A radical vision, badly needed

Wednesday, May 22, 1991

It's a Matter of Survival
By Anita Gordon and David Suzuki
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1990. 278 pp., $16.95
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

The earth is terribly, possibly terminally, ill. Few people can articulate this with the clarity and passion of David Suzuki, and his latest book, It's A Matter Of Survival, co-written with Anita Gordon, powerfully tackles those attitudes which underlie our planet-crippling practices.

These "sacred truths" include beliefs such as "'Nature is infinite', 'growth is progress', 'science and technology will solve our problems', 'all of Nature is at our disposal'". Like religious incantations, many people reach for these ideological security blankets when confronted with the "litany of environmental horrors" which Gordon and Suzuki lay at the feet of "the most ubiquitous large mammal on Earth".

They argue that the human species is capable of immense planetary damage because of our "technological muscle power". For most of human existence, "the impact we had on our natural surroundings was slight", but as our technology has grown, so has our potential to wreak slow or rapid environmental havoc. This technological impact is magnified by a "human population growth which is out of control", adding 95 million people a year to the planet.

Gordon and Suzuki doubt that we can feed more than a world population of at most 6 billion vegetarians without destroying marginal land by agriculture, without more productivity-raising but ecologically disastrous "Green Revolutions", without the known and unknown risks of genetic engineering of super-crops and without the damage from the 100 million tons of the greenhouse gas methane emitted every year by the current world's herd of quadruped ruminants (the "flatulence factor"). Rice paddies are even worse methane-makers than cows, fuming off 150 million tons a year.

A growing population also requires more land for human infrastructure. Gordon and Suzuki cite Ehrlich — humanity has already "grabbed 40% of the biological productive capacity of the land", and "we can only do that at the expense of other organisms". When they go, so do our life support systems.

Gordon and Suzuki do not, however, urge right-wing population control measures. Drawing on Ehrlich and Susan George, they argue that large families in the underdeveloped world are a response to poverty. What is thus required is "liberty and justice and poor people [especially women] fighting for their rights".

Nevertheless, they argue, population control is also needed in the (over) developed world because of the impact that a high-tech lifestyle has on Nature. Indeed, if winning the battle for economic justice simply means cars, for example, being available to the 92% of the world's population who currently don't have them, then the environmental game is lost.

Whether it's babies or cars, they say, the question should be "can them. They argue that "all of us must look beyond our individual and local circumstances and weigh all the issues at a global level".

Take the car. This "environmental disaster", "the consummate symbol of our convenience culture", is a problem of cosmic proportions — in the US alone in 1990 "cars and trucks will travel two trillion miles — to Pluto and back 364 times", giving off greenhouse gases, ozone-eaters, acid rain makers, smog inducers, assorted toxic metals and chemicals and noise. Fuel efficiency and alternative fuels are no solution (they still pollute). Even with some techno-magic, cars, roads, carparks, etc take up space (10% of all arable land in the US) and are thus a major part of the "unending demand for land for human use". Motoring tech fixes are "an empty dream of a society desperately denying the ecological impact of its way of life".

Recycling, too, as a solution to the garbage problem, is a new myth, a new "sacred truth". It uses energy and resources, creates pollution, and cannot recycle 100% of the original resource. Recycling may placate our conscience and allow us to believe that "we're doing our part" but "we are", say Gordon and Suzuki, "too ready to accept that something [like recycling or hydrogen fuel] is enough".

Furthermore, there will be no green revolution until our basic economic assumptions are upended. Economics, whether left or right, say the authors, is an "anthropocentric" discipline which values Nature only for its use to the human species. All versions of economics subscribe to the "one thesis, that Nature is a free commodity that must be exploited and used to satisfy human needs".

This results in the Nature-plundering pursuit of growth — commonly called progress. It isn't. Real "human needs and human satisfaction" mean "clean air, water, food and preservation of other living things", not rising GDP.

As governments strive to grease the growth system, boosting the economy with corporate performance-enhancing fiscal steroids, they degrade Nature and people. Gordon and Suzuki are scathing about politicians "who measure the future of the world by the length of their political term". All "play for time, gambling with our future and the future of all life on the planet according to the rules of political expediency".

The politicians "have seized on a word that they believe will ultimately permit us to have our cake [economic growth] and eat it too [ecological survival]". The word is "sustainable". Our own Hawke government applies "ecologically sustainable development" as a bureaucratic anaesthesia to the green movement, enticing much of the leadership of the main environmental groups onto ESD and RAC committees while "the gaping maw of corporate greed" carries on devouring.

For all the revolutionary green insights of this book, it lacks a developed political strategy for change other than a version of the biblical injunction to "change thyself". Although they stress "the combined forces of poverty and corporate greed" which drive us to muck up the planet, they do not examine the social forces that can bring about personal and structural change.

But to the extent that the book keeps alive the radical vision of the early environment movement, before the professional greens tamed it and made it respectable, it is indispensable for all greens and socialists.

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