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A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It Paperback – October 6, 2010
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[Ahmed's] arguments are in the main forceful and well-sourced, with particularly good sections on agribusiness, US policies of 'energy security', and what he terms the 'securitisation' of ordinary life by Western governments. -- Guardian How can a discussion of the all too familiar crises of our time be a hopeful book? By combining a microscopic dissection of the structure of each with a telescopic view of how they weave together in a whole system. If the myriad international conferences and programs haven't worked, it isn't that we have to try harder but that we have to confront the whole free of conventional constraints. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed confronts the whole. -- Richard Levins, John Rock Professor of Population Sciences, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard University; author, Evolution in Changing Environments This important analysis exposes vital truths and challenges much conventional wisdom. It deserves to be widely read. -- Mark Curtis, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Strathclyde; former Head of Policy, Action Aid and Christian Aid; former Research Fellow, Royal Institute of International Affairs; author, Web of Deceit: Britain's Real Role in the World and Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses This is an important book. There has been much discussion already about climate change, peak oil, the cost of food and overpopulation, the global financial crisis busting neoliberal capitalism, the rise of violent extremism, and the containment of the so-called war on terror. But this is the first book to systematically explore their interconnections and place them within a single comprehensive narrative. That makes it a very worthwhile read for policy-makers everywhere. -- Rt. Hon. Michael Meacher MP, UK Minister of State for the Environment (1997-2003); Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (1975-79); Under-Secretary of State for Industry (1974-75) Few thinkers weave as many threads into a tapestry as Nafeez Ahmed has done so superbly in this book. Those of us who seek to operate within the form of capitalism that has evolved today would do well to ask ourselves a very big question. Are we wasting our time? If it is true that only root-to-branch rewriting of the global economic operating manual can save society from an unliveable future, shouldn't we be putting our weight behind that re-engineering process before it is too late? -- Dr. Jeremy Leggett, UK Department of Trade & Industry's Renewables Advisory Board (2002-2006); CEO, Solarcentury, member of UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil & Energy Security; author, Half Gone and The Carbon War Nafeez Ahmed's book confronts the reader with the stark message that life as we know it is unsustainable. It provides a chilling enumeration of the existential challenges humanity faces, and can only by qualified as optimistic in the sense that it does not leave a single illusion in place. A must-read but not as bed-time reading. -- Kees van der Pijl, Professor of International Relations, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex; Chair of Department of International Relations and Director of Centre for Global Political Economy (2000-2006); Leverhulme Major Research Fellow; author, Modes of Foreign Relations and Political Economy (3 volumes) A staggeringly comprehensive bird's-eye view of the gaping cracks that are appearing in global industrial civilization. Ahmed weaves a context that makes current economic and geopolitical events comprehensible. If you want to understand why the world is coming apart at the seams and what we can do to lay the foundations for a sane, peaceful, and sustainable society, read this book. -- Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow, Post Carbon Institute; author, The Party's Over, Powerdown and Peak Everything Dr. Ahmed presents the clearest synthesis to date of the systemic problems facing human civilization. There is no shortage of popular texts on climate change, economic challenges, energy scarcity, and terrorism, but this work is the first to effectively integrate these diverse issues into a compelling and unified system - one that is both accessible to a broad audience yet grounded in rigorous academic research. -- Jeff Vail, Former US Department of the Interior Counterterrorism Analyst; former US Air Force Intelligence Officer for global energy infrastructure; author, A Theory of Power In this magisterial exposition of the multiple intersecting challenges facing humanity in our century Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed points to real solutions. Armed with the depth of knowledge and the courage demonstrated in this work we can and will construct the other world that is possible. All of us, but especially the youth of our planet will be empowered by reading this book. -- David Schwartzman, Professor of Biology, Howard University, Washington DC; author, Life, Temperature and the Earth: the self-organizing biosphere
About the Author
Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development in London. He has taught international relations, contemporary history, empire and globalisation at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex and the Politics & History Unit, Brunel University. His previous books include The War on Truth: Disinformation and the Anatomy of Terrorism (2005) and Behind the War on Terror: Western Secret Strategy and the Struggle for Iraq (2003).
