Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Joanna Blythman, Swallow This: Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

Published by Fourth Estate, London, 2015

The companies which dominate the packaged food industry are typical of companies which control an increasing proportion of the world’s economic output: their principal motivation is to increase the profits which accrue to their shareholders. This book provides very strong evidence that these companies’ products are generally not very nutritious, and often harmful to consumers’ health and/or toxic.

In the present dominant world neoliberal economic environment, these companies’ dreadful policies are completely rational. In Britain, company goals coincide closely with the British government’s goals for the industry. Defra wants to “promote a British brand, grow exports, improve skills, attract high-flyers and harness data and technology so that the industry can innovate and create jobs.” The British Government is “hugely ambitious for the future of food and farming and its potential to drive growth – that’s why we are bringing together industry to set out a vision for the future with a long-term plan to grow more, buy more and sell more British food”. (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, 2015)

It is a higher priority for most governments to attract and retain employment and stimulate economic growth through the operations of corporations, than to seek to ensure that their populations eat healthy nutritious foods. Despite the thoroughly researched findings of this excellent book, food companies’ behaviour is unlikely to change substantially any time soon.

The full review was published in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism ,Vol 27, No.2, June 2016, pp. 138-140.

The Green Paradox

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

A Supply-Side Approach to Global Warming,

by Hans-Werner Sinn, published by MIT Press, 2012.

Professor Sinn’s  green paradox is based on the assumption  that “green” measures  will encourage producers of fossil fuels  to extract their products from the ground earlier rather than later. Announcing a future reduction in the demand for fossil fuels speeds up global warming.  Fossil fuel extraction companies will not wait to extract their products from the ground, because the continuation of green policies will put ever increasing downwards pressure on the prices they can secure for fossil fuel. Thus the “green paradox” is that green measures will accelerate the extraction of fossil fuels and thus increase the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rather than reduce it.

But the  case for the existence of the green paradox is based entirely on assumptions and unverifiable economic theory, not on empirical evidence.

” in the social sciences, the worse the theory … the more it is likely to grip people’s minds. Universities are hot-beds of theory … . This activity is pointless without doing much damage, but every now and then one of these theories escapes … . and attacks the public like the plague: I mean that part of the public that writes or rules for a living, and who need above all to delude themselves and their masters that they know what they are talking about” (Routh, 1980, page 11).

This applies exactly to the green paradox, which is a figment of Professor Sinn’s imagination. There is  therefore no good reason to take it into account in energy and environmental  policy.

Reference: Guy Routh, The Morals of Pay, in Guy Routh, Dorothy Wedderburn and Barbara Wootton (Eds.), The Roots of Pay Inequalities, Low Pay Unit, London, 1980, page 11.

The full review is published in Energy and Environment,2012, vol23, Nos 2&3: 451-453.

Earth Grab

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

Earth Grab considers  how global capitalism’s deployment of technology  is liable to lead to disaster  for the planet and  most  of those who live on it. It groups  approaches to the deployment of technology into three:

1. “Geopiracy”. This  relates to geo-engineering. Definitions are contested, but the following extracts from  the work of reputable organisations such as the US  National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society give  the flavour  of what may be involved: deliberately  exerting a cooling influence on the Earth in order to moderate global warming by reflecting sunlight,carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere, constructing vertical pipes in the ocean to increase downward heat transfer. Neither I nor Earth Grab are able to give any explanation of why these august bodies should waste  their time considering what is surely sheer madness.

2. “The New Biomassters”. Biomass is targeted by industry as a source of living “green”  carbon which can generate electricity,produce fuels, ferilizers and chemicals and  partially replace “black” fossil carbon –oil,coal and gas.

3. “Capturing Climate Genes”. The world’s six largest agrochemical and seed  corporations are marketing  genetically engineered  crops  designed  to withstand environmental stresses such as heat, cold and drought. Their aim is to monopolise patents to control most of the world’s biomass.

Common characteristic of all these ingenious approaches is that they  represent “technological fixes” to complex worldwide social, economic and technical problems, and that the motivation for advocating, developing and implementing these “solutions”   is the pursuit of profits by corporate giants.

The book identifies  potential  harmful side-effects likely to be caused  by such  initiatives, and proposes numerous  ingenious and imaginative measures by which they should be countered.  But it cannot  provide solutions  likely to be  adopted in  the real world economy,   which  is run by  major corporations aided and abetted by governments and international bodies. A  vast and ever increasing  number of those who govern these bodies believe against all the evidence such as that provided in Earth Grab that  competitive capitalism can be managed and controlled in order to benefit the majority of the world’s population without causing undue damage to the environment.

Bronson, D.,  et al.,  2011,  Earth Grab : Geopiracy, The New Biomassters and Capturing Climate Genes, Oxford, UK., Pambazuka  Press.

The full review was published in Energy and Environment, 2012, Vol23, No4: 755-756.

Evgeny Morozov: The net delusion

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

The Net Delusion provides extensive evidence to refute the myth of technological determinism – specifically the myth that technology can solve enormous political problems.The myth that the internet will liberate the world is typical of the dreams of utopia that have accompanied the initial diffusion of many radical technologies over the past 150 years.

