Book Learning: Highlights from 40 Years of Alternatives Book Reviews

By Michalenko, Greg | Alternatives Journal, November-December 2011 | Go to article overview

Book Learning: Highlights from 40 Years of Alternatives Book Reviews


Michalenko, Greg, Alternatives Journal


ENVIRONMENTALISM burst onto the world scene in 1962 thanks to Rachel Carson's remarkable book, Silent Spring. Reviewers heralded it as "one of the great and towering books of our time," noting that "a great woman has awakened the nation," and predicting that the book was "certain to be history-making in its influence upon thought and public policy all over the world." It remains unmatched in its influence, but thanks to the determined efforts of researchers, journalists, writers and publishers, the environmental movement now has a legacy of fine books, many of which have been reviewed on the pages of Alternatives Journal

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Alternatives early book reviewers were primarily academics who enjoyed the opportunity to provide spirited, substantial discussions of provocative or controversial books. Early examples included Paul Ehrlich's neo-Malthusian The Population Bomb (1968) and The Club of Rome's 'The Limits to Growth (1972). Both involved computer modelling, which reviewer C.A. Mawson cautioned was a promising pioneering tool, but needed improvement. His assessment was born out in a 2004 review of Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, which found that the predictions made 30 years earlier were generally accurate.

Alternatives gave an enthusiastic nod to the publication Balance and Biosphere, which was based on a similarly named, much-discussed radio symposium on the environmental crisis aired in 1971 on the GBC. It included talks by Ivan lllich, Barry Commoner, Paul Hhrlich and Canada's Brewster Kneen, all of whom went on to write books that were subsequently reviewed in Alternatives.

Meanwhile, other reviews tackled some of the contentious books that advocated radical political perspectives, such as American socialecologist Murray Bookchin's Post-Scarcity Anarchism, and the collectively authored Socialism and the Environment. The latter work emphasized the relatively new idea that the economy is part of an ecosystem and advocated radi-' changing humanity's consumption expectations.

Practical and populist books reviewed in the 1970s included editors David Estrin's and John Swaigen's Environment on Trial: A Citizen's Guide to Ontario Environmental Law. Alternatives-stalwart Ted Schrccker enthusiastically labelled it "a manual for action [and] for throwing out unceremoniously the governments that have ignored human and environmental values." Most reviewers recognized that good books balance theory and pragmatism. They could be quite critical of muddled thoughts or unfulfilled claims. Reviewer John Hentig pulled no punches when he concluded a review of Man and His Environment with "it is unfortunate that [author Henry G. Johnson] could come so close to the truth and yet miss it completely"

By the mid-1970s, considerable attention was being given to Canadian resource and energy questions. Alternatives reviewed Philip Sykes' Sellout: The Giveaway of Canada's Energy Resources and Edgar Dosman's The National Interest: Politics of Northern Development 1968-75, as well as noteworthy reports by public institutions, such as the Law Reform Commission of Canada's Political Economy of Environmental Hazards and the Senate Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry's Soil at Risk. Most influential was the 1977 report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland, by former Chief Justice Thomas Berger. It resulted in the acceptance of traditional Aboriginal knowledge and established new expectations for public accountability. Interestingly, Trent University environmental historian Stephen Bocking revisited this report in 2009, concluding,"Berger wrote eloquently about development as a democratic process, yet the machine just keeps rolling on"

Mindful of the importance of public debate, reviewer Michael Kraft applauded William Leiss' The Limits to Satisfaction for its "contribution to an ongoing dialogue about an uncertain future". …

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