|Vol. 4 Iss. 5
The Chemical Educator
© 1999 Springer-Verlag New York, Inc.
Chemistry Department, Oxford University,
South Parks Road, Oxford, England OX1 3QZ
Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use; by Ernst von Weizsacker, Amory B. Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins; Earthscan: London, England; 1998. 9 pounds 99 p. ISBN softcover 1 85383 406 8, xxix + 322 pp, 46 Figures, 15 color plates.
Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use: it seemed an unpromising title. As editor of the media reviews section of The Chemical Educator, I had already offered this book to another reviewer and received a rapid negative response. Perhaps they shared my suspicion that it would turn out to be a close cousin of those paperbacks which promise to tell you "How to become a millionaire in six weeks" or that "You too can develop the mind of a genius."
The publisher's promotional material on the back of the book also seemed to be drawn from the "Improve Yourself" stable. The book was apparently:
"One of the 1990's most important books..."
"Ground breaking ..."
"[a book which] opens up a new way of thinking about ... our long-term survival"
A little sheepishly, I can report that my fears of another help-yourself book were quite unfounded. This is a fascinating and potentially significant book; though whether it will truly become one of the 1990's most important books will depend upon whether the publisher can secure for it a wider audience.
Full of interesting facts and persuasive argument, it is never polemical, always readable and lucid. It is the paperback version of a report to the Club of Rome, but despite its guise as a technical report, the style is far from dry or pedantic. As the title suggests, the central theme of the book is that it is possible to reduce resource use but at the same time improve the standard of living of those in the industrialized world. The authors' argument is not founded primarily on ethical principles, but on a consideration of what design and science now make possible.
The text is closely argued, and illustrated with hundreds of individual examples of how poorly we use resources, and how, by changing our lifestyle, "less can mean more". Examples, selected at random, include the following tidbits:
These examples are not cited by the authors as a cause for hand-wringing concern over our use of energy and resources. Instead, the authors offer solutions, in many cases already implemented, which show how present standards of living can be at very least maintained and often enhanced through intelligent use of technology.
The book can be read at two levels: At one level, it is an engaging recital of how efforts to place a cap on energy and resource use have been increasingly successful. The discussion throughout is accessible to those with even a limited scientific background. The numerous examples with which it is illustrated would be of value to those teaching "Science for Nonscientists" courses at the university level.
At another level the book is a persuasive and powerful plea for intelligent resource use. It will doubtless have a strong appeal to environmental groups such as Greenpeace.
The book is not without its limitations. Most of the discussions of intelligent (or dumb) resource use are short, and only rarely present both sides of the argument in equal detail. At times one is left wondering, if the argument for reducing resource use is so clear-cut, why an alternative course of action should even be considered, let alone implemented by industry. The book is also a little rambling; there is so much the authors want to discuss, so many examples they wish to comment on, that at times it resembles a selection of newspaper articles with a common theme, thrown together into book form.
However, it would be churlish to be too critical. This book is positive, well thought out, easy to read, and persuasive. If you are intrigued by the progress and inventiveness of science, are concerned about mismanagement of the environment, or just enjoy collecting esoteric and obscure facts, you should get a copy.