October 22, 2017

Towards the stable society: strategy for change

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Section 2: 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.

210. The principal conditions of a stable society – one that to all intents and purposes can be sustained indefinitely while giving optimum satisfaction to its members – are:

  1. minimum disruption of ecological processes
  2. maximum conservation of materials and energy – or an economy of stock rather than flow
  3. a population in which recruitment equals loss; and (4) a social system
  4. in which the individual can enjoy, rather than feel restricted by, the first three conditions

211. The achievement of these four conditions will require controlled and well-orchestrated change on numerous fronts and this change will probably occur through seven operations:

  1. a control operation whereby environmental disruption is reduced as much as possible by technical means;
  2. a freeze operation, in which present trends are halted;
  3. asystemic substitution, by which the most dangerous components of these trends are replaced by technological substitutes, whose effect is less deleterious in the short-term, but over the long-term will be increasingly ineffective;
  4. systemic substitution, by which these technological substitutes are replaced by ‘natural’ or self-regulating ones, i.e. those which either replicate or employ without undue disturbance the normal processes of the ecosphere, and are therefore likely to be sustainable over very long periods of time;
  5. the invention, promotion and application of alternative technologies which are energy and materials conservative, and which because they are designed for relatively ‘closed’ economic communities are likely to disrupt ecological processes only minimally (e.g. intermediate technology);
  6. decentralisation of policy and economy at all levels, and the formation of communities small enough to be reasonably self-regulating and self-supporting; and
  7. education for such communities.

212. As we shall see when we examine how our four conditions might be achieved, some changes will involve only a few of these operations; in others a number of the operations will be carried out almost simultaneously, and in others one will start well before another has ended. The usefulness of the operation-concept is simply to clarify the orchestration of change.

213. In putting forward these proposals we are aware that hasty or disordered change is highly disruptive and ultimately self-defeating; but we are also mindful of how the time-scale imposed on any proposal for a remedial course of action has been much-abbreviated by the dynamic of exponential growth (of population, resource depletion and pollution) and by the scarcely perceived scale and intensity of our disruption of the ecological processes on which we and all other life-forms depend. Within these limitations, therefore, we have taken care to devise and synchronise our programme so as to minimise both unemployment and capital outlay. We believe it possible to change from an expansionist society to a stable society without loss of jobs or an increase in real expenditure. Inevitably, however, there will be considerable changes, both of geography and function, in job availability and the requirements for capital inputs – and these may set up immense counter-productive social pressures. Yet given the careful and sensitive conception and implementation of a totally integrated programme these should be minimised, and an open style of government should inspire the trust and co-operation of the general public so essential for the success of this enterprise.

214. One further point should be made before we consider in more detail the various changes required. As each of the many socio-economic components or variables of industrial society are changed or replaced, so various pressure-points will be set up. It is easy to imagine, for example, a situation in which 25 percent of the socio-economic variables are designed for a stable society and therefore by definition are ill-suited to one of expansion. This situation may create more problems than it solves. When we reach the point at which 50 percent of the variables are adapted to stability and the other 50 percent to expansion, the difficulties and tensions are likely to be enormous, but thereafter each change and replacement will assist further change and replacement, and the moulding of a sustainable, satisfying society should be that much easier. It is difficult for the human mind to imagine the temporal sequence of complex change, and no doubt impossible for it to visualise the precise interactions of the various components. While bearing in mind the folly of expecting computers to do our thinking for us, we believe they have an important role to play in demonstrating the consequences throughout social and ecological systems of a great number of changes over a given period of time.

Minimising the disruption of ecological processes

220. Ecological processes can be disrupted by introducing into them either substances that are foreign to them or the correct ones in the wrong quantities. It follows therefore that the most common method of pollution ‘control’. namely dispersal, is not control at all, but a more or less useful way of playing for time. Refuse disposal by dumping solves the immediate problem of the householder, but as dumping sites are used up it creates progressively less soluble problems for society at large; smokeless fuels are invaluable signs of progress for the citizens of London or Sheffield, but the air pollution from their manufacture brings misery and ill-health to the people near the plants where they are produced; in many cases the dispersal of pollutants through tall chimneys merely alters the proportion of pollution, so that instead of a few receiving much, many receive some; and lastly, in estuarine and coastal waters – crucial areas for fisheries-nutrients from sewage and agricultural run-off in modest quantities probably increase productivity, but in excess are as harmful as organochlorines and heavy metals.

