Reviewed by Peter R. Mulvihill, Faculty of Environmental Studies, University of York


Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries, by Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockstrom, Routledge, 2012

There is by now a vast literature on the theme of sustainability, or, more precisely, unsustainability. New books and reports on the environmental crisis facing the planet appear regularly. It is increasingly difficult to add anything original to such a well-established genre. It may, of course, be possible to reach new audiences, and it is in that sense that a new entry such as Bankrupting Nature should probably be assessed. Seasoned readers looking for fresh news about the global crisis of unsustainable development will probably be mildly disappointed, but newer audiences will find Bankrupting Nature thought-provoking.

This report to the Club of Rome begins by summarizing familiar environmental themes and arguments (humans are not separate from their environment; we rely on nature for everything; biodiversity is declining; mainstream approaches to accounting are incomplete; and excessive consumption levels threaten resource limits). The root causes of the crisis are discussed: lack of education; the power of business interests; anthropocentrism; scientific reductionism; the myth of endless growth; and other factors – all standard fare for volumes of this kind.

Bankrupting Nature redeems itself eventually, starting with a chapter analyzing the phenomenon of climate change denial, “The Weapon of Doubt.” The discussion includes the demands placed on science, the role of media (sometimes distorting the issues), the spuriousness of conspiracy theories, and the effects of misinformation, ideology and well-funded campaigns. Here, the argumentation is strong, the grasp of the complexities is firm, and the conclusions are convincing.

The report has other strong chapters as well. The financial section – “Ignoring the Risks”– examines popular misconceptions about financial systems, offers expert analysis of key gaps and shortcomings, and makes intriguing recommendations for reform. “The Forgotten Issue” revisits the issue of population growth and provides a fresh perspective.

More generally, what does a report such as Bankrupting Nature contribute to the aforementioned genre of unsustainability literature? We have reached a stage where it is impossible to be as provocative as yesterday’s reports – the impact, for example, of “Our Common Future,” “The Population Bomb,” or “The Limits to Growth” had much to do with their timing in an earlier era when environmental messages were still novel. As the ecological crisis worsens, the core messages are no less important, but the delivery will need to be more diversified, making new connections and exploring issues differently. Bankrupting Nature is at its best when it strays from the standard material and takes up new questions.

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