Book review: The Path to a Sustainable Civilisation

Reviewed by Jenny Goldie, president Sustainable Population Australia

Republished by permission,

A large crowd attended the launch of this book and many were turned away. As co-author Rod Taylor said: ‘The fact that so many have turned up indicates a growing awareness of the problems confronting us. We are the last generation alive to do something about them.’

The book starts with the analogy of Spaceship Earth as the ocean liner Titanic, the largest ship ever built and thought to be unsinkable. The wealthy enjoyed the first-class facilities; the lower deck passengers fared less well; and the boiler stokers even worse. All unaware of the impending doom. Under pressure from the wealthy industrialist owners, the captain drove the ship at full speed despite warnings of sea-ice.

It sank after hitting an iceberg, drowning 1500 passengers and crew. Three quarters of third-class passengers perished but only a third or so of first-class ones.

There are so many parallels: the complexity of a trusted system but capable of spectacular failure; the warnings ignored; the dominance of economic drivers; the power imbalance between those on board; the increased risks faced by the powerless; the lack of respect for the natural environment; and the attitudes, values and vested interests of those in charge.

So how to turn this particular ship around and avert disaster? Just how do we achieve a sustainable civilisation?

Clearly the present path is the wrong one. How do we stabilise climate? The authors assert that it’s already too late to stabilise global heating below 1.5o C and it will be a huge struggle to keep it below 2o C.

As the sub-title suggests, solutions are multi-faceted.

What is required is technological, socioeconomic and political change. The goal is not to achieve utopia but ‘simply a society that is genuinely democratic, ecologically sustainable, socially just, healthy, peaceful and provides basic universal services and decent work for all who want it.’

Much was made at the launch of the need to change the economic system (neoliberalism) which has failed, particularly during the Global Financial Crisis and also in response to the Covid epidemic when governments had to abandon the free market and spend money just to keep people alive. The book devotes a long chapter to reforming the economic system including the adoption of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).

After spelling out why our planet is in distress and likewise human society, the book covers various issues other than economic including transitioning the energy system, creating a circular economy (a leaky one at least), cutting the bonds of state capture, and community action for social change.

The need to deal with population growth permeates the whole book. For instance, the authors write that the deteriorating state of the planet is caused by a number of factors including ‘increasing consumption and population…’

Forests, they say, ‘are being sacrificed to the demands of economic and population growth…’ In the Global South, both centralised and decentralised energy systems are needed to ‘provide for the rapidly growing populations of cities…’

What’s needed is more than just stabilisation of the population; reduction is necessary.

In transitioning to the Sustainable Civilisation, we envisage that global population is gradually, non-violently reduced…even with half or one-quarter of the present global population, it will require solar panels, railways, bicycles, tractors, efficient electric appliances, ultrasound and X-ray medical technologies, vaccines and antibiotics.

These cannot be manufactured by small local communities, which will still be partially dependent upon a national and international industrial society for steel, aluminium electronics, chemicals, and so on.

A number of eminent people have endorsed this book including climate activist Bill McKibben who found the section on corporate capture particularly relevant. Mark Diesendorf provided a personal example at the launch.

Years ago, while working for CSIRO, he set up a wind power research program that required a funding grant. The CSIRO Executive were not happy with the application and tried to stop him getting it, and later even closed down all renewable research. It turns out a member of the Executive was from the coal industry.

Another endorsement came from Em Prof Ian Lowe who said the book showed in distressing detail how likely it is that our civilisation will collapse. If we are to avert collapse, he wrote, ‘it will require concerted and urgent action.’

This important book shows how it is still possible to prevent the collapse of our civilisation; buy it, read it, and act on it urgently.

Amen to that.