August 20, 2017

What of the future?

This prescient article was originally published as the concluding chapter of Can Britain Survive?, published by Tom Stacey, London, 1971, and Sphere Books, London, 1971 (paperback).

The article was reprinted two years later in The Ecologist Vol. 3 No. 11, November 1973, under the title “What of Britain’s future?” and with the following introductory paragraphs.

In 1971 a selection of articles from The Ecologist, together with a number of original papers and articles from other periodicals was collected and edited by Edward Goldsmith and published under the title Can Britain Survive? It was this book, and the arguments that were being developed within the ecological movement in general and in the pages of The Ecologist in particular that led to the publication, some months later, of A Blueprint for Survival.

The final chapter of Can Britain Survive? was called “What of the future?” It made a number of predictions and it is reprinted here in order that its accuracy may be assessed in the light of events that have occurred and trends that may have become more evident in the two years that have elapsed since its first publication.

We are now in a position to make a few tentative suggestions as to what the future holds in store for the inhabitants of these isles.

World food shortage

First of all, a serious world food shortage appears inevitable. The demand for food is increasing at 3.9 percent per annum. Production up till now has only increased by 2.6 percent, while in 1969 for the first time there was actually no increase at all. The FAO plan for feeding the world is based on the extensive use of high yield wheats and the intensification of agriculture throughout the third world. For many reasons it is extremely unlikely to prove successful, save perhaps in the very short term.

With regard to food from the seas the situation is similar. We are currently taking 70 million tons of fish from the seas, four times more than we were 25 years ago, and expect to increase this to 140 millions by the turn of the century. This will clearly never be achieved. In fact, in 1969, for the first time, world catches actually fell.

It is certain that, well before the end of the century, there will be a very severe food crisis with widespread famine in the poorer and more densely populated areas of the world. It would be extremely naive to suppose that we in Britain will not be affected by these developments.

At the moment we import half our food. By the end of the century, as a result of foreseen population growth alone demand for food will have increased by possibly 20 percent. If economic growth occurs according to plan, it will have more than doubled. In any case, we shall have to import more food than we do now.

But who is going to sell it to us? Is it likely that countries threatened with starvation will be willing to export essential foodstuffs in exchange for manufactured goods of dubious utility? If they were to sell them at all, surely it would be only against essential basic raw materials which by then will also be in short supply. Also it is by no means certain that we shall remain capable of producing the manufactured goods whose sale has so far permitted us to purchase the food and other resources that are so desperately required for the proper functioning of our industrial society.

Whatever happens we will have to rely more and more on our own agriculture. We shall have to try to feed ourselves. But will this be possible? Agricultural yields have increased by 50 percent in the last 20 years. Our experts tell us that they can be increased still further by further intensive agriculture. However, both on theoretical and empirical grounds this thesis cannot be accepted.

Firstly, we are likely to run out of many of the essential inputs such as arable land, minerals and power. In addition we must expect diminishing and eventually negative returns on the technological inputs required for intensive food production, pesticides, fertilisers, antibiotics for intensive stockbreeding as well as on the various devices such as sonar and radar equipment made use of in modern fishing. Once more we are forced to face facts. We cannot increase indefinitely the amount of food from a fixed area, and we are rapidly reaching the point where every possible expedient will have been tried.

It is difficult for those living in present day affluent Britain to accept that they are soon to be faced with a serious food shortage, yet this is the only conclusion that is consistent with the available information.

The food shortage is likely to have a seriously demoralising effect. It will tend to reduce resistance to disease, capacity to work and faith in the values of our industrial society.

As food becomes scarce and expensive, more and more marginal land will be turned over to agriculture. This means that any nature reserves and national parks with agricultural potential will be brought under the plough. Conservation in the face of continued demographic and economic growth is a pretty hopeless task. On the other hand, the more marginal the land, the more the technological inputs such as irrigation and fertilisers that are required. Since these will be in shorter supply there must eventually be a trend in the opposite direction, and wildernesses may begin to appear once more.

