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Is it Really Time to Eat the Dog? - Book Review

“Time to eat the dog? The real guide to sustainable living”

by Robert and Brenda Vale

Thames and Hudson 2009     ISBN 978-0-500-28790-3

pp 384   £14.95

In 1975 Brenda and Robert Vale published their first book, “The Autonomous House: design and planning for self-sufficiency”. This was a ground-breaking exploration of the ways in which technology could be harnessed to create a house “operating independently of any inputs except those of its immediate environment – a sort of land-based space-station”. This study had been undertaken following their awareness that the fundamental basis of the world economies was perpetual growth, in total disregard to the fact that global resources are finite, and rapidly diminishing - a situation which was clearly unsustainable.

Thirty five years later the technological solutions put forward in that

book – harvesting energy from the sun, wind and water and improved building standards – are only just starting to be understood and implemented. In the meantime the ecological imbalance has further deteriorated, with yet more growth and even fewer resources, to the point where drastic measures will need to be taken to prevent our eventual self-destruction. The Vales’ latest book, Time to eat the dog? the Real Guide to Sustainable Living, attempts to address this potential crisis from a new direction – the need to embrace behavioural change.

We are all now familiar with the term “carbon footprint”, and the need to reduce our imprint to avoid catastrophic climate change, but the concept is only easy to grasp in abstract terms. In their new book the authors have introduced more meaningful phrases to measure our impact on the environment, namely earthshare and ecological footprint. “Earthshare” represents the total productive area of land and sea on the planet divided by the current world population. “Ecological footprint” represents the amount of land required to provide each one of us with the goods and services we use, and the activities we undertake, in our daily lives; effectively to produce the energy we consume.

To put these two terms into context it has been calculated that the fair earthshare of each one of us is 1.89gha (global hectares). In contrast to this, the ecological footprint of the average American is 9.5gha. On this basis, if everyone on the planet led the same lifestyle as currently enjoyed in the US, which is undoubtedly the aim of most developing countries, five planets would be needed to support our needs. At present Europe has a footprint of about half that of the US (still unsustainable), Cuba measures 1.4gha (sustainable), and India 0.8gha (but rising fast).

The meat of this book is a very detailed analysis of the ecological footprint of each of the individual components of our daily consumption – food, transport, buildings, possessions, work, leisure and social occasions. This necessarily incorporates an enormous amount of research, illustrated in charts, tables and diagrams, and is quite heavy going for the reader. However, the chosen method of representing the effect of each of our activities as an occupied piece of land is very clear to follow and reveals in great detail the effect of every choice of behaviour and lifestyle. Some of the conclusions are quite surprising, such as the large footprint of travel by passenger liner compared with aeroplane, or the enormous footprint of keeping and feeding a large dog (hence the somewhat cynical surtitle of this book).

Members of the Permaculture community will already have embraced the philosophy put forward here, but the book now gives us the tools to accurately measure our lifestyle choices and to make informed decisions about potential behavioural changes. The task now must be to inject these principles into governmental and international decision-making. The lucid way in which the authors have put forward the argument for behavioural change must give it a better chance of being heard and understood.

The message of this book is clearly reinforced in the recently published annual report of the Worldwatch Institute: “Until we recognise that our environmental problems, from climate change to deforestation to species loss, are driven by unsustainable habits, we will not be able to solve the ecological crisis that threatens to wash over civilisation”

George Brown  AADip RIBA



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