October 23, 2017

The Great Reinterpretation

Academic Inn Discussion Papers No.4

Paper written for the Fourth Dinner-Discussion of The Academic Inn, at The Royal Overseas League, Park Place, St. James St, SW1, at 6.30pm, Thursday July 21st 1983

If the object of environmental education is to train people to respect their environment rather than [to] destroy it, then they must be shown what are the basic features of our relationship with our environment.

In my opinion we are not in a position to do this today, for these basic features have not yet been fully established. Nor are they likely to be for some time, for one thing, because they are difficult to reconcile with the worldview of industrialism with which we have been imbued since our most tender childhood.

I propose to elaborate on this statement and I shall start off by identifying what I regard to be the basic features of our relationship with our environment.

The first is that it is by preserving our environment that our welfare is best assured. This means that the environment is not just the concern of the rich, as most people are often led to believe. Environmental disruption affects everybody, in particular the poor. Consider that the poorest people in the world today are probably the inhabitants of drought-prone areas in such tropical countries as India and Bangladesh. Here we find people with an income that in many cases does not exceed £9 or £10 a year, who rarely if ever have enough to eat and who 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 malnutrition and 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 trees have been largely removed. 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, or in some cases becomes brick-like. 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, as is already happening in such areas today.

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”, and how over half of the land in that country is now subject to “serious environmental degradation.” Seventy per cent of the available water, it appears, 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 now 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 Egypt for that matter.

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 North West 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.

We associate prosperity with the possession of largely superfluous manufactured goods rather than with the satisfaction of real needs—biological, social, spiritual and aesthetic ones; and 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 elsewhere, i.e. from some 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 the welfare and prosperity, indeed the survival of 80 per cent of the population that lives outside it, is entirely dependent on the [health] of their immediate environment. If they cut down their trees, then they have no firewood, if their rivers and streams dry up then, over and above what accumulates every year with the monsoons in the village pond, then they have no water, and if their soil blows away or is washed away, then they have no food. This to me is the first basic feature of our relationship with our environment. However it is in fact very much more subtle than this.

I think that the satisfaction of all our real needs—physical, psychological, spiritual and aesthetic—is only possible if our social and physical environment is effectively preserved. In purely theoretical terms this must be expected since man has come about as a long-term adaptive response to his environment. This means that the closer is this environment, (and I include in this term our social environment) to that to which he has been adapted by his evolution, the better it must be capable of satisfying his physical and psychological needs.

The corollary of this of course is that the more our social and physical environment is made to diverge from this norm, the less well adapted must we be to it and the less well must it satisfy our physical and psychological needs—a principle that has been very eloquently formulated by Stephen Boyden from the National University in Australia (The Ecologist, August 1973).

Boyden refers to this as the Principle of Phylogenetic Maladjustment, or as he prefers to call it today, the Principle of “Evodeviance”. He regards that constellation of diseases whose incidence tends to increase with per capita GNP—and which includes most forms of cancer, ischaemic heart disease, diabetes, diverticulitis, peptic ulcer, appendicitis, varicose veins and tooth caries—as but some of the symptoms of phylogenetic maladjustment or evodeviance.

This thesis seems to fit in admirably with the work undertaken in New Zealand by Dr Ian Prior who has studied the health of the inhabitants of the Tokelau Islands for more than twenty years, and has shown how they have become increasingly affected by many of these diseases of civilisation once they leave the relatively natural environment of their remote island group and migrate to New Zealand where they are exposed to a highly artificial diet and an otherwise unnatural way of life.

If this is not clear to us, it is once more, partly at least, because we have become, to a certain extent, insulated from the operation of this principle by elaborate medical and psychiatric services furnished partly by the market and partly by the state.

That this must be so is very much clearer in the case of non-human animals. As everybody would accept, the physical and psychological needs of the tiger are best met when this animal is allowed to live in the jungle in which it evolved as a species over hundreds of millions of years. The trout too, it is quite clear, is better off when allowed to live in a clear unpolluted stream and to feed on the fish life which it has been adapted by its evolution to prey upon and to digest. That the basic needs of either the tiger or the trout could be better satisfied by introducing these beasts into a totally different environment, however lavish it might be, by forcing them for instance to live in a luxury hotel in the South of France and feed on foie gras and caviar, is a possibility that few people are likely to entertain too seriously.

