Virtual Learning Resource Centre

Earth Odyssey: Around the world in search of our environmental future

Book cover

by Mark Hertsgaard, Broadway Books, 1999.


This book is the story of six years spent by the author travelling the world to see for himself the nature of the problems connected with the environment, the use of Earth’s resources, pollution of air and water, population growth, global warming and world poverty. He visited countries where poverty was extreme, where drought and war created untold suffering and where pollution posed a threat to health. He talked with ordinary people and world leaders puzzling over the way ahead and the impact of the issues upon business. Very descriptive in his style, he makes situations come alive as he focuses on the most significant concerns of the 21st Century.

(Reviewed by Edgar Wille in February 2007)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

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Simultaneously a travel and a management book

This is a book to entertain, yet with a desperately serious message and an exciting challenge. It was light enough to enable me to read it on a sick bed and yet at the end of it to feel that I had learned more about the problems of the world than from many a serious tome I had read.

It is not strictly a management book, yet its implications for management are vast. Issues like the climate, pollution, sustainable use of resources, population growth, world poverty – all have a crucial effect on the growth and even the survival of many companies. Having some understanding of them in a balanced way will enhance the competence of managers.

The book chronicles six years during which Mark Hertstraad travelled around the globe to see how the environment, which is the context of all our businesses, was faring at the hands of humans. (I will usually call him Mark, because he invites us to join him on his journey and anyway his family name is a bit long!) He never despairs, he is not a doomsayer, though sometimes what he was seeing must have placed a strain on hope. He wrote in the last years of the 20th Century; seven years later the issues are as crucial as ever. I have not yet met any later book with such a graphic, human picture – turning concepts into a living panorama.

This review inevitably has to omit reference to some of his vivid and fascinating descriptions of people wrestling with overwhelming problems and potential disasters, sometimes against a backcloth of breathtakingly beautiful scenery and as heirs to a chequered history. One colleague who read the review in draft found it a depressing catalogue of human misdemeanours, often deliberately perpetrated. However, the book doesn’t actually read like this. It is enlivened by human stories which show the other side of human behaviour, but it has to bring out the dangers the world faces in order to foster at the end a note of hope. In its nature a review has to restrict itself to the essential facts and perspectives, seeing them as a challenge to take positive action.

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The prologue

Mark does not tell the story of his travels in the order in which they occurred but follows connections wherever they may lead. Thus he starts with a sickening picture of unadulterated sewage and chemical effluent pouring from a factory into a river in Chongqing, China. The river provided drinking water for the city; youngsters swam in it and upstream, into another river, adults defecated. And no one seemed to care. Security was weak around the factory and, as they walked uninterrupted through it, they even had to dodge clouds of dangerous chlorine which were leaking from the ancient equipment.

Everywhere there was a dank greyness stemming from the pollution which dominated the atmosphere. Five of the world’s most polluted cities are in China. Much of the rain which falls is acid rain and “unwashed” coal is the prime fuel. Lung diseases are prevalent because of air and water pollution, not helped by the growing use of tobacco and the enormous increase in the use of the motor car. (When I visited China in 1981 the bicycle had been the main mode of transport.)

The United States and China together can “all but single-handedly guarantee” that climate change, acid rain, carbon emissions, water pollution and similar hazards will afflict people on a worldwide scale.

Mark interviewed heads of state such as the Czech president, Vaclav Havel, and lived for few days with refugees in temporary quarters at the border of Sudan and Ethiopia. Most of the ex-communist countries of Eastern Europe were visited, along with Russia, Turkey, Kenya and Uganda. Thailand and Brazil were also included in his itinerary.

Quite early he shows his hand in his comment on the dangers of “economic activities and technological choices which bring pleasure, profits, paychecks or simple survival to millions”. He highlights the production of automobiles, the felling of rainforests by people without land and the relentless consumerism, fuelled by advertising to boost sales. The idea of phasing out fossil fuels is still inconceivable to most people, especially to those with special interests in their continued use.

