books sustainability

Time’s Up, by Keith Farnish

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.


  1. Thanks for the review, Jeremy. Very detailed and you make some excellent points; I’m not going to defend the criticisms, after all it’s for the reader to decide what they agree with, and I would be very surprised if anyone agreed with everything. All I would say is that my view of the “end” is that it’s merely a set of options into a multitude of different ways of living – Transition perhaps falls down here because it is quite prescriptive; I prefer to let people find their own ways.



  2. Thanks for dropping by Keith – as you say, slim hopes of everyone agreeing with the whole lot, especially in a book as broad ranging as yours. No doubt there are many ways out of industrialization, for us as individuals and as communities. The important thing is that we’re looking for them, and looking for ways to reconnect.

  3. Returning to pre-industrial ages also means returning to pre-industrial culture. My CO2 footprint is small, and I have no children nor want to, and I’m happy with that. I’m more interested in spirituality than in consumerism. But pre-industrial culture is where you find slavery, sexism, and even greater power abuses. It is where you find men who believe that to cure AIDS you have to rape a virgin. I’m sorry guys, the way out of this mess is forward, not backwards. If you want to improve human culture, make lives more meaningful, then improve technology, make it lighter, more efficient, less damaging. It is like a marriage. When things start to go wrong, you can split up and find someone else, but that is merely starting again, and in 10 years you’ll be right back to the same problem with the new partner. Even if we went back to pre-industrial, in a thousand years we would have re-industrialized again. Instead, stick with your partner and figure out how to solve the problems, which will mean change for both of you, but change in a forward direction. Remember, we would only re-industrialise again, except the next time it would be even more damaging, as out numbers rapidly exploded in an even more resource scarce world.

  4. Absolutely. I don’t argue for a return to the past in that sense, and I think certain technologies are positive. The internet is one of them, although we haven’t quite learned to live with it yet. That’s got a place in the future, and so has much of our current industry. It’s the waste, the consumer elements, that need to be restrained. And I think that can be done without returning to a medieval culture. I certainly hope so, or we’re jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

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