Book review: The Earth and Us, by Henry Haslam

Teresa Belton, Visiting fellow in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning, University of East Anglia and author of Happier People Healthier Planet, reviews the book ‘The Earth and Us’.

The Earth and Us considers how the human species, supposedly intelligent, continues to inflict so much damage in the course of pursuing everyday life that its own future is now at risk.  In his readable and deceptively small book Henry Haslam condenses a wide range of relevant information, all important for a thorough understanding of how the ecological emergency we now face has arisen, and suggests some ways in which it might be tackled.  The book is divided into three sections.  The first illustrates the impact of human behaviour on the environment; the second considers the nature of human beings; and the third looks to the future, offering predictions and recommendations to stimulate thought.

The author’s professional experience as a natural scientist is evident in his ability to absorb technical details from many different fields, and he clearly and succinctly sets these out for non-specialists.  His personal interest in psychology, philosophy, politics and economics enables him to apply these to the construction of an explanation of the way industrialised society relates to the natural world.

The book draws neatly on a wealth of research and contains many references and citations in support of its holistic depiction of the issue of environmental sustainability, and points made are illustrated with pertinent examples. It covers many topics, including, for instance, technology, ethics, consumer society, population and food, as well as comparing different religious, philosophical and political stances towards the environment.

Henry Haslam takes a sharply focused approach, asking, for instance, what science is for, yet provides a wide-ranging perspective: he offers three rather different and helpful answers to this question.  His style is to the point, eg, “Most of what is offered for sale is something we could do without – and that is why we have an advertising industry”.

For me, one of the most interesting sections is the comparison is of the positions of twelve religions, including the perhaps more rarely discussed ones of Bahá’i, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism.  In trying to understand why humans tend to behave in such ecologically damaging ways, the difference noted between behaviour triggered by the ancient reptilian, instinctive brain which makes decisions rapidly, according to the circumstances and feelings of the moment, and the brain’s newer capacities to reason, look into the future, and take moral considerations into account, is telling.  The author explains further that a study of our pre-human inheritance helps us to understand our desires for a sense of ownership, hunger for power, self-centredness and habit, which are potentially environmentally destructive; but readers are encouragingly also reminded of the great human capacity to adapt, change and to learn to behave differently.  Perhaps of particular usefulness is the section of the book devoted to rebuttals of a list of objections often made to the presentation of environmental challenges and what needs to be done to address them.

There are, to my mind, certain weaknesses to the book too.  Its explication of the difficulties of science communication is useful, but in its attempt to present a comprehensive view of its subject, it seems to me to give undue space to the views of climate-change deniers. It is right that such views should be included in such an account, but, given the nature and paucity of anthropogenic climate change denial, the overwhelming weight of scientific understanding of climatic dynamics, and the urgency with which the impending breakdown of the climate must be faced and grappled with, the space devoted to detractors seems to indulge them.  Likewise, there seems to be an unwarranted emphasis on the uncertainties around precise predictions relating to the changing climate.

The author also places what to me is uncritical faith in future technology, alongside policy and lifestyle changes, to curb ecological destruction.  Haslam places much weight on the potential of digital technology to reduce material consumption, without ever considering the vast quantities of energy already consumed by server farms.  Neither does he stop to think about the possible disruption to natural dynamics of air and ocean by the deployment of renewable energy generation technologies on the scale he envisages.

Overall, however, The Earth and Us is a very valuable exposition of a spectrum of perceptions across time and stances that continue to contribute to the ecological emergency in which we find ourselves, as well as points from which hope can spring for a different, less destructive way of living.  The author allows himself to offer his own gentle pointers from time to time, to guide the reader in directions which his thorough study of his subject matter from his own evidently benevolent inclination lead him.  It makes a thoroughly worthwhile read.


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