We live in a world which is awash with man-made chemicals and at risk from technologies which know no borders, as Chernobyl vividly illustrated, and losing species which are not just pleasing luxuries to view in zoos or on television, but which actively support the systems by which life is maintained, through the enriching of the soil and acting as sinks for greenhouse gases. And Mark saw evidence everywhere of the unbalancing of the ecosystems, in spite of the arguments advanced against scaremongering by those whose profits were threatened by any major change.

The aim of the book is not so much to advocate solutions as to describe our collective behaviour and to ask where it is likely to lead.

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A Sudanese refugee village

The next stopping place in which we join the author is a makeshift village – a Red Cross provided home to tens of thousands of the Dinka tribe who had had to flee two hundred miles from their homelands in Southern Sudan, because of the civil war. Thousands didn’t make it and perished on the way. Before this tragedy they had eked out some kind of bearable existence raising cattle, catching fish and growing various crops. But now they had no livelihoods, as was the case for many other tribes who were victims of drought and desert encroachment, without war, some of it in Africa caused according to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), by global warming, which hit the continent and especially the poor severely.

Mark joined the villagers in eating their tasteless mush of nut kernel which would take six hours to prepare, once you had the water which took hours to collect. During the night hyenas, lions and leopards were making their presence known, but hesitating to invade the camp because of the incessant barking of the village dogs.

Mark visited the primitive, underprovided hospital where many malnourished children, unlikely to see their fifth birthdays, were given such ameliorative treatment as was possible, by a German nurse. Others were just lying listlessly waiting for something to happen, without even the energy to rush to the scene of food drops.

The point is made that people like the Dinka have so many survival problems to worry about that they can hardly be expected to be concerned about deforestation if trees are their only source of heating apart from cow dung cakes which fill their huts with smoke. They are daily face to face with raw nature often at its most unforgiving. They cannot turn up the air conditioning as temperatures soar, or switch on the electric cooker, turn on the water tap, hop into a car to go to the supermarket, or get a prescription for some antibiotics. Their clothes are little more than dirty rags. And mosquito nets are unavailable, so that malaria is an ever present threat.

In 1992 the UN estimated 42 million Africans are at risk from starvation; the number will since have risen. The situation is made worse by incompetent governments and, even worse, a general prevalence of corruption and a failure of the recipes dictated by international institutions adhering to dogma developed in and for the West.

Mark visited other townships in Southern Sudan with much of the same sad, sorry story, with crushing poverty on every side, inadequate medical attention, and traditional farming ruined by famine and war. People knew about environmental problems, but food on the table today was their priority.

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Uganda and Kenya

The next visit recorded is to Uganda, where the author visited the North Western corner, where the Nile enters Lake Albert, with the mountains of Congo DR (then called Zaire) in the distance. He rented a bicycle in the fishing village of Wanseko, to repeat Churchill’s ride to the beautiful Murchison Falls on dirt roads, little more than tracks. His descriptions are enlivened by word pictures of hundreds of hippopotamuses and crocodiles in the Nile.

He reflected on Churchill’s perspective that technology would bring civilisation to these half clad “savages” and profit to the white man, who would “tame the jungle”. This evinced an arrogance that has not totally disappeared in our day. It can subtly affect our approach to problems.

The author next visits Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya. His journey was punctuated by desert landscapes and villages which could not live by fish alone and would have found survival difficult without food drops from charities to the village air strip. This starts him off on reflections on the evolution of the human race, which the Leakys pinpointed as having begun in this area. He reflects on the stages of civilisation from hunter to agriculture to industry and sees the people he has been observing as at earlier stages of economic development in their local cultures.

Against this background he views the colonial activities which gave one fifth of the land in Kenya to the “natives” while the white man took the rest – an inequality that still left its mark on Kenya, with a vast disparity between Africa and the industrial world, into which Churchill hoped to wean the native peoples. Mark was struck as he talked to local white people how little they knew of the real lives of the tribes who lived there.