Meanwhile industry will undoubtedly fully exploit the wide open market for synthetic foods of every type. But these cannot be made out of nothing and many of the materials required for this purpose will be becoming scarce or unobtainable: petroleum products, for instance. Also, if our food is to be manufactured in factories instead of grown on the land, our requirements of ever scarcer resources, such as water and fuel, will correspondingly increase and such methods of food production will cause pollution which our environment well be ever less capable of absorbing. There is likely to be an eventual reaction against synthetic foods, when the side effects on human health of the countless chemical additives become more apparent.

In the long run, once it is generally accepted that technology cannot indefinitely increase the short term food supply, there is likely to be a gradual return to traditional methods of husbandry, which means smaller farms, less reliance on the agrochemical industry and replacement of machines by men – all very beneficial tendencies which would probably not only maximise food production in the long run but lead to the re-establishment of a stable and healthy community.

But to enjoy these benefits we must first of all survive the initial chaos and reduce our population in one way or another to that level that can be fed without resorting to the gimmickry of modern agricultural methods.

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Depletion of raw materials

A further condition for the survival of our industrial society is the availability of the requisite raw materials. This, as we approach the turn of the century, is extremely unlikely.

The world’s mineral resources are nearing exhaustion. By the end of the century there will be practically no tungsten, copper, lead, zinc, gold, silver or platinum. Other minerals essential to industry will also be in short supply.

Shortages are likely to occur and prices are likely to increase dramatically long before stocks are actually exhausted, as producing nations will be increasingly reluctant to sell precious non-renewable resources which can be used for their own development. Producing nations will tend to import technological knowhow and manufacture their own goods.

Scientists and technologists will attempt to develop all sorts of substitutes for these apparently indispensable resources. Many will be found, but it is unlikely that they will satisfy all our requirements. Whatever these materials are made of is likely to run out some day. Plastics, for instance, are normally made from petroleum products which will become progressively scarcer.

In the meantime, everything will be done to recycle existing stocks. Recycling is likely to be the basis of a major industry but it cannot hope to satisfy our ever growing requirements. There is always a loss during a recycling process from, if nothing else, friction and oxidation. In the case of metals, the loss is likely to remain high in spite of the very efficient techniques that are bound to be developed.

It is not difficult to predict the short term effects of a shortage in minerals. Our economy will be radically affected, business will have to close down and there will be rising unemployment.

Once more the long term effects are likely to be beneficial. There will be a tendency towards engineering craftsmanship and away from the throwaway economy. Also it will become economic to recycle countless waste products at present causing serious pollution.

The world’s supply of fossil fuels is nearing exhaustion. There is only enough natural gas for another 25 years or so, and oil reserves are only likely to last another 70 years. Long before stocks run out, oil is likely to be both scarce and expensive. The producing nations will become more conscious of their hold over the West. Indeed, by withholding oil supplies as they threatened to do in Tehran, they can bring about the total collapse of our industrial society.

Nuclear power is unlikely to provide an alternative source, as there is no solution in sight for the safe disposal of radioactive waste. The world’s only remaining important and viable source of power is coal, of which there appears to be enough for a few hundred years. There should be a considerable revival of the coal industry, though to persuade people to work in coalmines once the original mining communities have broken up might present a challenging problem.

The fuel shortage which appears inevitable will also favour a return to small labour intensive units both in agriculture and industry. It will also favour political and economic decentralisation. However, it will take a long time before these beneficial effects are felt. In the short term, the fuel shortage will seriously depress industry and cause widespread unemployment.

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Rising cost of pollution control

A third condition for the survival of. our industrial society is our continued ability to transform raw materials into finished products. This is likely to be seriously compromised by many factors, including the increasing cost of pollution and its control.

As our environment’s capacity to absorb pollutants of different sorts is slowly being reached the economic cost of each increment of pollution rises. Further demographic and economic growth can only aggravate these problems.

