A review of the new book by Dr. Samuel Alexander.
Back last November, not long after Jean and I had moved up to Oregon, I saw this on the PRI website: The Sufficiency Economy – Envisioning a Prosperous Way Down. Very quickly I realised the importance of the essay and contacted the author requesting permission to republish on Learning from Dogs. That author was Dr. Samuel Alexander and permission was quickly given, leading to two essays: The simpler life and Where less is so much more.
Now fast forward to nearly a month ago and in came this email:
Samuel Alexander here, from the Simplicity Institute. I’ve recently published a new book, Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation. Was wondering whether you were interested in posting either a review or an excerpt on your website?
I was flattered to have been asked and delighted to review the book.
First, some background. Dr. Alexander is a part-time lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne, Australia. He teaches a course called ‘Consumerism and the Growth Paradigm: Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ in the Masters of Environment.
He is also co-director of the Simplicity Institute and co-founder of Transition Coburg. He writes regularly at the Simplicity Collective and posts most of his academic essays at www.TheSufficiencyEconomy.com.
After the review was completed, I forwarded it to Sam just to check that I hadn’t made any technical errors. Within Sam’s reply to that email was his acknowledgement that his book fell into a genre that was not easily classified. Ergo, the book being fiction yet not a novel. Sam went on to muse that perhaps he should have been clearer about what the reader was going to get. He wondered if my review should mention that aspect. I said that I wouldn’t amend my review but would include an introduction to that effect, as now witnessed!
So to the review. (Note: For some reason, I was unable to prevent the paragraph spacing from being deleted in the published version. Hence the insertion of a single ‘-‘ after each paragraph.)
Entropia – Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation by Samuel Alexander
A review by Paul Handover
The title of the book didn’t offer this reader any clue about what might be coming. Nevertheless, very soon an experience of an ‘ah-ha’ moment arrived. Right on page one of the Acknowledgements when this sentence jumped off the page: “Henry Thoreau has been by far the greatest influence on my worldview, for it was he who awakened me to the insight that ‘superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only’.” [my emphasis] Wow, what an intriguing turn of phrase about wealth.
I plunged into the Prologue:
After the poets were banished from Plato’s Republic it is said that they set sail into unknown horizons in search of a new place to call home.
Shortly later reading:
But life proceeds in twists and turns, not straight lines. After losing consciousness in the midst of this perfect storm, the lost poets found themselves washed ashore on a small,fertile island, which was uninhabited and isolated entirely from the rest of civilisation. The boundless opportunities presented by this merciful twist of fate were immediately clear to all.
Some people believe this simple living community flourishes peacefully to this day, lost to the world in its own harmonious, aesthetic existence. But like Atlantis, the Isle of Furor Poeticus, as it has come to be known, has never been found.
* * *
The Isle of Furor Poeticus is a utopian romance of course – a myth. But we should remember that human existence has always been shaped and guided by myths and stories, so let us not dismiss the story of the lost poets too quickly or proudly. After all, we may not be so free from superstitions of our own. Modernity’s ‘myth of progress’ might itself just be a story we have been telling ourselves in recent centuries, one in fact that could soon be dismissed as a story no longer worth telling. Indeed, perhaps that book is closing before our very eyes – has already closed – leaving us to reflect on its themes from beyond as we step forth into unknown pages. And yet, it seems we have not found a new story by which to live. We are the generation in-between stories, desperately clinging to yesterday’s story but uncertain of tomorrow’s. Adrift in the cosmos, without a narrative in which to lay down new roots, humanity marches on – lost and directionless. But then again, perhaps the new words we need are already with us. Perhaps we just need to live them into existence.
Beautiful, magical writing right up to the closing sentences of the Prologue:
By choosing to do so we could again become the poets of our own lives and of a new generation, instead of merely reading out a pre-written script to an audience that is no longer listening. So open your mind, gentle reader, for the future is but clay in the hands of our imaginations.
