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Three books that made me

By John Töns - posted Thursday, 5 January 2012

I guess I first became aware of language when I migrated to Australia. As an eleven year old I was rather perplexed to find that English was taught at school. I could understand that I needed to be taught English but the rest of the class – they could all speak English so why did they need to learn it? We tend to take the miracle of language for granted but for those of you who share my wonderment at delight with language this book is for you. This book is the companion to the BBC series Planet Word (no idea if there are plans to show it here.)

This book gives us a Cook’s tour of the world’s languages, its oddities and some of the major questions that still trouble linguists. Wittgenstein claimed “The limits of my Language are the Limits of My World” (Tractatus) and certainly there is plenty of evidence in this book that our language can shape our perception of the world. For example we tend to assume that all languages have the equivalent of ‘left’ and ‘right’ yet in some languages people see themselves as such an integral part of the landscape that instead of using left and right they have developed some sort of geographical system that describes everything in terms of its location within the landscape.

Planet Word is by no means the last word on language but the sort of book that will give you plenty of material to liven up any dull dinner party.


Ariely’s Predictably Irrational has been around for a few years but it is well worth the read. Ariely is a behavioural economist that means that he tests the assumptions that economists make. If you google Dan Ariely you will get access to lots of examples of the sort of research that is covered in this book. For example bankers’ bonuses have been a bone of contention for some time. Bankers and Economists will argue that it is these bonuses which give them the incentive to perform. Ariely discovered that no-one had actually tested that assumption so he decided to test whether the bonuses actually made a difference.

Given that bankers are getting paid to solve problems creatively under pressure he decided to put some Indian Villagers in a similar position. He paid them the equivalent of 6 months income if they solved a set of problems within a strict time limit. If they failed to solve it they would have had to return the money. The idea of being able to earn 6 months income in half an hour was enough to turn their brains to jelly – they simply could not even come close to solving the problem. (One did have a unique solution – he simply ran off with the money!) His research confirmed that we cannot be ‘creative’ on command. When confronted with the research the bankers simply asserted that they were different – they could not be compared to poor Indian peasants. As a footnote he also discovered that in the last three months of the year the bankers seemed to spend a lot of time going through spreadsheets to calculate the likely bonus to which they would be entitled.

From bankers to Heinberg’s The End of Growth. Heiberg’s thesis can be simply stated. We have created a global economy that is dependent on fossil fuels. When we look at the rate we are consuming these finite resources we can expect those resources to run out within a matter of decades. We may be able to make them last into the next century but only if we manage to reduce our consumption and there are no signs of that happening. His is by no means a pessimistic account of the future but a realistic account; if we heed the warnings we can survive the end of growth. However, given the way politicians of both the left and right are fixated on the need for the economy to continue to grow it is little wonder that many communities are setting up their own micro-economies to enable them to survive the inevitable economic collapse.

On the face of it these are three very different books. Yet there is a unifying thread. Ariely’s research has highlighted that our common sense view of the world is by no means reliable. Davidson’s Planet Word has alerted us to the need that we may need to change the way we talk about the economy so that we become more attuned to the need to develop a stable economic system. And of course Heinberg provides us with the evidence we need to challenge the idea that ongoing economic growth is necessarily a good thing.


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This is a review of: 

Planet Word, JP Davidson. (Penguin 2011)

Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely. (Harper Collins 2008)

The End Of Growth, Richard Heinberg.

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About the Author

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.

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