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International Women's Day, Three of my Favorite Books by Three Amazing Women

By Manoel Chavanne

As you probably already know today is International Women's Day so to celebrate these astonishing humans making our lives substantially better today's column will not be Ukraine-centric for once and I will recommend some of my favorite books written by women. Although not directly related to Ukraine the concepts and ideas behind the three books apply everywhere, including in this wonderful country.

Educated by Tara Westover

Tara Westover receiving an award at the White House

Tara Westover's writing is absolutely fantastic and her life story even more so. Her dad was a conspiracy theorist, survivalist who believed the government was after him and his family so he prevented his children from going to school and had them help around the farm instead. They were supposedly home schooled but in practice very little, if any, time was spent on formal education at the family farm and the kids constantly had to help their father do more or less crazy things. Westover's dad also doesn't believe in hospitals or doctors so they grew up in complete isolation in the middle of nowhere, Idaho.

In this outstanding memoir Westover recounts how while growing up in this insane environment one of her older brothers encouraged her to leave the mad house, take the ACT and try to go to college. Despite never having even set foot in a classroom until the age of 17 the author managed to score high enough on the exam to get a full scholarship to attend Brigham Young University. She eventually graduated with honors before continuing her studies and earning a Master's degree from Cambridge University in the UK. To add a cherry on the cake in 2014 she ultimately got a doctorate, also from Cambridge, in intellectual history. This amazing page-turner was published in 2018 and it's packed full with anecdotes each more unbelievable than the next. A highly recommended number 1 New York Times bestseller.

The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain by Tali Sharot

In case you haven't guessed based on its title this is a book about the human brain, how it works, what are some of its flaws and what we can do about it. A fabulous topic covered by an excellent author. Tali Sharot is a first-class professor of cognitive neuroscience at some of the most prestigious universities in the world, MIT and the University College of London. She has conducted extensive research on the human brain, specifically on the optimism bias and how emotions influence us more than data and facts.

In this fascinating read Sharot explains cutting-edge science in accessible terms, what the optimism bias is, why it had evolutionary benefits to be unrealistically optimistic and how nowadays it is dangerous in many situations. A famous, but both funny and revealing, example of the optimism bias is that in a survey in which people were asked to asses their driving abilities a whopping 93% said they were above average. Sadly this can have serious negative consequences as drivers are likely to underestimate the risk of getting involved in a car accident.

There are countless other interesting scientific discoveries discussed in the book so I'll just share a couple of them. One such example is the influence expectations of others can have on outcomes, employees will be more productive if employers expect them to be for instance. Another neuroscientist proved that just by priming people with certain words you could impact their performance, subjects primed with words such as “clever, smart or intelligent” overperformed while those primed with “dumb, stupid or daft” underperformed. Another example covered is the value of anticipation and the cost of dread. This is why most people value Friday above Sunday, because on Friday you anticipate the upcoming weekend while on Sunday you dread Monday morning. Sharot mentions an experiment where people chose to receive a more powerful and therefore more painful electric shock now rather than a smaller, less painful one later. Her second book, The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others is equally good by the way.

Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet by Kerryn Higgs

Kerryn Higgs is an Australian writer and historian who taught at various universities in her native country. As the title implies endless growth on a finite planet is an impossible proposition, Higgs masterfully demonstrates what she calls a “massively inconvenient truth” in this masterpiece published by MIT press in 2014.

As a trained historian the author first walks us through the origins of growth acknowledging that it can be beneficial up to a certain point. She then magnificently links growth to consumerism and portraying human beings as consumers first and foremost. She goes on to explain “growth was not promoted by governments as a policy objective during the first half of the twentieth century, though it was always prized and pursued by business. Yet business had grown nervous about overproduction by the early 1920s and had taken steps to ratchet up the level of consumption in response.” These steps involved manufacturing consent through advertising, public relations, think tanks and “Economic Education” the term used by corporations to push books supporting their economic interests in schools, universities, book stores and libraries.

Higgs also traces the history of GDP and how it is a terrible measure of prosperity, progress and even less so happiness or well-being. The graph at the top supports this finding as a clear asymptote could be drawn after the sharp improvements provided by early GDP growth these quickly level off around 7/10. This annoying fact has been known since the existence of GDP as the Nobel laureate who invented it almost a century ago, Simon Kuznets, testified in front of the US Congress in the 1930s to warn that “social well-being cannot be inferred from national income and that the question “growth of what and for whom?” would always need to be asked.” We have regrettably not heeded this great piece of advice by the architect of GDP himself and regularly hear politicians from all parties call for unquestioned GDP growth as if it automatically improved the well-being or happiness of the population.

The never ending pursuit of growth is the leading cause of the environmental predicament we find ourselves in (climate change, biodiversity loss, mass extinction, dead zones, soil degradation etc...) as confirmed by the findings of what probably are the most robust scientific papers ever produced. Authored by hundreds of scientists from around the world before being fact-checked and peer reviewed multiple times by thousands of experts, the IPCC reports. If you're not familiar with the IPCC and their reports I strongly suggest you read the comprehensible summaries I've written with a team of volunteer scientists here. The report is broken up in 3 short parts, the Physical Science, Adaptation and Mitigation.

We're now back to the “massively inconvenient truth” coined by Higgs but recognized by the corporate world, which is why it spends billions in greenwashing campaigns and front groups such as Global Climate Coalition, which does the opposite of what it says on the tin, it's a group dedicated to minimizing concerns about climate change and purely funded by corporate donors to protect corporate interests and profit margins. Corporations have also funded anti-environmental research to confuse the public, as splendidly proven in Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. “Doubt is our product” stated the tobacco industry when facing its crisis and it managed to gain decades between the time scientists knew that tobacco caused cancer and the time serious stringent government regulations were put in place. The same tactics have been in use for decades against environmentalism.

Powerful corporations have been using SLAPP lawsuits (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) to silence NGOs, journalists, academics, researchers or individuals who criticize them. Basically the idea is to force aforementioned defendants to spend time and money preparing against frivolous lawsuits to prevent them from organizing, writing, researching or exposing polluting corporations. The press also plays a role in all of this often wanting to present themselves as “objective” they want to show the public “both sides” of the issue but this only work for opinions, when one side's conclusions are based on decades of scientific research and the other are based on pure ideology of maintaining the status-quo because one benefits from it the two cannot be presented on the same footing.

Collision Course manages to artfully demonstrate the points I've summarized above and more in an extremely thorough yet entertaining and persuasive way. This is one of the best books I've ever read as it gave me a greater understanding of history, completely changed my worldview and, I believe, made me a better more compassionate person for it.

Finally, this article being an International Women's Day's special I'd like to dedicate it to the two women I grew up with, my mom and sister, as they have both greatly influenced my life and emphatically contributed to making me who I am.


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