This brings us to the second basic principle regarding man’s relationship with his natural environment and it is a particularly unpalatable one. The degradation of our environment which we have seen to be, in the Third World at least, the basic cause of starvation and probably also of many other forms of physical and psychological maladjustment, is the inevitable outcome of economic development.

The few areas of the world where the environment is still intact, such as parts of New Guinea and Amazonia, are still precisely those where economic development has not occurred, whereas those areas of the world where the process is most advanced, i.e. the large conurbations of the industrial world, are precisely those where the environment is most degraded, where we find too the greatest incidence of the “diseases of civilisation” i.e. the symptoms of “phylogenetic maladjustment.” unfortunately it is not in these areas where, for the moment at least, malnutrition is most common (though in America 25 million people are said to suffer from advanced malnutrition, even though they may possess motor cars and colour television sets) because as we have seen, the market system, temporarily at least, enables them to buy their food from elsewhere.

Economic development, in purely theoretical terms, must inevitably bring about the environmental degradation that is the ultimate cause of poverty, malnutrition and starvation. The reason is that it consists in the systematic substitution of what we might refer to as the technosphere, the world of human artefacts, or the surrogate world as it has been referred to, for the biosphere, the world of nature or the real world from which the resources the technosphere requires for its expansion must inevitably be extracted and to which its increasingly toxic waste products must be consigned. Technospheric expansion, which is what economic development is all about, must thereby inevitably mean biospheric contraction and degradation.

Thus you cannot build a modern industrial conurbation with its housing estates, office blocks, factories, motorways, power stations, reservoirs etc., in a forested area without first removing the forest, without paving over the land and without contaminating the local environment with the massive amount of waste products, some of them very toxic, that such a conurbation must inevitably give rise to. One must choose between having a forest and having such a conurbation, and if one covers a whole country with such conurbations as is in fact happening in the small industrial countries of northern Europe, then regardless of what measures are taken to protect the environment, it must inevitably be annihilated.

Now the two main forces that make for the development of the technosphere and hence for the destruction of the biosphere with all the problems that this implies are the market system and the state. It is probably the basic principle of modern economics, a principle apparently first properly formulated by Adam Smith—that it is only via the market that peoples’ welfare and prosperity can be achieved. Neither Adam Smith nor his successors like Milton Friedman are in any way concerned with the social and ecological costs of the operation of the market system. For them, as indeed for all economists today, wealth, prosperity and indeed human welfare are entirely man-made. The biosphere when left to itself may be capable of assuring the welfare of other forms of life such as tigers and trout, but, for some strange reason, it is for man but a source of poverty, misery and deprivation from which he can only be rescued by economic development fanned by the market system.

It is important to note of course that the market is a relatively new phenomenon. Traditional societies may have traded in superfluous goods but not in the necessities of life. Until the development of the market, people produced food for themselves and for their families and, within their community, food was distributed not for the purpose of maximising the return on any factor of production i.e. not for economic reasons, but so as best to satisfy kinship obligations and to acquire social prestige. With the development of the market, came a dramatic innovation: people now had to buy their food rather than produce it themselves. As Polanyi points out, this was something totally new in the human experience and something that had the most dramatic consequences. I cannot describe these here but nevertheless it is important to note that both Karl Polanyi in his classic, The Great Transformation and more recently Dando, in his excellent book The Geography of Famine largely attribute malnutrition and famine to the normal operation of the market system.

It is easy to see why this must be so. As the market develops the basic resources that were previously used to satisfy the needs of local people are diverted towards the satisfaction of market requirements. Forests that previously provided people with moisture and humus, that maintained the water-levels and helped to control run-off to rivers thereby preventing floods, that provided timber for building purposes and firewood for cooking their food, and which abounded in fruits, nuts, berries and wild game, were cut down so that the timber could be used to build the urban infrastructure of an industrialising society or to be sold abroad in exchange for foreign currency.

Land which was previously used for producing food for local people was taken away from them so that it might be used by vast commercial enterprises for producing rubber, cocoa, sugar cane, tea, coffee and other cash crops for sale on the international market, once more to obtain the foreign currency required for further development.

Water, which in many countries of the hot dry tropics is the main limitation on food production, was also diverted for use on plantations producing cash crops for export and for domestic and industrial use in the large cities.