Top Customer Reviews
The first chapter is so scary that it is likely many readers will not make it through the book. It brings together the facts and analysis on global warming that have frightened the Pentagon and all European governments since at least 2004. The prognosis is so bleak that all the other chapters seem trivial by comparison, though they cover some very dark problems (genocide, martial law for the masses, large scale detention camps, global dictators, another great depression, mass starvation, acute resource shortages). He could have reversed the order of the chapters to allow the reader to better prepare for the "big one", but he had his reasons.
The author develops a social and philosophical analysis which distills to a list of "key structural problems". These include monetary systems that impose ever greater debt, militaries that serve the aggressive desires of corporations to seize foreign resources, capitalism that collapses all dimensions to a single dimension (dollars) thereby squeezing out ethics, control structures that intentionally minimize wages in colonies to prevent those nations from becoming anything more than a source for raw materials, and defining nature as a resource rather than as a life support system. For the most part they are correct and unassailable. But he thoroughly skirts one key factor in the root cause of all of the great problems he covers: Over population. He strains to hold blameless the masses of humanity that have, of course, needed food, which needed farming, which needed land, which cleared the land of nature, which caused deforestation and species extinction and soil erosion. Over population has been a serious problem since 600AD when China started to experience collapses on its millet economy. By 900AD the rice paddy had doubled food production, so population started growing again, but at the expense of thousands of species cleared off the land forever. Europe was collapsing by 1350AD with food and wood shortages, so epidemics began. Europe was "saved" by the "discovery" of the americas, which were pillaged for 5 centuries, allowing Europe to grow populations even deeper into unsustainability. Because the author refused to do the homework on ecology (contrast with Jared Diamond, for example), he ends up romanticizing nature as some amazing fabric that can blissfully support 12 billion people (his number) with abundance of food, water, shelter, beauty and high consumption rates, even though at 7 billion humanity has already slaughtered off 80% of the nature we started with (UN Millennium Ecological Survey, 2005).
Of course one can choose a topic and decide what's out of scope for a given book. That's completely forgivable. But the very "analysis" he puts forth always stops right short of the effects of high populations, even while admitting strong dependence upon them. When the human population remained under the natural carrying capacity, none of the global crises he lists were even possible. They all emerge from the consequences of too many people for the earth to sustain. Only when there is "surplus population" above those that do the farming is it possible to build an army, build a metropolis, build a financial empire. In fact, overpopulation is a conscious strategy of those who covet power: Only when people are desperate are they willing to subordinate to a ruler - so make them desperate for food, water, and land via overpopulation. Farmers grow surplus food, the army comes to collect it and safe-keep it in the graineries, and then food is dispensed out only to those who do the king's bidding. That's where it all begins. Politicians gain power as people become dependent upon them. Most of the crazy politics we experience today are awkward attempts at dealing with the conflicts of resource shortages brought about directly by high population numbers. This in no way forgives all the war mongers from their murders, nor any of the other crimes the author so aptly discusses. It is not a question of "taking sides", blaming the poor or the rich. The greatest crime of the rich is exploitation. The greatest crime of the poor is over population. The greatest crime of the middle class is to enable the other two. Plenty of blame for everyone. Its just that we cannot fix a problem until we get to the root cause of it. That is why his fixes are so anemic - the root cause is missing, so there's no point of departure from which to build a strong, sound fix. This deficiency can turn an otherwise great effort into something grossly misleading to his followers and/or into something providing the fodder to his adversaries to discredit his work.
While most people of the world appreciate that harmony with nature is essential to sustainability, rulers don't want that message out there at all. So they have redefined cultures with nature regarded as something to be conquered, exploited, consumed; while "harmony with nature" was declared pagan and primitive. The author's avoidance of an ecological basis (which he admits is needed) leaves him arguing against a flawed ideology with yet another flawed ideology. With only one more good chapter, bringing in ecology/life_sciences as a basis for sustainability, and thus for ethics, the author could have shot down the current ideological flaws soundly, with science and a firm footing in a universal embrace of life on earth. But to do so he would have needed to bring in the concept of natural carrying capacity, and then step through the consequences of overstepping that bound, tracing the causal links down to the set of obscene problems that we are now wallowing in. Yes, this is three quarters of a great book!
Read this book. Yes, definitely! Then read a good ecology book to complete the story and plan a realistic course toward solutions.
