Book Review:

Crisis? What Crisis?

Tim Groves reviews
By Tom Athanasiou
1996, Little, Brown & Co. (U.S.)/Secker & Warburg Ltd. (U.K.),
385 pp., ISBN 0-436-20282-4

Reproduced with kind permission from Japan Environment Monitor

The mother of all ecological crises is approaching, but at a sufficiently slow pace that it can be easily ignored or scoffed at. The changes that are bringing it about, from accumulating pollution residues and progressive soil erosion to rising sea levels and increasing exposure to ultraviolet radiation, tend to become noticeable over decades rather than years. So the fickleness of human memory over the longer term provides ample opportunity for denial.

In Slow Reckoning, Tom Athanasiou catalogs some of the ways in which denial of the eco-crisis and of its roots and solutions has become a practiced art at the government and corporate level. One of the most valuable things about this book is how well it demystifies the Orwellian terminology and challenges the conventional concepts that form the nuts and bolts of mainstream debates on the environment. Aid -- the transfer of money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries -- primarily benefits producers in donor countries, keeps recipients in debt, and can also help to finance the introduction of the donor country's businesses into the developing world. Development is often synonymous with ecological catastrophe, its profits are largely scooped up by the rich, and in the developing world it "often implies misery on a grand scale." Confronted by the hard facts of development, one can't help thinking it's a good thing that sustainable development is an oxymoron.

The book is subtitled The Ecology of a Divided Planet, and its author identifies the division of humanity into rich and poor as one of the main factors contributing to the crisis, and a problem that must be tackled if there is to be a real solution. The current economic system, with its increasingly capitalist tilt, generates poverty alongside wealth by its very nature. There is mass poverty and plenty of destitution in the "South" alongside enclaves of wealth, while the reverse pattern holds for the "North." The emerging globalized marketplace may raise average living standards over the medium term, but skeptics predict it will result in a steady rise in the numbers of stinking rich and dirt poor in the North and South alike. It's disingenuous to condemn the rural poor, who are among the principal victims of "aid," "development," the "Green" revolution and IMF "austerity" programs, for trying to eke out a living by migrating to the remaining uplands and forests. The responsibility for the system that drives the cycle of poverty, exploitation, and devastation belongs to the rich, who benefit handsomely from the incredibly destructive development bulldozer, industrial agriculture, cheap labor and resources, cultural genocide of indigenous peoples, and the rest, and who, if they weren't so hooked on denial and smug satisfaction, could actually do something to change things.

Slow Reckoning has chapters focusing on a number of important broad themes. In Where Are We Now?, a look at how far the world and in particular the Green movement has come over the past three decades, Athanasiou remarks that the old environmentalism has hit its limits. The movement has grown up and there is now "a common sense of a new holism in which the ambit of Green politics expands to include the entire cultural and institutional nexus of environmental degradation, to become a 'social ecology' more fully realized than any even suspected during the long chill of the Cold War."

Apocolyptics is an entertaining history of the prediction and denial of eco-disaster ahead, with a cast of characters including Lester Brown, who in 1990 gave us 40 years to make the transition, Jacques Cousteau, who gave us 10 years left to "get it," and even William Safire, who railed against the "high priesthood of deep pessimism" who go on "wailing about hard times, nuclear instability and holes in the ozone layer." Athanasiou asks that old chestnut -- "Have Greens... come to fetishize pessimism and doomsaying? Are Greens, especially radical Greens, unable to tolerate good news? Is environmentalism too often an apocalyptic cult?" He doesn't think so, and declares himself, "with mcaveats and reservations," to be an apocalyptic.

Slow Reckoning also has an excellent chapter dealing with the situation in Eastern Europe where, in contrast to the West, the existence of ecocide is not denied but taken seriously, at least rhetorically. Communist development produced major disasters such as Chernobyl and the Aral Sea, but much clean countryside and pristine wilderness remains. Now, however, the opening up of the East to Wild West-style capitalism threatens wholesale ecological destruction on a far greater
scale. In New World Orders, Athanasiou examines the roles played by GATT, globalized "free" trade, and NAFTA in creating a world in which transnational corporations enjoy unprecedented power.

This is followed by The Age of Greenwashing, where we learn about the techniques used to reassure us that the corporations are Green now so we can trust them to save the environment and carry on consuming. There's deep lobbying -- using PR techniques to fabricate a "new environmentalism;" plausible deniability -- attacking the messengers, questioning the evidence, raising as many uncertainties as possible; and good old recycling -- which Athanasiou calls "public relations cover for the garbage society." Reading this book, laden as it is with evidence of the enormous problems humanity is facing, of the frantic attempts to obscure the facts, and of the patent inability of the current system to avert a global catastrophe, one could be forgiven for being depressed. But if anything, I came away from Slow Reckoning feeling rather upbeat.

The tasks ahead are daunting, but Athanasiou has at least given us a superb overview of the subject, a useful diagnosis of the problems we are piling up, and some clear pointers as to how we should and shouldn't be tackling them. Slow Reckoning is a book that makes sense of the way society works, explains why we are caught up an escalating ecological crisis, and identifies the kind of strategies will be needed to avoid the worst.

Reproduced with kind permission from Japan Environment Monitor