2: Book Reviews
1: The New Consumers - The Influence of Affluence on the Environment
Norman Myers and Jennifer Kent Island Press - http://www.islandpress.org - 2004 199pp including Appendices, Notes and Index, hardback, $24.00. Contact: [email protected].
The world community is in the grip of a long-term global consumer boom of an unprecedented size. This impressively well researched and well presented book focuses on the rapidly growing number of people (over 1 billion in 2000) in 20 countries (17 "developing" and 3 in "transition" from communism) who are now enjoying consumer lifestyles typical of "developed" countries.
The first chapter discusses "Who Are the New Consumers?"
Academics may argue about the definitions. But the crucial point is convincingly made. An unstoppable worldwide explosion of consumption - already exceeding the carrying capacity of the earth - is well under way, and still has far to go before the appetite for it is satisfied.
The next three chapters on "Cars: Driving Us Backwards", "Meat:
Juicy Steaks and Hidden Costs", and "Further Resource Linkages:
Household Electricity, Eco-Footprints, and Human Numbers", bring out the many links between the various ways we are already damaging the world's ecological infrastructures.
Although they do not explicitly say so, these chapters suggest that "environmentalists" may have been unwise to overemphasise any one particular aspect of unsustainable development, such as the threat of impending resource shortages in the 1970s or of climate change since the 1990s.
It has helped to obscure the fact that the current path of "progress" is taking us towards a wide range of interconnected catastrophic outcomes, and has encouraged champions of the status quo to muddy the waters by challenging the scientific validity of each supposedly key problem in isolation.
Chapters on two specific countries follow, China and India - China with seven of the world's most polluted cities, India with the other three. The China chapter is an eye-opener. China is far and away the biggest player in the whole new consumer arena - the fastest growing consumer society with the fastest growing car market in the world, and already the world's number one meat-eating country.
Like the United States, it "could all but single-handedly precipitate global warming, plus a host of other hazards for all humankind". Already a giant in the global community, it will soon become a dominant giant. The question is what sort of giant it will be, economically, environmentally, politically. "There could hardly be a more significant factor in our futures".
A possible future for India is as "one of the main victims of global warming". Also the gap between rich and poor there is very marked. In contrast to its growing number of new consumers, India has well over one-third of the world's poorest people; three quarters of the population are a long way from achieving any measure of affluence. However, in the knowledge economy of the future, India may turn out to be better placed than most to "become a giant indeed, and an unusually benign one at that".
In summarising the "Big Picture" of the twenty new consumer countries, Chapter VII more briefly considers the future of Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, and Russia. It discusses the impact that the five "new consumer super-powers" - China, India, Brazil, Mexico and Russia - could have on the world economy and environment by 2010. They might possibly be redrawing the economic map of the world by then, as "pace-setters into a new and different future". Short sections on "Globalisation", "HIV/AIDS and Other Diseases" and "The Have-nots" conclude the chapter.
In their powerful, fact-filled analysis in these first seven chapters, the authors make it inescapably clear that the outcome of this worldwide explosion of consumption could well be catastrophic global breakdown on a scale few of us have yet imagined. The response needed to avoid this out- come is obviously more urgent and more powerful than almost anyone now contemplates.
The last two chapters, "Sustainable Consumption: Where Do We Find It?" and "Sustainable Consumption: How to Get from Here to There", attempt to leave us with some sense of optimism.
Personally, I found these weaker than the earlier chapters.
They summarise the well-known ways in which personal lifestyle changes and the wide adoption of eco-technologies could provide higher quality of life with lower levels of material consumption.
But they do not deal with the need for sustained, systematic restructuring of the dominating institutional barriers of governments and the money system which now positively discourage these personal and corporate changes, globally, nationally and locally.
This is the more noticeable because the book contains occasional mentions of taxes and subsidies, and because one of the authors' previous books was about the need for a worldwide campaign to reduce perverse subsidies.
Perhaps they will tackle the need for that restructuring in their next book. Meanwhile, I hope that this one will be widely read.
2:The Little Earth Book
4th Edition, James Bruges Alastair Sawday Publishing - http://www.fragile-earth.com - 2004 192 mini-pages containing 66 short chapters and References, Notes and Index, paperback, £6.99.
"The earth is now desperately vulnerable; so are we. This collection of original stimulating mini-essays is about what is going wrong with our planet, and about the greatest challenge of our century; how to save the earth for all of us".
The new edition of this much ac- claimed little book contains new chapters on:
Climate Change - alarming new findings on the dangers facing the world, and the action required. ######Understanding Islam - why it is at odds with corporate capitalism.
Civilised Values - why does the USA, committed to democracy and freedom at home, so readily intervene else- where?
Ending Tyranny - the American Founders fled tyranny. The tyranny of the US corporations is now under legal assault.
Nanotechnology - manipulating atoms: is success for science good for society?
Ranging less deeply but more widely than "The New Consumers", it makes an excellent foil to it.
3: SANE VIEWS - http://www.sane.org.za
"In the film Fahrenheit 9/11 President Bush is seen addressing a banquet of his white-tied supporters. With a huge grin, his tiny eyes glinting, he says: 'You are the haves. (Pause) And the have even mores. (Laughter) Some people call you the elite. I call you my base.' I wonder if any one of those men felt the slightest twinge of discomfort.
And I wonder if any of those rich men paid personally for that banquet. Part of their culture of entitlement enables them to shift the cost of most of their eating, drinking, entertainment and even holidays elsewhere. It is called business expenses; and it would certainly include attending a fund- raiser for the President."
Margaret Legum’s article “Culture of Whose Entitlement?” – SANE views, Vol 4, issue 9 (3 September 2004), conveys a vivid reminder that the rich and powerful assume they are entitled to huge "free lunches" from today's economic system, while they preach Milton Friedman's TANSTAAFL doctrine - "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch" - to the billions of less privileged people around the world.
Many of the articles on the South Africa New Economics (SANE) website by Margaret and others are relevant for us who are outside South Africa.
James Robertson, 29th September 2004