December 11, 2016

Introduction: the need for change

Section 1: A Blueprint for Survival.

The Blueprint occupied the entire issue of The Ecologist Vol. 2 No. 1, January 1972, in advance of the world’s first Environment Summit (the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, in Stockholm).

The principal authors were Edward Goldsmith and Robert Allen, with additional help from Michael Allaby, John Davoll, and Sam Lawrence.

So great was demand for A Blueprint for Survival that it was republished in book form later that year by Penguin Books, on 14 September 1972.

Note: click on images to enlarge.

110. The principal defect of the industrial way of life with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable. Its termination within the lifetime of someone born today is inevitable – unless it continues to be sustained for a while longer by an entrenched minority at the cost of imposing great suffering on the rest of mankind. We can be certain, however, that sooner or later it will end (only the precise time and circumstances are in doubt), and that it will do so in one of two ways: either against our will, in a succession of famines, epidemics, social crises and wars; or because we want it to – because we wish to create a society which will not impose hardship and cruelty upon our children – in a succession of thoughtful, humane and measured changes. We believe that a growing number of people are aware of this choice, and are more interested in our proposals for creating a sustainable society than in yet another recitation of the reasons why this should be done. We will therefore consider these reasons only briefly, reserving a fuller analysis for the four appendices which follow the Blueprint proper.

111. Radical change is both necessary and inevitable because the present increases in human numbers and per capita consumption, by disrupting ecosystems and depleting resources, are undermining the very foundations of survival. At present the world population of 3,600 million is increasing by 2 percent per year (72 million), but this overall figure conceals crucially important differences between countries. The industrialised countries with one-third of the world population have annual growth rates between 0.5 percent and 1.0 percent; the undeveloped countries on the other hand, with two-thirds of the world population, have annual growth rates of between 2 and 3 percent, and from 40 to 45 percent of their populations is under 15. It is commonly overlooked that in countries with an unbalanced age structure of this kind, the population will continue to increase for many years even after fertility has fallen to the replacement level. As the Population Council has pointed out: “if replacement is achieved in the developed world by 2000 and in the developing world by 2040, then the world’s population will stabilise at nearly 15.5 billion (15,500 million) about a century hence, or well over four times the present size”.

112. The per capita use of energy and raw materials also shows a sharp division between the developed and the undeveloped parts of the world. Both are increasing their use of these commodities, but consumption in the developed countries is so much higher that, even with their smaller share of the population, their consumption may well represent over 80 percent of the world total. For the same reason, similar percentage increases are far more significant in the developed countries; to take one example, between 1957 and 1967 per capita steel consumption rose by 12 percent in the US and by 41 percent in India, but the actual increases (in kg per year) were from 568 to 634 and from 9.2 to 13 respectively. Nor is there any sign that an eventual end to economic growth is envisaged, and indeed industrial economies appear to break down if growth ceases or even slows, however high the absolute level of consumption. Even the US still aims at an annual growth of GNP of 4 percent or more. Within this overall figure much higher growth rates occur for the use of particular resources, such as oil.

113. The combination of human numbers and per capita consumption has a considerable impact on the environment, in terms of both the resources we take from it and the pollutants we impose on it. A distinguished group of scientists, who came together for a Study of Critical Environmental Problems (SCEP) under the auspices of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, state in their report the clear need for a means of measuring this impact, and have coined the term ‘ecological demand’, which they define as “a summation of all man’s demands on the environment, such as the extraction of resources and the return of wastes”. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is population multiplied by material standard of living appears to provide the most convenient measure of ecological demand, and according to the UN Statistical Yearbook this is increasing annually by 5 to 6 percent, or doubling every 13.5 years. If this trend should continue, then in the time taken for world population to double (which is estimated to be by just after the year 2000), total ecological demand will have increased by a factor of six, SCEP estimate that

“such demand-producing activities as agriculture, mining and industry have global annual rates of increase of 3.5 percent and 7 percent respectively. An integrated rate of increase is estimated to be between 5 and 6 percent a year, in comparison with an annual rate of population increase of only 2 percent.”

114. It should go without saying that the world cannot accommodate this continued increase in ecological demand. Indefinite growth of whatever type cannot be sustained by finite resources. This is the nub of the environmental predicament. It is still less possible to maintain indefinite exponential growth – and unfortunately the growth of ecological demand is proceeding exponentially (i.e. it is increasing geometrically, by compound interest).

