Helen Caldicott’s “If You Love This Planet,” 2nd ed.: a review

Published online 19 October 2009.

This is a book review of the new edition of Helen Caldicott‘s “If You Love This Planet,” released this year.  It will examine the extent to which Caldicott can synthesize the great quantity of factual information presented in her book to help readers attain a wholistic view of “the metabolism between man and nature.”

(Crossposted at Docudharma)


Helen Caldicott’s “If You Love This Planet” is a rewrite (mostly an expansion) of her 1991 book of the same name, dealing globally with environmental problems.  Moreover, it has become the basis for what appears to be an interesting radio show.  Here is how I want to do this book review.  First I want to suggest a critical perspective upon environmental problems which would give us the wholistic focus we need.  That perspective is that of the “metabolism between people and nature,” and it is quite comparable to what Caldicott is offering.  Then I want to go over her book, chapter by chapter, offering a brief look at its innards.  Finally, I want to offer a summary reflection upon Caldicott’s book, suggesting how it can be read critically and productively.

Critical perspective:

In volume 1 of Marx’s Capital there is this wonderful concept, “the metabolism of man (sic) and nature”:

Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself (sic) and nature.(283)

If you can look beyond the impersonal “he” in the translation, and the controversy surrounding the text’s author, you can see why “the metabolism of people and nature” would be useful as a concept, for far more than the mere explanation of surplus-labor, which is what Marx did with it.  What makes it so appropriate for thinking about environmental problems is that it brings together a number of “different” problems under one perspective.  Environmental problems are metabolic problems; pollution, for instance, is a question of the unhealthy byproducts of our metabolism of nature.  Resource depletion (e.g. “peak oil”) is a consequence of out-of-control metabolic rates; global warming is a syndrome, a result of our over-metabolizing the wrong parts of nature, the oil and coal and natural gas reserves.

In line with such thinking, we need to change our political demands.  There is no point in merely asking for what is “realistic” if it won’t save us from our own insane metabolic patterns.  The various bills meant to deal with climate change are all based on some sort  of “cap-and-trade” scheme, which accepts the existing economic structure as a given and which therefore does not meaningfully address its metabolic dysfunction.  What we ought to demand instead, I argue, is a fundamental stabilization of the “metabolism of people and nature,” a reconciliation of human relations with the natural world.

There is a high cost attached to the perspective on “climate change” as something which conceptually separated from all of the other bad things we do to our planet.  Spin doctors enter, and propose “clean energy” as the solution to a problem conceptualized as “dirty energy.”  “Clean energy,” in the hands of the spin doctors, can be anything: “clean coal,” for instance, or “carbon offsets.”  The end result, as Robert Reich observes about the climate-change bills, will not be of much interest to those who love this planet.  The new edition of Helen Caldecott’s book might serve as an antidote to that sort of thinking, with its focus upon the sum of environmental wrongs.  In reviewing it, however, I will assess the extent to which it helps us promote a stable “metabolism of people and nature.”

Many readers of this diary might remember Helen Caldicott as a prominent Australian physician and anti-nuclear activist.  She is indeed those things.  Caldicott, however, also published a book (in 1992) called “If You Love This Planet,” in which she dramatizes environmental threats.

The updated version is meant to make environmentalism everyone’s business.  Caldicott’s introduction suggests what is at stake:

Many developing countries, too, as well as the dismantled Soviet Union, India, and China, are now enthusiastically embracing the “wonders” of capitalism, as their people demand (the) affluent lifestyle.  But 6.72 billion people cannot possibly emulate the lifestyle of 300 million Americans and expect the planet to survive.  (xiii)

The world cannot afford the extravagant living, then, that has been the privilege of Americans, for the pollution costs are too high.  This is essentially a metabolism problem — we can’t afford to have everyone metabolizing the world like Americans do now.

