books simple living sustainability

Not so rich after all

Entropia-CoverThis week I’ve been reading Samuel Alexander’s book Entropia. It’s kind of like Richard Heinberg’s The End of Growth rewritten as a fictionalised version of the Cuban oil crisis, in the style of William Morris’ News from Nowhere. It is ostensibly fiction, but it’s more of a philosophical treatise on sustainability and simplicity.

I shall review it when I’ve finished, but this paragraph jumped out at me as I was reading it in the park over lunch today:

 “Human beings only have a limited amount of time and energy with which to live their lives. It follows that the more time and energy a society dedicates to the pursuit of material wealth, the less it will have for other things, such as community or political engagement. Taken to its extreme, such a society may end up extremely affluent, but comprising individuals who are alienated, disengaged and lonely – and not so rich at all.

Similarly, the more important affluence is to individuals or societies, the less willing they will be to share wealth for reasons of social justice, and the less willing they will be to voluntarily limit consumption for the sake of environmental health. It follows that a just and sustainable society cannot be a society dedicated to the never-ending pursuit of affluence, but must instead be based on material sufficiency.”

Interesting observations. Perhaps this is what Jesus was getting at when he said the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.


  1. Thing is when society was poorer than now it didn’t have social justice or good environmental health. Community and political engagement was a reaction to the poor living standards and not something to be idealized, which I fear it is here.

    Luckily Tom Clancy is just as believable and a has cracking good plots, also more explosions.

          1. Imagine a society where it was not optional to be part of the community or be politically engaged. You would have to attend community events like the state church, you could not withdraw to be on your own or a self selected group. You would have to have political views, probably joining in community political meetings or face punishment. That all sounds like a very illiberal and totalitarian society (Elizabethan England, Mao’s China or Stalin’s Russia springs to mind).

            You see the group, I see the individual.Not for nothing this books looks to Communist Cuba which fits that totalitarian nightmare (to my mind). Why do so many left of centre people seem to idealised that imprisoned island?

  2. Hmmm, that is funny DevonChap, because a lot (but not all) of the “poorer” societies I’ve visited look after each other and their local environment very very well, and it is only when the concept of individual ‘wealth’ is introduced that they seem to loose that. They seem to have much more social justice and understanding of sustainability than most modern “rich” nations.

  3. What does it mean ‘Respond to this post by replying above this line’ ? How do I do that?

  4. Devonchap, there’s no such thing as coercive community engagement. Society is impossible without people engaging with each other. If nobody is engaging with anybody else, it isn’t a society.

    And the book doesn’t idealise Cuba in the slightest, it just borrows what happened to Cuba as a narrative device. You’re criticising a book without reading it or knowing anything beyond my one line description. Not exactly a legitimate criticism in my opinion.

    1. Without engagement there isn’t society, agreed (As the blessed Saint Margaret said, society is made up of individuals and families). But how individuals engage is down to those individuals and if they wish to be reclusive or engage only with those they want to, then that is a basic freedom. In that sense they are optional for the individuals, who I’m referring to since as individuals it is the only way we can see it.

      I don’t know if this book idealises Cuba or not. But I do know you don’t seem to be particularly censorious of it though,

      1. Then I don’t know what you’re complaining about, because nobody’s talking about any kind of enforced community engagement. I’m saying that community is intrinsic to society, part of the definition of it – in response to your comment that it is a reaction to poor living standards.

        I don’t idealise Cuba either. I’m well aware of the problems there, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from that particular incident in their history when they were cut off from the rest of the world.

        1. Societies such as Cuba do enforce community engagement – you have to be involved with government run activities or be punished.

          You did idealise Cuba in your post. The Cuban ‘Miracle’. Try writing about the North Korean ‘Miracle’ and see how that sounds. And you make like Cubans all happily decided to overcome the crisis by pulling together (a crisis that was entirely in the regime’s making). It isn’t a democracy. You ‘forget’ to that the people had no choice, the government had a choice of keeping absolute political control and lowering the populations living standards or allowing more freedom and joining the world economically – they chose to make their people poorer to keep power. Then you forget to mention that this miracle was accompanied by large numbers of Cubans risking their lives in rickety rafts to escape to America across the dangerous Straits of Florida.

          Cuba is simply another example of a despotic regime faced with an economic crisis caused by their own policies deciding to further repress and impoverish their own people rather than risk losing power by freeing things up.You didn’t see that or you would have mentioned it. So I repeat my question. Why do so many left of centre people seem to idealise that imprisoned island?

