Book Review: State of the World 2004, by Brian Halweil

 

Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes

 

December 17, 2004

 

Timely and Thought-Provoking

Once again the Worldwatch Institute has published an important summary of the state of the world, using a sense of both urgency and hope.

The special focus of the eight chapters in the 2004 edition is "The Consumer Society". The authors document how we in the "developed world" continue to waste vast quantities of water and energy, despite having access to technology that, were we to embrace it, could dramatically reduce our "environmental footprint". We continue to eat more food than we need, and our diet includes more resource-intensive choices, such as beef, than are sustainable long-term. We continue to "inventory" in our homes more clothing than we realistically need, in effect storing in our closets the land, water and pesticides that it took to grow the cotton to make our shirts and sweaters, and the diesel fuel to run the ship that brought the clothing from south Asia.

Consumption for many is a mantra reinforced by the economic systems of "free enterprise", advertising, government policy that puts great emphasis on GDP as a measure of aggregate well-being, and the right of individuals to make choices. The challenge is that unbridled consumption cannot be sustained, especially if the growing middle class in the developing world aspires to acquire possessions and to consume to the degree that people in North America, Europe and Japan have already been doing for at least twenty years. Indeed, there are moral and social justice issues about the developed world warning the likes of India and China to resist embracing a full consumer society, when one considers that a) the developed world continues to consume and pollute at disproportionately high levels per capita; b) so much of the raw resources the developed world uses are extracted from the developing world, and c) a great deal of waste generated by the developed world, such as decommissioned ships dismantled on the shores of India, ends up in the developed world.

I highly recommend this book. In addition to the well-researched eight chapters, which can be read in any order, there are several sidebar articles, usually each two pages long, discussing the environmental impact of our producing and using such everyday items as plastic bags, computers, cell phones, bottled water, shrimp, cotton t-shirts, and paper. There is even an article that describes the ecological damage done by our using antibacterial soap. In short, what seem at first glance to be innocuous choices of what to consume, turn out to have profound implications on the viability of our ecosystems, if enough of us make unsustainable consumption choices.

On the one hand, there is great disparity in consumption patterns from one corner of the planet to another. Some don't get enough to eat, while others literally kill themselves by excessive and ill-advised eating decisions. On the other hand, the authors offer guidance, in chapters such as "Watching What We Eat", "Better Energy Choices", and "Boosting Water Productivity". The good news is that most of us can reduce our ecological footprint, attain better health and greater happiness, and often save money, by adopting practices that relate to consuming less, and to consuming more wisely. As Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, "To know when you have enough is to be rich."