Countdown: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth?

(An shorter version of this review was published in Earth Island Journal in the Spring of 2014)

 

COUNTDOWN: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth?
Alan Weisman
Little Brown, 2013, 513 pages
 

During his recent book tour, writer Alan Weisman told me that Paul Ehrlich, he of The Population Bomb, said that “Countdown is the best book on population written in decades.” It’s a nice line, and a considered judgment (see Ehrlich’s own review), and I have no reason to dispute it. Countdown is a good book and a fine read. It crosses dangerous ground, and while it stumbles, it does not fall. If it’s read closely and fairly — a big if these days — it will be helpful.

Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I’ve known Weisman for some time, and count him a friend. But Countdown is a population book, and I hate Malthusianism. They’re not the same thing, of course, but I still hesitated before reviewing it.

First up, what’s this “Malthusianism,” and why is it hateful? Well, Malthusianism is a specifically biological kind of reductionism, one that buttresses right-wing pessimism and policy conclusions, and one that not at all incidentally pushes social justice off the political agenda. It does this by telling a tale in which we humans are simply animals, and are fated by our natures to fill our niche to overflowing. But this just isn’t true. We’re animals, sure, but we live in history as well as nature, and as Marx pointed out long ago, we make our own history, or at least we try to. It’s never been easy, and it only gets harder when we pretend that exponential breeding is the fundamental reason that things are getting away from us.

Is Weisman, then, a Malthusian? No, he is not. He gets close, but he doesn’t drink the cool aid.

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News Flash: Money makes you selfish!

I know it’s hard to believe, but watch Exploring the Psychology of Wealth, ‘Pernicious’ Effects of Economic Inequality. It’s a brief report by the PBS Newshour’s Paul Solman, no raving leftie he, and it’s worth even waiting out the leading advert from . . . Goldman Sachs!

The research being reported here is by UC Berkeley psychologists Dacher Keltner and Paul Piff, and it’ll seem more than a bit familiar to anyone who’s read The Spirit Level.  That said, this is a tidy, amusing, and convincing take on the corrosion that is economic stratification.

The report begins with the fact that the drivers of luxury cars are “anywhere from three or four times” more likely to cut off pedestrians that people driving less expensive cars, and goes on to observe that rich people steal more candy in fake psychological tests, and are more likely to cheat in a game of chance, lie during negotiations, endorse unethical behavior, or steal at work.

Watch this spot, if only for the story of the rigged Monopoly game.  The one in which the “person assigned the role of rich person” gets to roll an extra time. . .

“we found consistently with people who were the rich players that they actually started to become, in their behavior, as if they were like rich people in real life. They were more likely to eat from a bowl of pretzels that we positioned off to the side. They ate with their mouths full, so they were a little ruder in their behavior to the other person.”

And just the opposite too:

“If I take someone who is rich and make them feel psychologically a little less well-off, they become way more generous, way more charitable, way more likely to offer help to another person.”

Maybe that’s the bright side?

Fractals of Climate Equity (or why intra-national inequality should be part of the debate on equity at the UNFCCC and elsewhere)

By Tim Gore (Oxfam International)

A year ago I presented the Climate Action Network’s (CAN’s) emerging position on equity in the 2015 deal at the UNFCCC workshop on “Equitable Access to Sustainable Development”. I said we believed that equity had hung like the sword of Damocles over the talks for too long, and that it was high time Parties took hold of that sword and used it to shape a fair and ambitious regime. At least some of them seem slowly to be doing so.

I wasn’t at the annual Bonn talks this year, but I hear the equity debate ripened, and the CAN position with it. At its heart, the CAN approach is one of principled pragmatism, that charts a middle ground between those who say there are no objective standards of equity – that ‘equity is in the eye of the beholder’ – and those who claim a single formula can and should determine each country’s commitments to climate action.

Instead CAN has called for an “equity corridor” to be built – a set of commonly understood principles and indicators that can establish the normative parameters of what can reasonably be expected of different countries, in order to inform (not determine) the political negotiations. In Bonn this year, this became a call for an ex ante “Equity Reference Framework” – and several champions, including Kenya, South Africa and the Gambia, and groups across civil society emerged to support it.

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Tax Justice as Climate Justice

Originally published by Yes! magazine

You don’t have to leave America to go to the Third World.  I, for example, live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and here, as in all northern megacities, crushing poverty surrounds the comfortable precincts.  I can’t call it “extreme” poverty, for of course it cannot compete with the despair endemic to, say, the north African drought zones.  But when an organization like Remote Area Medical feels compelled to bring its traveling free clinic to The Oakland Coliseum (now, officially, the Oracle Arena), and when thousands stand for long hours to receive basic care they could not hope to afford, the problem is nonetheless clear.  This last April, when the good folks at RAM pulled up stakes and left Oakland for their next stop, it was Haiti.  The America they were leaving was not the “exceptional” America of the official dream.

Obviously, there’s lots to say about this.  And much from which to avert our eyes.  But what else is new?  The apologists say that the poor will be with us always, so how is poverty in Oakland California in any way “news?”  Or poverty more generally, given the now routine brutalities of the new economy?  Or insecurity and suffering more generally still, given the precarious state of the whole global system?  And what, finally, has any of this got to do with climate?  The answer, simply put, is “everything.”  Which is to say that while most economic-justice activists don’t spend much time thinking about the climate crisis, it’s become ridiculously easy to argue that the deficit / budget / tax battle that’s now raging across the wealthy lands of America and Europe is going to have outsized impacts on climate politics both domestic and international.  That in fact it already has.

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