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Apocalypse perhaps never

By Peter McMahon - posted Monday, 6 January 2014

Cancel the Apocalypse is a major book about the looming global environmental crisis and what to do about it. It has two basic messages: the threat of apocalyptic global collapse is all too real, but it is not too late to avert the worst. Indeed, Simms argues, the crisis is an opportunity to reorganise and revitalise global civilisation.

Andrew Simms is an economist who works for the New Economics Foundation in the UK. Nef was set up in 1986 and sees its job as being to not just to critique conventional economic logic but to also provide effective alternatives. It has become a key organisation in terms of responding to a set of growing global economic and environmental problems that together constitute an unprecedented crisis.

The crisis is essentially caused by the fact that our growth-driven and increasingly global civilisation has hit some basic material limits. Most importantly for the economy, it has reached the point where the environment can no longer soak up industrial pollution, the most important aspect of this problem being carbon emissions (or greenhouse gases more broadly) which cause climate change. The other big problem is the whole range of resources that are either running out or becoming too expensive. These resources include those essentials fresh water and oil, but also a range of critical chemical inputs, like nitrates, and metals, like the so-called rare earths.


Simms makes no bones about the degree or immediacy of the threat. In particular he discusses global warming, the two degree threshold and how we have something less than a decade to do something about it. If we don't, warming may well become self-reinforcing which could eventually make the earth untenable for life by large animals, let alone human civilisation.

Simms' big idea is that we still have a variety of options in terms of how we run our civilisation. He points out that there have been myriad ways of organising societies throughout history depending on the degree and type of social cohesion, technological capabilities and core values. It was those societies that became disconnected from basic environmental conditions (famously on Easter Island, the Mayans and in Mesopotamia around the time of Mohammad) that failed most spectacularly.

By contrast, some societies have shown an enormous capacity to effect meaningful change in rapid time when challenged. Simms reminds us how even those most materialistic and market-based societies, the US and Britain, transformed themselves under the pressure of World War Two into highly economically efficient and more socially cohesive entities. For instance, Britain, which was totally reliant on imported food when war began, almost became self-reliant due to an explosion of small gardens and changes to agricultural practices. The US, in the grip of auto-mania when war began, did not produce another car for private use while war lasted as industrial production shifted to tanks and planes.

Simms argues that rich countries could do the same now, given real political leadership. With a shift to energy conservation, renewable energy sources, intensive employment projects and generally activity that encourages more social cohesion, such a change would not only avert the environmental crisis and the economic collapse, it would lead to a new, more robust and long-lasting prosperity on a global level.

Furthermore, the book argues, the individualistic and highly materialistic society of present times, with all its problems of loneliness, mental illness, addiction, crime, poor health and the rest, is not 'natural' in any way but in large part the product of decades of mass-indoctrination by powerful advertising agencies.

Alienated, bored and increasingly digitally distracted electorates in turn created opportunistic, careerist politicians who are highly susceptible to lobbying by vested interests and unable to show real leadership to deal with fundamental challenges like climate change. The failure of governments around the world and a growing popular frustration with democracy itself attest to the sustained failure of this political model.


Simms bells the cat in identifying the wealthy global elites as the main barrier to concerted action to face up to the crisis. Despite growing popular support for action on a number of issues, especially climate change, global elites have managed to frustrate attempts for concerted action, in large part through their influence over governments. The ideological dominance of simplistic economic concepts, codified in the political ideology of neo-liberalism, has been a core part of this dominance. As Simms points out, the collapse of the neo-liberal finance system in 2008 was a chance to introduce a green New Deal, but instead governments bailed out the banks with tax-payers' money and then pretty much left them to continue their old tricks.

These elites did not just pop up out of nowhere, although globalisation since the 1980s has enabled them to reorganise at a global level. Their main structural power lies in industrialisation itself and the carving up of the world by mass markets and formal imperialism. They have built a now global civilisation of great inequality both between nations and within nations which is driven by the need for ever greater growth.

Although the problems of the new century are material and readily apparent, they are, Simms argues, fundamentally due to a loss of courage within civilisation itself. We are now in the unhappy situation of knowing that trouble is ahead, but unable to find the courage to make changes. Simms writes (p 383):

Fuelled by anxieties of the apocalypse, we find ourselves gripped by a modern version of the ancient fear of the woods. Rather than learn to fruitfully coexist, it seems easier to reach for the nearest technological axe, nuclear power or GM crops, and start cutting. In doing so, instead of conquering our fears we become more insecure, even paranoid… and instead of finding lasting solutions to our problems, we opt for short-term fixes that entrench different, deeper problems and displace longer-term and more enduring answers.

This is an excellent book for those who are alive to the basic realities of the twenty-first century, or for those who wish to be. It is comprehensive, well balanced and cogently argued, but it is also passionate about the need to face up the hard facts and act promptly to prevent disaster. It is not just about doom and gloom but presents a general outline of the myriad ways in which human civilisation can avoid the worst and create a generally more sustainable civilisation to optimise human life. Most importantly, it tells us, we have to change the way we think about our lives and change our values to accord with the new realities.

The problems are real and vast, Simms argues, and an apocalypse does loom, but if we can change enough fast enough, a new kind of prosperity awaits our global civilisation.

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This is a review of Cancel the Apocalypse: The New Path to Prosperity, Andrew Simms (Little, Brown, 2013)

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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