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Dares to be challenging but format does not allow the logic to be justified
, 25 Feb. 2014
This review is from: Sustainability: All That Matters (Paperback)
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One of the great strengths of Chris Goodall’s “Sustainability” is that he doesn’t use the excuse of the short format demanded by the “All That Matters” series to avoid controversy. The downside is that he doesn’t always have the space to fully justify his arguments and it’s certainly true that I found myself disagreeing with parts of his argument based on the evidence supplied here, but it did make me think about some of the issues in a slightly different light - and the chapter on clothing in particular was unexpectedly fascinating in its conclusion.
So, even though I didn’t always agree with his line of argument, there is much that I admired a lot about this short book. Goodall’s writing is clear and logical and his layout is well structured and helpful. It’s definitely worth a read BUT there are a few reservations.
The first is an inexcusable level of poor proofing of the diagrams which will doubtless be corrected in later editions. He doesn’t use a lot of graphs so in a book of this size, there is really no excuse for these glaring errors. In fig 2.3 for example he would appear to take recycling to new levels by suggesting that 1990 will come around again ten years after 2020, which is unlikely. OK, joking aside, it is clear what the error is - but in the second, fig 3.2, he has a graph going from 130 to 134 to 130 and yet the line goes down (presumably to 124?) Which is right? It kind of matters.
Goodall, probably correctly, notes early on that unless you put some numbers to the issues, we are never going to address them. True enough, but the problem is that when you start putting numbers there, it’s too tempting to spend all your time arguing over what the numbers are rather than getting on with solving the issue. He cites the “Planetary Boundaries” work of Rockström et al and notes that while the concept is helpful the numbers used are broadly unsubstantiated - or at least have been accused of such. Goodall though, while using different numbers could be accused of a similar crime.
Some of his inferences are also open to question. He cites several graphs that show a decline in fossil fuel and mineral use in the UK in recent years but this period coincides with the economic downturn so it is far from clear at this scale if this is due to some benefits of development or to basic economics. Similarly he praises Japan’s ability to restrict outputs despite economic growth and yet Japan’s economy has been in a mess for a long time now. As a further example, he praises the development of nuclear power plants in China - rather ignoring the even greater increase in coal burning power plants in the same period. My issues are not about individual pieces of evidence though but in a tendency to use data selectively to support his argument. To some extent this is inevitable with the space limitations here but it does weaken his case.
On the plus side, Goodall is well worth reading but I’d suggest a critical approach to his arguments. On some issues, he is optimistic and on others the prognosis is scary. Ultimately his argument comes down to ethics and a need for a global approach - but there is little evidence that this will happen. He ends with an attack on the free market approach. Ultimately, what is needed though is for the different approaches to start to work together rather than scoring points off each other. Citing examples like a government survey that suggested 80% of people would rather have £1000 today than £1100 in a year’s time and extending this to scarce resources like fresh water is not helpful in my view. Such dubious logic undermines what is otherwise an interesting approach.
I want to give this four stars - because it is worth reading not least for the challenging view. Part of the issue may be that when you make basic errors in diagrams, it becomes too easy to question other numbers and logic. Even where I agreed with his conclusions, I found myself doubting the logic he used to get there.
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