Sunday, February 24, 2002

Review of God's Last Offer by Ed Ayers

God's Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future

Mr. Ayres’ book God’s Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future is one of several he has authored or edited. He has been the editor of World Watch since 1993 and has written articles on the environment for publications such as The Washington Post, and USA Today. His book contains an introduction and nine chapters, and the notes at the end of the book double as a bibliography. Mr. Ayres takes a scrutinizing look at the environmental problems facing people in today’s world and gives the reader a much-needed sense of hope.

In the introduction titled, “A Diminishing Capacity for Astonishment” details an account of the travels of Captain James Cook to illustrate man’s “blindness”. Captain Cook’s ship approached the coast of Australia and encountered a group of Aborigines rowing in their small boats. This was the first known contact between Australians and Europeans. At first the Australians took no notice of the huge ship as it passed them by. There was no fear or even interest. Since the Australians made no hostile responses, the British continued by lowering themselves in to smaller boats in order to approach the shore. Suddenly, the natives that had paid no notice realized that something was happening, the reference point being the smaller ships. The natives recognized this as invasion. Most fled, but some stood their ground and shouted. Mr. Ayres likens this example to what is happening to society today. Right now things are happening that are so far out of our range of experience that, as a society, we don’t know how to react.

The first chapter of the book details the challenges in front of us. Mr. Ayres refers to these as “spikes” or “megaphenomena”. There are four, which he says man must deal with: the carbon dioxide spike, the extinction spike, the population spike, and the consumption spike. The unprecedented rises in carbon dioxide levels, extinction levels, population and consumption are what society is facing in the coming years and what scientists, global leaders, and environmentalists must slow down, and or halt for the well being of the future.

The second chapter of God’s Last Offer: Negotiating for a Sustainable Future talks about the problem with information handling. Mr. Ayres uses the 1997 Red River media frenzy to illustrate how information can be mishandled or altogether overlooked. He talks about the issues arising from the flood that should have been discussed in the media events following the flood: What was the cause of the flood?, What are the chances of recurrence?, Does it make sense to rebuild? How is it related to the fossil fuel consumption? Instead of these asking these questions, reporters focused on human interest stories, and stories detailing the amount of damage. The need for good ratings overshadowed the need for good information. This lack of information and what Mr. Ayres labeled “false extremes” are part of the problem. A false extreme is established when corporate public relations managers try to shift frames of reference for the public on serious issues. Mr. Ayres also states that the level of specialization of knowledge has become a hinderance to scientists because they are unable to see beyond their field in order to view the big picture. He also says that a large problem is that what good information that is available often gets swallowed in what he calls the “informational black hole”.

There is however, information to be had. Mr. Ayres points out the value of history in chapter four “Ambushes of the Past and What They Tell Us.” He details different societies and how their population explosions, food shortages, and land use practices lead to their eventual ruin. Mr. Ayres also tells the reader to be wary about where their information comes from. With the readily available information on the internet it is extremely easy to get false and misleading information. He urges the reader to check and double check information for its validity.
In the eighth chapter, entitled “You”, Mr. Ayres discusses the steps an individual can take in order to assure survival. Personal security, development of community, and learning to deal with the economy of the future are key to survival. Mr. Ayres says “In the language of religion, God has given us an offer: to see the consequences of our actions and assume moral responsibility for them, or to be consumed by them.”

I found the book to be very informational, but sometimes difficult to read. Mr. Ayres’ writing becomes wordy at times making it very difficult to follow and sometimes distracting. His use of footnotes also proved as a distraction and the information would have been better served if it had been incorporated into the text. Many of the footnotes contained anecdotes that were extremely fascinating and helpful that would have breathed life into the somewhat dry and windy text. I was genuinely shocked at the number of spelling errors that I encountered. There appeared to be a problem with the typesetting, as every word that had double f’s was blank where the f’s belonged (i.e. e ort instead of effort).

Overall, even with the limitations noted above, I did enjoy the book and recommend it. I think that it outlines the world’s major environmental problems well, points out the pitfalls in information handling, and gives the reader a ray of hope for a better future. Humans can continue on their current path and take their chances, or we can stand up and take responsibility for what we have done to our planet and work together to find a reasonable, workable solution.