Year-enders from climate to global finance

At the end of another tumultuous year, Project Syndicate columnists recommend books that stood out.

In Mohsin Hamid’s new novel, a white man wakes up to find that he has turned a “deep and undeniable brown.” It is a Kafkaesque premise that perfectly captures the stranger-than-fiction surrealism of our current moment. Hamid has swapped the lyrical and libidinal prose of Moth Smoke (2000), and the overt engagement with identity of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), for a more abstract and austere style. 

In doing so, he offers a conscious exploration of the novel as a mode of social engagement, transferring the burden of imagining an alternate, post-racial reality to the reader.

But The Last White Man is also a paradigmatic pandemic set piece, evoking all the tensions of the summer of 2020. It depicts a society seized by an eerie, inexplicable (and deliberately unexplained) biological event that refuses to be contained until it has affected the entire population. Fear and violence force people into retreat, and fundamental change – like the renegotiation of race relations – occurs by circumstance rather than by choice. Yet with its notable absence of raw drama, the novel reminds us that the re-equilibration after an upheaval is often poignantly mundane. Ultimately, our characters are denied the operatic arcs that poetic justice would seem to demand.


This is the most eye-opening climate book I’ve read in a long time. A longtime journalist and activist, Bill McKibben has written his fair share of books covering climate change and other environmental issues directly.

But this one goes further than any of his previous titles in explaining exactly why we – both America and, by extension, the world – are where we are. As is usually the case, the answer does not lie with any single development. There is no unifying theory of everything. Instead, a series of small events – many of which could have turned out differently – led us down the road to monster SUVs, suburban sprawl, and an information environment that has been saturated with “fake news” and cynical opposition to climate action.


Pundits tend to focus on the Crusades as the defining development in medieval Islamic history. But eleventh-century Muslims were more consumed with internecine conflict – the still-salient Sunni-Shia divide – than with barbarian European invaders. And when it came to relations with outsiders, the most important event, post-Muhammad, was the thirteenth-century Mongol invasion. As historian Nicholas Morton of Nottingham Trent University explains, it was these invaders who shattered the various principalities that constituted Islamic civilization, ushering in five centuries of inertia that did not end until Napoleon landed on Egypt’s shores in 1798.


Everyone who is interested in the Chinese tech sector should read journalist Lulu Yilun Chen’s new book tracing Tencent’s rise. The company, China’s largest internet giant, now has a massive portfolio of internet firms across a wide range of sectors, including social media, e-commerce, ride-hailing, gaming, and tutoring. But the future of Chinese Big Tech is very much in question, making the many fascinating stories in Chen’s book essential reading for China watchers.


This is a splendid combination of economics, sociology, psychology, and biology that calls attention to some large problems facing boys and men, including growing educational gaps, declining employment, and increasingly uncertain social roles. A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Richard V. Reeves both explains the problems he diagnoses and suggests policies to help address them.


This book about money and finance offered a welcome and instructive change from my usual reading in Asian geopolitics. A financial journalist and historian by training, Edward Chancellor provides a sweeping account of how interest – as the time-value of money – has been conceived and dealt with over millennia. Focusing on the last two decades of ultra-low interest rates, he shows how rising inequality and polarisation came to underpin the Arab Spring, the resurgence of populism, and mass protests around the world. Central to his narrative is the fact that wealthy elites and big corporations could tap oceans of risk-free capital at the expense of ordinary people’s savings.

This intoxicating period of easy money was always likely to be followed by hard times. Looking ahead, one partial solution – admittedly a long shot – may be to reintroduce a gold standard of sorts, through well-managed central bank digital currencies. But whatever happens, with books like Chancellor’s, at least we have a better understanding of the political mess we are in.


Set sequentially in 1893, 1993, and 2093, Hanya Yanagihara’s novel imagines a different ending to the Civil War and explores a future in which repeated pandemics slowly render democracy impossible. She thus shows us what could have been, and what could still be. With a gift for creating characters who become friends and companions to the reader, Yanagihara walks us through what it actually feels like to live under the pall of constant heat and disease. To Paradise drives home what our current choices mean for our possible futures, and it does so more vividly than a truckload of policy briefs and scientific reports ever could.


©Project Syndicate

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