Fiddling while Rome burns
Negotiating for a Sustainable Future
God's Last Offer
GOD'S LAST OFFER - NEGOTIATING
FOR A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE
by Ed Ayres, Four Walls Eight Windows, New York,
1999, 357pp, £14.99, ISBN 1 56858 125 4
Ed Ayres is the Editorial Director of the WorldWatch Institute and one of America's most prolific writers on environmental issues. His latest book is a wake-up call to all who are unaware, or in denial, of the fact that the Earth is facing some of the most profound and devastating changes since the dawn of human life. With solid underpinnings of scientific data, the author describes four destructive phenomena now impacting our planet and their synergistic relationship - each adding fuel to the others in an apocalyptic crescendo:
• The surge in climatic disturbances that drove 300 million people from their homes in 1998, including more than 2,000 tornadoes in the US, 70,000 tropical fires and devastating floods in 54 countries.
• The fastest biological mass extinction since the age of the dinosaurs: from one species per year a few decades ago to many thousand species per year today.
• The consumption of finite resources: the nett forested area of the Earth is shrinking by the size of two football fields every second, and we use up as much fossil fuel in one day as was created in 10,000 years. • The number of mouths to feed, which
has grown as much in the last ten years as in the 10,000 years prior to the industrial revolution. Nett world population now increases as much in three days as in the average century of early human history.
These four phenomena are illustrated with graphs showing the 'spikes' for carbon dioxide emissions, bio-extinction, human consumption and population respectively. They are so similar that their inter-relation becomes obvious even to those who have been unaware of any threat to their accustomed lifestyle, or who refuse to accept the fact that we face a crisis of unprecedented severity. With each passing month, the four spikes become more entangled by feedback loops through which they aggravate and exacerbate each other.
Ayres also identifies some of the societal forces that perpetuate public indifference:
• Our faith in technology has become a panacea for all our problems. He reminds the reader that technology has never been anything but a tool - an extension of those faculties we already possess - and says that we must look beyond technology for a solution to our human predicament. He dismisses as "a colossal foolishness" the notion that all we need to do to fix our broken educational system is to put more computers in every classroom. It is "an extension of the doctrine espoused by the World Bank" that a proliferation of power plants, super-highways and other high-tech infrastructure would liberate Third World countries, whereas in many cases they have resulted only in poverty.
• The information explosion has become information obliteration, as our knowledge becomes increasingly fragmented, and we are inundated by self-serving corporate disinformation.
• Each day we are more disconnected from the physical world, as 'virtual reality' and the make-believe world of entertainment media become substitutes for real-life experiences. In the process, the distinction between fame and
infamy has been effectively obliterated: media exposure has become the only yardstick for measuring success.
• Roman emperors knew that the best way to keep their subjects docile was to satisfy their appetite for bread and circuses. For many in today s high-tech world, the PC has become the Panem et Circenses of choice. In their rush to escape reality, others wrap themselves in the comforting blanket of a druginduced stupor, or seek refuge in a fundamentalist religion.
• The growth of a global shadow economy, which is accountable neither to any national government nor to future generations for its depletion of resources and its degradation of our biosphere. Ayres' most scathing criticism is reserved for traditional economists and bureaucrats who refuse to factor in the ecological costs in the price of a product - potentially a catastrophic blind spot in conventional accounting.
The question is - can we learn from our mistakes? In a chapter entitled 'Ambushes of the past' the author gives a brief run-down of past civilisations that have succumbed - not to superior military might, but to corrosive forces from within. The Sumerian, Tehuacan, Mayan, Roman and Indus civilisations all disintegrated because of abuse and overuse of the natural resources which sustained them for centuries. A microcosm of this phenomenon, repeated throughout human history with a regularity which in retrospect seems preordained, is the demise of the culture that lasted for a millennium on Easter Island. Once forested and fertile, it was colonised by Polynesians, who established a thriving society, epitomised by some 600 giant stone figures erected at the peak of its civilisation. But as all the trees were felled to provide building material for houses and boats, firewood and logs for transporting the massive effigies to their final resting places, the soil eroded, and the population eventually shrank to a pitiful handful of cavedwelling cannibals, the last of whom
The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 6, October 1999