Book review by Mary Gilbert
Content of “Crisis of Global Sustainability”
The book “Crisis of Global Sustainability” explains the emergency our planet is facing mostly due to climate change, its origins and governmental efforts to address the crisis.
For the first time, the book provides a compact insider description of the evolution and impact of the Club of Rome, which is a global think tank that produced a groundbreaking 1972 study “The Limits to Growth“, which highlighted the dangers of unrestrained economic growth and possible collapse of global economy during the first decades of the 21st century. Kanninen asks whether the global thinking on world development should continue to be “global sustainability”, which implies that we still have enough time to make adjustments in our future policies and actions, or whether it should shift to “global survivability“, which stresses the necessity of immediate and drastic change both in institutions and policies.
The informative text provides a critical history of the concept of sustainability and the various institutional measures taken to promote, implement and enforce sustainably development. The book also provides solutions and tries to provoke serious discussion on our planetary future and how to attain a more sustainable future.
Table of Contents:
1. The birth and evolution of the Club of Rome: early identification of a global crisis
2. A new way of thinking: the MIT study The Limits to Growth
3. How have the concepts and doctrines of sustainability changed?
4. Intergovernmental action 1972-2012: from Stockholm to Rio plus 20
5. Planetary boundaries: doomsday prophecies or scientific projections?
6. A crisis of institutions: how to manage our interconnected future?
7. Overcoming the crisis of mind and action: creating new institutions and strategies for a global emergency
8. The future: thinking big about global institutions and world governance
9. Epilogue: what should be done?
Key message of “Crisis of Global Sustainability”
Our environment is deteriorating with various natural catastrophes accelerating, climate change is reaching dangerous levels and the world economic development has been in crisis although the traditional growth is continuing and putting more stress on environment and natural resources. Calls for fundamental change from leaders of civil society, non-governmental organizations and scientists have not so far been taken seriously by policy-makers and corporations. Can mankind really make a fundamental turn or are we heading for destruction? This is the most important question addressed in the book.
Chapters one to three: How the Club of Rome and the 1972 book “The Limits to Growth” fundamentally changed our thinking?
The book first describes the contribution that the Club of Rome—a global think tank established in 1968 and still active today—and a 1972 study it commissioned, The Limits to Growth, has made to our thinking and institutions. The activities of the club and the study challenged mainstream views by warning us of the unsustainability of unlimited economic growth. But governments and corporations, and even public at large, still do not take this message seriously. The Limits to Growth contributed a lot to emerging concepts and paradigms in the 1970s and 1980s for a more sustainable future (discussed in chapter 3). But this contribution has largely been forgotten although not totally. In two volumes of the prestitous US magazine International Affairs in summer and fall 2012 Professor Bjorn Lomborg started an intense debate about pros and cons of the Club of Rome and the The Limits to Growth (LTG) study with a number of scholars and practitioners responding. There seems to be a revival of interest in the LTG – for and against – and the book Crisis of Global Sustainability comes out at a propitious time.
Chapter four: Intergovernmental action to save the planet and stop dangerous climate change: a truly disappointing story
Most observers agree that intergovernmental, governmental, and private sector action has been very weak over the decades to stop dangerous climate change and other aspects of environmental degradation and the results achieved in intergovernmental negotiations lag far behind what science tells us is necessary. Therefore, many are skeptical whether much will change through negotiations and conferences as agreements tend to be watered-down compromises. The book goes through the governmental action from the Stockholm 1972 Conference to Rio plus 20 Summit including key climate change talks. The book gives an overview what has achieved (some organizational changes) and what has not (any fundamental change in our policies and actions).
Were the 1972 projections of the Club of Rome – a collapse of global economy and population in the first decades of the 21th century – correct after all?
The Club of Rome’s work and LTG were precursors to many later schools of thought that stress the high urgency of wide global action to drastically change the economic and energy policies of key nations as windows of opportunity are rapidly closing for any sustainable future. But now, after 40 years, there is a revival of interest in academic circles in the original projections of LTG as recent studies have shown that they are surprisingly accurate. These issues are discussed in the beginning of chapter five.
What science tells us about climate change projections and sustainability of the use of fossil fuels?
Chapter five also describes studies and scientifically-based scenarios for the future. These studies conclude that present policies and trends are likely to lead to an unprecedented global ecological and economic crisis. In the same vein, the former head of Greenpeace, Paul Gilding, has spoken to worldwide audiences about an unavoidable and deepening crisis—of the magnitude of world wars I and II combined—which showed its first signs in the financial meltdown of 2008 and its continuing aftermath. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s March 2009 column about Gilding’s message led to a book, The Great Disruption, one of the most compelling popular presentations of the crisis we are already trapped in, and also discussed in chapter five. The current book, Crisis of Global Sustainability, uses the concept of “global emergency” for “Great Disruption.”
A global emergency has already started—whether or not this fact is accepted or realized by the majority of decision-makers and citizens—and is only going to intensify. Hard evidence is given in chapter in particular to five to justify the deepening concern by many scientists about the destiny of the human race if no drastic action is taken soon.
Chapter six to seven: To turn things around, what kind organizations we need?
A major part of the book takes a look at what is needed, organizationally and structurally, if the worst-case projections, or some of them, come to pass. This is a vital subject that has not received attention. Most books on global sustainability and the future of the planet are silent on structural issues. The conclusions in chapters four, six and seven are that neither the present UN system, the G-20, nor other existing intergovernmental institutions have developed systematic and credible mechanisms to respond effectively to a global emergency. Instituting a variation of a world government of major countries with war-time powers—in essence proposed by Paul Gilding as a solution to the Great Disruption—is not a correct response to the crisis. Instead, chapter eight proposes a new international architecture and a fundamental but democratic reform process. Once the magnitude of the crisis is accepted by governments—which still takes a long time—an inclusive process should be initiated to completely revise the UN Charter. But as we also have to take immediate emergency measures, it is urgent to institute a sophisticated, inclusive and transparent network of local, regional and global crisis and sustainability centers to deal with the crisis in all of its aspects. A somewhat similar independent network has been created in the area of deadly conflicts and crises by the International Crisis Group (ICG).
Chapter nine: But what about social movements and the young generation: key for turning things around?
Civil society needs new answers and a meaningful agenda for action on global sustainability and survivability at the local level. Social forces, together with existing and new institutions, could provide the backbone for innovative solutions. The mobilization of younger generations is key for a successful strategy, as coming generations will be the victims of this crisis. The process of renewal should be democratic, network-based and coordinated filled with ideas and enthusiasm. Ideally, this inclusive process takes mankind to a new level. This is a hopeful message, although the transformation will be difficult. The introductory chapter to the book concludes: “Serious discussion about the content of this tectonic change in global governance should start right away. One of the key aims of this book is to play a part in stimulating that discussion.”
 Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, The Limits to Growth (New York: Universe Books, 1972.
 Paul Gilding, The Great Disruption (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2011). The origins of the book, see page 266.