Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Three Faces of Politics: Peak Oil, Local Food and the Fall of the Iron Curtain

Last weekend I finished three books that I’ve been reading for a while. Two of them turned out to be very long reading projects, being read over several months. The third took only a matter of weeks.

Choosing Eden tells the story of a middle aged couple whose concern about “peak oil” led them to a radical life-style change. Realising that the world’s oil reserves were less than secure and that the days of “cheap” oil are well and truly over, the couple bought a farm near Coffs Harbour, intending to prepare for the time when oil can no longer be relied upon. Considering that our western lifestyles are totally reliant upon oil, not only for fuel but as an ingredient for medicines, fertilisers, man made materials, toiletry products and countless other essentials, the oil crisis that can not be avoided will have a devastating impact.

The couple in question featured a while ago on an Australian TV series “The Real Seachange” in which their move from city to country was observed.

My copy of the book came as a freebie with the purchase of an issue of Gardening Australia magazine; a free offer that seems to have been restricted to purchases of the magazine from Woolworths. As a subscriber to GA I missed out on the book and had to purchase another copy of an issue I already owned so I could get my hands on the “free” book.

I have a particular interest in this kind of book because I started a similar journey myself three years ago when I moved from Sydney to a country town 4 hours to the west. My ambitions are on a much smaller scale, choosing to wrestle with an average sized garden instead of a farm of many acres.

In the end I was disappointed with the book. I felt there was too much emphasis on “peak oil” and not enough on the actual experience of two city folk becoming farmers. It got to the stage where the term “peak oil” was becoming extremely irritating. However it was THEIR story told as THEY felt it needed to be told and I cannot expect a book to be written to satisfy what I would like to read about. Instead of having that attitude I should have read a different book that DID look more at practical solutions rather than continually point out problems.

Fortunately I found the book taking the approach I prefered: Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle.

Kingsolver’s book was one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a very long time. It is a witty and informative look at a year in her family’s life during which they chose to rely on food grown in their local area instead of following the extravagant but common practice of eating unseasonal produce shipped from around the world to our supermarkets.

The book follows the family’s year as “locavores” and includes many recipes utilising seasonal food. While Barbara Kingsolver takes care of most of the book’s content, her daughter provides the recipes and her husband interjects occasionally to address some of the technical and political issues affecting food production and marketing. As a new inductee to the world of gardening and backyard food production, I could identify with a lot of the experiences shared in the book. In particular I can understand why a community that is still secure enough to leave doors of cars and houses unlocked for most of the year needs to change that practice during zucchini season (read the book to find the answer).

The third is the only fictional book. Snowleg by Nicholas Shakespeare has its setting in East and West Germany, both before and after the fall of the iron curtain. It follows a young man’s life after he finds out that the man he grew up knowing as his dad was not in fact his father. Instead he was the son of an East German man with whom his mother had a brief affair prior to meeting her husband. From that point onwards, Peter tries to identify more with his German roots.
After finishing school he starts medical studies at a German University. When the opportunity arises for him to visit East Germany, he hopes to make tentative investigations into the fate of his father. In the process Peter himself becomes involved with an East German who he only knows by his anglicising of her family nickname: “Snowleg”.

The rest of the book is about Peter trying to deal with the memory and consequences of his brief relationship with “Snowleg” until the reunification of the two Germanys makes it possible for him to (eventually) try to find her again.

Overall I found the book disappointing. The potential for an intriguing story was definitely there, but to me it didn’t fulfil that potential. The author did a good job of setting up his story, and he knew where he wanted it to lead – but he didn’t seem to know what to do with the middle bit. To me it seemed like a lot of padding with some low credible sex scenes thrown in to try to maintain the reader’s attention. Maybe I live in different circles, but Peter seemed to find far too many women who were willing to get intimate with him as soon as they met him. Was it a case of an author vicariously satisfying his own fantasies?

Another problem I had was the books predictability. I saw some of what was ahead long before it was purposely revealed by the author. And Steven, despite being a medical student (and later a doctor) which I would assume demands an above average intelligence, didn’t seem able to take the simplest logical action when required. For example, immediately after his return to the west he tried to re-establish contact with Snowleg by writing to her. But he addressed the letters to a place that offered very little hope of reaching her; a University to which she had hoped to be admitted but she had told him, due to political issues, had been denied entry. Why didn’t he address them to the place where he first saw her, a place he knew she regularly frequented?

The final disappointment was the book’s conclusion. After slowly building up a little tension, the potential is hurriedly snuffed out within a couple of concluding sentences, failing to give the payoff required from such a build up.

Clearly I felt the book could have been much better, but I DID get to the end, and at the moment that is a very important factor.

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