GFB Update

A monthly newsletter on the vast and underappreciated world of current affairs books


Michael Marien, Director

2:1, January 2012

In This Issue
Book of the Month
Best Current Affairs Books, 2011
1. Infoglut and the Internet
2. Inequality and Corruption
3. Economic Crisis and Jobs
4. The Energy Transition
5. General U.S. Directions and Issues
6. Climate Change
7. Global Outlook
A Final Word...
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Special Announcement

Global Foresight has recently received two grants to continue its work in 2012, from The Bermingham Fund in Denver, and, especially, from the Foundation For the Future in Seattle.  We greatly appreciate this recognition, and welcome further donations from organizations and individuals who would like to support the unique GFB mission of identifying and analyzing new and forthcoming futures-oriented current affairs books.  Contact Michael Marien at  Many thanks!


New this month is the first-ever narrative that ties together some 60 Best Current Affairs Books of 2011, including all Book of the Month selections, to sketch "missing elephants." Best Books of 2010 were listed singly (see GFB Update, Jan 2011), as were other best books listings made while editing Future Survey in the 1979-2008 period. The narrative format provides a context for better appreciation of the books that are selected, as well as critical commentary. Do you agree?

Your feedback is encouraged.              

Book of the Month

In Search of the Missing Elephant: Selected Essays by Donald N. Michael. Introduction by Graham Leicester (International Futures Forum). Devon UK: Triarchy Press, May 2010, 116p.


The five essays in this slim book, published in the 1973-2000 period, are all noteworthy-and more timely than ever--in today's climate of ever-growing chaos and complexity. Don Michael (1923-2000), a member of the Club of Rome, was a former Prof of Planning and Psychology at the U of Michigan, and well-known for four books published during the great futures vogue of the 1960s and 1970s, on cybernation, the next generation, planning for an "Unprepared Society," and learning to plan-and planning to learn. Ideally, it is time for the "Michaelian" view to be taken seriously and more widely embraced.


The lead essay, "Some Observations with Regard to a Missing Elephant" (2000), reflects on the Sufi story of the blind men and the elephant, arguing that the storyteller is also blind and that there is no elephant.   Less metaphorically, Michael argues, what is happening to the human race is too complex, interconnected, and dynamic to comprehend, and governance can only become less effective amidst growing ignorance. The other four essays discuss the dilemma of denial whereby leaders cannot confess that we do not know how to deal with our problems (1991), forecasting and planning in an incoherent context of ever more blind persons and elephants (1989), the footless status of futures studies (1985), and the need to embrace error in the face of a turbulent social environment (1973).


Don Michael's foresight extends even further back. Forty-four years ago, in The Unprepared Society: Planning for a Precarious Future (Basic Books, 1968), he was writing about "a multitude of possible futures" (p.xi), "many ideas hawked in the marketplace" (what one is exposed to is "partly a matter of who yells loudest or whom one happens to be standing nearest to" - p4), our "inadequate access to reality" (p32), "a more interdependent society" (p39), educating so that "people can cope efficiently, imaginatively, and perceptively with information overload" (p108), and looking at tomorrow as "complexity, turmoil, and scarcity" (Chapter 2, pp14-36). Similar to the missing elephant essays, this book is even more important in the early 21st century. Also important, at a time when much learning and re-thinking is needed, is Michael's Learning to Plan-and Planning to Learn (Jossey-Bass, 1973; second edition with new 32-page Foreword, Miles River Press, 1997).

Best Current Affairs Books, 2011Sketching Some Elephants

For emphasis, Don Michael wrote about a missing elephant.  As a practical matter, the metaphor might be slightly modified to focus on a shifting herd of elephants (with a few lions and tigers added).   We are still largely blind in a complex, dynamic, and globalizing world, but at least we can try to tentatively sketch some of the elephants.  Global Foresight Books seeks to assist in sketching the outlines of large sectors and issue areas, which is no easy matter.  More than 1,000 current affairs books were published in 2011, and, since GFB began to record book titles in 2009, there are now more than 3,000 titles on the website, arranged in 25 elephantine categories, under hundreds of specific topics, and by publisher.   Unfortunately, these categories are overlapping and fairly chaotic, but one can still get a rough sense of current thinking in various sectors and issue areas. 


