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Book Briefs

Go Mad! 365 Daily Ways to Save the World

Edited by the Ecologist. ISBN 0-9541363-0-6. Nick Papadimitriou reviews.

Order Online: Go M.A.D! Go Make a Difference!: 365 Daily Ways to Save the Planet

Go M.A.D! Go Make a Difference!: 365 Daily Ways to Save the Planet

Reading the aptly entitled Go Mad ("mad" stands for "make a difference") one has to ask, is it them or me that’s insane? This short and potentially revolutionary book depicts a society gone seriously awry. Yet to act on this fact by realigning oneself with new and less destructive modes is to risk being labelled a crank or worse. The title therefore hints at the way the insanity of our civilisation is also normative, rendering those who opt out or challenge its foundations the mad ones. Enlightening and exasperating by turns, Go Mad however, is never less than stimulating. Yet this is not a heavyweight book.

Compiled by the Ecologist and sponsored by Body Shop and Friends Provident, it represents a gathering of the tribes with regard to environmental issues and the various organisations involved. The 365 entries in the book, one for every day of the year, each take a look at some aspect of what could broadly be labelled environmental issues. What we consume, how much of it and what the consequences of doing so are likely to be are weighed against suggestions as to what one can do about it. In order to provide coherence to the project these daily entries are grouped into 52 seven-day sequences each devoted to one of the major themes.

A great deal of ground gets covered. As well as such urgent issues as transport, food, the quality of our air and water, less obvious factors also get a look in. These include birth and death, tyres, composting and lighting as well as many others too numerous to mention. Both cycling and recycling get a weeks section each as does Christmas, that frenzy of consumerism when, we are told, the UK spends £12.5bn on food, drink and gifts.

This book brims with astonishing and even terrifying facts and figures to spur (or panic) the reader on to initiate change. For example, did you know that each year in the UK we produce waste equivalent in weight to 22 million double-decker buses! Or that the average car coughs out 4.5 tons of carbon dioxide per annum. Reading this sort of thing can create a slow crawling panic and provoke the reader to ask deep questions about the purpose of human life on this planet.

However there is more to this book than just statistics. It is designed to prompt constructive change stemming from the reader’s behaviour. In the section devoted to compost, for instance, as well as invoking the organic principle of return whereby nutrients have to be recycled, you are urged to actually start your own compost heap. The idea is that lots of little changes enacted by lots of people can make for a tidal wave sufficient to save the world.

Some of the moves outlined are sheer common sense. These range from, say, using a more holistic alternative to the norm, such as reusable nappies as opposed to non-degradable and chemically packed disposables. At the other end of the scale the suggestions’ border on the anarchic and seem designed to establish a communal utopia in our green and pleasant land. Sharing is frequently emphasised – of cars, compost and even bodily organs! We are urged to produce food within our own community wherever possible and to support local shops thereby undermining the power of the giant supermarket chains. In this sense, the contents outweigh the zany graphics of the cover, and the humorous comic depictions scattered throughout.

Both our dominant cultural concept of self as isolated and distinct monad and the very stability of the existing social infrastructure are to be challenged at the deepest level. This is serious stuff! Each section ends by directing the reader to take their newly stimulated awareness a little further by linking up with like minded fellow citizens or by contacting authority in order to induce change higher up the organisational ladder. Here Go Mad! resembles a directory of organisations to either join or pester. Web site addresses abound. Among my favourites are where you can arrange to be buried in a biodegradable coffin and who assure the toys sold by them aren’t produced by children paid 8p an hour in the developing world. In its emphasis on daily entries Go Mad! brings to mind those meditation books beloved of self-growth types but here the growth links directly to the state of the world at large and effectively overcomes the type of solipsistic self-absorption typical of the former.

Community and sustainability are reccurring motifs. The philosophy of the book rests firmly on the utopian socialist premise that small semi-autonomous communities are the best option for sustainable futures.

