgins, and Thimali Kodikara

Trying to talk about climate change and the human adaptations necessary to combat it in a productive, engaging way is a riddle of epic proportions. So the podcast that’s so far managed to generate some of the most effective discourse on the topic should be created and hosted by Irish voices.

Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland and a former UN high commissioner, sits with surprising ease alongside comedian Maeve Higgins to host a series of conversations with primarily female innovators. They work across sectors as diverse as agriculture, human rights litigation, biodiversity, new economics, and beyond. Their topic? How climate change solutions are emergfing most vibrantly among the community most impacted by the devastation: women, and often women of color. Bringing these voices, bodies, and brains onto the stage is not only an exercise in centering the margins but in shining the bright light on those working on refining the art of the possible in diligent and creative ways that may save us all.

Maintaining a sense of joy and progress in a space dominated by fatalism, blame and avoidance is a feat most difficult. Yet, somehow the hosts pull it off with admirable consistency. Joined occasionally by the show’s producer Thimali Kodikara, the show is a tireless intersectional exercise that never feels tiresome. Honest humor, perfect irony, and even exuberance lace every episode, leveraging what neuroscientist and comic Sophie Scott teach: laughter is as much about belonging and connection as it is about the quality of the joke. Still, the jokes are legitimately funny, a perfect countermelody to Robinson’s deep expertise in navigating systemic power. Together, the wry dot-connecting and intelligent synthesis, the playful and pugilistic, the endearing and eviscerating, make progress seem possible within even the tightest constraints.

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Streaming on HBOMax

Essayist Rebecca Solnit says the definition of hope is simpler than we think: since we do not know how things will turn out, we might as well act. One wonders if Alexei Navalny, the jailed leader of the opposition movement in Russia, believes this to be true. Followed and harassed for years, poisoned with Putin’s trademark nerve agent, detained upon recovery and return, and now imprisoned in a brutal maximum security prison, Navalny may suggest to Solnit a revision: even when you know exactly what will happen, hope suggests you should act anyway.

That defiance is displayed in the documentary “Navalny,” directed by Daniel Rohrer. Filmed in secret in 2020 and early 2021, the film works across two scales: Navalny’s steady rise and public labor to build a coalition that dared imagine a toppled Putin and the investigation into his poisoning in the weeks that followed the attempted assassination.

In nearly every scene, Navalny appears fully present, comfortable in the frame and his story, and yet already elsewhere. Self-promoting and masterful with media, he also embraces his own diminishment, establishing the Anti-Corruption Foundation, whose gears will keep turning whether his hand is on the crank. At turns warm and icy, blending gravitas with gravel, he is a man who somehow sees past his lifetime.

Specters of death are everywhere in the film, a thriller haunted by its inevitability. As the investigative team uses novel techniques, cutting-edge technologies, and good old-fashioned sleuthing to track the assassins, the camera captures Navalny on more than one occasion reminding the crew that the viewing of the final cut may well be at his funeral.

That day has not yet come. Perhaps the end isn’t yet written, and hope can still surprise. The film delivers the unexpected. Without spoiling the film’s jaw-dropping shocker, take this quote from Rohrer: “Spies whose job it is to go around the world and poison people don’t just pick up the phone and blab about what they’re doing. Except they do.”

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