New Internationalist

Book Reviews

Issue 110

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THE BABYMILK ISSUE[image, unknown] Book reviews

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NEW BOOKS

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This month we review an unusual study that suggests the earth's resources are growing faster than they are being consumed, and a disturbing report on the human cost of industrial pollution.

Editor: Anuradha Vittachi

Pie in the sky

The Ultimate Resource
by Julian Simon

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UK: Martin Robertson (hbk) £9.50
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US: Princeton University $ 14.50
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So many people play ‘Ain’t it awful’ these days that it’s a bit of a surprise to meet someone who plays ‘Best of all possible worlds’. Julian Simon doesn’t go quite that far— he does admit to a few blemishes — but that’s certainly his game. Here’s his own summary of his book.

The standard of living has risen along with the size of the world’s population since the beginning of recorded time. And with increases in income and population have come less severe shortages, lower costs, and an increased availability of resources, including a cleaner environment and greater access to natural recreation areas. And there is no convincing reason why these trends toward a better life and toward lower prices for materials (including food and energy), should not continue indefinitely.

Contrary to common rhetoric, there are no meaningful limits to the continuation of this process. . . There is no physical or economic reason why human resourcefulness and enterprise cannot forever continue to respond to impending shortages and existing problems with new expedients that, after an adjustment period, leave us better offthan before the problem arose.

Illustration: Clive Offley
Illustration: Clive Offley

Is it a case of Julian Simon, Pie in Sky Man - or should we take it more seriously? We should. Simon musters a lot of evidence (including some fascinating charts and statistics) which, even if it doesn’t entirely convince you of his thesis, provides a provocative challenge to doomcasters.

His argument is based on four main propositions. First, he questions the idea of finite resources: the earth’s resources are not finite in the sense of consisting of a measurable absolute amount of this or that, which will be used up by a certain date. New ideas for extraction, use, or of substitution are brought in as it becomes economic to do so. This accounts for the fact that most prices of raw materials have been falling steadily (with hiccoughs) for centuries, and that estimates of’reserves’ continually rise. A line one foot long is finite —but the number of points it can be sliced up into is not. Looked at this way the world’s resources are infinite.

Will these trends continue? What Simon calls ‘engineering forecasts’ — that is, forecasts based on physical limitations and technology — suggest they will not. But economic forecasts, based on price trends over decades and even centuries, suggest they will. His figures show, for instance, that the scarcity of copper as measured by its price (relative to wages and to the consumer price index) has been falling since 1800.

His third proposition is that human beings contribute more in ingenuity and the creation of resources than they consume. But there is a timelag while humans grow to maturity — and this leads us to see them as a burden rather than an asset This argument about population is perhaps the most controversial part of the argument and it occupies a major, indeed an excessive, part of the book.

The fourth proposition, which arises out of the other three, is that for each step backward we make 1.001 steps forward. Nature is not a cornucopia, but the human mind is— thus his title: The Ultimate Resource.

All this is fascinating, and Simon usually makes a good case — although his over-enthusiasm can be irritating. Grab your hat, he says — and, in the next paragraph, grab your hat again.

But what’s the relevance to reality — to the real world where most people live? Even if Simon is right that the world as a whole is not short of resources, that doesn’t help the people who don’t have access to them. Simon writes very much from a North American point of view; if there is more in the world than we thought, then Americans, we can be sure, will be major beneficiaries. There are plenty of medicines in the world — but not at prices the poor can afford. Simon may be right about infinity — but to the poor the concept of infinity means even less than it does to most of us.

Adrian Moyes

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Slow poison

Dying for a Living
by Lloyd Tataryn
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Can: Deneau and Greenberg $12.95
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[image, unknown] Industrial pollution may not seem a central issue yet for the Third World. But as attention is focused on diseased workers in industrialised countries and public concern grows about the physical dangers workers are expected to endure, some corporations are pulling up stakes and quietly heading for countries where health standards are lower and workers unorganised.

‘Multinationals go where the costs are lowest; where there are no unions and no environmentalists,’ says Robert Paelke, Canadian political scientist, quoted in Lloyd Tataryn’s Dying for a Living. In his study of occupational and environmental health controversies in Canada, Tataryn concentrates on three industrial tragedies: lung disease and cancer from asbestos dust at Thetford Mines, Quebec; deaths from radiation exposure in the uranium mines of Elliott Lake, Ontario; arsenic poisoning in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

It tackles some basic questions: is industry justified in gambling with people’s health to run profitable operations? Should decisions on ‘acceptable’ levels of risk be made without the consent of the workers exposed to those risks?

Many of the most serious diseases aren’t visible until after a debilitating latency period — of anything from five to 30 years. The delayed action has a defusing effect on public opinion. ‘It’s not that citizens who argue on behalf of the company are cold and callous,’ writes Tataryn. ‘If the same miners worked with machines that consistently cut off their arms and the town were populated with a horde of miners with stumps, the community would probably storm the companies en masse.’

