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Reviews

GOOD NEWS FOR A CHANGE
Hope for a Troubled Planet
By David Suzuki and Holly Dressel
Oregon State University Press, 320 pp., $35


By Susan Zakin

Twenty years ago, big media corporations decided the public was tired of bad news. The results were splashy computer graphics, a slow strangulation of American journalism, and the erosion of democracy.

Good News for a Change

Now, apparently, the environmental movement has also decided that people are tired of doomsday predictions. People want solutions. They want hope.

Fortunately, solutions are out there, says David Suzuki, Canada's pre-eminent popularizer of the environmental ethic, who is known for his syndicated columns and TV shows.

Hope is a different matter.

In the new book Good News for a Change, Suzuki and his U.S.-based collaborator Holly Dressel, a television and radio writer, provide a trenchant analysis of current environmental problems and a plateful of new ideas about how to solve them. What they don't provide is convincing evidence that these solutions can be adopted by a society more intent on making money than eating locally farmed organic produce and making hand-fired bricks.

The brave new world envisioned by Suzuki and Dressel may seem familiar to anyone who has followed the recent history of environmentalism. Like many contemporary conservationists, the authors are converts to the utopian idea that consensus building has the power to lead people toward a more sustainable -- and perhaps even a more enlightened -- way of life. They adopt an awed, vaguely spiritual tone when discussing the process. "This movement works by consensus -- in other words, it takes time for the practitioners to agree upon the way they want to go. But when they do, they are unstoppable, because they are basing their methods on deeply felt and democratically agreed-upon values...."

The authors' examples of how consensus and sustainability can save the world include a Philadelphia restaurant called the White Dog Café, whose owner pays high wages and runs a mentoring program for inner-city youth, and an eighty-member team at Nike that is studying ways to reduce the company's toxic wastes. The White Dog sounds like a groovy place to have lunch, and no doubt good corporate citizenship is our best bet for saving the planet. But the authors are forced to acknowledge that the restaurant is a bit of an anomaly and that most of Nike's shoes are manufactured offshore by -- I won't say sweatshops -- independent contractors who won't be affected by the company's efforts to go green anytime soon.

The best part of Good News may actually be its bad news. Suzuki and Dressel provide a brilliant analysis of neoliberal capitalism, which is spreading across the world the way absolute monarchy did around 1600 and democratic insurrections did in 1848. One might buy this book just for the chapter "A River Runs Through It," which describes in detail what happened in the town of Walkerton, Ontario, when the provincial government privatized its water testing. The U.S. company it hired in 1997 to conduct the tests was not required to notify health or environment officials of irregularities, and inspection rates dropped from 75 percent of the plants in 1994 to 30 percent in 1999. After the switch, seven people died and more than 2,000 others became ill from bad drinking water -- and these illnesses were not merely cases of turista. "Two of the small children affected have developed a severe platelet disorder similar to hemophilia and may never lead normal lives."

The surprising part is this: The authors assert that Ontario privatized its water testing in direct response to pressure from the International Monetary Fund. Canada, a country hardly considered underdeveloped, had been encouraged to borrow from the IMF in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the 1990s, just like Mexico and Thailand, Canada found itself unable to pay its debt.

Suzuki and Dressel compare the events in Ontario to problems in India, where social customs have prevented the introduction of better hygiene. "But like the deaths in rural India that continue to occur because of a social belief, Walkerton's deaths could have been easily prevented," the authors write.

Is neoliberal capitalism a cargo cult? That's the implication, and it's certainly a provocative one. What seems incontrovertible is that economic "reforms" that serve corporations better than people affect not only the developing world, but citizens of wealthier countries, too. Suzuki and Dressel deserve much credit for raising this challenging question, which should be enough to wake many of us out of our complacency.

