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Wasted World: How Our Consumption Challenges the Planet.

WASTED WORLD: How Our Consumption Challenges the Planet by Rob Hengeveld. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012. xviii + 337 pages. Hardcover; $30.00. ISBN: 9780226326993.

The present human population is doomed to collapse at any time, both in numbers and quality of life, because our overly complex society has wastefully used up Earth's resources--unless we immediately reduce our birth rate to nearly zero. This is the urgent message of Wasted World by Rob Hengeveld, author of two books on biogeography, formerly on staff in animal ecology at the Free University of Amsterdam, and now affiliated with the Centre for Ecosystem Studies of Alterra in the Netherlands. The book is directed to a general audience, and has a readable style enlivened by numerous anecdotes. There are nine line drawings without figure numbers [but some references to them, e.g., "figure 1 (see page 000)" have not been corrected].

The introduction tells how things are going wrong and what problems can be expected as a result. A brief Part 1 follows, with two chapters on natural processes, explaining how in nature the waste product of one part of an ecosystem becomes the input for another, so that matter goes through a continuing series of cycles, enabling life to continue indefinitely. In contrast, since human processes tend to be linear--mining or harvesting a resource and using it once, eventually producing waste that is degraded and unavailable--our civilization operating this way must come to an end once resources run out.

Hengeveld then develops his ideas in Part 2, "Ongoing processes in the human population," in twenty-two chapters. In the past, the problem of overpopulation led to the agricultural and industrial revolutions, but humanity lost the opportunity that these revolutions gave to solve the problem; instead we let our population grow much more. The small fraction of today's people who are actually engaged in producing food must bear the burden of supporting a much larger number who have established a complex structure of administration and commerce, an abstract kind of society that will disintegrate when mineral and environmental resources are exhausted after their present wasteful use. Energy, produced from fossil fuels that are being depleted, is largely wasted by conversion from one form to another, and its production is polluting the air with carbon dioxide, warming the climate. Earth's water is being contaminated by chemicals, and its land is becoming barren from deforestation, salinization, and dumping of refuse. The world's rich biodiversity, produced by evolution "all by chance, blind to the future, blind to the next day to come" (p. 166), is now being lost.

Next, attention turns to processes within the human population itself. Hengeveld challenges the generally accepted concept of a demographic transition, by which a modernizing country begins with a stable, low population with high birth and death rates, then has a lowered death rate and rising population, and finishes with a stable high population with low birth and death rates. Since nineteenth-century Europe, where this transition first occurred, differed greatly from the poor countries in today's world, any expectation that they will have a similar demographic transition is unduly optimistic. In the chapter "Bursting out of Eden," Hengeveld warns that a logistic model of human population, in which initial rapid growth slows down until the population reaches stability at the carrying capacity, is no more realistic than primitive beliefs that populations were "under the effective control of the gods or their representatives, such as kings or priests" (p. 213).

Chapters on urbanization, migration (e.g., from being "chased away, as may have happened to the Jews in biblical times" [p. 221]), and disease provide details on the influence of these factors. The final chapter suggests a way forward. We humans must find the most effective and least inhumane way to reduce our numbers, in spite of the moral and religious issues raised by any measures to do this. However, Hengeveld asks, "Under conditions of war, famine, thirst, or deadly pandemics, what will be left of our moral values or religious ideals?" (p. 302). His book ends with an epilogue summarizing its message, a note "about the author" in which he explains how his prior work prepared him to write this book, and acknowledgments. The selected bibliography contains over three hundred books, listed alphabetically for each chapter, including roughly equal numbers of academic works and popular writings, but without citations of primary scientific literature. There is no index.

Unfortunately, Hengeveld weakens his credibility by making numerous statements that are oversimplified, inadequately supported, or simply wrong. He asks, " [Could a runaway greenhouse effect] that once happened on Venus also happen here on Earth? Calculations show that this is indeed possible when we continue using fossil fuels the way we have so far" (p. 137). However, this actually "appears to have virtually no chance of being induced by anthropogenic activities," according to an IPCC Expert Meeting, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 18-20 May 2004, (p. 90).

Carbon dioxide emissions from use of concrete (pp. 140-1) are wrongly attributed to the hardening or setting of concrete, a reaction in which cement bonds chemically with water, rather than to the production of the cement, in which fuels are burned to heat limestone to drive off carbon dioxide. The reader is told that "we waste the air we breathe by expelling poisonous gases into the atmosphere" (p. 121) and that there is "heavy and large-scale pollution of surface and groundwater" (p. 133), whereas in the past half century there have been real improvements--in air quality due to requirements for abatement devices on both vehicles and stationary sources, and in water quality as a result of regulation of agricultural runoff and primary, secondary, and tertiary sewage treatment, which is indeed mentioned (p. 53).

Hengeveld is alarmed because a "large category of plastics containing the very poisonous phthalates (plastic softeners) occur in PVC and certain insecticides" (p. 181) and cause danger from pollution. In reality, the situation is being alleviated: use of phthalates as plasticizers and as solvents in pesticide formulations has been curtailed after sophisticated research (both epidemiological and with laboratory animals). Such research linked some adverse health effects to phthalates, originally used as solvents in pesticide formulations and as plasticizers for PVC in toys and medical tubing, because of their low toxicity. Nevertheless, Hengeveld's concerns need to be taken seriously, despite these and other inaccuracies in the case he makes.

Several environmental texts give a better treatment of these themes. Many ways of improving stewardship of resources and the environment, which should lead to stabilizing the world's population, are presented by Gordon College, Richard T. Wright and Dorothy F. Boorse, Environmental Science: Toward A Sustainable Future, 11th ed. (Boston, MA: Benjamin Cummings, 2011). The influence of processes within the human population is examined by two writers from colleges in Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions: Charles L. Harper and Thomas H. Fletcher, Environment and Society: Human Perspectives on Environmental Issues (Toronto: Pearson Education Canada, 2011). Hengeveld's book is also unattractive to a Christian reader because of its entirely materialistic world view. Although there is an attempt to simplify the scientific details for a general audience, the lack of concern for sound science makes the book unsuitable as a source of information for nonscientists. It does provide a comprehensive set of warning signs that our world is in trouble, but one should be cautious in suggesting to others that they read this book.

Reviewed by Charles E. Chaffey, Professor Emeritus, Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, University of Toronto, Toronto, ONM5S 3E5.
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Author:Chaffey, Charles E.
Publication:Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2014
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