Wasted World: How Our Consumption Challenges the Planet

April 19, 2012

In his latest work, Rob Hengeveld has an important message to deliver: the Earth is on the brink of collapse and urgent action is needed because the carrying capacity of the planet has been exceeded. The book, a popular science work, is concerned with three key problems: unsustainable population growth; the overuse of material resources; and the resultant excessive waste that can no longer be absorbed by the natural environment. Forming a classic sustainability argument, where the current generation is obliged to future ones not to leave the planet in a less valuable state, Hengeveld proposes radical solutions to tackle the looming crisis. The apocalyptic approach sets the tone for a difficult and uncomfortable topic that leaves one wondering if there is a future for humanity, but by painting such a pessimistic picture the author skilfully hooks the reader, who will want to know more.

The first part, "Natural processes", attempts to identify where lessons can be learned from biological processes and systems so that humanity can be saved and society reorganised in the future. Hengeveld's solution resides not in new sources of energy or reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, although both are recognised as important. Rather, he proposes that what is required are reductions in human reproduction and consumption, and replacing the linear system of resource utilisation and waste production with a maintained cyclical one. The result is an account that is largely process- and system-driven, rooted unproblematically by the author in the "facts" of the natural sciences. Very little reflexive recognition is offered as to the limitations of this approach, which largely ignores the social bases within which everyday practices occur.

The bulk of Hengeveld's material is presented in the second part, "On-going processes in the human population". Here an impressive array of historical examples is provided to illustrate the complex relationship between humanity and nature. Via an explanation of human development as a historically embedded process, the problems associated with unprecedented and unsustainable population growth in relation to energy and material resources are outlined as dynamic and thus far beyond the control of humans. The rest of the book considers various interrelated issues that in combination are posited as contributing to the scale of the problem. Littered with anecdotes and historical examples, these help to illustrate the ways in which the world, everything in it and its future is being wasted by human activity. To tackle this, Hengeveld offers two radical proposals: dramatically reduce the birth rate; and create an economic model based not on growth but on collaboration, quality and sustainability. Both are controversial suggestions that make for uncomfortable reading, but as Hengeveld argues, it would be less inhumane than increasing the mortality rate, or worse still, doing nothing.

Wasted World is on the whole effective at illustrating the scale of the challenge facing humanity, and in addition acts as a useful introduction to a range of complex issues in a non-technical and accessible manner for the non-expert. Although academic readers might find the author's decision not to provide rigorous referencing within the body of the text frustrating or even troublesome, the historical coverage is nevertheless impressive in helping to expose how centuries of human development have landed us here, with society on the brink of collapse.

Given the book's title, one would be forgiven for thinking that this work is just about waste: it is, but it is more besides. Hengeveld successfully reveals how population size, resource exploitation and the threat of system collapse are all interrelated issues that humanity must face up to if it is to avert collapse and have a future on planet Earth.

Wasted World: How Our Consumption Challenges the Planet

By Rob Hengeveld. University of Chicago Press. 360pp, £19.50. ISBN 9780226326993. Published 23 April 2012.

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