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The International Writers Magazine - Our 21st Year: Review Archives

Time To Eat The Dog?
The real guide to sustainable living by Robert and Brenda Vale,
Thames and Hudson, 2009, 384 pp.,
ISBN: 978-0-500-28790-3

Charlie Dickinson

TIME TO EAT THE DOG? by New Zealand authors makes one unassailable point on its opening pages: If everyone on Earth shared equally the lifestyle enjoyed in North America, then five planet Earths would be needed. Obviously, an unattainable proposition.

In an online interview (@ Celsias), Robert Vale asserted "there are many "wussy" sustainability books" around and he and Ms. Vale wanted to write one that backed up justification of sustainability choices with real numbers, not the intuitive beliefs of sloganeers. That is, the Vales wanted a book that showed people how to "do the maths" and make informed sustainability choices
Chapter after chapter, the Vales set forth defensible, well-researched data for choices on such topics as food, transport, shelter, and recreation. Why prefer linoleum to shag carpeting? The Vales give mathematical dimension to that choice.

The scope of their sustainability survey is amazing. Even the oddball idea I had of buying a bamboo frame bicycle from a local bike builder here in Portland, Oregon surfaces in the data presentation. A wooden bicycle is "green," but in sustainability terms, more the proverbial gilding on the lily. According to the Vales, the real priority is to ride a bike, not drive a gas guzzler.

Other amazing conclusions are that a Boeing 747 (full) has more energy efficiency per passenger-kilometer that a bicyclist (slow or fast pedalling, who eats bread for fuel, but must shower after the ride). Or that a city bus burning diesel lags in efficiency behind the solo driver of a 1.6-liter car!

As for the jokey title of TIME TO EAT THE DOG?, the authors didn't set out to offend pet owners. But by "doing the maths" on the sustainability footprint of a pet choice, they want to point out that "extra children"--those births above zero population growth--cost and need more than even a large pet. A sneaky, but effective way to make the case against runaway population growth.

Admittedly, a book heavy with table after table of data comparisons might on first glance seem a slow slog. Fortunately, the Vales write well and offer occasional humorous asides. Moreover, the book's graphic design and page layout is exceedingly attractive and makes the "data consumption" easier. Think of this as reference tome on sustainability choice the reader might take on a chapter at a time and savor.

This Thames & Hudson edition deserves wider circulation beyond the UK, Europe, and Oceania and hopefully will soon make its way to the States.
© Charlie Dickinson September 2009

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