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Believing Cassandra - How to be an optimist in a pessimist's world

Believing Cassandra

By Alan AtKisson
Published by Earthscan
Website: www.earthscan.co.uk
2010, 226pp, ISBN 978 1 84971 172 2(Pb), £19.99

Believing Cassandra - How to be an optimist in a pessimist's world was first published in 1999, when it became a bestseller on Amazon.com. Fully revised and updated, the author observes, "While the world has changed enormously, the fundamental dynamics of the world have not. We are still hurtling towards - or in some cases, hurtling ever deeper into - a series of catastrophic events, driven by the expansion of humanity's presence and impact on the earth. The relentless outworking of this process has become all too easy to foretell." There speaks Cassandra Alan AtKisson. How then does he suggest that we can believe such pessimism and remain optimistic?

Cassandra, the youngest daughter of the King of Troy, foresaw and prophesied the ruse of the Trojan Horse, the fall of Troy and her own death but no one believed her. Not much room for optimism there. But AtKisson argues persuasively that if we can absorb and respond to the dire warnings implicit in the statistics that abound on population, food production, soil erosion, loss of forests and fisheries, diminishing water supply, pollution of soil and water and the exponential increase in consumption, we could transform a world driven by growth into one sustained by development. There lies his optimism, that we can change the mindset of society before it is too late.

Defining 'growth' and 'development', and suggesting alternative options for achieving the transition from one to the other is a major part of this book - as it was in the earlier edition from a decade ago. Only now the need to act is much more urgent and options more limited. The author also examines through his own eyes and those of others what he calls 'Cassandra's Dilemma'. "Watching the nightmare happen is the painful essence of Cassandra's Dilemma," he writes. "It actually takes little prophetic ability to know that the combination of population growth, materialistic aspirations and highly inefficient technologies is a deadly one. But the world keeps pursuing the dream anyway." As to why, he quotes New York Times journalist and Pullitzer Prize winner, Anthony Lewis, whom he interviewed: "People don't want to know. We are resistant to hearing things that could be devastating."

Advice for farmers used to be: Live as though you might die tomorrow, but farm as though you are to farm for ever. Thinking long term is one of the seven 'Principles of Sustainability' discussed by AtKisson. Two others are 'Recognize limits' and 'Transform business-as-usual'. Can we or can't we? The book ends with a quote from motor mogul, Henry Ford: "Whether you believe you can or you can't, you're right."

Date published: December 2010

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