Another approach to coping efficiently with this information overload (a task identified by Don Michael in 1968) is to select "best books of the year."  In last year's GFB "Best Books" selection, The New York Times Book Review was criticized for choosing only five current affairs titles in its year-end survey of "100 Notable Books."  Their 2011 "Notable Books" listing (4 Dec 2011) has six titles out of 55 non-fiction selections: The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker (Viking), The Information by James Gleick (Pantheon), The Net Delusion by Yevgeny Morosov (Public Affairs), The Quest by Daniel Yergin (Penguin), Rights Gone Wrong: How Law Corrupts the Struggle for Equality by Richard Thompson Ford (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and Why the West Rules-for Now by Ian Morris (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).   Surely, in a globalizing age when we need better "access to reality" (as Don Michael advocated), and when more than two-thirds of the American public is unhappy with the direction in which the country is headed (albeit for different reasons), much more could be done to bring important evidence-based current affairs books to the attention of citizens.   


What follows is an attempt to identify some 60 titles that deserve special attention.  They still inadequately sketch the elephant-like sectors, but there are many other important books listed on the GFB website that can improve the sketch of any elephant and enhance learning in our complex and dangerous era.  The seven categories are

1) Infoglut and the Internet;

2) Inequality and Corruption;

3) Economic Crisis and Jobs;

4) Energy Transition;

5) General U.S. Directions and Issues;

6) Climate Change and Water; and

7) Global Outlooks.


You will find most of these titles on the website if you follow the  links; however, some of the titles are yet to be posted. 

1) Infoglut and the Internet

Donald Michael and several others were concerned about information overload more than four decades ago, well before the Internet and cellphones were ever imagined by anyone.


If infoglut was a concern at that time, the problem is now at an entirely different level, as explained by James Gleick in The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (Pantheon, March 2011), who describes "deluge" as a common metaphor and "information fatigue, anxiety, and glut," with much information lost.  And even when accessed, Gleick notes that "a barrage of data often fails to tell us what we need to know," concluding that "the old ways of organizing knowledge no longer work," but not suggesting any new ways.   (Reviewers of this well-received book, however, have tended to emphasis the interesting "History" and ignore today's "Flood.")  Not surprisingly, the flood has led to The Age of Distraction: Reading, Writing, and Politics in a High-Speed Networked Economy (Robert Hassan; Transaction, Oct 2011), on the building of a different world where certainties of the previous eras are being displaced by a chronic and pervasive mode of cognitive distraction, and a faster world where we know less about more.  Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? The Net's Impact on Our Minds and Future edited by John Brockman (Harper Perennial, Jan 2011; GFB Book of The Month, March 2011) assembles 150 responses to this important question, roughly half of them positive and half negative, including the lead essay by Nicholas Carr, author of "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains" (W.W. Norton, June 2010; GFB Book of The Month, July 2010).  Similarly, Stanford U psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude argues in Virtually You: The Internet and the Fracturing of the Self (W.W. Norton, Feb 2011) that many of us spend too much time online, making us impatient, unfocused, and urge-driven.


Although not mentioning infotech specifically, The Techno-Human Condition by Braden R. Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State U (MIT Press, March 2011; GFB Book of The Month, June 2011) looks at the larger picture of technology at three levels, such that "the techno-human condition embeds us irretrievably in wicked complexity" involving Level III technology operating at Earth systems scale.  To engage with the Level III world, we must play with scenarios and always question predictions, encourage "ignorance-based reflection," and escape current assumptions about rationality, progress, and certainty.     Very Michaelian!

