As epic levels of floods, heat and fires hit countries around the world, can 21st century capitalism bring about the changes needed to prevent further environmental carnage? And do we really understand what is happening to the most fragile wilderness areas on the planet?
A new generation of environmental books addresses these two issues, now among the most pressing of our time.
Humanity’s tug of war with nature is rarely far from the surface in the books of acclaimed American novelist Annie Proulx. It is at the center of his latest work, Marsh, bog and swamp (4th domain, £16.99). This haunting tribute to the world’s peatlands is also a deeply documented complaint for the draining and destruction of critical habitats that store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests.
Proulx’s poetic description of these places, and of the peat itself, is a pleasure to read: “The ‘pipe peat’ used for centuries for home heating has the appearance and texture of pudding solidified chocolate,” she says. The din of wetland creatures before humans interrupted their swampy life “must have produced a staggering roar audible from afar”.
“It’s easy to dismiss the vast loss of wetlands as a tragedy,” says Proulx. But all is not completely lost. As scientific understanding of the importance of peatlands has grown, so have efforts to rewater and restore these vital regions. “A big change, says Proulx, is underway.
Big changes have already taken place in the frozen wilderness that has covered swaths of the planet for millennia. The risks faced by these fragile landscapes and the creatures that depend on them partly explain the popularity of BBC broadcasts. frozen planet documentary series, narrated by David Attenborough.
Now comes the book, Frozen Planet II (BBC Books, £28). Written by two of the show’s producers, Mark Brownlow and Elizabeth White, and weighing 1.6kg, it’s a classic coffee table fare. But his striking photographs of skating polar bears, walrus-covered beaches, and antelope-killing eagles bring the fates of these creatures and their habitats to life with a captivating touch.
Documenting environmental destruction is one thing. Fixing it is another. British economist Guy Standing offers a provocative diagnosis of the failure to protect the world’s oceans by The blue commons (Pelican, £22).
He argues that warming temperatures, acidification, pollution and overfishing that threaten the oceans covering 70% of the planet’s surface are “an inevitable consequence of the system of ‘rentier capitalism’ that now dominates human activity in sea”. Nothing will change as long as large conglomerates and financial institutions are allowed to accumulate and relentlessly exploit ocean “assets”.
Standing wants the pursuit of profit and the pursuit of “blue growth” to be replaced by a “blue commons” that prioritizes the health of the oceans and the rights of local communities.
This monster of a book, which is nearly 600 pages, has no shortage of ideas for tackling the problem. Among them: a “blue common fund” in each littoral nation, financed by levies on the commercial exploitation of ocean resources and used to redistribute the money in the form of a basic income or “common dividend”.
Canadian author Adrienne Buller doesn’t offer as many concrete solutions in The value of a whale (Manchester University Press, £12.99). Instead, she has written a sharp critique of what she sees as the false solutions offered by green capitalist ideas such as green growth, natural capital valuation, carbon offsets and carbon pricing.
His objection to measures such as carbon offsets, which can be based on forests razed by fire, is already widely shared. His questioning of carbon pricing is more controversial. There is, she concedes, an intuitive appeal in the fairness of putting a price on carbon for polluters, and the economic efficiency of such measures is clear.
Besides the fact that carbon pricing has yet to make a significant dent in global emissions that need to come down rapidly, Buller argues that there is no justification for the idea that efficiency should be the primary consideration in designing and evaluation of policies to combat climate change.
“Given the scale, complexity and existential quality of the challenge we currently face, the idea that ‘efficiency’ should be a priority is difficult to defend,” she says.
These are fighting words in a climate policy debate that has long been dominated by economists. Yet the longer it takes to produce meaningful climate action, the more likely these arguments are to land on welcoming ears.
Pilita Clark is the FT’s business columnist
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Coffee