From reading Thom Hartman’s The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, we might conjure an image of a huge bomb in the form of planet earth, with several rapidly-burning fuses protruding. Each fuse represents one of the ways in which human beings are contributing to the destruction of the earth and consequently, of themselves. Hartmann begins with an explanation of the term “ancient sunlight,” which is essentially energy stored in the form of fossil fuels, created when organic matter is subjected to tremendous pressure for millions of years. Contrary to popular belief, Hartmann explains, plant matter is composed primarily of energy drawn from sunlight and air, not from the soil in which it grows. Therefore oil and coal are ancient sunlight. An over-simplification perhaps, but basically accurate.
Hartmann offers a variety of reasons -ecological, social and political- for the world’s present predicament. Primarily he cites humanity’s exploding population, which is increasingly competing for a limited supply of resources. He then meticulously explores every other aspect of the problem – the destruction of trees, the pollution of the air and water and the mass extinctions of other species at the hands of Man.
In particular, Hartmann takes aim at politicians, mostly Republicans, for siding with huge corporations to maximize short-term profits at the expense of the world’s future. This perverse symbiotic relationship results in the loosening of environmental regulations and the passage of laws that are favorable to “growth.” Drug companies, he asserts, are indirectly poisoning the water supply. Fast food giants are razing the rain forests and replacing them with grazing pastures in order to have a cheap, abundant supply of beef for their hamburgers. The oil and automotive industries are deliberately suppressing development of technologies that would reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Far from the paranoid ramblings of a left-wing extremist, Hartmann’s revelations are backed up with solid data.
In Part II, Hartmann introduces the concepts of Older Cultures and Younger Cultures, maintaining that cases where the former has grown into the latter have signaled the decline of those particular civilizations. Older Cultures are basically tribal societies, based on cooperation and effective management of natural resources. Younger Cultures, he writes, have given way to greed and hubris, resulting in their desire to dominate others and the belief that they are separate from and superior to nature. By “older” Hartmann does not necessarily mean “ancient,” nor by “younger” does he mean “modern.” He cites examples of Older Cultures thriving today -although very few- and of ancient civilizations, among them the Roman Empire, that eventually collapsed when they adopted Younger Culture mentalities.
The first part of the book highlights a serious problem, the gravity of which many people still do not grasp or simply refuse to accept. But there is a distinct dichotomy between the three respective sections, despite Hartmann’s attempts to make a smooth segue between environmentalism, anthropology and spiritualism. The hard, brutal facts are necessary to establish the sense of urgency which the status quo demands, but the suggestions in Part III such as “practice small acts of anonymous mercy (242),” “achieve presence (256)” and “look into the face of God (289)” seem more suited to a church sermon than a book that starts with a scientific basis.
There is unfortunately an ugly side to human nature, and Hartmann’s argument that avarice, bigotry and vanity are not endemic to the human condition contradicts itself. If this were the case, most of the world would still be living in the tribal societies that characterize Older Cultures. Hartmann’s explanation for the proliferation of Younger Cultures is that by their very nature, they corrupt or outright subjugate those societies that would lead peaceful existences. He conveniently extends this argument in attributing most of the problems in Third World countries to the pernicious vestiges of Imperialism. This reinforces a victim mentality, the sort of thinking most unproductive toward effecting positive change.
The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight would greatly benefit from a few excisions and extrapolations, and Hartmann needs to be more of a pragmatist and less of an idealist. Nonetheless, his message is an urgent one, and the first 115 pages alone justify the price of the entire book. He clearly shows that environmentalists are not members of some fringe group, and their concerns need to become the concerns of everyone. Even crises halfway around the world will be pounding on our front doors sooner than we think.