September 19, 2017

You can’t get there from here

From “The Ecologist Looks at Stockholm”, The Ecologist, June 1972, Vol. 2 No. 6

Subject Area I

Planning and Management of Human Settlements for Environmental Quality

This Report provides a very adequate diagnosis of the present crisis in human settlements.

This crisis is correctly attributed to a number of interacting factors, foremost among which is the population explosion, which “. . . is expected to carry world population close to 7,000 million people by the end of this century. If current trends of world population growth,” the report warns, “were to continue into the next century, the already intractable problems associated with population pressure would become totally unmanageable.”

Thus the Report explicitly accepts that there is a limit to our capacity to accommodate existing trends, and, what is more, that we shall be approaching this limit within the next few decades.

Rapid urbanisation, the report continues, is making the situation very much worse. Thus,

“viewed in isolation world population growth figures indicate an approaching crisis. But if they are examined in conjunction with population distribution figures, it becomes clear that the crisis is already upon us.”

Urbanisation is proceeding at an alarming rate and,

“by the year 2000, about one half of the total world population will be living in urban areas compared to about one third in 1960. In the industrialised countries the percentage of urban population is expected to rise between 1970 and the year 2000 from about 65 to 80 per cent, and in the less industrialised countries from 25 to 45 per cent.”

The Report fully recognizes that the problems this trend is giving rise to are likely to become unmanageable. It could soon lead to a major collapse in many of the larger cities of the world which are already functioning under conditions of great hardship, and will further endanger the precarious existence of human settlements in many parts of the world.

The actual logistics of catering materially for this vastly inflated urban population may well be beyond our capacity, for, as the Report observes, it “will require building in one generation more structures than have been built in the whole of human history.”

Are we likely to achieve this? The Report admits that “for the most part efforts to control growth so that it does not exceed the capacity of urban areas to absorb it have failed.” The consequences are “slums and shanty towns, pollution, congestion, noise, unemployment, poverty, the inability to dispose of waste, shortages of water and energy, and biological and general health hazards.” If we cannot control the causes of these problems, then we can only expect them to get worse.

The outlook for the developing countries is grim. In South America, one third of the urban population is living in slum conditions and urbanisation is proceeding unabated.

According to Barbara Ward, in 1950, India was short of 2,800,000 housing units. In 1960 this figure had increased to 9,300,000, while in 1972 it had risen to 12,000,000.1

Even in developed countries the situation does not give rise to much hope. H. V. Hodson writes:

“In 1970 nearly 6000 families were admitted to temporary accommodation for the homeless in England and Wales—an increase of 61 per cent over the previous four years.

“In London, where the stress of housing shortage is at its worst, the number of homeless families appears to be rising at a steady rate of 13 per cent a year. The capital city . . . is short of between 150,000 and 200,000 family homes.

“Thus for millions of our fellow citizens of the so-called affluent societies, in respect of housing, past economic growth has been a mockery and future economic growth holds out little hope . . .”2

One would suppose that if any country were capable of solving its housing problem it would be America. Not only is it the richest country in the world, but urbanisation is not occurring there anything like as rapidly as it is in many developing countries. Yet America is also fighting a losing battle.

In 1969, 1.9 million housing units were built as against the national goal of 2.6 million set by the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968. According to conservative forecasts housing will have to be provided for another hundred million people in the next thirty years, in addition to the replacement of something like half all existing units. In the meantime, much of the building is already so badly designed and the communities whose physical infra-structure they provide are so crime-ridden that something like 20,000 housing units are being abandoned every year.

Indeed, the social problems involved are likely to be equally intractable: “. . . shelter is not enough” the Report admits, “. . . The vast increase and migration of peoples represents one of the largest single causes of misery, insecurity and communal upheaval ever experienced by the human species.”

At this point one might ask why urbanisation is occurring. The reasons are reasonably clear. First, as a result of the population explosion there are more people than can usefully be employed on the land, a tendency that is aggravated by the introduction of labour-saving agricultural machinery. Secondly, it is often official government policy further to accelerate this process in order to develop the bigger farming units required if per capita output is to be increased, and the “standard of living” is to be maximised. This is the essence of the Mansholt Plan adopted as the official policy of the European Economic Community.