115. The implications of exponential growth are not generally appreciated and are well worth considering. As Professor Forrester explains it [1]

“pure exponential growth possesses the characteristic of behaving according to a ‘doubling time’. Each fixed time interval shows a doubling of the relevant system variable. Exponential growth is treacherous and misleading. A system variable can continue through many doubling intervals without seeming to reach significant size. But then in one or two more doubling periods, still following the same law of exponential growth, it suddenly seems to become overwhelming.”

Blueprint for Survival - Figure 1 (Introduction)116. Thus, supposing world petroleum reserves stood at 2,100 billion barrels, and supposing our rate of consumption was increasing by 6.9 percent per year, then as can be seen from Figure 1, demand will exceed supply by the end of the century. What is significant, however, is not the speed at which such vast reserves can be depleted, but that as late as 1975 there will appear to be reserves fully ample enough to last for considerably longer. Such a situation can easily lull one into a false sense of security and the belief that a given growth rate can be sustained, if not indefinitely, at least for a good deal longer than is actually the case. It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that the actual rate of petroleum consumption is increasing by 6.9 percent per year and according to the optimistic estimate of W. P. Ryman, Deputy Exploration manager of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, world petroleum reserves (including deposits yet to be discovered) are about 2,100 billion barrels. The same basic logic applies to the availability of any resource including land, and it is largely because of this particular dynamic of exponential growth that the environmental predicament has come upon us so suddenly, and why its solution requires urgent and radical measures, many of which run counter to values which, in our industrial society we have been taught to regard as fundamental.

117. If we allow the present growth rate to persist, total ecological demand will increase by a factor of 32 over the next 66 years – and there can be no serious person today willing to concede the possibility, or indeed the desirability, of our accommodating the pressures arising from such growth. For this can be done only at the cost of disrupting ecosystems and exhausting resources, which must lead to the failure of food supplies and the collapse of society. It is worth briefly considering each in turn.

Disruption of ecosystems

120. We depend for our survival on the predictability of ecological processes. If they were at all arbitrary, we would not know when to reap or sow and we would be at the mercy of environmental whim. We could learn nothing about the rest of nature, advance no hypotheses, and suggest no ‘laws’. Fortunately, ecological processes are predictable, and although theirs is a relatively young discipline, ecologists have been able to formulate a number of important ‘laws’, one of which in particular relates to environmental predictability: namely, that all ecosystems tend towards stability, and further that the more diverse and complex the ecosystem the more stable it is; that is, the more species there are, and the more they interrelate, the more stable is their environment. By stability is meant the ability to return to the original position after any change, instead of being forced into a totally different pattern – and hence predictability.

121. Unfortunately, we behave as if we knew nothing of the environment and had no conception of its predictability, treating it instead with scant and brutal regard as if it were an idiosyncratic and extremely stupid slave. We seem never to have reflected on the fact that a tropical rain forest supports innumerable insect species and yet is never devastated by them; that its rampant luxuriance is not contingent on our overflying it once a month and bombarding it with insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and what-have-you. And yet we tremble over our wheat fields and cabbage patches with a desperate battery of synthetic chemicals, in an absurd attempt to impede the operation of the immutable ‘law’ we have just mentioned – that all ecosystems tend towards stability, therefore diversity and complexity, therefore a growing number of different plant and animal species until a climax or optimal condition is achieved, if we were clever, we would recognise that successful long-term agriculture demands the achievement of an artificial climax, an imitation of the pre-existing ecosystem, so that the level of unwanted species could be controlled by those that did no harm to the crop-plants.

122. Instead we have put our money on pesticides, which although they have been effective, have been so only to a limited and now diminishing extent: according to SCEP, the 34 percent increase in world food production from 1951 to 1966 required increased investments in nitrogenous fertilisers of 146 percent and in pesticides of 300 percent. At the same time they have created a number of serious problems, notably resistance – some 250 pest species are resistant to one group of pesticides or another, while many others require increased applications to keep their populations within manageable proportions – and the promotion of formerly innocuous species to pest proportions, because the predators that formerly kept them down have been destroyed. The spread of DDT and other organo-chlorines in the environment has resulted in alarming population declines among woodcock, grebes, various birds of prey and seabirds, and in a number of fish species, principally the sea trout. SCEP comments:

“the oceans are an ultimate accumulation site of DDT and its residues. As much as 25 percent of the DDT compounds produced to date may have been transferred to the sea. The amount in the marine biota is estimated to be in the order of less than 0.1 percent of total production and has already produced a demonstrable impact upon the marine environment … The decline in production of marine food fish and the accumulation of levels of DDT in their tissues which are unacceptable to man can only be accelerated by DDT’s continued release to the environment.”

