Ben Ballin reviews The World We’ll Leave Behind – Grasping the Sustainability Challenge by William Scott and Paul Vare; publisher Routledge. ISBN 9781783537730

The foreword to this encyclopaedic book sets the bar high: this is to be a brief introduction to the chief environmental and social challenges facing the world, the key ideas underpinning them and “some of the possible strategies for addressing them.” 

It largely achieves this ambitious high-jump as it launches its way through twenty ‘issues’ and eighteen ‘concepts’ and around seventeen potential ‘strategies’, landing breathlessly back on the mat to a note of cautious optimism.

I am not sure whether the correct word yet exists to describe a book of this type, studded as it is with rich quotations, historical contexts, etymological asides and statistical jewels.  It’s like a brilliant primer for an exam that doesn’t yet exist[1], a sourcebook for students, teachers, activists, journalists and concerned citizens.  While there is a discernible flow across the book as a whole and its pithily-brief sections, it is probably best not treated as a narrative or an argument.  Indeed, in reading it from beginning to end for this review, I have done something that the authors explicitly caution against.

Scott and Vare are in no doubt about the seriousness of their subject matter and provide startling facts and figures that make this clear, sometimes quite brutally so: that the ratio of the richest to poorest 600 million people in the world is 90:1, for example.  Among other sections, I shall be certainly dipping into the book’s extraordinarily clear and detailed information about the injustices of air pollution. 

Given that, it is perhaps surprising to say that it is also marvellously entertaining in places, using darkly dry humour to make critical points about commonplace pieties: noting that concern about species loss does not generally extend to bacterial diseases; an entire and very wry section on the use of ‘charismatic megafauna’ by environmental NGOs (where they quote ‘The Economist’ magazine on the subject of Bao Bao the panda, who “should fit in well in Washington: she costs a fortune, has no useful skills and is always on TV”).

Over-all, the tone is evaluative, generating more light than heat on the issues, concepts and strategies falling beneath the writers’ critical lens.  In that sense, the authors are perhaps modelling a way in which these matters might best be approached: weighing up the arguments; sometimes settling on a judgement (“The lesson is clear: ensuring that a section of society is not disadvantaged appears to benefit everyone,” on gender disparity); sometimes taking a sceptical or even provocative view (e.g. on Malthusian population theories, Gaia theory and the concept of ‘harmony with nature’); occasionally admitting that the authors themselves are not in agreement about a key issue (most notably and explicitly in the section on Neoliberalism, which starts out in a markedly left-leaning manner, but later flirts with the possibility of free market solutions). 

Throughout, there is a robust insistence on criticality, on emphasising the facts where they are clear, on underpinning discussions with clear scientific and terminological principles.  The section on Weather and Climate, for example, is lucid to a fault, while a critique of Doughnut Economics and discussions about the concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘environment’ (and why this matters) or the limitations of nature reserves are both nuanced and interesting.

There is a really good balance throughout between social and environmental concerns.  Inevitably, perhaps, readers will identify issues, concepts or strategies that they would have liked included or left out: but that is perhaps a useful discussion to have?  Some readers might even want to relocate certain concepts into strategies or issues into concepts: these headings are in that sense (at least sometimes) somewhat flexible.  A solution, after all, often resides within the dynamics of the issue it addresses.

Scott and Vare are also careful to achieve a critical (and critically-important) balance between the tough realities we find ourselves faced with (e.g. “the myth that there will only be winners from the sustainable development process”) and the need to have ‘good news stories’ (hence, presumably, the decision to end the book with the encouraging story of The Montreal Protocol and the ban on CFCs). 

This is a thoughtful, interesting, splendidly-informative book.  It is not a manifesto and it does not provide ‘the answers’, but it raises important questions about the world we live in now and the one that young people are growing up into.  It is not accidental that it is dedicated “to children and grandchildren across the planet.”  Wouldn’t it be marvellous if one day there was a beautifully-illustrated, infographic-rich version of just such a book for children and grandchildren, too?

[1] In writing this, however, I am reminded of the late Professor Bernard Crick’s caution against the creation of a Citizenship exam: he would not wish anyone to ‘fail at Citizenship.’ 

William Scott and Paul Vare (2018).  The World We’ll Leave Behind – Grasping the Sustainability Challenge.  Abingdon: Routledge/Greenleaf.

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