August 20, 2017

Can Britain Survive? Introduction

This is the introduction to the book Can Britain Survive?, published by Tom Stacey, London, 1971, and Sphere Books, London, 1971 (paperback).

Our experts predict a rosy future for the inhabitants of these isles. By the end of the century, they maintain, our standard of living will have just about doubled, everybody will be twice as rich and able to afford twice as many consumer goods and services. Many scientists, and in particular ecologists, are not happy about predictions of this sort. Some even doubt the desirability of attempting to achieve an increase in our standard of living at considerable cost to our social and physical environment. This would mean turning over much of our countryside to urban development, depriving wildlife of its natural habitat and destroying beautiful buildings to make way for factories and blocks of flats.

It would mean, too, destroying rural life by forcing people to live in ever larger and uglier urban areas which do not provide suitable environments for them, and to which they would find it difficult to adapt. It would mean using up even more rapidly the world’s limited stock of natural resources and polluting our rivers, seas, soil and air with the waste products of agriculture and industry.

Even if it were desirable to make such sacrifices on the altar of economic growth, it is by no means certain that this growth can be achieved. Economic growth, like all other forms of growth, cannot proceed indefinitely.

In order to gauge the economic future of this country and to determine – what sort of growth is possible, we must first realize that from the economic point of view, Britain is a factory that buys much of its food and practically all its raw materials abroad and transforms the latter into finished products, many of which must be exported to obtain the money necessary to finance further purchases of food and raw materials.

Can Britain Survive back cover

Can Britain Survive back cover

This mechanism has worked very well so far, well enough to provide the British people with a relatively high standard of living, but that is not to say it will continue to function indefinitely. It could only do so under very specific conditions. Firstly, food and raw materials must be available abroad and the people who produce them must be willing to part with them at a reasonable price. Secondly, we must retain the capacity to manufacture finished products better and more cheaply than our rivals, and thirdly, our customers must have both the capacity and the desire to buy these products from us.

As will be shown in this book, it is unlikely that these conditions will always be satisfied; in fact, during the next thirty years they are less and less likely to be satisfied. If this is so, then our standard of living, rather than increase as our economists predict, is likely to fall and continue falling at an ever greater rate. The material on which this argument is based is presented in the 22 chapters that make up this book. Such information is readily available; much of it is contained in the report of the Council on Environmental Quality to President Nixon. [1]

It might be asked why this information is not generally taken into account by our economists and the politicians they advise. There are a number of possible explanations to this.

The first is simply that people have a built-in tendency to avoid facing disagreeable facts. If such facts are too disagreeable, and their acceptance would threaten people’s mental equilibrium, they tend to be rejected, which may in fact be a very necessary adaptive mechanism. A clear example of this rejection appears in Alan Moorehead’s The Fatal Impact. [2]

When Captain Cook first sailed into Botany Bay, he saw a number of Australian aborigines going about their daily chores, digging for roots, picking berries and catching small animals. It is probable that these people had never seen more elaborate boats than their own dug-out canoes. Captain Cook’s 3-masted schooners must have been a truly spectacular sight. The aborigines might have been expected to crowd to the beach and gape in amazement, perhaps get down on their knees and worship the strangers as gods. Alternatively, they might have fled in total panic. However, they did none of these things. They simply went on with their normal activities as if nothing was amiss. Clearly to accept the presence, if not the possibility of the existence of these extraordinary monsters, was not compatible with the maintenance of their mental equilibrium.

They had no alternative but to refuse to do so and thus to reject such totally unacceptable information. But why was this information so unacceptable? It was in conflict with their basic cognitive structure or world-view, just as it would be with us if we suddenly saw a unicorn or flying elephant. Anthony Wallace in his book Culture and Personality [3] shows that people will do anything to preserve that system of beliefs which makes up their worldview and in terms of which their whole behaviour pattern must be understood. He refers to this as the ‘Law of the Preservation of Cognitive Structure’.

It seems to apply equally well to that part of the world-view of an individual that distinguishes him from his fellows, as to that part that is common to all the members of his society. The reaction of the Australian aborigines to Captain Cook’s ships is no different from ours when we refuse to look at unpleasant facts, such as those presented in this book. After all, we try to persuade ourselves, what can we do about them? “I don’t want to know” is the usual response. Illustrations of this principle can be found in the behaviour of many primitive peoples. The efficacy of the magical rites performed by rainmakers to induce rain is doubted by nobody. Such a belief persists because failure to produce rain will not be attributed to the inefficacy of the rituals, but to some technical fault in their performance, such as the presence of someone who has violated a taboo.

Even more illustrative is the behaviour of the head-hunting Jivaro Indians of Eastern Ecuador. [4] Their chief aim in life is to obtain an ‘aroutam’ soul, whose acquisition, as the result of a complex ritual, confers upon them invulnerability in war. This soul, after another ritual, leaves the body of its host. However, its power remains, ebbing away only very slowly. It is at this point that the Jivaro, who have just acquired and lost an aroutam soul, must join a killing party whose role it is to kill a member of some other tribe.

