Saturday, June 02, 2012

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: Wasted World

Rob Hengeveld 
Wasted World: 
How Our Consumption Challenges the Planet
The University of Chicago Press, 2012

If I could choose the next runaway bestseller, the next Tuesdays with Morrie – 206 weeks on the NYTimes bestseller list! – it would be this brilliant and essential book.  That will never happen.  This has got to be one of the least heart-warming books on the planet.  And one of the most important.

I admit I have become fond of books that begin, as this one does, with the statement that the book “is not optimistic in its contents or in its conclusions.”  What a relief.  The author intends to treat me as an adult and tell me the truth.  I’ve grown leery of optimists.  If the firemen arrive while your house is in flames, do you demand that they stop first on your doorstep and tell you that your future is rosy?

We are using up the last of our resources and burying ourselves in waste.  We have very nearly reached the end, and we still go on pretending that nothing is happening, that growth is eternal, that we have, in some hidden pocket, unlimited worlds to squander.

Chapter by chapter, Rob Hengeveld shows what we have done – the exhaustion of resources, the loss of biodiversity, the creation of a world that is ever-more abstract and prone to collapse.  I imagined him sometimes as a cranky uncle, determined to explain everything so that even I (who am a little slow) will understand.  Step by step, process by process, he goes on explaining, not necessarily cheerful, but painstaking and patient. 

The great benefit (even pleasure) of this book is that on nearly every page I found myself thinking, “Yes, I heard about that before, but I did not understand it.”  Hengeveld is extraordinarily gifted at making difficult issues and processes clear and understandable.  I have no math or science background, yet I was able to understand.  Looking at a chapter title like “The Energy and Information Content of Society”, I thought, “What chance have I got?” -- yet he guided me through it and I understood.

Looking back at my notes, I am amazed how much I was able to learn in 300 pages.  It seems as if there are 1500 pages of information.  He makes vast and complicated issues clear and immediate.  For example, although people may be aware that we are running out of oil and water, how many realize that we are running out of phosphorus, of potassium, even helium!  And we cannot live without phosphorus any more than we can live without water.

I have never found such clear and riveting depictions of the loss of freshwater, biodiversity and essential nutrients, of the continents of plastic filling our oceans and the poisons in our air, water and soil.  If you read this book, you will understand why even the change of even a fraction of degree in the Earth’s temperature matters tremendously, why a newly planted forest does not reconstitute an ancient one, why ‘carrying capacity’ is a misleading idea, why an abstract world is increasingly prone to collapse.

If Hengeveld is a “cranky uncle”, always keeping an eye on numbers, processes and proofs, explaining everything step by step, that only makes it more powerful when his descriptions open up into an anguished and utterly informed lament for the Earth, for all the natural and human wonders we are on the verge of losing.  The beauty and emotion startles and convinces, like a cranky uncle who suddenly sings in a sonorous baritone. 

This book, if it receives any attention at all, will be attacked.  Because it shows plainly and vividly that “business as usual” cannot and will not go on.  And that is the very last thing we are willing to hear.  The solutions he proposes are mortifying – but the alternative is to consent to the death of billions.   

The content and conclusions of this book may feel emotionally and psychologically  overwhelming.  Particularly because, when you close its covers, you return to a world where virtually everyone acts as if nothing is going on, as if “business as usual” can go on forever.  If you find your emotions challenging or hard to bear, I warmly recommend that you read Joanna Macy’s Active Hope

Although I learned a lot from Bill McKibben’s Eaarth and David W. Orr’s Down to the Wire, I think that Wasted World is now the best overview available of our global environmental situation – also known as “life on Earth”.  I plead with you to read it.

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