Two recently published thought-provoking books

I recently had the opportunity to read two books, which were suggested to me by a former professor of BSL, Mr. Christopher Cordey. These two books are forward-looking and try to define possible futures in the context of the climate crisis. The first one is written by Peter A. Victor: Escape from Overshoot. Economics for a Planet in Peril, New Society Publishers, Canada, 2023. The book gathers an impressive number of facts, some rather well-known by the public, and others less known.

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Here are a few examples:

  • Regarding the Earth Carrying Capacity, most surveys estimate it to be at or below eight billion people.
  • The Overshoot Day (the day in which humanity has consumed the resources our planet is able to renew in one year) occurs earlier each year. If we used one planet or less until the early 1970s, now we need 1.7 planets with our current consumption rate.
  • The Earth ‘s Land Mammal by Weight diagram shows that humans and cattle surpass by far the weight of wild animals. This is in my opinion a clear sign of the dominant position of human species in the world, which conducted to the creation of the notion of Anthropocene.

Deforestation and loss of biodiversity, as well as demographics are explained in a clear and simple way.

The conclusion of Chapter 3: Voices from the Past: Economic Growth and its Critics is very clear. “There remains an abiding fear that without economic growth there will be recession, depression, mass unemployment and despair. When defending the neoliberal version of capitalism – globalization, free markets and fee trade – British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously espoused the TINA principle: There is no alternative. Yet escape from overshoot requires that we find one” (page 69).

The necessity of a drastic change in our behavior and, particularly, in our consumption patterns questions of course our standard of living. “Until recently, it was widely assumed, especially in high-income countries, that each generation would have a higher standard of living than the one preceding it because of economic growth. Overshoot undermines this assumption” (p.117).

A consequence of that will be a massive realignment in investments, particularly in the energy sector.

What about people’s happiness in such a situation? The author refers to Easterlin Paradox: people’s happiness depends on how they compare themselves with others. It is their relative income and how their consumption compares with others that counts. “If Easterlin is correct that, after a certain material level of income and consumption, relative rather than absolute levels are what makes people happier, then further economic growth will not make a population happier unless it also comes with redistribution towards those at the lower end of the income scale. Likewise, income redistribution can make many happier, even without economic growth, by narrowing the gap between rich and poor, so income (and wealth) redistribution could be an important component of an escape from overshoot” (p.129).

The importance of a fair redistribution of income and wealth was already stressed in a fascinating book I read a decade ago: The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better? by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, published in 2009, in which the positive impact of a more balanced distribution of income and wealth on life expectancy, health, criminality, etc. was demonstrated.

The progress in technology will help us and needs to be adopted but it will not be sufficient to alleviate the risk for the planet. Behaviors have to be changed too.

Green Growth, Post Growth Possibilities are examined by the author to model and plan an escape from overshoot. A list of measures to be taken includes rapid electrification of road and rail transportation, net zero emissions, circular economy initiatives to reduce material flows, new meanings and measures of success (others than GDP), etc.

In conclusion, it is still possible to escape overshoot, but it is urgent to take drastic measures and, as French people say, “il y a du pain sur la planche”.  

The second book I read is more focused on a specific topic but interested me a lot as it is directly related to my field of activity. It is Universities on Fire. Higher Education in the Climate Crisis by Bryan Alexander, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2023.

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The first point to be aware of is that Academia worldwide has a considerable footprint. With roughly 30’000 postsecondary institutions, 220 million students and perhaps more than 6 million faculty members, it is equivalent to a middle-sized nation.

The second point to consider is that the book looks into possible futures. “This text, like most futures work, addresses the future as a set of possibilities rather than a single, fixed, and unitary production” (p.18). 

A useful distinction is done a few pages further: ““Climate mitigation” refers to efforts to slow global warming (…) “climate adaptation” denotes ways by which we change behaviors to adjust to a new environment” (p.26).   

Universities must obviously deal with both.

In chapter 1, Uprooting the campus, the author explains how some campuses are directly threatened by floods or fires and how they must rethink architecture. In extreme cases, campuses will not have another solution than to move to another location.

In chapter 2, Doing Research in the Anthropocene, Bryan Alexander demonstrates how climate change requires interdisciplinary research to help finding solutions to the global warming. Natural sciences, such as paleoclimatology, meteorology, hydrology, biology, agriculture, food science and forestry, as well as engineering, computer science and social sciences all have a role to play in that process. In the following chapter, the author explains how universities must teach the results of the research.

Chapter 4, The Transformation of Town and Gown, describes the relations between academia and its immediate environment, whereas chapter 5, Academia in the World, calls for a reinforced role of universities globally.

The last part of the book is dedicated to different scenarios (worst and best cases) and an analysis of the factors which will impact our future.

This book is very rich and deals with many aspects of the academic life I cannot summarize here. I can only encourage you to read it soon!

Author: Philippe Du Pasquier, President of the Board