Thirdly, the financial surplus from small-scale agriculture does not permit participation in the modern pattern of consumption with its increasing emphasis on capital-intensive goods and services (motorcars, modern conveniences, holidays abroad, etc).

Twenty-five years ago the average Frenchman spent as much as 60 per cent of his income on food. As France has become industrialised, this percentage has fallen. In the United Kingdom, it is as low as 15 per cent, and the food thereby acquired is increasingly produced by capital-intensive methods. This trend can only give rise to further urbanisation, as it is chiefly by seeking employment in large industrial centres that the rural population can hope to obtain the necessary financial surplus.

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Since, as the Report implies, we are failing to accommodate existing urbanisation trends, the only sensible solution should clearly be to reverse them.

On this score the Report is fatalistic. One cannot stop progress, it is implied: instead, we must seek to accommodate its side effects, even if, as we know, this cannot in fact be done.

In attempting to do so, the Report suggests that human settlements be planned with a view to achieving acceptable environmental conditions in the following areas: shelter, employment, the fulfilment of biological needs (by which is meant freedom from epidemic diseases, natural disasters; and adequate supplies of water, food, energy and pure air), social needs, (by which is meant education, recreation, social intercourse and privacy) and cultural needs (by which is meant cultural activities and aesthetic values, etc.)

Let us look at each of these in turn, and try to determine whether or not conventional methods, i.e. the accommodation of trends by technological means can, in fact, provide a solution.

In a decentralised society, people are for the most part capable of building their own houses. In many tribal societies professional builders are required only for the chief’s house.

Urbanisation is but an aspect of economic centralisation, and the more centralised a system, the greater the degree of specialisation of its subsystems. An increased dependence on specialists requiring remuneration for their work must reduce the society’s capacity to satisfy an ever increasing demand for housing facilities.

Also, as urbanisation proceeds, supplies of traditional building materials are exhausted. Forests are cut down to provide wood pulp, and to free land for agricultural and amenity purposes. For prestige reasons, traditional building materials tend to be abandoned in favour of fashionable, modern ones. In many parts of the tropics, galvanised iron roofs, which are excellent heat conductors, are substituted for traditional roofing materials, even though, as a result, the people that they shelter are condemned to intense discomfort during the summer months. In addition, as the building industry falls into the hands of larger concerns bent on fully exploiting the economies of scale, so must there be a corresponding increase in the capital-intensity of the materials and methods used, thereby further increasing throughput, and further reducing society’s capacity to provide its inhabitants with shelter.

This trend is further accentuated by a growing dependence on transport to provide materials once obtainable locally and now manufactured in centralised factories.

Increased specialisation is also contributing to the demand for housing space. Rapoport points out that as centralisation occurs, so

“spaces become more separated and differentiated, the number of types of spaces increases . . . . Compare, for instance, the Japanese farmhouse, where living, stabling of horses and rearing of silkworms take place in the same space; or the village or town house, where the same applies to living, shop and workshop . . . with our own use of spaces, and separation of work and living.”3

We require vast installations to manufacture the bare necessities of life like food and clothing that were once performed at the family level. Institutions of every type appear necessary for functions previously fulfilled by the family or small community, and the pressure on housing facilities increases proportionately.

This is accentuated by the disintegration of the family unit into ever smaller elements, a feature of the last stages of social disintegration in industrial societies. Mark Abrams writes that in London by 1983

“Of the total 20 million households, nearly a quarter will consist of one or two persons and contain someone of pensionable age; indeed one household in every ten will consist of no more than a man or woman (usually the latter) of pensionable age living alone.”4

This is reflected in a proliferation of households which leads to the paradoxical situation that, though the Greater London Council says that there will be a million less people living in London in 10 years’ time, the housing shortage may worsen.