This is an essential part of aroutam ritual, as it is only by repeated killings that one can replace the ebbing soul with a new one. Though they are supposed to have complete invulnerability, it occasionally occurs that the killing party is unsuccessful, and one of their members is killed in the attack. When this happens, the Jivaro are not led to revise their belief in the invulnerability conferred by the aroutam soul. On the contrary, the death is simply considered ‘to be evidence that the deceased had already lost his aroutam soul without realizing it.’

On the other hand, the Jivaro are consistent enough in their belief to ‘realize’ that their killing expedition would have little success if their intended victim were protected by an aroutam soul. For instance,

“A man who has killed repeatedly, called Kakaram, or ‘powerful one’, is rarely attacked because his enemies feel that the protection provided him by his constantly replaced souls would make any assassination attempt against him fruitless . . .”

Thus, he is only attacked if the raiders believe that he has lost his aroutam soul. If they should fail to kill him, this would not cast any doubts as to the vulnerability of people who have been abandoned by their aroutam souls. On the contrary, failure would be attributed to the fact that

“the enemy still retained the soul, or had a second one in reserve.”

There is a tendency to laugh at such tales. Yet we ourselves are constantly doing the same thing. We are constantly reinterpreting data in such a way that it becomes reconcilable with the generalities of our cultural pattern.

Now, in our industrial society, one of the most basic of these is the ideal of progress which we associate, consciously or not, with economic growth and the corresponding increase in our standard of living. Unfortunately, it happens that the countries in which these associated processes have proceeded furthest, i.e. the United States, Japan, Great Britain, are those with the most serious social and ecological problems.

All the evidence presented in this book tends to show that progress is not necessarily the boon we think it is and that in any case it ceases to be desirable once a certain degree has been achieved.

This evidence, however, is psychologically unacceptable to most of us, and we find ourselves forced to seek to interpret the data on which it is based in such a way as to be led to different conclusions. Our plight, we try to persuade ourselves, is due to certain tendencies which may occasionally accompany economic growth, and hence progress, but which can easily be avoided if we take the necessary trouble.

More education, a little law and order, for instance, will stop the continued growth of crime, delinquency, drug addiction, alcoholism and the other symptoms of social disintegration. A little pollution control here and there, and all the economic growth we want becomes reconcilable with the conservation of our environment. It is essential that we realize that in persuading ourselves that this is so, we are behaving exactly in the same way as the rainmaker and the Jivaro Indian head-hunter.

However, even had we the courage to face facts, it is unlikely that we would make the maximum use of the social and ecological information to which I am referring. This is so for a number of methodological reasons. The first is simply that our learning is divided up into a host of watertight compartments. Our academics have become specialists concerned only with examining a very limited amount of data – that falling within their particular discipline.

Unfortunately the world is not divided up in this manner. It developed as a single integrated process and as a result, it is a single, integrated system. Also, its parts are so closely inter-related that they cannot be examined in vacuo but only in accordance with their function within the system as a whole. Academics are not in a good position to make precise predictions, except in the artificial conditions of their laboratories.

Economists are no exception to this rule and it is becoming increasingly evident that factors other than those falling within the scope of their particular discipline must be taken into account to make accurate predictions of economic currents. In this respect, the importance of sociological factors was emphasized by Polanyi. [5] A study of the economics of primitive societies led him to contest one of the basic principles of economics; that man would act to increase his material advantages. He wrote,

“The outstanding discovery of recent historical and anthropological research is that man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard the social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only in so far as they serve this end. Neither the process of production nor that of distribution is linked to specific economic interest attached to the possession of goods; but every single step in that process is geared to a number of social interests which eventually ensure that the required step be taken. These interests will be very different in a small hunting or fishing community from those of a vast despotic society, but in either case the economic system will be run on non-economic motives. The explanation in terms of survival is simple. Take the case of a tribal society. The individual’s economic interest is rarely paramount, for the community keeps all its members from starving unless it is itself borne down by catastrophe, in which case interests are again threatened collectively, not individually. The maintenance of social ties, on the other hand, is crucial. First, because by disregarding the accepted code of honour, or generosity, the individual cuts himself off from the community and becomes an outcast; second, because, in the long run, all social obligations are reciprocal, and their fulfilment serves also the individual’s give-and-take interests best. Such a situation must exert a continuous pressure on the individual to eliminate economic self-interest from his consciousness to the point of making him unable in many cases (but by no means all), even to comprehend the implications of his own actions in terms of such interest.”

Weber, in his celebrated work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism [6] showed, with reference to the Industrial Revolution in Britain, that economic growth cannot be predicted by simply taking into account those variables that normally fall within the discipline of economics. They are much more of a sociological nature. He showed that the Industrial Revolution was largely the work of a single group of people with a common religion and a corresponding set of values. These were the Quakers and other nonconformists.

