books climate change sustainability

Book review: Cancel the Apocalypse, by Andrew Simms

cancel the apocalypseIt started brightly enough with the millennium celebrations, but 13 years into the 21st century, the prospect of an ongoing golden age looks unlikely. An unstable and debt-ridden economic system, a biodiversity crisis, climate change and resource depletion are just four of what could be a whole cavalry unit of apocalyptic horsemen bearing down upon us.

Apocalypse is a strong word but, as Andrew Simms warns, civilizations at their peak always look invulnerable. Society as it is constructed today is not sustainable, environmentally, economically or socially. The drive for economic growth as the ultimate goal of the economy is fundamentally at odds with the capacity of the biosphere, and isn’t ending poverty or raising quality of life along the way. But we can cancel the apocalypse. As the subtitle has it, there is a ‘new path to prosperity’.

That’s the basic premise of Andrew Simms’ new book, which it explores in rambling fashion over 400 pages. It’s not a particularly focused book. Chapters are broad, “thematic observations” rather than tightly woven arguments. There is lots of room for tangents and diversions. Have we got time to stop and look at the Namibian fog basking beetle, or dissect the advertorial contents of Lufthansa’s in-flight magazine? How about a history of Nauru, or a précis of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Galapagos? My answer to those questions is ‘of course we have’. Your answer may be different.

Free ranging it may be, but Cancel the Apocalypse is also well researched and full of analysis. It takes a long hard look at the banking system and how it could be made more sustainable. There are sections on renewable energy and how we grow our food, oil and work. (Those familiar with Simms’ work may recognise material from the Interdependence report, The New Materialism or the Green New Deal.)

On each of these subjects, it’s not a matter of replacing one thing for another, but of questioning the existing orthodoxy and looking for solutions. History is full of educational examples, and there are plenty of countries that have pursued a different model of development to the English speaking world. It simply isn’t true that ‘there is no alternative’, and we need to be thinking more creatively about our problems: “In taking on apocalyptic challenges, I don’t want to proclaim single alternative solutions, but rather to propose that far bolder and more ambitious experimentation is vital for survival.”

One strength of the book, to my mind, is that Simms writes with the developing world in mind as much as the West. Social issues are given equal weight alongside the environment. Our economic system fails the poor quite spectacularly, and as this website argues, raising living standards for the poor will prove impossible if the rising living standards of the rich push us to the point of environmental collapse. “It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve its prosperity” said Gandhi. “How many planets will India require for development?”

There are a multitude of ideas throughout the book, but what you won’t find it a bullet-pointed list of policies, or a to-do list for changing the world. What the book offers is “an attitude, a belief that while problems are real, not only can they be solved, but we will be better for beginning to do so.” On that basis, the book delivers. It embodies an attitude of open questioning, hope, imagination, compassion and curiosity. Now, have you ever heard the story of the Plimsoll Line?


  1. “Our economic system fails the poor quite spectacularly”

    This is said a lot but I dispute it. Before the rise of our current capitalist system (250 odd years ago) most people on the planet were as poor as the very poorest today. Since then a large percentage of the population of the world have improved living standards. Just not everyone has been lifted up (as yet). A partial improvement is not a failure.

    Now there are more poor people than ever before, but that is because there are more people in total and they are a declining share of that total, and that very population growth is down to medicines and advances that are a by-product of, and paid by the revenues from, our current economic system.

    In comparison with all other economic systems that have been tried, the market capitalist system has been the most successful in improving human living standards. The complaints against it seem to me to be comparing it to an imaginary perfect system that will never exist.

    And Gandhi was a rubbish economist so I wouldn’t quote him on these matters.

    1. Imagine my surprise at your disagreeing. Easy for you to say, of course, not being among the poor.

      As things are currently configured it takes vast increases in the wealth of the richest in the world to deliver tiny increases to the poor. Since the biosphere is only so big, we’ll have wrecked the climate and brought on a resource crisis long before extreme poverty is eradicated. Where does that leave the poor then?

      Of course some people have been lifted out of poverty, but how many more lives could have been improved if wealth was distributed better? Incidentally, half of all those escaping extreme poverty in the last two decades have been in China – which has state-run capitalism.

      1. Chinese is a mix of market and state run capitalism, and the market bit is the one that makes the surplus the state run one spends on vanity projects.

        If only, if only…. If only wealth had been distributed better. Trouble is, growth doesn’t work like that. Growth requires capital for investment. Unless that is state capital (bad idea) then individuals have to accumulate that capital. That creates inequality but is a necessary step for growth. So no inequality, no growth. Once you have a developed economy then you can start distributing the surplus to those who have not gained as quickly as others.