We are being called to make things new. [again, my emphasis]
The novel, for it is a work of fiction, opens in substance with the account of Mortimer Flynn, a wealthy Texas oil magnate and son and only child of a Welsh coal industrialist, who having achieved “everything of which he had ever dreamed” comes to the realisation that he has no idea at all as to the purpose of his life. From this life-changing reassessment of his journey, his profound crisis of conscious, comes the purpose of the book. A story of a group of people who settle down in a remote South Pacific island, the island of Entropia. A “story about a community that became isolated on its small island in the wake of industrial civilisation’s collapse, during the third decade of the twenty-first century.”
Now, it’s fair to say that at this point I was truly hooked on the book. This was going to be the read of my life. Because it reflected my own belief that humanity was at the point, perhaps beyond the point, where the growing threats to our natural world threatened our moral obligations to the generations that follow.
However, somewhere during the second chapter, the style of writing started to intrude into my absorption of the story. At first the intrusion was more like a fly buzzing around; a minor irritation. Then it got to the stage where I had to stop reading and ponder on why I felt so uncomfortable with this reading experience. I was by now well into the third chapter.
Still couldn’t put my finger on what the problem was. Returned to the book but noticed that I was skim reading and had forcibly to focus on fully reading each page. After all, I was reading the book for review purposes!
Then it struck me. There were no characters coming to life off the page. Consequently, there was no dialogue. It didn’t read like a novel, much more like a report. That was the key to me re-establishing my relationship with the story; the book. Because despite the unusual style for a work of fiction, the value inherent in the pages was beyond measure. Here was a book that described in great detail the way a community discovered the reality of a sustainable way of life. How this group of a couple of thousand souls reinvented a society, a sustainable society, out of the ashes of a failed industrial civilisation.
I read on.
Later on the book described how the community looked at the way they governed themselves, how they set up representative systems and then, on page 119, came something that really punched me in the face, figuratively speaking. It was introduced, thus:
Eventually a short constitutional document was drafted by the Advisory Council and put to a referendum by the People’s Council, and this document received 94 per cent support. It is reproduced in its entirety below, as it serves as the best summary of our social, economic and political vision.
Charter of the Deep Future
ENOUGH, FOR EVERYONE, FOREVER
We affirm that providing ‘enough, for everyone, forever’ is
the defining objective of our economy, which we seek to
achieve by working together in free association.
We affirm that everyone is free to create as an aesthetic
project the meaning of their own lives, while acknowledging
that this freedom legitimately extends only so far as others
can have the same freedom. Freedom thus implies restraint.
We affirm that our inclusive democracy does not
discriminate on such grounds as race, ethnicity, gender,
age, sexuality, politics, or faith.
We affirm that generations into the deep future are entitled
to the same freedoms as present generations.
We affirm that respecting the deep future requires maintaining
a healthy environment.
We affirm that technology can help to protect our
environment only if it is governed by an ethics of sufficiency,
not an ethics of growth. Efficiency without sufficiency is lost.
We affirm that maintaining a healthy environment requires
creating a stationary state economy that operates within
environmental and energy limits.
We affirm that a stationary state means stabilising
consumption and population, transitioning to renewable
sources of energy, and adapting to reduced energy supply.
We affirm that strict limits on material accumulation are
required if a stationary state is to maintain a just distribution
of resources and avoid corrosive inequalities.
We affirm that property rights are justifiable only to the
extent they serve the common good, including the overriding
interests of humanitarian and ecological justice.
We affirm that a stationary state economy depends on a
culture that embraces lifestyles of material sufficiency and
rejects lifestyles of material affluence.
We affirm that material sufficiency in a free society provides
the conditions for an infinite variety of meaningful, happy,
and fulfilling lives.
Well that had such an impact on this reader. For this reason. The contrast between the reality of our present 21st Century life and the lives of those souls on Entropia was like night versus day. Enough, For everyone, Forever. If ever we needed a new cry from the heart, a new cry of hope and purpose, it was now and those are the words of that cry.
Entropia is a book you should read. It is a book that offers much hope, much guidance and much direction. As Samuel Alexander wrote on page 148, “Tranquillity and angst are both contagious, so it matters which of them we feed.”
Time to feed that tranquillity.