BOOK REVIEW: FLEEING VESUVIUS

Fleeing Vesuvius: 
Overcoming the risks of economic and environmental collapse
Fleeing Vesuvius, published in Ireland by FEASTA*  is a book of its time, written by some of our brightest minds, for our people. Its stated aim “to arm its readers with the knowledge they need to develop new ways of doing things, instead of staggering from crisis to crisis” trying to patch up systems that are no longer viable. This, then, is a book of the moment, for the moment. It may hold many explanations for why we are where we are and what we might do about it.

The 27 contributors to this book, drawn from leading thinkers in fields as disparate as psychology, economics, engineering, architecture come together to vision possible responses to the current meltdown of our economic system and the threat of peak oil. It presents a wealth of diverse and detailed knowledge and experience: a systems approach to the deep complexities of our globalised society and the tapestry of economy and environment and how it all unravels if a single thread is pulled.
Published in early November, pre-bailout and before the true extent of our economic mess was fully known, it charts the truly terrifying cold, hard figures: the size of the deficits currently owed by Ireland, the UK, the US and other major European economies, our current energy needs and how we might meet them. It then considers the changes required in the way we think and how we relate to others and the land we inhabit if we are to reduce the risk of environmental and societal breakdown which threaten our civilisation.
The editors suggest that readers ask themselves three questions as they work their way through the book: “What can I do myself? What can I do with other people? What can’t I do anything about at all?” The authors seeks to enlighten us on all three.
This is a must-read for concerned citizens, activists, thinkers, politicians, planners and business people of all stripes. For those who are wondering why we are where we are, where we are headed and how we might respond, this is the manual to help you steer over the stormy sea. At times it is wordy and stylistically dense to be almost impenetrable to the lay reader. At others it is revelationary, clear and terrifyingly accurate.
Kudos to David Korowicz for his extremely strong opening chapter, which coherently outlines a systems understanding of the global economy with great clarity and many pertinent and highly memorable nuggets. Understanding the global economy as a complex, self organising system reminds us “that governments do not control their own economies. Nor does civil society. The corporate or financial sectors don not control the economies within which they operate. That they can destroy the economy should not be taken as evidence that they can control it.” Would that our leaders had read this a few years back.
This is not an easy bedtime reading book – it might give you nightmares! Rather, it gives you a sense of being in the company of many great minds: like having a conference in book form. Or a dinner party of outside-the-box thinkers – some fascinating, some a little dry – but as a whole informative and rich. Its ultimate strength is the weaving of many voices. No reader, however informed previously on the subject, could come away claiming to have known it all before.
It ends with a chapter of practical advice reaped from the collective experience of all the contributors, so that readers aren’t left feeling overwhelmed, despondent or disempowered.
Pioneering any new approach isn’t easy,” counsels Tim Helweg-Larsen, one of the contributors. This is especially true given the scale of the task ahead of us and the changes that need to happen on every level in our global culture. Through this book these thinkers are all contributing to and modelling the Great Conversation which needs to happen, right now, if further disasters are to be sidestepped or at least their effects minimised. Politicians, professionals, citizens, take heed and quickly. The volcano is rumbling ominously. Let the people of Pompeii be a lesson to us.
Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the risks of economic and environmental collapse.
Richard Douthwaite and Gillian Fallon (eds), FEASTA, 2010. ISBN 97809549510-1-3

* FEASTA (the Foundation of the Economics of Sustainability) the influential think tank, based in Ireland consists of on international network of people “who believe that inappropriate systems cause many of the world’s problems and who are trying to develop better ones.”
This review appears in the December 2010 Cork Environmental Forum Newsletter www.cef.ie

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