At one point, kids are recommended to join the Woodcraft Folk who were set up originally as a kind of prototype new-age scout movement. Members are taught such values as nature conservancy, mutual respect and a form of "deep" ecology whereby care for the planet is directly stimulated by exposure to nature through camping and hiking. It is symptomatic of our era that such values are easily dismissed as, at best, cranky, or worse, as grim reminders of common ground between organicist values and fascism.

In fact the Woodcraft Folk also have roots in the co-operative movement, and it is this sort of mutuality, that will effectively challenge the prevalent ethos of suspicion and self-seeking that underlies much of our world and even gets a look-in in some emergent forms of environmentalism.

Go Mad! manages to present grim statistics meaningfully and to bypass the feelings of futility that can sometimes overwhelm those of us who are aware we live in a complex yet finite world. Yet something here leaves me with doubts. My first concern is that Go Mad! tends to bunch a whole group of alternative approaches together and polarise them off against a seamless edifice of dominant worldviews, thus tending dangerously toward simplistic black and white readings of the situation.

In doing so we attain a kind of environmentalists’ carnival of misalliance where a shared and familiar attitude spreads over many disparate forms of environmental discourse and all differences are dissolved. Thus recycling is good, landfill is bad; Animal rights good, factory farming way out the window. Yet a radically ecocentric environmentalist might have worries about the unique plant and animal communities found on landfill sites, with their swarms of black headed gull, cockroaches and house crickets, and their late flowering weeds. Having helped to establish these communities don’t we now have a responsibility to them? I cite this to illustrate that things may not be as simple as this book may suggest. For example, some recycling activities require more energy than they save.

Also, the consequences of the aggregate effect of people doing good as suggested are passed over without analysis. What would happen if all, most or even many children picked their own flowers for funerals, rather than buying imports? We should ask the conservationists about this. Similarly, the type of massive overhaul of industry implied here, but never overtly referred to, would create immediate hardships elsewhere in the world, and political tensions that can’t just be ignored.

Should We Risk It?

Exploring Environmental, Health, and Technological Problem Solving: By D.M. Kammen and D.M. Hassenzahl, Princeton University Press, Princeton. (1999). pp404. ISBN 0-691-07457-7 (paperback). £12.50. Prof. Peter Saunders reviews.

Order Online: Should We Risk It?

Should We Risk It?

As the title suggests, this is a book about risk, and in particular about how relatively simple mathematics and statistics can be used to help us analyse real situations. There are chapters on topics such as toxicology, epidemiology, exposure assessment and so on. The accounts, taken from real life, are not just about calculating a probability or a level of significance. There are also discussions of the backgrounds to the problems that are being considered, and of the sort of careful thought we ought to give to them before we even start to compute any numbers.

For example, there is a description of John Snow’s famous work that led him to the conclusion that the cause of cholera was polluted drinking water. In the end, a simple ‘Z-test’ is used to compare the death rates of customers of two different water suppliers in London in the mid-nineteenth century. But before we get to that point, we are asked to consider a number of other factors that might affect our conclusions. Were there differences in social class or income between the two groups? Does it matter that the cause of death was typically diagnosed by an undertaker rather than a doctor, and may therefore not have been very reliably done?

The book arose out of courses on risk given at a number of leading American universities. It doesn’t suppose that the reader is a mathematician, but it does assume, as one can in the USA, that university graduates are numerate. It also assumes you know a bit of statistics – there’s a fairly long review of the subject in case you’ve forgotten some of it, but if you’ve never studied at all you’d be better off starting somewhere else.

It is in many respects an excellent introduction to risk assessment. It provides a good overview of the subject, it defines many of the terms that are used and shows how they are calculated, and it draws attention to the mistakes that can arise when we are analysing situations that are complicated using data that are not always reliable.

I was, however, disappointed to find no mention of the precautionary principle, and in particular, on how that would affect risk assessment. This is now a very important issue, relevant to many of the situations the authors describe. It’s just the sort of thing that an introduction to the subject ought to include.

In a way this shows up the deficiency of current risk assessment. Would taking the precautionary principle into account entail a different kind of statistics? This is a problem that statisticians should have seriously addressed by now, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

I-SIS News 13 index

Article first published February 2002

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