I was tempted to keep the book at five stars because the author tip-toes around the core issue of our day, institutionalized corruption. While he opens by saying he is striving to address the "linkage between political violence and social crisis in the context of imperial social systems," the word imperial is as close as he gets to calling out the global criminals that used to be called the elite, and their equally complicit enablers, the political class. Which reminds me of another important book, The Global Class War: How America's Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future - and What It Will Take to Win It Back as well as the more recent Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History.
The author missed an extremely important work, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, Report of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, also available free online as a PDF, so I will list the ten high level threats to humanity identified and prioritized there, because it helps put his own stelar reflections in perspective:
02 Infectious Disease
03 Environmental Degradation
04 Inter-State Conflict
05 Civil War
07 Other Atrocities (I now include Goldman Sachs and other banks in this category)
10 Transnational Crime
Where the book really shines, and the thrust that keeps this book in my top 10% (above 5 stars), is the author's focus on how the global economy has gotten out of synch with the natural order. While others have written important books about ecological economics, natural capitalism, the future of life (all book titles to search for, I have reviewed them), this book really makes the direct connection between a corruption of capitalism and democracy, and the realities of life on Earth. Parsing Trotsky on war, I like to say "You may not be interested in reality, but reality is assuredly interested in you."
Early on the author focuses on our failure to ask the right questions.
His core argument is extremely intelligence and deep with integrity. Summarized:
01 Global crises are integral to the ideology, structure, and logic ofthe global political economy
02 Therefore, policy reforms just will not do it -- deep changes to the *system* are required.
03 All of the different crises are inter-locked, we fail deeply when we try to treat them in isolation.
Oddly enough, I had been intrigued by an earlier reference to the need to revisit Karl Marx (in What Comes After Money?: Essays from Reality Sandwich on Transforming Currency and Community, only to find here that the author has advanced our understanding of Marx by bringing to light the human consequences of imperial social systems.
The author mentions threebooks. I have not read them but want to share active links to all four as they strike me as very helpful.
Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet
Parecon: Life After Capitalism
Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order
He also mentions his own 2009 work, Violence of Empire, sadly it does not appear in the Amazon US database.
His bottom line is clear--capitalism in its present form is killing us--but I certainly consider his research, his arguments, compelling. We have created climate change, energy scarcity, food scarcity and so on.
While there are a number of books on the poisoning of life by industrial approaches to agriculture, household appliances, and so on, the author does well in focusing on the ecological consequences of corrupt decisions across many industries. I give him very high marks for focusing -- long before Occupy Wall Street -- on the faulty economic system that underlys our current crisis.
I hugely admire his focus on the "systemitization of debt."
The author correctly discounts terrorism as a fraudulent threat that is also directly linked to the West's over dependence on oil, he neglects to note that it is also related to the west's love affair with 42 of the 44 dictators (43 now) and the west's consistent screwing over of the publics of foreign nations in preference to class warfare and ideological warfare connections to "elites" that are nothing more than well-dressed criminals.
Most interesting to me, the author delves into the possibility that Al Qaeda is actually a proxy mercenary force for the West, used to secure strategic access to energy resources. While I have real doubts about that, I do recollect that the NATO/CIA sponsorship of the Red Brigades is now documented, they were a false flag operation intended to justify fascism in Italy--and it worked for a time.
He is naturally critical of militarization, which addresses symptoms rather than the underlying systemic causes of instability. On this latter point, see my 2011 Thinking About Revolution, in full text online for Google translate, at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog.
After meticulous chapters on each of the major sucking chest wounds the author posits as converging into the perfect storm, he ends the book with fifteen specific recommendations.
QUOTE (216): "At its core, capitalism is a specific relation of production based on the dispossession of labour, a politically constituted social relationship whose historical origins and and structured dynamic have been dissected by...."
I am reminded of Lionel Tiger's excellent The Manufacture Of Evil: Ethics, Evolution, and the Industrial System, and of course the two classics, The Naked Capitalist; a Review and Commentary on Dr. Carroll Quigley's Book: Tragedy and Hope, a History of the World in Our Time and Tragedy & Hope: A History of the World in Our Time.
My final thought as I put the book down: "wow."
NOTE: Amazon's ten-link review can be avoided by reading my reviews at Phi Beta Iota where all cited books are linked to their Amazon page. Why Amazon does not understand the foolishness of this limitation is beyond me.