The use of the internet developed rapidly during the period of United States euphoria following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the popular imagination, the role of the policies of the United States Government in bringing this about was overestimated in comparison with the role of internal weaknesses in the Soviet Union. In some respects, this was analogous to the exaggeration of the role of the Bolshevik Revolution in bringing about the collapse of the very  weak Tsarist regime in 1917.

 Generally, revolutionaries learn to use new media before established authoritarian powers. New social media provide powerful weapons to the  opponents of established  political powers for as long as the opposition exploits these new media better than the authorities. But authoritarian governments soon see possibilities for turning the new technologies against the opposition, and  have access to greater resources.

Many people suppose that the internet will help to free oppressed people, but The Net Delusion shows that it has also  become a tool for control.

 The net delusion: how not to liberate the world, by Evgeny Morozov, London, Allen Lane,  2011, xvii + 408 pages.

The full review was published in Prometheus, Volume 29,  issue 2, 2011, pages 194-197

Tim Wu: The Master Switch

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Wu believes that we need to understand the past if we are to anticipate  the future.  He is surely right to claim that to understand how the use of current information technologies is likely to develop – in particular, the internet – it is necessary to understand the historical patterns of development of previous technologies, and the reasons behind such patterns. The state should support and stimulate the Schumpeterian dynamic of creative destruction, and that impeding this dynamic is never in the public interest. But the concentration of power in relation to the creation, transmission and exhibition of information constitutes a special case for regulation  because  ‘a song, a film, a political speech or a private conversation’ can change lives. Political revolution or genocide may be facilitated by the mass media. Control of mass media works to decide who gets heard and who does not. This makes  regulation of information and communications services in services fundamentally different from regulation of products such as orange juice, electric toasters or running shoes. But the US  Government has always been relatively indifferent to the dangers of abuse of private power. This book includes valuable analysis of the history of information technologies, concentrating on the United States.

 The master switch: the rise and fall of information empires, by Tim Wu, London, Atlantic Books, 2010, 366 pages.

The full review was published in Prometheus, Volume 29, issue 2, 2011,  pages 194-197 

Foresight: the future of food and farming

Friday, November 18th, 2011

Final project report, by Government Office for Science, London, 2011, 208 pp.

This report provides evidence that the world agricultural and food production and distribution system is dysfunctional, in terms of both its failure to provide and distribute the food necessary for keeping the world’s population healthy, and of minimizing environmental damage.

Statistics in the report show that only 57% of the world’s population consumes a reasonable amount and quality of the food needed to keep in good health. About 28% receive too little food, and about 14% consume too much (pp.9–10). Economic growth and technological change have combined to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and severe deprivation. However, there are still many people who suffer from severe deprivation – hunger, starvation and poor health. These are people who have insufficient land on which to grow food for themselves and their families, together with those who are unemployed and cannot afford to buy food.

This  report includes a wealth of statistical and other data, together with bibliographic references, but it lacks historical perspective and a coherent analytical framework. Accordingly, it fails  to achieve  its   aim of identifying ‘the decisions that policy makers need to take to ensure that the  global population  can be fed sustainably and equitably’.

The full review has been published in  Prometheus, 29:3, 309-313, December, 2011.

Tim Jackson, Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet

Saturday, September 17th, 2011

London and Washington DC., Earthscan, 2011, xii + 276 pages. (Summary of book review*)

Economic growth is still important for the world’s poorest nations, but Jackson questions whether it makes sense “for the richer nations, where subsistence needs are largely met and further proliferation of consumer goods adds little to material comfort. … How is it that with so much stuff already, we still hunger for more?”

After the 2008 global financial crisis, there was practically universal consensus on the need to get consumption and the world economy growing again. But Jackson believes that this is unsatisfactory. He calls “for a robust, ecologically-literate macro-economics”. Investment is needed to achieve transition to “a sustainable low-carbon economy” involving “transition from a fossil fuel economy to one based on renewable energy. But “fixing the economy” is only part of the problem. It is also necessary to address the social logic of consumption. The strategy he proposes rejects the centrality of material commodities as the basis for profitability. It replaces them with the idea of an economy designed explicitly around delivering the capabilities for human flourishing which will have to be delivered with considerably less material input.Jackson maintains that unproductive status competition increases material throughput and creates distress. But I suggest that status competition generates enormous profits, and that it is difficult to see how corporations are going to be induced to abandon these enormous sources of profits.

The book challenges ideas that are restraining progress towards a better world. Powerful interests which now use enormous resources to promote “unsustainable material accumulation and unproductive status competition” would need to be overcome in order to secure this better world. But Jackson fails to identify agents of change capable of implementing the ideas and strategies he proposes. The absence of consideration of the powerful forces which would offer strong resistance to the policies he advocates conveys the illusion that those policies are feasible. I conclude by comparing Jackson’s volume to an exciting and imaginative cookery book which gives elaborate recipes for making delicious omelettes without the need to break any eggs.

*The full review is published in Energy & Environment • Vol. 22, No. 7, 2011, pages 1013-1016