October 23, 2017

The first principle of Human Ecology

In this article of 1983, Edward Goldsmith exposes the “trade-off fallacy” employed by those who maintain that there is an inverse relationship between people’s well-being and that of our natural environment.


It is the general view of Britain’s politicians that environmental conservation is the concern of the rich. Only the rich, they argue, can afford to worry about the beauty of the countryside and the preservation of our agricultural land and remaining woodlands. The poor, by contrast, have other more serious preoccupations—jobs for instance.

Lord Zuckerman, who was once chief scientist to the British Government, goes along with our politicians. He constantly talks of a trade-off between environmental conservation and the achievement of such social goals as full employment. It is astonishing that serious people can actually believe that such a trade-off exists—that people’s welfare can in fact be promoted by systematically devastating the environment in which they must live and from which they must derive their livelihood.

On the contrary, it must be the first principle of Human Ecology that man’s welfare must ultimately depend on the preservation of his natural environment.

I think this is clear if we look at the conditions of the poorest people in the world today—the inhabitants, for example, of the drought-prone areas of such tropical countries as India and Bangladesh. Thus, we find people in certain parts of Bihar who have an income that in many cases does not exceed £9 or £10 a year. They rarely, if ever, have enough to eat and are affected by all sorts of very unpleasant parasitic diseases. It is clear that such people are poor not so much because they are short of manufactured goods but because they suffer from malnutrition and chronic ill-health. It is also clear that this malnutrition and chronic ill-health are closely related to the state of their environment.

If one examines their environment, one finds to begin with that it is relatively treeless. The reason is that the trees have been removed—usually by Government contractors. Now, deforestation in the dry tropics has the most serious possible consequences. Once the trees have gone the rivers are transformed into torrents, the streams dry up and the soil blows away with the wind or is washed away with the annual monsoons. In some cases, where the soil is lateritic, the earth is transformed into hard, brick-like ‘pan’ on which nothing can grow. Once such a situation is allowed to arise, the impact of man’s activities on what has now become a highly degraded environment can only lead to its further degradation. The inhabitants of such areas are thereby condemned to increasing poverty until they eventually die off from disease and malnutrition.

How deforestation has led to this horrible state of affairs was eloquently described by Washburn Hopkins eighty years ago:

“All that great bare belt of country which now stretches south of the Ganges—that vast waste where drought seems to be perennial and famine is as much at home as is Civa in a graveyard—was once an almost impenetrable wood.

“Luxuriant growth filled; self-irrigated, it kept the fruit of the summer’s rain till winter, while the light winter rains were treasured there in turn till the June monsoon came again. Even as late as the epic period, it was a hero’s derring-do to wander through that forest-world south of the Nerbudda, which at that time was a great inexhaustible river, its springs conserved by the forest. Now the forest is gone, the hills are bare, the valley is unprotected, and the Nerbudda dries up like a brook, while starved cattle lie down to die on the parched clay that should be a river’s bed.” (India Old and New, E. Washburn Hopkins).

People living in the industrial world have no idea of the extent of this degradation and of the poverty it gives rise to. In that magnificent book The State of India’s Environment, published in 1982 by the Centre for Science and Environment, we are told how “India is rapidly becoming a vast wasteland”; how over half of the land in that country is now subject to “serious environmental degradation”; and how seventy per cent of the available water is polluted to the extent that 73 million working days are lost each year to water-related diseases. It is now generally accepted among those who study these issues in India—and I am told that it is accepted by the government too—that 20 per cent of the population, that is to say 140 million people, are condemned to die of starvation regardless of anything the government might do. Nor can the situation be much better in many other hot and arid countries such as Bangladesh and even Egypt.

That the poverty of the inhabitants of such areas is due to environmental disruption becomes clearer still if one compares their lot with that of the inhabitants of areas whose environment has not been so disrupted. The lifestyle of the Indians of the Northwest coast of North America has been described by Ruth Benedict and others. We read that when crossing a river they did not need a bridge. They could walk across it on the backs of the salmon, so great were their numbers. We are also told that on the sea coast, when the tide went out, the “table was laid” so numerous were the shell fish, while the forests abounded in fruit and berries, and teemed with wild game.

People living in such conditions, even if they do not have access to modern manufactured goods, must be regarded—especially in the context of the world situation today in which nearly a billion people suffer from serious malnutrition—as prosperous. If this is not evident to us, it is partly because we associate prosperity with the possession of largely superfluous manufactured goods rather than with the satisfaction of real biological, social, spiritual and aesthetic needs; partly, too, because—by virtue of the market system and the state welfare system—we have become insulated from reality to the extent at least that we need no longer suffer the immediate consequences of environmental disruption. Thus, we can transform our land into a desert and yet continue to eat because via the market, or alternatively with the aid of the state welfare system, we can at least temporarily buy our food from some other area where the environment has not been totally devastated and, hence, where it is still possible to produce food.

The inhabitants of the poorer areas of the Third World, however, are not insulated from reality the way we are. In India—even though this country is perhaps the eighth or ninth biggest industrial power in the world—only about 20 per cent of the population lives within the formal economy, and its welfare and prosperity—indeed the survival of 80 per cent of the population that lives outside it—is entirely dependent on the state of its immediate environment. If people there cut down their trees, then they have no firewood; if their rivers and streams dry up, then they have no water over and above what accumulates during the monsoons in the village pond; and if their soil blows away or is washed away, then they have no food.

What we must have the courage to face is that the insulation from reality which the world market system and the welfare state at present provide us, is purely temporary. Sometime during the next few decades, the world market system will collapse and the state will cease to have at its disposal the vast sums of money it requires to provide all those services that we have come to expect of it. As this occurs, so will we once more become dependent on the fertility of our land, the luxuriance of our woods and the clarity of our rivers and streams. We will then come to realise—for many of us, far too belatedly—that environmental preservation is not simply the concern of the rich. Ultimately it provides the only strategy for assuring human welfare, and indeed human survival.

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