Thus it would appear that all observable trends are towards an ever increasing housing shortage. What solutions does the Report propose? To expand still further our urban conurbations by trying to build the houses necessary to accommodate such trends. Is this the right answer? Surely it cannot be since, as we have seen, it is precisely because these have been allowed to grow so rapidly that the housing shortage has become so acute.

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The Report’s second goal is to achieve acceptable environmental conditions in the area of employment. Unfortunately, unemployment appears to be increasing both in developing and developed countries.

In the former, the problem is likely to be particularly intractable. According to Mr. Wood, Minister for Overseas Development, the working population in the developing countries is expected to increase by 25 per cent in the next 10 years. This means finding 170 million jobs. How do we propose doing this? The answer is by encouraging further economic growth and thus still more urbanisation and centralisation.

At this point we might do well to note that there is no unemployment in a tribal society, nor is there in one dependent on subsistence agriculture for its livelihood. A subsistence agriculturist needs all the manpower he can get—which is why he places such a premium on the large family.

Also in such societies, jobs can be provided at a minimum real cost, i.e. the resources required to provide a job, and the corresponding environmental disruption, is minimised.

Economic growth provides jobs only by increasing the real cost of each person employed. It is only in this way that output per capita can be increased, permitting the higher salaries associated with an increased “standard of living”.

Thus in the United Kingdom today, a projected £27 million iron and steel terminal on the Clyde will provide a mere 200 jobs, at which price this country cannot afford to provide very many jobs.

As the resources necessary for providing capital-intensive employment grow scarcer and the environment becomes ever less capable of absorbing the pollution that such employment must generate, it becomes correspondingly necessary to reduce the capital outlay required to provide jobs.

The Report tacitly recognises that this is possible by advocating the encouragement of labour-intensive industries, but does not follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, as this would imply reversing the trend towards increasing per capita output.

To do so would mean questioning the desirability of technological devices whose introduction into the home, the field, and the workshop have been, and still are, heralded as the incontestable signs of progress.

It would mean questioning the desirability, indeed the possibility, of increasing the “standard of living” as measured in terms of the availability of capital intensive goods and services.

It would mean questioning the need for urbanisation, previously justified on the grounds that it permits the centralisation of economic activity necessary for exploiting the capital intensive methods which we associate with progress.

All these questions we must raise if we are to develop the strategy that will provide full employment on a finite planet.

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The Fulfilment of Biological Needs

The third goal suggested by the Report is the achievement of environmental conditions permitting the fulfilment of man’s biological needs. This is defined as freedom from epidemic diseases, natural disasters, the provision of adequate water, food, energy and pure air. I shall deal only with the first of these requirements, since the others are dealt with separately in this issue.

The current method of combating epidemic diseases consists mainly in massive spraying programmes aimed at exterminating vectors. At the same time modern medicine is being introduced, and systematic vaccination is taking place against the principal infectious diseases. Can these methods succeed? It is very doubtful, both on theoretical and empirical grounds, in spite of the very considerable efforts undertaken to this end.

Why should this be so? First of all, industrial society tends towards increased mobility. This favours the transmission of diseases to areas where natural controls have not had time to build up. In this way both malaria and yellow fever have been spreading in modern times.5 Dengue was previously limited to Africa but is now spreading to areas where it was once unknown. In the 1950’s a new and more virulent form, haemorrhagic fever, was recorded for the first time in Manilla and Bangkok. Later outbreaks occurred in India, Vietnam, Laos, Singapore and Malaya. What is particularly alarming is the fact that unlike the classical form of dengue it is lethal, especially to children. Mosquito-borne filiariasis is also spreading in an alarming way.

These trends are being favoured by increased urbanisation which gives rise to large concentrations of people living in crowded conditions whose resistance is being reduced by poor nutrition and high pollution levels. Spraying programmes are further increasing these trends: thus the mosquito vector of filariasis, which is not particularly susceptible to insecticides, is in certain areas replacing more vulnerable species.5

Large-scale irrigation programmes also contribute very considerably to the spread of infectious disease. As Van der Schalie writes:

“Where agricultural projects are based on irrigation, large populations now live in close relationship with stable water systems; snails invade and breed, water-contact and pollution increase, and these, in turn, produce a major upsurge in the prevalence of bilharziasis and, what is probably more serious, increases the worm load of infected persons.”


