July 27, 2017

De-industrialising society

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Five years after A Blueprint for Survival, Edward Goldsmith updates and reaffirms the original message, that we must create “an economically and politically de-centralised post-industrial society”.

The article was originally published in The Ecologist Vol. 7 No. 4, May 1977. This slightly revised version was published as Chapter 7 of The Great U-Turn, published by Green Books in 1988.

It seems unnecessary to list the ills our world is suffering from or to demonstrate that they are getting worse, or that the measures undertaken by us to combat them are increasingly ineffective. It is important however, to determine why all this should be so.

The tendency, of course, is to blame our failure on mere technicalities, errors in the implementation of our policies, not on the policies themselves, for these are the only ones consistent with our world view, hence the only ones the society it gives rise to, or is capable of providing.

Let us begin by considering the main features of this world view. Implicit to it is the notion that the world we live in is imperfect. In the Middle Ages, the Cathars and other heretical sects also regarded the world as imperfect. Their reaction however, was to cut themselves off from it and live instead in a spiritual world of their own making.

We, on the other hand, have set out systematically to improve it. By means of science, technology, and industry, we have persuaded ourselves, it can be transformed into a veritable paradise, in which everyone will have at his or her disposal an extraordinary array of consumer goods and ingenious technological devices and in which vast specialised institutions will deal so ‘scientifically’ with all such problems as unemployment, homelessness, ignorance, disease, crime and delinquency, which are supposed to have afflicted us since the beginning of time, that these will be eliminated once and for all.

This transformation is referred to misleadingly as development and the direction it is leading us in is referred to as progress. It is thereby not surprising that any problems which arise are ascribed to underdevelopment, and that, to solve them, it suffices to invest in more scientific research, more technological innovation and more industrial expansion, i.e. in more development, to which-needless to say-our society is, in any case, committed.

In other words, rather than interpret our problems objectively (which is what science is supposed to do for us), we interpret them subjectively so as to make them appear amenable to the only solutions we can provide without radically altering our world view and the social behaviour pattern it gives rise to – the only solutions which, among other things, are at present economically viable and politically expedient.

Thus, for instance, we define poverty as a shortage of material goods, which justifies the production of more and more material goods. It does not occur to us that it might be more realistic to regard it as an aberrant situation in which more material goods are required than can actually be produced, for then the solution would be to create those socio-economic conditions in which less goods rather than more were required.

Or again, we interpret the housing problem as a shortage of houses, which justifies the building of more and more houses. It does not occur to us that it might be more realistic to regard it as an aberrant situation largely caused by the disintegration of the family, as a result of which, where there were eight to ten people per house, there are now two or three. This latter interpretation would be inconvenient, since though we know how to build houses, industrial society does not provide the means for restoring the integrity of the family unit.

In the same way, we regard the high crime rate as a sign that the police force is inadequate or that it is not sufficiently well equipped. It does not occur to us that it might be a symptom of social disintegration. This is because, though it has been up to now reasonably easy to engage more policemen, build more prisons, and manufacture more armoured cars and burglar alarms, there is no mechanism available to us for creating a sounder society without compromising the achievement of other goals to which we attribute a higher priority.

If our interpretation of these and all the other problems which face our society today was the correct one, then, on logistical grounds alone, one could state unhesitatingly, that they could never be solved, and that the future of man was very grim indeed. Fortunately, it is our interpretation that is wrong. Our problems are of a very different order and the correspondingly different solutions are much easier to apply. Let us look a little more closely at this process of ‘development’, or more precisely ‘industrialisation’ – its latest phase.

Firstly, it is not autonomous. It does not occur in a vacuum as is implied by modern economics. If the world were a lifeless waste, as is the moon, there could be no industrialisation. If it has occurred at all, it is that over the last few thousand million years the primaeval dust has slowly been organised into an increasingly complex organisation of matter – the biosphere, or world of living things – or the ‘real world’ as we might refer to it – which provides the resources entering into this process. Industrialisation is something which is happening to the biosphere. It is the biosphere, in fact – the real world – that is being industrialised.

In this way, a new organisation of matter is building up: the technosphere or world of material goods and technological devices: or the surrogate world.

This brings us to the second important feature of industrialisation: the surrogate world it gives rise to is in direct competition with the real world, since it can only be built up by making use of resources extracted from the latter, and by consigning to it the waste products this process must inevitably generate.

