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  • Posted December 11th, 2016

    Review of ‘Extinction: A Radical History’ by Ashley Dawson

    Review of ‘Extinction: A Radical History’ by Ashley Dawson

    I tend to look out for new books on extinction – I think species extinction is the clearest indicator of what’s happening to ecology, and the thing that will precipitate its collapse unless we stop it.

    Most books on the subject are written from a purely scientific perspective, and peer-reviewed science is a very important tool when it comes to persuading people that we’re headed in a very dangerous direction (although getting people to listen is another thing altogether).

    But this new book has a subtitle that really caught my attention – A Radical History. So I bought it (you can buy it too – from here, via Alibris, a platform for independent bookshops; please don’t buy from you-know-where).

    A scientific subject from a radical perspective. Well, I never. The important questions to ask though, are ‘what’s the scale of the problem?’ and ‘can we solve this problem as long as we have a capitalist economy?’ (This question is rarely asked, and never by scientists.) Dawson’s book provided answers to those two questions – see below (to summarise: ‘huge’, and ‘no’).

    He taught me a few things – for example how empires fall because of environmental damage. The Sumerians diverted water from the Tigris and Euphrates with irrigation channels that were shallow enough for a lot of the water to evaporate, but leave behind salts, that accumulated in the soil and reduced yields year on year. Deforestation added to the problem by causing soil erosion and siltation of irrigation channels. Their empire fell when they couldn’t feed their people from the depleted soil any more. In contrast, the Egyptians relied on the annual flooding of the Nile to provide water and nutrients for their farmland. This has continued to build fertility until recently, when the building of dams has kept nutrients away from the soil, and the application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides has weakened soil structure and killed soil fauna, so that now, after thousands of years of natural soil management, their soil has started to lose fertility, structure and to wash away.

    The Romans had no interest in sustainable agriculture – they used constant expansion and conquest to provide for their needs. They removed most of the trees from all parts of their empire that could grow wheat, and then attempted to constantly increase wheat production until the soil was exhausted. They managed to turn North Africa into the arid and sparsely vegetated region it is today. Trying to extract taxes from increasingly impoverished farmers, and trying to obtain food from further and further afield eventually weakened Rome to the point that they were susceptible to Barbarian raids from the north.

    The current wave of extinctions is global of course, and there will be nowhere for either nature or humans to recover and to replenish once the source of the damage has gone.

    What’s the scale of the problem?

    Researchers agree that the rate of extinction of species is many times the pre-human rate. The range of estimates is between 1000 and 10,000 times (1).

    We’re losing around 100 species per day (2).

    Humans are totally dependent on ecology for our survival. A healthy environment means healthy humans, and a sick environment means sick humans. If species loss, soil erosion and climate change turn your country into a desert (as many will be), then your population will have to rely on other parts of the world for its food, or leave. As the global population heads towards 10 billion, whilst at the same time, desertification and ecological collapse are reducing the earth’s ability to feed us, many millions of people are going to be on the move in coming decades, or there will be a drastic population crash – possibly to zero.

    Can we solve the problem as long as we have a capitalist economy?

    Here’s where Dawson is different from the majority of writers on the environment. He writes from a political perspective that is essential if we are really going to address the problem, rather than just talk about it. Dawson says ‘extinction cannot be understood in isolation from a critique of capitalism’, and I believe that he’s absolutely right. His reasons are 1. capitalism degrades ecology in the way that it operates; 2. to survive, it has to constantly expand; 3. it generates a chaotic world system, in which people have to raid the environment for short-term gain to survive, rather than nurture it for the long-term.

    Dawson uses the fur trade and whaling as examples of capitalism undercutting its own resource base – highlighting the retreat of fur-bearing animals and whales in the face of incursions by fur traders and whalers. And I think that poaching, rainforest destruction and overharvesting from the seas highlights the problems of the chaotic competition for resources that capitalism encourages.

    The problem of the perpetual growth inherent in capitalism is more difficult to explain – especially as our governments and media are telling us that growth is essential for our prosperity. But why does capitalism have to constantly grow?

    1. Because money is brought into circulation when private banks make loans – and those loans have compound interest attached, that can’t be paid back from the capital of the loan – the economy needs to grow to generate the money to pay off the interest.
    2. Because investors always want more back than they put in – otherwise they wouldn’t do it. Markets are all about gambling, but it’s not really a casino – everybody expects to win.
    3. Because economists tell politicians that the economy has to grow to sustain full employment, and so every government in the world is chasing permanent growth. It’s actually true that full employment requires growth, because every other country in the world is striving for growth, so if one country tries to stabilise, it will lose out in the race for resources with other countries, and jobs will go elsewhere. But that’s only in a capitalist economy – which I’m suggesting we ditch.
    4. Because there is a multi-billion dollar advertising industry, paid for by the corporate sector, to persuade us to buy its goods and services. It is very effective.
    5. Because even though the corporate sector comprises an imperialist model, there is still competition within that model (in the same way that there was competition to become emperor in Rome or any other Empire), so individual corporations have to grow to make more money to outspend the advertising budgets of its competitors.

    This growth cannot help but damage ecology, because the source of the damage to ecology outlined above is material – roads, cars, flights, mines, removal of material nature; material growth obviously has a limit – but we’ve overstepped that limit already, and nature is dying.

    Economic growth always results in an increase in spending power (if it doesn’t, that’s devaluation of the currency, not economic growth), and it’s impossible to ring-fence this increase in spending power so that it’s not spent on material things. Therefore, economic growth has to stop, because it always produces material growth, and we’re already past the limits of the material human economy that can be sustained without damaging ecology.

    The word ‘radical’ in the book’s subtitle is from the Latin radix, meaning root, and it’s refreshing to find a book on ecology that goes to the root of the problem – our economic system. Most conservation groups are not radical, in that they ignore the root of the problem, and give the impression that conservation efforts can ultimately be successful alongside a constantly-growing global capitalism. They cannot, and it needs more academics like Dawson to point that out.

    Our economic system is destroying our life-support system, and as we can’t afford to lose our life-support system, we have to replace our economic system or suffer the consequences. Dawson provides an interesting quote: ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to envisage the overthrow of capitalism’ (3), but goes on to say that ‘it’s easier to imagine the end of capitalism than it is to articulate any other genuine solution to the extinction crisis’.


    1. Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life, 2004 (NB: Wilson is generally considered to be the world’s most respected biologist)

    2. Franz J. Broswimmer, Ecocide: A Short History of the Mass Extinction of Species, 2002

    3. Frederic Jameson, ‘Future City’, New Left Review 21, 2003

    The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's


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