Robert & Brenda Vale “Time to eat the dog?”

ISBN 978-0-500-28790-3. “Time to Eat the Dog: The real guide to sustainable living” by Robert and Brenda Vale was published by Thames & Hudson in 2009. For your money you get 384 pages with an Introduction, seven Chapters, a Conclusion, Notes, Sources, Resources and an Index. I suppose a title like that is designed to be incendiary given how close the English are to their pets. The Vales certainly know how to sex it up. For some the very idea couldn’t be more offensive than if they had advised us to eat our children. Really. All the publicity this book got at its launch in 2009 came about precisely due to its coverage of the sustainability footprint of our pets. This was a shot in the arm and it certainly got everyone talking and thinking. But apart from this publicity blast does the rest of this book deserve its infamy? Our conclusion: yes, it is well worth it, with a few caveats. To their credit we have to say that the Vales are quite cognitive of the books shortcomings. It would be easy to criticise the work for its accuracy and such but the introduction pretty much heads-off this kind of critique as the authors admit its flaws. So let us focus on the less obvious problems. Firstly you will notice an obsession with numbers. Obsessive to distraction.

Although it is the purpose of the numbers to compare the footprints of different things the Vales insist on showing not only how they calculated the number but also the calculations. This may be occasionally useful if you wished to check their calculations and assumption but I would have edited this book down to half this size to give it more va va voom. The assumptions and technical calcs could have been left to the resources section. After about page 30 your head will spin with all the numbers and you will stop caring about them. We read most of this book by simply ignoring the tables of numbers and, instead, we just read the text. It is the writing where the book is strong and the numbers are largely a distraction. I was quite happy for the authors to draw their conclusions. That isn’t to say the numbers aren’t useful but they are only there, as the authors remind us, so that we can compare footprints by orders of magnitude. The margin of error on some of them is quite large so they have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Other criticisms might include the lack of illustrations in the book. It is all numbers, numbers, numbers with a few silhouettes behind the text. Not very easy on the eye. I would have like to have seen some colour pictures to illustrate their arguments. Also exercise caution where the authors drift between topics. The Food section in the beginning rapidly goes off course and talks about Photovoltaics for some reason.

The second issue you might find is that the work ends up being very abstract. The number fixation doesn’t really help. The sustainability footprint isn’t measured in carbon it is measured in hectares of the Earth’s surface required to support an activity sustainably. Our hectares per person per year target is 1.85. Currently we hover around 6.41 so we have a heck of a long way to go. But the book isn’t really a road map. It wildly gesticulates in the direction of travel and advises us of which roads to avoid but it remains largely unprescriptive. It is up to the reader to make the choices. You will learn the relative footprints of your choices but you rarely get to appreciate if a choice is sustainable per se. We guess it is only the total of your footprints that is important – you choose from the menu as long as the bill adds up to your personal budget. What is very helpful though is the thought-pattern on display. Even if you take the numbers out, there is certainly a great work of modern philosophy here. The Vales see things differently and this makes this book a breath of fresh air. Early on we get to learn that our society gets further and further away from sustainability with every passing day. Hence, when we return the harder it will be the longer we leave it. This is what the ecologists would call “overshoot”. In 1964 the population was half what it is now and our individual fair earthshare would have been 3.78ha. As time marches on and our population grows, this footprint decreases hence in the 1950’s we could have sustained a 1950’s lifestyle but there is no chance of us going back to the 1950’s now – there are too many of us. Apparently we have to go back to the 19th century now. Scary.

Occasionally the authors will mention capitalism and the consumer society but their politics remain ambiguous and absent from the page. This is a relief. They even go as far as to say that our Governments have a large footprint so we need smaller Government. That will be music to many on the political-right. What we learn from all this musing and number crunching is also music to the ears of the modern Transition movement. Succinctly put on page 70 “Where things can be done at home, they probably should be.” Quite. It also seems that our homes need to be small. It doesn’t matter what we make them off – they just have to be small. This will save you money which you should spend on a big garden and lots of solar panels. And this from page 351 “Doing things for yourself is probably the most subversive course of action you can take in a modern market-based economy”. Some of the areas they tackle are really obscure and surprising. I really didn’t expect to have to learn about the footprint of teapots, shelving and home furniture. Brace yourselves – it is a bit wacky! For example if you are worried about indoor air-quality then you probably shouldn’t wear too much deodorant. Blimey. We have visions of the great unwashed. I suspect a few conservative anti-environmentalists would cherry-pick that to show what utter barbarians we all our: live without soap! Outrageous! By the time our authors reach their conclusions they start to ask why we behave so irrationally in choosing unsustainable lifestyles over the sustainable when it doesn’t make us any happier? The Vales blame the economists. Most of us would agree.

Other sections of the book just re-affirmed the kind of things that we all know to be true but are too scared to utter in polite conversation. For example: is taking part in sport really necessary? You can get better exercise doing household chores and digging the garden. It seems we go to the gym because it is a fashionable lifestyle choice, our friends do it and it is sociable. It has nothing to do with keeping fit. Many would decry this point of view but the numbers don’t lie. If you want to save the planet give up Golf and start Gardening. Likewise hobbies such as DIY, cooking, knitting and sewing are very worthwhile. It seems we should all really stay in more and work a lot less. Basically these are the numbers behind the Transition movement. There isn’t a thing here that Rob Hopkins wouldn’t have suggested but he wouldn’t have worked out the mathematics. But there is darker side to all this as revealed on page 335 where the Vales refer to a study conducted in Solihull, West Midlands, showing an average footprint of 5.5ha/yr could be reduced to 3ha/yr but 1.5ha/yr was intractable. IT COULD NOT BE CHANGED. It was completely beyond the reach of individuals. This footprint is in all the machines and infrastructure of Western society. In essence we can only do so much as individual or as communities. Our entire societal make-up will need to Transition too. Recommended.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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