Jimmy Carter, Dedication of White House solar panels, June 1979

My essay-review “Good at Being Gods,” about Buckminster Fuller and the alternative energy movement of the 1970s, is published in the 18 December 2008 issue of the London Review of Books. It begins thus:

In the recent Pixar movie Wall-E there is a conflict between two different visions of technology. From one angle, technology appears to be humanity’s overlord: the movie imagines that in the future a megacorporation called Buy N Large will so exhaust and pollute the planet that it will have to whisk its customers away on a luxury outer-space cruise ship for their own protection. From another angle, technology appears to be the only thing capable of saving humanity’s soul. Wall-E, a scrappy, pint-sized robot left behind to tidy up Earth, scavenges for mementos of human culture, finds evidence of resurgent plant life and falls in love. The two visions are inconsistent but inextricable: Wall-E is himself a Buy N Large product.

A similar ambivalence colours the reputation of the 20th-century designer Buckminster Fuller. You might say that Fuller aspired to engineer a post-apocalypse outer-space cruise ship but in the end managed only to get himself adopted as technology’s mascot. . . .

The article is available online, but you have to subscribe or buy an electronic copy to read it. (I encourage you to, because ultimately that’s how I find the money to buy my daily allotment of toast and peanut butter.)

The file folder containing my notes for this review is titled “Utopian post-oil,” because when I started thinking about the issues, it seemed to me that a lot of the utopian alternative-energy notions of the 1970s were returning to haunt (or inspire) us today. The review focuses on K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller’s Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe, because much of the 1970s movement crystallized around Fuller, and the Whitney Museum show and Yale University Press exhibition catalog provided an opportunity. But I also take account of Andrew G. Kirk’s Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (University Press of Kansas, 2007), an informative book on an aspect of technological and social history that hasn’t been much chronicled; Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), an analysis and manifesto that seems to have been taken to heart by the Obama campaign, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly; and Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini’s Sorry, Out of Gas: Architecture’s Response to the 1973 Oil Crisis (Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2007), a sort of visual encyclopedia of the 1970s alternative-energy movement and as a book an object of great charm. The “Sorry, Out of Gas” website is also well worth a visit. I also tapped the following for more information:

As close students of my work, if there are any, will have noticed, this is part of an ongoing obsession about the history of energy. Or anyway, a trilogy, comprised of my recent New York Times Book Review piece on horses as a nineteenth-century energy supply, this one for the LRB on windmills and solar power, and another forthcoming in the New Yorker.

Happily for those who disagree with my skepticism about do-it-yourself environmentalism, the website Treehugger recently released a buying guide to “Hot Home Wind Turbines You Can Actually Buy.” (Hot as in stylin’.) And for those in search of more Fulleriana, here are links to Stanford University’s R. Buckminster Fuller Archive, which features an entertaining slide show; a sort of interactive information tree of Fuller’s ideas called the Fuller Map; and for explications of the Fuller terminology that flummoxed me, the R. Buckminster Fuller FAQ.

Evolution and the arts

In the 27 November 2007 New York Times, Natalie Angier writes about attending a symposium on evolution and the arts at the University of Michigan, where she learns to dance the hora and interviews the independent scholar Ellen Dissanayake. For more on Dissanayake’s thinking and background, here’s a profile that I wrote about her, which was published in Lingua Franca in October 2001.

More on torture, sympathy, novels, and streaming media

My post earlier this month, on torture, novels, and human rights, has met with more response than my meanderings usually do: a response at Hermits Rock, and a post and a comments thread at the Valve. I’m also told that a recent book by David Griffith, A Good War Is Hard to Find, makes an argument similar to mine, and even starts by comparing the novel and movie versions of the torture scenes in Deliverance.

A few commenters at the Valve somehow figured out that I’m not a cognitive psychologist, alas. Fortunately, this morning I happened to stumble across some confirmation of my irresponsible hunches. Even though I didn’t know about it when I wrote my original post, it turns out that there is evidence that watching violence on screen changes the brain, according to "Mind-altering media," an article by Helen Philips in the 19 April 2007 issue of New Scientist:

Brain imaging and other physiological measures also reveal changes in emotional responses to violent images as a result of viewing violence or playing violent games. Bruce Bartholow of the University of Missouri, Columbia, has found that people with a history of game playing have a reduced brain response to shocking pictures, suggesting that people begin to see such imagery as more normal. Another study found that frontal lobe activity was reduced in youngsters who played a violent video game for 30 minutes, compared with those playing an equally exciting but non-violent game. This brain region is important for concentration and impulse control, among other things. A region called the amygdala, important for emotional control, was more aroused in those who experienced the violent game.

The article also references what is apparently overwhelming scientific documentation of a link between television viewing and increased aggressive behavior in children, so overwhelming that one developmental psychologist calls the ambivalence about the link in the mainstream press exasperating. The implication is that reporting on the research has been befuddled in much the way that reporting on smoking and global warming once were.

Of course this doesn’t necessarily prove the other lemma in my hypothesis, that reading novels is good for you.