He is also led to see the problem of the Western consumer society where a minority of the human race have consumption levels which are well beyond what the earth can go on sustaining, particularly if the four billion people who are living in extreme poverty begin to catch up, even a little. These concerns affect the way in which businesses will have to think as consumption styles have to change, faced by the problems of “sustainability”. They are management problems.

Mark is sad to leave Africa, impressed not only by the magnificent scenery, but the happy disposition of the local people, who seemed to take life as it came, with good humour even in the face of appalling problems. They were not defined by their appalling problems. He compares them with people he met in Russia, who although much better off, were prone to sour faced complaints and self pity, where the Africans he met “tended to shrug and make the best of things, smiling, even laughing, amid adversity, if only because it was better than crying”.

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Polluted Thailand

The author next takes us to Thailand, where there was a fuller awareness of the activities of modern civilisation, yet still with the ambiguities of a culture which “was fast forwarding from traditional isolation to high-tech overdrive”. He describes Bangkok as being catapulted from an easy going, Buddhist-flavoured tropical capital to a bustling global business centre.

The contrast with Africa was notable – clean toilets, telephones, restaurants, European amenities, including automobiles everywhere, highways in good repair, lighted billboards everywhere. And yet peering into the areas abutting the highway there were shantytowns that recalled the poverty of Kampala in Uganda and Kenya’s Nairobi. And traffic jams ever present in and around Bangkok – even at one o’clock in the morning and averaging seven kilometres an hour. And the accompanying pollution especially from the two stroke engine three wheelers.

The traffic jams were the visible tip of the iceberg of Bangkok’s pollution problems. Rivers no cleaner than the Chinese ones with which he begins his book and no sewage treatment plants, and groundwater diminishing, so that the city was slowly sinking on a sea of mud. The dangers to the eco-systems in Thailand were occasioned by its rapid development from a level akin to Kenya and Uganda to an economic success story, albeit with its ambitions running ahead of its infrastructure. In the 1980s its annual growth rate had been 10%, with little diminution up to the time of writing.

It was the very surge in income which had produced the high level of pollution and the waste of 44 days a year spent in traffic jams (a standard commute was five hours, supported by portable toilets and breakfast on the back seat). At the urging of the World Bank, Thailand had pursued an export led development strategy supported by foreign investment with high costs as forests and wetlands were abandoned with alacrity. And as national income rose so did social inequality. Unable to compete with global capital, peasants were driven off their land into the cities, squatting in shantytowns, many working in sweat shops or in the burgeoning sex industry.

Villagers tended to be aware of the environmental problems, but the middle class town people just tended to turn up the air conditioning and retreat into their isolation. Mass transit systems were non-existent and canals had been paved over. But people tended to put up with it because they wanted a good education for their children, which was more available in the city than in rural areas. And one government minister saw the traffic snarl up as a blessing in disguise, because without it the country wouldn’t have an automobile industry.

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The menace of the automobile

The experience of Bangkok leads the author to look at the automobile as a key problem in modern society. He comments that while the car has given people greater mobility and control over many aspects of their lives, the environmental costs are great, in respect of air pollution, destruction of agricultural and wilderness land and intensification of the greenhouse effect. Mark Hertsgaard was well acquainted with the climate change crisis and though in 2007 we have reached a stage of understanding, where the IPCC has declared the dangers as “unequivocal” and requiring urgent attention, he is hardly less insistent when writing seven or eight years ago. He assails those who then were in a state of denial of the problem (many of them associated with fossil fuel and automobile industries).

He quotes various figures which suggest that as developing countries increase their car usage carbon emissions will increase enormously. Automobile emission apparently caused nearly 100 billion dollars worth of damage to health and the environment in the United States, every recent year up to the time of writing. Manufacturing cars also takes vast amounts of steel, iron, aluminium and plastic and therefore the emissions in the manufacture of these materials also enter the pollution equation, to say nothing of the gobbling up of land for roads and parking lots.

