REVIEWS

A selection of the best from recent issues of the Philosopher

 

Heavenly spheres ECOCIDE
A Short History of the Mass-Extinction of Species

The Philosopher's verdict: timely 
Ecocide: A short history of the mass extinction of species 
by Franz J. Broswimmer 
Pluto Press, 2003 (London, Sterling VA) ISBN 0745319343 pb £12.99

Franz Broswimmer's book is what everyone nowadays seems to term 'a wake up call'.›

In this case, to the ecological disaster unfolding in the background even as we are temporarily distracted by the thunder of the American and British bombers destroying hospitals, schools, weddings and marketplaces. And as one of the numerous thought-provoking facts in the book shows, the cost of preserving the world's species is a drop in the ocean compared to the cost of the war machines: a mere $5 billion compared to an estimated $900 billion on world military expenditure. (Of which I seem to recall the great majority is spent by the United States alone, incidentally.)› 
In any case, Broswimmer points out that Europeans› actually spend $11 billion a year on ice cream, a fact indeed I did not know before. Nor did› I did know that Plato wrote of the ecological destruction in his time as the timber trade saw the destruction of the forest around Athens (Attica) with all the species loss that Theophrastus and others lamented.› 

What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all that fat and soft earth having wasted away and only the barest framework of the land being left

...quotes Broswimmer, approvingly from the Critias dialogue. 

On the other hand, philosophers will dispute the claim that Plato failed to foresee the 'unsustainability' of the city state - and that this would lead to wars. That is indeed clearly stated in the Republic.
› 
'Ecocide' is structured, as the introduction puts it, in five parts. The first section deals with the roots of the problem, and its historical and sociological aspects. For example, the technological changes that made homo sapiens the dominant species are well described, as well as the earlier mass extinction of the so-called 'megafauna' in the 'late Quaternary' period (that is the last one to two million years).›

Broswimmer then looks at the introduction of farming in the Neolithic period, and by Chapter Three we are well into the 'Modern Assault on Nature'. This, Broswimmer has no doubt, is the result of capitalism and globalization, and the solution, as he regularly explains, is the replacement of market forces with democratic ecological socialism..'in my view, the creation of ecological democracy is a practical and ethical imperative for a more socially just and ecologically sustainable planet'. Broswimmer puts it that:› 

... we live in an age of ecocide, caught somewhere between an unparalleled destructive industrial past and an uncertain future threat holds out either the spectre of annihilation or the promise of ecological democracy.

Ecological democracy, will give a voice to a previously mute and unrepresented nature in our deliberations. 

Actually, there is an important split in the green movement between those like Broswimmer who see economics as the enemy, and those who see it as the saviour. Between those who ultimately argue that nature is best left alone, and that ideally man would return to being merely one animal amongst so many others, and those who see green economics as a kind of enlightened guide showing the only long-term way to a world in which Nature is protected.› 
From this perspective, ecological problems are seen as the result more of the misapplication of economics by partisan and essentially self-defeating short term forces, than inherent in human society's needs. Green economics offers the hope, as it were, that the problem is human greed, rather than human self-interest.

Certainly Broswimmer convincingly demonstrates the links between the greed of the current US centred world economic system, with its World Bank funded energy projects, 'privatisation schemes' and market reforms,› and its indifference either to the grinding poverty of the bulk of the world's peoples or ecological destruction. (In 1990, Broswimmer points out, two billion people lived on less than two dollars a day.) 

Certainly, the facts are pretty appalling. Half of all the worlds species are expected to disappear in the next hundred years. Water resources are running out, since 1970, the ratio of trees to people has shifted from 4.4 square miles per 1000 people to just 2.8 square miles, and tellingly 40% of everything the world can produce that is edible is now taken by humans... Altogether Chicken Little would have a field day with this book. Of course such claims have been made before by 'Greenies' and there is indeed reason to be sceptical.›

For there are faults with it, even as a Greenie tract. Half of all the species lost in modern time have been in Australia. In the last 150 years, one in eight of Australia mammal species - which live(d) nowhere else on earth, have been driven out of existence, as the Australians literally bulldozed their forests into desert, in pursuit of grazing for sheep and cows. Broswimmer seems (let us hope) blissfully ignorant of this continent - it rates not a mention other than for its lost species in the Ice Ages.

It is a curious omission. After all, this is a book concerned with species loss and ecological diversity and Australia has more species than North America and Europe combined. Further, some 85% of the flowers and mammals are only to be found there. But a caution for readers of this otherwise invaluable book is that in places it reads like randomly collected facts (anything as long as its with a greenish hue) strung together in an implausible narrative. And his writing style, let us be frank, is not easy. In fact, I see the book , for all its attractive cover, as essentially a source book and a specialist reference, not a book to try to read through. 

As such it is an valuable and all too timely contribution to the debate..›

Reviewed by Martin Cohen 


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