221. Thus dispersal can be only a temporary expedient. Pollution control proper must consist of the recycling of materials, or the introduction of practices which are so akin to natural processes as not to be harmful. The long-term object of these pollution control procedures is to minimise our dependence on technology as a regulator of the ecological cycles on which we depend, and to return as much as possible to the natural mechanisms of the ecosphere, since in all but the short-term they are much more efficient and reliable. In the light of these remarks then, let us consider some contemporary pollution problems and how they might be solved.

222. Pesticides. There is no way of controlling the disruption caused by pesticides save by using less and progress towards this end will probably require three operations: freeze, asystemic substitution, and systemic substitution. The freeze operation consists of the ending of any further commitment to pesticides, particularly the persistent organochlorines. For the developed countries this is a relatively simple procedure, and already the use of Dieldrin, DDT, and so on, is beginning to decline. For the undeveloped countries, however, it would be impossible without an undertaking from the developed ones to subsidise the supply of much more expensive substitutes. In the malaria control programme, for example, the replacement of DDT by malathion or propoxur would raise the cost of spraying operations from US $60 million a year to $184 million and $510 million respectively[1].

223. Once such an undertaking is given, the undeveloped countries could proceed to the second operation. (There is no conceivable reason why the developed ones should not formally do so now.) This consists of the progressive substitution of non-persistent pesticides (organophosphates, carbamates, etc.) for the organochlorines. The third operation, the substitution of natural controls for pesticides in general could follow soon after. Two important points should be borne in mind: (a) it is most unlikely that the third stage could ever be complete – we will probably have to rely on the precision use of pesticides for some considerable time as part of a programme of integrated control; and (b) the second and third operations would proceed in harness until all countries had fully integrated pest control programmes. The drawback with integrated control (the combination of biological control, mechanical control, crop-species diversity and the precise use of species-specific pesticides) is that as yet we do not know enough about it, so that a full-scale research programme is urgently required. The agro-chemical industries should be encouraged to invest in integrated control programmes though plainly, since the profits cannot be so great as from chemical control, research will need public finance – as will the training of integrated control advisory teams to assist farmers, particularly in the undeveloped countries. Such an investment, however, will appear modest once integrated control is fully operational, in comparison with the vast sums of money currently being spent annually on pesticides. A typical operational procedure for the transfer from chemical to integrated control might be as follows: organochlorines phased out. Substitute pesticides phased in; in some cultivations these substitutes would be phased out almost immediately, to be replaced by integrated control; in others the time-table would be somewhat longer, depending on our understanding of the relevant agro-ecological processes and the availability of trained personnel.

224. Fertilisers. While on many occasions the use of inorganic fertilisers is valuable, their overuse leads to two intractable problems: the pollution of freshwater systems by run-off, and diminishing returns due to the slow but inevitable impoverishment of the soil (see appendix on food supply). Again the solution will come through three operations: freeze, asystemic substitution, and systemic substitution. The first operation requires there to be no further increment in the application of inorganic fertilisers, and hence the removal of subsidies for them. Again this is relatively easy for the developed countries (although there may be some drop in yield per acre), but next to impossible for the undeveloped countries, which are now being introduced to the new genetic hybrids of rice and wheat. Since the remarkable responsiveness of these hybrids is contingent on massive fertiliser inputs (up to 27 times present ones), the undeveloped world is faced with an unenviable choice: either to keep alive its expanding population over the next ten years at the price of considerable damage to soil structure and long-term fertility; or to improve soil structure so that a good proportion of the population can be fed indefinitely, but in the knowledge that the population will probably be reduced to that proportion by such natural processes as famine and epidemic. In the long-term, of course, the solution lies in population control; but in the intervening period there seems to be no alternative to concentrating on agricultural methods that are sustainable even at the expense of immediate productivity. The consequences of not doing so are likely to be much worse than any failure to take full advantage of the new hybrids. In the meantime, an emergency food-supply must be created by the developed prime-producers (USA, USSR, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) so that as much as possible of any short-fall can be met during this difficult period.