Let us see why this must be so. The actual building up of the surrogate world occurs in three steps:

  1. Firstly, resources are extracted from the real world, which can only lead to its contraction and deterioration. Thus, to obtain timber, forests must be felled, causing soil erosion, a fall in the water table, the drying up of streams and increasing the incidence and severity of droughts and floods. To obtain other building materials such as stones, or clay for brick making, still more areas must be deprived of their trees and topsoil.
  2. Secondly, so as to build up the surrogate world of cities, factories, motorways and airports, these materials must be organised differently elsewhere. Hence, the land must also be deprived of its trees and its topsoil before being covered with materials such as cement and asphalt which are random to the processes of the real world.
  3. Thirdly, this process, like all others, must give rise to waste products. These become increasingly toxic as industrialisation proceeds (as synthetics take over from naturally-occurring materials). Unfortunately the processes of the surrogate world, being far more rudimentary than those of the real world, give rise to correspondingly more wastes, and as they are neither arranged in such a way, nor are they of the right sort to serve as the necessary raw materials for the further development of the surrogate world let alone for the restoration of the real one, they simply tend to accumulate as “randomness” vis-à-vis, both of these rival organisations of matter.

To illustrate this point, consider a modern city of a million inhabitants. Wolman has likened it to some vast beast with a very specific metabolism. Every day it must take in some 9,500 tons of fossil fuels, 2,000 tons of food, 625,000 tons of water, 31,500 tons of oxygen plus unknown quantities of various minerals while it must also emit, during the same period, some 28,500 tons of CO2, 12,000 tons of H20 (produced in the combustion of fossil fuels), 150 tons of particles, 500,000 tons of sewage, together with vast quantities of refuse, sulphur and nitrogen oxides and various other heterogeneous materials. [1]

If the beast is to keep alive, its metabolism cannot be stopped any more than can that of any other beast. This means that the resources must be extracted from somewhere, the wastes released somewhere else. The latter, as we saw in my article “Can pollution be controlled?”, cannot simply be made to vanish.

Pollution-control simply consists in diverting pollutants to where they are likely to do the least harm or to dilute them in the atmosphere or in the seas. (The loss during the recycling process, in the case of most materials, is so great that this does not provide any long term solution). Pollution-control, in fact, is only possible when there are few such beasts around, impossible when there are a large number – for then pollution becomes global rather than local, there is nowhere to divert it to, and nothing left to dilute it in.

It must follow that all three steps involved in the process of building up the surrogate world give rise to a corresponding contraction and deterioration of the real one. Economic growth, in terms of which the former process is measured, is thereby biological and social contraction and deterioration. They are just different sides of the same coin.

Unfortunately, we are part of the real world, not the surrogate one. In fact, we have been designed phylogenetically (and at one time culturally, too) to fulfil within it specific differentiated functions. It would be very naive to suppose that its systematic destruction would not affect us in some way. To understand exactly how, we must consider the basic features of the real world. Unfortunately, these tend to be disregarded by most of today’s scientists, who are more concerned with accumulating trivia than in understanding basic principles.

The most basic principle of the behaviour of the biosphere is that it is goal-directed as can be shown to be the case with all the behavioural systems which comprise it. The goal is stability, which is defined as the ability of a system to maintain its basic structure in the face of change – and hence its continuity – or, in the widest sense of the term to survive. Stability is not a fixed point in space-time but a course or trajectory which a system must adopt in order to remain stable. By doing so, oscillations or discontinuities are reduced to a minimum.

It can be shown that primitive societies were geared to precisely this goal. The main preoccupation of their members was to observe their traditional customs and to hand them down as intact as possible to their children and to their children’s children. It is only a very aberrant society such as ours that is geared to systematic change in a given direction and one that can survive for but a very limited period of time.

The second aspect of the biosphere which concerns us here, is that it is self-regulating, as are all the systems which constitute it. Control is achieved by detecting data relevant to the system’s behaviour pattern, and interpreting them in terms of a model of its relationship with its environment.

This, in the case of a society, corresponds to its ‘world view’, in terms of which its policies are mediated and monitored. This notion of self-regulation is so important to the achievement of stability, that the two are normally included in the same concept of ‘homeostasis’. If self-regulation is impaired and the system comes to be controlled externally (asystemically) by an agent outside the system and random to it, then there is no longer any mechanism for keeping it on its course towards stability.

Self-regulation was indeed a basic feature of primitive societies which were in fact remarkably well governed by public opinion and without the aid of formal institutions. Ours, on the other hand, are increasingly governed by external or asystemic agencies, dictators or vast bureaucracies, which are not subjected to the control of the social-system as a whole, for the latter has largely disintegrated into a structureless mass which no longer satisfies the requirements of a self-regulating system.