123. There are half a million man-made chemicals in use today, yet we cannot predict the behaviour or properties of the greater part of them (either singly or in combination) once they are released into the environment. We know, however, that the combined effects of pollution and habitat destruction menace the survival of no less than 280 mammal, 350 bird, and 20,000 plant species. To those who regret these losses but greet them with the comment that the survival of Homo sapiens is surely more important than that of an eagle or a primrose, we repeat that Homo sapiens himself depends on the continued resilience of those ecological networks of which eagles and primroses are integral parts. We do not need to utterly destroy the ecosphere to bring catastrophe upon ourselves: all we have to do is to carry on as we are, clearing forests, ‘reclaiming’ wetlands, and imposing sufficient quantities of pesticides, radioactive materials, plastics, sewage, and industrial wastes upon our air, water and land systems to make them inhospitable to the species on which their continued stability and integrity depend. Industrial man in the world today is like a bull in a china shop, with the single difference that a bull with half the information about the properties of china as we have about those of ecosystems would probably try and adapt its behaviour to its environment rather than the reverse. By contrast, Homo sapiens industrialis is determined that the china shop should adapt to him, and has therefore set himself the goal of reducing it to rubble in the shortest possible time.

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Failure of food supplies

130. Increases in food production in the undeveloped world have barely kept abreast of population growth. Such increases as there have been are due not to higher productivity but to the opening up of new land for cultivation. Unfortunately this will not be possible for much longer: all the good land in the world is now being farmed and according to the FAO[2] at present rates of expansion none of the marginal land that is left will be unfarmed by 1985 – indeed some of the land now under cultivation has been so exhausted that it will have to be returned to permanent pasture.

131. For this reason, FAO’s programme to feed the world depends on a programme of intensification, at the heart of which are the new high-yield varieties of wheat and rice. These are highly responsive to inorganic fertilisers and quick-maturing, so that up to ten times present yields can be obtained from them. Unfortunately, they are highly vulnerable to disease, and therefore require increased protection by pesticides, and of course they demand massive inputs of fertilisers (up to 27 times present ones). Not only will these disrupt local ecosystems, thereby jeopardising long-term productivity, but they force hard-pressed undeveloped nations to rely on the agro-chemical industries of the developed world.

132. Whatever their virtues and faults, the new genetic hybrids are not intended to solve the world food problem, but only to give us time to devise more permanent and realistic solutions. It is our view, however, that these hybrids are not the best means of doing this, since their use is likely to bring about a reduction in overall diversity, when the clear need is to develop an agriculture diverse enough to have long-term potential. We must beware of those ‘experts’ who appear to advocate the transformation of the ecosphere into nothing more than a food-factory for man. The concept of a world consisting solely of man and a few favoured food plants is so ludicrously impracticable as to be seriously contemplated only by those who find solace in their own wilful ignorance of the real world of biological diversity.

133. We in Britain must bear in mind that we depend on imports for half our food, and that we are unlikely to improve on this situation. The 150,000 acres which are lost from agriculture each year are about 70 percent more productive than the average for all enclosed land, [3] while we are already beginning to experience diminishing returns from the use of inorganic fertilisers. In the period 1964-9, applications of phosphates have gone up by 2 percent, potash by 7 percent, and nitrogen by 40 percent, [4] yet yields per acre of wheat, barley, lucerne and temporary grass have levelled off and are beginning to decline, while that of permanent grass has risen only slightly and may be levelling off. [5] As per capita food availability declines throughout the rest of the world, and it appears inevitable it will, we will find it progressively more difficult and expensive to meet our food requirements from abroad. The prospect of severe food shortages within the next thirty years is not so much a fantasy as that of the continued abundance promised us by so many of our politicians.

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Exhaustion of resources

Blueprint for Survival - Figure 2 (Introduction)140. As we have seen, continued exponential growth of consumption of materials and energy is impossible. Present reserves of all but a few metals will be exhausted within 50 years, if consumption rates continue to grow as they are [see Graph 2]. Obviously there will be new discoveries and advances in mining technology, but these are likely to provide us with only a limited stay of execution. Synthetics and substitutes are likely to be of little help, since they must be made from materials which themselves are in short supply; while the hoped-for availability of unlimited energy would not be the answer, since the problem is the ratio of useful metal to waste matter (which would have to be disposed of without disrupting ecosystems), not the need for cheap power. Indeed, the availability of unlimited power holds more of a threat than a promise, since energy use is inevitably polluting, and in addition we would ultimately have to face the problem of disposing of an intractable amount of waste heat.

