Fiddling While Rome burns


by Ed Ayres,
Four Walls Eight Windows, New York,
1999, 357pp, f 14.99 - ISBN 1 56858 125 4

Ed Ayres is the Editofial Director of the WorldWatch Institute and one of America's most prolific writers on environmental issues. His latest book is a wake up call to all who are unaware, or in denial, of the fact that the Earth is facing some of the most profound and devastating changes since the dawn of human life. With solid underpinnings of scientific data, the author describes four destr uctive phenomena now impacting our planet and their synergistic relationship each adding fuel to the others in an apocalyptic crescendo:

The surge in climatic disturbances that drove 300 inillion people from their homes in 1998, including more than 2,000 tornadoes in the US, 70,000 tropicalfires and devastating floods in 54 countries.

The fastest biological mass extinction since the age of the dinosaurs: from one species per year a few decades ago to many thousand species per year today.

The consumption offinite resources: the nettforested area of the Earth is shrinking by the size of two football fields every second, and we use up as muchfossitfuel in one day as was created in 10,000 years. The number qf mouths to feed, which has grown as much in the last ten years as in the 10,000 years prior to the industrial revolution. Nett world population now increases as much in three days as in the average century of early human history.

These four phenomena are illustrated with graphs showing the 'spikes' for carbon dioxide emissions, bio extinction, human consumption and population respectively. They are so similar that their inter relation becomes obvious even to those who have been unaware of any threat to their accustomed lifestyle, or who refuse to accept the fact that we face a crisis of unprecedented severity. With each passing month, the four spikes become more entangled by feedback loops through which they aggravate and exacerbate each other.

Ayres also identifies some of the societal forces that perpetuate public indifference:

Ourfaith in technology has become a panacea for all our problems. He reminds the reader that technology has never been anything but a tool an extension of thosefaculties we already possess and says that we must look beyond technologyfor a solution to our human predicament. He dismisses as "a colossal foolishness" the notion that all we need to do to fix our broken educational system is to put more computers in evety classroom. It is "an extension of the doctrine espoused by the World Bank" that a proliferation of power plants, super highways and other high tech infrastructure would liberate Third World countries, whereas in many cases they have resulted only in poverty.

The information explosion has become information obliteration, as our knowledge becomes increasingly fragmented, and we are inundated by self serving corporate disinformation.

Each day we are more disconnected from the physical world, as 'virtual reality'and the make believe world of entertainment media become substitutes for real life experiences. In the process, the distinction between fame and infamy has been effiectively obliterated: media exposure has become the only yardstickfor measuring success.

Roman emperors knew that the best way to keep their subjects docile was to satisft their appetite for bread and circuses. For many in today's high tech world, the PC has become the Panem et Circenses of choice. In their rush to escape reality others wrap themselves in the comforting blanket of a druginduced stupor or seek refuge in a fundamentalist religion.

The growth of a global shadow economy, which is accountable neither to any national government nor to future generationsfor its depletion of resources and its degradation of our biosphere. Ayres'most scathing criticism is reservedfor traditional economists and bureaucrats who refuse tofactor in the ecological costs in the price of a product potentially a catastrophic blind spot in conventional accounting.

The question is can we leam from our mistakes? In a chapter entitled 'Ambushes of the past' the author gives a brief run down of past civilisations that have succumbed not to superior military might, but to corrosive forces from within. The Sumerian, Tehuacan, Mayan, Roman and Indus civilisations all disintegrated because of abuse and overuse of the natural resources which sustained them for centuries. A microcosm of this phenomenon, repeated throughout human history with a regularity which in retrospect seems preordained, is the demise of the culture that lasted for a millennium on Easter Island. Once forested and fertile, it was colonised by Polynesians, who established a thriving society, epitomised by some 600 giant stone figures erected at the peak of its civilisation. But as all the trees were felled to provide building material for houses and boats, firewood and logs for transporting the massive effigies to their final resting places, the soil eroded, and the population eventually shrank to a pitiful handful of cavedwelling cannibals, the last of whom were greeted with a hail of bullets by the Dutch explorers who 'discovered' the island on Easter Sunday 1722.

The fate of the Easter Islanders is an apt metaphor for the dilemma in which we find ourselves at the end of the 20th century: we may have 20/20 hindsight, but our foresight is sorely lacking.

But Ayres doesn't just assess the severity of the situation or assign blame for our abuses. He also offers many constructive suggestions, such as new standards for news reporting, new measures of accountability for global corporations and govemments, and limits on personal and corporate consumption. And, beyond policy suggestions, he focuses his sharp analytical intellect on the fears and yeamings driving our collective perceptions, and shows how they can be channelled into new constructive paths.

While many of the facts and figures assembled in God's Last Offer are wellknown to the experts in different fields, the author's greatest accomplishment lies in bringing them all together in one book, and showing their interdependence in text and illustrations that any layperson can easily comprehend. Ayres has skilfully pieced together what hitherto seemed an overwhelming and puzzling flow of fragmented infonnation. There is not one person on Earth who will not be profoundly affected by the four congruent curves of Ed Ayres' graphs and their potentially devastating effect on the future of our planet. In the author's words: "In the language of religion, God has given us an offer: to see the consequences of our actions and assume moral responsibility for them, or to be consumed by them."

Gard Binney

Gard Binney is an environmental activist and writer.

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