Yet he believes that nothing will stop the people of the world from their love affair with the automobile. A later chapter illustrates this in relation to China as part of a survey of the many problems of China, running side by side with their apparent prosperity. In just the one vast city of Guangzhou (previously known as Canton) there were already 500,000 cars, and ever increasing here and in other cities as rural people migrated into urban areas in the search for a “better” life and built brick houses and bought cars with the funds from “selling” the land which had been allocated to them in the rural areas, where extreme poverty still prevails and is largely covered up in the official statistics.

The motor car is one of the first things that lower income people buy once they are within striking distance of becoming middle class and if poverty recedes in the less developed countries (LDCs) the same pattern will be reproduced everywhere. Mark speaks of some of the European attempts to divert people on to high speed, comfortable public transport, which have met with some success, which is however unlikely to spread all over the world very quickly.

The decline of public transport in general has been due to the success of the automobile, but it has also been manoeuvred out of existence in some cases by vested interests. An example he calls criminal is given. In 1932 General Motors joined with Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum, and Mack (Truck) Manufacturing to form National City Lines. It was a phony front company for buying up rail and trolley lines in cities across the country, then shutting them down and tearing up the track. The highway network grew, especially after the War, largely paid for by the taxpayer as part of the defence budget, where it was supposed to make mass evacuation simpler in the event of an attack from an enemy.

A French writer told our author that there are three ways to reduce the threat of the addiction with the car: to build better cars, buy fewer cars, use cars less. But there was doubt whether humans would implement such reforms with the world careering toward a billion cars by 2020. If there is success in reducing their use, then the implications for business and industry are enormous. It is considered that the automobile is the most economically important product of our time. Manufacturing them is the world’s biggest industry; fuelling them the second. The car accounts for one in seven jobs in the USA and millions more around the world. If their production stopped the global economy would collapse, yet scientific fact demands that something be done.

Hertsgaard speaks of the automobile as an artificial limb which has evolved and adapted human behaviour. Whether humans will survive the environmental effects of the car cannot be predicted, “but only the reckless would disregard the many threatening clouds on the horizon.”

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Nuclear cover-ups in Russia

Mark begins his tour of Russia with comments on Leningrad, which reverted to its original name as St Petersburg. He likens it to a Rolls Royce “that had deteriorated into a rusty, dented filthy shadow of its former self”. He found Russia shabby and its people enduring hard times. Water from the tap was undrinkable with a metallic smell and a greasy texture. All water had to be boiled and even that did not eliminate the industrial toxins. Several thousand factories discharged their effluent into the Neva River, with only 10% being treated.

He visited an area in the region which is at the beginning of the vast steppes that reach up to Siberia. Mayak it is called, which means lighthouse. Here the production of the Soviet nuclear weapons took place from 1946 to 1990. And it was here that major catastrophes took place, more significant than Chernobyl, but hushed up by the authorities, irrespective of the fact that the conspiracy of silence put thousands of lives at risk. The first episode wasn’t an accident. A decision had been taken to pour the nuclear waste directly into the nearby Techa River. Tens of thousand of downstream inhabitants received enormous doses of radioactivity, far in excess of the Chernobyl dosage.

Then in September 1957 a major accident did occur. A nuclear waste dump exploded. The total amount of radioactivity ejected measured ten time more than that which had been ejected into the Tech River. A third disaster occurred in 1967, when the deadly silt of Lake Karachay that had been used for nuclear waste was spread far and wide due to a hurricane. Mark visited hospitals and saw patients who so many years later were suffering from leukaemia and other consequences of the disregard of human safety. The 80 square miles involved in these disasters have been described as the most polluted spot on earth.

Yet cattle were still grazing in areas where impossibly high radiation levels were read by a scientist who accompanied Mark to the location. Even worse there were parts of the lake where the silt was spread out, where a few minutes by an effluent pipe was radioactive enough to kill. The author didn’t try that, but by talking to local people gained a sense of the helplessness they felt, they had to live there and just had to accept the risks. There was enormous radiation in the lake, which another hurricane could distribute over the countryside.

Mark interviewed officials who had been responsible for the cover-up and related deception. They regretted that they couldn’t stop the disaster, but felt they could have done nothing about transparency, because that was the system and you couldn’t buck it. Self interest in the West covers up or denies danger just as seriously in relation to the many threats which modern life has been creating.

