Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World

Reviewed by Richard Walthers

For the last several years, I have had a standing offer to share with my friends the considerable wealth that would be generated if only one of them would come up with a new word or phrase to supplant "sustainable development". This new phrase would have to be immediately recognized and understood by the public at large as well as wipe out all the negative associations that have attached themselves to the present descriptive over the past decades. It also would have to energize people to begin meaningful changes that will save the Earth.

The problem I have always had with the term as it is offered now is that it is something of an oxymoron. As Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation has said, we cannot have sustainable development if that development impinges on future generations’ ability to live and prosper. In other words, if development is causing the problems we are all facing, why should we want to sustain it?

I think Alan AtKisson would basically agree with this assessment, as he illuminates the differences between development as growth and development as advancements in the human condition in his recent book, Believing Cassandra. His central message is that growth must cease while development must accelerate. To AtKisson, growth means increases in quantity. There are obvious limits to growth, whereas there are no limits to development because development means improvements in quality.

The book takes its title from the story of Cassandra, the beautiful daughter of the last king of Troy. Apollo gave Cassandra the gift of the ability to see the future, but when she refused his favors, he further curses her so that no one would believe her prophecies. Such has been the fate of the many environmentalists that have sounded the alarm during the past 25 years.

AtKisson believes that we will either creatively find ways to avert disaster or we will be forced into a sustainable living mode as we are coerced to make increasingly grotesque adjustments to remedy damage to the environment caused by the war of man against nature. He uses theories to help explain how we first can accurately diagnose the Earth’s present state of health as well as disseminate knowledge that can provide solutions to many of the persistent problems we have created.

This book is important reading for business managers and owners. Like it or not, business people have always been agents of change and transformers of culture, via the products they offer to the marketplace and how they communicate with the marketplace as well as how they structure and organize their companies. "The key to transformation is the rapid diffusion of innovations" and business is well positioned to assist and influence both the nature of the innovations as well as the communication and diffusion of the new ideas.

The tone throughout the book is upbeat and encouraging. AtKisson believes we can easily apply ourselves to creating sustainable societies on a global scale. After all, he says we are already experts at altering global atmospheric balance (increased CO2 levels and the hole in the ozone layer) and have performed other amazing feats of ecological destruction. So why not apply these skills to solving problems instead of creating them?

His enthusiasm is welcomed. After a steady diet of gloom and doom, I believe it is critical to understand that hope remains for resolution. The sole reservation I have is the author’s apparent penultimate trust in technology. I think we must always be vigilant of technology as we have already seen what happens when technology is left unchecked. We could be heading toward a world where technology solves our physical problems, but leaves us wanting spiritually. To avoid the ascendancy of technology, our inspiration and guiding vision must always be spiritually based.

This is a quick read that approaches a difficult and confusing subject with humor and insight. It offers hope for the future and the potential of sustainability. Now if only AtKisson had known of my offer to share his wealth.