It is a huge shame to me that someone as passionate, knowledgeable and experienced as Susan George could have been allowed - so often - to shoot her own arguments in the foot with glaring contradictions and inaccuracies. I strongly disagree with other reviewers who think her arguments are well structured; I have rarely come across a book so conflicted and confused.
It was really difficult for me to read. Not because of lack of interested in her subject matter, and not because I disagree with her point of view but because I have a background in science and engineering where peer review and a decent (firm-handed!) technical editor would have pulled this text to pieces and given Susan George a chance to turn this into a truly excellent book. Instead we have a book where I literally had a smile on my face after one excellent explanation or revelation only to have it wiped clean away on the next page by a statement that just irritated and bemused me.
First the plus points. This book pulls together the interconnected crises (environmental, sociological and financial) and treats them as they rightly should be under a common lens. George really does have an excellent overview of the geopolitical landscape and her belief that the spheres of existence are given the wrong order of priority is spot on. In fact there's so much to learn from this book - even if you've seen it before in other works - by way of harmonising and converging of ideas. As I said above, this could have been an outstanding book.
I also like the fact that despite her revulsion at the wealthy powers behind governments, George retains some positivity and feels that democracies can work with these individuals in the long run. Despite all she has seen and the opinions she holds, she has not given up on humanity's capacity to heal its self-inflicted wrongs.
But then there's the conflict. The French title of this book was `Leurs crises, nos solutions' which would give the prospective reader a much better idea of George's standpoint. THEY (the Davos `class', global financial institutions...) made these crises; WE (the enlightened `normal' people) have the solutions. While I'm not sure it really helps advance an argument to point out what monsters the other side are, that's not really the problem here. As, fortunately, I wasn't the editor I shall just focus on one chapter to illuminate what bothered me about this book... needless to say there are examples like these peppering the whole text.
So we look at one example from the `The Most Basic Basics: Part 2: Water'
The chapter begins by explaining what a `wet' dream water is for the ideal capitalist.
"Price is a way of rationing scarce resources, so, the scarcer the good, the higher the price - for classical theorists this is the vital function of the market."
George then states:
"Saying that water should be a universal public good does not mean it should also be free... its price should escalate fairly rapidly with consumption levels. Its price, however, should be determined politically, not by purely economic forces of supply and demand."
She then comments on China's massive overconsumption in relation to GDP generation compared to developed world nations, blaming the `completely unrealistic' water prices in China (set, let us remember, politically if not democratically). "They [the prices] do not reflect scarcity, so they encourage further waste and depletion".
A few pages later she commends the municipal government of Grenoble, for supplying water "at the lowest cost of all French cities with a population over 100,000" !!!
I'd love to be able to work out what on Earth George is trying to say in these comments. Should China be chastised for (politically) setting water prices so low as to encourage waste; or should that fall on Grenoble for doing the equivalent. Remembering, of course, that Grenoble lies at the meeting of two major rivers fed by glacial melt-water from the Alps... a short-term beneficiary of climate-change induced receding glaciers if ever I saw one!
Others have laughed at her use of the rat anecdote concerning privatisation of British water but this is just one example out of a book-load of statistics and accounts devoid of context or missing the fundamental scientific understanding to back them up. Her closing chapters remarks on self-organising criticality are bordering on farcical from someone who seems devoted to the concept of top-down democratic hierarchy sustained by increased taxation. Biological and `lifeless' chemical self-organisation works without (and probably thanks to a lack of) top-down instruction and all evidence I've ever seen points to the conclusion that the more humans meddle with such systems the more fragile they become.
I find it hard and almost worthless to rate this book out of five stars. There is plenty of five-star material in the book; and plenty of one-star dirt smeared all over it! If you want a rational book to understand the scope of the energy crisis facing Britain, then I'd steer you straight to David MacKay's Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air
. If you want a book to inspire you about the power of biological self-organisation and humanity's place in the grand scheme, then get hold of a copy of Tim Flannery's Here on Earth
. Susan George holds many opinions; some of which I agree with - others of which I contest. But I always believe it is healthy to read a variety of opinions and challenge your own beliefs. If you can keep your wits about you and avoid treading in the dirt, Susan George's WCWF does have a lot to recommend it.