By Chris Goodall
12 October, 2007
Book Review: Surviving
the Century: Facing Climate Chaos and Other Global Challenges
Edited by Herbert Girardet
Earthscan: 2007 208 pp. £17.99
decade ago many involved in climate issues hoped it was a problem that
the world would find relatively easy to conquer; the causes would be
identified and mechanisms devised to reduce carbon emissions. With proper
direction from a mixture of careful subsidies for low-carbon technologies
and increased pollution taxes, the free market would eventually rein
in our burgeoning greenhouse-gas emissions. But it hasn't turned out
this way. Hopes of a strong and coordinated international approach have
all but disappeared as most countries will fail to meet even the limited
demands for emissions reductions imposed by the Kyoto Protocol.
Herbert Girardet's new book
Surviving the Century: Facing Climate Chaos and Other Global Challenges
brings together an eclectic mix of the initial optimists, from campaigning
US journalist Ross Gelbspan to the German renewable energy pioneer Hermann
Scheer. Containing a restrained but deeply felt passion, this book combines
wisdom with an intense idealism about how mankind can make the radical
changes necessary to deal with the issues that threaten our very existence.
At root, the authors argue,
climate change is not a technical or scientific problem. The main impediment
to tackling global warming is that many of the powerful institutions
of the world, whether it be the World Trade Organization, BP or the
investment banks that control the world's allocation of capital are
resistant to radically changing the way we operate the world economy.
The poor, whose share of world income is certainly not growing, are
unable to successfully demand that policies be developed to protect
them from climate change or from other environmental or economic disasters.
Large companies, the theory
goes, are threatened by actions to reduce emissions. The oil and gas
industry will suffer if the world moves to renewable energy. Monsanto's
profits will fall if we switch from industrial agriculture back to low-input
farming methods. The Brazilian government will lose elections if it
resists attempts to turn more of the rainforest into soy farms and cattle
ranches. Freely operating markets, the book says, do not solve difficult
problems. Markets concentrate power, rather than dispersing it, with
the result that the success of global capitalism over the last twenty
years has produced an elite of immense power and wealth. Aggressive
action on climate change threatens this power, and is being resisted
at every turn. The core thesis of the book, highlighted by Frances Moore
Lappé's analysis of the intertwining of democracy with free market
economics, is that many of the world's most intractable problems are
only solvable if we reduce the power of the global elite, whose influence
is holding back any attempt to restructure the world's economic system.
But, rather than being merely
a diatribe against the institutions of corrupted global capitalism,
this is a far more nuanced and hopeful work. Most of the discussion
is given over to proposals for substantial actions to remedy the world's
bias towards using fossil fuels. Michael Braungart looks at how industrial
processes can be re-engineered with fairness and ecological awareness.
He points out that the most productive and efficient economies, judged
in the conventional sense, are often the most wasteful and destructive.
Herbert Girardet extols the virtues of the first city to be built with
environmental issues firmly in mind. It is nevertheless worth pointing
out that the world's first eco-city, in Dongtan, East Asia still has
an ecological footprint larger than can be sustained, and is but one
of a huge number of new urban centres rising across China.
Of the eight excellent essays
in this book, I think the one that should most attract our attention
is Paul Bunyan's work on the Amazon rainforest. Even those who know
little about global warming are becoming dimly aware of the role of
this enormous area on the world's climate. International treaties, including
Kyoto, have failed to recognize the importance of tropical forests both
as carbon sinks and as stabilizers of our weather systems. The maintenance
of the forest depends on high rainfall, which largely comes from the
evapotranspiration of rainfall elsewhere in the forest. Deforestation
may cause diminished rainfall and eventual disruption of the Hadley
cell circulation, changing the world's climate system in potentially
catastrophic ways. And deforestation is, to reprise the core theme of
this book, carried out "by just a handful of Brazilians" eager
to use the land for soy and cattle. This elite, and other similar groups
across the world, hold the world's fate in their hands.
But the reader cannot take
much comfort from this book: the chances of its sensible recommendations
being adopted by those in authority are low. Progress at weaning the
world off its reliance on fossil fuels will continue to be blocked by
those who benefit from the persistent under-pricing of carbon.
is the author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life: The Individual's Guide
to Stopping Climate Change. e-mail: email@example.com
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