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Nuclear cover-ups in the United States and elsewhere

Mark diverts at the insistence of Russian apologists to Hanford in the United States, where nuclear production took precedence over safety and public health as radioactivity was deliberately released into the atmosphere, into the river and on to the ground, without a word to the public who were being put at grave risk. It was policy to conduct dangerous experiments like 1000s of soldiers being ordered to walk through mushroom clouds of atomic test blasts. The one country can hardly take the high moral ground when criticising the other.

The author says that similar experiments are taking place in a number of sites in various parts of the world. And the implications and dangers of nuclear tests are played down or ignored. Waste storage is discussed and with the kind of history of deception in nuclear matters, it is little wonder, says the author, that people don’t trust nuclear authorities or their production processes. The debate on the civil use of nuclear power is affected by this mistrust. There are 15 nuclear power plants in Russia on the same model as Chernobyl, but economic considerations often override human ones, even though the threat of nuclear war has receded. “Commercial pressures are allowed to mock public safety.”

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China and climate change

A chapter is devoted to China’s environmental problems, especially as they contribute to global warming. Mark also looks at the attitudinal problems involved in tackling the issues. He mentions the deep poverty which persists in rural China, which contrasts with the relative prosperity of a growing middle class. He visits the student accommodation in a University; it would provoke a student riot in the West. He vividly describes a train journey in the bottom class, surrounded by passengers spitting phlegm on to the carriage floor in an unconcerned way. He gets to Beijing and describes the litter strewn streets and the omnipresent smog, which fills the lungs and induces a sense of sub health.

He then moves on to the root causes of the pollution. Three quarters of Chinese energy is based on coal of which they have an abundance, in mines which would appal European miners from a safety angle. Electricity is coal generated and subject to frequent supply interruptions. A new electric power plant is build each week in China and this will go on for the foreseeable future. Use of electricity is soaring as the sale of refrigerators and other domestic appliances is skyrocketing.

The carbon emissions resulting from this rapid growth affect the rest of the world. By 2025 it is calculated that at present rates China will be responsible for 17% of world carbon emissions. Among other consequences this was likely to lead to flooding on the coastal strip, the size of Portugal, which includes Shanghai and 67,000 people made homeless and much suffering for millions of others. Droughts will be an increasing threat making it difficult for Chinese agriculture to feed the hungry mouths. The damage to lungs is considerable, yet life expectancy in China as a whole is 70 years, compared with 39 in 1950.

When asking people about their reaction to the health hazards of the air they breathed and the food they ate from many polluted sources, he invariably got the same answer that they were used to it and their bodies had learned to cope. Considerately they admitted that he would suffer if exposed to the conditions, because he had not grown up with it and was not used to it. Environmental considerations did not loom large in Chinese ordinary thought. Money and increasing prosperity loomed much larger in their concerns. There was even a spirit of denial that there were any real problems.

And as to the idea that China owed it to the rest of the world to curb its emissions, the reaction was to question why they should forgo growth and prosperity which the rich countries had built up in past generations. It was their turn now; an argument for fairness, which overrode the fact that they would share the disasters that their economic growth was helping to create.

The Chinese love affair with the market was tending to assume that it would solve everything and they were not going to forgo its benefits to suit rich nations.

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Population problems

China, as the most populous country in the world, was obviously a place from which Mark would learn something about population problems, but he concentrates on Brazil, initially, as the backcloth of his discussion on this issue. He is sailing down a tributary of the Amazon with a family with nine children; the mother, pregnant every other year, seems serene about it. They reached a small town which was the site of a Catholic mission and the scene of a religious festival, which was more like a holy party.

Mark got talking with the local priest who said that the hardest part of his work was burying young children, which occurred far too often. Brazil experienced fifty deaths to one thousand live births, whereas the figure was nine in the industrial nations. 40,000 children die every day in the Third World from malnutrition and disease, while the world’s top 20% of income earners earn nearly 80 times the income of the poor (according to the UN Development Program 1994).