225. The second operation involves the gradual substitution of organic manures for inorganic fertilisers – though occasionally the latter will be used to supplement the former – and the return to such practices as rotation and leys; this would merge into the third operation: the adoption of highly diversified farming practices in place of monocultures. It is necessary to emphasise that this is not simply a return to traditional good husbandry: it is much more a change from flow fertility (whereby nutrients are imported from outside the agro-ecosystem, a proportion being utilised by food-plants, but with a large proportion leaving the agro-ecosystem in the form of run-off, etc.) to cyclic fertility (in which nutrients in the soil are used and then returned to it, in as closed a cycle as possible). The great advantage of nutrients in organic form is that the soil appears much better adapted to them. The nitrogen in humus, for example, is only 0.5 percent inorganic, the rest being in the form of rotting vegetation, decomposing insects and other animals, and animal manure. A high proportion of organic matter is essential for the soil to be easily workable over long periods (thus extending the period in which cultivations are timely), for it to retain water well without becoming saturated, for the retention of nutrients so that they remain available to plants until they are taken up by them (thus reducing wastage), and for the provision of the optimum environment for the micro-organisms so vital for long-term fertility. The rotation of leguminous plants and of grass grazed by animals are the most effective ways of adding organic matter to the soil, while at the same time allowing livestock to select their own food in the open has the double advantage that they are bred with a healthy fat-structure and their wastes enrich the soil instead of polluting waterways or overloading sewage systems. By diversifying farming in these and other ways we are taking advantage of the immense growth of knowledge about agricultural ecology, which plainly will increase with additional research.

226. Domestic sewage. The volume of sewage is directly proportional to population numbers and can only be stabilised or reduced by stabilising or reducing the population. However, sewage can and should be disposed of much more efficiently. It is absurd that such valuable nutrients should be allowed to pollute fresh and coastal waters, or that society should be put to the expense of disposing of them in areas where they cannot be effectively utilised. Unfortunately, in developed countries, their disposal as agricultural fertiliser is not generally feasible, largely for two reasons: (a) they are contaminated by industrial wastes; (b) transportation costs are too high. Both difficulties can be overcome – in the first case by ensuring that there is no (or negligible) admixture of industrial to domestic effluents, which depends on better industrial pollution control (see below); and in the second case by decentralising so that there is an improved mix of rural and urban activities. This will be explored in the section on social systems. In undeveloped countries, the problem of domestic sewage could be overcome by the provision of aid to pay for sewage plants that yield purified water and usable sludge.

227. Industrial wastes. Reduction of industrial effluent should proceed by two operations: a control operation, and an alternative (materials and energy conservative) technology operation. We have already suggested that the key to pollution control is not dispersal but recycling, and since recycling is a most important element in resource management it will be discussed in the section on stock economics. The alternative technology operation will be considered in the section on social systems.

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Conversion to an economy of stock

230. The transfer from flow to stock economics can be considered under two headings: resource management and social accounting.

231. Resource management. It is essential that the throughput of raw materials be minimised both to conserve non-renewable resources and to cut down pollution. Since industry must have an economic incentive to be conservative of materials and energy and to recycle as much as possible, we propose a number of fiscal measures to these ends:

  1. A raw materials tax. This would be proportionate to the availability of the raw material in question, and would be designed to enable our reserves to last over an arbitrary period of time, the longer the better, on the principle that during this time our dependence on this raw material would be reduced. This tax would penalise resource-intensive industries and favour employment-intensive ones. Like (b) below it would also penalise short-lived products.
  2. An amortisation tax. This would be proportionate to the estimated life of the product, e.g. it would be 100 percent for products designed to last no more than a year, and would then be progressively reduced to zero percent for those designed to last 100+ years. Obviously this would penalise short-lived products, especially disposable ones, thereby reducing resource utilisation and pollution, particularly the solid-waste problem. Plastics, for example, which are so remarkable for their durability, would be used only in products where this quality is valued, and not for single trip purposes. This tax would also encourage craftsmanship and employment-intensive industry.

232. The raw materials tax would obviously encourage recycling, and we can see how it might work if we consider such a vital resource as water. The growing conflict between farmers, conservationists and the water boards is evidence enough that demand for water is conflicting with other, no less important, values. At the moment, the water boards have no alternative but to fulfil their statutory obligation to meet demand and accordingly valley after valley comes under the threat of drowning. Clearly, unless we consider dry land an obstacle to progress, demand must be stabilised and since demand is a function of population numbers x per capita consumption, both must be stabilised, if not reduced (and we have seen that for other reasons they must be reduced). To this end therefore, while a given minimum can be supplied to each person free of charge, any amount above that minimum should be made increasingly expensive. As far as industry is concerned, the net effect would be to encourage the installation of closed-circuit systems for water; total demand would be reduced, and there would be less pressure on lowland river systems.

233. Despite the stimulus of a raw materials tax, however, it is likely that there would be a number of serious pollutants which It would be uneconomic to recycle, and still others for which recycling would be technically impossible. One thinks in particular of the radioactive wastes from nuclear power stations. Furthermore, recycling cannot do everything: there will always be a non-recoverable minimum, which as now, will have to be disposed of as safely as possible. This limitation can be made clear if we postulate a 3 percent growth rate and the introduction of pollution controls which reduce pollution by 80 percent throughout – it would then take only 52 years to bring us back where we started from, with the original amount of pollution but with a much greater problem of reducing it any further; if we had a 6 percent growth rate, we would reach this position in a mere 26 years. It is also worth mentioning that recycling consumes energy and is therefore polluting, so that it is necessary to develop recycling procedures which are energy conservative.