It is becoming evident that their costs in terms of increased medical care, extermination of wildlife, stunted plant growth, cleaning bills, etc. are very much higher than is generally accepted.

Industry will have to bear an ever increasing proportion of these costs which will mean higher prices and reduced economic activity. The government will also have to spend exorbitant sums on pollution control. Relatively clean air and clean water in the United States might cost as much as $200 billion, which vastly exceeds what the present or any future government is likely to spend. Mr Nixon has proposed an expenditure of $10 billion for this purpose before 1975, and even this sum is unlikely to be granted him by Congress.

As a result pollution is likely to get worse until such times as a shortage of raw materials makes recycling economic, and finally, as economic activity begins to fall off.

The public is also likely to become even more pollution-conscious and conservation pressure must build up more and more, especially as in the next 30 years we can expect a number of serious ecological disasters. It is possible, for instance, that the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea will, before the end of the century, have become biological deserts devoid of any fish life. In addition, much of the fish life in the Atlantic and the Pacific may well be so contaminated as to have become inedible. Outbreaks of new diseases caused by specific pollutants such as Minamata disease in Japan are likely to occur, perhaps on a large scale.

Such catastrophes must slowly affect public opinion. They must lead to increased pressure on the government to deal with pollution problems and increase the disenchantment with the industrial way of life, especially among the young.

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Deterioration in health

The deteriorating health of urban man is also going to be costly. The degenerative diseases associated with a faulty diet and exposure to pollutants in our food, water and air will also remain on the increase.

The conditions for the reappearance of large scale epidemics are rapidly becoming more add more favourable. Population density is increasing. The resistance of urban dwellers to disease is being progressively reduced as the levels of the different pollutants build up in their bodies. Mobility is increasing, thereby effectively spreading disease to areas where the population has not developed natural controls; and germs are rapidly becoming resistant to antibiotics. The development of the appropriate vaccine may prevent a serious epidemic from spreading throughout the world but if it were to originate in a country with a high population density such as England, it might wipe out a considerable proportion of the population before eventually being brought under control.

Whether or not there are epidemics to add to our afflictions, a serious recrudescence of infectious disease can be expected. Contrary to popular belief, these have not been conquered. The so-called miracle drugs have only granted us temporary respite. Gonorrhoea, for instance, which a few years ago was considered totally under, control is now, after the common cold, the second most widespread disease in the United Kingdom.

In general, there is bound to be increasing disenchantment with modern medicine whose short term benefits will be found to compensate less and less for their biological and social side effects.

Our continued ability to transform raw materials into finished products is dependent on the maintenance of social order. This essential condition is increasingly unlikely to be satisfied.

The conditions that lead to social disintegration all appear to be intimately linked with demographic and economic growth: both lead to greater reduction in the quality of life. Both lead to urbanisation and overcrowding, which have the most serious social consequences, in particular increasing crime and aggression. These tendencies, if unchecked, lead to further social disintegration which in turn must increase the need for all types of state intervention – bureaucratic control, police action, state welfare – all of which inevitably give rise to further disintegration.

The ills from which industrial societies are at present suffering – delinquency, crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, mental disease, suicide, etc. – are the closely inter-related symptoms of social disintegration. As our population continues to grow, so these tendencies will further assert themselves.

As ever less consumer products become available to an ever-increasing population, there will be ever rising inflation, which will cause further social tension and disintegration.

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Rising unemployment

Growing unemployment will also have serious social consequences.

It is common knowledge that few things are more demoralising than prolonged unemployment. Apart from the material deprivation involved, a man is deprived of his status which in an industrial society is largely determined by the work he does. He also loses his goal structure and his self esteem. Galloping inflation will make matters still worse.

