Thursday, April 05, 2012

Richard Reese's "What Is Sustainable": reviews and reactions

[Editor's Note: A few months ago Keweenaw Now posted an ad for What is Sustainable, a new book by Richard Reese, a former Keweenaw resident now living in Portland, Oregon. A few years ago Reese was a guest writer for our original Keweenaw Now Web site,, now archived. Recently several of our readers read Reese's book. Joanne Thomas of Allouez, reader and researcher for Keweenaw Now, contacted guest reviewers Patricia Lund, Kate Alvord and Vern Simula and compiled their comments, along with her own, for this article.]

By Joanne Thomas (and contributors)

Richard Reese read hundreds of books for me so that I wouldn't have to, in answering the question implied in his book title.

The "text-book" type material that is a large part of this book is so readable that the audience for this book should be very wide. (I would like to see collegiate environmental/ecology classes pick this one up.)

Richard steered a rather boring subject (to me) about the science/methodology of agriculture into a "story" that propelled me to keep reading. He did so by connecting its extensive "dots" to show its impact on civilization throughout the ages, while examining what civilization means.

Artfully weaving his personal story -- and that of his ancestors -- throughout the book, this author also kept my attention.

These "foundations" of sustainability -- what it has meant through the ages in success and failure, offer new needed insights.

"Worldview" is a big keyword in this book.

Not to be confused with his opinion of what "should be," Reese is reporting on what the cultural mores were (and are) -- mores that can be drastically different from the current "Western" view. This "reporting" re-adjusted the worldview I've had, and twisted and broadened it -- and seems to continue after I read the book!

I related almost totally (save the disuse of indoor plumbing) to how the author lived here in the Copper Country. It was a joy to read about lifestyle habits that I share, the new ideas I could implement, and the philosophy that blends with both.

He has, as well, unearthed much ancient knowledge that is "news" I can use.

If I have any criticism about the book, it is in its "physicality." I would like to hold a lighter book, with thinner paper, maybe with a grayer type, and mute the stark black and white glossy cover. The cover photo of the Indian encampment is the best example that Richard showcases -- on who got that "sustainability" right.*

Patricia Lund of Houghton County offers these remarks about What is Sustainable:

It is a powerful commentary on what has happened to our planet, Earth, and the dangers it is in. Reese has the delightful ability to take a lot of information and boil it down to understandable chapters surrounding the subject of sustainability.

I especially enjoyed the topic of agricultural evolution. Reese presents a convincing argument toward returning to a less invasive approach to the production of food.

While reading this book, one is compelled to say, "Oh, yeah," but then the complicated society we live in will undoubtedly reflect the human need to "develop" and move toward ever increasing "mining" of the Earth’s natural and not renewable resources.

I truly hope our decision makers are tuning in to the information presented in this book. How much of our "progress" is unsustainable?

From Kate Alvord: An overview of What Is Sustainable**

Richard Reese begins What Is Sustainable with a personal story of his own journey from urban southeast Michigan, where he worked as a technical writer, to an old ten-acre farm in the Keweenaw. As he made this move, he simplified his life and reduced his consumption. He also enjoyed deep contact with the land and with indigenous teachings, especially from Anishinaabe elder, the late Walter Bressette.***

Reese connects the story of this experience to an exploration of his own ancestry back to its indigenous European roots. The first chapters thus describe a personal voyage -- from living in an urban core of industrial civilization to living simply in communion with the land -- which in some sense serves as a microcosm for the rest of this book.

In his nine years in the Keweenaw, Reese read voraciously, studying the Earth Crisis and taking copious notes from more volumes even than are listed in his book's extensive bibliography. Drawing on these years of study, What Is Sustainable describes several "Forks in the Path" of human history that make our current way of life unsustainable: the domestication of animals; the sedentary living that allowed accumulation of stuff; the mining not only of metals but also of forests, furs, fish, and topsoils; and the "Mother of All Forks," our reliance on cheap but finite fossil energy. Throughout, Reese describes how these paths allowed human population to burgeon.

To move toward true sustainability, he writes, we must change in four main areas: population, food sourcing, worldview, and the way we connect with ancestors as well as "non-human relatives -- the living world." He writes that "it's too late for a smooth, intelligent, carefully planned, and painless transition to a sustainable future. But ... it's never too late to behave more intelligently."

If we were to combine reason with rapid population reduction, he notes, we could start now to pursue less destructive modes of farming.

In the book's latter sections, Reese pursues deeper explorations of food and population issues before taking on the "civilized" worldview, "the mother of our problems," and describing alternatives that can heal our connections with the life and land around us. Whatever paths we choose, he concludes, "Collapse [of industrial consumer civilization] is already in its early stages, and nothing can stop it." But, he writes, this is actually a happy ending, the herald of a great healing.

Comparing this to a Keweenaw thunderstorm, he writes, "There is now a collapse-driven storm that has filled the sky, large and powerful .... This storm will hit, and hit hard.... But when it has passed, the Earth can begin healing."

Former Keweenaw resident Vern Simula, a friend of Reese's, who is mentioned in the book, offers these comments:

Richard is so conversational -- and thus unconventional -- in his writing style. In fact, I would guess that his style might even be an uncomfortable embarrassment to those readers (scientists and academicians particularly) who expected a more formal expository style as they approached this profound topic of ecosystem sustainability.

To their surprise, or discomfort, they all of a sudden find themselves listening to stories: Richard's very intimate and personal story and the story of his ancestors and the story of "place" and the broader stories of the living Planet. All this -- this "process" -- contextualizes Richard's arguments. Not only that, but the genius of Richard's unconventional story-telling approach is that this is precisely how humans for eons have developed and perpetuated their cosmologies -- their worldviews by which they attempted to comprehend their human existence in the context of often times poorly understood powerful natural forces and happenings.

The irony here is that humankind is still struggling, perhaps now more desperately than ever, to understand their existential place in the broader scheme of things -- and how to survive. We have now come to realize that science, after all, hasn't really helped us solve our fundamental problems. Thus, to find the wisdom that we need, Richard is nudging us to start listening to the stories of the ancients, and the stories of all that is wild. And then it is for us to start telling our own stories, in order to perpetuate our legacies.

Thank you, Richard, for making some readers uncomfortable. By doing so, we were able to listen more deeply!


* Note from Joanne Thomas: Richard has created a blog-site that accompanies this book and offers his current thinking on his many ideas and themes:

He recommends many books that he highly values -- books that have educated and influenced him in his pursuit in understanding who we are, how we got where we are, and how we can best move forward. His cumulative research and the deep wisdom in his writing make this book potentially one of those prized resources as well.

** Kate Alvord is a Keweenaw Now guest author. She has published many articles on environmental issues and the book Divorce Your Car: Ending the love affair with the automobile.

*** Walter Bressette was an Ojibwe (Anishinaabe) tribal leader, activist and author who championed treaty rights and environmental issues. He also taught for a time at Michigan Tech.

Click here to order What Is Sustainable from

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