Return to North Glen or Reading List or Credo

Valid HTML 4.0 Transitional

Buy Nothing Day


The chief cause of problems is solutions.
Ed Iglehart
You Can't Eat GNP
Economics as if Ecology Mattered
Perseus Publishing
Cambridge, MA, 2000, $24 (hardback, 247p.)

This remarkable book is in part a dividend from that grand experiment initiated by the USA in more imaginative days, the Peace Corps. The author, now a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center, was set down as a recent graduate in a tropical village so heavily dependent upon local resources for the necessities of life that money, if it existed at all in that society, was not essential. Magazine pages (for schoolbook covers) and salt proved more useful for obtaining food.

Davidson returned to study forestry, soil microbiology and biogeochemistry, with an enviable record of scientific publication, and is currently an associate editor of the
Soil Science Society of America Journal. His field work concerns soil degradation and recovery in Amazonia and New England. In writing this book, he joins the small body of scientists who can think and write for a more general audience outside their narrow specialisms, and the even more select group who can do so concisely and with humour.

The layout is attractive and the text fairly rolls along, identifying three fallacies of the mainstream economic and technological model:
1. "Marie Antoinette Economics", (the assumption of substitutability)
2. "Custer's Folly", (the technological cavalry will save us from ecological disaster), and
3. "False Complacency from Partial Success" (or "Not Beating the Wife As Much As Before")

But the purpose is not to ridicule, but to reconcile. The utility and pitfalls of concepts including GNP, cost/benefit, externalities, discounting the future, ecosystem services, biodiversity (inter- and intra-specific), sustainability and climate change are all examined and clarified, suggesting the 'parked car effect' as illustrative of the greenhouse effect. The inverted economist's pyramid (soil small at the bottom, 'added value' goods large at the top) is placed in its proper place within the ecologist's pyramid (soil large at the bottom, etc). The Noah story provides a powerful metaphor.

The final chapter, May We Live in Interesting Times, presents 'some Modest Proposals for Profound Changes', including from the top down, an end to road-building and other destructive infrastructure projects, rebalancing taxes from income to consumption, ratification and enforcement of the Kyoto Protocol, and ending deforestation. From the bottom up we can lend the book, analyze (and change) our habits, tackle our elected representatives, and use our particular sets of skills to make the case that we can't eat GNP.

Informative background notes and additional reading are provided with full bibliographical information, but without littering the text with footnotes. There are boxed quotations from Aldo Leopold, E O Wilson, Dr Seuss, and others, including Kenneth Boulding:

Infinity is ended, and mankind is in a box;
The era of expanding man is running out of rocks;
A self-sustaining Spaceship Earth is shortly in the offing
And man must be its crew - or else the box will be his coffin.
                        from The Ballad of Ecological Awareness

As an introduction to the emerging, if long overdue, 'economics as if ecology mattered' of the subtitle, this is the best I have seen. Davidson's easy anecdotal style echoes Sir Albert Howard and Fritz Schumacher, who would certainly approve. The jacket has plaudits from Herman Daly and Tom Lovejoy, and that alone should commend it.

"The Laws of Technodynamics:
1. Conservation of problems: Problems do not go away, they are merely
substituted, one for another. The solution of one problem creates
another problem.
2. Technological challenges always increase. As the human population
increases and natural resources remain constant or degrade, then
technological challenges will increase in size, number, and complexity."
-- Eric A Davidson, You Can't Eat GNP

  Search by: 

Reviewed by Ed Iglehart
Ed Iglehart is a free-thinker and a lifelong student of human ecology, currently engaged in the MSc programme at The Centre for Human Ecology

Buy Nothing Day

Return to North Glen or Reading List or Credo