Bleak Future

Oil derricks line Huntington Beach, California, in this 1956 photo. (Photo courtesy Orange County Archives)

Oil derricks line Huntington Beach, California, in this 1956 photo. (Photo courtesy Orange County Archives)

Sherry Cable. Sustainable Failures: Environmental Policy and Democracy in a Petro-dependent World. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012. 242 pp. $29.95.

Anyone observing the state of our global environment will find plenty to worry about: warmer average temperatures, superstorms, and melting glaciers. China reels from air pollution, and water shortages threaten Africa and the Middle East. In the United States we no longer know what to eat. Is seafood contaminated with heavy metals? Does beef contain too many antibiotics? The gap between what is happening and the government’s response seems to be widening. Why have we failed to build a realistic environmental policy?

Social scientist Sherry Cable approaches this question by analyzing how our social and economic systems have evolved. She believes our current failures are due to the confluence of several trends: evolution of our economic system, the emergence of liberal democracies, and the rise and power of corporations. Cable takes the long view in dividing human economic activity into three periods. Hunting and gathering came first, a time when people left a very light environmental footprint. About 8000 BCE agriculture appeared and over the next 10,000 years grew in sophistication and environmental impact. Everything accelerated sharply after World War II with the emergence of what Cable terms the petro-dependent society. The availability of petroleum as a cheap fuel and as a feedstock for fertilizer, crop-control chemicals, building products, and even clothing increased food supplies and allowed rapid development of the world economy. The world’s growing population increasingly seeks a Western standard of living, and that standard of living is based on petroleum.

Democracy is considered a good thing, though Cable observes that elected governments are charged with two often contradictory tasks: promoting growth and protecting citizens from the negative impacts of growth. Since a strong economy and adding jobs are more likely to get politicians elected, the other half of the equation—protection—generally takes a back seat. In the United States a significant number of protection-oriented regulations have been passed, though often a lack of enforcement or legal tussles involving special-interest groups reduce their effectiveness.

Corporate influence further diminishes the likelihood of implementing sound environmental policy. The modern corporation is a descendant of British and Dutch merchant companies chartered by the Crown, which were given certain limited rights and returned a share to the Crown for the public good. Over time corporations have continually expanded their rights and lessened their obligations. Today’s corporations are beholden only to their shareholders, and their primary responsibility is to maximize the amount of money they make. In the United States, corporations control much of our economic activity and exert a strong influence over government by acting in concert with elected officials to promote economic growth. On a global scale transnational corporations play one government against another, and there are no effective transgovernmental organizations to hold them accountable.

Sustainable Failures is most useful for students in environmental-studies programs or for members of the general public wishing to become more environmentally active. In documenting the declining state of the environment Cable has supported her arguments with a large amount of data and many case studies. This approach may be somewhat tedious since I suspect many likely readers are familiar with these issues and do not need convincing as to the gravity of the challenges. Cable concludes that large elements of society have at this point failed to acknowledge the four basic ecosystem laws: everything is connected to everything else; everything has to go somewhere; changes to the system evoke a response that restores equilibrium; and growth always degrades the environment.

After painting a fairly bleak scenario Cable unfortunately gives no specific, usable suggestions as a prescription. In her view corporations should be reined in, political institutions must supersede economic institutions, and our economic system should be reorganized into a series of regional units that operate as independently as possible, balancing population size with available resources. Cable believes we must acknowledge there is no such thing as “sustainable growth.”

In the United States today a minority of corporations and special-interest groups are able to block even moderate responses to climate change. In Europe and the United States the younger generation is becoming more involved in such issues; the rest of the world will take some time to catch up. Yet I for one cannot imagine a groundswell of people demanding their governments forgo growth and accept a resultant lower standard of living.

We can only hope that our approaches to sustaining the world’s future, and likely larger, population will give us an environment we’ll want to live in. The experience of the Easter Islanders, who pulled down every tree and could no longer even build boats to fish, is a depressing precedent.

Ronald Reynolds is a senior adviser at CHF and has a background in environmental engineering.