Review of the Book:
Creating a Sustainable World:
Past Experiences, Future Struggles

by Trent Schroyer and Thomas Golodik

H. William Batt

[This book is published by Apex Press, 2006. This review is
reprinted from GroundSwell, September-October 2006]

Half a century ago the burgeoning field of political and economic development took most of its cues from experiences from post-war Europe's Marshall Plan. Based largely on the success of America's capital investment in nations devastated by the war and perceived to be vulnerable to communist allure from the east, President Truman inaugurated a program in 1949 known as "Point Four." It was intended to achieve the same success in third-world nations as transpired in Europe. The program made substantial initial investment in Israel and the Middle East, but it declined again under the Eisenhower Administration and was formally abolished in May, 1953.

Nonetheless there arose greatly expanded interest in third world development during the fifties and sixties, as the sale of American grain to India for rupees then paid for American scholars' research there. Similar programs of a more modest nature were established for Latin America and Africa with even less financial commitment. The first generation of Peace Corps Volunteers, I being one, cut their teeth on the literature that grew from the overseas studies from this period.

It was a heady time, even though there were no agreed-upon strategies to bring about the promised development. In retrospect many of the debates were quite simplistic -- whether political and economic development needed to be concurrent, or whether one sector should precede the other, and whether large-scale public infrastructure investments were necessary for other dimensions to ensue. Almost all third world economies were dependent upon extractive or agricultural enterprises to the extent that they were monetized at all. And these industries formed the basis of trade with the so-called "developed" world in what was, by today's standards, a very rudimentary globalized trading system. We bandied about growth models and used terms like "take-off" as if we really had solutions to making them like us!

That optimism, parochialism, and ethnocentrism has all but disappeared, and has been replaced moreover by a school of political / economic thought that, in my view and in the view of these assembled essayists, is far less sanguine but just as arrogant. Its practices are opportunistic and even cynically exploitive, have limited time perspective, are politically unjust, and ultimately unstable. The assessment of all the authors in this volume is that today's neo-liberal politics and neoclassical economics have been subjugated to corporate power, and that this power is being used to abuse both natural and human resources in ways that are palpably unsustainable.

But here is where the book's consensus ends. Not that there is much disagreement among the several views expressed; rather it's that each contributor then goes his or her own way toward explicating an interpretation of what is happening, speculating about the consequences, and opining about what needs to happen to ensure that the world becomes sustainable. Fortunately, effective introductions to each section of the book integrate the material well. And the selections, most of which were written just for this volume, are most impressive. Some of the authors have worldwide reputations: Vandana Shiva, Indian scientist, author and activist; Wolfgang Sachs, researcher, author and activist; Peter Montague, environmental activist and editor of the online blog Rachel; Robert Engler, who has achieved recent prominence from his book, The Politics of Oil; and Ward Morehouse, author of numerous books, elder statesman of many NGOs, and cofounder of POCLAD (Programs on Corporations, Law and Democracy). Other names will be readily recognizable to those versant with the literature and networks on sustainable development. It should also be noted that Alanna Hartzok, of the Earthrights Institute and past president of the Council of Georgist Organizations, has also contributed.

What else can one say about a collection of articles that ranges from the local to the worldly, from politics and economics, to hard science and to ideology and epistemology? I myself found some of the articles on the latter end of the spectrum much too prolix in their style, and heavily laden with references to feminist theory and post-modernist language. But the four sections of the book do make sense: discussions of sustainable development itself, the impact and dimensions of corporate power, knowledge systems and the premises requisite to sustainable lifestyles, and social system designs that point to achieving them. Only three of the essays in the third section did I find beyond my capacity to integrate.

Particularly apparent in this collection is how much certain dimensions of our lives have been captured by institutions likely to be impervious to challenge and change. The globalized economy may soon be stressed to exhaustion of resources strategic to industrial economies: fossil fuels, precious metals, and ecosystems requisite to regeneration of other life resources. One might hope for a reversion and rebirth of more localized systems. But one can only wonder how such shifts can ever be gradual or smooth. Nor is the reversal of legal precedents likely to materialize in ways that support the decentralization and less global interdependency. And what of the prospects of environmental degradation and climate shifts that are essentially irreversible? How will these affect not only food-streams but the very fauna and flora that give quality of much of our lives? Talking about designs for change and reversal of patterns that have grown for so long displays an optimism that many regard as naive and unrealistic.

What other courses of action are there but to offer such alternative ideas? It is both optimism and hard-nosed realism and perseverance to hold out such thinking for review. This is the essence of what Creating a Sustainable World does: it offers hope to a readership, likely to be comprised largely of students, who need such encouragement and direction. There is plenty of news to be alarmed about, and enough denial of looming truth to make the coming generation both despairing and resentful of the heritage it has been passed.

If answers are to be had, it is books such as this one that need to be accessible. Editors Trent Schroyer and Thomas Golodik have pulled together enough thoughtful material to mark the way for many subsequent explorations. The answers offered here address the need to limit corporate power, the need to return to local economies and polities, the importance of reasserting the commons, rebuilding sustainable agriculture, and strengthening local democratic institutions. Nothing particularly radical or unusual about most of them except that they involve the reversal of trends that have prevailed for three centuries. All this against formidable odds.

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