Derek Wall is a British ecosocialist and academic; if you live in the UK you may also recognize him as the Green Party candidate in Theresa May’s Maidenhead constituency. His book, “Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals”, is a ~120 page overview of Elinor Ostrom’s work. Ostrom (d. 2012) was a political economist who focused extensively on the concept of the commons, a set of shared resources available to all members of a community. In 2009, she was co-recipient of a Nobel Prize for Economics.
Wall attempts to draw lessons from Ostrom’s work that may be useful to political activists. He describes Ostrom as a pragmatic problem-solver not drawn to a specific ideology, though committed to democratic and participatory co-creation of solutions. Ostrom specifically challenged the “tragedy of the commons”, a concept popularized by Garrett Hardin—the idea that common pool resources (such as grazing lands) are doomed to degradation due to overuse by selfishly motivated individuals.
Through broad, multi-disciplinary research Ostrom demonstrated that there are countless examples of successful commons. She derived from this a set of design principles for sustainable management of commons resources. Wall’s book motivated me to read Garrett Hardin’s original essay, and I find it frankly astonishing that the idea of a “tragedy” of the commons gained so much credence to begin with. Hardin’s 1968 essay is mostly about population control in line with the kind of neo-Malthusianism that was very fashionable at the time. It concludes:
The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon.
Hardin’s ideas are so reductionist that I find it hard to take them seriously at all. My impression is that Ostrom deconstructed, through solid empirical and theoretical work, an argument that rested on very weak foundations to begin with.
Elinor Ostrom. Manitoulin Island, 1968. (Credit: Elinor Ostrom Collection, The Lilly Library. Fair use.)
But Wall’s book only dedicates one of ten chapters to the commons. His “rules for radicals” are a broader reflection on Ostrom’s work and approach. Wall reminds us repeatedly (to the point of tedium) that Ostrom herself a) was not a radical, b) was a pragmatist, c) was a problem-solver, d) was very collaborative. With this framing, he examines her approach to topics like climate change, or to economic activity that is not easily captured in the classical distinctions of market vs. state.
Interspersed are Wall’s own observations regarding contemporary politics, from the revival of right-wing populism to the experiment in democratic confederalism known as Rojava. He also contrasts Ostrom’s economic views with Marxist theory, and attempts to examine potential blind spots they share.
Unfortunately, the book does not stay with any subject long enough to convey deep insights. For instance, Wall mentions the intersection of Ostrom’s thinking about the commons with projects like Wikipedia. But he does not examine this topic closely, and indeed towards the end commits the faux pas of calling Uber an “open source transportation service” (Uber is no such thing).
Wall’s effort to make Ostrom’s work more accessible to a broad audience is commendable. However, this particular book only gives a very light introduction. It provides only a few quotes from Ostrom’s own work, perhaps enough to whet your appetite. While short, the book is a bit more tedious than it needs to be because the author repeats himself quite frequently.
That could have been avoided through more rigorous editing, along with smaller issues such as sentences with swallowed words or syllables. 3.5 out of 5 stars, rounded down.
In a previous life, Theodore Gray co-founded Wolfram Research and led the design of the user interface for Mathematica, a comprehensive technical computing software package used in many fields. Since leaving Wolfram Research, Gray has focused on conveying his own passion and excitement for science through books, iOS apps and artistic projects like a physical periodic table.
The Elements, Molecules and Reactions is a trilogy of richly illustrated books best enjoyed in their beautiful hardcover editions, written by Gray with photographer Nick Mann and other collaborators.
As you might expect, the first book, The Elements, takes the reader on a journey through the periodic table. I found this book the weakest of the trilogy; the structure forces the author several times to say that element so-and-so is just not very interesting, so why don’t we just move on. That said, the photographs are still gorgeous, and the book contains a good introduction to concepts like the atomic orbitals.
In contrast, Molecules and Reactions are much more substantive, offering powerful explanations for why atoms stick together in certain configurations—or come apart—while introducing just enough jargon to give you the foundation for learning more, if you want to. The explanation for entropy offered in Reactions is, by far, the best I’ve ever come across.
The Elements, Molecules and Reactions opened up to a random page (Credit: Theodore Gray and Nick Mann. Fair use.)