Suzuki and Dressel do make a good case that, in the developing world, consensus and local control can successfully build on traditions from societies that co-evolved with the environment. For example, in India, two organizations founded by Harvard- and Cambridge-trained physicist Ashok Kohsla, a former director of the United Nations Environment Programme, offer evidence that sustainable development can be more than a buzzword. Technology and Action for Rural Advancement and Development Alternatives employ 400,000 economically marginal people, improve the environment, and are self-supporting. One of the more ingenious schemes uses powdered stone, a waste product of rock quarrying, to make roofing tiles that last twice as long as and are cheaper than ordinary tiles. This business has become successful, with 300 factories employing mostly women and paying higher-than-average wages.

But consensus, local control, and sustainability look very different in the United States. "Local" control in places like Arizona's cattle country has resulted in less environmental protection, not more. Consensus reached by the Quincy Library Group in northern California resulted in a plan for more -- unsustainable -- cutting of trees than the plan put forward by the U.S. Forest Service.

The fact that the concepts of sustainability and consensus are intrinsically problematic in terms of both logic and practical application forces Suzuki and Dressel to make some convoluted arguments in order to defend them. They also resort to a bit of psychobabble, including this passage: "By going deep into their own souls, people are discovering how alike most of our human values are -- and from that beginning they are evolving new ways to live."

To be fair to Suzuki and Dressel, environmentalists face a daunting task in the post-millennial era: How do we combat the public indifference that comes with the duller-than-dishwater wages of partial success? In the 1960s, environmental issues were pressing and the solutions clear. For example, in 1969, the Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it set itself on fire. Solution? The Clean Water Act. Simple enough.

Now that the environmental laws passed in the 1970s provide baseline protection, the remaining problems are rife with minutiae and often brain-numbingly tedious. No wonder most people would rather look at Britney Spears's navel ring, even if they have to listen to her sing about Coke to do it.

Environmentalists have adopted various strategies to counter this entrenched apathy. Some resort to the courts, where they need only make their case to a judge, and often this can be remarkably effective. But more appear to share Suzuki and Dressel's idea that local control using consensus methods can forge a more benign society.

The sad truth is that sustainability is unlikely to be anything more than window dressing in a highly competitive economy dominated by publicly held corporations. Suzuki and Dressel know this but fail to provide a strategy for instituting the structural changes their vision requires, although they do discuss the latest literature on the subject. It is a mark of the book's lack of an overarching logical argument that the authors never acknowledge the fundamental imperfections of their basic concepts: that sustainability is always out of reach, although worth aiming for, and that democracy and consensus are not the same thing.

Good News would have done more good if it had narrowed its field a bit and approached its subject matter with greater objectivity and intellectual rigor. Suzuki and Dressel fall prey to a problem that seems endemic to environmentalists: They are information junkies. The two collaborators present a mind-numbing array of examples, anecdotes, and statistics. Many of the stories in Good News contain valuable information, but the kitchen sink approach is one that may put off many readers. Without a clear narrative or logical thread, Good News often reads like a series of TV shows transferred to print, and the barrage of jump-cuts often seems simply disorganized. This is a shame, because many of the book's ideas are worth debating.

It's hard to imagine that such an encyclopedic book could leave anything out, but the one solution Suzuki and Dressel fail to offer is a way to push environmental reform through the nasty, brutish, and long political process. Maybe, like the rest of us, they are bereft of ideas on that front. Whatever the reason, the reader cannot help but question whether any of the solutions described in the book can realistically be applied on a mass scale.

Perhaps small victories are enough, or at least the best we can do. Suzuki and Dressel offer the reader important information in Good News. But do they offer hope? Ask Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, who told the authors: "We came in with all the grand hoo-ha of this new concept. Within five years we had thirty competitors, all in the same genre, with the same ideas. But only one consideration was missing. They didn't have the values. They didn't have the issue on animal testing. They didn't have the community trade, the environmental standards. And the American public didn't give a toss, as long as it smelled good and there were fifteen flavors of bubble bath."

Now when someone solves that problem, it will really be good news.



















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Susan Zakin is the author of Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement.

OnEarth. Summer 2002
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council