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4.0 out of 5 stars Out of a time capsule: a warning from thirty years ago, 4 Nov 2009
By 
Dennis Littrell (SoCal) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Vanishing of a Species? A Look at Modern Man's Predicament by a Geologist (Hardcover)
This book is unusual in that most of it was written prior to something like 1980 and put aside until its author passed away and then it was edited and published just this year by the author's son, Nick Gretener who is a lawyer.

The author Peter Gretener was a Professor of Geology at the University of Calgary, Canada. The species referred to in the title is human and Gretener's prognosis is a question mark. What I think is interesting is that much of what he worried about is the same today as was thirty years ago: pollution, war, ignorance of the masses, academics in ivory towers, rampant greed (especially corporate), too many people, energy shortages to come, etc.

He was also worried about the disconnect and lack of communication between what C.P. Snow famously called "the two cultures," identified by Gretener as the humanities/social sciences and the natural sciences. Gretener comes down hard on the social sciences, e.g.,

"Contrary to science, social science has been outright destructive and is largely responsible for the decline of the social fabric in all western countries. To expect social scientists to find solutions to basically scientific problems is ludicrous. Science to them is a strange world, and they are not prepared to come up with any viable solutions. Problems that have been created by scientists must be solved by scientists." (p. 216)

I tend to agree that the social sciences have been nave and arrogant while their academic leaders often lack interdisciplinary knowledge and awareness (one of Gretener's salient points). However I think he has gone too far here, and indeed such statement only furthers the divide between disciplines that Snow and Gretener himself deplore.

The central problem and the reason that we may "vanish" as a species according to Gretener is basically because we are living beyond our means. He saw that back in the 1970s when there were something like four billion people on the planet. Today as we close in on seven billion the situation has only grown more acute. His solution comes in the form of three commandments constituting what he calls "the human revolution." The commandments from pages 229-230 are:

1. Thou Shalt Use Your Head
2. Thou Shalt Give Your Fellow Man a Fair Shake
3. Thou Shalt Not Be a Waste Maker.

I have a problem with numbers 1 and 3. " Thou Shalt Use Your Head" is vague and I think people are using their heads. It's just that we are not looking far enough ahead to see the potential disaster to come, or perhaps we see it but don't really care.

"Thou Shalt Not Be a Waste Maker" is almost humorous in that we cannot help making waste (!). The problem is we need to clean up and recycle our wastes.

Number 2. "Thou Shalt Give Your Fellow Man a Fair Shake" is a variant on the Golden Rule, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and is indeed golden.

More to the point and part of Gretener's farsightedness is his concept of "effective population" by which he means there is an optimum number of people AND their use of resources that the planet can sustain. He sees westerners as consuming too many resources especially of the non-renewable kind. Clearly he anticipated the postmodern concept of "ecological footprint" which is defined as a measure of human demand on the Earth's ecosystems.

Gretener rightly sees this overconsumption and pollution as a threat not to the planet itself but to human survival. He writes: "The planet is doing just fine, and the minor skin cancer it has developed will in no way affect the future existence of this planet. It is not the planet we wish to save but rather our personal and collective existence, which is quite a different matter." (p. 215)

On a deeper level Gretener feels that the imminent failure of our species (unless we change our ways) is not merely material but spiritual. He writes, "If the term Homo sapiens remains the designation of a mechanical genius and a spiritual imbecile, the fate of the species is, indeed, sealed." (p. 84)

Gretener's point of view was influenced as he acknowledges to some extent by the works of George Gaylord Simpson whom Gretener curiously calls "one of the most outstanding minds in the field of geology." (p. 232) I suspect Simpson was indeed (incidentally) a geologist but more significantly one of the authors of the modern evolutionary synthesis in biology and a world class paleontologist.

Gretener was also influenced by Vance Packard, whom I recall as the author the The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and other works of social criticism; Robert Ardrey, famous for African Genesis (1961); and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize winning author of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and other works. It was nostalgic for me to be reminded of these authors whom I also read and admired many years ago.

The strength of this book is in allowing the reader a perspective on how long ago the present predicament was identified. We are able to reflect on what has been done and not done (mostly the latter) and to see what technological and other developments have altered or not altered the situation. Kudos go to Nick Gretener who did an outstanding job of editing the manuscript and who made a number of illuminating comments.
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