Surviving the Future

The last time I felt this way after a non-fiction book was David Graeber’s Utopia of Rules. I have rarely found works of popular social science to be compelling, or complete, or even worthwhile. I wonder if I had a background in the hard-sciences, if I would feel this way about popular science books too.

I came to David Fleming’s Surviving the Future through a recommendation from a friend, via a blog post. A quick google or two later, and seeing his pedigree as a founding member of the UK Green movement, my interest was piqued. The book, though, didn’t keep my enthusiasm for long.

There were multiple times when Fleming (or Chamberlin, I suppose) introduced a concept, defined it only briefly and then never used it again. An example that comes to mind is “climacteric.” But even beyond tiny details like this, the overall argument of the book seemed facile. Advocating for religion, or a religion-like institution, more local governance and reliance, promoting more social behavior are all fine places to start. But a deeper description on how we get there would’ve added to this book’s appeal. Size and scale, despite being maligned in this book, have also given us major advances in technology and medicine. Market capitalism, it can be argued, has also given us the longest run of peace in human history. Markets, some say, have lifted more people out of poverty than any other economic system we’ve tried. Are none of these things worth addressing in this book?

I did find interesting, though, the idea that conservatives and the Green party may find common ground about local politics via an argument like this. But as with the rest of the book, a discussion about exactly who is part of these “local economies,” and who isn’t included, or what we lose when we leave scale and size behind is wholly missing. As Noah Smith and Cathy O’Neill discuss in this column, market economies and inequality reduction are not incompatible with each other. It is possible that market economies and climate protection may not be incompatible either.

I’ll end on a positive note: there were a few descriptions of things like slack and the intensification paradox that I found interesting. To give credit where it is deserved, Fleming sees the pressures that capitalism and market economies place on society and on the Earth. And he is committed to finding other ways to organize human productive activity.