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Marq de Villiers

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Ain't no use jiving, Ain't no use joking, Everything is broken. - Bob Dylan, Everything is Broken.

Bob Dylan was not the first nor will he be the last person to look at our social, political and economic systems and conclude that everything is broken.

On too many fronts, too often, things appear to have spun irretrievably out of control.

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Humanity's energy guzzling in the face of climate change is but one example. It is a number almost beyond comprehension, and quite naturally leads some to conclude that there's no way out of the mess we're in.

Which is what makes the views of a contrarian so welcome, even if that contrarian admits that we are indeed in quite a jam.

Take the energy consumption issue. In the hands of Canadian journalist and author Marq de Villiers we get fresh insight into just how large a number it is - 15 terawatts a year to be exact. But what, exactly, does that mean?

Well, a terawatt is equivalent to 1,000 gigawatts, and a large coal-fired electricity plant generates roughly one a year. So you'd require 15,000 such plants to generate the current power needs of the planet's population, and if you concentrated all those greenhouse gas-belching plants in North America, you could criss-cross the continent and there'd always be one on the horizon.

De Villiers uses this example early on in Our Way Out to illustrate the need for a collective response across many fronts: technological, social and political. He's also unafraid to challenge conventional views about the tools we are currently using.

On the thorny issue of nuclear power, which continues to generate dire headlines from Fukushima, he offers a number of cogent arguments. They include the fact that a) problematic radioactive wastes can be brought way down through reprocessing and reuse, as in France, where 80 per cent of the country's electricity is nuclear-derived, b) global uranium reserves are not as drastically low as some have suggested, c) reactors that fission thorium (a substance three times more plentiful than uranium) are already in operation, and d) new-generation reactors hold the promise of being smaller and cheaper.

As for the debate over genetically modified foods, de Villiers lands squarely on the side of the strategic use of GM crops to improve yields with less water, less energy use and fewer chemicals. He cites a telling example of rapprochement in Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), a project whose participants include both the controversial agri-giant Monsanto and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. "It's too early to declare a truce, but the thrust of Monsanto's research has switched from selling pesticide- and herbicide-resistant crops to developing crops that thrive on poor and dry soils. The anti-GM people should be paying attention," de Villiers concludes.

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His chapter on food - The Reinvention of Farming - is the most inspiring, advocating a multitude of responses that are not only essential but doable. Thus we get tastes of everything from the rise in small-scale urban organic farming, to "perennial" agricultural operations that rely on deep-rooted varieties of wheat and thus do away with the need for annual plantings, to multistorey urban "sky farms" that could grow everything from livestock to salad greens, powered by their own waste.

De Villiers also strikes the right notes on human population, and the painfully obvious need to curb its rise. And he makes the case - not that we need much convincing - that corporations have far too much influence in the political sphere and that we must encourage greater citizen engagement, more participatory democracies and greater autonomy for local governments that may be best positioned to make good decisions.

On this last point he may indeed be right. But there are a lot of cynics out there who are staying away from the polling booths. Perhaps not everything is broken, but we need less cynicism, and more citizenship, fast.

Victoria writer Ben Parfitt is the author of Forest Follies: Adventures and Misadventures in the Great Canadian Forest.

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