“The tremendous, continuing increase in the incidence of bilharziasis is one more manifestation of a biological dilemma: the basic vulnerability of an artificial ecosystem. Disease and suffering for millions of people are a direct outcome of the attempt to control the processes of nature with the simplistic solutions that modern technology offers in the form of simple, managed ecosystems in place of the intrinsically complex natural systems.”6

But this is not all. Both by destroying the vectors of infectious disease and by introducing massive vaccination programmes, natural controls are being ineluctably destroyed. Many infectious diseases such as the common cold, measles, chicken-pox are endemic to the western world. Their effects are perfectly tolerable.

On the other hand, when these diseases are allowed to spread into areas where natural controls have not been allowed to build up, they can lead to the annihilation of entire populations, as has already occurred in certain parts of Amazonia. What we are doing is replacing complex, self-regulating controls by simple ones dependent on very precarious human manipulation. In effect we are reducing the stability of the populations vis-a-vis those of the viruses, bacteria and vectors with which, in the long run, they are forced to live.

On purely theoretical grounds, this must lead to an increase rather than a decrease in epidemic diseases and in their depradations on populations.

There are strong indications that this is already happening: Thus, Taghi Farvar writes:

“. . . the resurgence of malaria after a temporary halt in its transmission can entail great risk for the populations involved. For example, 150,000 people died in Ethiopia in 1962 when ‘plasmodium falciparum-caused-malaria returned after a two-year interruption. The disaster was traced to an unforeseen side effect of measures to control malaria.

“The disease had been essentially non-lethal prior to 1960 due to the natural immunity of the population. This kind of immunity exists in most chronically exposed populations as a defence mechanism, which is a response to a constant parasite challenge. A year or two without the occurrence of reinfection is sufficient to destroy the immunity. Attempts at chemical eradication of the mosquitoes temporarily decreased the transmission of malaria but at the cost of the natural immunity of the populace.”7

Populations deprived of their natural controls against infectious diseases are becoming ever more dependent on artificial controls. They become “hooked” on DDT, vaccines and antibiotics. An example is Ceylon, where, after a 15 year spraying programme, WHO announced that malaria had been completely eradicated. However, no sooner had spraying ceased than there was a veritable epidemic—over a million cases, and a SOS had to be sent out for vast supplies of DDT.

To make things worse, insects are gradually developing resistance to DDT and such poisons. Those not completely immune require for their control ever greater doses involving ever increasing expenditures.

The sheer logistics of the problem of combating infectious diseases by technological methods must provide a limit to their applicability. Thus there are 11 million cases of leprosy a year, and though a cure exists for this disease we are making little headway against it. This appears to be but a question of logistics: the resources required to treat all new cases in the rural areas of Central Africa where it is prevalent are simply not available.

This brings up perhaps the most important issue of all: what happens if the resources required to maintain our present commitments cease to be available? And let us not forget that last year the United States Senate threatened to cut off its aid programme to developing countries. What happens when, as pressures grow in the US on diminishing financial resources, the Senate makes good its threat? What happens if WHO is suddenly deprived of financial support, and let us not forget that the United Nations finances in general are very shaky indeed? What happens if fossil fuels and other resources required to permit the implementation of our disease-control programmes cease to be available? In the light of present global trends it is but a question of time before this occurs.

The answer is that entire populations increasingly dependent on artificial controls will be condemned to virtual annihilation by diseases against which they have been deprived of all natural protection.

In fact the engineering approach to the solution of the health problem is scientifically unsound. Its use should be limited to the control of a very limited set of diseases, whose effects are particularly intolerable, and then only when there is a fair chance that such efforts are sustainable into the foreseeable future. In the meantime, efforts should tend towards increasing resistance to diseases, and this means, above all, introducing those basic environmental conditions: the availability of fresh water, fresh air, unpolluted foods, upon which human health really depends.