A Cabinet of Curiosities
The books rely heavily on Gray’s vast personal collection of objects that represent different elements and molecules, including rare and dangerous ones. Opening up a few random pages, I find photographs of opium boxes, a Kevlar glove, trombone oil, and an antique tin of saccharin.
Rather than lots of text with smaller photos, the images take center stage. In The Elements, each element in the periodic table gets at least one full photo page (you can preview the pages here). In addition to photos, Molecules and Reactions also make frequent use of chemical drawings in a simplified style that is easy to understand.
The text and images are presented in an unusual free-flowing layout that doesn’t always work perfectly if you’re reading in one sitting, but which makes the books a pleasure to pick up and open to a random page, even after you’ve finished them. Gray writes in an informal, casual style, for example (from Molecules):
“Undecane—a straight-chain hydrocarbon with eleven carbons—is, I swear, a moth pheromone. They use it to attract mates, in much the same way the human male uses it in sports carts (it’s one of the higher-numbered hydrocarbons in gasoline).”
The books also use lots of humor and personal anecdotes, but unlike a book like “We Have No Idea”, it’s on the whole more focused on explaining things than delivering puns or jokes. Reading any book in the trilogy feels a bit like visiting a museum (or a cabinet of curiosities) with your personal tour guide who explains everything with a wink and a half-smile.
I personally started with Molecules; if I had begun with The Elements, I’m not sure I would have kept going. It’s not a bad book, it’s just not nearly as gripping as the other two. As it is, I finished all three books within a few weeks (there’s not that much text).
I was neither especially good nor especially bad at chemistry in school, but I never felt that the explanations I got out of it actually helped me understand the “why”. Why do atoms prefer certain configurations over others? Why do chemical reactions release energy? Why can small changes in a chemical formula represent such massive changes in a molecule’s appearance or behavior?
Gray’s books help any reader to at least grapple with these questions in a more informed and intuitive way. They make a great gift for curious teenagers, but I would also recommend them to any lifelong learner. If you can, you’ll want to buy or borrow the whole set, but if you just want to check out one book, I suggest making it Molecules or Reactions.
The premise of Sleeping Beauties, a father-son collaboration between Stephen and Owen King, is compelling: as the world’s women fall asleep, they are covered in mysterious white cocoons. Waking them up is a very bad idea with frequently lethal consequences. The world’s men, together with the dwindling number of women who manage to stay awake, attempt to figure out what’s going on. And the story of the sleeping women turns out to be more complex, as well.
The book focuses on how the crisis plays out in the fictional town of Dooling, West Virginia. King/King bring the characters to life quickly: the driven town sheriff Lila Norcross and her reserved husband Clint, who is a psychiatrist at the women’s prison; the world-weary prison warden, Janice Coates and her daughter Michaela, a national TV news celebrity; the inmates of the women’s prison; the town’s bullies and creeps.
The book’s core strength are these beautifully portrayed characters. They kept me invested over the 700 or so pages. But this length also puts the book’s weaknesses into sharp relief. Almost the entire plot takes place in Dooling. It’s fine for a story about a world-changing crisis to have a hyperlocal focus, but the conceit that only the actions within a tiny American town are truly relevant to what happens in the whole world is difficult to swallow.
After hundreds of pages of build-up, the book’s central confrontation is ultimately resolved in an anticlimactic fashion, with limited payoff or resolution. Confrontations between the book’s characters often don’t add up to much in the larger plot; they serve merely as symbols embedded in an ambiguous allegorical message about gender roles.
Sleeping Beauties is timely; it forces the reader to ask themselves moral questions about their own relationship with men and women: How would I act in this situation? Do I know people who would act like this character? Some may find it “too political”, but it really doesn’t have much of a prescriptive message that it whacks you over the head with, and King has always blended his own liberalism into his work.
But it has other issues. Sleeping Beauties could have been an epic, gripping story like King’s post-apocalytpic masterpiece, The Stand; it could have been a poignant parable about gender and power. Instead, it overpromises and underdelivers. 3.5 stars because of the great characterizations and some powerful ideas that stay with you, but rounded down because it falls short of its potential.
In spite of these criticisms, I hope that father and son will continue to collaborate; there’s a dynamism and attention to detail here that I’ve missed in some of King’s recent works, and that holds the promise of greatness.