Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor 

A review

click to enlarge New Delhi ghetto
  • New Delhi ghetto

I live much of my life in fear, anger and horrific anticipation. Daily, I consider myself a witness to Armageddon. I am frightened by traffic, urban and suburban development, television commercials. To me, our rapidly expanding market economy is like a nuclear explosion.

When I was 7 years old, the Suffolk County Mosquito Commission of Long Island, New York, saturated my grandmother's wild country estate with DDT that not only killed all the mosquitoes, but also almost eradicated birds, turtles, snakes and other wildlife. I read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1964 when I was 23. That year, I also visited Guatemala, where I was appalled by the poverty, lack of human rights, and enviromental devastation, much of it attributable to the United States' economic policies in that country. I returned home all shook up.

Ever since, I have had great qualms about our mode of existence. There is no doubt in my mind that the success -- and the excess -- of our system threatens all life on earth. Today, at 59, I fear we are on the brink of a major economic, social and environmental collapse. No product of our rambunctious consumer society is innocent or comforts me. In fact, except for the bare essentials, I try hard not to consume.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, climax capitalism has encouraged the annihilation of resources (and human beings) with a fearful lack of conscience and comprehension. Recently, I visited Phoenix, Ariz., and Austin, Texas, and I must admit that the daily buying and selling in these populated urban centers struck me as cataclysmic. The excessive consumption implicit in automobiles, hotels and motels, restaurants, Wal-Marts and supermarkets, air conditioning, highway construction, housing developments, and mall expansion left me breathless. America at work and at play is a scenario right from the Book of Revelation. Nobody cares about what is destroyed to keep our society humming along at its grotesquely damaging pace. Yet behind every air-conditioned mall and parking lot full of brand-new SUVs, I see untold pollution and other biological depredations, also worldwide social collapse. Most of what we consider "important" and "necessary" is insane to me. How can we be so intent upon our own destruction?

Tom Athanasiou is a more deliberate and qualified observer than myself. His book, Divided Planet, is the most comprehensive work I have read on the social, economic, political and ecological collapse of earth. Its macroscopic portrait of how the haves and the have-nots exist in our rapidly deteriorating ecosystem boggles the mind. Athanasiou writes in a measured and exhaustively researched prose, yet his book is a major portrait of human dysfunction and pending apocalypse that every social thinker, revolutionary and environmental activist should read. Everyone else should read it also.

Athanasiou outlines the causes and effects of the world's market economy and all the damage it does. We read these statistics daily in our newspapers and magazines, but pay little attention: Every 24 hours 15 million tons of carbon is added to our atmosphere, 115 square miles of tropical rainforest are destroyed, 40 to 100 species are made extinct, 71 million tons of topsoil are removed, 260,000 people are added...

The litany is ferocious, atrocious and astonishing. Most human populations are victims of the voracious beast, humankind. In Brazil, 1 percent of the landowners own 50 percent of the arable land. The United States, which is but 6 percent of the world's population, controls 50 percent of the planet's wealth. These tremendous inequalities foster environmental and social instabiities driving us toward planetary suicide.

Says Athanasiou, "The urban-industrial, export-based modes of modernization and social improvement ... have caused human suffering and ecological destruction on a grand scale." He describes how development is based on every sort of crime against the natural and the human world. Yet we North Americans who are blessed with plenty pretend differently, mired smugly in a self-aggrandizing denial that will eventually eradicate us ... after cold-cocking just about everything else on the globe.

It has long been understood that the rich on earth will destroy the earth, yet we refuse to acknowledge the situation. In particular, this book is a call to environmental activists, who should know better, but who, for the most part, don't. "The time for innocence is over," declares the author. "This has been a dark century, but the planet is wavering at the edge of even darker possibilities. Given the key role they are fated to play in the politics of an ever-shrinking world, it is past time for environmentalists to face their own history, in which they have too often stood not for justice and freedom, or even for realism, but merely for the comforts and aesthetics of affluent nature lovers. They have no choice. History will judge greens by whether they stand with the world's poor."

Athanasiou explains that if we are to survive, markets must learn to function without expansion and without wars. He states, "A transition to an ecological society must involve a vast increase in justice and democracy; unfortunately, this does not seem to be the direction of history ... Capitalism is triumphant. It has its many variations, but few glorify equity or justice, and few are kind to 'the losers.' "

He continues, "Capitalist economies must expand, but the ecosystem that is their host is finite by nature. It cannot tolerate the indefinite growth of any human economy, least of all one as blindly dynamic as modern capitalism. Murray Bookchin has long argued that capitalism is unreformable, that it must 'grow or die.' His judgment, if correct, portends almost inconceivable suffering, and so far there are few data to dispute it."

Most of the human and natural resources on earth today are locked in this inconceivable suffering, which underscores all the opulence radiated by car dealerships, suburban developments and massive shopping malls. There is ample evidence, in this book (and in all our quotidian lives), that eventually (sooner rather than later), the chickens will come home to roost. The message of Divided Planet is simple, but bears endless repeating until eventually humanity pricks up its ears:

We are destroying the world that sustains us.

Divided Planet: The Ecology of Rich and Poor by Tom Athanasiou. 385 pages. The University of Georgia Press. $16.95.


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