The Feasta Review, number 2



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Many regard Gillies Macbain as Ireland's foremost dark brown thinker but he describes himself as a wheelchair van driver and organic farmer. He lives in a tower house in County Tipperary and is currently assembling the articles he has written over the years into a book.

PDF version of book reviews


A shopping list of solutions, but none nearly radical enough


Building an economy for the earth

Lester R Brown
Kogan Page 2003
ISBN 1 85383 826 8 (hb) £17.99
ISBN 1 85383 904 3 (pb) £14.99

The New Economy of Nature

Gretchen C Daily and Katherine Ellison
Island Press 2002
ISBN 1 55963 154 6 (pb) £11.50
ISBN 1 55963 945 8 (hb) £19.50

reviews by Gillies MacBain

Assigning money values to the environment is not likely to stop its destruction. Nor will treating a long list of problems one by one suffice.

I offered to review these books because of their titles. I hoped to find authors who shared my own intuition that the global economy of the future must follow and mimic the patterns of nature, and of life itself, to become a cyclical and sustainable system. When I had read them I felt rather like a malt whisky drinker asked to adjudicate between red lemonade and Seven-up. These offerings are just not strong enough for my taste, but I will do my best to describe them for those who would like to get them out of the library. (I presume Feasta members would do nothing as consumerist as actually buying a book, unless to add to the insulation qualities of a book-lined study.)

Lester R Brown was the founder of the Worldwatch Institute. He is now president of the Earth Policy Institute which produces this book, a series of four page earth policy alerts, and brief eco-economy updates, all of which can be downloaded for free at

The Worldwatch Institute was founded in 1974. The author lists the causes for concern at that time - shrinking forests, expanding deserts, eroding soils, deteriorating rangelands, disappearing species, and the early signs of collapsing fisheries. Can he now tick off the problems tackled and solved? No. The list is still there and has to be added to - rising carbon dioxide levels, falling water tables, rivers running dry, ozone depletion, plus rising temperatures and the other effects of global warming.

These concerns are all the result of a rising global population, with increasing technical mastery of their environment, burning up non-renewable reserves of energy and expanding their economies exponentially, all of this taking place within a finite planetary biosphere.

The book was published in 2001, and it may be that future historians will record the period 1974 ­ 2001 as a time of innocence, when environmentalists allowed themselves to assume that a more restrained and equitable sharing of the resources of the Earth would follow in due course upon their exposition of the problems.

Brown ignores two most vital questions. The first is how to return the population of the Earth to a level that can be sustained by a global economy that does not use resources faster than they can be renewed. The second, how to deal with the historic tendency of nations and alliances to go to war to confiscate, or defend, vital sources of energy. In mediaeval times this meant land. In modern times it has meant oil, gas, and minerals.

For an environmentalist to protest that that is not his problem would be no more acceptable to me than an industrialist making the same denial of responsibility for environmental pollution. War, like acid rain, often falls upon people far away - but both are side effects of the industrial hunger for consuming fossil energy. Innocence is an illusion. Start a car, or switch on a light, and you are part of this consumption.

Lester Brown works his way through a list of signs of stress in the world's climate, forests, fisheries, soils, and species. He then moves on to a list of solutions to these separate problems, but it is a list. No doubt he understands the interacting complexity of the world, - ecological, industrial, social, economic, and financial - but his well-researched work is to me no more than an environmental laundry list, linear and pedestrian. It is as though the problems can be solved individually and separately, without any changes to global culture - political, economic, philosophical, religious, or otherwise. This I do not believe.

In spite of this there is one paragraph from this book which has stuck in the mind. It is headed ŚLearning from China.' China is topical. China is developing very fast. Decisions are being made as to the future of China as an industrial giant, perhaps even the successor of America - as America was the successor of the British Empire and her Victorian period of industrial dominance. So will China catch up with American levels of consumption?

No. For China to match America in per capita beef consumption would require the entire American grain harvest. For China to match Japan in fish consumption would require the entire world fish catch. For China to match the American level of oil consumption would require the entire world's oil.

So that is not going to happen. But Lester Brown does not tell us what is going to happen instead.

The second of these books is The New Economy of Nature by Daily and Ellison. One of the women authors is a scientist, the other a journalist.

I do not really understand this book; better to say so than to pretend. Firstly, I do not understand why it is a book. I get information from newspapers, radio, e-mail, and discussion groups. This book could easily have been a couple of interesting articles in a weekly publication - perhaps it once was. Or a couple of radio talks. Do you know how much radio you can buy for twenty pounds sterling? (the book's price). Quite a lot. It is not a book I want to own for reference.

One of the themes of the book is making protection of the environment profitable. That means putting a money value on certain environmental initiatives. As an opponent of putting a money value on things that used to be free and natural, such as clean air and water, I am not the best person to assess the authors' account. Nor am I impressed by their breathless enthusiasm that all is going well. After all, George Bush got into power - and all is not going well. Short term policies are in the ascendant, everywhere you look.

The best account in the book is of New York City buying up its own drinking water catchment area, instead of building enormous filtration plants. This was common sense. Spend a billion dollars to keep the area clear and unpolluted and to compensate the owners of second homes and the developers. Sounds a lot of money until you assess the cost of the filtration plants, which would be billions more.

If New York had thought of this at a time when the upstate watershed was still wild and free of second homes, they could even have done it without the billion.

Free Ballygowan for Gotham city ?

I can relate to that.

Continue to Eamon Ryan's review of The Solar Economy, by Herman Scheer

This book review is from
Growth:The Celtic Cancer,
the second Feasta Review. Copies of the Review can be ordered online from Green Books, priced at £9.95 plus postage and packaging.
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