When talking with American friends Mark was surprised to find a lack of sympathy expressed in terms of “Why don’t they stop having so many kids?” He felt that this simple question went to the “core of the population issue and its complicated relationship with global poverty and environmental degradation”. It set him thinking about whether people in wealthy countries had any right to blame the poor for their poverty, when so much of it was due to the consumption patterns of the rich countries which were responsible for the vast majority of the world’s resource depletion and the destruction of its eco-systems.

A baby born in the United States creates 13 times as much damage to the environment during a lifetime as a Brazilian baby. (The figure would be 35 for comparison with an Indian family.) In terms of the use of the Earth’s resources an American couple with two children were the equivalent of a Brazilian family with 26 children. As the biggest consumer society on the globe, America in fact has a population problem in seeking to keep pace with just the energy needs of its growing population.

Some of the population problem in poor countries is not due to breeding like rabbits, but to the fact that in spite of the long distance to go, in many locations they are no longer dying like flies. The terrible mortality rates quoted are two thirds lower than they were in 1950. Nevertheless, as population grows it becomes harder for a country to climb out of poverty. Extreme poverty denies access to knowledge and means of family limitation. The culture also encourages large families to cope with replacement for premature deaths and provision for care in old age. Given the circumstances, there is some reason behind this.

The author also comments on the patriarchal approach in many societies where the man often vetoes family planning methods and recognises no rights of the woman over her own body, and where rape is smiled at as normal. The status of women is a big issue (as recognised by Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank who entrust their loans mainly to groups of women). Where women’s status is enhanced birth rates tend to fall. Progress in the Indian State of Kerala is cited to illustrate what can be done to improve the lives of women and therefore of society.

The Cairo Conference on population and development, run by the UN in 1994, gave some hope with its program for action signed by over 100 nations, though there is some doubt whether implementation is advancing as fast as it could, even with a large budget.

80 million people are being added to the earth’s population every year. Will it stabilise at 8 billion, or is it more likely to be 12 billion in the lifetime of most readers?

On the question of population control, Mark lingers in China and reports conversations he had with people who were coerced into having one child families. He reports shocking stories of ill managed abortions, female infanticide and family anguish. The population increase was restrained, but already it was past cure. Even such draconian measures did not solve the problem, which had already escalated to numbers which were already too high for short term balance.

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Resource shortages

The author absolves population increase from being the main culprit in the environmental problems of the world, but recognises that it is a major contributor. More people means increased demand for food, water and other material necessities, as well as increased pollution. He gives India as an example of how a country’s ability to feed its inhabitants can be placed under stress by rapid expansion of the population. In 1960 there were 0.36 hectares of arable land for everyone. In 1990, with population nearly doubled to 850 million, the figure was 0.20 hectares and on the most optimistic scenario of 1.3m people, is likely to be down to 0.12 hectares in 2025.

Similarly with water. There is no more water available on the planet than there was 2000 years ago with a world population of less than 3% of its present level, apart from desertification through drought and over-use of irrigation. Yet humanity’s use of water increased four times between 1940 and 1990. (And we thought it was a problem in the early 1960s when I attended a Soil Association Conference on Water.) Expanded irrigation has led to waterlogged land, salinisation and other detrimental conditions.

Food production was enhanced by the Green Revolution in the same period, but population needs have still outpaced the rising production level. The Green Revolution even exacerbated problems for the extremely poor who could not afford the seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and other technologies and therefore became less competitive even in their small local markets and whose small plots became less productive.

Soil erosion proceeds apace, even apart from increased use of chemicals, through the destruction of soil creating loss of wild life, over grazing and over cultivation. It takes 500 years to create one inch of topsoil. The soil degradation is especially acute in Africa as Mark saw as he drove (or cycled) across barren territory. Yet it is said that worldwide there is enough food to go round, if only it could be fairly distributed, so that food reached the needy.

