Category Archives: book reviews

Book Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Duhigg , C. (2012) The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and businessNew York: Random House

powerofhabitThis is one of those books by a middle-class middle-aged American where (Gladwell, Gawande, Hertsgaard etc etc). They interview lots of people, they read lots of academic literature, they write very well (with knowingess that plays a game of tag with cynicism, avoiding the C word, generally [but not in the example below!]) and bish-bosh, you have a 250-ish page book. It will contain, in some ratio, some stuff that is banal, much that is obvious (but was hidden), a little that’s tendentious and two or three killer anecdotes that you can use as they were intended or twist to your own purposes.

Here Duhigg is looking at routines that we live by, at the personal level, the organisational level and the social level. He writes fluently, and is good on Paul O’Neill and how his safety culture transformed Alcoa, thanks to unexpected fringe benefits. Here’s his take on O’Neill’s first speech as CEO.

The audience was confused. These meetings usually followed a predictable script: A new CEO would start with an introduction, make a faux self-deprecating joke – something about how he slept his way through Harvard Business School – then promise to boost profits and lower costs. Next would come an excoriation of taxes, business regulations, and sometimes with a fervor that suggested firsthand experience in divorce courts, lawyers. Finally, the speech would end with blizzard of buzzwords – “synergy,” “rightsizing,” and “co-opetition” – at which point everyone could return to their offices, reassured that capitalism was safe for another day. Page 98

O’Neill believed that some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization. Some habits, in other words, mater more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate.Page 100

Duhigg is good on how Starbucks helps employees deal with ratty customers, and he’s excellent on the 1987 Kings Cross Tube fire, a story that they should be teaching in kindergartens everywhere. [Here’s a blog post on that.]

His section on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott should be required for every 21st century facebooker who casually uses Parks and the Black Civil Rights movement to prop up their own sense of self-righteousness and deluded hope for easy social change.

What is missing? A strong sense that we live in a reality distortion field. Power is about making people see just what is needed for them to see. Those who can force others to act (and therefore, usually, ultimately see) in the prescribed ways, end up with the spoils, at least in the short term. Lukes and all that. And the underlying question of what to DO about that is tricky indeed. I fear we are always pack animals, dependent on the tribe for both physical and “psychological” (the term can be misused, anachronistically) safety.

The costs of telling the truth are high, and fall on individuals. It is “safer” to keep schtum, even when everybody knows the ship is sinking, and everybody knows the captain lied.

See also:

Margaret Heffernan Willful Blindness

Geoffrey Martin Hodgson(born 28 July 1946) is a Research Professor of Business Studies in the University of Hertfordshire, and also the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Institutional Economics.

Committee on Food Habits (1941-43)


Book Review: “The politics of global atmospheric change” (1995)

Book Review: Rowlands, I. (1995) The politics of global atmospheric change Manchester: Manchester University Press

rowlandsbookThis is one for the geeks only.  If you’re interested in the vicious fights in the 1980s an early 1990s about whether and how “we” would do something about ozone depletion and carbon dioxide build-up, then grab with both ands;  It’s well-written, with a useful format that looks – at both ozone and climate change-  at the Science, Interests, Equity and Catalysts (people and organisations that make stuff happen – or stop it happening). (1)

While it is far too specialised and “out of date” for the general reader, there are lots of useful snippets that help you understand the world.  My favourite is the fact that while scientists got the theory of ozone depletion caused by CFCs, there was an “unnecessary” delay in collecting the evidence.

Indeed, what made it even more unexpected was that the US satellites that had been gathering data over the Antarctic since 1979 had not detected any significant change in ozone levels. The reason being, tit was discerned later, was that the satellites’s computers had been programmed to discard any data that were outside an anticipated range. When the computers were reprogrammed, with this condition removed, they revealed the same pattern of spring-time depletion that had been discovered by the British ground-based stations. As John Gribbin (2) notes:

“The point is that in the late 1970s and early 1980s atmospheric scientists were increasingly confident that they understood, more or less, what was going on in the atmosphere. Both the chemistry and the dynamics of air movements were being analysed in more detail than ever before, and a coherent picture was emerging. But nowhere in that coherent picture was there even a hint that a dramatic change like the development of a huge hole in the ozone layer could occur.”

Rowlands (1995) Page 55

So, we are so sure of our theories that we misidentify signal as noise on occasion.  #hairlessape #epicfail.