          1. Can you stop telling me what I think please? I’m not a socialist, so I don’t see why I should idealise Cuba.

            I had a friend at university who was an exiled Cuban journalist and was seeking asylum at the time. I am well aware of what the country is like and don’t need your patronising lectures.

            The ‘Cuban miracle’ is the phrase that the Cubans in the film use. I use it in reference to the specific incident in the post, not as a general approval of Cuban society or history. What happened in Cuba is a remarkable story, and we can learn from it without condoning the regime. If something remarkable happened in North Korea, it wouldn’t be wrong to talk about a North Korean miracle either.

            So no, my post doesn’t idealise Cuba. If you said it idealises permaculture or community activism, you might have more of a point. It’s a fairly uncritical piece and not my best work, but it doesn’t idealise Cuba.

          2. My only window on to what you think is what you write. Phrases like “Cubans survived the crisis by pulling together” put a rosy glow on what happened. ‘Cubans were forced to’ would have been better and less loaded. The phrase ‘Cuban Miracle’ is used by supporters of Castro. If you use it then what am I to think? To suggest Cuba is a model we should in any way follow is to idealise it.

            Yet again you are backing away from something you have written after being challenged on it.

            On a subject of language, left of centre does not mean socialist. Yet quite a few now socialist lefties do seem to defend Cuba. As what you wrote seemed to put you in that category my question seemed quite appropriate.

  5. Interesting discussion. In reading through the comments, I think that the positive underlying aspects in both sides are dodging around semantics. In Jeremy’s first question, if it asked whether or not community and political engagement were optional (in) a functioning society, then I’d agree with Devon. I’d even agree that they have to be optional for the participant in order to make the society function in the democratic way we’ve become accustomed to.

    At the same time, they’re also essential (for) the functioning society. Even if the choice to not participate is in place, it doesn’t mean that not participating is positive. Bathing/personal hygiene, the proper disposal of trash, education… these are things that we can choose not to do, but the relative success of society basically requires it in order to function well. Community and political engagement seem to fall into the same category.

    I haven’t read the mentioned book (though now I’m interested), but I’d hope it sheds light on the future of societies in relation to the freedoms that they have, but don’t choose to exercise. When it comes to sustainability, this is going to define our success. There’s nothing prohibiting us from leaving every light in our house on, or cooling to 60 degrees in the summer, or turning on every faucet at the same time… just because. Waste is a right that all Americans have (and arguably should have), but is it one we really need to exercise? Any true migration to a sustainable culture will be one of choice, not regulation.

  6. A good summary of the discussion. Of course people can choose their level of participation in society, but there is no society in the first place without people choosing to work together. My initial question was about the nature of society, not about personal obligation.

    And yes, the book does look at that exact question, of how we manage our freedoms for the greater good. It has some great observations about culture, what is normal and expected, and how society can maintain certain standards without coercion.

  7. Your whole angle of attack is pointless here DevonChap. You’ve gone off on one about how leftists idealise Cuba because I made a passing reference to a historical incident from the country that partly inspires the narrative in this book. You’ve assumed the worst about Entropia, which is more anarchist than socialist, and then assumed the worst about my views on Cuba, lumping me in with your generalisations about ‘leftists’.

    Do I really idealise Cuba, with one short post about one specific incident in its history? Hardly. As far as I remember that’s the only time I’ve ever written about the place. At no point in the post do I hold up Cuba as a model to follow – and why would we need to, since we haven’t isolated ourselves from the rest of the world?

    You protest too much DevonChap. I’d have thought there’s plenty for you to object to in what I write already. No need to go looking for things that aren’t there.

    1. I really don’t care one way or another about this book, its fiction. Just after your reference to Cuba I happened upon your other glowing post about Cuba and that is where I have my beef.

      Perhaps credulous is a better description of your post on Cuba rather than fellow traveler. A little more critical thinking about things you think support your views might be best.

      1. It’s a short post reporting on a documentary I’d seen. I wasn’t attempting to analyse and contextualise the entire Cuban experience. I’ve got no problem with it, and I can live with your disapproval.

  8. Very interesting observation of the book-however cannot really understand why someone of your ability should following the first sentance write ‘It’s kind of like’, what does that mean? Like what? And using the plural for William Morris in this case should be Morris’s.

    1. Fair point, but I used it consciously, since I was about to make what I knew was a fairly clumsy comparison. Good to know someone’s checking up on these things though!

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