August 20, 2017

The Great U-turn – Introduction

The Great U-Turn – De-industrialising Society was written by Edward Goldsmith and published by Green Books in 1988.

In this Introduction, Goldsmith introduces the book’s key topics.

See “contents” below for more chapters from this book.

This book contains a series of essays written during the last 16 years. They have been published separately (in The Ecologist and other periodicals and books outside the UK) but are complementary and were designed for inclusion in a single book. They have been revised and updated when this has been necessary, but no substantial changes have been made.

The first essay attempts to show that the problems we face today are not new. This is well illustrated by the fate of the Roman Empire, whose decline was not the result of the barbarian invasions but, as that of the western world today, the consequence of social disintegration and the associated environmental degradation.

If, moreover, these trends proved fatal, it is that those who governed the Empire chose – as our leaders have also chosen today – to apply short-term expedients to mask the symptoms of a disease whose fundamental cause it was not politically expedient nor economically viable to address.

The next six essays deal with a few of the symptoms of the same disease as it affects our industrial society – poor education (chapter 2), unemployment (chapter 3), ill-health (chapter 4), pollution (chapter 5) and war (chapter 6).

Others could equally well have been chosen – deforestation for instance, man-made climate change, the population explosion, malnutrition and famine, or drug-addiction and delinquency.

As I try to show in this book, our society is incapable, for a number of reasons, of solving any such problems. The first is that, in the light of the industrial worldview with which we have all been imbued, it is impossible to understand their real nature. This is partly because of the way our knowledge is compartmentalized into separate watertight disciplines, partly too because of the reductionist methodology of modern science, both of which conspire to make us see our problems in isolation from each other rather than as part of the same general picture.

It is also because of the tendency of those working within such disciplines to view the problems we face in the light of the very short experience of our industrial society, which is but a fraction of the total human experience on this planet, during much of which time such problems either did not exist or did so in a very attenuated form.

It is mainly, however, that we do not really want to understand them, for, if we did, we would have to face the unpleasant fact that they are the inevitable concomitants of those trends we most highly prize – those we have been taught to identify with ‘progress’ – the development of science, technology, industry, the global market system and the modern state. We would also have to face the still less acceptable conclusion that our problems can only be solved by reversing these developments, i.e. by putting ‘progress’ into reverse – an enterprise that few would even be willing to contemplate, yet for which there is no real alternative.

How it could be done, my colleagues and I explained in A Blueprint for Survival in 1972. A more detailed plan was published in the May 1977 issue of The Ecologist under the title of “De-industrializing Society”. It is reproduced in the final chapter of this book. The fact that such a plan is neither politically expedient nor economically viable is no argument against it. Indeed it is increasingly apparent that if any strategy is politically expedient and economically viable, it is, as John Davoll has noted, unlikely to work.

It must follow that it is our politico-economic system itself that must be transformed, so that it becomes possible to apply real solutions to our problems rather than to persist, as we are doing today, in applying short-term expedients to mask the more apparent symptoms of these problems – a policy that, by rendering them superficially more tolerable, can only ensure their perpetuation.

The key question is what are likely to be the main features of the new society that such a transformation would bring about?

As I intimate in every chapter of this book, one can only establish this by determining what were the main features of the traditional societies of the past that proved capable, for thousands if not tens of thousands of years, of avoiding creating the terrible problems that we face today.

I regard this thesis as fundamental, for to postulate an ideal society for which there is no precedent within the human experience, as many of our political theorists, including Karl Marx, have done, is very much like postulating an alternative biology without reference to the sort of biological structures that have so far proved viable.

Clearly we cannot recreate the past, the experience of the modern age cannot be eradicated. However, in order to determine what are the necessary features of the stable, fulfilling and problem-solving societies, that, one can only hope, will emerge during the post-modern age, it is to the traditional societies of the past that we must turn for inspiration.

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