2) Inequality and Corruption

Atlas-Global-InequalitiesAs a result of Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and other mass protests worldwide, Time magazine (26 Dec 2011) has designated "The Protester" as its Person of the Year. The protests are driven by many complaints, most of which have to do with growing inequality and corruption-an issue that is not likely to disappear soon. A quick and illuminating global overview of inequality is offered by The Atlas of Global Inequalities (Ben Crow and Suresh Lodha; U of California Press, Feb 2011), with maps, charts, and brief discussion of economic, political, and social, and environmental inequalities, as well as state and international action to lessen these gaps. The issue is significant enough such that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has issued a timely report, Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising (OECD, Dec 2011), explaining the widening gap between rich and poor in most OECD countries and many emerging economies, even when countries were going through a period of sustained economic growth prior to the Great Recession. Similarly, the UN Development Programme, in its annual Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity (UN Publications, Nov 2011) examines the "urgent global challenge of sustainable development and its relationship to rising inequality within and among countries," as well as long-term inequality trends at national and global level.


A major but frequently neglected cause of rising inequality is related to corruption that enables the rich to get richer. Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens by Nicholas Shaxon (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2011) argues that offshore tax havens are a central cause of our recent economic disasters and give advantage to large MNCs. Of related interest, The Money Laundry: Regulating Criminal Finance in the Global Economy by J.C. Sharman (Cornell U Press, Nov 2011) notes that many countries have now standardized anti-money laundering policies, yet there are high costs and few benefits to such policies. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig argues in Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress (Twelve/Hachette, Oct 2011) that special interests are funneling huge amounts of money into the US government, driven by shifts in campaign finance rules and the recent Supreme Court "Citizens United" decision, and that corruption is wrecking our democracy.   [Also see last year's "Griftopia" by Matt Taibbi (Spiegel & Grau/Random House, Nov 2010) on the growing power of the big players in the financial industry--"the grafter class"-who transfer wealth upward.] Wall Street Journal reporter Ellen E. Schultz, in Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers (Portfolio/Penguin, Sept 2011) reveals how large companies and consultants have played a huge and hidden role in slashing pensions and health coverage. To further such discomforting truth-seeking, The Corporate Whistleblower's Survival Guide by Tom Devine and Tarek F. Maassarani (Berrett-Koehler, April 2011) describes the tactics used by corporations to attack whistleblowers and cover up revelations, how to get allies and legal help, and the Government Accountability Project that has helped over 5,000 people since 1977.

3) Economic Crisis and Jobs 

Lost-DecadesIn the past three years, more than 100 books have been published on the origins of the Great Recession (see, Browse by Category/Economic Crisis), as well as needed remedies to forestall any such reoccurrence (in almost all cases calling for more regulation at national and global levels).  A thorough and ongoing analysis of all of these titles is needed, to find areas of agreement and disagreement, as well as distinctive views that can illuminate this complex problem.  One example is Lost Decades: The Making of America's Debt Crisis and the Long Recovery by Menzie D. Chinn of U of Wisconsin and Jeffrey A. Frieden of Harvard U (W. W. Norton, Sept 2011), who argue that the US has pursued virtually every dangerous policy that it warned other nations against: excessive borrowing, unproductive spending, foolish tax policies, and unwarranted speculation, and that the US and other indebted countries face "a very difficult next ten years."  Another example is Engineering the Financial Crisis: Systemic Risk and the Failure of Regulation by Jeffrey Friedman and Wladimir Kraus (U of Pennsylvania Press, Sept 2011), who debunk the leading theories about the economic crisis and criticize the Basel Accords (a set of international standards for banks) for creating an overconcentration of risk.  (Note: Do not confuse Jeffrey Friedman with Harvard's  Jeffrey A. Frieden, which is easy to do). 


In contrast to the scores of books on the recent economic crisis, very few books focus on job creation, a major issue in US presidential politics and in many other nations too.  The best source for books on the US situation is the Russell Sage Foundation, publisher of top-quality action-oriented sociology, which has recently issued Good Jobs America: Making Work Better for Everyone (Sept 2011), Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems (June 2011), and Where Are All the Good Jobs Going? (Jan 2011).

