If there is one lesson in humility that has stayed with me, and likely will continue to stay with me for the rest of my life, it is the one taught to me by Ms. Reid, my English teacher from age 13-16. We had been set a class essay on a Shakespeare play; I forget which. I wrote something to the effect of “of course, this was no problem for a great writer such as Shakespeare.” The red ink when the essay was returned to me replied “and who are you to tell him if he is great?”
The lesson, while perhaps harshly delivered, was to avoid being overly emotive in academic writing, to not cast opinions without facts or standing with which to back them up. I have approached everything I have written ever since with the fear that Ms. Reid struck into me that day. I think if she were to ever read this, she would be quite pleased.
I mention all of this because I want to be clear that what I am doing here when I write down my thoughts after reading a book is not reviewing. I am no critic. I have no standing to offer a position. Instead, I am trying to document for my own sake the lessons I learn from each book I read. I found it most freeing when I realized that a good book does not have to impart words of wisdom verbatim upon you, like facts you must be prepared to recite in an exam. Instead, a good book changes the way you frame the world. It gives you a new lens through which to view your own experience. I hope that by committing to write down these impressions, they will be able to stay with me for longer. If I were to indulge my more fanciful, philosophical tendencies, I would paraphrase Socrates by saying that I am ensuring my life is worth living, by examining it. If you read these (and bless you if you do), consider them less of a review, and more of a personal essay.
The three hundred odd words of lowering expectations above are important to me here, as I just finished a book by a man I admire on a personal level. One whom I would never, ever, want to be considered as attempting to review, judge, or critique. David Whyte is a professor at the University of Liverpool. He was my personal tutor while I was there, and I have him to thank for many of my personal viewpoints, as well as my excitement for Slavoj Zizek related things. He is also the reason I maintain a goal in life to have a personalized rubber stamp with which to mark my books, as he marked his copy of Violence by Zizek before handing it to me for a loan.
Dave’s class remains one of my absolute favorites. He was my Corporate Crime professor. Every other week, class would run until 8pm as he would show us a movie, and often would bring in a guest speaker from that movie to answer our questions. The topics ranged from the Hillsborough disaster, through to Food, Inc, which is still one of my go to documentaries, focused as it is on the issues facing our food supply system brought about by corporate greed. Dave’s class was refreshing in that it was different to most of the other options available during my Sociology degree. At a time when the University was focusing heavily on Criminology, Dave’s class took a viewpoint that was distinctly different from the focus on individual crimes. Between him, and Paul Jones’ teachings on the sociology of cities, I should have realized much longer ago the pathway I was set on. An urban planner with a strong sense of injustice seems almost manifest destiny at this point.
I pretty much read the entirety of Ecocide in Dave’s voice, even though it has been a good four years since I last saw him. His convictions come through strongly, and he is broad and bold in his identification of not only the existential threat of corporate driven climate change, but the solutions he offers. I found myself on several occasions pausing to reflect on my own positions and part in Ecocide, which for the purposes of this post I will simplify as acts that are widely destructive toward the environment.
Key for me, is Dave’s ability to reframe concepts and processes that are widely considered common sense. So much of planning is based upon finding the highest and best use for land and resources. What if that highest and best use is just being left well enough alone? Not in the NIMBY “this swampland behind my home should be left as such because my home should be the last thing built ever” way, but more in the “what right do transnational corporations have to pillage poor communities of their natural resources?” way. Dave asks big, important questions about the rights of individuals vs the rights of corporations, and my favorite chapter which picks apart the colonial history of the corporation as a shield to dehumanize the most wicked of acts.
Much as Dave’s focus on corporate crime provided me a refreshing break from the focus on individual crimes when I was an undergrad student, so to now does his focus on corporate responsibility provide a refreshing, and much needed, shift away from our personal responsibility (“turn off your lights and fly less”) focused approach toward climate change. Dave’s lessons about our fetishism for individual responsibility are insightful for our collective failures around the COVID-19 pandemic, too. How much impact can our individual efforts make when we are in a system that demanded a reopening of the economy before we were ready? How much does buying the eco-friendly packaging make a difference when it is sat on the shelf next to the single-use plastic variant? If both products have already been made, do we really have a choice?
Because this is not a review, I am straining not to end this piece with a paragraph or two on how I thought this was a great book, or how I’ll keep a copy to inform my practice and to re-read, etcetera, etcetera. I will, however, leave with this. I read this book across the first two days of 2021. I am glad that to be starting my year armed with new questions, and a new perspective.