He asks whether it is true that a government’ s response to a health crisis is measured by the amount of media attention it gets. The Sunday Times coverage of the thalidomide tragedy in Britain, he says, is credited with forcing an extra $50 million compensation for the victims. But ‘people cannot insist on reforms if they are never made aware of the consequences of (their) exposure to contaminates’.

As ‘poverty and poison must be as unwelcome in Indonesia as they are in Southern Ontario’, Tataryn’s study rings a warning knell to Third World countries bent on rapid industrialisation.

Wendy King


CLASSICS

The Children of Sanchez
...... being the book that gave the rich a taste of how it feels to be poor

OSCAR LEWIS, anthropologist and author, tried to crack a problem posed by the novelist C. P. Snow thus: ‘Sometimes I am afraid that people in rich countries have so completely forgotten what it is like to be poor that we can no longer feel or talk with the less lucky. This is what we must learn to do.’

The question is: how? The people who know best what it is like to be poor are the poor themselves. But how are the rest of us to get a taste of that experience? A journalist recently returned from months of wandering the poorer quarters of Latin America said: ‘So you sit and chat into the evenings. But you’re not part of their lives. You don’t live with them, sleep with them, your horizons are not theirs; you’re there for a purpose and then you’ll move on...’ Return ticket glowing reassuringly in inside pocket, the visitor temporarily slumming it can’t penetrate the surface skin of poverty.

Cultural barriers aside, there are personal defences: anyone brings to an exchange of confidences a well-tried armoury to cover the naked heart. Years of love and trust may be needed to catch a glimmer of the world through another’s eyes. Strangers are said to be more readily confessional; but strangers can more readily distort, knowing their versions can’t be contradicted. Autobiographies, for instance, written by Third World writers who grew up in poverty but now speak the language of the affluent might act as bridges between the two worlds — but these bridges can sway and creak with sentimentality or the need to settle old scores. Can they be trusted?

Knowledgeable intermediaries from the rich world can be even less useful. Journalists’ interviews are usually too skimpy, scientific studies too dry to catch the feel of poverty.

Novelists and playwrights can use their imagination to go beyond the twilight chat on the doorstep, into the private lives and hearts of the poor. But fiction is by definition not real, and anyway, mostly concentrates on the intricacies of middle class marriages, not the broken hearts of the poor.

Even documentary film, which gives the impression of authenticity, can be fictitious to a dismaying degree. Does the speaker on film — maybe a Third World woman with ingenuous eyes — say what the film crew told her to say, or did they just happen to catch her saying the right thing so neatly? The camera lies — or at least tells a preplanned truth.

Perhaps, simply, it is never possible to get to the truth of any experience at second hand? Of the honourable attempts, Oscar Lewis’s The Children of Sanchez must rank very high.

The book is compilation of interviews. Five members of the Sanchez family, city slum dwellers from Mexico, take turns to tell their life stories. Lewis edited the mass oftaperecorded material down to coherent (but still over 500 page) form, and eloquently translated the speakers’ Spanish to preserve the individuality of their voices.

Lewis had been visiting Mexico since 1943. By the time the book was written in 1961, he was personally involved, as a respected and respectful friend, with the families he studied. The book combines the flavour of confidences one shares with a long-trusted friend and the detachment and thoroughness of the scientist. But what is crucial to Lewis’s technique is the lack of commentary. No theory is preached, no judgement made. Insofar as it is possible when an intermediary has interviewed, edited and translated a text, the characters speak for themselves. And because five people describe independently the happenings in the same household, distortions built into autobiography begin to be ironed out. Indeed, the differences in perception are as important as the similarities, revealing as they do the character and situation of the speakers.

Juan Sanchez, for instance, perceives his son Roberto as a good-for-nothing daredeviL Roberto, pitifully, shares his father’s rockbottom opinion of himself. Wildly, violently protective of his sisters, constantly receiving and delivering blows, desperate for recognition and love, Roberto’s chaotic behaviour is confirmed with each account— but so is our understanding of the tragic tangle of emotional and environmental deprivation that motivates his behaviour. Most poignant are moments of innocent revelation— like when Roberto notes that he can never bring himself to eat with the family without first doing some chore —always painfully aware of his worthlessness, Roberto must always ‘earn his keep’.

But I shouldn’t be interpreting the people or their situation: it’s what Lewis has tried so hard to avoid. All I should say is that the book brims with as much insight as an acutely observant novel. It’s unsentimental, raw, frightening, And most of all, it’s real.

Anuradha Vittachi

The Children of Sanchez
by Oscar Lewis (1961)
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Penguin.(pbk) UK: £1 .95/Aus: $5.50
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