Donnachadh McCarthy “Saving the Planet without costing the Earth”

ISBN 1-904132-39-1. “Saving the Planet without costing the Earth – 500 simple steps to a greener lifestyle” by Donnachadh McCarthy was published in Fusion Press in 2004. This review is of the paperback edition which has 237 pages including an introduction, ten chapters, resources, acknowledgements. Curiously, even though chapter ten is entirely about the author the last page of the book also has a one page summary of Donnachadh’s life. In fact you can read all about in again in his 2008 “Easy Eco-Auditing” books (reviewed here). We suggest you read chapter ten first as it is a good snapshot of just how accomplished Donnachadh is. He makes it all sound so easy – the true renaissance man. It seems he is good at everything he has ever done. Rising from ballet professional (at a comparatively late age) to become part of the senior executive for the UK’s Liberal Democrat party. He has pioneered domestic renewable energy on his London home and when I met him in late 2010 he was enthusiastically looking for a phrase to describe HIS “carbon negative” home. On the face of it we have every reason to applaud him.

Sadly his books don’t quite hit the spot. Although “Easy Eco Auditing” was a good guide about starting an eco-auditing business it proved exceptionally weak on the justification as to WHY so many of his recommendations had any worth. Our immediate impression of “Saving the Planet…” was simply that it looked starkly out of place in a post-carbon literary world now dominated by the concepts of the ecological and carbon footprinting. Donnachadh’s style was to largely shoot from the hip and go with what feels right. “Saving the Planet..” actually covers some of the basic justifications missing from the later book. Given this we felt we should be a bit kinder this time around even if it was our natural reaction to groan internally at the very title of this book (we will return to THAT later).

There is a story about the author about which he is very fond. He tells the same story twice – once in both books. He got his own rubbish outgoings down to such a small amount that he was able to dispose of it in public refuse bins. When the Council delivered him a wheelie bin he rejected it and wheeled it off his property. He tells this story with relish but it left us asking “Why?”. If your Council has allocated you a free wheelie bin then damn well take it. Us it as a rabbit hutch or water butt or something. This anecdote tells us something about the author… Bloody-minded? Eccentric? You choose. He will press a dogmatic point beyond the zone where it ceases to make any sense. This is not a good starting point for anyone writing a book with the words “saving the planet” in the title. Rejecting a wheelie bin is no badge of pride. Not for all the ordinary souls out there looking for a new Moses to lead them out of the wilderness of consumerism.

This planet is not under threat. This sort of language is well known to alienate the public and has no real meaning to THEM. As a large lump of rock hurtling around the Sun the planet is pretty immune to the puny efforts of man to destroy it. Instead, mankind is highly vulnerable to his own suicide attempts. Life, on the other hand, is extremely resourceful. Even if we wiped out most life on Earth you need only a few minutes of geological time before life would flourish again – minus US. It may be the arrogance of man that we casually talk about the planet as if it is US. It is not.

Let’s move onto the sub-title which commits the second cardinal sin of talking about a “greener lifestyle”. I was in a toy shop with post-carbon girl the other day when I heard an advert for an “indoor boomerang”. Now there is a thing! Two words that should never be used together: “indoor” and “boomerang”. Donnachadh has demonstrated another good example: “green” and “lifestyle”. The coming post-carbon world is not a lifestyle. It will not be coloured green. It is the way things will be – the pigeon-hole isn’t useful. You have a choice about your lifestyle. We are dealing with things about which we have no choice. It pains us to say it because we are a mere peon in comparison to Donnachadh. He writes books and has been on TV for goodness sake! He is a god and we are not worthy. I would give my right arm to be Donnachadh. But if I were, I simply could NOT use everything I had learnt, to write a book like THIS.

Open to the first page of the Introduction (page “ix”) and then cast you eye down to line four “Imagine a world where… we were free from the diseases and cancers caused by toxic pollution”. The word “toxic” is one he uses a lot. It looks as if everything we do in our modern life produces “mountains of waste” and it is all “toxic”. The entire output of the modern world seems dangerously poisonous in Donnachadh’s world. This is strikingly paranoid world view when the truth is that we all live vastly longer than the Irish grandparents Donnachadh describes on page “x”. We may all take the work of Bjorn Lomborg and his Skeptical Environmentalism with a bucket of salt, but if there is one fair point that he makes over and over again; we have never had it so good. The benefits for a minority of us on this planet have outweighed the costs. We have over-populated the planet not because it is toxic but because it is NOT toxic. I doubt whether that situation will continue. We are at the limits of that growth. Continuing to push the costs of our short term extravagance upon the shoulders of poor is not sustainable let alone ethical. However, enough said, the modern world isn’t toxic. Far from it. It is dangerously clean and healthy for most of the people reading this book. This is not our problem. HOW we THINK is the problem.

