Furthest Right

The Deeply Green Book Guide (Sandy Irvine)

A spectre is beginning to haunt the world. It is not some phantom menace. It is the all too real possibility of irreversible ecological and therefore social collapse. Modern society faces the ruination that once brought down seemingly invincible civilisations in the past. Then, the collapse was comparatively local in scale; today it is global. From the melting icecaps and glaciers to the raging forest fires, devastating storms and equally destructive floods that have ravished many parts of the planet, there is evidence that humanity is facing an unprecedented crisis. Those apologists for the current social order who talked about the ‘end of history’ might turn to be right after all…but in the completely opposite way to what they smugly envisaged.

The decisions humankind makes over the next two decades are likely to decide whether or not the Earth life-support systems are sustained or become irreversibly impoverished. Climate change seems to be proceeding faster and more damagingly than expected. But it only tops a long list of planetary ailments, some well known such as the tears in the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer and the clear-cutting of whole forests, others less so such as salinisation and aquifer depletion. Some are dramatic like the collapse of many fisheries, others almost imperceptible but equally alarming, not least soil erosion and nutrient loss. Both new diseases and ones once thought conquered seem set to plague the world. Already it is too late for many other lifeforms as the holocaust of human-caused extinction rapidly mounts. Even previously common species are now rapidly disappearing.

The crisis ‘outside’ society is mirrored within it. Despite unprecedented levels of affluence and massive leaps in technological know-how, the fabric of society is, nevertheless, coming apart at the seams. Again, there are many symptoms, from the unravelling of community bonds and disintegration of family life to a general ‘dumbing down’ in human culture. The intensification of work and uncertainties that plague many workplaces are further signs of a deep malaise, in which the possibility of severe economic crashes has reared its ugly head again after the long post-war boom.

Fighting Back

One chink of light in the darkening shadows is the growth of what amounts to a global resistance movement. It takes many forms and fights on many front. One of its most obvious manifestations has been the street demonstrations that have confronted world leaders at international trade talks. Some critics have talked of the ‘Seattle Spirit’ after one of those events. Then there are the various struggles waged against new motorways, airports, mines and other monstrous developments. The animal rights movement embodies similar energies as do those disrupting the planting of genetically modified crops. Green political parties reflect the same general spirit. They have had a harder time establishing themselves, not least because of the corporate coffers that aid conventional parties. Yet they too have been making gains, especially at a local level. In the heart of the beast, the USA, the recent campaign by Ralph Nader has spotlighted the degeneracy of mainstream politics and the existence of an alternative. In some cases, new alliances are taking shape, often red-green realignments. A new force in the British general Election of 2001 was the Socialist Alliance which challenged Mr Blair’s New Labour, a party that is arguably the ‘first team’ of capitalist politics in the country given the problems besetting the traditional voice of the rich and powerful, the Conservative Party. The manifesto of the Socialist Alliance featured green policies, albeit somewhat down the list of priorities (‘save the planet’ was point 12 out of 15, as if it were not the precondition of all other goals). Such instances spotlight the degree of confusion on such matters, ones which needed resolution if real renewal of radical forces is to be sustained. A lot of the analytical and policy baggage brought by conventional radicalism – be it socialist, communist, libertarian or anarchist variants -will have to be cast aside.

There are other factors that further encourage this lack of clarity and due focus. Such is the urgency of that crisis that many people want to get involved in activity and correspondingly give little time to study and reflection on its nature. However, without careful thought, both about deeper values and goals as well as appropriate policies and strategy, the best endeavours are likely to go round in ever decreasing circles. Public campaigning, political activity, technological research and development as well as private lifestyle changes all will suffer from loss of direction and focus if they are not guided by deep reflection and theoretical development.

There is also a danger in seeing individual issues in isolation rather than as aspects of one general systemic crisis, with related causes and linked solutions. Furthermore, in these discouraging times, it is hard to sustain individual involvement without the deep commitment that fuller understanding can bring. Last but not least, greater personal knowledge can help activists in the critical work of winning over non-converts to the cause.

Facing Reality

This guide is not just about the Earth’s multiplying ills. It is also about diagnosis and possible cures. The books it lists do contain their share of doom and gloom. That is a true part of the picture. But there is an alternative. There are insuperable technological barriers to the creation of what might best be called a conserver society. There are, however, deep institutional and social obstacles to be crossed. Indeed the power of multinational corporations is only one barrier – there are deeper cultural ones. That too is part of reality.

It identifies twenty core books with suggestions for follow-up reading. It is not a pure ‘top twenty’ per se since the list tries to provide coverage of a range of issues, rather than select books simply on intrinsic merits alone. Together, these works constitute a basic ‘green library’. Together, they shed much light on what is wrong with the world and how we humans might learn to live in greater harmony with each other and with the rest of Nature.

One problem facing anyone wanting to find out more about the global crisis is the sheer number of books available purporting to deal with it. Yet few of these works did more than scratch the surface. Often they treated ecological concerns as just one set of issues amongst many. Seldom did they recognise the need to put the Earth first. Furthermore, too many books treat social and environmental problems as simply a lack of managerial expertise and technical prowess. The crisis goes much deeper: saving the Earth meant root and branch changes across the whole of society.

The driving forces in the planetary crisis are also often badly diagnosed. Too much heed is paid to badly designed technology. Conversely, too little attention is given to the menace of human population growth is ignored or even denied. Yet no problem can be solved on a lasting basis without, first, a stabilisation of human numbers and then their reduction, by just and socially acceptable means, to levels well within the safe carrying capacity of local environments.

