Book review: Cancel The Apocalypse

by Andrew Simms Useful, informative and sometimes annoying…

Cancel the apocalypse reviewIn the Smart Thinking section of a Waterstones, this is one of numerous large, mostly worrying books about the future. I was persuaded to buy this one by its optimistic title, and my good opinion of the author. Andrew Simms is a Fellow of the new economics foundation who has contributed to some good innovative thinking over the past twenty years.

This book has a lot of useful information, insights and piercing statistics about why things are as bad as they are, on many fronts: world economics, banking, food, and lots more. Simms is familiar with a lot of good research and resources, which are well referenced here. But he also rambles and digresses: the 250-page version of this book would be more readable and useful than the actual 474 pages. Some of the many useful insights in the book include:

  • Wellbeing vs. Materialism: Simms cites extensive research on the qualities that give most people a sense of wellbeing, alongside depressing evidence that the most materialistic don’t have these qualities, and many systems in developed societies push against them.
  • Finance: He explains recent meltdowns clearly, tries applying a natural systems analogy to world finances, and describes a few smaller-scale alternatives.
  • Food: He provides strong evidence for the vulnerability of food and fuel supply chains, highlights the role of speculation in driving up consumer prices even further, and provides evidence that food production could be organised to feed the world, given numerous radical changes. He quotes strong evidence to support his doubts about GM, and comments that ‘other non-GM techniques look set to bring dramatic crop improvements.’
  • Pay, performance and inequality: Simms adds to the conclusions in the book The Spirit Level that societies with more unequal incomes have many related problems, and even the rich are less happy. He adds some interesting points to this: for example, a wide-ranging research survey which found no evidence that higher pay engenders higher performance, and in fact suggests it can be counterproductive. He also points out that employment is one of the primary drivers of inequality in societies like the UK.
  • Advertising: The section on advertising is incisive, with quotes from industry gurus stating that the basic purpose of all this spending is to undermine people’s confidence and independence, and goad them into consumption.
  • Cooperation: Simms is eloquent on the many benefits of more cooperative and egalitarian societies, and believes that it’s in human nature to be like this – the problem is simply that our dominant global systems all push in the wrong direction.
  • Poverty: His assessment is pretty depressing: for example, if one takes China out of the figures, there has been no reduction in the numbers of global poor from 1980 to 2010. He also points out that the level of trickle-down from world economic growth to those in absolute poverty is tiny and shrinking: from $2.20 per $100 of global economic growth in the 1980s, to $0.60 in the 1990s.

I found it annoying that over 90% of this book is devoted to a range of specific issues, in which the problems are described at length, along with a variety of potential solutions, but mostly potential ones: to be more specific, he quotes details of positive initiatives which are working well somewhere, or bright ideas, but gives very little clue on how all this could be propagated in the mainstream. I became increasingly curious as to what the pivotal final chapter would contain.

Sadly, as with many of these books, Simms has little that’s new or convincing to say about how the large-scale economic, political and social structures of the world or the UK could be transformed into the more localised, collaborative, human approaches which he advocates. His suggestion that we all try to re-invent our sense of place and of time is a good start, but inspiring more than a small minority to do even this seems hard to imagine…

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