Only One Earth by Lloyd Timberlake (BBC and International Institute for Environment and Development/Earthscan, £6.95).
The Greening of Africa by Paul Harrison (International Institute for Environment and Development/Earthscan /Paladin, £4.95).
WARNINGS about the state of the world environment are so often like shouts of "tidal wave" from beyond the double glazing — the messenger may be clearly excited but the words can't compete with the more immediate appeals of Dallas, fast-buck share offers or the sounds of the hi-fi within.
Worse still, the messenger may not be shouting "tidal wave" or even anything English. Usually his language is "environment-development", one of those incoherent territorial languages, guaranteed to put all but the initiated listener into a profound sleep.
The past couple of weeks has seen a change of tack by the environment-development lobby. Instead of pointing to gloomy cul-de-sacs of our own creation, it has tried under the banner of "Only One Earth" to chart escape routes to a brighter future and has also put a lot of energy into conveying its message in terms non-specialists understand.
At the centre of activity has been the report this month of the World Commission on the Environment and Development. The report itself was hailed by one prominent environmental writer as very long and dull but containing a vital message.
The message, put across effectively in interviews by the commission's chairperson, Norwegian premier Mrs Gro Harlem Brundtland, (Catholic Herald, May 1) is that the relationship between people and planet has to change.
Whether the people concerned are the poor, struggling for survival in increasingly barren landscapes, or the rich managing to poison the air, land, sea and rain in the competitive creation of wealth, they must stop pursuing their goals in ways that squander the environmental legacy of future generations.
Part of the process and in the common interest of both rich and poor nations is the eradication of poverty, because poverty both grows on and adds to the destruction of the environment at an increasingly
alarming rate and to everyone's loss.
Making development sustainable, says the report, will require a new international consciousness at government level, reversing current trends towards nationalism; and styles of government and administration that encourage popular participation; It will also require changes to make authorities and organisations accountable for environmentally destructive practices (for instance, electricity generating authorities for the creation of acid rain).
Luckily, for those who want to know more but can't face a dull report, the issues are explored in more accessible form — in the Channel Two series, Only One Earth. which started this week, a parallel book, also called Only One Earth, by Lloyd Timberlake and another book, The Greening of Africa by Paul Harrison.
The Timberlake book explores the idea of sustainable development by example and makes it clear the idea needs to be taken on board as much in industrial countries as in poorer ones.
His book offers a concise overview of the "dangers of development" but is mainly a collection of stories of individuals in parts of the globe as far apart as China, Somerset, Zimbabwe and California who wittingly or otherwise are already practising the desired principle of sustainable development.
Harrison's book focuses on Africa and offers an excellent take off point for anyone
interested in understanding why the continent is in the pickle it is in and how it may escape.
Harrison, who travelled extensively in Africa to gather his material, examines "successful" development projects in countries with greatly differing political systems, abstracts their common features and combines them to produce a blueprint for how with appropriate international collaboration, the tide of poverty and starvation in Africa might be turned.
His book reflects the ongoing swing in development thinking — away from assumptions that poor people need to be told what to do by experts who draw up plans for their salvation in remote industrial capitals, towards the recognition that they have valuable knowledge about survival in their own environments, that their participation is necessary in development planning, that programmes need to be low cost, low risk and have a low reliance on outside inputs, particularly imports.
Harrison argues that, with the right kind of development, properly supported by their own governments, the poor could dramatically change the continent's prospects within a few years. Shifts of perspective are required from the frontiers of poverty to the centre's of industrialised power where policies of trade and aid help defeat the best efforts of the poor to escape their lot.
The reviewer is a former Oxfam press officer.