Can we cancel the apocalypse?
Can we cancel the apocalypse?
Andrew Simms' "Cancel the Apocalypse - The new path to prosperity" is a big, serious book about global economics and the unsustainable manner in which we all live. It's not quite Thomas Pikkety Capital big, although in its analysis of the damage done by inequality, it covers some similar ground. But at 474 pages, including copious notes, it is a similarly hefty read. However, Simms delivers his argument with a lightness of touch and a contagious optimism (some might say naïve idealism) that makes the bold and complex ideas that aim to deliver on the book's audacious premise appear strangely credible and accessible. It is trait that far too many books on environmental economics fail to share.
That is not to say there aren't similarities between Simms' analysis and the fast expanding library of economic texts on climate change and the ills of globalization. Like so much of the canon, Simms starts with a terrifying analysis of the litany of environmental and, by extension, economic threats we all face — the looming apocalypse of the title. And apocalypse is not too strong a word when you consider the well-documented climate risks and "great die off" of species that Simms' elucidates.
However, perhaps because he knows much of his audience will already be well versed in the scale of the environmental challenges we face or perhaps because he simply prefers optimism to pessimism, Simms skates quickly over the nature of the apocalypse and turns his attention to the mechanisms needed to cancel it. And it is here that the book grabs the readers' interest and refuses to let go.
Some of the proposals will be all too familiar to green business executives and environmentalists, others will be entirely fresh, and still more will not appear to have any immediate and obvious connection to the environment, but still feel like a vital component of a more sustainable economy.
Throughout Simms reinforces his manifesto with reams of evidence and statistics, as well as the more than occasional literary flourish. For example, early in the book Simms offers an in-depth analysis of the inherent weaknesses associated with mainstream economics' obsession with growth and GDP, and the importance of recent work to establish planetary boundaries. Little of this analysis will be new to those who have already familiar with the inherent weaknesses contained in economic metrics that, in Simms words, places value on a morning spent purchasing "weedkiller, a gas-burning patio heater or a barbeque that might, optimistically, get used on a handful of occasions" and "registers nothing" from an alternative "stroll in the dappled sunlight among trees in my local park."
But Simms has a highly and evocative and effective means of highlighting the weaknesses of the current GDP-driven growth-fixated model. He tells the story of the Plimsoll Line, which sounds like a 1970s schoolyard punishment, but in fact refers to Samuel Plimsoll, who in the 1870s pioneered the famous standardized symbol that marked a ship as fully-loaded, saving countless thousands of lives by tackling the 19th century scourge of overloaded cargo ships. The idea that standards and living within your limits can deliver enormous humanitarian and economic benefits is made, not through dry analysis, but through fascinating historical anecdote and unarguable rhetoric. As Simms explains, the initial business opposition to Plimsoll's simple circle with a line through it — which now acts as the logo for London's Tube but which previously marked ships deemed safe to travel — illustrates the "unending tension between wealth accumulation and safety, between profit and the risk of destruction." Or, as Simms asks, "If you needed a camel to carry you alive across an expanse of desert, what is the cost of the straw that breaks its back?"
Of course, whole books can and have been written about the flawed decisions that emanate from our collective willingness of prioritize GDP and the need to establish economic metrics that better account for environmental limits and quality of life. But Simms' goal is far more wide-ranging than this, and thus begins an extensive exploration of the policies, mechanisms and technologies that might turn the sustainable economy from a lecture theater concept into a global phenomenon.
Each new idea is backed up by Simms' flair for identifying historical parallels, uncovering fascinating statistical anomalies and exploring literary or mythological analogies, making otherwise potentially dry discussions of the circular economy or the weaknesses of global supply chains highly engaging. When reviewing a book I often use the tried and tested old school technique of folding down the corner of pages with interesting or memorable passages on them, my copy of "Cancel of the Apocalypse" has almost as many folded as unfolded pages.
Just one example, towards the end of the book draws on U.K. export and import data to reveal the bizarre symmetries that sees the U.K. export 4,200 metric tons of ice cream to Italy and import 4,400 tons straight back. Perhaps, there is sufficient difference between Italian and British dairy herds and ice cream manufacturing skills to justify this trade, muses Simms, but then how do explain exporting 2,297 tons of ice cream to Sweden and importing 2,257 tons from the same place. Are there really consumers who must have Swedish ice cream? Stranger still, can globalization really be said to be the apex of economic efficiency when it results in the U.K. exporting 4,000 tons of toilet rolls to Germany in the same year as it imported 5,000 tons from the same place?
