Environmentalists are often accused of wanting to send us back to the dark ages, but in three years of researching and writing about green issues, I’ve only come across a handful of people who actually advocate a complete undoing of industrial society (I’m not one of them, by the way). To that small collection I can now add Keith Farnish and his book on human overreaching, Time’s Up: An uncivilized solution to a global crisis.
It’s an unusual book. It begins with a series of chapters that zoom out from the microscopic to whole ecosystems – an elaborate way of showing the sheer scope of our meddling in the earth’s systems, from viruses to forests, and the extent to which we have left ourselves vulnerable. It could be the little things that get us, the changing disease patterns that climate change and industrial farming are creating, or it could be the big things, like deforestation. Either way, “nothing is so dependent on other forms of life as humans, the ultimate consumers.”
So who are we to have put ourselves outside the rest of creation in this way? And does it matter? Having set out the parameters of the problem, Farnish spends the next section of the book examining humanity and our place in the world. Eventually he narrows our dillemma down to cultural factors: “much of humanity has become a commercial entity” he concludes, a culture that puts economic gain above all else, regardless of the consequences. Here he hits on what I’d describe as a spiritual insight, although Farnish wouldn’t use that term himself – “sustainability is not just about the use of natural resources; it is about the use of our lives.”
In order to bring our lives back into balance, we need to establish a connection with the natural world, a connection that has “ebbed away from the majority of humans”. Fatally so, as far as the author is concerned. “Failure to connect is the reason humanity is pulling the plug on its life support machine.” Unfortunately, the whole of our culture is engineered to prevent us connecting, and to keep us in the man-made bubble of consumerism. Farnish’s outines ten strategies, and these are very useful, describing how our culture gives us selected freedoms, uses our fear against us, idolises choice and exploits our trust. Unfortunately, we’re all implicated. We rail against the system, but we are the system.
For Farnish then, there’s only one possible solution. Industrial civilization is “fatally flawed and needs to be removed from the face of the earth, before the inevitable ecological collapse brings it down in far more horrible circumstances.” The best thing to do then it to pull out, to unplug from it and go it alone, and this is where I part company with Farnish. The closing chapters of Time’s Up describe a world with “no cities, no paved roads, no pylons, no offices or factories”, but there were cities and paved roads long before industrialization. Among the skills that Farnish recommends we learn are ‘shelter building’, but are all our houses going to collapse along with the stock markets?
I agree that industrial civilization is unsustainable and inhuman and has to go, but I believe in transitioning out of it. I believe we can adapt, commit to an ‘energy descent’ path, downsize. We have to live with less, not with nothing. We need appropriate technology, not no technology, and we need to be able to offer people a compelling view of the future. People would rather continue in denial than vote for wilderness.
Time’s Up ends up rather patchy, full of good ideas but ultimately not very useful. On one page, the author observes that “true selfishness happens when the veneer between survival and excess is breached.” That’s a rather neat idea, but then just two paragraphs later he says “selfishness is not some innate, unlearned behaviour: it is something almost totally alien to pre-industrial society.” The constant warfare of history begs to differ, and Jarred Diamond and others have shown that plenty of pre-industrial societies lived beyond their means, as far back as the Neanderthals driving buffalo herds over cliffs because it was easier than hunting. I also disagree with Farnish’s assertion that hope is fundamentally disempowering, as we lose the will to act. I’d argue that hope is active, not passive, and is the most empowering thing in the world. Passive hope is not hope at all, but wishful thinking.
In short, Time’s Up remains a worthwhile read, but it falls short on the practicalities. Farnish almost admits as much, and hosts the ongoing discussions on his blogs, the unsuitablog and the earth blog.