Just after this part of the introduction, Caldicott explains her approach to ecology:

My vocation is medicine, and as a physician I examine the dying planet as I do a dying patient.  The Earth has a natural system of interacting homeostatic medicines similar to the human body’s.  If one system is diseased, like the ozone layer, then other systems develop abnormalities in function — the crops will die, the plankton will be damaged, and the eyes of all creatures on the planet will become diseased and vision-impaired.

We must have the tenacity and courage to examine the various disease processes afflicting our planetary home.  But an accurate and meticulous diagnosis is not enough.  We never cure patients by simply announcing that they are suffering from meningococcal meningitis or cancer of the bladder.  Unless we are prepared to look further for the cause, or etiology, or the disease process, the patient will not be cured.  Once we have elucidated the etiology, we can prescribe appropriate treatments.(xiii-xiv)

This approach is similar to the one only hinted at in “Capital,” and it’s precisely the approach which is missing from mainstream analyses of abrupt climate change.  It is typically said that we are “burning too much carbon” — but this is only like a doctor saying the patient is “coughing up too much blood” without really examining why!  Clearly, something more like Caldicott’s way of thinking will be needed if we expect to survive.


Chapter-by-chapter review of the book:

The book is divided into four parts: signs and symptoms (chapters 1-6), diagnosis (7), causes of the illness (8-10), prescriptions (throughout the book).  I’ve done a quick comparison-read between the old, first edition of this book and the new second edition.  There is a simple poetry to the old, first edition, defending nature against dangerous technologies and dangerous people.  In rewriting the first edition into the second edition, Caldicott has added quite a lot of factual material.  The second edition will more informative to readers of the present day — yet its ability to move the reader has been a bit diluted.

There are two forces creating a tension throughout this book.  The first force is the persuasive force of the impressive array of facts Dr. Caldicott is able to marshal in her favor, toward the thesis that the planet is being killed off by human pollution.  The other tension is that of solutions: what Caldicott has to offer in the way of solutions is often ad hoc.  Still, there is something of a “bigger picture” here, which I shall elucidate.

The first chapter is on the ozone layer, and here Caldicott urges further action to wean the world away from chlorofluorocarbons as refrigerant gases.  The second chapter is about abrupt climate change.  Here Caldicott cites many of the more familiar sources about the effects of climate changes which have already occurred.  At to the conclusion to this chapter, she asks: “Is the human race smart enough, and does it have the intellectual, psychological, and emotional resources and stamina, to reverse this ongoing disastrous situation?”  Caldicott is right to emphasize psychological and emotional resources.  Has capitalist discipline made it psychologically impossible for humankind to imagine a way out?

Chapter 3 discusses the politics of environmental degradation.  Here Caldicott outlines a few solutions to our transportation and oil consumption problems:

  • Electric transportation
  • Bicycles
  • Locally-grown food using permaculture techniques
  • Eliminating unnecessary packaging of food
  • Reducing plastic consumption and chemical production

Chapter 4 claims to be about “Trees, the Lungs of the Earth,” but is actually a somewhat scattered reflection upon what threatens trees and the purposes for which trees are commonly used.  It skips from mining to oil and gas projects to dams to cattle ranching to drug crop farming to forest pharmaceuticals to war to acid rain to paper production.  Here is a gem of a statement in the middle of all that:

Living in affluence does not necessarily make us happier than we would be if we lived close to the land, grew our own food, rode bicycles, and read by candlelight.  After all, Dickens, Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Brahms wrote by candlelight.  I am not suggesting we all need to do this, but some people may want to.  Conservation and alternative energy are certainly in order.  Television should be almost discarded because the endless advertising tends to encourage this destructive lifestyle; in any case, we learn very little from most TV programs.  Better to indulge in family dynamics, to play cards and chess, to sit around the piano singing and playing, than to curl up and numb our brains, our feelings, and our powers of critical thinking by watching the boob tube. (65)

Of course, all of this needs to be more thoroughly thought out.  Is it practical to “live close to the land” in an urbanized America where land values are inflated?  Should all people want to live that way?  Still, it suggests something to which we ought to aspire, even if we can’t do it right away.