Rowlands also quotes a New Scientist  journo on the subject of (science) policy entrepreneurs

“It could be argued that, if Bob Watson had been hit by a bus in 1980, we would not now have a treaty to save the ozone layer…. Watson did not discover the hole in the ozone layer, calculate how CFCs reach the stratosphere, or write the models that predict the damage. What he did do, however, was to bring the scientists who did that work together to reach a consensus on what was happening.  He then helped to translate what they said into a language that politicians could not obfuscate or ignore.  The result was the ozone treaty.”

Debora MacKenzie, How to use science and influence people New Scientist, 122 29 April 1989, page 69

That’s not Watson’s only service to an indifferent species. He also took over the reins of the IPCC from Bert Bolin in 1997. George W Bush got rid of him as soon as he could.


(1) There’s a super useful chronology of the politics of both ozone layer depletion and of climate change (the two issues overlap in profound ways)

(2) Gribbin, J. (1988) The Hole in the Sky: Man’s Threat to the Ozone Layer (London, Corgi Books, p. 95)

Book Review: Bert Bolin’s “A History of the Science and Politics of Climate Change”

Bolin, B. (2007) A History of the Science and Politics of Climate Change: The Role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 277 pages

Cover TemplateClimate scientists, despite what you read thanks to the well-funded denialist lobby, are cautious souls.  Probably none has been more reluctant to succumb to the apocalyptic language that now seems accurate that the Swedish climatologist Bert Bolin (1925-2007).   Bolin was present at the discovery.  From the late 1950s onwards he was involved in figuring out what impact throwing huge amounts of previously buried carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would have.   He was there in leading roles at the key meetings in the late 70s through to the mid-80s (especially Villach 1985). When a  safe pair of hands was needed for the role of chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1988-), he was the logical choice.

Part one – the first four chapters-  quickly covers the “early history of the climate change issue” up to the 1980s.

Part two – the next seven chapters – covers the period from 1988 to 1997, from the first global alarms through to the Kyoto Protocol’s negotiation.   This is the period he was IPCC chair, and he gives good detail on how the IPCC’s assessment reports were  created, and how the IPCC interacted with the preparations for the Rio “Earth Summit” and beyond.  He also covers the shameful attacks on scientists like Ben Santer by the highly motivated (and fossil-fuel funded) “libertarians” of the George Marshall Institute etc.

His book is modest to the point of self-effacement, and chock full of fascinating (and for my PhD v. useful) anecdotes about the gory detail of those attacks and the fair-minded responses that the IPCC gave, to limited effect.  There are, also, as with any historical book on climate change, moments where you gasp and weep at how much we knew, and wanted to do, but then DIDN’T do.  The Angela Merkel cameos (she led the Berlin meeting in 1995) are a good example of this.

There are a couple of typos (e.g. the chairman of the Global Climate Coalition is given as both Shlaes and Schlaes) and points where a fact checker with OCD might have been useful (e.g. the George Marshall Institute was not “recently formed” by the 1990s- it was set up in 1984 to shill for Ronald Reagan’s absurd “Strategic Defence Initiative” – “Star Wars” to you and me). Overall though, if you want to know about how we got into this godawful mess – how the science has been attacked from day one, the constant low-level harassment of scientists (with occasional flare-ups) – then I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Also worth reading on this

The Discovery of Global Warming by Spencer Weart

The Heat is On and Boiling Point by Ross Gelbspan

The Carbon War by Jeremy Leggett

Merchants of Doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth about issues from tobacco smoke to global warming by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway

Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism by Jacob Darwin Hamblin

Activist Fictions…

The article below appeared in the latest issue of the essential-reading “Peace News.” (subscribe here.)

Activist Fictions

The absurdly handsome activist bit his lip. The Peace News crew were threatening mil-itary action if the final extended deadline for a 2000 word essay on “Activism and Fiction” was missed. The clock was most definitely two minutes to midnight.
He sighed, ran a hand through his thick shoulder-length blond hair, and thought quickly. His hands flew with perfect acuracy across the keyboard. “The four books under review, all by women, are useful and…”


His 5th generation phone, full of apps about buying fair trade, challenging climate denialism, and the daily homily on intersectionality, beckoned.
He considered not answering. It was probably just Sven again, pestering him to come to Stockholm in December to accept that stupid prize. Or else Noam wanting more help with his grammar homework.
He picked up the phone and read the text.

“Why u writing stupid article? Activists shld be out saving world, not reading poxy made-up crap. U enabling their laziness, u moron.”

The deadline be damned! “Who is this? How u get this number?!!”