A further problem is the presence in this country of a large and expanding immigrant population which, as in the United States, will tend to concentrate in the city centres. The West Indians are likely to adapt badly to industrial life, their society displaying more of the symptoms of ‘anomie’ or ‘egotely’, and will tend to become particularly dependent on welfare. They are also likely to develop an ever-increasing resentment of the mainstream of society, which is likely to manifest itself, as with the Negroes of the United States, by violence and rioting. When the unemployment level is really high, tension is likely to build up against these groups who are the obvious scapegoats for society’s ills. Racial strife is certain to develop.

We have taken the ability and inclination of our trading partners to purchase our finished products, as one of the basic conditions permitting the survival of our industrial society. Our trading partners are mainly industrial nations, like ourselves, and are likely to suffer from the same problems. This means that they will have to spend much more on imported raw materials and food than at present. Pollution control will also take up an ever greater proportion of their national budgets, as will control of the various manifestations of social disorder.

As a result, they must have correspondingly less money to spend on non-essential manufactured goods. The industries on which they depend for their livelihood will also tend to be menaced by competitors from countries that, not being so advanced – along the road to industrialisation, may not be suffering quite so badly from its side effects. The obvious reaction would be to introduce protectionist measures such as import duties, quotas, etc.

Mounting inflation is also likely to lead Britain’s trading partners to adopt protectionist measures to safeguard their currency. The protectionist spirit is already beginning to gain ground in the United States, and businesses are already obtaining subsidies, price supports and credit guarantees. At the moment of writing the US government is trying to persuade the Japanese to apply voluntary limitations to the export of textiles to the United States. A Maritime Bill has been passed which is overtly protectionist and which, among other things, trebles the number of merchant ships eligible for government subsidies. The Mills Bill which was designed to protect 120 manufactured products from foreign competition actually passed the House of Representatives – to be narrowly defeated in the Senate. One can expect considerably more legislation of this type in the next decades.

The British government will do everything possible to combat the inevitable unemployment. Among other things it will attempt to encourage economic growth regardless of its environmental consequences. At the moment of writing, President Nixon is doing just this. In spite of the essential correlation between economic growth and environmental disruption that his Council for Environmental Quality cannot have failed to point out to him, he has poured $2.2 billion into the sagging economy. The reason for this is obvious. He simply cannot afford a slump with widespread unemployment. Its cost in terms of votes and social unrest would be prohibitive. In his position, a British government would feel compelled to do exactly the same thing.

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Conservation and the backlash

On the other hand, conservationist pressure is building up and will continue to do so. It is bound to act as an ever greater brake to economic growth, each increment of which causes more noticeable environmental deterioration. To increase the water supply of our industrial conurbations, we will have to flood valleys of ever greater value to naturalists or put up barrages across increasingly beautiful estuaries. To build the countless new towns and motorways that we will require in the next 30 years will mean destroying ever finer scenery and depriving the country of even more valuable agricultural land. The difficulty encountered by the government in siting the third airport is but an example of the sort of problems that will be encountered more and more as demographic and economic expansion threaten what remains of the British countryside.

On the other hand, it is likely that a powerful anti-conservationist movement – and ecology backlash, as it is already known in America – will spring up, mainly among the industrial working classes and particularly the unemployed. They will tend to regard conservation as a conspiracy to deprive them of the benefits of our industrial society already reaped by the middle classes who form the bulk of the conservationist movement.

Eventually there may well be a new political alignment with no-growth conservationists on the one hand and a growth orientated alliance between big business interests and the trade unions on the other.

The latter is likely to be the more influential, at least to begin with, and it is more than likely that it will be able to apply sufficient pressure on the government to keep the latter firmly committed to economic growth in spite of mounting difficulties.

Whatever happens, there is likely to be an increasingly marked polarisation between the political parties. This will clearly render parliamentary government correspondingly more difficult and will create a tendency towards authoritarianism in order to maintain some semblance of social order, however superficial. Unless the British government transforms itself into a ruthless dictatorship, one is forced to predict the eventual breakdown of political control.