Simms is at his best highlighting the inefficiencies and idiosyncrasies of our demonstrably flawed and unsustainable economic models, as well as the potential solutions being pioneered by green businesses and policymakers. He is great on the merits of emerging sharing economy models, new public transport systems and town planning that are serving to design out the car, the Transition Town movement and its focus on community energy, China's land grabs in Africa, and the crushing and debilitating damage done by the Anglo-Saxon work-life imbalance — his description of a "Universal Job Description for life in the service economy" that runs: "Sit at desk, write emails, answer phone, make tea and/or coffee, go to meetings, fiddle with spreadsheets, eat lunch," will be sadly redolent to many.
Where he asks readers to take more of a leap is in his extensive exploration of the lifestyle changes that he believes are required to cancel the apocalypse. There is something of a debate underway currently in environmental circles as to the extent to which a sustainable economy will be delivered through consumer-led behavior change and business and government-led structural transformation. Like most debates the answer lies somewhere in the middle, but regardless of who leads the transformation Simms is clearly of the belief that fundamental changes to the way we live our lives will be required — and he is not afraid to call for them, no matter how radical they may sound.
For Simms, a canceled apocalypse requires a complete rethinking of how we work sense that slashes the amount of time we spend at conventional work on counterproductive and unsustainable tasks in order to free up time for the environmentally essential and significantly more life-affirming tasks required of a sustainable economy. The repairing, the re-using, the growing and trading that can enable the circulation of essential resources in localized economies that do not exceed the planetary Plimsoll Line. To some such a life will sound idyllic, to others it will sound like a return to post-war drudgery. But, as with his previous book Tescopoly and its exploration of the debilitating impact of out-of-town supermarkets on communities, Simms draws on plenty of recent research that suggests a shift in our lifestyles towards more low impact and localized consumption patterns is good for both our physical and psychological health, not to mention our all-important quality of life and sense of self.
Simms may be somewhat Utopian, but he is not naïve and he knows that such a transformation requires a major shift in how we think about economies. "Changing how we think about ourselves in the world turns out to be as important as any new technology," he argues. The problem is that in calling for such a shift in thinking Simms lapses into the slightly hippie-ish idealism that is thankfully absent from so much of the rest of the book. "Writing from the perspective of a culture that has been subjected to decades of obsessive individualism, materialism and multiple 'decentring,' I believe that the way ahead — and I am fully aware that this involves inviting the scorn of that same culture — is to fall back in love with the world, and each other," Simms writes. "In other words, we need to reconnect. To find a spell of re-enchantment with the physical world, the soil, forests, ocean and fields that sustain us, and re-enchantment with the potential of collective endeavor, of communities engaged in tasks of important common purpose."
It is good that Simms is aware that he is inviting scorn, because to some readers, including this one, this cri de couer is dangerously close to the "why can't everyone join hands and get along" school of idealistic environmentalism that has spent decades being thoroughly routed by the forces of globalization and consumerism.
And yet, Simms has two compelling counterarguments ready for his critics that bookend his treatise. As he explains in a fascinating passage towards the end of the book, the current neo-liberal model has not only delivered environmental destruction and financial instability, it is also making us into worse people. He cites research, explored recently by the Financial Times no less, that suggests studying neo-liberal economic models and their insistence on the primacy of self-interest results in students who behave in a more selfish manner.
However, it is in the introduction to "Cancel the Apocalypse" that Simms dismisses the criticism of those who think his proposals are unrealistically idealistic by showing how almost all of them are already in place somewhere in the world. He paints a picture of a hypothetical "Goodland" that combines Germany's community banks, Iceland's post-crash recovery, the Netherlands reduced working week, Bhutan's famous measurement of Gross National Happiness, Bristol's local currency, Cuba's organic, urban farming movement, Bolivia's Mother Earth Law and Uruguay's President Jose Mujica who famously lives on £450 a month and drives a 30-year-old Volkswagen Beetle.
Can we cancel the apocalypse? Simms is right that it will require an unprecedented transformation in how we live, work and, as importantly, think. But millions of people around the world are already starting to make precisely that transformation.