4) The Energy Transition

Another major issue facing all nations is the transition away from fossil fuels in the face of rising energy demand and climate change.  The Quest: The Global Race for Energy, Money, and Power by Daniel Yergin (Penguin Press, Sept 2011; GFB Book of The Month, Nov 2011) offers a broad and readable narrative in time and space that spans 804 pages.  It covers the new world of oil (sorry, Peakists-but there is still plenty of oil ahead, not to mention several kinds of "unconventional oil"), the vast potential of newly-discovered shale gas, growing electricity consumption, climate and carbon, renewable energy, and the outlook by 2030.  The best current overview for all categories of harnessing abundant solar energy, where costs continue to fall and technologies improve, is provided by the International Energy Agency in Solar Energy Perspectives(IEA/OECD, Dec 2011).  The OECD is also promoting a broad Green Growth Strategy, summarized in Towards Green Growth (OECD, June 2011; www.oecd/; GFB Book of The Month, Aug 2011), which seeks to catalyze investment and innovation to underpin sustained growth, efficient green technology, and proper use of natural assets. 


Another broad and far-sighted overview is provided in The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World by Jeremy Rifkin (Palgrave Macmillan, Oct 2011), arguing that our aging industrial infrastructure based on fossil fuels must be replaced by renewable energy, transforming buildings into micro power plants, deploying hyrdrogen and other storage technologies, using the Internet to transform the power grid, and promoting electric plug-in and fuel cell vehicles.  Rifkin claims that the European Union is using this long-term economic vision as a road map, while Americans largely continue to be in a state of denial.  This backwardness is reflected in The Crisis in Energy Policy by former Director of Central Intelligence John M. Deutch (Harvard U Press, Oct 2011), who faults the US government for failure to adopt a coherent energy policy, and in The End of Energy: The Unmaking of America's Environment, Security and Independence by Columbia law professor Michael J. Graetz (MIT Press, April 400p), describing 40 years of "energy policy incompetence," with wasted billions seeking silver bullets and Congress elevated special interests over national goals.

5) General U.S. Directions and Issues

The-Price-of-CivilizationGeneral overviews of where the U.S. ought to be headed should be analyzed together and debated.  The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity by macroeconomist Jeffrey Sachs of the Columbia U Earth Institute (Random House, Oct 2011) argues that economists and politicians are offering short-sighted solutions to complex problems, and "profoundly underestimate" globalization's long-term effects.  The US political system has lost its ethical moorings, both parties greatly favor capital over labor, and American culture is over-stimulated and consumer-driven.  That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back by NY Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Sept 2011) urges the US to respond energetically to global competition, slash debt and deficits, and wean itself off fossil fuels. 


The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama by Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel (Nation Books, Oct 2011) assembles her progressive commentary and columns on a new economic narrative, "taming elephants" (critiques of leading Republicans), new national security thinking, reconstructing the social contract, and perfecting US democracy by universal voter registration and reversing the appalling Citizens United decision that has debilitated our politics.  No comparable conservative overviews have been recently published, other than lightweight campaign books by Republican candidates. 


Several books provide authoritative overviews of major sectors or issues.  Democracy's Arsenal: Creating a Twenty-First-Century Defense Industry by former Under Secretary of Defense Jacques S. Gansler (MIT Press, June 2011) covers globalization of the defense business and the dysfunction of Congress, warning that "a total transformation is necessary" to meet new national security challenges.  Taking Liberties: The War on Terror and the Erosion of Democracy by ACLU president Susan N. Herman (Oxford U Press, Oct 2011) worries that constitutional protections against government abuse are being abandoned, e.g. error-filled blacklists and watchlists than cannot be challenged.  The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by deceased Harvard law professor William J. Stuntz (Belknap Press/Harvard U Press) warns that the rule of law has vanished in the US, due to inconsistent policing, rampant plea bargaining, overcrowded courtrooms, and ever more draconian sentencing to overcrowded prisons.  Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle over Health Care Reform by Princeton sociologist Paul Starr (Yale U Press, Oct 2011) describes a century of rancorous debate on health insurance and the difficulty of changing the system, concluding that, despite legislation in 2010, "the battle is not over."  The Quest for Mental Health: A Tale of Science, Medicine, Scandal, Sorrow, and Mass Society by Canadian historian Ian Dowbiggin (Cambridge U Press, Aug 2011) notes "skyrocketing" rates of depression and anxiety in our mass society, despite cultures of therapism and consumerism, enabling an enormous industry of psychiatrists, counselors, therapists, and life coaches.  