The root causes of that crisis are also widely misunderstood. It is simply not good enough to blame a few ‘rotten apples’ as if they are somehow atypical. Similarly, it is quite false to portray the crisis as the consequence of some great oversight, misunderstanding, inadequate information, failure to communicate or even a tragic accident, a product of fortuitous circumstances. In reality they are the inevitable consequence of identifiable actions, decision-making systems and values. The ecological ‘crunch’ takes the form largely of a slow but steady accumulation of problems, the necessary consequence of past choices, the cumulative effects of which are likely to drastic, long-lasting and all-pervading. It is possible to identify many of those decisions and the people behind them. Deliberate crimes such as the burning of food ‘surpluses’ and other forms of corporate plundering should not be covered up. The Earth’s enemies need to be named. Yet it is naive to dump all the blame on particular organisations and individuals. The waste and destructiveness that has characterised much of human history, across many types of economic system, alone suggests that a politics of ‘anti-globalisation’ or anti-capitalism is not enough.

In particular, we need to get away from simplistic images of progressive rank and file struggles betrayed by reactionary leaders. Ordinary people are not dupes or unwilling conscripts yoked to the treadmill of consumerism. It must be recognised that many ordinary citizens play an active, conscious, willing and indeed sometimes wilful part in the trashing of the planet. We must dump the naive notion that, to quote one ‘permaculture’ book, that “if we care for people, we will care for the planet”. Indeed some of the most caring hospitals are also sources of bad pollution. Similarly, great caution must be exercised about calls for massive social spending to resolves glaring social injustices. Socially worthy measures can be as ecological harmful and therefore unsustainable as socially unworthy ones. Ambulances clock up the same bills as armoured cars in nature’s accounts. A more complex model of the roots of the crisis and of strategies to solve it is needed.

It is also vital to be careful in the forging of the broad alliances that will be necessary to save the earth. We should never forget that, as Gary Coates put it, “what appears at first to be merely two paths to shared goals turns out, on closer inspection, to be two separate paths to very different goals”. Notions such as efficiency, ‘sustained yield’, ‘sustainable development’, environmental impact analysis and risk assessment can turn out to be anything but means to moderate excess. Instead, they often represent new attempts to intensify manipulation and exploitation, albeit with less needless waste and perhaps some cosmetic touches.

For Life on Earth

The following suggestions for a basic library concentrate on books which really do look at the big picture or put their particular subject into the ecological context. It is a guide to a literature not just about but also for ecosystems and all the life they sustain. Diversity, sufficiency and stability, not homogenisation, unlimited expectations and expansion, would become the critical yardsticks of ‘progress’ in what the Australian physicist and leading ‘ecoscience’ textbook writer, G. Tyler Miller, calls a ‘Sustainable Earth Society’. Concepts such as interdependence, reciprocity, balance and especially that little word ‘limits’ would shape the way we think about, value and do things. Sustainability must be seen in holistic terms – spiritually, psychologically, culturally, economically and, of course, environmentally – and must embrace all the Earth’s ‘stakeholders’, humans and non-human nature.

Some readers may find this Guide partial, one-sided, emotive, even prejudiced. At one level, we plead guilty. We do takes sides-we are decidedly for the future well-being of the planet and against values, lifestyles and institutions that threaten it. Upon the integrity and health of the Earth’s life-support systems, all worthwhile goals and expectations depend so we are indeed biased in favour of ideas and activities that are ecological sustainable, not just for the sake of humankind but all the Earth’s dependants.

The Guide’s perspective is fundamentally at odds, therefore, with the statement in 1987 by the president of the National Wildlife Federation, an American ‘environmental’ organisation, that he saw “no fundamental difference between destroying a river and destroying a bulldozer”. In reality, there is literally a whole world of difference. If it is sectarian to stand out from what the American activist Howie Wolke once called the “vast sea of raging moderation, irresponsible compromise…and unknowing (OK sometimes knowing) duplicity in the systematic destruction of the Earth”, so be it.

The Guide concentrates on the core literature, material that really does address the key issues of the day. Because many people today are (or feel themselves to be) short of time are likely to read only a few books and articles, we have been really ruthless in pruning what is a voluminous literature. Hopefully, study of these works might encourage a deeper exploration of the nature of an ecologically sustainable society and the values, institutions and lifestyles appropriate to it.

This guide is primarily aimed at individuals already active on green issues. We assumed some basic familiarity with green thinking. However, we hope it will also be useful for people new to the movement or who studying it perhaps for academic or journalistic reasons. We would recommend in such cases that it might be better to start with a general book like It’s a Matter of Survival (no. 2 in list) or Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run (no. 13), followed by Green History of the World (no. 3) then a more ‘positive’ book such as The Conserver Society (no. 16). Some of the suggested follow-up reading sometimes constitute more digestible snacks than the ‘first courses’, some of which can be a bit heavy-going.

The Top Twenty : For those wanting a short ‘indoctrination’ in green thinking we have shortlisted a set of really outstanding titles that could constitute a basic book collection for any green activist. We have noted as well possible follow-up reading, sometimes individual books and sometimes individual authors whose entire ‘back catalogue’ will repay exploration. At the end, a number of authors are mentioned whose works deserve inclusion in what might best be called the Spiro Agnew Memorial Library of Human Wisdom. It pays to know the enemy.


  Intro       Books 1-10       Books 11-20       Conclusion  


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