Such conditions are ever less available as our society becomes progressively more industrialised. It must therefore mean rejecting industrialisation as a prime objective and developing decentralised, rurally-based societies which are the only ones likely to remain stable, i.e. in which major discontinuities can be avoided.

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Natural Disasters

Floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters are other discontinuities which can only be eliminated by increasing ecological stability. The engineering as opposed to the ecological approach to the avoidance of disaster has been conspicuously unsuccessful. The building of barrages and dams for flood control has usually given rise to ecological and social side-effects, in which the costs have outweighed the benefits.

Attempts to reduce famine by the industrialisation of agriculture are backfiring (see Peter Bunyard “Resource Management” elsewhere in this issue).

Our understanding of seismological phenomena has not, so far, been sufficient to predict the occurrence of earthquakes in time to remove populations from the affected areas.

On the other hand, there is every reason to suppose that the ecological approach to these problems would yield far more positive results. Thus it can be shown that many of the natural disasters that the Report is concerned with are not natural at all. Floods tend to be caused by deforestation, and the restoration of natural forest cover would do more than anything else to prevent them. Such a measure, if associated with the expansion of labour-intensive forest industries, would have the additional advantage of not causing unpleasant social and ecological side-effects.

The Bengal flood was responsible for the death of approximately half the people killed in so-called natural disasters in 1970. The Delta of the Ganges is an area notoriously susceptible to floods, which throughout history have occurred at regular intervals. It is only in recent times that this area has been inhabited to any appreciable extent. Without the present population density as the result of increasing population pressure the death toll would have undoubtedly been considerably lower.

The Report cites the devastation caused by earthquakes. It fails to mention, however, that while it is difficult to isolate the cause of each individual earthquake, there are serious grounds for believing that large scale technological interferences are giving rise to earthquakes on a scale that has not yet been gauged. The explosion of underground nuclear devices has probably already given rise to earthquakes, as has the building of man-made lakes associated with large-scale irrigation schemes. Thus something like 50 to 60 local earthquakes are said to have occurred as a direct result of the building of the Kariba Dam.

It is surely only reasonable to desist from the sort of activities likely to give rise to floods and earthquakes, rather than employ dubious methods and commit even scarcer resources to reducing their impact on populations and ecosystems.

Once more we must conclude that the only sensible course of action must be to reverse present trends rather than persist in a vain attempt to accommodate them.

The fourth and fifth goals that the Report suggests that we set ourselves is the achievement of acceptable environmental conditions in the area of social and cultural needs. I shall deal with these together, as in terms of a functional (and hence ecological) analysis, they are indisassociable; culture being but a mechanism developed to ensure the control of a social system—to guide it along its optimum course, that which will maintain it in a stable relationship with its environment.

It is increasingly accepted that the level of human misery can be gauged in terms of certain pathological manifestations, such as crime, delinquency, drug addiction, alcoholism etc., which appear with the disintegration of social structures. The satisfaction of man’s social and cultural needs would thus consist in creating the conditions in which these manifestations would be reduced to a minimum.

Let us look more closely into the principles involved. As I have written elsewhere,8 it is a feature of all natural systems, including social ones, that they develop by differentiation, which means that at each stage the functions previously fulfilled in a general way become fulfilled in a more differentiated one. The new parts that ensure this extra differentiation have thus come into being for a specific purpose, for which, in the case of social systems, they have been designed genetically and culturally.

Differentiation occurs because environmental challenges require it, or, more precisely, because a system must become more differentiated if it is to remain stable in the face of new environmental challenges.

On the other hand, once these challenges have disappeared, the extra differentiation is no longer necessary and the parts developed to ensure it become redundant.

It is this “redundancy” that must give rise to human misery, which simply means that a man is happy in the fulfilment of his natural functions and unhappy when his social and physical environment renders their fulfilment impossible, i.e. when he has become redundant. Thus a man needs to drink, eat, walk, work and struggle (and the last of these activities is by no means the least important).