American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century: Social, Political, and Economic Challenges (Third Edition) edited by Philip G. Altbach et al. (Johns Hopkins U Press, June 2011; GFB Book of The Month, July 2011) provides an authoritative 511-page overview of global academic trends, the improved climate for academic freedom, increasing legalization, the roles of the states and the federal government, external constituencies, harsh realities for the professoriate, today's college students, declining state tax support, digital technologies, graduate education, reforming the curriculum that has "lost its coherence in the rush toward specialization," and increasing commercialization.  Concludes that "the golden age of the American university is probably over," and "now it is necessary to reestablish a sense of academic mission." America's Environmental Report Card: Are We Making the Grade? (Second Edition) by Harvey Blatt (MIT Press, April 2011), a noteworthy synthesis f a wide range of troubling information, looks at water supplies and purity, flood dangers, infrastructure problems, soil, leaching of garbage from landfills, contaminated crops, fossil fuels, alternative energy sources, air pollution, and more.

6) Climate Change

America's Climate ChoicesMuch has been written about climate change, yet a substantial portion of the American public remains in denial, or falsely claims that the science is still "unsettled."  America's Climate Choices by the National Research Council (National Academies Press, May 2011;;

GFB Book of the Month, Oct 2011) is an underappreciated non-technical 118-page synthesis of current thinking reflected in four 2010 reports on the science of climate change, impacts of climate change, effective response, and limiting the magnitude of climate change.  It states unequivocally that "Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems."  It discusses observed and future climate change, the unique challenges of the climate change issue (complex linkages, significant time lags, the need for global-scale efforts, immediate costs vs. future benefits), and the need for "iterative risk management" in making choices. 


America's Climate Problem: The Way Forward by former World Resources Institute VP Robert Repetto (Earthscan, March 2011) argues that what America does in the next few years will largely determine the fate of the earth and humanity, and proposes a sensible US policy to reduce emissions while preserving healthy economic growth and high standards of living.  If this doesn't dissuade any fair-minded skeptics, try Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges, and Decisions by Katherine Richardson, Will Steffen, and Diana Liverman (Cambridge U Press, March 2011), with contributions of over 80 scientists in explaining climatic trends, the oceans, sea level rise and ice sheet dynamics, carbon cycle trends, tipping elements ("jokers in the pack"), impacts on the biotic fabric of the planet, equity issues, mitigation and adaptation approaches, geopolitics and governance, and more.  Or consider Climate Change and Global Sustainability: A Holistic Approach edited by Akimasa Sumi et al. (United Nations U Press, 2011), one of four volumes in an all-Japanese "Sustainability Science Series" promoting a low-carbon society and a resource-circulating society in harmony with nature.  Unfortunately, as explained in Global Warming Gridlock by David G. Victor of UC-San Diego (Cambridge U Press, April 2011), the world's current approach to the problem is mostly ineffective, and alternative approaches will be difficult to enact and time-consuming; small groups of "climate clubs" are advocated.

Climate Change and National Security: A Country-Level Analysis edited by Daniel Moran of the Naval Postgraduate School (Georgetown U Press, March 2011) profiles climate change security risks through 2030 for 42 key countries and regions.  Cities and Climate Change: Global Report on Human Settlements 2011 by the UN Settlements Program (Earthscan, May 2011) analyzes ways that cities contribute to climate change, impacts of climate change on these often overcrowded places, and possible responses.  Climate Change and Cities edited by Cynthia Rosenzweig et al. (Cambridge U Press, April 2011) offers the first assessment of the Urban Climate Change Research Network, formed at the time of the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit in 2007.  World Economic and Social Survey 2011: The Great Green Technological Transformation (United Nations Publications, July 2011) states that avoiding the climate change tipping point will require fundamental shifts in existing technologies, and calls for a massive technological revolution in developing countries consistent with sustainability and poverty reduction.  But do we pay one-tenth as much attention to these palpable threats as we do to potential terrorist attacks on the US homeland? Earth: The Operator's Manual by Richard B. Alley of Penn State U (W. W. Norton, April 2011), a companion to a PBS documentary, describes the history of human energy use over the centuries, proof that high levels of CO2 are causing damage, and alternative energy options. 

