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Book Review: How We Can Save the Planet
Hana Loftus, 13 Sep 06

howsaveplanet.jpgMayer Hillman is a godfather, on this side of the pond, of radical environmental thinking. Trained as an architect and planner, he has worked for thirty years in social policy and was one of the first to propose legislative carbon rationing and emissions trading, now put into practice for EU businesses. How We Can Save the Planet, published a couple of years ago, puts out his arguments in a slim paperback written clearly and accessibly. I was pretty surprised to find still un-reviewed on WC and to find only one post back in 2003 discussing its core idea of "Contraction and Convergence" as the way to ‘solve’ climate change. About time to change this – although I am sure to soon stand corrected by WC readers eager to join the debate.

How We Can Save the Planet deliberately takes the reader from first principles – why climate change happens, how fast, and what its effects are. Evidence-based, clearly argued (worth reading for anyone who has to encounter sceptics on a daily basis) and illustrated with a few choice statistics that make the case watertight, he then proceeds step by step to make the case for why we – as individuals – do not have rational excuses for refusing to face the facts. Borrowing perhaps a little too much from the psychoanalyst, he even lists ten ‘common excuses’ – ranging from ‘I blame the government’ to ‘At least I am doing something’ and combats them with a somewhat Presbyterian tone of castigation for mental weakness that lays the ground for the proposals to come.

“There is a widespread belief that economic growth and environmental improvement can be pursued simultaneously and further, that improved environmental conditions are only possible in an economy that is burgeoning.’ In Hillman’s world, both these statements are untrue. Economic growth only results in exponentially increasing emissions (principally from developing nations aspiring to reach the dizzy heights of the developed) as technology, although it helps, can never meet the scale of the challenge. He cogently argues that current governmental and inter-governmental strategies are failing and that none of the currently developing technologies – fuel cells, renewable power, carbon sequestration – will make more than the smallest dent in the world’s growing appetite for carbon fuels.

Hillman sees the only way of protecting the planet as sacrificing economic growth – decoupling quality of life from economic ‘success’ and carbon emissions. “Economic growth is a tool for improving quality of life and well-being, but it is often forgotten that it was never meant to be an end in itself…any economic approach that endangers the future of the planet, as our current model is doing, is unacceptable no matter how much wealth is generated.’

Thus the principle of Contraction and Convergence. A limit must be agreed on how much CO2 can be allowed to exist within the atmosphere, and a timescale is calculated to reach this. Secondly, global convergence towards this date involves converging towards equal per capita shares of emissions. In his world, the only equitable way of limiting our emissions – and thus the only way Hillman sees as acceptable across developed and developing nations according to principles of social justice – is global, individual carbon rationing. While achieving this political consensus is difficult, Hillman views the role of the UK as key to this global advocacy, although C&C is now backed by a range of groups including most EU ministers, the Africa Group of Nations, and even some World Bank statements.

WC readers will be all too familiar with the problems of intergovernmental agreement, the bureaucracy of large-scale carbon trading and all the rest. But what is of interest is Hillman’s emphasis on the ethics of his approach – the principle of ‘fair shares’ and a global approach rather than a national one. Rather than the usual arguments over carbon taxation, the notion that human rights might include the equal right for all individuals to live in a world free from climate change, and thus its inverse – an equal responsibility not to pollute during an individual’s lifetime – is logical, perhaps unnervingly so.

“Climate change is an ethical issue and tackling the carbon dioxide emissions that cause it is a moral imperative, in all likelihood the key one of our time’. Although the impact on Western lifestyles may appeal to Hillman – closer communities, a quieter environment, but no holidays or Olympic Games – his argument is that of the moralist, preaching asceticism for the sake of the greater good, and whether you like it or not. Unlike other religions, there is no opt-out for Mayer Hillman: you either play ball, or condemn your fellow man to extinction. A grim, if realistic wake-up call for those who might rather keep their heads in the sand or even, like myself, think that we are ‘doing our bit’, and certainly well worth a read.

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"no holidays or Olympic games" are two things none of us want to hear, but we should all think about. I remember the last arena-sized concert I attended, thinking about all the electricity that was pouring in for the light and sound. That was six years ago, haven't bought tickets to anything large since. Also add in all the bus and air travel for the band and their entourage. Then there are the conferences I've attended, trips for weddings and what not. I felt that each one was important and deserving -- but don't we all feel that? That each one of our things is important and deserving? And yet they all add up in a horrible way.