Straight away the reply: “Well duh, numbskull. I’m your conscience. Call me Jiminy, or Mr Puritan. Or whatevs. U gonna justify yrself? Y u rite abt novels? Real life 2 scary?”

He buried his head in his hands. That’s all he needed – the fourth wall to break down. He’d been warned that if the article wasn’t in the PN inbox by Monday to expect a visit from some very large and short-tempered quakers. Still, he could hardly ignore himself, could he?

He texted back. “Switching to email.” And he wrote

“There are at least three excellent reasons we activists should read fiction about activism.
First, we need to get ideas and inspiration – and heed warnings – from other people’s struggles. Novels can say things about personal and group experiences that articles and non-fiction can’t.
Secondly, you cannot spend your whole life reading local authority plans and corporate responsibility reports and Amnesty International appeals. Or rather, you can, but you’ll burn yourself to a crisp and become so narrow and boring that you are a perfect advert for NOT being an activist.
Thirdly, if the novel is good, you can share it not just with your activist mates, but also with other people who don’t understand what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it. It might inspire them to get involved.

The text response was instant. “#Yrsofullofit. Take your first choice – “Mud” by Nicky Edwards. Written almost 30 yrs ago, and full of stuff about World War One! Er, relevant?!”

The activist first thought ‘don’t feed the troll’, then realised he was the troll. He typed: “It’s a brilliant novel. A young woman who has fallen out of love with the intense activism of the Greenham Common protests meets an elderly woman called Ada whose life she wants to write about. This allows Edwards to write about so much that matters; suffragettes, the personal politics of meetings and communal living, history, memory, the trouble with the trajectories of protest, class and the scars of war. Because it’s the only British novel in the four I’ve chosen, it’s the one I’d try to get everyone to read first. Catch this bit, in which the activist explains the end of the affair –

“OK. Once upon a time there was this big day out at a peace camp, when Janet and Janet and some Johns, but mainly thirty thousand or so Janets went and held hands and sang songs and generally had a good time.”
“…. Lots of adventures for the Janets. But time passes, until it’s a year after that first day out in the country, which so many of our heroines found so inspiring. Almost exactly a year to the day…. Well, our particularly Janet is there, of course, older and a bit more battered and generally fed up to the back teeth with being pushed around in the good cause that has brought everyone out in their thermal underwear again.”
“But still she went.”
“Couldn’t miss it really. Big day out, lots of women there, sense of obligation, not wanting to be left out. All sorts of things.”
“And how was it different from the first time?” Ada was really quite good at this cross-examining business.
“In many ways, not at all. Same thousands of women milling around, looking pretty similar, singing the same song. Same mud, same camera crews, same tail-back of coaches with posters in the windows jamming the Basingstoke road. More police helicopters, more barbed wire, more soldiers and watchtowers and floodlights and guns in evidence. More crackle of walkie-talkies filling up every bit of the airwaves, even the ones the Janets were trying to sing in. But a lot of the same looks on their faces. Untroubled.”
“Like I said, our particular Janet was wandering around feeling rather jaded, and wondering why they all thought the nastiness would go away because they’d turned out in such numbers to be nice all round it, when they’d done the same thing last year and not changed it for the better.”
Ada tutted gently to herself. Not sure how to interpret the noise, I carried on.
“And, of course, Janet felt guilty for being so cynical and making comparisons with the way she always got taken to midnight mass when she went home for Christmas, a pleasant and colourful, but fairly pointless annual ritual.”
page 123

“Great – so u want people to slag off activism now? That’ll really work! (claps).”

The Brad Pitt-lookalike sighed and typed. “No, not slag off, just understand the mechanisms that can lead us astray. It’s easier to do with fiction than impassioned denunciations of the smugosphere. I think. But the other novels are brilliant too! In “Vida” Marge Piercy explains the enormous personal and political costs of being underground after the 60s. Vida and friends were entrapped by an undercover cop (sound familiar) but got away. There’s brilliant stuff about the politics of the Vietnam War movement, the radicalism, the tensions within it. This bit, on burnout, is just perfect.