The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change by Philip Conkling, Richard B. Alley, Wallace Broecker, and George Denton (MIT Press, April 2011) warns that global temperature spikes occur when climate is changing modes.  The likelihood that an abrupt climate change will occur at any specific time in the future is not known, but such changes have occurred in the past and "we are taking an enormous risk."  Greenland, 90% of it covered by ice, appears poised at the edge of another rapid climate change.  "If the Greenland ice sheet melts, sea level would rise 7 meters-or about 24 feet-worldwide.  In contrast, if the West Antarctic ice sheet melted, sea level would rise 5 meters."  Thus, "in the fate of Greenland lies clues to the fate of the world."  The ice sheet may not fully disintegrate for many centuries, but we might cause enough warming in a few decades "to cross the threshold leading to ice sheet loss."  This extraordinary but overlooked report is written for a general audience, with 70 dramatic color photos of melting ice that are worth the price alone!

Water Security: The Water-Food-Energy-Climate Nexus by the World Economic Forum Water Initiative (World Economic Forum/Island Press, Jan 2011; GFB Book of the Month, April 2011) warns of "a spiraling lack of fresh water" worldwide, as demand surges while groundwater dries up, aggravated by the extreme weather events (drought, floods) produced by climate change.  The World's Water 2011-2012 by Peter H. Gleick (Island Press, June 2011), is an authoritative biennial report on freshwater resources, first published in 1998-1999, with emphasis on critical global trends and the effects of fossil fuel production on water resources.

7) Global Outlooks
The-Unfinished-Global-Revolution The Unfinished Global Revolution by former UN deputy secretary-general and World Bank VP Mark Malloch-Brown (Penguin, Feb 2011) notes that the central predicament of the 21st century is that, as we become more integrated, we also become less governed, and that US domestic problems increasingly have international roots.  More powerful global institutions are needed to underpin a globalist agenda of human rights, rule of law, and opportunity for all.  These globalist values are explored in greater detail in 2011 State of the Future by Jerome Glenn, Theodore J. Gordon, and Elizabeth Florescu (Millennium Project, Aug 2011), the 15th annual edition of a unique and ambitious project that seeks to improve understanding of global issues and opportunities through a network of 40 worldwide project Nodes involving more than 700 people.  The report features 15 Global Challenges summarized in compact two-page reports on sustainable development, clean water, population growth, democracy, making IT work for all, ethical market economies, improving decision-making capacity, empowering women, reducing terrorism and ethnic conflict, transnational organized crime, growing energy demands, etc.  [For extensive analysis of the 2010 SOF report, see GFB Book of the Month, Sept 2010.] 


Another global overview is hidden in Israeli Statecraft: National Security Challenges and Responses by Club of Rome member and former RAND analyst Yehezkel Dror (Routledge, July 2011; GFB Book of the Month, Sept 2011), who discusses a sobering list of ten long-term "global mega-trends" in Chapter 5 (intensified faiths, rising Islam, more influence of non-state actors, intensified and proliferating kill and damage capacity, more competition for resources, declining US hegemony, slowly strengthened but inadequate global governance, etc.), identifies possible "ruptures" such as serious global action on climate issues, and surveys a wide range of Israeli national security issues in this context. 


Three other recurring assessments deserve noting.  2011 World Population Data Sheet by Carl Haub (Population Reference Bureau, July 2011), although not a book, is a large and very informative wall chart with copious data for all regions and nations in 19 categories, including population projections (today's 7 billion world total will grow to 8.1 billion by 2025 and to 9.6 billion by 2050).   Freedom in the World 2011 by Freedom House (Rowman and Littlefield, Jan 2011), a detailed annual survey of political rights and civil liberties published since 1972, notes "the fifth consecutive year in which global freedom suffered a decline" and increasing truculence of authoritarian regimes. Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 from the UN Environment Programme (United Nations Publications, Feb 2011) worries that "the diversity of living things on the planet continues to be eroded as a result of human activities," and that drivers of biodiversity loss "are much worse than previously thought."  Is anyone listening?