What is more, the water that is left at the disposal of local people has become increasingly contaminated with agricultural and industrial chemicals and, as we have already seen, they are not insulated against the effect of water pollution. They do not have water purification plants—nor can they obtain piped water from other areas, so that once their water is contaminated, then they must irrigate their fields with contaminated water and they must drink contaminated water too.

If this is so, how then can trade increase the prosperity and welfare of the rural population of the Third World, as it is supposed to if we are to believe Adam Smith and his successors? Undoubtedly it renders possible the production of manufactured goods. The stores in the cities of many Third World countries are bristling with plastic mickey mouses, electric-toothbrushes, tins of pet-food and other essential products of the industrial process. It permits the building of office blocks and motorways. It permits too the creation of a modern army fully equipped with the latest weapons of destruction. But what does it do for the bulk of the people living in the villages? Very little indeed.

If one visits the average village in India—and let us not forget that 80 per cent of the population of this country lives in such villages—one will find scarcely any manufactured goods of any kind. In a village close to a large city, there may be the odd bicycle, the occasional cast-off oil drum, now and again a transistor radio, or an aluminium or plastic receptacle of some sort that has replaced the traditional variety. But in most villages there is scarcely a manufactured article of any kind to be seen. The most visible changes brought there by the economic development of their country is their terrible overpopulation (largely resulting from the breakdown of the cultural controls that, before the British Raj, maintained population stability) and the terrible degradation of their natural environment with the consequent malnutrition and misery.

In other words, the mass of the people living in the villages of a country like India suffer all the costs of economic development—deforestation, erosion, desertification, water shortages, pollution, and none of its apparent benefits. These are reserved for the urban minority which, itself, must pay a prohibitive price for them in the form of urban blight, pollution, crime, delinquency, alcoholism, drug addiction and all the other problems that are rendering urban life increasingly intolerable.

If we are not willing to face this interpretation of the problems that face us today, it is because it is so inconsistent with the worldview of industrialism. It is also because we cannot face its implications. The reason is that the livelihood of those who live in the industrial world, whatever their profession might be, is dependent on the continued expansion of the technosphere—i.e. on continued economic development. To suggest that this is the cause of all the problems we are told it is designed to solve—is something nobody wants to hear.

Unfortunately, the State in particular is particularly dependent on the continued expansion of the market. Governments, to maintain themselves in power, must provide all sorts of short-terms benefits to a very large number of electors and the money required for this purpose can only, in the long run, be obtained by taxing enterprises whose prosperity and hence whose ability to pay the taxes, is itself dependent on the extent to which the market economy is expanding.

We must also remember that the State is in itself a socially destructive force. In traditional societies all its functions were admirably fulfilled by the family or the community. People, before the State took over, were well capable of looking after their children and their old folk. There was no need for institutionalised schools, or old peoples “homes”. They were also quite capable of governing themselves via such vernacular institutions as the Counsel of Elders and had no need for professional politicians.

As the State has taken over, it has usurped all these functions, rendering redundant the social units that previously fulfilled them and thereby assuring their disintegration. It is important to note too that if traditional families and communities were allowed to fulfil their normal functions there would be no demand for those provided by the State and its specialised agencies.

Society is in fact in competition with the State, as the French anthropologist Pierre Clastes (La Societé Contre l’État) points out. As the State takes over and destroys social structures so does it transform what was once a self-governing society into an anonymous mass of largely alienated individuals—a “lumpen proletariat” as it is referred to in the sociological literature—that is totally dependent for its welfare, indeed for its very survival, on the services the State provides.

However the State is inherently destructive for another and more obvious reason. As social and ecological degradation caused by the market and the state proceeds, so does the cost of maintaining the state bureaucracy correspondingly increase. Today many countries in the industrial world governments spend 50-60 per cent of GNP and are still desperately short of funds to fulfil all those functions required to assure their survival. In such conditions, it is not surprising to find the State encouraging any economic development that is likely to bring them in funds, in particular in the form of foreign currency. We find that practically everywhere everything is done to attract industrialists from abroad. Often Free Trade Zones are set up where industrialists are given a veritable carte blanche to indulge in whatever activities they wish without having to observe any social or ecological constraints that might increase their costs and thereby reduce, in any way, their competitiveness on world markets. (Tanzania and Burma are exceptions).

In Thailand, it has been found that the easiest way to earn foreign currency is to organise sex holidays on a very large scale for Japanese and German businessmen, and the government goes so far as to tell parents that to be patriotic they must encourage their daughters to prostitute themselves in the interests of the economic progress that such enterprises must bring about.

