Thought provoking reads: 2021 edition

With the end of the year comes time to review what books spoke to me this year. There’s a good chance if I know you well that I may well have waxed on about one of more of the books below. Let me know what you liked (or didn’t like) last year and what should be on ,my reading list for 2022.

The list below, as usual, includes books I read (mostly kindle on IoS) and listened to (audible) that I read in 2021 whether or not they were published that year.

This year the books that lingered with me mostly broke into several distinct categories – in-depth dives into China, energy and climate transition, financial architecture, political succession especially of female leaders, and, uniquely, several fictionalized political futures penned by former policy makers.

China: Dismantling the Monolith 2021 was a year when many good books were released on China, partly because of the the 100th anniversary of the Communist party, which provided a good chance for many scholars to put the last several decades into perspective. It also marked the release of two books that in different ways tried to breakdown stereotypes and make sure English-speaking audiences looked beyond the headlines. Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell’s Invisible China: How the Urban Rural Divide Threatens China’s Rise unpacks the inequality within China, the ways in which health inequities drive educational and economic inequities and create major challenges not only for China’s economy and leadership but also those negotiating with it. The book, based on decades of work in China’s rural areas is a good data-driven example of how things ranging from early diagnosis of childhood illness and parenting practices has a major impact on economic outcomes. Roseann Lake’s Leftover in China:The Women Shaping the World’s Next Superpower also illuminates some of those divides, focused on a range of women’s experiences. These include interviews with working women across a range of economic strata, gender imbalances and more. Together these books are among those giving voice to a range of experiences within China.

Three other books recounted a similar period of Chinese history, but each with a different area of focus. Peter Martin’s China’s Civilian Army: The Making of China’s Wolf Warrior Diplomacy focuses in on the diplomatic corps, from the earliest days of the PRC. It highlights the links that early diplomats had with the PLA, the loyalty expected and the sheer chaos of operating abroad even as many diplomats were under attack in the cultural revolution and beyond. It draws on an often untapped resource – biographies of diplomats as well as other sources and is a useful tale to show continuity and shifts in the diplomatic push. Rush Doshi’s the Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order also digs deep into Chinese documents to document very comprehensively the shifting strategic concepts and mantras governing Chinese government. It is also one of the clearer summaries of the term and process of grand strategy, a term which has re-emerged in the last decade. Doshi, now China lead on President Biden’s NSC, uses this assessment to argue that the US shouldn’t try to match China in all arenas but be clearer about strategy. Arguably easier said than done. Bruce Dickson’s The Party and the People is one of several attempts to document the interaction and influence of the CCP on Chinese economy and society. His chapters on how Chinese government created a set of government-sanctioned civil society and support agencies are a particularly useful summary of work on civil society. He has a compelling narrative around which public protests/demands prompt government change and how China has tried to frame its service delivery to the population as “democracy”, something the Biden Administration has been pushing to do for the US. The Beijing Bureau, an edited volume of reflections from Australian journalists based in China is also worth a read.

Energy and Climate Transition Two historical dives highlight the disruptive nature of climate changes and the links between changing temperatures, disease and conflict. Brian Fagan’s The Little Ice Age dives into the historical and geological evidence of the Medieval/early Modern climatic changes to highlight the damage of discontinuities amid climate shifts. He highlights links to conflict and disease, including the Black Death which were exacerbated by waves of poor harvest. Though a few decades old, a great summary of how historical record, archeological and geological evidence has evolved. Among the tidbits – wine harvest dates are a useful datapoint as they tended to be set by consortia and help show shifting growing season. Similarly, Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome looks at the interplay of warming climate on migration, disease and other challenges in the waning centuries of the Roman Empire. Both show key examples of discontinuity of changing temperatures many of which we are seeing more extensively this year.

Drawing on more recent evidence, Alice Hill’s The Fight for Climate After Covid-19 highlights the importance of mitigation policies against climate shocks and some smart ways to make sure rebuilding and adding resilience gain focus as well as transition and adaptation risks. Among the ideas – use natural surge shields like mangroves that are carbon sinks, not just constructed ones. For more on how to remake financial systems to better account for these costs – Mark Carney’s Values and Thomas Heller and Alicia Seiger’s Settling Climate Accounts are useful reads and were useful as I was revising for my GARP Environmental and Carbon Risk exam. Shocked by the Surfside collapse, I read Mario Alejandro Arizo’s Disposable City which highlights the particular vulnerabilities faced by Miami amid rising seawaters, but has lessons relevant for many coastal cities, even those which are less reliant on eroding surfaces. In particular, there are some useful discussions of equity including the recent shift towards gentrifying the higher ground.

Javier Blas and Jack Farchy’s The World For Sale is rightly on the top of many Commodity/EM reading lists. The book highlights the often secretive world of commodity trading houses, showing how these entities serve as major financial vehicles, including for many cash strapped EM/frontiers during recurrent debt crises. With the greater focus on un-accounted liabilities and debt sustainability as well as concerns about sanctions evasions the role of commodity traders and the barter systems they sometimes facilitated is key to these policy debates. There are several books about the role of oil in foreign policy that are on my 2022 list.

