Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Book Review: You Are Here

I wanted to take a moment to review a book I just read called You Are Here: Exposing the Vital Link Between What We Do and What That Does to Our Planet

I am of mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I think the message is a vital one. The author, Thomas M. Kostigen takes journeys to some of the most environmental fragile and ravaged places on the planet. He shows us directly the outcomes of our actions, the actions we take on a daily basis. It's depressing as all hell. If you want to feel like you should just drown yourself in your Yerba Mate', by all means pick up this book. I know the author means really really well, and his most urgent hope is that by reading this we will feel called to act. Unfortunately, he doesn't tie what he's seeing and experience to direct and very real things that each of us can do. He tries to, but this is where the book falls completely flat.

In some places, he makes sweeping pronouncements that most anyone who would buy this book probably already knows, like "We've yet to realize that the global village people have talked about is for so long is here. Now the question is, how do we all live together and make the best of it?"

In other places, he offers us vague and unachievable aims like "With an oil palm sustainability label on products, consumers could make informed choices about the products they eat and/or buy at the supermarket. It's these types of solutions that will make the difference" So, how exactly am I supposed to get such a label on products, how does that "expose the vital link" between my actions and the outcome (deforestation in Borneo due to palm oil plantations).

But my biggest beef with this book is the shoddy quality of the writing. God, are there no book editors left on this planet?

Check out this "paragraph" for an example:

From an environmental perspective, the past is the best measure of things to come. It always has been. Certain weather cycles exist as they have for centuries. Certain wind patterns occur at the same time each year. On a very basic level, the change of seasons informs us of temperature changes because we've experienced those seasons before. Think about the first time someone lived through winter. I bet the next year they buttoned up.

I dare you to give me the author's theme for that paragraph! What the heck is he trying to say? is something I asked myself frequently while reading this book. Sometimes I had to go back and read a paragraph over to make sense out of it.

Here's another example:
Still, exaggeration and alarmism are too frequent in environmental writings. Like everything, the conditions that plague Mumbai are complicated and consist of many factors, not just one or a few. We are, after all, talking about a society that has existed for five thousands years. But there are parallels and there are consequences, which are very real. We can take preventative steps -- even little ones count.

If not for the political slant of this book, I would wonder if it was ghost written by George W. Bush, so convoluted and confusticating is the prose. And after that last little homily about little steps counting, the author fails to name even one that we could take, to avoid whatever he's talking about in Mumbai. Instead, he jumps right on to another subject.

All in all, this book shows some interesting things. The author has taken bold steps to visit logging camps in Borneo or remote villages in Alaska that are sliding into the sea. But aside from making us all want to slit our wrists in depression, he accomplishes nothing whatsoever with this journey that he takes us on. What I would love to see is real actions tied to the horrific environmental catastrophes that he takes us to.

Bottom line: not recommended. Treehugging, spotted-owl-saving, recycling liberals will be depressed and non-liberals will just be confused.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to read your thoughts on this - I just started it (finally!) a couple days ago but have been so crazy-busy at work that I only got a few pages into it. Did you think that his assertions were unsupported/vague? That is one of the things that bug me the most in some books. That, and talking/writing in the abstract so that its hard to take away a point of view. I plan to give the book a try for a while more, but do have my antennae up....

Cat said...

Thank you for your review! I've had this book on my list of 'to read' and after hearing your take on it, it's going to be removed. I've got entirely too much reading that I want to do and very little free time in which to do it. Thanks for getting me one book closer to a manageable list!

Robin said...

@Cat: Glad to be of service. I got so far into it I felt I had to finish it, but I wouldn't start it if I was you. I know what you mean about the book list!

@MangoChild. I don't think he makes vague or unsupported assertions. He's really good about going straight to the source on all kinds of issues and seeing them with his own eyes. That's the amazing part of the book. But it's all just depressing and not tied to any solutions whatsoever.