"Costing the Earth" by Frances Cairncross (Business Books/Economist, 253 pages, £16.99).
Review by Colin Tudge.
Governments and industries have already responded conspicuously, and in some cases sincerely, to the claims of the environment. This "new greenery", as Frances Cairncross calls it, must now be seen as the foundation of all future existence: a necessary feature of all legislation and industrial effort. It is impossible to say at present just how broad and deep the reforms will have to be and, in particular, to what extent the sacred cow of free enterprise can safely be left unfettered. It is clear, though, that the improvements which we have seen so far are merely an overture.
There are two prime reasons why environmental action, if it is to be effective, must be radical. The first is the seriousness of the world's plight. Since the basic facts are now outlined in every primary school, Cairncross rightly does not dwell on them. In effect, the present reality is a new twist in Thomas Malthus's prognostications of the start of the 19th century. The world's population continues to grow: it now stands at five billion, and is on course to top 10 billion by the middle of the next century. And, barring disaster, it will remain thereabouts for at least five centuries. Yet even with present numbers, consumption exceeds replenishment.
Cairncross provides a new insight here (at least for me), pointing out that what will truly limit material growth is "the capacity of the environment to deal with waste in all its forms". Oil spills, the percolation of toxic metals and the lacing of the atmosphere with "greenhouse gases" are the most publicised. Yet humdrum rubbish can be deadly too. Ordinary waste, says the author, "will preoccupy companies in the 1990s as much as other kinds of pollution did in the 1980s".
The second reason why action must be radical is that, in order to be effective, changes must be integrated. It is not environmentally benign to produce a biodegradable disposable nappy, or a recyclable bottle, if the means of production are themselves even more polluting.