A further consequence of replacing systemic controls by asystemic ones, is that the normal relationship between a system and its sub-systems is interfered with. In the case of a social system this gives rise to motivational problems.

A self-regulating system displays order. This means that its parts are differentiated to fulfil specialised functions. They are thereby no longer autonomous. Instead they have become dependent on each other to fulfil that constellation of functions required for their common survival. In other words, they must co-operate with each other and behave in that way that will satisfy the requirements of the system of which they are a part, and hence contribute to the latter’s stability or survival.

This they do, not because pressure is applied upon them to do so by some external agent, but because they have been designed phylogenetically and ontogenetically to fulfil the requisite differentiated functions. It is by fulfilling them, in fact, that their relationship with the various constituents of their environment is the most stable-that they are thereby best adjusted to their environment-that their needs are in fact best satisfied.

The operation of this principle at the level of the family is quite evident. Parents fulfil their normal functions by behaving in a particular way towards their spouses and children and thereby ensuring the survival of the family, because it is by so doing that they best satisfy their basic physical and psychological needs. It will be shown that the same principle applies to behaviour within any self-regulating system such as a community or an ecosystem. I refer to this as the ‘hierarchical co-operation principle’, which could be stated thus: in a self-regulating system, behaviour which satisfies the needs of the differentiated parts will also satisfy those of the whole.

This principle no longer applies in a modern industrial society, in which behaviour either satisfies, however badly, the needs of the part or of the whole but never both at once. Hence, Garrett Hardin’s famous allegory The Tragedy of the Commons, which simply could not occur in a self-regulating social system.

The reason is that once a society has disintegrated, it ceases to provide its members with the optimum environment, that in which they can fulfil adaptively the functions they were designed for by their evolution and their upbringing. Once the environment fails to satisfy the needs of its members, they will cease to behave in that way which will lead to the stability of the larger system of which they are a part, or what is the same thing, of the environment it provides them with.

In a disintegrated society it is thus very difficult to obtain the co-operation of its members for any enterprise which is not specifically designed to satisfy individual interests which – because of the society’s disintegration – now conflicts with those of the society as a whole. We are now, in fact, faced with a motivational problem which could not exist in a tribal society which is a sell-regulating system. Their co-operation can only be obtained by offering people a financial reward or, if the enterprise in question appears to be too contrary to their immediate interests, by coercion.

In other words, when a society ceases to be self-regulating, its behaviour is no longer based on the exploitation of existing social forces. To ensure its day-to-day functioning, and hence its survival – in the broader sense of the term – it must exploit forces which are external and random to the system (asystemic), and this causes serious problems.

First of all, to do so presents serious logistical problems, for the work involved increases correspondingly. Thus, as we take over an increasing number of functions from the self-regulating mechanisms of nature, such as the control of pests, the fertilisation of the soil, the management of water resources and the government of human societies, our work load increases correspondingly.

What is more there is a limit to the workload we can undertake. Indeed, the signs are that we are already overstretched and that neither available capital, nor physical resources-to mention but two factors involved, can allow us to take over any more of the functions that are still fulfilled by nature’s self-regulating mechanisms. As was pointed out in the SCEP report, were we to decide that the pollination of plants by bumble bees was old-fashioned and inefficient and that it would be advantageous for us to assume this function, even were we to have at our disposal the most ingenious technological devices, we could not do so for more than an insignificant period, for the logistical problems involved would be insuperable. [2]

To fully understand the extent of these logistical problems, we must consider just how rudimentary are our asystemic controls, when compared with the systemic ones of nature. As already pointed out, the biosphere, or real world, is an organisation. The importance of this notion of organisation cannot be over-emphasised.

Consider that human beings are made up of a small and very unimpressive array of raw materials. They are 80 per cent water and the market value of the chemicals used in their production is not much in excess of £1. However, 300 million years of evolutionary research and development have gone into organising them in such a way that they give rise to highly complex and sophisticated living creatures such as human beings. Now consider how unimpressive would be the most sophisticated human artefact which could be produced from the same materials.

It must follow that when one has at one’s disposal a limited quantity of materials – which must be the case at the best of times, since our world is a closed system from the point of view of materials (though an open one from the point of view of energy) – it is incomparably more efficient to use them in such a way that they enter into the building up of the real world rather than of the surrogate one – and hence that they give rise to systemic rather than asystemic processes.

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