They worked not just to make money but because working was an essential part of their religion. It was the only way of being virtuous, the only way of pleasing God. In more general terms, economic growth would only occur among people for whom it constituted a cultural ideal. It is thus the cultural pattern of a people more than the availability of capital, cheap money, low wages and other similar purely economic factors, that will determine the level of economic growth. Weber’s thesis, as it has come to be called, has been made use of to explain many examples of economic growth in different parts of the world. In general it appears to explain them quite adequately.

More recently Hagen in The Theory of Social Change [7] pushes Weber’s analysis several steps further. Like Weber, Hagen maintains that economic growth occurs in a society for which it provides a cultural ideal. He says that a class of entrepreneurs is required, among whom this ideal is particularly pronounced. It must have been deprived of its normal behavioural outlet, which had hitherto provided it with its means of achieving the level of success and prestige that it was geared culturally to expect.

In addition, this class must he sufficiently prestigious to be emulated by the rest of society so that a general capitalist ethic should reign. Hagen shows how economic growth in England during the Industrial Revolution in Japan after the Meiji Revolution, in the Antioquia province of Colombia in the last 30 years and in a particular district of Indonesia, can be explained in terms of this thesis.

If the connection between sociology and economics is becoming apparent, that between ecology and economics has been established so far by very few writers. In the United States, the first economist of note to have underlined the relevance of ecological factors was Kenneth Boulding. He showed that our world is finite – it is nothing more than a ‘spaceship’ and it clearly cannot accommodate the unlimited economic growth to which our society is geared. In Britain, Dr E. J. Mishan in his well-known book The Costs of Economic Growth [8] has done more than anyone to shatter the ideal of economic growth.

It is clear that to understand the process involved and its effect on the total environment, account must be taken of a vast amount of information that does not fall within the conventional field of economics. Ideally, one should build a complete inter-disciplinary model of the biosphere in order to establish how economic growth affects all its numerous and closely inter-related parts. What is certain is, that so long as the economist remains a specialist only capable of taking into account a restricted number of variables falling within the scope of his particular discipline, there is very little chance that his predictions will be sufficiently accurate to guide any major aspect of public policy.

This brings us to yet another reason why economists may not have taken ecological factors into account. In order to make their predictions, they are quite happy to project current economic trends into the future. This is an application of the inductive method favoured by empiricist philosophy at present in fashion in Anglo-American academic circles.

According to this philosophy, the only way to predict the future is to base the prediction on what has happened in the past. This method may be satisfactory for making predictions in a highly stable environment in which discontinuities are unlikely to occur. However, as the environment becomes more unstable, more subtle means for making predictions are required.

In all cases, predictions are based on information, which must not be confused with data. Information is a measure of the organization of data. It is best regarded, as Kenneth Craik [9] was the first to show, as constituting a model of the relationship between the system and its environment, i.e. of the bigger system of which it is part. This model can only be an approximation of the latter since it can only take into account a finite number among the infinite number of factors involved.

As a result, predictions can only be probable. They can never be certain, and this limitation must apply to even the most sophisticated scientific predictions. Their probability, however, can always be increased by the simple expedient of improving the model. This involves increasing the amount of relevant data, and its degree of organization and also the rate at which it is detected and interpreted (ensuring in this way that predictions are based on the most up-to-date data).

Thus in order to predict the economic future of this country, we must begin by collecting the maximum amount of relevant data, regardless of the discipline of which it is normally part. This must be organized in such a way as to show how they are inter-related, providing us with a dynamic model of Britain as a social and economic system.

That is what this book attempts to do. I am not suggesting we have gathered together sufficient data, nor that it has been organized sufficiently well to permit accurate predictions. What I do maintain is, that any predictions which do not take these data into account, nor the inter-relationship established between them, cannot be taken seriously.

A number of contributors to this book intend to form a permanent Committee that will attempt to build a model of Britain as it will be affected by social and ecological changes in the next 30 years or so. This model will be monitored in the light of all new developments and the public will be kept informed of its progress in the pages of The Ecologist magazine.


1. Council on Environmental Quality. 1970. First Report. Washington.
2. Moorehead, Alan. 1966. The Fatal Impact. London: Hamish Hamilton.
3. Wallace, Anthony. 1963. Culture and Personality. New York: Random Tress.
4. Harner, M. J. 1966. “Jivaro Souls”. In America Anthropologist, 64 (2).
5. Polanyi, Karl. 1968. Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economics. New York Doubleday.
6. Weber, Max. 1930. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: George Allen & Unwin.
7. Hagen, E. E. 1964. On the Theory of Social Change. London: Tavistock.
8. Mishan, E. J. 1967. The Costs of Economic Growth. London: Staples Press.
9. Craik, Kenneth. 1952. The Nature of Explanation. Cambridge: CUP.
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