Book review: Austerity ecology and the collapse-porn addicts

This was fun! I think it is my first book review of someone I actually know - having met Leigh Phillips randomly on a Eurostar to Brussels one terribly early morning a few years ago.

Leigh's book is a no-holds barred assault on de-growth, small is beautiful, return to the land ideologies. It is a full on and forthright defence of growth for all good lefty reasons.

Much of Leigh's book picks up on the knee-jerk reaction, with little evidence, against various endeavours to make things better on the planet. He examines the critical lack of evidence and offers plenty of counter-evidence to many of the return-to-land ideologues. For example, looking at the full life cycle of the production of food can show that it's better to buy tomatoes from Spain that from the north of England. The environmental impact of transport costs are minimal and the main cost is in production. If you're using green houses that require energy, naturally it is going to be more carbon intensive than just using, you know, the sun. He looks at everything from genetic modification, biotechnology and nuclear power - and the reasons why they're beneficial and can help us increase human flourishing without catastrophically endangering us and wrecking the biosphere.

I think I probably like it as it validates a lot of my assumptions about the anti-science rhetoric that comes from some areas of environmentalists. In that, it's unhelpful, reactionary and irrational. One incident he mentions was a protest at Rothamsted by anti-GM activists, which I was at (as a pro-science observer). The protesters' methods seemed ridiculous and in direct contradiction of much of want environmentalists wanted, eg less corporate control of the food supply (the study was publicly funded). The obsession with a proven safe technology as being unsafe is hampering growth and sustainability.

One of my favourite sections was about the obsession with organic and localism. They are often no better and often worse than their non-organic or non-local equivalents, being worse environmentally, worse for workers rights and more land intensive. It is counter intuitive in one way but completely logical in others. Different climates are better at producing different products. Also, you would hope that we could increasingly improve on agricultural methods.

That was the really depressing reality that many of the small-is-beautiful advocates want - directly working the land yourself. Monotony and back-breaking labour to replace the simplification through technology. In what way is back breaking labour (in terms of agriculture production) something that people actually want to do? There were reasons for peasant revolts and reasons why people went from the country to the city. Forgetting that in some longing for your own plot in the country is making terrible assumptions of the wants of normal people. Whatevs. They can pick weeds all they want, I'll stick with the shop.

Ultimately, what I found was that the book was profoundly up-lifting. We have, despite what the doom and gloomers and survivalists think, the capability and ingenuity to overcome all our perceived barriers. We have lots of things to overcome to make it fairer, sustainable and more productive but that is a matter of political will, investment and organisation. These things humans are good at, have been good at, when we've put our minds to it.

Also. Screw back to working the fields with an oxen. I want to go to Mars.

It was a fantastic read and really makes you think that wonderful things are still ahead of us. The past was a miserable place, for a lot of people. Hankering for some idealised simple time of the 1970s, 1870s, 1070s or beyond is foolish and irresponsible.

Going backwards is unacceptable. Forward, Prometheus.