Maverick Life

BOOK REVIEW

Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco-Activists may be one of the most important SA books published in 2020

David Bristow’s latest volume begins with a warning to conspiracy theorists, creationists and climate-change denialists who learn all they know from TV and social media: This is not for you.

There are two reasons for its importance. First, it deals with 20 topics that everyone living and hoping to survive on Planet Earth needs to know. Second, it’s written so accessibly and engagingly that you can read it with pleasure in a single sitting. There’s no way to misinterpret its warnings.

As an environmental scientist, adventurer, travel writer (he was editor of Getaway magazine) and author of 20 books, David Bristow is the sort of person you’d hope to meet around a campfire, beer in hand, and in a storytelling mood. His knowledge of just about anything is encyclopaedic.

One imagines his office – and maybe a passage and part of a lounge – lined with filing cabinets full of interesting facts, photographs and newspaper clippings. But of course these days they are more than likely in little blue folders on his desktop.

Either way, there must be an awful lot of information he’s collected to write the sort of books he does. They’re absolutely filled with references to history, science, natural history, human history, biology, geology and, well, just extraordinary things and unusual people.

Of the many tomes that have emerged from his busy typewriter, Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco-Activists may prove his most important, coming, as it does, in the teeth of Covid-19 lockdown and Earth’s climate going nuts.

If you’re worried or confused about the state of things, this is the book to reset your compass, refocus your binoculars and discover why things are the way they are. It is, as the introduction informs you: “An environmental guide for beginners – including fools, drunkards and assholes.”

It begins with Alexander von Humboldt, the inventor of ecology, and spirals out from there and into some extraordinary places. There’s the iniquity of Big Pharma scaring people into buying crap and anti-vaxxers scaring parents from lifesaving vaccinations.

There’s an exploration of how marketers addicted the world to oil and cigarettes even though they knew they were lying, and why you should be very discerning about what you eat and where it comes from.

There’s a chapter on the real costs of our hunger for power (Fricking fracking, execrable coal, super solar or wonderful wind).

If you want to know whether genetically modified seeds are good, bad or downright dangerous, the difference between real farmers and agricultural rapists, how to avoid the honey of sugar-fed bees, why most of our rivers are dangerous, what happens to the 52 billion plastic bottles or three trillion cigarette butts thrown away each year, why the climate is changing, the importance of trees, the environmental impact of an Oreo biscuit and much, much more, it’s all between the covers of this remarkable compendium.

There are warnings and lessons, but there are also heroes. Like TV chef Justin Bonello who spends much of his time teaching poor people how to grow healthy food, and Jeanne Malherbe who introduced biodynamic farming to South Africa.

There’s the amazing company, FFS, started by Harvey Keitel, which can turn any oil waste product into useable fuel – millions of gallons at a time – and the growth of city farmers’ markets.

The book is hopeful and a warning, in equal measure, but in the end Bristow steps back, takes a deep breath and figures out what he needs most:

“I’m thinking of decamping to some place where the years pass more slowly by the very act of watching things more closely: What is sprouting, budding or flowering? What is breeding, nesting or hatching? Seeing which way and at what strength the wind is blowing, watching the sun set and the moon rise, noting each fine declination of time. Something is telling me that is the correct way to spend my last stones.”

Amen to that. DM/ML

David Bristow’s Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco-Activists is available at Exclusive Books.

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