As epic levels of flood, heat and fire strike countries across the world, can 21st-century capitalism deliver the changes needed to prevent further environmental carnage? And do we really understand what is happening to the most fragile wildernesses on the planet?
A new crop of environmental books addresses these two questions, now among the most pressing of our time.
Humanity’s fractious struggle with nature is rarely far from the surface in the books of acclaimed American novelist Annie Proulx. It is right at the center of her latest work di lei, Fen, Bog & Swamp (4th Estate, £ 16.99). This haunting tribute to the world’s peatlands is also a deeply researched lament for the draining and destruction of critical habitats that store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests.
Proulx’s poetic description of these places, and peat itself, is a pleasure to read: “The ‘pipe peat’ used for centuries for home heating has the appearance and texture of solidified chocolate pudding,” she reports. The racket made by wetlands creatures before humans interrupted their boggy lives “must have made a stupefying roar audible from afar”.
“It is easy to think of the vast wetland losses as a tragedy,” says Proulx. But all is not completely lost. As scientists’ understanding of the importance of peatlands has grown, so have efforts to rewater and restore these vital regions. “A great change,” says Proulx, “is under way.”
Great change has already come in the frozen wildernesses that have covered swaths of the planet for millennia. The risks faced by these fragile landscapes, and the creatures that rely on them, explain part of the popularity of the BBC’s Frozen Planet documentary series, narrated by David Attenborough.
Now comes the book, Frozen Planet II (BBC Books, £ 28). Written by two of the series’ producers, Mark Brownlow and Elizabeth White, and weighing in at 1.6kg, this is classic coffee-table fare. But its striking photographs of skating polar bears, walrus-blanketed beaches and antelope-killing eagles bring the fate of these creatures and their habitats to life with captivating flair.
Documenting environmental destruction is one thing. Fixing it is another. British economist Guy Standing offers a provocative diagnosis of the failure to protect the world’s oceans in The Blue Commons (Pelican, £ 22).
He argues the warming temperatures, acidification, pollution and overfishing that threaten the oceans covering 70 per cent of the planet’s surface are “an inevitable consequence of the system of ‘rentier capitalism’ that now dominates human activity in the sea”. Nothing will change as long as large conglomerates and financial institutions are allowed to relentlessly accumulate and exploit ocean “assets”.
Standing wants the drive for profit and the pursuit of “blue growth” to be replaced by a “blue commons” that prioritises ocean health and the rights of local communities.
This monster of a book, which runs to nearly 600 pages, does not lack ideas to tackle the problem. Among them: a “blue commons fund” in every littoral nation, financed with levies on the commercial exploitation of ocean resources and used to redistribute money in the form of a basic income or “common dividend”.
Canadian author Adrienne Buller does not offer so many concrete solutions in The Value of a Whale (Manchester University Press, £ 12.99). Instead she has written a brisk critique of what she deems to be the false solutions offered by green capitalist ideas such as green growth, valuing natural capital, carbon offsets and carbon pricing.
Her objection to measures such as carbon offsets, which can be based on forests razed by fires, is already widely shared. Her questioning of carbon pricing is more contentious. There is, she concedes, an intuitive appeal in the fairness of putting a price on carbon for polluters, and the economic efficiency of such measures is evident.
Apart from the fact that carbon pricing has yet to make a meaningful dent in global emissions that must rapidly fall, Buller argues there is no justification for the idea that efficiency should be the primary consideration in shaping and judging policies to tackle climate change.
“Considering the scale, complexity and existential quality of the challenge we currently face, the idea that ‘efficiency’ should be a priority is difficult to defend,” she says.
These are fighting words in a climate policy debate that has long been dominated by economists. Yet the longer it takes to produce meaningful climate action, the more these arguments are likely to fall on welcoming ears.
Pilita Clark is the FT’s business columnist
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