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A Stunningly Beautiful Call To Action

A stunningly beautiful book, Over Over Over calls to mind the films of Godfrey Reggio, who some critics called to account for making the ugly—exploding napalm consuming whole villages—look visually compelling. Despite the beautiful images of often ugly things—degraded or devastated land and seascapes, wholesale slaughter of non-human creatures, human crowding and poverty—there is no getting lost and forgetting what is before us: the injury we have wrought as a species to others, the Earth and ourselves. We are not left to wander alone among images. With each image we gently prodded by a brief poignant comment to ponder our handiwork.

In Beijing’s smog enshrouded Tiananmen Square a giant television depicts a beautiful scene of mountains and blue sky. The centuries-dead mathematician Blaise Pascal observes that “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop seeing it.” The politically incorrect Martin Luther King, against a backdrop trains engulfed by humans, talks about the “modern plague of overpopulation…” The late Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, Bartholomew, calls us to task for the sin of destroying biodiversity against a too gentle image of a man praying in a polluted river. Other images better attest to the cruelty of our sins.

Despite its coffee table attributes this book is a call to action and in that sense its purpose is no different than Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man from two centuries ago—a book that celebrated the American rebellion against despots and made him a fugitive from the hangman in “progressive” Britain and ultimately unwelcome in revolutionary France despite his support for the revolution. Paine’s book inspired action because it gave voice to existing widespread discontent with the rot of corrupt social hierarchies. This book has a more difficult task. Discontent is wide spread but the current sources of injury—the “despots”—are much less obvious.

There are still despots with faces, but they are merely symptoms of despotic conditions. It is these conditions Over Over Over seeks to expose and address. To rouse discontented voices and turn them away from scapegoats.

It is human population growth that gave birth to inequality and hierarchy and economies focused on accommodating ever more people consuming ever more stuff—not to meet needs but to feed status and compensatory longings. Over the millennia, with larger human populations, larger and more extensive hierarchies have grown to manage and control the swelling multitudes, fight wars, and commandeer and transform more and more of the Earth and its life into generate toys and profits.

Henry David Thoreau was not the first to observe that “(t)here are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” (Walden ch 1) Replacing a cruder despot with a milder one or replacing police with the drugs of consumption and distraction will not solve the misery too many of us has created. Nor will replacing capitalism, which is built on endless growth and has greatly exacerbated the destruction of the world. The problem is much deeper than one economic system. We can do better than capitalism but there has never been a large-scale egalitarian society or one that did not destroy the natural world.

So unlike Paine, this book speaks not for an already aroused chorus, but for a chorus that is not yet fully awake or focused. It is a chorus still under the sway of tobacco company doctors and their ilk who say smoking won’t hurt us, go ahead and supersize it, technology will save us, climate change isn’t real, it will be different this time, leave it to the markets and individuals, acting as a community is tyranny, we just need to make a few changes, nothing drastic and all will be well, and you can consume as much as you want and have as many children as you want and there will be no consequences, and that’s your right anyway no matter what the affects on others. And all who say otherwise are just cynics and want to destroy your happiness and dreams and future.

In his introduction, Bill Ryerson keeps us close to Earth. Seven billion and counting is about real suffering, not statistics. The anthropologist Marvin Harris once noted that there are more people hungry today than were alive in 1900. He also reminded us that hunter-gatherers ate much better than almost all of us today, and had cleaner water and air and only toiled 700 hours a year. Today, Ryerson tells us, the basics are in increasingly in short supply. We aren’t running out of diamonds, but healthy soils and fresh water. We are already in overshoot, using renewable materials faster than they are replenished and getting by – by drawing down the limited and finite. Yet, he points out, our so-called leaders do not want to address growth. Of course not. The chimera of endless growth buys social peace; until there are shortages and prices spike. Then, it’s a crap shoot whether people go after scapegoats as is 1930s Germany or go after those in charge. It’s much safer to do the former.

Eileen Crist closes the book with a warning. By accepting projections of continued population growth to 10 billion—especially at a time when many poorer countries are adding tens of millions of new middle class consumers (we may destroy African elephants to feed demand for ivory status symbols)—it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It invites the magical thinking many leaders, even well intentioned leaders, have been proffering for some time. Our Common Future, the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, concluded that the destruction of the natural world was the result of our species taking too much. It also called for quadrupling production to raise the world poor to a decent standard of living. Which is it to be? Or will we bet on a third possibility—alchemy and other forms of magic?

Tom Butler gives us a fable—which could be the core of a new myth we so desperately need—tracing our estrangement from the world as we have endeavored over deep time to reshape it in our image and struggled to stay ahead of the many unanticipated grim consequences. We have now run out rope and can no longer avoid the choice before us. That humans would choose something other than reconnecting with life on Earth, a focus on relationships rather than stuff, caring over control and an economy that delivers happiness rather than misery should not be a question. But growth has been god for a very long time, many are frightened of change, and those whose desperate neediness drives them to seek wealth and power at all costs know how to exploit that fear.

Perhaps this book can help create the force it seeks to speak for.

David Johns,  Co-founder of The Wildlands Network — David Johns (J.D. 1980 Columbia University, M.A. 1978 Columbia University) is Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Portland State University. He teaches courses on US constitutional law and politics, politics and the environment and politics and film. Professor Johns has taught at Oregon State University and the Institute for Policy Studies. He was an International Fellow at Columbia University, served in the Carter Administration in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, and was an advisor to Environment Canada on the Earth Charter. He was a founding co-editor of New Political Science and serves on the board of the Society for Conservation Biology, the professional society of natural and social scientists focused on biodiversity. Professor Johns has published and spoken widely on science, politics and conservation and is author of A New Conservation Politics (2009). He was awarded the Denver Zoological Foundation Conservation Award in 2007. His current research is focused on social movements and the reasons for their successes and failures.

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