Book Review of The Story of More and Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

It has been a while since my last blog post in this second decade of the 21st century. We have all been occupied with the Covid 19 virus and finding time to read anything besides escapist literature has been difficult along with trying to keep a little subsistence farm afloat but winter has hit the Wyoming mountains early and with the landscape turning snowy dark and deep, I am finding time to reflect upon these changes to our region and the planet. This book by Hope Jahren PhD, a Minnesotan living in Norway was a pleasant perspective.

Hope Jahren PhD is an utterly engaging and easy to read author of scientific subjects. Her first Book “Lab Girl” was a NYT bestseller dealing with her scientific and teaching career.
The Story of More is her latest short book published this year(2020). The sub title”How we got to climate change and where to go from here” is in some ways incomplete but I’ll give you her slow to evolve conclusions: Burning fossil fuels releasing carbon dioxide is generating global warming. ‘’ll also give you her “where to go from here” segment: USE LESS and SHARE MORE.”:
The structure of the book is uniquely hers if not anthropocentric. She was born in 1969 in a small town in southern Minnesota whose economy had one big employer, the “Hog Kill”, a meat processor operating in a rural region encircled by Corn and soybean fields. She uses her 51 years to show how the world had changed in her 51 years. Early in the book she said we have 4 resources: “Earth, the sky, the ocean and ourselves”. This is not a unique idea as the ancients said the key elements were earth, air, fire, and water. Notice that the ancients did not consider “ourselves” an important element nor do I. I regard “ourselves” as part of the problem.
Hope breaks her book into 4 parts: (1)Life, who, how and where we are
(2)Food: for these inhabitants: grains, meat fish. (3) Energy: and its impacts on us and the planet and and (4) more impacts on same, including melting icecaps, rising seas, changing weather etc..
Her book is an extensive data recital of human resource consumption of the planet and the alterations it has induced. She uses no footnotes but offers a complete source list of her data at the end of the book, She includes no graphs or pictures which might have been useful. Her writing style is conversational and digresses at times into her upbringing and teaching and research career and unrelated topics such as her chapter on high fructose corn syrup and its impact on diet and health.
Her conclusions and recommendations at the end mirror the title. She says that the world population has doubled since she was born in 1969 and that it will probably “never have less than 7 billion people.” Her recommendation to solve these looming risks to the planet are an egalitarian sharing of these resources as a means of combating inequality of access to opportunity, health, education and communal happiness. It is a sunny view of life reflecting her optimistic outlook.
I feel that as a reviewer I must point out shortcomings and omissions in her treatise.
My biggest critique of her book is that while she has an entire section dealing with Energy, she misses its significance on how it altered the world in the last 250 years of the Industrial Revolution. She misses the WHY and HOW of the changes on the earth wrought by the availability of the unexpected but the all too brief energy bonanza of fossil fuels. For example the population explosion occurred first and foremost because of the availability of industrial food production, processing, and distribution of food and goods made possible by the concentrated energy of Oil, particularly diesel oil. She also makes the common mistake of how many of these fossil resources remain to be discovered and consumed as she conflates “resources” and “reserves.” Nowhere in the book does she address the Economy and the role of energy. Bluntly, Energy IS the Economy and energy consumption is the root of all the positive and negative changes it has made to the human civilization and the natural world. She may very well be aware of all of this but it is absent from the book. She entirely lacks an ecological perspective of the world and all its living components such as the concept of “carrying capacity” or “Overshoot and collapse.” Reference her statement that “The earth may never have less than 7 billion people.” Hope Jahren gets many factors well integrated into her arguments but her naively optimistic Kumbaya conclusions at the end of the book were unconvincing to this reader.

I include a review of Hope’s first book, Lab Girl because I regard them as companion reads.

Binging during the current Covid pandemic has been a popular pastime for many of us but instead of binging on Netflix I have been binging on Hope Jahren and it has been a wild ride indeed. I started with her newest book, the Story of More and moved backward to her wonderful wacky and informative Lab Girl. Lab Girl is a manic and compelling gallop through her varied and tumultuous and rich life, part memoir, part Botany textbook, part biography of her remarkable partner Bill(Bill WHO?).  She flits in and out and forward and back from her stolid  Norwegian Minnesota  upbringing at the knee of her scientist teacher father whom she adored. The book follows her journey through college at U of Minnesota to graduate work at Berkeley and a succession of teaching and research jobs  in Atlanta, Johns Hopkins ,Norway and U of Hawaii. In all of these places she sets up housekeeping in her self- constructed labs ably assisted by her pal, chum, research fellow, Bill the Armenian, as quirky a character as you are ever likely to meet.  The book is most remarkable for its unique structure of short chapters revealing detailed and fascinating vignettes of the secret life of plants overlaid upon her unpredictable and rash hijinks  in and out of her labs. I called her life a manic gallop and it becomes apparent that her mania is real because she is bipolar. She is also a genius at word and sentence construction explaining complex scientific matters to complexity of emotions all the while trying to prevail in a man’s world. She reminds me of Ginger Rogers who did every dance move of Fred Astaire but did it backward and in heels! There is little stability  and security in most of Hope’s life but somehow she wings it and manages to soar to the kind of heights only possible to a person who has total confidence in her abilities as a scientist,  a woman, and even a wife and a mother.

    One advantage of reading an authors’ book out of chronology is seeing the germ of the next book growing within the first. In her Epilogue she writes” Our world is falling apart quietly. Human civilization has reduced the plant, a four hundred million-year-old life form into three things: food, medicine, and wood. In our relentless and ever intensifying obsession with obtaining a higher volume, potency, and variety of these three things, we have devastated plant ecology to an extent that millions of years of natural disaster could not.” There you are: The Story of More. Lab Girl’s companion book. Read this 5 star book and The Story of More with or without your mask. Social isolation and distancing was never so much fun.

Published by Rendezvous Mountain Farm

I was born in Cascade county Montana and raised in a dozen Air Force SAC bases. I attended Holy Cross,West Point and UNC in Chapel Hill(MD"71). Army doc in the last years of the Viet Nam fiasco. My wife and I live in a log cabin I built from standing dead lodgepole trees we cut from Shadow Mountain and regional local timber in 1976 . I've done a dozen different jobs including construction, boat building,magazine writing and commercial fishing and retired from the Emergency and Operating Room in 2004. We manage a small diversified organic farm including leased land which totals about 40 acres in the Jackson Hole valley. We raise a variety of livestock which includes some heritage breeds of animals and poultry. We grow most of our food and forage. Our land is irrigated from Granite Creek and the Snake River and we raise and bale our own organic hay. We supplement with food collected from Jackson Hole Food rescue which is mostly dairy, bread and past date vegetables and food from the grocery stores and restaurants.

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