In the ensuing chaos one can foresee various attempts at social reintegration in the form of religio-political messianic movements, many of which, influenced by ecological teachings, will preach a return to nature. Like all messianic movements, these are likely to be violent and must further contribute to the general disorder, further reducing, in this way, the viability of what remains of our economy. The social system most likely to emerge is best described as feudal. People will gather round whichever strong men can provide the basic necessities of life, and offer protection against marauding bands from the dying cities.

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Need for a stable society

To what extent can all this be avoided? Industrial society can clearly not survive for long. Nevertheless it should be possible to ensure a gradual transition to a different type of society whose survival does not depend on the maintenance of such specific and highly vulnerable conditions.

How can such a society be established? The first and most urgent task is to control our population. Not only must any further growth be avoided, but its present level must be reduced probably at least by half.

It is only in this way that this country can hope to feed itself in the long term. All possible means, however irreconcilable they might be with our present set of values, should be made use of to ensure that this goal be eventually achieved.

Next we must reduce the impact of each man on the environment by cutting down, in particular, on his energy consumption. An energy tax would clearly be a useful expedient but the most effective method must be to decentralise our society, politically, administratively and economically. This would lead to that other prerequisite of stability – the development of small self-regulating communities.

The totally absurd notion that bigger things are better, must be abandoned and with it the false ideal of ‘maximising’ productivity – the pretext normally given for making things larger and more centralised.

Indeed it should be a precept of government, as it is of the organisation of nature, that everywhere there should be the maximum decentralisation. Nothing should be done at village level which could be done by the family, nothing at county level which could be done by the village, and so on all the way up.

A nation consisting of 56 million people can constitute a society only if it is highly organised into families, small communities, provinces, etc. Their members must be responsible for running their own affairs. They must be self-regulating for only in this way can they be stable.

Among those activities which must be radically decentralised is welfare. At the moment the State, by usurping those responsibilities that should be fulfilled at the communal and family levels, is contributing to their disintegration by rendering them largely redundant.

Economic activity should also be decentralised. Small traders, artisans and businessmen are on the whole stable citizens who tend to take pride in the quality of their work and in the services that they render the community. This should more than compensate for their lack of short term ‘productivity’.

Agriculture must also be decentralised. Contrary to what is generally thought, its output is probably increased by reducing the size of units rather than by increasing them.

The flight to the towns must also end. The destruction of rural life and the elimination of the small farmer, who should normally constitute the backbone of a stable society, is a social disaster whose cost to the community cannot be over-emphasised.

The most serious challenge at present is the provision of alternative employment for the countless millions of people who depend on technology for their living.

Decentralisation would contribute towards this by furthering the development of divergent cultural patterns, and of new activities to replace those that are no longer possible.

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Benefits of decentralisation

The construction of beautiful buildings, the manufacture of fine furniture, the development of local arts and crafts, the revival of local festivities and religious ceremonies, all these things will provide a worthwhile substitute for the haphazard accumulation of manufactured goods to which our society is at present geared. In this economic activity could be ‘ritualised’ as is ‘aggression’ among stable societies (both human and nonhuman).

Ritualised aggression provides a satisfactory outlet for a society’s aggressive requirements without its leading to the annihilation of its enemies. Similarly, ritualised economic activity could be regarded as providing an outlet for man’s essential requirements for creative work in such a way as to minimise the resultant damage to the environment.

Decentralisation would also result in a reduction of mobility. If people are employed where they live, less transport will be required. By reducing our dependence on technology, decentralisation would fulfil yet another essential function: that of reducing our vulnerability. The complex and self-regulating systems of nature would be allowed slowly to replace the relatively simple and externally regulated systems of our technosphere, a substitution essential to the establishment of ecological stability.