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Collapse of society

150. The developed nations consume such disproportionate amounts of protein, raw materials and fuels that unless they considerably reduce their consumption there is no hope of the undeveloped nations markedly improving their standards of living. This vast differential is a cause of much and growing discontent, made worse by our attempts at cultural uniformity on behalf of an expanding market economy. In the end, we are altering people’s aspirations without providing the means for them to be satisfied. In the rush to industrialise we break up communities, so that the controls which formerly regulated behaviour are destroyed before alternatives can be provided. Urban drift is one result of this process, with a consequent rise in anti-social practices, crime, delinquency and so on, which are so costly for society in terms both of money and of well-being.

151. At the same time, we are sowing the seeds of massive unemployment by increasing the ratio of capital to labour so that the provision of each job becomes ever more expensive. In a world of fast diminishing resources, we shall quickly come to the point when very great numbers of people will be thrown out of work, when the material compensations of urban life are either no longer available or prohibitively expensive, and consequently when whole sections of society will find good cause to express their considerable discontent in ways likely to be anything but pleasant for their fellows.

152. It is worth bearing in mind that the barriers between us and epidemics are not so strong as is commonly supposed. Not only is it increasingly difficult to control the vectors of disease, but it is more than probable that urban populations are being insidiously weakened by overall pollution levels, even when they are not high enough to be incriminated in any one illness. At the same time international mobility speeds the spread of disease. With this background, and at a time of widespread public demoralisation, the collapse of vital social services, such as power and sanitation, could easily provoke a series of epidemics-and we cannot say with confidence that we would be able to cope with them.

153. At times of great distress and social chaos, it is more than probable that governments will fall into the hands of reckless and unscrupulous elements, who will not hesitate to threaten neighbouring governments with attack, if they feel that they can wrest from them a larger share of the world’s vanishing resources. Since a growing number of countries (an estimated 36 by 1980) will have nuclear power stations, and therefore sources of plutonium for nuclear warheads, the likelihood of a whole series of local (if not global) nuclear engagements is greatly increased.

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Conclusion

160. A fuller discussion of ecosystems and their disruption, of social systems and their disruption, of population and food supply, and of resources and their depletion, can be found in Appendices A, B, C and D, respectively. There will be those who regard these accounts of the consequences of trying to accommodate present growth rates as fanciful. But the imaginative leap from the available scientific information to such predictions is negligible, compared with that required for those alternative predictions, laughably considered ‘optimistic’, of a world of 10,000 to 15,000 million people, all with the same material standard of living as the US, on a concrete replica of this planet, the only moving parts being their machines and possibly themselves. Faced with inevitable change, we have to make decisions, and we must make these decisions soberly in the light of the best information, and not as if we were caricatures of the archetypal mad scientist.

161. By now it should be clear that the main problems of the environment do not arise from temporary and accidental malfunctions of existing economic and social systems. On the contrary, they are the warning signs of a profound incompatibility between deeply rooted beliefs in continuous growth and the dawning recognition of the earth as a space ship, limited in its resources and vulnerable to thoughtless mishandling. The nature of our response to these symptoms is crucial. If we refuse to recognise the cause of our trouble the result can only be increasing disillusion and growing strain upon the fragile institutions that maintain external peace and internal social cohesion. If, on the other hand, we can respond to this unprecedented challenge with informed and constructive action the rewards will be as great as the penalties for failure.

162. We are sufficiently aware of ‘political reality’ to appreciate that many of the proposals we will make in the next chapter will be considered impracticable. However, we believe that if a strategy for survival is to have any chance of success, the solutions must be formulated in the light of the problems and not from a timorous and superficial understanding of what may or may not be immediately feasible. If we plan remedial action with our eyes on political rather than ecological reality, then very reasonably, very practicably, and very surely, we will muddle our way to extinction.

163. A measure of political reality is that government has yet to acknowledge the impending crisis. This is to some extent because it has given itself no machinery for looking at energy, resources, food, environmental disruption and social disruption as a whole, as part of a general, global pattern, preferring instead to deal with its many aspects as if they were self-contained analytical units. Lord Rothschild’s Central Policy Review Staff in the Cabinet Office, which is the only body in government which might remedy the situation, appears not to think it worthwhile: at the moment at least, they are undertaking “no specific studies on the environment that would require an environmentalist or ecologist”. There is a strong element of positive feedback here, in that there can be no appreciation of our predicament unless we view it in totality, and yet government can see no cause to do so unless it can be shown that such a predicament exists.

