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Ecological Debt: Global Warming and the Wealth of Nations
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on 20 June 2013
We in the rich world are consuming far more than our fair share of the earth's resources, and contributing far more to global warming, while the developing world (the vast majority of the world's population) go without, yet suffer disproportionately the consequences of climate change. On top of this inequality, we are blindly following the path to economic growth while ignoring all the evidence that tells us we are heading towards an environmental catastrophe.
The author tackles the most important subject facing civilization, and if I was judging this book on message alone, it would be five stars without a doubt. But there's a problem with the writing, especially in the final chapters, which were tacked on for the second edition. (The book was originally published 2005 and updated in 2009).
For the first part of the book, the writing is generally quite good, though it can be heavy going and sometimes preaches to the reader, a common problem with such 'worthy' books. But when we get to those later chapters, the garbled syntax that occasionally intrudes early on becomes too much. Mangled metaphors and confusing sentences become more intrusive (I pick one at random: "... the environmental and economic carpet-bombing of large parts of Asia with palm oil plantations.") If the book had started like that I'd have given up. I can only assume that the first edition was edited a lot more thoroughly than the later chapters.
So not an easy read, but overall this book represents an important addition to the principal debate of our age, with a vital message and some interesting ideas.
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on 3 May 2011
Ecological Debt is an unusually wide-ranging book, from a writer who understands that climate change, debt, resource depletion, development and lifestyle are all intricately bound together. To do justice to one issue, you have to follow the threads through them all. That could have resulted in a complete tangle of a book, but the idea of ecological debt serves as a locus that keeps it from unravelling.

Ecological debt is basically taking out an environmental overdraft, either on the earth itself or on somebody else. If we assume that everyone has an equal right to emit carbon, for example, then some countries and individuals are using more than their fair share of the atmosphere. That creates climate debtors and climate creditors, and the usual roles of debt are reversed. We are used to thinking of poor countries as heavily indebted, but "it is the inescapable debts of the rich that threaten our collective future".

That's the radical notion that Simms explores here. The richest countries in the world owe both an environmental debt to poorer countries, and a historical one, through colonialism and conquest. Considering that future development is constrained by limited resources and the climate, he argues that we should re-consider the idea of economic growth in rich countries, and start sharing the wealth better: "There is no more fundamental issue than the distribution of wealth in a climate constrained world economy".

That is of course a pretty unwelcome conclusion, but the idea of 'ecological debt' allows Simms to repackage a message that would otherwise be freighted with unhelpful ideology. Economic rebalancing is a moral imperative, neither charity nor socialist idealism - it would be righting a wrong, and repaying a debt.

The book does pack a little too much in - this is the updated 2009 edition, and the last few chapters lose focus a little. Overall however, this is a powerful and creative exercise in joining the dots between the several converging crises of the 21st century.
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I'd read about the concept of Ecological debt before, but only brief articles, and found it a really interesting concept, so I was looking forward to a more in depth analysis in this book. Unfortunately I found I couldn't bear to read past the first twenty or so pages. The authors prose was so infused with self-righteous smugness over how worthy he is, and how people who disagreed with his world view are so delusional and/or morally corrupt, that there didn't seem to be much room left for the actual concept itself. It's a real shame, as it's still an interesting subject, but I wanted a sensible and informative discussion of it, not a self-satisfying polemic. I look forward to the day someone who's more interested in the subject than in building their self-esteem on it writes a book about it, I bet it will be really interesting.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
The whole idea of ecological debt is really exciting, ground-breaking stuff, and Andrew Simms - who came up with it in the first place - as written a brilliantly readable and challenging book. Nor is this the usual depressing stuff about global warming: it offers a way out. If you want a good guide to the debate about the planet, and one that is actually fun to read, you couldn't go wrong with this one!
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 20 May 2009
The wealth of the developed countries of Europe and North America can be traced back to the exploitation of their colonies in the past several centuries, and up to the unbalanced usage of their environmental assets today. An interesting message, but how this historical debt can in fact be repaid is not convincingly addressed. Regrettably this interesting topic is not explored in nuanced depth, and the book falls into repetitious enumeration of the sins of our fathers. Could be much better.
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