234. The problem of uneconomic recycling can be resolved by the granting of incentives by government. Indeed, in the short-term, the entire recycling industry should be encouraged to expand, even though we know that in the long-term industrial expansion is self-defeating. This brings us to the intractable problem of the disposal of the undisposable, which can only be resolved by the termination of industrial growth and the reduction of energy demand. Again fiscal measures will be supremely important, and we propose one in particular: (c) A power tax. This would penalise power-intensive processes and hence those causing considerable pollution. Since machinery requires more power than people, it would at the same time favour the employment intensification of industry, i.e. create jobs. It would also penalise the manufacture of short-lived products. In addition to this tax, there should be financial incentives for the development and installation of total energy systems, a matter to which we shall return in the section on social systems.

235. Finally, industrial pollution can also be reduced by materials substitution. The substitution of synthetic compounds for naturally occurring compounds has created serious environmental damage, since in some cases the synthetics can be broken down only with difficulty and in others not at all. The usage rate of these synthetics has increased immensely at the expense of the natural products, as can be seen from the following examples:[2]

  1. In the US, per capita consumption of synthetic detergents increased by 300 percent between 1962 and 1968. They have largely replaced soap products, per capita consumption of which fell by 71 percent between 1944 and 1964.
  2. Synthetic fibres are rapidly replacing cotton, wool, silk and other natural fibres. In the US, per capita consumption of cotton fell by 33 percent between 1950 and 1968.
  3. The production of plastics and synthetic resins in the US has risen by 300 percent between 1958 and 1968. They have largely replaced wood and paper products.

All of these processes consume the non-renewable fossil fuels, and their manufacture requires considerable inputs of energy. On the face of it, therefore, a counter-substitution of naturally occurring products would much reduce environmental disruption. However, it is possible that such a change-over, while it would certainly reduce disruption at one end, might dangerously increase it at the other. For example, many more acres would have to be put under cotton, thus increasing demand for pesticides, more land would have to be cleared and put under forest monocultures and so on. This problem can only be solved by reducing total consumption.

236. Genetic resources. Before leaving the subject of resources, it is appropriate that we consider the world’s diminishing stock of genetic resources. Genetic diversity is essential for the security of our food supply, since it is the sine qua non of plant breeding and introduction. The greater the number of varieties, the greater the opportunities for developing new hybrids with resistance to different types of pests and diseases and to extremes of climate. It is important that new hybrids be continually developed since resistance to a particular disease is never a permanent quality. The number of plant varieties to be found in nature is infinitely greater than the number we could create artificially. Most of them are to be found in the undeveloped countries either as traditional domesticated plants or as wild plants in habitats relatively unaltered by man. There is a real danger that the former will be replaced by contemporary high-yield varieties, while the latter will disappear when their habitats are destroyed. An FAO conference in 1967 concluded that the plant gene pool has diminished dangerously, for all over the world centres of diversity, our gene banks as it were, are disappearing and with them our chance of maintaining productivity in food[3].

237. Such centres – areas of wilderness – are often destroyed because their importance is not understood. Because they seem less productive than fields of waving corn, or because they are not accessible or attractive to tourists, they are considered in need of ‘improvement’ or development, or simply as suitable dumping grounds for the detritus of civilisation. This is particularly true of wetlands – estuaries and marshes – where pollution, dredging, draining and filling are looked on almost with equanimity, certainly with scant regard for what is being lost. Yet the complex of living and decomposing grasses and of phytoplankton, characteristic of wetlands, supports vast numbers of fish and birds and makes it one of the world’s most productive ecosystems. Estuaries are the spawning grounds of very many fish and shellfish and form the base of the food-chain of some 60 percent of our entire marine harvest. Should they go we can expect a substantial drop in productivity.

238. It is vital to the future well-being of man that wilderness areas and wetlands be conserved at all costs. This cannot be a matter simply of taking seed and storing it, since to be valuable genetic stock must continue to be subject to normal environmental pressures, and besides we have scarcely any idea of what plants we shall find useful in the future. For these reasons we must not only conserve large areas of natural habitat, we must also draw upon the knowledge and experience of the hunter-gatherers and hunter-farmers who gain their livelihood from them.

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