Four individual statements about the global economy encourage re-thinking.  The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy  by Harvard political economist Dani Rodrik (W. W. Norton, Feb 2011; GFB Book of the Month, Feb 2011) argues that the fundamental trilemma of the world economy is that we cannot simultaneously pursue democracy, national determination, and economic globalization; the ultimate paradox is that re-empowering national democracies will place the world economy on a safer and healthier footing and enable smarter globalization via a thin layer of international rules.  The Post-American World: Release 2.0 by Time editor-at-large Fareed Zakaria (W. W. Norton updated edition, May 2011, with a new Afterword) describes "the rise of everyone else" relative to the US, with special attention to China, India, and Brazil.  But this is not true for all countries, as described in Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, directors of the MIT Poverty Lab (Public Affairs, April 2011), who question the assumptions and harmful misperceptions underlying efforts to help the world's poor.  The Plundered Planet: Why We Must-and How We Can-Manage Nature for Global Prosperity (Oxford U Press, Nov 2011) by Paul Collier, an Oxford economist and author of "The Bottom Billion," argues for international standards to help poor countries rich in natural assets to better manage their resources, and policy changes to raise world food supply. But this is a relatively narrow view.

A far broader view of environmental degradation is provided in World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse by Lester R. Brown (W. W. Norton, Jan 2011; GFB Book of the Month, Jan 2011; download at who warns of a "perfect storm" ahead of food and water shortages, accelerating climate change and melting ice, eroding soils and expanding deserts, shrinking forests, spreading hunger, and more failing states.  The world is seen in overshoot mode, and it would take 1.5 Earths to sustain our current consumption, but mainstream economics does not register this.  Brown updates his idealized "Plan B" to save civilization, the focus of several recent books, calling for a massive cut in carbon emissions by 2020, stabilizing world population at 8 billion, ending poverty, and restoring forests, soils, aquifers, and fisheries.  Similarly, The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History by Australian futurist Richard A. Slaughter (Foresight International, Jan 2011) explains how "humanity has collectively outgrown its world" in the Anthropocene Era, dangers of overshoot and collapse, the Gaia hypothesis, failures of neo-liberalism, negative impacts of globalization and the Internet, etc.  But who is waking up?  The sticky "wake-up" problem is illuminated in Paths to a Green World: The Political Economy of the Global Environment (MIT Press, second edition, May 2011; GFB Book of The Month, May 2011), by Canadian political scientists Jennifer Clapp and Peter Dauvergne, who describe four competing environmental worldviews, each with useful insights and potential solutions: Market Liberals grounded in neoclassical economics, Institutionalists who seek stronger global institutions and norms, Bioenvironmentalists who stress biological limits and carrying capacity, and Social Greens who oppose large-scale industrial life and grossly unequal patterns of consumption.

Finally, War on Drugs (, June 2011), a 24-page statement by the Global Commission on Drug Policy signed by Kofi Annan and several other notables (including George P. Schultz and past presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico), states that, 50 years after the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world." It calls for breaking "the taboo on debate and reform," because spending on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displaces more cost-effective and evidence-based investments.  Also see Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know by UCLA public policy prof Mark A.R. Kleiman et al. (Oxford U Press, July 2011) and The Nation Special Issue,
"Dare to End the War on Drugs" (27 Dec 2010, 11-44).

A Final Word...


This survey covering best current affairs books of 2011 is both too long and too short.  It may be overwhelming to many readers, who would like just one or two books to sum it all up (there aren't any), and yet there are hundreds of other well-informed and informative books on global and US issues, and a total of more than 1,000 to choose from published in 2011 alone.  It certainly reaffirms the "flood" that James Gleick describes in the initial book mentioned here.   
Gleick complains that the old ways of organizing knowledge no longer work.  This best books listing suggests one new way that may be useful.  Ideally, to promote better learning and re-thinking for both professionals and citizens, a Current Affairs Best-Seller List is needed apart from the Non-Fiction listing that is overwhelmed by more pleasurable histories and biographies.  Even better, a best-seller listing and/or top picks suggested by experts is needed for every sector and major issue area.  The missing elephant described by Donald Michael may never be fully understood, but some attempt at sketchy appreciation of the shifting and interlinked elephants is better than none.    

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