It 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?