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Retreating forests

Mark’s visit to the Amazon rain forests brought with it a recognition that concern about the loss of many species of wild life was not just a sentimental or aesthetic issue. Tropical forests, such as those in Amazonia, are home to two thirds of all the species in the world, and are the basis of many of the key pharmaceutical products. These species, and their fellow creatures everywhere, are vital in attending to pollination of plant life, purification of air and water and decomposition of waste matter. He quotes EO Wilson as describing all these invertebrates – insects and other creatures (including the humble earthworm), as “the little things that run the world”. Without them the soil would rot, the channels of the nutrient cycles would become blocked, complex forms of vegetation would die off and the processing of dead vegetation into fertile soil would cease. And quite soon the vertebrates, including humans, would die off.

The destruction of rain forests for profit (eg clearing them for cattle lands to provide beef to meet the appetite for hamburgers or for logging and road building), or by indigenous tribes and landless peasants from elsewhere, to provide food plots is thus full of danger. The danger is not top priority for the indigenous and peasant inhabitants, who are responsible for over 30% of the vanishing forest. They have to live and put food in the mouths of their families, and they are not going to worry about global issues.

But, above all, the commercialisation of these forests robs the world of the biggest “sinks” which, along with oceans (where not polluted), absorb carbon emissions through fossil fuel burning and other human activities which threaten the world’s future. The process of photosynthesis which performs this function finds its greatest engine in the Amazon rain forests, which contain 30% of the world’s remaining tropical forest territory. Every bit of destruction of these forests in order to use the land for other purposes reduces the extent of these natural processes.

Mark also saw the temporary nature of some of the apparent benefits of forest destruction; often the soil was soon exhausted and in place of the forests there were now barren lands, little grass and encroaching desert. And so the local inhabitants moved on to the next part of the forest. Sometimes big landowners get a corrupt law on their side and use violence to expel the squatting peasants and indigenous people, leading to a cycle of violence as the disinherited rebel against the oppressors. Our author thus lifts the curtain to show that the problems are not occasioned only by overpopulation. The causes are more complex than that.

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Sustainable development and capitalism

Mark Hertsgaard as part of his six years, world tour attended the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. His inside picture is fascinating, including the way in which security turned the city over to police control and how he had to escape privately to see some of the actual local conditions and the extreme inequality when compared with the relative comfort enjoyed by the people talking at the conference. Many noble sentiments were expressed, but the mechanisms for making something happen were slim, though many delegates recognised that to deal with the environment while ignoring world poverty was not an option. The UN appointed secretary to the Summit declared that “no place on the planet can remain an island of affluence in a sea of misery”, although later George W Bush declared that the “American way of life is not negotiable”.

Mark also describes the work of lobbyists, particularly in Washington on both sides of the divide. He tells how Jeremy Leggett of Greenpeace actually worked with financial leaders in banking and insurance to help them see the threat to the profits that would accrue from global warming. This was an interesting change of tactics, being followed by some other environmentalists, who recognise that the self interest of business demands that they pay attention to finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Leggett also perceived that to change from fossil fuel to, say, widespread solar generation of electricity could succeed only if it were market driven. This is an example of how the issues discussed in this book are very germane to the management of business in current circumstances.

In no way is this more true than in the consideration of the growth of consumerism on which a large part of business depends. Yet if it should prove that the survival of a reasonable form of civilisation depends on a radical new approach to consumption, then an enormous innovative effort by business will be required in order to stay in business. Governments can provide a context, but cannot solve the problems on their own. How will business find ways of producing products that make money, but do not harm the environment or drive the poor into even deeper poverty?

Mark suggests that regulation alone will not suffice; governments’ records in policing corporate greed, channelling it towards a marketplace competition that will yield lower prices and not threatening public health or safety are not necessarily stories of unqualified success. Pressurising governments against regulation, even without bribery (other than campaign contributions), has diluted many proposals that might have minimised damage to the planet and its people.