The thesis sounds quite a bit like (and preceeding) James Lovelock's new book, "The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back — and How We Can Still Save Humanity". Brief interview published yesterday in NY Times:

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 13 Sep 06

I'm not surprised at all that this book hasn't been reviewed here before, as the belief that "economic growth and environmental improvement can be pursued simultaneously and further, that improved environmental conditions are only possible in an economy that is burgeoning" has struck me as part of the WorldChanging ethos. That said, the reason I've kept following the site closely is that there's also a strong current of willingness to discuss and rethink here. Good to see that continuing apace.

I'm generally in the "contract willingly with dignity or unwillingly without" school regarding the future of the economy. The economy is a subset of the ecology, and the view that the opposite is true is destined for a bitter end - I just don't want it to take us all with it.

Posted by: Gyrus on 13 Sep 06

The ideas in this book look great but will enough people hear about them in time to be effective? Public media are full of business-as-usual garbage and filler. Soap operas, sports, advertising & virtually all other programming should be immediately suspended & replaced by an un-missable, merciless onslaught of appropraite educational materials documenting the Global Warming problem and its solutions. We should only allow entertainment & other programming back on the airwaves AFTER Global Warming data clearly show that the problem is solved.

The emergency is now. The time to act is now. The reason people don't get it AND don't act is they are unconvinced the problem exists. WWII got more airtime than global warming & look at how long a world war lasted when the USA's public mind was exposed to the degree of need.

Where are our media when all of Creation truly needs them?

Posted by: Richard Wheeler on 13 Sep 06

I haven't read the book, but if it's preaching asceticism alone, it's no wonder it's not a popular read. The downsizing message, true and urgent as it is, is only half of what we need to hear. For the message to be most effective, we in America at least also need to hear how reducing our footprint will improve the qualiy of our lives. Because it will. The message should be: own fewer goods, but have more community. Use less carbon, but have more fun. Travel less, but experience life more. Eat less (for some Americans), but eat higher quality food. Have smaller houses, but ones that give us a better sense of home. Denser neighborhoods with more sense of place. I could go on. This is really a positive message, and for me at least it's not a lie, or even a sugarcoating, it's just plain true. America is screwed up, and kicking carbon would be worth doing whether global warming was happening or not. That makes it not asceticism, but a program for improving our quality of life, and I think it should be sold that way.

Posted by: Jeffrey Rusch on 13 Sep 06

What Jeffrey said.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 14 Sep 06

What Jeffrey and Alex said, but heck, the idea that development can be something other than growth goes back to John Stuart Mill. Better, not more.

Posted by: David Foley on 14 Sep 06

May I add: Carbon Dioxide Methane etc. would not be such a problem if there were dramatically fewer humans. The underlying 6-billion pound gorilla at the teaparty is runaway human reproductive success.

Feed them successfully and they multiply unsustainably.

We need to figure out how to discourage & stabilize human reproduction dynamics. Perhaps through genetic manipulation & biotechnology? Certainly also through social attitude engineering via our multi-media public access capability.

Posted by: Richard Wheeler on 14 Sep 06

Rich Wheeler
I emphatically disagree with you. The developed countries where people are fed successfully have flat or declining populations (except for migration into them).
Populations multiply unsustainably in developing countries where child mortality is high(er) and children are one's social security plan.

Posted by: disdaniel on 14 Sep 06

What Jeffrey said (*2.)

I agree with Richard's concern for overpopulation (although talk of genetically engineering out my sex drive don't sit well ;-)

Yet I also agree with disdaniel's diagnosis of demographic transition in the First world. Kerala state in India has solved population growth through providing for the elderly. Children are no longer their retirement package. They can still eat when they get old, even if their kids have moved out (and become doctors instead of local farmers).

I really do wonder what kind of population the world can support post peak-oil — yet find nutter alarmism on one hand that denies advances in bio-farming (such as Eprida technologies) and utopian growth addicts on the other. Hopefully we can get that renewable energy explosion happening and bring some "demographic transition" to the 3rd world. Then things might just stabilize a bit.

Posted by: Dave Lankshear on 19 Sep 06

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Posted by: Vincent on 29 Sep 06



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