ISBN 978-1-40870-236-9. “Cancel The Apocalypse – The New Path to Prosperity” by Andrews Simms was published by Little, Brown in 2013. There never was a Transition book simply about economics. If there was it would look a lot like this. And that does it a disfavour by suggesting it is only about economics. There is a lot more here to digest than just that. But it will take you some time; at well over 400 pages long there is LOT here to take in. Sometimes you think that Andrew simply couldn’t be bother to write two or three books, so he combined them. For Andrew is a man with a lot to say, and we admit it – this is a very good book. It is all here – every state-of-the-art idea we have concerning our deliverance [but was afraid to implement].
When I started reading this my wife asked me to tell her what the conclusion was; how do we cancel the apocalypse? She is a good barometer of the general public reaction. People are concerned. People are not blind. You can find this book on the shelves of Waterstones. Right up front I have to say that this is not peddling easy answers. Indeed all the answers have been known for years. All we have lacked is willpower and the right politics. The system we have is on a downward spiral because its temporary unsustainable nature suits the powerful interests of today. Since the people who will suffer have yet to be born then today’s interests perpetuate the destruction. Sorting out the mess becomes somebody else’s problem. Such power is utterly overwhelming. Even after its catastrophic failure in 2008 we still tell ourselves that to recover we need more of the same. Surely the definition of insanity.
Maybe we can summarise this book in just a few words by saying that if you took all the titles weighing down our book shelves and compressed them into just one book it would probably look a lot like this. The love affair with Transition is clear early on with Rob Hopkins getting an acknowledgement. We like the fact that Andrew questions everything. He will praise an idea then take a step back and say ‘hold on, isn’t this crap’ (I paraphrase). For example, about Transition he asks:
“Isn’t it trivial that some people might club together to share tools or cars, or skills needed to make and mend clothes or other household items?”
…for these are the questions we all should be asking. Of course these are rhetorical but it is always important to take a step out of your own shoes and look at your truths with a questioning eye. Such critical self-assessment is a refreshing change from the unmitigated, full-on, optimism of so much Transition writing. If you smear vaseline over every lens you give the appearance of a bunch of happy dolphins. If it was always that easy it would already have changed the world. It hasn’t even come close. Andrew suggest though that this is not a waste of time because;
“The reason that a myriad small-scale, more sustainable initiatives matter is that they reject economic norms, showing that change can happen, and they represent the threat of good examples that in a conducive framework can be multiplied. They’re also expressions of a different set of values, which, as they diffuse in society, insights from psychology and behavioural economics become possible.”
Of course the subtle mention of “the threat of good example” is lifted from Noam Chomsky and refers to the model that Cuba set the developing world. Cuba’s alternative model differs so greatly from the state-capitalist system offered as our own sole solution. Andrew returns to Cuba as an example later in the book.
Andrew breaks his lengthy work into eleven sections:
- Motive: why we need to change
- The model: the alternatives
- The measures: a better compass
- The myth: our cultural stories
- Meaning & imagination: human well-being & consumerism
- The money: resources
- The memories: what we can learn from history
- The message: the role of marketing
- Mutual interest: inequality
- The momentum: the transition has already begun
Andrew kicks off with everyone’s favourite whipping boy (next to the Banks of course): growth & our obsession with it – unrestrained growth leads to sudden collapse. Sooner or later growth swamps the remedies, ie, the techno-fixes. It took the engineers of Imperial College to point out that this Emperor wore no clothes; the economy is governed by the laws of thermodynamics – we have to fuel the economy based upon the energy we have. Economist seem oblivious to this reality.
As an analogy for our times the author takes us back to the 1870’s and the battle to introduce the Plimsoll line on ships:
…when “regulation was suggested, there were howls against official ‘interference’. Shipowners damned the meddling that would ‘favour foreign rivals’, and get in the way of free trade – the same song sung by bankers, fossil-fuel companies and others resisting regulation today.”
Another example was slavery. The author goes on to suggest that fossil fuel reserves, which are categorised as ‘proven’, ‘probable’, ‘possible’ and ‘speculative’ should be joined by a new class: ‘unburnable’. Later we learn of a proposal to prescribe a Plimsoll line to our economies. It would be the opposite of a Poverty Line; a line above which we have too much. A line above which having too much damages the economy through rising inequity. To quote E.F.Schumacher:
“Man talks about a battle with Nature, forgetting that if he won that battle, he would find himself on the losing side.”
In ‘meaning & imagination’ Andrew goes on to describe the “Feral Elite” – a modern phenomena whereby the ultra-rich and powerful (think bankers and some MPs) expect to be immune from the law and any morality. They can steal, plunder and cheat and we should look away. Yet if a poor man does this he is a criminal. The author suggests a “shift in values of materialism”:
“Materialists tend to recycle less, conserve energy less…”
..and they aren’t happy people. Their goals are extrinsic so they are never satisfied. You want a happy life? You will need intrinsic values and you cannot buy them from Tesco. You have to find ways to connect with other people, to keep active, to take notice of the world, keep learning, “give”.
“Do something for a friend, of a stranger. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer your time. Join a community group.”
In short: transition.
