March 19th, 2012

Review of Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the Risks of Economic and Environmental Collapse, edited by Richard Douthwaite and Gillian Fallon, 2011, New Society, 457 pp. ISBN 978-0-86571-699-5.

By Tina Evans

MEDIA REVIEW

In this concise and useful review, Tina Evans brings forth the high points of Douthwaite and Fallon’s comprehensive book about economic collapse, especially featuring those aspects of the book that might contribute to courses on sustainability and peak oil..

As a sustainability educator focused on energy issues in society, on instability of the globalized growth economy, and on the fundamental mismatch between that economy and the realization of sustainability, I have for some years followed the work of Douthwaite and Feasta (the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability), an organization he co-founded in Ireland. Douthwaite’s works The Ecology of Money, The Growth Illusion, and “Why Localisation is Essential for Sustainability” have become standard fare in my sustainability-oriented courses, and the work of Feasta informs my approach to understanding and teaching sustainability. I was, therefore, thrilled to see the publication of Fleeing Vesuvius, a work that brings together in one thematically organized volume the ideas of many Feasta members and likeminded theorists and practitioners.

Editors Richard Douthwaite and Gillian Fallon have coalesced analyses and practical strategies aimed at 1) awakening people to the converging crises of energy resource depletion, climate change, and economic instability and 2) offering practical advice on how individuals, communities, and policy makers might begin to address multiple facets of the sustainability challenge as it unfolds within a context of potential economic and environmental collapse.

Fleeing Vesuvius is an effective guide to understanding the converging crises we face and to engaging in effective action to mitigate the potentially devastating socio-ecological effects of these crises. The book both articulates and builds upon the following premises: 1) that the era of peak oil production is here, meaning that industrial society is about to undergo a major transition from an economic system that requires economic growth in order to avoid collapse to an economic system within which net energy available to drive economic activity continually declines; 2) that climate change will alter the preconditions for ecological systems as they are today and, thereby, alter human systems that are embedded within and dependent upon the natural world; and 3) that, in a context of net energy decline and climate change, the growth economy upon which most of us rely to obtain the necessities of life and pursue personal fulfillment is likely to become increasingly unstable and, at some point, to collapse. Using this overarching context as a springboard, the authors of Fleeing Vesuvius elucidate pathways for sustainability-oriented action. Their insightful, creative, and practical ideas can inspire readers to take much needed individual and collective action in an effort to build more resilient societies.

The articles that comprise “Part I: Energy Availability” effectively build the case that peak oil and, even more importantly, peak net energy are now or will soon be upon us and that declines in energy availability are likely to trigger an eventual collapse of the money system as well as the globalized growth economy. Part I serves as a launching point for much of the rest of the book which addresses what we might do to live more sustainably and to build socio-ecological resiliency.

Contributors to “Part II: Innovation in Business, Money and Finance” highlight first why money as we currently know it is likely to lose much of its value as available net energy declines and why the monetary system itself is vulnerable to collapse within this context. These authors then discuss alternate means of creating and using debt-free money to finance economic activity and taxation strategies that promote economic stability.  They stress the importance of localizing economic activity to achieve resilience in provision of basic necessities.

“Part II: New Ways of Using the Land” continues the focus on localization of economic activity as a means to achieve efficiencies and socio-ecological resilience. Nutritional resilience stemming from a balance of available minerals in the soil, an almost entirely overlooked aspect of socio-ecological health and resilience, is discussed in some depth, as are practices of agricultural land use that can make the land function as a carbon sink rather than a carbon source.

Contributors to “Part IV: Dealing with Climate Change” discuss the future of climate policy at the international level. The climate aspects of “Cap and Share,” a proposal developed by Feasta as a means to address climate change, peak oil, and economic disparity and instability, are effectively outlined here.

“Part V: Changing the Way We Live” and “Part VI: Changing the Way We Think” offer important insights into how we might organize, conceptualize, and experience life in a post-peak-oil and perhaps post-collapse world. The contributors also focus on how individuals and communities might cultivate hope and motivate sustainability-oriented social change.

“Part VII: Ideas for Action” is comprised of advice offered by each of the volume’s contributors regarding risk management and planning for the future with regard to one’s family, community, and country.

Fleeing Vesuvius captures the thoughts and advice of a wide range of prominent sustainability-oriented thinkers and activists. It offers insightful social and economic analysis in addition to well-developed proposals for practical action. As a course text for upper division undergraduates and graduate students, Fleeing Vesuvius offers an excellent springboard for discussion and further investigation of the issues and strategies it introduces. Students of sustainability should be introduced to peak oil and economic instability as central aspects of the sustainability crisis, and Fleeing Vesuvius offers sustainability educators a vehicle for doing so. The book also offers readers an introduction to the work of Feasta, a highly innovative organization focusing on the economic aspects of sustainability.

I recommend Fleeing Vesuvius as an important exploration of the economic aspects of the sustainability challenges we face and as a thought piece for generating discussion among students and faculty members regarding sustainability-oriented strategies we might pursue in an effort to make our families, communities, and nations more resilient to the challenges of peak oil, climate change, and economic instability. Sustainability educators teaching various disciplinary and interdisciplinary courses will likely want to pick and choose particular articles to use as course texts or accompaniments. Much of the content of Fleeing Vesuvius is available online via the Feasta website: http://fleeingvesuvius.org/contents/.

References:

Douthwaite, R. (1999). The ecology of money. Schumacher Briefing no. 4. Totnes, Devon, England: Green Books. Also available online: http://fleeingvesuvius.org/contents/.

Douthwaite, R. (1999). The growth illusion: How economic growth has enriched the few, impoverished the many and endangered the planet. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society.

Douthwaite, R. (2004). Why localisation is essential for sustainability. In Douthwaite, R., & Jopling, J. (Eds.), Growth the Celtic Cancer. FEASTA Review, No. 2, 114-124. Available online: http://www.feasta.org/documents/review2/douthwaite.pdf.

Feasta. (2008, May). Cap & share: A fair way to cut greenhouse emissions [Electronic version]. Dublin, Ireland: FEASTA. Retrieved December 31, 2008, from http://www.feasta.org/documents/energy/Cap-and-Share-May08.pdf

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