Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Simms: Cancel the Apocalypse

Andrew Simms (2013) Cancel the Apocalypse: The New Path to Prosperity Little Brown, New York; 496 pp.; ISBN 978-1-40870236-9

Andrew Simms wants us to face the challenges of climate change with a positive approach rather than constant talk of doom and gloom. In the opening chapter he promises that this book will look at practical steps we can take to address the dangers of climate change, steps that will induce governments to follow our lead.

The science of climate change is well understood, even if the consequences are far less clear. Predictive models always involve high degrees of uncertainty when applied to complex systems, but this does not absolve us from trying to anticipate and manage risks. People who deny climate change are not going to be convinced by any evidence and most other people do not have the knowledge or skills to assess competing and dense scientific arguments, but if conservative professions such as actuaries and engineers are already factoring climate change into their calculations, it is prudent for our politicians to be doing the same.

Simms details the unsustainability of our current growth patterns. If everyone in the world lived like the average citizen of the United States (apparently a lot of people aspire to this) we would require five planet Earths to sustain us. Clearly we need a better grip on reality. Part of the problem is how we measure growth and Simms gives examples of the anomalies in current measures and discusses proposed alternatives. There is, unfortunately, little agreement on what to measure and how.

Aviation is having a particularly negative impact on our environment and Simms notes the irony of green campaigners who jet around the globe to attend conferences. People in many countries have a learned dependence on motor vehicles that use petroleum and diesel, and sales of such vehicles are increasing as people in poorer countries get richer and aspire to car ownership. Yet there are examples of cities that have reduced car dependency and increased the use of public transport, and many examples where bicycle use and walking have increased substantially. There is no magic involved – all these cities have used very simple public policy approaches. All it requires is the political will.

The decreasing returns of traditional oil sources are pushing the exploration of new sources such as tar sands, and exploitation of more black and brown coal. The small number of very large corporations that dominate the energy sector like to publicise their ‘green credentials’ but their efforts have waned in the wake of the recession since 2008. The technology for substantial change in energy production is there, but the political and commercial incentives are not.

Simms looks at the two industries that produce propaganda in the interests of large business: advertising and public relations. Advertising alone spent $540 billion globally in 2012 but did little to help people make informed decisions. The main role of advertising is to make people feel like ‘losers’ if they do not have a particular product or service. Public relations (spin doctoring) is even more insidious, putting a positive face on anything, no matter how destructive it might be to our social fabric or well-being. Simms is able to point to ways we can control these forms of propaganda. Some countries ban particular kinds of advertising and regulate for ‘truth in advertising’, others ban advertisements targeting children. A few states in the USA have removed billboards altogether, while many places regulate advertising near schools or do not allow ads for addictive substances. Simms argues that we must reduce corporate propaganda in order to break the hold of consumerism.

There is certainly much to make you feel pessimistic: Simms discusses civilisations that have collapsed in the past because of their inability to live within their ecological limits, and the failure of quick technological fixes to save them. Collapse of a geographically limited civilisation is a disaster for those living in it, yet will have little or no consequence for those outside. But if the world as a whole is reaching a crisis point in terms of ecological limits, we do not have anywhere else to go.

Andrew Simms is no pessimist Рyou can tell from the bright book cover and that thumbs-up sign. He cites examples from history where people have adapted Рoften surprisingly quickly Рto changes in their environment. During World War II, Britain and later the United States radically changed their patterns of economic life in order to adjust to limited resources. Cuba did the same after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the major purchaser of Cuban exports. More recently, when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland, grounding flights over much of Europe, many people were able to complete their journeys or find alternative places to stay, groceries and goods were still delivered and social networks offered assistance. Whether we will be able to adapt sufficiently quickly in the face of climate change impacts will be a key test for our future.

In cases such as wartime Britain and post-Soviet Cuba, increased physical labour and more limited caloric intake saw significant improvements in physical and mental health, and reduced mortality from ‘lifestyle’ diseases. Greater equality in terms of income and more social participation resulted in stronger social bonds and a sense of shared responsibility. Both cooperatives and informal sharing increased. But in all cases the role of government was vital.

While there is much to admire in this book, I did feel that it failed to live up to its promise to set out practical ways forward. There were examples scattered here and there but a lot of the prescriptions were too general to be useful. In several chapters it was obvious that change cannot happen in the absence of political will, and we see very little of that in relation to addressing climate change. How do we get our politicians – local, national and international – focused on identifying the risks and acting in the interests of communities rather than big business or powerful allies? Simms does not broach this issue at all.

There is no clear distinction in the book between strategies to mitigate or slow down the likely impacts of climate change on the one hand, and strategies to adapt to the risks of climate change on the other. This is an important distinction. For some countries such as Tuvalu, mitigation is no longer an option and people will need to adapt to a stark new reality. Too much of Simms’s exposition is based on the premise that we have plenty of time to focus on mitigation approaches when this might soon be a false assumption for many parts of the globe.

For those familiar with critiques of unsustainable growth, much of this book will appear repetitive. I think the book would have packed a greater punch if Simms had summarised a lot of this material and instead elaborated the practical strategies to take us forward. Climate change is such a complex and all-encompassing problem that it is easy for people to feel overwhelmed and helpless. They deserve a more inspiring book to show not only what individuals can do for themselves, their families and their neighbours, but also how they can use the political systems in their respective countries to ensure risks are better identified and that positive action is being taken to manage them. The consequences of doing nothing are just too chilling to contemplate.

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