Friday, January 16, 2009

Book Review: The Big Earth Book by James Bruges

James Bruges' book is a fast paced race through a huge range of environmental issues - structured into four sections - the elements (earth, fire, air and water), money, power and life. Each section is further subdivided into short 2-4 page chapters on a particular subject. The breadth of these subjects is highly impressive - Bruges has taken the time to understand everything from the use of biochar to sequester carbon to the international monetary system to the social structures of elephants - and they are all expressed in a clear easy to understand manner. The book is beautifully laid out too, with some fantastic illustrations and pictures.

However, there is a fundamental flaw in The Big Earth Book - it is trying to be both an compendium and a polemic and it just doesn't work.

To be a polemic it needs a coherent thread of argument, backed up by carefully referenced research and evidence, but any threads are disrupted by the compendium structure. For example Bruges makes it clear in some chapters that he feels that the pursuit of economic growth is harmful, that GDP is unrelated to happiness and that some 'undeveloped' cultures are much happier than ours due to the way they organise their society and its meagre finances. On the other hand in other chapters he attacks the unequal distribution of wealth in the world and criticises the WTO on the basis that Mexico only managed 1% growth by following their policies, whereas Vietnam managed 5% by breaking the rules. This is having one's cake and eating it - GDP can't be evil and a measure of progress/equality at the same time.

To be an effective compendium, an objective view is required required, but this book is one-eyed in its pursuit of perceived sinners and their sins. The unrelenting cynicism for the establishment, political structures and the sustainable development movement ignores the fact that those structures are what we have to work with if we want to reform the system. An occasional unjustified sweeping statement undermines many of the arguments - for example to imply that Abraham Lincoln may have assassinated for his proposed reform of the banking system, rather than for his emancipation of black Americans, requires a better justification than "his assassination has never fully been explained."

Both aims are let down by the sporadic use of citations. While there's a biography for each chapter, there's a dearth of specific references for facts quoted in the text (although it has to be said that the 'life' section is better referenced than the others). This makes it impossible to verify the source and determine whether any statement is a measured fact, an opinion of someone else (and who that is) or Bruges' own views. This is a real shame as I learnt loads from this book and would like to be able to check back and quote the source of data and facts in my own publications and presentations.

This book will be great fuel for the indignant armchair activist - and a jolly good read if you want to broaden your view of the issues. However it is a flawed gem, undermined by its own ambition and subjectivity - which is a shame given the hard work, belief and passion that has clearly gone into it.

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