Billions & Billions

by Carl Sagan


Being the first book of Carl Sagan’s that I’ve ever read, I imagine that this is an excellent introduction to the brilliance, style, and great variety of his thought. It suffers only from being somewhat superficial, as any book of essays must necessarily be (indeed, this is more a personal preference of mine than an objective condemnation of the book).

The clarity of Sagan’s thought and his conversational tone of argumentation make the ideas contained here exceedingly accessible and refreshing. In this way his style recalls other brilliant-yet-easy-to-understand thinkers such as Erich Fromm, Howard Zinn, Colin Wilson, Daniel Quinn, Alan Watts, Michael Pollan, Derrick Jensen, Robert Pirsig, Thom Hartmann, Malcolm Gladwell and even George Orwell, among others.

The essay on abortion was probably the single essay that I most appreciated, as it was the only topic on which he offered thoughts and facts of which I wasn’t already aware. On the other hand, he continually wrote about familiar topics in such a way that I greatly appreciated and even cherished reading certain passages. His discussion of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Brazen Rule in Ch. 16, “The Rules of the Game” is one such example. Here’s another great passage from Ch. 12, “Escape from Ambush,” that exemplifies the way he states things that seem so obvious, even though they’ve never occurred to you before:

Shouldn’t lumber companies plant more forests — of the fast-growing, leafy variety useful for mitigating the greenhouse effect — than they cut down? What about the coal, oil, natural gas, petroleum, and automobile industries? Shouldn’t every company that puts (carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere be engaged in removing it as well? Shouldn’t every citizen? What about planting trees at Christmastime? Or birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries. Our ancestors came from the trees, and we have a natural affinity for them. It is perfectly appropriate for us to plant more. 132-3

Until I read this, it had never occurred to me how strange a tradition it is to kill millions of trees every year in order to honor a God. But when you think of it that way it certainly seems pretty effed up. I also like the way in which he stays balanced while talking about the environmental crisis. At no point does he make the CEOs of Exxon-Mobil, et al. out to be conniving villains, or get too emotional about the issue. Rather, he recognizes that we have arrived at this point unintentionally. This rational argument is actually much more powerful than any hysterical blame game.

There are other little snippets here and there that I greatly enjoyed reading but unfortunately did not mark. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is not overly familiar with Sagan’s work. For dedicated fans, however, who are already familiar with his stances and arguments, it may be less rewarding. They could very well appreciate, however, the fact that this was his last book and includes a fairly thorough description of his ultimately terminal illness.

Original Review

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