Sunday, May 15, 2011

Finally satisfied with Garden Earth

"This is a remarkable book that should be read by many."

 Garden Earth
– from hunter and gatherers to global capitalism and thereafter

There is no land left to settle, the last frontier we have left to civilize is ourselves. (Jewel)
Garden Earth stands out from the current flow of books on climate change, the financial crisis, globalization, the food and agriculture crisis or peak-oil. It avoids the trap of using just one lens to make sense of the world. It does, however, put these present day problems in a wide and deep perspective. The main themes examined by Garden Earth are ecology; society and its power relations; the market economy and capitalism; and, technology and energy.

Garden Earth looks at the history of human society, how it was shaped by ecological and social conditions, and also at how we shaped nature to serve us. As an example, it shows the importance of trade for our ecological adaptation; trade allowed us to populate places where some resources were missing and it allowed us to adapt our production to the conditions of the location.  The development of new energy sources and their application in various technological forms have had a crucial impact on development. This includes the first use of fire, how animal energy was harnessed for traction and transport, and the use of wind for trade and for new conquests. Up to the mid eighteenth century, wood was the main source of energy, and that led to intense pressure on the forests. Large tracts of Europe and other developed parts of the world were deforested. Coal changed all this. In the short run, it saved the forest. In the long run, it paved the way for an enormous expansion of energy use to a level where each human uses energy resources corresponding to that of fifty people. These are our energy slaves, as Gunnar calls them.

In early societies, it was obvious that more energy had to be produced by farming than was consumed, otherwise humanity could not have worked and reproduced. With the introduction of fossil fuel, all this changed. In the modern day, around 15-150 times (figures vary considerably depending on how they are calculated) more energy is used to produce our food than we get from it. We now have put not only one, but two earths into our service and our uses are still expanding. We are thus eroding the capital, the basis of our existence. More than 40 percent of the land surface is used for food production and for our cities. Because most of us live in cities and work in offices, shops or factories, we think that we are less dependent on nature. But in reality, we are as dependent on nature as our hunting and gathering predecessors or farmers were. And we are dependent on many more parts of nature than they were.

Garden Earth discusses the reasons for the success – and failures – of civilizations. A one-sided emphasis on material wealth, growth and profit was a forceful driver for the development of the modern market economies and industrial capitalism, powered by fossil fuel. It has created unprecedented productivity and wealth. It has also contributed to the increase of human rights and liberation of women and other oppressed groups, compared to the preceding feudal societies. But it has also come with a price. The price is: depletion of natural resources; squeezing out other organisms and ecosystems to such an extent that we are endangering our own survival; causing climate change and chemical contamination, to mention just a few. There is no evidence that a continued economic growth delivers better well-being for the human. Should we not be striving for well-being rather than GDP figures? Should we not be seeking satisfaction rather than profit?

Capitalism and market economy have gradually expanded to bigger and bigger parts of our life: from markets for goods to labour and soil. Later, financial markets – buying money for money – developed. Lately, there has been a large scale “marketization” of social capital, when public goods have been transferred to private ownership and management.

Our society has no mechanisms to value the services of nature. This has led to large scale depletion of nature. One way of dealing with this is to “liquidate” these resources and services, to make them into tradeable commodities, e.g.  carbon payments or payment to farmers for environmental services. There is logic in this, but it also means that we are using the same system that actually created the problem to fix it. Is that wise? Gunnar says a resounding no. Even if it can give short term gains, it represents the final privatization and marketization of human life. To let nature itself – the air we breathe, the water we drink – be managed by markets seems like a very risky venture.

Our society and the capitalist market economy have failed to create wealth for many. Big parts of humanity are as poor today as they were fifty years ago, despite unprecedented growth. Gaps between the rich and poor are abnormal and growing. We have failed to create an equitable society. In addition, the economic system, supposedly managing itself through the “invisible hand”, is in constant need of corrections and controls, simply because it doesn’t work as it is supposed to. The real failures of the industrial capitalist society are not booms and busts or inflation; they are mere symptoms of underlying conflicts. The real failure is that it erodes both the natural and social capital that it needs for its operation. It lacks the regenerative properties which a successful society and a successful technology need. Finally, it is also based on flawed assumptions of what motivates human enterprise and what the drivers for human progress are.

The capitalist economy and its associated values – such as the vision of constant growth – were perhaps appropriate for a world bent on expansion and colonization. But we have now colonized what there is to colonize and spread ourselves over all parts of the globe. Even if economic growth is still possible (we can always create new ‘virtual’ globes on the Internet), biological, physical and geographic growth aren’t.

In the last part of Garden Earth, Gunnar Rundgren outlines the changes that are needed. Obviously, we need new values and paradigms. We also need a new economy and new forms of cooperation; we need to look beyond the market-state (and the left-right) dichotomy. Neither of them was created to deal with the kind of problems that we are facing today. The solution can be found in civil society, in the voluntary cooperation of citizens, and in participatory democracy. Some of the sacred institutions, the fetishes of the current civilization, need to be dethroned and put into a new context, in particular money, property and markets. We have changed the globe so much that Nature can’t make it without us anymore. More and more wild life are dependent on us for their survival. There is no point in looking back to the time when we were equal to the elk, the carrot and the sheep. Today, whether we like it or not, we must act as gardeners for the whole Garden Earth. And we must manage the planet as a garden, as our garden.

The views above are from the book, Garden Earth – from hunter and gatherers to global capitalism and thereafter. It was published by Gidlunds in Swedish (see photo) April 2010. The book has got good reviews (see box) and Gunnar has been invited to present his book at universities and various public fora. It has also got distribution support for "excellent and high-quality literature" from the Swedish Council of Culture, which means that the book was freely distributed to 300 public libraries.

A few reviews from Sweden
This is a remarkable book that should be read by many.... It makes his book unique and actually quite impressive.

The narrative has many references to environment and political sciences and is a very thoughtful and persistent argumentation for a radical societal change.

Trädgården Jorden is an important contribution to the environmental debate. It is full of information, references and examples and it has no black and white analysis or simple answers. It is thus as complex and at the same time as simple as a garden can be.

The English version is now offered to publishers. It is an extensive re-work of the Swedish version. The analysis is sharper, the narrative clearer. Examples have been adapted to an international audience. The last part, pointing to the future, has been expanded. The manuscript is currently being reviewed by prominent experts from civil society, academia and international organisation in five continents.

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