There’s something odd going on in the world of politics right now. At the recent Eastleigh by-election the three biggest British parties met with open hostlity from many voters. The Liberal Democrats held onto their seat, but a party previously regarded as ‘fringe’ beat the other two into third and fourth place. At about the same time, Italians were busy voting for a stand-up comedian whose main platform was that he wasn’t a politician, and who clearly had no ambition to rule. On political debate programmes the loudest cheers are generally reserved for the ‘outsider’ on the panel – the most popular option seems to be ‘none of the above’ when the ‘above’ are mainstream politicians.
This shouldn’t be entirely surprising; we are in the middle of the biggest financial downturn since the 1930s, and our children face the prospect of being less prosperous and shorter-lived than their parents. Scientists warn of catastrophe from not only global warming, but also from fuel, food and water shortage. It’s easy to get the feeling that things are falling apart.
Still, those politicians would have you believe there is no alternative. The mantra may have been Mrs Thatcher’s originally, but it has been enthusiastically endorsed by politicians everywhere in the West. Free-market capitalism with a commitment to continuing economic growth is the only game in town.
Andrew Simms disagrees, and Cancel the Apocalypse is the result of his search for an alternative to the relentless pursuit of growth at all costs. The book is neither a bone-dry academic treatise nor a utopian dream. Instead Simms uses a mixture of anecdote, evidence, history and myth to make his point. So, for example, we learn a lesson from the history of merchant shipping in the nineteenth century. Then it was commonplace for ship-owners to send out ships that were unseaworthy (coffin-ships, the sailors called them) or which were over-loaded with cargo. Or they simply loaded a decrepit ship with junk, over-insured it, and cleaned up when it sank. The problem , of course, was that the sailors drowned..
Samuel Plimsoll campaigned passionately against this injustice for years, until his famous ‘Plimsoll Line ‘ was adopted – a mark on the side of a ship which indicates that the ship’s maximum load had been reached. This simple action saved thousands of lives, and contrary to the protests of the industry, the ship-owners didn’t go out of business, they simply adapted. But at the time, Plimsoll was reviled as ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ by industrialists, politicians and their media outlets.
The resonances of this story to our times are clear: the pursuit of profit without proper regard to safety, the resistance of business to regulation, the vilification of whistle-blowers. Samuel Plimsoll is one man in a long and noble series of reformers who have been condemned by their contemporaries, but vindicated by history. It’s something to bear in mind when you hear today’s campaigners written off as extremists or dreamers by mainstream politicians and journalists.
But more than anything else, the story of the Plimsoll Line provides us with a metaphor for our bio-shpere or planetary system. Push its carrying capacity too far, and it becomes ‘unstable, more vulnerable to outside shocks. Ignore the warning signals and sinking or collapse become likely’.
Simms’ search, then is for a Plimsoll Line for the planet. Sometimes this might make for uncomfortable reading, especially if you are partial to cheap flights. But if you’ve ever muttered ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ when watching the news, or decided not to vote because you don’t think any of them will make a difference, or you simply fear for the future of your children, then you owe it to yourself to read this book. Discover the alternative!