Survival for a Small Planet

Circuit World

ISSN: 0305-6120

Article publication date: 1 December 2004



Ellis, B. (2004), "Survival for a Small Planet", Circuit World, Vol. 30 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Survival for a Small Planet

Tom Bigg+40 authors (Ed.)Earthscan, LondonISBN 1-84407-077-8359+xxiii pp., 5 tables, 12 figs, 42 boxes, 27 chaptersGBP 22.95, USD 32.50Paperback with CD-ROM

Keywords: Sustainable development, Books

This book is sub-titled The Sustainable Development Agenda (Plate 2) and this says a lot about its contents. Its subject is certainly more than preoccupying in these days of moral and physical conflict and it is essentially a follow-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), which took place in South Africa in August and September 2002. One of the problems with the notion of sustainability is that no one can really define it or, if they can, it is subjective, according to the person defining it. The SOED says that sustainable, in this context, means “Of economic activity, development, agriculture, etc.: not leading to depletion of resources or degradation of the environment”. This is, however, incomplete, because there is no reference to time and place, the notion of cradle- to-grave. For example, an engineer in our industry may develop a device that consumes little energy (thus little pollution from the power station generating it) but, in doing so, may use a material that destroys a biotope to obtain it or that cannot be recycled at the product's end-of- life. So how does this book measure up to promoting this overall sustainability, as opposed to the short-term variety?

Plate 2This book is of interest to anyone interested in the diversity of various aspects of sustainability

Many of the authors are from the editor's organisation, the International Institute for Environment and Development. Quoting from their Web site, “IIED is an independent, non- profit organization promoting sustainable patterns of world development through collaborative research, policy studies, networking and knowledge dissemination. We work to address global issues, for example; mining, the paper industry and food systems”. It is therefore a large NGO, funded from many sources. The other authors are from a variety of international, governmental and NGOs. There is little need to question the authors' qualifications in their respective subjects.

It is well structured into five parts and covers many aspects of the subject. Asking whether the WSSD was worthwhile, it poses many further questions about the relationship between sustainability and the current climate of security or, rather, the lack of it, globalisation, trade, governance, health and safety, poverty, forestry and agriculture, tourism, mining minerals and, above all, water and sanitation. I don't think that it is possible to provide categorical answers to all of these questions, because our information on many of the subjects evolves almost daily, but most of them are answered in the light of current knowledge. What is perhaps more important is that many of the chapters end with useful references for further reading. Please allow me to cite just a few illustrations, taken at random from the book, to add emphasis to its wide scope:

“There are 662 factories [emitting toxic pollutants] in the UK in areas with an average household income of less than £15,000 and only five in areas where… [it] is £30,000 or more.”

Taken from Table 15.1, the largest world cause of “disability adjusted life years, a measure of the number of ‘healthy years’ that are lost due to premature death, disability and disease” is lower respiratory infections, numbering 112,898,000, of which 110,506,000 are in developing regions. In developed regions, the major cause is a “mere” 15,950,000 from ischaemic heart disease, which is fifth in the overall world list.

  • Global consumption of fresh water doubles every 20 years – twice the rate of population growth.

    International tourism accounts for… 66 per cent [of trade in commercial services] in developing economies.

    Mining and mineral processing are among the greatest threats to biological diversity worldwide, along with industrial logging and land conversion for agriculture.

The one weakness I found in the book was a lack of emphasis on the causes and effects of man-made pollution, possibly excepting the carbon cycle. For example, I don't think that I saw anything very significant on waste, landfilling or recycling, nor on the world's most successful environmental regulation, the Montreal Protocol, all very important subjects impacting on sustainability. Unfortunately, my copy came without the CD- ROM, so I cannot comment on its content.

I believe this book is mandatory reading for everyone who is in any way interested in the diversity of the various aspects of sustainability. In particular, I emphasise its importance for readers in industry, which has yet to learn the meaning of the word. I know I have discovered a lot from reading it. Naturally, I don't agree with every single word that is printed in it, but it is packed with good stuff whose value far exceeds the small cost of buying it.

Brian EllisCyprus