Book Review: The Sustainability Mirage


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The Sustainability Mirage: Illusion and Reality in the Coming War on Climate Change by John Foster is very timely, particularly given other similar books like Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas Friedman and The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones. Earlier this week Warren wrote an article questioning why people aren't in the streets and if there really is anything we can do to save ourselves from the quickly drawing deadline that is climate change. Foster asserts that simply choosing to save the planet for future generations isn't enough to get us to the deadline because it is a slippery slope that we can never achieve. In The Sustainability Mirage, Foster asserts that we only have one shot to get this right, so we need to redefine what we mean by sustainable development, and quit thinking of it as a long-term goal in order to break away from this mirage.Why Call it a Mirage?
Reasons sustainable development might not work, according to the author, a) our actions are "more than likely to reflect the level of change with which we are personally comfortable, rather than that required for making the necessary objective difference," and b) we will float or fudge the numbers and make concessions with ourselves to justify our actions. Also, when we calculate our carbon footprint, its easy to get caught up in the "hey, you're better than most people answer" and figure that is good enough. Plus, when it comes to getting in an airplane for a work trip or driving that commute to work every day, no one got out of that car and refused to expel another emission because it will harm the grandchildren they might have one day.

Buying our way out of it, purchasing offsets, choosing alternatives which emit less but are still harmful, are all ways to wiggle around the hard target of cutting our emissions way down. Groups like 350.org are there to give us a hard target to shoot for, but it doesn't really do anything to change how we are living the regular obligations of daily life.

According to Foster,

"The far more insidious danger is that we will resort to the multiple opportunities of equivocation between hard and soft quanta which the ethico-scientism of the model provides, so as to ensure that 'acting responsibly' — for which we will continue to claim credit — always stops short of any unduly painful changes. (The offset calculations will always allow us to keep flying ) .The situation on the ground, and in the atmosphere, gets ever more pressing, the problems which the targets are supposed to address ever more serious and the demands of genuinely adequate solutions more exacting — the goal itself recedes as our advance towards it pulls back, so that we will have less and less prospect of ever overtaking it. This truly is the politics of never getting there."

Light At the End of the Tunnel

Van Jones has said that you need the fear that the good guy might not make it to make a good movie. Thomas Friedman has said that you need 1000 guys in their garage to get 100 good ideas, with 10 that will take off and 2 that actually save us. Well it's under these odds that Foster writes, "we have left ourselves, at best, the margin for one serious go at saving civilization."

If you're at the point of realizing that all of our tiny actions still aren't enough and you want to do more, then maybe this book is for you. But beware, it may leave you feeling worse if you don't make it to the end of the book. This book definitely makes you feel like "this is more than we can manage" from the beginning - it causes you to hit bottom so it can build you back up again. It causes you to question what we mean by sustainable development and if we're not possibly on the wrong track. If we know what our target emissions goal is, and know exactly how to get there, and more importantly that it will work, then brilliant. But on the other hand, if we keep with business as usual in our efforts at emission limits, and we are in fact wrong and never stop to question what we are doing, then we have no time to fix it because we won't get a second chance.

Final Thoughts

Spoiler Alert: I won't give the book away, other than to say that one of the solutions that Foster asserts is to break from this cycle of meaninglessness and affluenza, something that others have also begun to push. The simple answer is that we need to keep it simple. Choose local first, and slow down. Somehow turn off those talking heads on the tv and get to work.

Let me say that this review it is a bit tainted and I'm a bit charged up after finishing this book, so I apologize for how this might come out. When I first started reading this book, I was definitely in a place to hear what Foster had to say. If I can be blunt, I'm sick of all the change-your-lightbulbs and using-your-canvas-shopping-bag ads. Those things will neither save the planet nor stop climate change. Lets be honest - those things are what you do to be a responsible citizen, not because eliminating plastic bags will stop climate change, but just to keep a toxic resource out of the environment and help us to better use the resources we have. Foster hits this nail on the head by saying that it is going to take WAY more than simple actions and a desire to protect our grandchildren to turn this ship around.

The only problem I have with the book is that the author promises to make a book that is accessible to all and this book is not exactly what I would call accessible. Its dense and its heady, but it snares you in within the first chapter and you keep reading because you hope that maybe he has the answer. There are a lot of ideas and points thrown around (which is sort of the authors's point: discuss every possible option because we can't afford to just pin ourselves to oldd, commonly held ideas), but it also leaves a lot of loose ends when the book is done. While Foster does summarize and conclude that there are a few things we have to do, there are other ideas thrown out that the reader can take and run with and maybe come up with a tangible solution.

The Sustainability Mirage is available online at Earthscan Publishers and Amazon.com. You can preview the book on Google.

More on Fixing the Environmental Crisis
No Impact Man on Consumption
Focus Earth with Bob Woodruff
Environment Movement Should Change Their Message, Says Author Chris Turner
A Time to Laugh and A Time to Cry
Our Oceans are Dying and We're At Fault

Tags: Air Travel | Books | Carbon Footprint | Global Climate Change

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