“Transition Town initiatives, for example, with their combination of communal organisation, reskilling and multiple activities, tick all the boxes in one way all the other.”
Absolutely. There is much else that Andrew explains in good simple terms that others fail to do. For example his explanation of why deregulation leads to inequality and how inequality comes at a high cost to society. Since the rich already have a lot of stuff the extra money they earn goes into assets whereas the poor buy consumables. A rising asset market pushes up the value of things like houses giving the rich even more more to borrow against.
“The rich get richer, generally speaking, while the poor get further into debt.”
This is not sustainable even if it were morally acceptable. So Simms takes on the banking system (seemingly his favourite nemesis) demonstrating that other countries have much more diverse and localised banking systems that are far more resilient to failure.
“These aren’t relics of a more innocent age. these local banks are the foundations of Europe’s dominant economy, Germany. They underpinned a far more resilient endurance of global recession, and a more successful recovery from it.”
To big to fail? No. Far from it. Hence more resilient. Andrew urges local communities to take back the banking sector and not to cower at big institutions that he brands as “useless”. Finance has to serve society or get out of the way. We are suffering under an “artificial scarcity of resources” that results from “some other agenda”.
We then move onto ‘memories’ and a study of collapse. Like us Simms has beaten a path to Diamond‘s and Tainter‘s work. We need not repeat those lessons here but they are apt. Technology cannot solve all our problems. It creates its own hence they can only go hand in hand with other, more institutional & cultural changes. The author invokes the memory of World War 2 in Britain reminding us how the war effort actually reduced civilian mortality making us all fitter, healthier and more resilient. We treat symptoms today, not causes. We live in a way that makes us sick then throw money at the problem with various sticking plasters as remedies. The solutions of wartime were seemingly totalitarian but they worked by addressing our problems holistically. It seems we already live in an age of totalitarianism – days where our basic freedoms are undermined in a phantom war on terror. Could we rediscover ourselves in a real war that is actually FOR something rather than against a fiction?
Then onto “mechanisms” and again Simms knocks the nail right on the head in his explanation as to why “trickle down economics” is inadequate:
“…the level of global consumption necessary to lift the poorest in the world in the world onto $3 per day would then need the natural resources of about fifteen planets like Earth to feed it.”
This is about as succinct as it gets as an explanation. The reason why a few of us live with unimaginable riches is because a majority live in absolute poverty. Yet the privileged few invoke the uplifting of the poor as a reason for their state-capitalist system. What’s good for them is good for everyone. Yet there is no evidence to bear this out. The only way you can raise the poor out of poverty on this one, single, finite, little planet, is by more even distribution. And that simple, undeniable fact is anathema to the current paradigm. “Turbo-capitalism” (as George Soros called it) cannot fix this problem. I grew up in a time when trickle down economics was the big new idea of Thatcherism. I have lived long enough to see it all go sour. Yet we have learnt nothing.
Andrew himself proclaims no “single alternative solution” but he does ask that we consider more choices. These choices are simply left of our current agenda. They are un-choices for ideological reasons, not because they are wrong. As Herman Daly put it we simply need the “economics of better, not bigger”. However many may feel cheated that Andrew cannot offer more direct policy prescriptions. He can only really offer gestures and a direction. The reader should be directed at the many outputs of the New Economics Foundation (nef) if they wish to learn more about specifics. Some too may question Simms’ style. He openly admits to having done teach-ins with the Occupy movement. This may influence the many but not the few. It is self-marginalising however righteous.
Maybe we should close out with some wisdom that Andrew repeats from Ghandi:
“I do not want my house to be walled in or my windows blocked. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about the house as freely as possible. But also I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
Our system suffers from a lack of pluralism. We are unable to listen to the voices of change. If we attempt to transition we are written off as small town reactionaries wanting to turn our back on the modern world. We need that refreshing wind to blow about our house. As Andrew puts it:
“So many of the global elite [..] spend so much time […] with only each other for reassurance that they are doing the right thing, arid visions get born of disconnected souls in decentred worlds few by sensory deprivation. […] Welcome to our hell, it is the best and only reality we can imagine, we’re sure you will like it too. Out of such impoverishment only short, limited horizons are visible.”
The end of the book fizzles out into an exercise of abstract poetry. Somehow we think that Andrew might have been better just stopping on page 404 when he concludes:
“… here we have to sound a note of caution. No inevitability attaches to the replacement of a flawed and failing economic model with a better one. I do not think it will recognise its own mistakes and retire to be replaced. There is every chance that, like the financial markets, it will follow its nose short-sightedly over a cliff and drag the rest of us along behind it, all the while blaming everyone else for the rush of passing air and fast approaching rocky valley floor. All of the enormous potential listed above will only come to pass if we choose to act. Many already are. However, there needs to be a majority, or at least a critical mass. I am hopeful.”
Maybe hope is all we have.
This is a dense book packed with excellent descriptions of our predicaments. I don’t know if it really offers much of a roadmap to the true cancellation of an apocalypse. For that there are many other books. But if you need a guide to the world as a Transition economist sees it then this is the book for you. It is hard to fault it but it does leave you wanting more… something… something more… The things we are all after; answers. The truth is that the answers don’t come easy. That’s the problem.