Fictionalized Futures: Scenario Thrillers. This year I read 3 different fictional thrillers by former policy makers, some of the latest in the trend of using fiction to explore “keep you up at night” scenarios and cautionary tales. While speculative fiction has long been used to explore alternate and in some cases scary futures, there does seem to be an increase in former officials. My favorite was Elliott Akerman and James Stavridis’ 2034 which imagines a world war involving China, Iran, Russia and the US, among others in a range of theatres and hotspots. Its also a cautionary tale about (over)use of technology, and spoiler alert was notable for its near negligible role played by EU. Louise Penny and Hillary Clinton’s State of Terror dives into the risks of terrorism, nuclear conflict and the challenges of maintaining cohesion among allies. The book clearly had some cathartic moments about the last administration’s policies, but depicts a scary reality about the interlinkage of illicit activity, nuclear lack of control and cyber security. Larry Lindsay’s Currency War imagines a scenario I frequently had to talk clients off the ledge about – Chinese authorities dumping their Treasurys. I found it a little less enjoyable due to my differing view about the gold standard and the very clear male gaze on many of the characters, but an interesting illustration. Similarly, 2021 was the year I finally picked up some of Vancouver ER Doc Daniel Kalla’s medical thrillers. His the Last High, about the opiate crisis and Lost Immunity about vaccine hesitancy were all the scarier because of the mystery framing.

US Institutions: in Zero Fail, Carol Leonnig digs into the history of the secret service, its conflicts with executive authority and efforts to undermine the institution. An even more sobering read was Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home which digs into white nationalist paramilitary groups and to an extent the interlinkages between ex-military support for White Power paramilitary groups. With the new focus on the support of some members of current/former military/law enforcement for Fiona Hill’s There is Nothing for You Here, shares her story up from a post-industrial Northern English town and includes some unwelcome-to-many commonalities about how developments in UK, US and Russia left people behind. She also details some of the particular gender, race and class challenges – and provides some ideas about needed social and physical infrastructure. Personally I might have liked to have heard a little more about Russia policy and a little less summary of the 2020 challenges, but a good explanation from one of the people who stuck with the Trump admin as an “attempted adult in the room”.

(Female) Power Transitions A few books highlighted the role of specific female leaders and their choices. Kara Cooney’s When Women Ruled the World looks at several epochs of female rulers in Egypt, digging into the historical record for clues. One major takeaway – female rulers often helped preserve their dynasties, avoiding infighting between families, acting as regent or stepping in for younger relatives especially when Egypt faced relatively strong borders. Overall it raises important questions about how power is transferred, consolidated and in some cases erased/rewritten by future generations. Kati Marton’s the Chancellor looks at Angela Merkel was a useful summary of recent German history, the unique timing and smart policies of Merkel and the balancing Act in her policies. A useful read when thinking about the balancing act her successor faces.

Shifting Financial Channels. Robin Wigglesworth’s Trillions digs deep into the world of index funds and ETFs which have come to dominate global markets. He highlights the characters involved, brings it to life and highlights many of the risks as perhaps opportunities – especially in considering how such passive investors account for such a large share of voting rights. Its always important to understand market structure and the unintended consequences of consolidation and shifts. Another shift in market structure is underway in cryptocurrencies and Blockchain, especially as more institutions take on a role. In Chain Reaction, Paul Domjan, Gavin Serkin, Brandon Thomas and John Toshack envision how blockchain could change financial access in emerging economies. While the authors seem to differ in their opinion of and support for cryptocurrencies (and in general their focus is on the blockchain infrastructure not the digital assets), they tell a strong story about developing technology, efforts to break down fees, especially for remittances and add access to information. Worth a read to consider some of the channels, especially if also viewed alongside dives into the risks associated with such channels being used as alternate payment systems for less licit activities. Many of the considerations in the book are being tested with CBDCs etc.

The Post- Pandemic World With the Omicron wave yet to crest, it seems particularly challenging to contemplate a post-pandemic world. There are lots of good books on what went wrong and how systems were tested, though I must admit few lingered with me. At the very end of the year I read Stress Tested, a timely review of how Canadian national security apparatus responded to the pandemic edited by Leah West, Thomas Juneau, and Amarnath Amarasingam and including chapters by various friends. The chapters dig into the shifts intelligence and national security agencies made, including dealing with classified outputs in a WFH world, the increasing global interactions among conspiracists and important questions about the scope of security threats, and how to better act on information. These questions about supply chains, the balance of government and private roles and how to manage borders are equally important for climate change, as can be seen by the recent transport/supply chain impacts of recent climate disasters. Its important to make sure not to reinvent or add tasks/focus just for the sake of it, but to really think about how vulnerabilities scale.

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