Chapter 5 is about toxic pollution.  Caldicott knows a lot about toxic pollution — this is a part I am still mining for information.  Chapter 6 is about species extinction, which catalogues many of the ways in which people are screwing up planetary ecosystems and driving plants and animals into extinction.  A portion of this chapter, for instance, is dedicated to the great amphibian die-off which Derrick Jensen mentioned in a recent teleconference.

Chapter 7 is about overpopulation, and the discussion here is one I found to be rather desultory.  I suppose the problem of overpopulation is a problem of “people management” — if there are more people, there are more mouths to be fed, more people to worry about.  Caldicott’s answer to the “population problem” is humane: “the cure for overpopulation is not epidemics of disease, or nuclear war, as some people suggest.  It is redistribution of wealth, compassionate politics, and caring societies.” (153)

Chapter 8 is about “First World Greed and Third World Debt,” basically an explanation of the system of corporate imperialism.  Chapters 9 and 10 are about the mass media — how they “manufacture consent” (in Chomsky’s and Herman’s terms) and how they control discourse about solutions to pressing global problems.  A choice quote from Caldicott suggests the tenor of her argument:

Obviously, if the world is to survive, the press must not be used as a profit-making venture for a few people who are rich beyond compare and who now almost control the world.  The place to start breaking down the corporate structure is the United States.  If Americans all used their democracy appropriately, they could force members of Congress, who legally represent them, to legislate against private media ownership.  Until they use the laws available at their disposal, they will be controlled by transnational corporations, which tell them only what they want them to know and which will amuse and numb them with trivia and superficial “entertainment” — violence, sex, and sport. (232)

The last chapter of Caldicott’s book, “Healing the Planet: Love, Learn, Live, and Legislate,” in which she offers some recommendations for political reform, to be applied with especial vigor to the American context.  There is an appendix to the new, second edition, with informative resources.


Summary reflections:

A lot of what Helen Caldicott has to say is in the realm of “watch out — poisons!”  So it is always important, then, to critically question her facts and figures whenever she argues something.  One must continually ask and re-ask: “Is she overstating the danger here?”  One may also want to ask as to whether or not she is understating dangers as well.

Moreover, there seems to be an important piece missing from much of Caldicott’s advice, and it’s the piece missing from everyone’s advice: political leverage.  Even “lifestyle” issues are political, and political power typically comes from leveraging the political power you’ve got.  If we are to advocate new, really-sustainable (as opposed to “sustainable as advertised”) lifestyles, we need to do a greater exploration of power than Caldicott has done.  A candidate who would advocate public control of the airwaves, for instance, would hardly get equal time on the privately-controlled airwaves.

Caldicott’s approach, however, is rather superior to that of the generalized denial one sees in the mass media, and thus also superior to the generalized denial of the American public to the clear and present danger that is now clearly out there in the form of abrupt climate change.  It should be plain from the scientific evidence assembled so far that the human race is in deep trouble, because of abrupt climate change but also because of a number of other ways in which the world has been messed up by human predation upon ecosystems.

My suggestion is this: read Caldicott’s statistics for signs of a dysfunctional “metabolism of humans and nature,” and for glimpses of what the world would look like if our relations-to-nature were reconciled.  If we are to look at Chapters 8, 9, and 10 of Caldicott’s book, moreover, we would get a picture in which the proper debate of this sort of thing has been hijacked by corporate ownership of the mass media and monopolization of the economy by a rich few.  Thus the author of this book sees the difficulties in moving forward.  Her reflections, then, might be said to represent “next steps” to take toward a better future.  This is a scattered book, because its author enthusiastically launches into anecdotes or frequently regales us with statistics.  However, it exhibits occasional flashes of brilliance, and should be explored for the value that these will give us.


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