Our Way Out

Our Way Out by Marq de Villiers

Our Way Out: First Principles for a Post-Apocalyptic World, a discussion of solutions to global warming, resource depletion, population and economic dysfunction, was published by McClelland and Stewart in April 2011, and simultaneously released in print and e-book form in the United States. A Chinese edition was published in 2013.

“Marq de Villiers has earned the right to be bold, and, whether you agree with him or not, he should be lauded for daring to say, in a clear, well-researched argument, what many don’t wish to hear.” This from the book industry journal, Quill & Quire.

Interestingly, in the sometimes acrimonious discussion that followed publication, hardly anyone quarreled with my analysis of global warming: the skeptics kept their distance, but easily found other things to criticize.

From the right, the main objection (often angrily expressed) was to my argument for the global economy to transition from a system that is growth-oriented to one that represents a steady state – that is, an economy that doesn’t grow but does not fall into recession. My point was that growth remains the one remaining unexamined orthodoxy; only a few renegade economists are today asking even the most basic questions, such as those posed by the great British economist John Maynard Keynes more than eighty years ago: “If growth is a means to an end, what is the end, how much growth is enough, and what other valuable human purposes may be pre-empted by a single- minded concentration on economic growth?” Keynes himself looked forward to the day in which “the economic problem” – by which he meant the problem of production and its corollary, consumption – was a thing of the past. “We are essentially there, in rich societies. There is more than enough for everyone.”

It is that notion of “enough” that drives the growth people crazy.

The left, or at least the environmental left, was variously appalled at a) my deep skepticism that the so-called “renewable” energies would provide any kind of relief any time soon, and b) my vigorous defense of nuclear power as the solution of choice.

Some of the reviewers got it more or less right, I think.

Mike Landry, in the Saint John Telegraph Journal, wrote that “the best thing about Our Way Out is that Marq de Villiers seems to have no vested interest in fixing the world other than his decent sense of humanity and writing one heck of a book … De Villiers is simply looking out on the world like a jigsaw puzzle that’s all mixed up, the pieces mashed together to fit. Our Way Out gives us the image on the box so we can take the pieces apart and build them back together the way they’re meant to go.” Ron Kirbyson, in the Winnipeg Free Press, put it this way: “As a writer, de Villiers is as deliberate as he is insightful. The ideas he includes cover the conceptual waterfront. Think of a topic that is crucial to the well-being of our hurting globe — environment, investment bankers, international trade, class conflict — and issues, such as how does Canada justify forbidding asbestos at home while exporting it to Third World countries. You can count on his having observations and possible solutions.”

Alex Good, in the Toronto Star, was a little more measured: “One appreciates de Villiers’s let’s roll up our sleeves and just get at ’er attitude. Some of his progressive ideas have promise. He’s still challenging our deeply dysfunctional economy and political system, the product of a long historical evolution and billions of individual choices being made daily.” So was the Globe and Mail: “De Villiers [is] unafraid to challenge conventional views. . . . His chapter on food – ‘The Reinvention of Farming’ – is the most inspiring, advocating a multitude of responses that are not only essential but doable.”

But I’d like to show you Andrew Nikiforuk’s review in its entirety, partly (of course!) because it was largely positive, but mostly because he is an award-winning environmental writer and a social critic of some eminence. He was, famously, denounced by the Stephen Harper government for being “one of those foreign radicals”, though he is neither foreign nor a radical.

Here’s what he wrote:

“Given that the Canadian government has declared war against environmentalists and first nations opposed to rapid bitumen development, this book should come with a stark political warning.

The author believes that democracy has probably peaked and the globe’s financial system has become a casino for the rich. He argues that we must retire fossil fuels and respond to climate change not with fear but with innovation. So buying this tome might get you a threatening robocall from a certain political party.

The South Africa-born Marq De Villiers is no radical. The award-winning journalist and former editor of Toronto Life has travelled widely and written extensively about stuff that matters, such as water. De Villiers has seen enough of the world to know that Nova Scotia is a special place to call home. But unlike the country’s political elites, he recognizes that sustainability “is really just an antidote to wretched excess.”

It’s also not a task for utopians or ideologues. In contrast to many greens, De Villiers understands that replacing fossil fuels won’t be as easy as planting windmills on the ruins of coal-fired plants. In fact, energy transitions are protracted, unpredictable and subject to great inertia. Many renewable schemes, which propose to industrialize deserts with solar arrays or fragment rural communities with wind farms, also come with footprints as ugly as bitumen or shale gas.

After succinctly describing the scale of our wasteful energy habits and carboniferous emissions, De Villiers offers a number of frank solutions. The first thing we need to do “is to repair, and then rebuild and then extend the electricity grid” so it can handle local and renewable sources better, he says. He also thinks electric cars, as well as fewer vehicles, make good sense. Ending wasteful energy practices (the so-called fifth fuel), he adds, is a no-brainer. Judiciously employing new generations of nuclear power, he concludes, is less dangerous than burning more dirty fuels.

On the social side, De Villiers argues that limiting global population growth is connected to everything else. “We cannot solve the climate crisis or deal with the limits to growth as long as population is unconstrained.” Representative democracy, he adds, has been a failure. He quotes green economist Robert Costanza, who explains that the system “relieves ordinary people of the details of governance, allowing them to shuck the mantle of citizen and embrace the role of consumer.” Political systems that ban lobbyists, champion proportional representation and relocalize decision-making just might open some doors. De Villiers even endorses the Brazilian concept of “citizen budgeting,” which takes a long series of neighbourhood meetings.

Last but not least, he takes on the economy, or “the endless pursuit of unnecessary things.” Corporate capitalism not only does not work, it makes people downright unhappy and mechanical in their thinking.

De Villiers would strip corporations of their claim to constitutional personhood and make stockholders collectively responsible for the company’s actions. He thinks banks should manage risk (not create it) and that co-operatives such as Spain’s Mondragon Corporacion Cooperativa ably illustrate that “democracy and business can coexist.” Radical Catholic clerics began the co-operative movement in the 1930s. We now need a revival.

In sum, De Villiers suggests that if we use fewer fossil fuels, tax resource depletion and carbon pollution, stabilize population growth, relocalize our economies, embrace a small-farming movement and accept a “no growth or slow growth economic system,” we just might find a way out of the mess. There are a lot of “ifs” in his complex equation.

Although I do not share De Villiers’s faith in big solutions such as smart grids (as a landowner, I have battled utilities like AltaLink), he has bravely assessed the gravity of the situation and assembled some bold ideas for debate. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson or John Ruskin, who diagnosed the ethical problem long ago, De Villiers recognizes our essential quandary: We have exercised God-like energy powers badly. Now we must learn how to use what Emerson called our ‘little powers’ better.”