        The West has seen pretty steady growth for many decades, yet only recently have the poor countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa been growing sustainably. It isn’t really to do with our wealth, it is more that they have abandoned failed economic ideas and adopted more market and capitalist policies. Your premise is flawed.

        Even if it wasn’t and we never succeed in lifting everyone out of poverty, if say 25% of Earth’s population remain in subsistence poverty then, while that would be a tragedy, they would be no worse off than they were before the industrial revolution. 75% success rate is better than any previous system.

        1. Who’s talking about changing the ‘system’? There are a thousand and one ways to improve what we have, and make the global economy work harder for those that most need it.

              1. Just because you are advocating something, doesn’t make it the right thing. While I’m sure you don’t mean to but a lot of what you advocate would harm the poor, rather then benefit them.

  2. I don’t claim to have all the answers, everything here is up for discussion. I’ve written about hundreds of different things over the course of this blog, ways that we can incrementally improve the ways things are done. You see to take issue with much of it, usually because you think things should be left to the market. That philosophy has been tried and found wanting. If you want to keep the faith, carry on. Personally, I intend to ask more questions.

    1. You have you biases, I have mine. Don’t pretend otherwise. You keep your faith, just yours is in ideas that have been tried and don’t work or go against the grain of human nature.

        1. Always interesting to hear different opinions. If you stay within your own crowd you get self congratulatory smug group think and don’t consider other perspectives. There have been one or two ideas here that I’ve found interesting.

          If you don’t test your ideas against others then you get sloppy thinking. There is plenty of that on the Green/Left.

            1. Are you implying that a considered opinion would agree with yours? Or that my ideas aren’t considered?

        1. Indeed. They haven’t been tried before, mostly because they are solutions to new problems. But Devonchap is a regular reader and is convinced that I am on the wrong track.

    1. Likewise New Economics Foundation for you. You really aren’t good at taking criticism are you?

      1. I’m happy to engage with constructive criticism, and appreciate it when it’s given.

        If you want to be more constructive, you could start by taking a step back and not assuming so much about my position. As earlier comments on this post show, you seem to think I’m an anti-capitalist with some grand alternative to push. That isn’t the case on either point. I have no alternative, and I believe that solutions can and must be drawn from a whole variety of streams of thought, free market capitalism included.

        The most important thing we can do is be open to good ideas wherever they are found, to think creatively and experiment. Your conclusion that ‘all your ideas have been tried and don’t work’ is pretty much the opposite of that spirit, as well as being completely untrue.

        1. While we should be open to new ideas, we should not be credulous that new equals good, or is even new.

          For example ‘localised food networks’ aren’t new, they are very old. What we had before the invention of the railways and refrigerated steam ships. They didn’t work very well as local supply problems (such as crop failure) could not easily be alleviated leading to shortages and famine. A long view helps us see that renaming something that was superseded for good reasons doesn’t make it suddenly a good idea. No harm in revisiting the trade-offs but the presumption shouldn’t be change is good.

          1. Indeed, new does not always mean good, but the same mistake can be made by assuming that learning from the past means going back to it.

            On the local food front, I’m personally interested in shaping something that combines the best of both. A local food network that creates jobs in the countryside, reduces air miles and reconnects people with the source of their food is a good thing. Being absolutist about it, at the expense of food security or variety, would be counter-productive.

  3. On an entirely different point (having not read the book being reviewed) I’d just say that the whole idea of “Apocalyptic” (Translated meaning: We’re all DOOMED !) is a great misunderstanding of the Bible passages from which the idea claims to be derived.
    A better idea of what the original meant would be “Trouble is ahead but MUCH better days lie beyond……”
    But, then, that writer wasn’t writing about our banking system, which (in my view) clearly needs replacement rather than mere reform.
    How about bankers actually looking after our money, rather than playing roulette with it and taking any winnings for themselves and passing any losses down to us? ‘Just a suggestion.

    1. Yes, and I think Simms is hopeful that there are better times ahead. A genuine apocalypse can’t be avoided, it you’re using the word in a technically correct fashion.

      I am heartened by some of the new banks that have started operating in Britain recently. They’re nowhere near challenging the big monopolists, but at least there is an alternative on its way. Handelsbanken is perhaps the best known of them, or Metrobank in London. I keep hearing good things about Handelsbanken, which has hopped over from Sweden and believes in old fashioned bank branches with bank managers that know their customers.

  4. 🙂 For what it is worth – having just wrapped up living 10 years in S.E.Asia and now doing work amongst Indigenous Australians – I do not see that people are being “lifted out of poverty”. Yes, many people have more cash now – certainly more than they did when they lived in cashless societies – but if you define poverty by how many dollars you have in the hand, you are missing most of what it is to be a human.

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