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

By Paul Gipe

Having been disparaged as a “Cassandra,” I was reluctant to read a book on the topic, especially one with a subtile about optimism. “Oh no,” I thought, “another enviro bashing book catering to Limbaugh ditto-heads.”

Wrong. I should have had more faith in my publisher Chelsea Green. The small press has a long list of titles on environmental topics, including Donnella Meadows’ Beyond the Limits, an update of her ground breaking The Limits to Growth.

And it’s AtKisson’s link with Donnella Meadows that drives the book. Those of us who came of age with the first Earth Day–and those that didn’t–will find AtKisson’s review of how Meadows, her then husband Dennis, and their team of graduate students at MIT rocked the establishment with the theme that the biological concept of limits may play a role in human affairs.

AtKisson describes how the shock waves caused by the Club of Rome’s publication of Limits of Growth rippled through society, not only in the United States but abroad. (I recently found a marked-up copy in the home of our host family in Kassel, Germany.)

Limits became a bestseller and launched the authors into an unexpected public fire storm. Conservative think tanks attacked the book mercilessly. Meadows and her colleagues were academics, actually early computer nerds, and were blind sided by the sophisticated campaign against their work as “fundamentally flawed”. These attacks succeeded, and left much of the public with the mistaken impression that the “Limits” authors somehow got it wrong.

This is the thread that AtKisson picks up and it explains his choice of title: Believing Cassandra. For though the gods gave Cassandra a special gift, the ability to see the future, she was cursed that no one would believe her. As AtKisson points out, environmental critics miss the key to the story. Cassandra was able to see the future (the taking of Troy by the Greeks). She was right. And, argues AtKisson, so was Donnella Meadows and the authors of Limits to Growth. They got it right, but were cursed that few would believe them.

Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist’s World by Alan AtKisson, ISBN 1-890132-16-0, Chelsea Green Publishing paper, 1999, 6×9, 240 pages, $16.95,