“She was always late now- running, running, but never arriving. She never went to bed before three in the morning, and she was seldom allowed to sleep past eight. From the time she crawled out till she collapsed in her clothes, she no longer had time to read a book, bake a cake, listen to music, talk idly- and everything was empty palaver that was not about liberation, not about imperialism or racism or Third World struggles, about the war, the war, the war. If she went to the country, it was for a secret meeting or for target practice. When she ran into an old friend, she could think only what skills or contacts they had that were needed, what kind of speaking or fund raising or organising or liaison work they could do. Yet she had no feeling of accomplishment, because every morning in the Times, every evening on television, the war was stronger, and she was closer to exhaustion. They had not done enough they had not risked enough, they had not tried everything, they had not fought hard enough, they had not, because the proof was before her every morning and every evening the war went on. It was raining blood outside whether she looked out the window or not; the blood was splattering down, and the hot wind that blew across the city smelled of ashes, of burning flesh. Obviously they had not tried hard enough if the war still went on.”

“So you get vicarious thrills from wannabe revolutionaries? Really? Weak.”

This Mr Puritan guy was getting tiresome. The activist typed “No, but I can learn from them, no? In the same way I learn from corporate literature of team-building and strategy? And from military techniques for tactics and training? Why not learn from things you don’t agree with? And Piercy isn’t saying Vida is a heroine, just that she’s a human, who has made smart and dumb choices, and sometimes not had space to make choices. The final pages of the book leave me breathless every time I read it.”

“Yeah yeah. What were the other two then?”

“Death is Part of the Process” by Hilda Bernstein. Written during the armed struggle against the Apartheid regime, covering both the 80s but and the 60s, it follows the fates of three different activists – one white, one Indian and one black. It looks at how they are treated differently by the state, how they have different options and how they do – or don’t break – under pressure, what they expect of themselves and others. Again, you will tell me this has nothing to teach about activism in the privileged West. But you’re wrong. And it’s wonderfully written. The scene where one activist has to decide if he stays in the struggle or heads for the door, by simply tearing off a button has stayed with me for 20 years. And then there’s the hardest to find, but in some ways the best. “Local Deities” by Agnes Bushell. Like “Vida”, it deals with the costs of living underground in the United States, and being hunted by all. It’s excellent on race and class too, full of vivid characters who you want to know more about. And, like Vida, it warns against turning anyone into heroes – thus the title.”

“Okay,so this last one – how’d you hear about it if it’s so hard to find?”

The activist wondered if he was winning anyone – least of all his conscience – over. And glanced at the clock. He was almost out of time. He typed. “Well, I read Jennifer Egan‘s “The Invisible Circus”, about a casualty of the 1960s, and checking the Amazon reviews afterwards

“Amazon? And you call yourself a…”

“Chill, I didn’t buy anything! I found mention of Dana Spiotta‘s excellent “Eat the Document” (also on the consequences of violent action for both victims and perpetrators) and a reviewer – rightly – recommended Bushell.

“You done preening yet?”

The activist hit the properties function, and wrote “Still got 300 words. You gonna help?”

“U only wanna write about women? Trying 2 prove non-existent feminist credentials? #shallow, dude.”

The activist grinned. “Men often more into the whole street-fighting thing. But also excellent stuff too. Zodiac by Neal Stephenson, before his books got enormous. Good on the technicalities of nvda sabotage. Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, if you can cope with the casual misogyny, is full of verve and love.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is excellent on strategy and the need for constant re-invention. Just pretend you don’t know about the author’s horrible homophobia, ‘kay?
Cory Doctorow‘s recent Little Brother and Homeland – both set in San Francisco after a terrorist attack, are simply brilliant – great stuff on pleasure, technology, surveillance, courage and politics, with a narrative drive that has you almost devouring the damn books. They deserve a 2000 word review all of their own.”

“Sounds a bit sci-fi. I’ll pass” texted Jiminy, clearly on the back foot.

The activist looked at the clock too. He was winning on both fronts. “Your loss. And sci-fi? How is that a dirty word?? Two must-read trouble-in-utopia novels get that slurred as “sci-fi” should be on the national curriculum. “Woman on the Edge of Time” by the aforementioned Marge Piercy and “The Dispossessed” by Ursula Le Guin. Nobody can call themselves an informed anarchist without having read both, imho. And Le Guin’s short story “The Day before the Revolution” is a brilliant evocation of the cruelty and pleasure of fighting for justice without expecting the day to come.”

“Oh just write the damn article and leave me alone.”

The activist checked his phone. Yep, Sven again. And from Noam four more pleading emails. Time to send this off to Peace News. Activism and fiction indeed.
Disclaimer: Marc Hudson has been called absurd, but never absurdly good-looking. All adverbs and adjectives used in this article should be treated as fiction. And some of the facts. But not the assessment of the novels discussed. Those are good old-fashioned opinions.