164. Possibly because government sees the world in fragments and not as a totality, it is difficult to detect in its actions or words any coherent general policy, although both major political parties appear to be mesmerised by two dominating notions: that economic expansion is essential for survival and is the best possible index of progress and well-being; and that unless solutions can be devised that do not threaten this notion, then the problems should not be regarded as existing. Unfortunately, government has an increasingly powerful incentive for continued expansion in the tendency for economic growth to create the need for more economic growth. This it does in six ways:

  • Firstly, the introduction of technological devices, i.e. the growth of the technosphere, can only occur to the detriment of the ecosphere, which means that it leads to the destruction of natural controls which must then be replaced by further technological ones. It is in this way that pesticides and artificial fertilisers create the need for yet more pesticides and artificial fertilisers.
  • Secondly, for various reasons, industrial growth, particularly in its earlier phases, promotes population growth. Even in its later phases, this can still occur at a high rate (0.5 percent in the UK). Jobs must constantly be created for the additional people – not just any job, but those that are judged acceptable in terms of current values. This basically means that the capital outlay per person employed must be maintained, otherwise the level of ‘productivity’ per man will fall, which is a determinant of both the ‘viability’ of economic enterprise and of the ‘standard of living’.
  • Thirdly, no government can hope to survive widespread and protracted unemployment, and without changing the basis of our industrial society, the only way government can prevent it is by stimulating economic growth.
  • Fourthly, business enterprises, whether state-owned or privately owned, tend to become self-perpetuating, which means that they require surpluses for further investment. This favours continued growth.
  • Fifthly, the success of a government and its ability to obtain support is to a large extent assessed in terms of its ability to increase the ‘standard of living’ as measured by per capita gross national product (GNP).
  • Finally, confidence in the economy, which is basically a function of its ability to grow, must be maintained to ensure a healthy state of the stock market. Were confidence to fall, stock values would crash, drastically reducing the availability of capital for investment and hence further growth, which would lead to further unemployment. This would result in a further fall in stock-market values and hence give rise to a positive-feedback chain-reaction, which under the existing order might well lead to social collapse.

For all these reasons, we can expect our government (whether Conservative or Labour) to encourage further increases in GNP regardless of the consequences, which in any case tame ‘experts’ can be found to play down. It will curb growth only when public opinion demands such a move, in which case it will be politically expedient, and when a method is found for doing so without creating unemployment or excessive pressure on capital. We believe this is possible only within the framework of a fully integrated plan.

165. The emphasis must be on integration. If we develop relatively clean technologies but do not end economic growths, then sooner or later we will find ourselves with as great a pollution problem as before but without the means of tackling it. If we stabilise our economies and husband our non-renewable resources without stabilising our populations we will find we are no longer able to feed ourselves. As Forrester [1] and Meadows [6] convincingly make clear, daunting though an integrated programme may be, a piecemeal approach will cause more problems than it solves.

166. Our task is to create a society which is sustainable and which will give the fullest possible satisfaction to its members. Such a society by definition would depend not on expansion but on stability. This does not mean to say that it would be stagnant – indeed it could well afford more variety than does the state of uniformity at present being imposed by the pursuit of technological efficiency. We believe that the stable society, the achievement of which we shall discuss in the next chapter, as well as removing the sword of Damocles which hangs over the heads of future generations, is much more likely than the present one to bring the peace and fulfilment which hitherto have been regarded, sadly, as utopian.

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References

1. Jay Forrester, World Dynamics. Wright Allen Press, Cambridge, Mass.1970.
2. FAO, Provisional Indicative World Plan for Agriculture, Rome 1969.
3. Stated by the Ministry of Agriculture to the Select Committee on Science and Technology, 1971. Population of the United Kingdom, HMSO, London.
4. Agricultural Advisory Council, Modern Farming and the Soil. HMSO, London 1971.
5. Ministry of Agriculture (Statistics Division). Output and utilisation of farm produce in the United Kingdom, 1968-9. HMSO, London 1970.
6. Dennis Meadows et al. 1972, The Limits of Growth. Club of Rome / MIT Press.
7. The American Metal Market Co. 1970. Metal Statistics, P. T. Flawn. 1966. Dennis Meadows et al., Mineral Resources, 1972. The Limits to Growth, United Nations, 1968. The World Market for Iron Ore, United Nations, 1970. Statistical Yearbook, US Bureau of Mines, 1969. Minerals Yearbook, US Bureau of Mines, 1971. “Commodity Data Summary”, Yearbook of American Bureau of Metal Statistics, 1970.
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