Clearly the transition to such a society would not be easy. The principal problem would be how to provide satisfactory employment for so many people. New occupations that do not require the use of power, would probably take some time to develop. The dole does not solve the serious psychological problems of unemployment. It is at best a palliative. The only alternative is to accept that a vast amount of work is required to clean up the mess resulting from 150 years of uncontrolled economic growth.

A sort of national service for conservation on the lines of the Conservation Corps could be instituted, and the more decentralised its organisation, the more effective it is likely to be, as people would surely be keener to help clean up their local environment than that of people living at the other end of the country.

Moreover, it must be accepted that people should be employed whether or not their employment is justified on ‘economic grounds’. This is already the case in the Soviet Union. ‘Economically unproductive’ work of this sort would undoubtedly lead to a situation in which there would be more money around than goods to buy, again as in the case in the Soviet Union. The dissatisfaction this might give rise to would be partly offset by the development of the new occupations already referred to, as economic activity becomes ever more ‘ritualised’. Meanwhile there, will certainly be inflation – but on nothing like the scale that would accompany the total breakdown of our society, which is possibly the only alternative.

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Can we make the transition?

A more serious objection is that the transition of a stable society would probably have to be carefully orchestrated as a single programme. If any part of it is left out, because it is regarded as objectionable by some sections of society in terms of current ethical norms, then the whole programme may well be a failure.

It follows that this social transformation can only be ensured by a government having a mandate to plan and implement such a programme as painlessly as possible, i.e. over the maximum period consistent with avoiding the catastrophes with which our society is at present menaced.

Is it likely that the British government will undertake a programme of this sort? The answer is unfortunately ‘no’. It would require first of all a degree of long term planning of which we are undoubtedly incapable. It would also require subjecting a host of short term requirements on the part of practically the whole population to wider and longer term considerations. This would be very difficult as our society is geared to specifically short term ends. A businessman simply must declare profits at the end of the year if he is to survive, and to make these profits he is often forced to adopt methods detrimental to the society he lives in and also to his own long term prospects.

A doctor must above all else relieve pain or lose his patients. To do this he currently administers drugs and uses diagnostic techniques such as X-rays and radioisotopes that must inevitably increase disease in the long term.

The farmer, in order to survive, as we have been at pains to point out in this book, must make use of highly unsound agricultural methods that must eventually lead to a reduction in output.

The scientist must above all succeed in achieving whatever short term goal he has been set by the business enterprise or the government department he works for. He is likely to have neither the means nor the inclination to judge for himself what are the long term effects of the work he is doing on the society or the ecosystem of which he is part.

A politician must win votes if he is to remain in office and to do this he must satisfy the countless short term requirements of a predominantly ignorant and egoistic electorate, even when these are in direct conflict with the long term interest of the society he has been called upon to direct. Neither the businessman, the doctor, the farmer, the scientist, the politician, nor anyone else in a position of authority, appears capable of questioning the basic assumptions underlying our industrial culture.

The tendency will thus be to blame all ills on technicalities that can be dealt with without having to modify these assumptions – leaving the real causes untouched.

Overcrowding, we shall persuade ourselves, is the result of poor urban planning, delinquency, of insufficient state care and drug addiction of faulty education.

Pollution, we shall insist, is the avoidable result of the niggardliness of industrialists, lung cancer of insufficient money spent on cancer research and the world food shortage we shall attribute to the backwardness of agricultural techniques, and so on with all the other ills that must afflict us.

In this way vast sums of money will be wasted on more urban planning, more state care, more education, more cancer research, more pollution control and more poisonous agrochemicals in a vain attempt to suppress the symptoms of the disease which we are incapable of treating as we are culturally unadapted to the life style that must constitute its only remedy.

To treat the symptoms, however, is to render the disease correspondingly more tolerable and to contribute thereby more its perpetuation.

Thus growth is not likely to cease as a result of a conscious decision on the part of anyone in authority but simply because the specific conditions in which it can occur will slowly cease to obtain.

As that moment draws near so we are entering a radically new phase in our history: the post-industrial age.


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