December 11, 2017

Reorganizing our life for the years ahead

Paris-born Edward Goldsmith is a British subject and graduate of Oxford University. He is Editor of The Ecologist, and in addition, author of articles in various other journals on ecology, cybernetics, and general systems. He is currently writing a book on The Theory of a Unified Science

[This article appeared in the journal PHP, Japan October 1972]

Unfortunately, the principal if not the only goal our industrial society gives us is affluence.

Affluence for everybody however is an impossible dream. The world simply does not contain sufficient resources, nor could it absorb the heat and other waste generated by the immense amount of energy required. Besides, it does not even provide the satisfaction claimed for it. The more affluent a country is the more unhappy its members seem to be—the US is a good example. This is not to use the term “unhappy” in a loose way. There are recognized and measurable symptoms of unhappiness: drug addiction, alcoholism, crime, delinquency, mental disease and suicide—all different ways of reacting to an environment to which people cannot adapt and consequently to a life that they cannot tolerate.

It is essential then that we reorganize our society if we are to avoid the social and ecological upheavals that threaten to annihilate us in the none too distant future. How are we to set about doing this?

Population Control

The first and most urgent task is to control our population. Not only must any further growth be avoided, but its present level must be reduced probably at least by half.

It is only in this way that we can hope to feed ourselves in the long-term.

Sterilization centres could be set up and abortion could be made far easier.

Pensions could only be paid to people with no children. This seems to be one of the few ways of penalizing people with children, without penalizing the children as well—at least until they were grown up. It might also increase the cohesion of the family unit by emphasizing the duty of looking after one’s parents in their old age.

Finally, a licensing system could be introduced. Wayne Davis suggests that licences might be negotiable which would mean that only those people who really wanted children would have them. It would also mean that the rich would have more children than the poor which would tend to make them poorer (in view of the cost of bringing up children) and by the same token, the poor richer.

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Next we must reduce the impact of each man on the environment by cutting down his energy consumption. An energy tax would clearly be a useful expedient, but the most effective way of accomplishing this would be to decentralize our society, both politically, administratively and economically. This would lead to that other prerequisite of stability—the development of small self-regulating communities.

The totally absurd notion that bigger things must inevitably be better, must be abandoned and with it the false ideal of “maximizing” productivity which is the pretext normally given for making things larger and more centralized.

Indeed it should be a precept of government, as it is of the organization of nature, that everywhere there should be maximum decentralization. Nothing should be done at the village level which could be done by the family; nothing at the county level that could be done by the village, and so on all the way up.

A nation can constitute a society only if it is highly organized into families, small communities, provinces, etc. Their members must be responsible for running their own affairs. They must be self-regulating for only in this way can they be stable.

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Among those activities which must be radically decentralized is welfare. At the moment the State, by usurping all those responsibilities that should be fulfilled at the communal and family levels, is contributing to their disintegration by rendering them largely redundant.

Economic activity should also be decentralized. Small traders, artisans and businessmen are on the whole stable citizens who tend to take pride in the quality of their work and in the services that they render the community. This should more than compensate for their lack of “productivity.” It is quite clear that stable societies cannot be created out of soulless housing estates whose inhabitants work elsewhere, and among whom few ties can be established.

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Agriculture must also be decentralized. Contrary to what is generally thought, its output is probably increased by reducing the size of units rather than by increasing them. In any case, intensive modern agriculture which requires larger units does not appear to be the way to increase long-term food production. It leads to the deterioration of soil structure and to considerable pollution.

The flight to the towns must also end. The total destruction of rural life and the elimination of the small farmer, who should nor-mally constitute the backbone of a stable society, is a social disaster whose cost to the community cannot be overemphasized.

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Energy Consumption

Decentralization would help fulfil yet another purpose. Man’s impact on his environment is best gauged in terms of the amount of energy he uses. The more technological devices are allowed to replace natural ones, the more dependent we become on manufactured goods, and the higher must be our energy consumption. This can only be reduced by developing labour-intensive industries so that human energy can slowly replace that of machines. Whether we want it or not, this is bound to happen in the end, as our fossil fuels run out and our supplies of non-renewable mineral resources are exhausted. But if we wait until this happens, by which time our dependence on technology will have substantially increased, the problems will have become that much more difficult to solve.

The most serious challenge is clearly the provision of alternative employment for the countless millions of people who depend on technology for their living.

Decentralization would contribute towards this by furthering the development of divergent cultural patterns, and of new activities to replace those that are no longer possible.

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Ritualization of Economic Activity

The construction of beautiful buildings, the manufacture of fine furniture, the development of local arts and crafts, the revival of local festivities and religious ceremonies—all these things will provide a worthwhile substitute for the haphazard accumulation of manufactured goods to which our society is geared. In this way economic activity could be “ritualized” as is “aggressivity” among stable societies (both human and non-human). Ritualized aggression provides a satisfactory outlet for a society’s aggressive requirements without its leading to the annihilation of its enemies. Similarly, ritualized economic activity can be regarded as providing an outlet for man’s essential requirements for creative work in such a way as to minimize the resultant damage to the environment.

Decentralization will result in a reduction of mobility. If people are employed where they live, fewer cars will be used. By reducing our dependence on technology, decentralization would fulfil yet another essential function: that of reducing our vulnerability.

The complex and self-regulating systems of nature would be allowed to slowly replace the relatively simple and externally regulated systems of our technosphere, a substitution essential to the establishment of ecological stability.

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National Service for Conservation

Clearly the transition to such a society would not be easy. The principal problem obviously would be how to provide satisfactory employment for so many people. New occupations that do not require the use of power, would probably take some time to develop. The dole does not solve the serious psychological problems of unemployment. It is at best a palliative. The only alternative is to accept that a vast amount of work is required to clean up the mess resulting from a hundred and fifty years of uncontrolled economic growth.

A sort of national service for conservation on the lines of the Conservation Corps could be instituted, and the more decentralized its organization, the more effective it would likely be, as people would be keener to help clean up their local environment than that of people living at the other end of the country.

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“Unproductive” Employment

Also it must be accepted that people should be employed whether or not their employment is justified on “economic grounds.” This is already the case in the Soviet Union. “Economically unproductive” work of this sort would undoubtedly lead to a situation in which there would be more money around than goods to buy, again as is the case in the Soviet Union. The dissatisfaction this might give rise to would be partly offset by the development of the new occupation already referred to, as economic activity becomes ever more “ritualized.” Meanwhile there will certainly be inflation—but on nothing like the scale that would accompany the total breakdown of our society, which is possibly our only alternative. Besides, monetary considerations should be looked at in their correct perspective. Inflation is by no means the tragedy it is made out to be by today’s economists.

A more serious objection is that the transition to a stable society would probably have to be carefully orchestrated as a single programme. If any part of it is left out, because it is regarded as objectionable by some sector of society in terms of current ethical norms, then the whole programme may well be a failure.

It follows that this social transformation can only be ensured by a government having a mandate to plan and implement such a programme as painlessly as possible i.e. over the maximum period consistent with avoiding the catastrophes with which our society is at present menaced.


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