Capitalism’s need for growth helps to sustain social peace as people see hope of a better life with more luxuries and leisure activities, as well as the essentials. But Mark interviewed a number of non-extremist experts who could not harmonise sustainable development with the limitations of the planet. They are not criticising capitalism, as such, but they see its consequences when its need for growth leads it to spread American-style consumerism across the planet, creating artificial demand all over the world to follow the latest fashions and be part of the “in” scene, irrespective of real need. The author gives examples he has seen of this throughout his travels.

He speaks of an interview in 1998 with Hermann Daly. He had worked at senior level in the World Bank and had tried to persuade his colleagues that there were inevitable limits to economic growth. One of his opponents, later a senior American Treasury official, had commented that “poor countries should want more pollution, not less, because it means more economic growth”.

Daly expressed the issue succinctly. ”We have to distinguish between growth and development. We have to shift from pursuing growth, which is quantitative, to pursuing development, which is qualitative.” Perhaps there is something there which could provide more than a hint of how business, handled innovatively, could still make profit. Daly would agree that market mechanisms are crucial to a properly functioning and environmentally respectful, economy, but attention is needed to deal with the fact that left to itself the market knows only one answer to the question of how much an economy should produce and consume and that answer is: “more – always more”. Daly is not averse to tax being used as a weapon in solving some of the problems eg pollution, when he says “Tax Bads – not Goods”.

The difficulties facing politicians, who depend on being re-elected to fulfil their ambitions, personal or social, is addressed in the penultimate chapter of this book. How Al Gore was unable when in high office to press for the adoption of his beliefs and had to trim his position is given as an illustration. Mark wondered how Gore would manage if he became President. Well, we know that he didn’t become President. We have seen how losing the election has liberated him to make what may perhaps be a much more decisive contribution to saving the planet than the highest office would have permitted.

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Yet there is hope

Right through the book Mark has never allowed us to fall totally into gloom and despair and at the end he brings to the fore an optimism which is not facile. Paul McCartney, the Beatle, well known for his environmental concerns, commented to him: “I do think that (humans) have a propensity for sorting things out, or we’d have disappeared already”. Hubert Reeves, a French cosmologist, told him that we had no right to be pessimistic as that would only make things worse. “We have to drive between the two extremes of defeatism and alarmism…..We must act as if we will win or we will surely lose”.

Vaclav Havel, then the President of the Czech Republic, commented to the author that “competition which has rules that are binding and respected by all is the real motor of economics, with a safety net for those who for whatever reasons are incapable of making their own living”. He still maintained the attitude he expressed in the letter he wrote to his wife Olga from prison in the 1980s that it was crucial to resist “resignation, indifference, the hardening of the heart and laziness of the spirit”.

In this mood of hope the author questions the prevailing assumption that environmental protection must cost jobs and lower profits. He cites examples of how efficiency has repeatedly yielded enormous benefit to individual companies. He speaks of some of the trouble spots he has visited and shows how efficiency could go far toward improving matters, often from small investments. He cites Dow Chemicals who have enjoyed an extra $110million due to energy saving initiatives; a Singapore firm which has developed air conditioners that cost less than the offerings of competitors and use 65% less electricity; ING Bank in the Netherlands which uses only one fifth of the energy used by another bank across the street, by efficient insulation and using solar energy even in cloudy Northern Europe.

Amory Lovins of the Worldwatch Institute is quoted as saying: “The idea that reducing global warming will harm the United States economy is flatly contradicted by business experience. Climate Change is actually a lucrative business opportunity disguised as an environmental problem.” The Wall Street Journal named Lovins as one of the 28 people in the world most likely to change the course of business. His blueprint for change is in the book he wrote with his wife called Factor Four: Doubling wealth; Halving Resource Use. With 50 real life examples they demolish the idea that economic prosperity and environmental health must be enemies. He says that humanity can live twice as well while consuming half as much.

This is the opportunity for business, which it is the purpose of this
review to highlight, in the hope that businesses out of plain self interest will rise to the challenge and find in real corporate social responsibility a way of overcoming the worst effects of the problems of climate change, resource shortage, pollution, environmental degradation, world poverty, in ways which will not depress profits, but in the end enhance them, while making for a more satisfying life in all countries on this planet.

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