Taylor, G. Evolution’s Edge

Evolution’s Edge: the Coming Collapse and Transformation of our World, New Society Pubs., BC, Canada, 2008. 308pp + xii

Evolution’s Edge is a brave and inspiring book that deserves wide attention because it endeavours to tell the truth about a central fact of our time – a fact that has been widely repressed despite the emergence of irrefutable evidence over several decades. The repressed truth is that humanity is now set on an ‘overshoot and collapse’ trajectory with incalculable consequences for itself and all other species. The reasons for this are many and varied so to provide a succinct overview is no easy task. Here the author has chosen to use a broad systems perspective that captures many – but not all – of the dynamic processes involved.

The book achieves a fine balance between diagnosis and solutions. Part one deals with ‘collapse – the dominant trend’. It begins with an excellent foundational chapter that goes straight to the point and looks at the factors driving the overshoot dynamic. In brief these cover population, resource consumption and availability and human impacts or ‘ecological footprints’. The following chapters take up themes exploring the global crisis, the unsustainable global culture, the need for a new model (of development) and the dynamic of cascading crises and system failure.

Part two deals with ‘transformation’ which is portrayed here as ‘the emerging trend’. It considers the nature of sustainable development, technological and social processes, responses to crisis, scenarios, what it calls ‘the design of a flourishing Earth community’ and, finally, tools for transformation. There are extensive endnotes and an index but no bibliography.

What most appeals to me about this book is the way that it fearlessly attempts to tell the truth and, in so doing, brings valuable clarity to some of the big issues of our time. Here are some brief examples.

Most political and business leaders recognise that the world has serious problems. However, because they believe that the global system is structurally sound, their response to growing global crises is to make economic and technical adjustments…. While these policies may slow the speed at which crises develop, ultimately they will not work because the global system has an environmentally unsustainable design (p. 87).

In reality the arms race has little to do with real defence needs; it has everything to do with projecting national power, influencing regional and global events and accessing and controlling foreign resources… (So) we need to ask why we are still fighting wars in the 21st century (p. 79).

The industrial system is doomed because its views, values, social structures and technologies are designed for constant physical growth, which means that it cannot reduce its consumption of natural resources without becoming an entirely different kind of societal system. Because the Earth’s carrying capacity has been passed, the global system has begun to fail (p. 94).

Then, looking at the grounds of possible solutions, the book sets out some key suggestions including the following.

The key to establishing a sustainable global system is realising that it is not possible to meet all our needs through limitless consumption. Once real material needs are met, we will gain more happiness from improving the quality of our lives than from increasing the quantity of our possessions (p 122).

The alternative to future resource conflicts is to eliminate the potential causes of war. This strategy (called developing sustainable security) will require the major powers to reduce their military budgets and use the savings to rapidly convert their unsustainable economies into sustainable economies (p.186).

Such suggestions all make complete sense and there are few progressively minded people who would disagree with them. And yet there are other forces at work in the global system that actively work against these would-be innovations. They are the ‘spoilers’, the agencies and actors whose daily operations prevent progressive changes from taking root and thriving. They include: international criminal networks, the vast investments in advertising and merchandising, the policies of oil and coal companies (and the ‘perverse incentives’ that they still attract) as well as the actions of militaristic and failed states. The book, however, pays rather too little attention to the spoilers and their cumulative impacts. Equally, I found it somewhat over-optimistic about the progressive potentials of new technologies (such as nanotech and IT) and of the likely impacts of citizen action movements. Both have drawbacks that need to be acknowledged.

The fact that the book is founded on a systems perspective gives it a strength and consistency that are lacking in more inspirational accounts. What this also means, however, is that discussions of social, symbolic and psychological factors are perhaps rather too brief. In this connection mention was made of an ‘integral perspective’ (p. 216) yet as far as I could see the main use of it was in the adoption of a few of its more accessible concepts. The practical result was that in some cases when transformative options were being suggested or discussed, I found myself saying ‘OK, but how will this happen?’ There are relevant discussions of values and worldviews, but the analysis does not penetrate far enough into the interiors of cultures or people to see more clearly where the developmental drivers of sustainability may actually lie. In this respect, however, the book is not alone.

What does distinguish the book and helps it stand out well ahead of the current crop is that it tackles the ‘overshoot and collapse’ issue head-on and in a way that is both clear and accessible. Another outstanding feature is that it is illustrated throughout with some very fine illustrations contributed by the author’s wife, Fereshteh Sadeghi, a talented artist and graphic designer. These usefully highlight many of the key concepts and make them more accessible. The section on ‘the design of a flourishing Earth community’ deserves close reading and could perhaps benefit from a more extended discussion. As it stands, however, it sketches in many key aspects of a new world order that may emerge from the present crisis. I therefore recommend the book unreservedly to all those who know that present global trends lead to disaster and are looking for new sources of understanding and hope.

Published in Foresight 11, 2, 2009 pp. 63-4.