Brilliant or barmy – what do you think?

Two long reviews of Feasta’s book Fleeing Vesuvius have appeared recently, one enthusiastic, the other markedly less so. The enthusiastic one is by Andy Wilson and takes up two full pages in the current edition of the An Taisce magazine. You can read his review here.

For Wilson, the book is “one of those rare attempts to portray the end of the civilisation of oil as it really is, with no punches pulled….. It treads where very few publications have the courage to go, and in doing so, faces down those worst-case scenarios – massive societal change (imposed or voluntary), social disintegration and resource scarcity.”

He adds that while “the piercingly sharp earlier pieces on energy and its relationship to money provide the base tones and colours for the more subtler shades that follow” it is the book’s “articulation of the need for changes in attitude expressed from various perspectives by individual authors that gives Fleeing Vesuvius its edge.”

The unenthusiastic review has no time at all for the book’s chapters on the need for attitudinal change, dismissing it as “new age pap”. The author, Graham Strouts, writes in his blog: “This kind of naive blabber about “nature” in the context of this book would really make you wonder whether Feasta is actually a “think tank” at all or merely another branch of the seemingly all-pervasive Church of Gaia.” His 2,700 word article, which gets angrier and more exasperated the further it goes, can be found here.

Strouts’ anger could be a manifestation of “the zeal of the convert”. He admits that he “used to argue that limits had been reached a long time ago and any attempt to extend them further would merely lead to a bigger crash and die-off later” but now he believes that “that the dangers of future climate change need to be balanced against the current benefits of cheap energy now and the future wealth it will foster which, coupled with ongoing technological innovation, will set us in a better position to withstand such future challenges.” He adds later “ what the peak oil doomer theorists in this book fail to address is that growth, prosperity and development do not rely only on digging holes in the ground and extracting the goodies until they are all gone and collapse ensues, but also that we are clever monkeys whose defining nature is technology and innovation”

In other words, he endorses the position advanced by the late American economist Professor Julian Simon who regarded human ingenuity as “The Ultimate Resource” (he wrote a 1981 book with that title) and that we could rely on our ability to invent our way out of whatever crises the future threw up. Perhaps we can, but we are betting the farm on our ability to do so and, in the past we have generally handled our crises by treating the symptoms rather than dealing with the causes. In doing so, we have moved to a higher level of complexity and energy use. Only if more and more energy is really going to be available – rather than less and less as the contributors to Fleeing Vesuvius expect – is Strouts’ position remotely tenable.

Many of the articles which Wilson liked are those which set Strouts’ teeth on edge. For example Wilson writes that “Dmitri Orlov at his wittiest, darkest best reminds us that humanity is not a special case in terms of its vulnerability to die off but he lightens the tone with his hilarious list of the ‘Five fastest ways to lose all your money and have nothing to show for it’.”

Strouts, however, refuses to be amused and says “I could take the doomer prognosis expressed in this book more seriously if there wasn’t such an apparent rubbing of hands with glee at the prospect of collapse. This is clearest in Orlov’s chapter. Orlov clearly thinks that the enormous successes of the modern world at feeding people are just a huge mistake: “What piece of technological innovation do we imagine will enable this maize-dependent population to diversify their food sources and learn to feed themselves without the use of fossil inputs?” but ignores the possible but politically-incorrect answer of genetic engineering and other new plant breeding techniques which could indeed help lower the resources needed to feed the growing population. He is right of course that there should be more to life than fast food and computer games, but forgets that for the majority of human existence there has been little more to life than a rather brutal struggle for survival.”

So who do you go with? Do you agree with Strouts that “While there are valuable ideas on the economy and new ways of organizing businesses and community contained in this book, it unfortunately fails to provide a credible analysis of the predicament we are in, instead providing only a hop-scotch of doomer predictions of the future and new age pap.” Or is Wilson closer to your position when he writes “Because of the clear emphasis on social capital, community building, networking, psychological and emotional responses to change, Fleeing Vesuvius will be of particular interest to those who already interact with other people whether in a social, voluntarily, vocational or professional capacity. The point hammered home repeatedly is that solo runs are futile, while collaboration and working together offers communities their best chance….. Wonderful book. Buy it.”

We are very keen to publish other reactions to the book on this website. Please send yours in. In particular, is Strouts’ raising questions which Feasta members should not ignore?

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.