Ecological Debt by Andrew Simms

I was recently sent a review copy of this book by the publishers, Pluto Press, and it has put me in rather a difficult position. I want to review the book here – that’s why I’ve got it, after all – but all I can really say about it is that it makes a lot of sense and that many of the conclusions it comes to are pretty much those that I’d already reached on my own, though the book presents much of the evidence in one place.

The main thesis of the early part of the book is that we need to start looking at environmental problems in social justice terms – that while we’re (for values of ‘we’) campaigning to get third world debt dropped, we’re building up a much greater debt to those in the third world, because they will be disproportionately affected by the environmental problems caused by first-world consumption. Simm presents several examples of third-world countries that are already under threat from rising sea levels and other effects of climate change, and argues, quite rightly, that we have an obligation to these people to at the very least rectify the damage we’re doing to them.

However, half-way through the book, give or take, the focus shifts to our own economies, and what should be done once it is recognised there are real limits to economic growth imposed by the physical world (and even those of you who are climate sceptics must be aware that we are nearing peak oil, which will have as catastrophic an economic effect as climate change is having on the environment), as well as what should be done to ameliorate the effects of environmental damage.

While Simms takes some of his ideas from Cuba (though the ideas do actually sound perfectly reasonable, I tend not to trust anything that comes out of a dictatorship) much of what Simms talks about, especially a focus on mutual societies and co-operatives, should be of interest to liberals. I like his idea of an economics focussed on ‘dynamic equilibrium’ rather than on growth, though I disagree with him somewhat that growth can or should be stopped overall – what we need is a greater focus on ephemeralisation, doing more with fewer resources (which is something Simms mentions, to be fair, but in passing).

Simms is a director of the New Economics Foundation, and many of his ideas are linked to their Green New Deal and 100 Months campaigns (though now unfortunately their 100 months timeline is down to 91 months without significant progress…) and I shall be investigating their ideas more thoroughly over the next few weeks – economics is not my strong point, and I often think odd ideas are plausible until I investigate them in detail – but at first glance he seems to know his stuff.

This isn’t an essential book breaking new ground – if you’ve read the Guardian (or, until its imbecilification, the Independent) over the last few years you’ll probably be able to hum along – but it’s a very good summary of the problems we’ve got, coupled with a less-convincing but worthwhile attempt to work out how to fix the problems, and as such it’s definitely worth a read.

Ecological Debt: Global Warming And The Wealth Of Nations by Andrew Simms is available from Pluto Press. I received my copy as a free review copy, but was under no obligation to write a review, favourable or otherwise.

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