Civilization Critical: Energy, Food, Nature and the Future

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Darrin Qualman was the primary researcher and writer for the National Farmers Union, a Canadian organisation of farm families promoting environmentally safe farming practices, until 2010. His work focused on food, agriculture, energy, climate change, the environment, the economy and trade.

His book offers a complex analysis of civilisation today, focusing on our energy, food and material flows. His analysis of past civilisations demonstrates the environmental impacts produced by the power sources fuelling them.

Today’s civilisation, with it’s growth-based economy and human domination over nature, is accelerating down a road towards catastrophic climate change, biodiversity loss and destruction. Our current fossil-fuelled system is incompatible with sustainability. Without radical transformation of our civilisation we are doomed.

Perhaps the most disturbing of all is the explanation of our current agricultural systems in the first chapter. The book examines the complexity of the natural, local, circular flows of food systems that have co-developed naturally over millennia, contrasting them with the linear flows humans have extended around the globe over the past 100 or so years.

Human streamlining of agriculture blocks all life possible from interacting with our mass mono-cultures. We ‘prune’ natural food webs, funnelling food energy into supermarkets and away from natural cycles.

Qualman highlights that biodiversity loss underpins our current food production system and that huge quantities of fossil-fuel inputs are essential to subsidise extractive agricultural practices. Without system-wide change, extinction rates and dependency on petro-fuels will continue accelerating.

From the onset Qualman outlines that this is not a political piece, arguing that the boundaries of our biosphere are more existential than economic ideas about growth or political ideas regarding human interaction.

Civilization Critical does not make an argument for eco-socialism, nor does it map out the path to get there. Instead it emphasises that the economy is a subsidy of the biosphere, and we must consider the natural laws of the earth above those of any given political system, should we wish the system to continue.

The immense power and innovation that has come from and with our civilisation is inherently intertwined with its destruction. We offset in both space and time the destructive consequences of our production and consumption habits.

Our resource consumption grants us luxuries, sees us produce more and sustain a larger population than at any other point in history, but it also has potentially earth-shattering risks that accumulate over time. A governing system that takes the scientific planetary boundaries as the primary consideration to sustaining life and civilisation is the only means for success.

What this book offers is an indispensable understanding of how our energy consumption affects the biosphere. The extensive analysis comes paired with a multitude of useful charts, graphs and diagrams showing the complexity of global-intertwined systems of ecology, energy and economics.

Qualman could draw a more overt link between the motive of profit in our pursuit of fossil-fuelled destruction, but does manage to include an analysis of class when addressing governance and economics.

For a book trying to stay removed from politics, the poignant analysis of government arrives at common sense conclusions; the statistical and scientific analysis bellows the need for radical change.

Civilization Critical is an fantastic tool for socialists trying to grasp the vastness and complexity of the ecological crisis we are facing.