He needs to court his mate, marry her, love her, protect her and provide for her. She in turn needs to be married, loved, protected and provided for. She also needs to work so as to provide a warm and aesthetically pleasing home. Both of them need children and they in turn require all these things which, in a stable society, their parents obtain maximum satisfaction in providing.

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The small community

But a man is not only a differentiated member of a family but also of a small community. I say small, because there is an optimum and also a maximum size for any system including a social one. When this is reached, a system can only continue to grow by associating with other systems at which point a new level of organization is said to have been attained. The maximum size of any system is largely determined by the extent to which the bonds holding it together can be extended.

A community appears to be held together by a set of bonds that are but extensions of those which hold a family together. Malinowski 9 was the first to show that no other bonds can be exploited for this purpose. In each different culture the members of a community are unconsciously classified in terms of the way they are associated with the different members of the family—hence the elaborate kinship terminology developed by primitive societies. Unfortunately these bonds cannot be extended to include more than a very small number of people. It is for this reason that a stable community is made up of countless small groups or associations that are closely interwoven with each other.

Thus, in a primitive society, a man is at once a member of a maternal and a paternal kinship group. He is also probably a member of an age grade, of an economic association of some sort, of a secret society, of a military group etc. It is his position as a member of each of these groups which provides him with his “status” or identity as a differentiated member of his social system. In an unstable society whose social structure has disintegrated, he has no such identity. He is lost in a vast anonymous mass of humanity. It is this lack of identity which is normally referred to as alienation: it is that terrible feeling of loneliness when surrounded by a vast number of people that is so much worse than loneliness in a desert. It is when a society grows too fast or its mobility increases in such a way that the bonds do not have time to develop, that its essential social structure breaks down, that development occurs by multiplication rather than differentiation and that alienation inexorably sets in.

To combat the symptoms of human misery by technological means is a vain pursuit. America spends something like $20 million a year in crime control, i.e. on burglar alarms, armoured cars, etc., and to little avail since the crime rate is still increasing exponentially. At the same time, the only method our politicians have devised for combating poverty in industrial slums is by continually increasing welfare payments of all sorts. These, too, appear to be counterproductive.

Poverty is not just the deprivation of material goods, it is above all a state of aimlessness and demoralisation, caused by social deprivation. It appears to be a concomitant of industrial growth and of political and economic centralisation, and cannot, therefore, be combated by technological means.

Those responsible for the design of human settlements must not plan for an inevitable oecumenopolis. If it is inevitable, then there is no hope for man. Instead, they must design shelter and settlements that can provide an appropriate physical infrastructure for healthy human communities.

This they cannot do by working “in vacuo”. They must learn something of man’s psychological and social requirements as well as of his basic physical needs. Only by studying this cross-culturally will they realise that healthy villages, towns and cities are not just conglomerations of housing units arranged in that pattern that will facilitate transport, and otherwise contribute to capital-intensive economic activity. They are much more than that: they provide the infrastructure of complex and very delicate social systems.

Rethinking their shape, their size and their design must be part of a conscious programme to subject short-term utilitarian considerations to the wider requirements of social and ecological stability. Without such a programme there can be little hope for man on this fast deteriorating planet.

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1. Ward, Barbara. Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet, Andre Deutsche, London, 1972.

2. Hodson, H. V. The Diseconomies of Growth, published by Earth Island, London, 1972.

3. Rapoport, Amos. Culture and House Form, Prentice Hall Paperbacks, Engle-wood Cliffs, N.J.

4. Abrams, Mark, In the Next Fifteen Years, Conservation Society Reprint No. 4.

5. Service, F. W. “Insects, Key Conservationists” The Ecologist, Vol. 1, No. 14.

6. Van der Schalie. “Schistosomiasis: The Disease of Slowed-down Waters”. Published in The Unforeseen International Ecological Boomerang, 1968.

7. Farvar, Taghi “The Pollution of Asia”, Environment, February 1972.

8. Goldsmith, Edward. “The Stable Society: Can We Achieve It?” The Ecologist, Vol. 1, No. 6.

9. Malinowski, Bronislaw. Sex and Repression in Savage Society. Routledge, London, 1927.

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