Donnachadh describes himself in this Introduction as an “environmental campaigner” (page xii). He is very much old-skool and seemingly out of step with the 21st Century. We live a world of Transition Towns, feed-in-tariffs, pro-nuclear Guardian columns and Mark Lynas describing the Green movement as a bunch of lying zealots. So much has changed and is changing about the environmental movement. It is now somewhere between the “anti-everything” movement of the 1970’s and the pro-future ideas of the breakthrough theorists. Voices like Donnachadh’s are now increasingly isolated. He actually prided himself in writing about how much development he STOPPED in London to save green spaces. Yes mate but what did you build? Books like this are written for an increasingly narrow band of suburbanites who want lots of small answers to stop them having to deal with the unbelievable truth. So you get 500 green-platitudes. We live in an era where we have to reach out and touch the heart, soul and mind of every many, woman and child. If you were to write THAT anthem then it wouldn’t be THIS book. To be fair, I don’t think the author meant it to be but, if so, then why the wacky title?

We wish that we could write that anthem. It might well be wittily entitled “500 Green Platitudes that will save nothing – and now for something completely different that will really change everything”. It’s a work in progress. Maybe Donnachadh will help us with it. Seriously. He writes a good book – if you were Tom and Barbara Good from the 1970’s sitcom “The Good Life”. Send it in a time machine back to THEN and let us move on.

So what exactly is my beef with this book? Well, you may well cut and paste in much of what I wrote about “Easy Eco Auditing” but that wouldn’t all apply here. As mentioned earlier this is a better book in so many ways. If the publishing house had wished to put it out as a guide to thrift then it may have worked so much better. If you want lots of ways to save money then this is actually a lot of fun. But saving the planet? Firstly there is a lot of repetition in the 500 (508 to be accurate). It could have been boiled down to 300. Of these we can break them down into three groups: the good, the bizarre and the damn obvious. Take a case in point on page 20: green-platitude number 18 “if you want to buy new books, CDs, DVDs and videos try your local second-hand stores”. Pray tell how do you buy new stuff from a secondhand shop? Now we will be the first to admit that most of our consumer culture is in for a mighty big shock but simply telling people to abandon the High Street isn’t reasonable no matter how right it is. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how our society works. It is an area where Rob Hopkins or Richard Heinberg are very strong. These guys get under the skin of what makes us do what we do and how we can evolve beyond machines that shop. If you really do want to write a book about “saving the planet” these days you really need to know a lot more about how our civilisation ticks and be prepared to say something a bit more radical.

On page 35 Donnachadh lays into our water infrastructure describing it as “horrendously inefficient”. However, compare this against the advice of the Centre for Alternative Technology who advise people against fitting sophisticated water recycling system because such small-scale use can never be as efficient as large-scale water purification. If we stopped pumping water Donnachadh claims we could shut down up to five nuclear power stations. However this claim (page 36) is not backed by any citation. It is scary to think people would buy this book and NOT feel utterly insulted by nonsense like this. We are all for recycling rainwater to water the garden or flush the loo but please check your facts.

Fast forward to page 124 with green platitude number 271 “buy only GM-free foods” in order to reduce the “risks to the future of our environment”. What risks? Are we to assume that every reader will simply agree with such a statement because they are a bunch of unthinking emotional greenies? GM foods are a complicated area – a great scientific success bogged down by narrow commercial interests. A technology that could save starving people has been put to work to drum up sales of pesticides and to ensure that farmers the world over, are now forever in debt to agrichemical companies. That is not a sustainable economy. Exactly which “environment” is Donnachadh saving? Can we save the farmers too? Interestingly enough he makes up for this green platitude with the wisdom that is number 272: “buy locally produced food”. When he is right he is right – even if you get the feeling he may have no idea why. And we could go on and on about the author’s need to make sweeping generalisations about the “serious environmental problems” of the fur trade (this is an ethical issue really) or the toxicity of nail polish (it hasn’t killed anyone yet). So let us stop right there and reflect.

At the end of the day you get what you pay for. If you honestly think you can save this big ball of rock with 500 “simple steps” then you will probably turn each page like an excited schoolgirl. For the rest of us (being somewhat less sanguine about the human race’s motivations) we will keep looking. As for the author there is always hope. We were cheered to learn that he had urged the then leader of the Liberal Democrats in 2003 “to take a lead on identifying our dependence upon Middle Eastern and Asian oil”. Donnachadh stood up in front of largest wartime peace rally ever held in Britain (that year) against the impending Iraqi invasion. He told those assembled that we were all to blame for oil wars through our use of fossil fuels. The half-a-million people who listened to him didn’t laugh. They cheered in agreement. Donnachadh managed to takes us from sublime moments like THAT (page 226) to the ridiculous concept of his readers’ “new environmental lifestyle” (page 227) in one breath. In can be infuriating and beautiful at the same time. An author we love to hate. Brilliant but puzzling. There is more to saving a planet than this.

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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