Book Review: A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

It’s been quite awhile since I read a book that simultaneously challenged my historic knowledge, my world view, my comprehension of our climate crisis, and my vocabulary. This one has, while at the same time introducing me to new ideas that resonate to the core of my being, and giving me a glimpse into my relationship to my own personal and societal future.

The book discusses, in-depth, the systems of our “civilized” world that have cheapened many aspects of life, primarily in order to maintain immediate capital gain. In fact, the authors suggest this should not be the anthropocene but rather the capitaloscene. In truth, people are not the problem. We do not have an inherent fault that has led us inevitably to the degeneration of our shared, layered, and vibrant world. It is the way we interact with the systems of life that is at fault. Let’s ensure that the name for the undeniably challenging era we are in reflects that causation, while we work to move deliberately through and past the capitoloscene to a new approach, and new era.

The seven cheap things discussed in depth are: energy, nature, food, work, money, care, and lives. I won’t go into great detail in this review, as I highly recommend you read the book, but will touch on two of the eye-opening thoughts that will certainly entice me to read it again. 

One of the first ideas that made me look up and recognize a system of limitation I had never before acknowledged relates to our relationship to Nature. It includes two layers. The first: Nature has been cheapened in order to make sure that it is providing resources to us, with no stewardship on our part or recommence to Nature, and we are reaping profit from this one-sided relationship. I think this is highly recognizable and we can all agree this linear “take, make, waste” process is faulty and a core issue contributing to our current state of climate crisis. The next layer of this revelation is a little more complex derivative of the first: in language, policy, and action, we have deliberately aligned indigenous peoples and women with the tenets of Nature in order to cheapen them, and make their work, the care they provide, and their very lives less valuable in our capital-focused present. Think about some of the words and images we use. Our planet is Mother Earth, implying all mothers are natural. Not a bad connection, yet remember that we have already cheapened Nature to be present solely for our gain, with no intrinsic value other than what we can profit. This contributes to why we continually undermine body autonomy for women. The female is Nature is a commodity resource that we control. Female reproductive cycles are tied to the moon and therefore of Nature. The concept of nurturing and care is feminine. Women get paid less for the same work performed by men. Indigenous cultures are historically referred to as savages, primitive, and unsophisticated, all implying lesser value. Religions other than Christianity are considered rife with earth-tied ritual, so we can dismiss them as well.

The idea of the devaluing of Nature and indigenous people affected me so much I wrote this poem. I very rarely write poems. I hope I can be aware of my own language and my response to language, thoughts, and actions that cheapen the lives of others. 

Poem we, as Nature.

Another concept in the conclusion of the book has blown away my superior attitude regarding my certainty in my own full comprehension of climate approaches (and I’m still reeling). The concept is this;The environmental carbon calculator thinking many of us employ is a racist and despair-creating approach. Yikes.

We still need to address a price for carbon in order to inform and rein in the absolutely unforgiving levels of CO2e we are pumping out there, and this carbon price and reinvest strategy is needed to shift systems. What the book speaks of is the concept of carbon footprint calculations where a savvy greenie such as me looks at their work/life habits and strives to reduce the levels of CO2e we are producing. This personal assessment and response is fine. This is good.

The issues come about in three parts. 

First, this process does nothing to reactivate systems thinking or to approach the planetary issues in a systemic understanding of community connectivity or societal interdependence. We need to understand the closed and cyclic systems we live within so that we can work well within their constraints, and continue to prosper, albeit with a vastly better rationale and goals set tied to the word “prosper.”

Second, when amplified, this approach defines carrying capacity, and presents the idea that we currently need 4 planet earths to subsidize our existence. Carrying capacity is one-sided, and a capitalist approach. How much can we rape this planet before it fails? We need to become contributing elements of the systems we live within, instead of uninformed and callous takers. 

Third, is the issue of inherent blame, and this is the part that concerns me. I need to quote directly from the book. 

“To take these carrying capacities for granted is to blame future environmental destruction on the poor and working classes in the global north and global south as they struggle for some sort of parity with those who program the footprint calculator. Such Malthusian thinking makes despair inevitable, and inevitably racist.” 

The ecological footprint calculators imply that every choice for travel, work, life is truly a choice, when most often they are the result of a limited set of options created from a political or societal construct that an individual has no say in. One exemplification of this is if you are gentrified out of living in your town and must drive an hour each way to work and there is no accessibly public transit. So we need to be savvy enough to use whatever tools can help us as individuals to make informed decisions, but not lose sight of the fact that being able to make these decisions is currently a privileged position. How do we affect larger interconnected systems of society so that our society becomes a giving aspect of Nature’s systems? 

There is so much more I could say about this book, “A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things”. I have highlighted a dozen of more passages for continued contemplation in my work and life. It has in turn made me more aware of the constructs I live within, and more eager to ensure these faulty capitaloscene frameworks are not supported in how I move my work forward.

I recommend you read it, 2bgreener,


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