Throughout the Third World deforestation has been actively encouraged by governments who have sold off concessions to foreign lumber companies and thereby participated to a considerable extent in the financial rewards. Throughout the Third World too we find that local people are trying desperately to save their environment from destruction at the hands of government contractors. The efforts of the Chipko Movement in the Himalayas are well known. When the government contractors come to cut down the forests the women stream out of the villages and literally hug the trees. The woodsmen can only cut down the trees by killing the women too, which so far, they have not been willing to do. The Chipko Movement is now spreading throughout the Himalayas. Here is a typical case of local people fighting to save their environment, thereby desperately trying to prevent their impoverishment and eventual starvation by systematically fighting off the emissaries of the State.

This brings us back to environmental education. The state is continually telling us that we must educate individuals not to destroy their environment yet it is the state itself that is responsible for this destruction. It is the politicians in New Delhi, as well as the scientists and economists who rationalise all this destruction, rather than the villagers of the Himalayas, who must be told just how deforestation must inevitably cause impoverishment and starvation.

This whole issue must soon appear very much more relevant to people like ourselves who live in the industrial world. The reason is that what insulation we have at present from the processes that are annihilating the real world elsewhere and thereby causing so much impoverishment, malnutrition and starvation, is a very temporary one. The industrial system is very precarious. It can only be maintained in very specific conditions and these conditions every year obtain ever less well.

Thus our arable land is also being subject to erosion and desertification. This is true in America in particular where this process is so advanced that it is unlikely that that country, from which 75 per cent of cereal imports are derived, will be exporting food in twenty years’ time. We are also cementing over our land at an incredible rate, so much so that in the UK, according to Alice Coleman’s Second Land Utilization Survey, on recent trends the last acre of arable land will have been cemented over or turned into wasteland or ‘tended’ space by the year 2157.

This means that we will need more and more food from the Third World, but the Third World, as erosion and desertification proceed, will not be in a position to sell it to us. It is difficult to see, under these conditions, how large-scale famine can be avoided in countries like Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, etc. It is difficult to see too how we can continue selling our manufactured goods to Third World countries whose ability to pay for them can only be further reduced.

Economists are trained to take into account a certain number of variables such as the money supply, the balance of payments, import duties, etc. It is becoming increasingly clear that it is not by considering the interrelationships between these variables that one can understand what is happening to peoples’ livelihood.

Consider that in the last few years floods in India have caused the most terrible devastation to the country’s croplands and have drowned large numbers of cows and killed quite a number of people. It is well recognised that these floods are primarily the result of deforestation in the Himalayas. No knowledgeable person as far as I know even denies this today. It thereby seems that deforestation has a greater effect on India’s economy than any change that can be brought about by the manipulation of the variables that monopolise the attention of economists.

At the same time, deforestation in conjunction with the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels, now threatens to affect world climate. Some of the world’s leading climatologists even consider that a considerable change in world climate, one that is likely to affect world agriculture very adversely indeed, is today inevitable. This opinion was expressed at the 1977 Reykjavik International Conference on the Environmental Future by such world-renowned climatologists as Reid Bryson, Herman Flohn, Kenneth Hare and Tom Malone. If this is so, then the world economy is going to be dramatically changed by factors that our economists do not even know how to take into account.

It is also difficult to see how our societies can survive the massive unemployment that looms ahead and of which we are only seeing the very beginning. Let us not forget that, because of increasing automation, the manufacturing industry in the West has not provided any new jobs (net) for well over ten years. New jobs have all come from the service industry and it is precisely these that are now being automated with the much-heralded micro-electronics revolution.

[Many] jobs, in any case, have been financed by increased government expenditure a strategy first made use of in the New Deal and subsequently rationalised by Lord Keynes. In the days of Keynes, however, governments were spending little more than 10 per cent of GNP. Today, as already mentioned, they are spending up to 60 per cent. Also, since then, company taxation has increased very considerably. As the British economist Walter Eltis points out, the situation is now such that to finance any further increases in government expenditure, the necessary taxation must cause companies to reduce their activities and hence too the number of people they employ. Increased unemployment in the public sector [causing increased social security expenditure] must thereby mean reduced employment in the private sector.

This means that the conventional method of dealing with unemployment is no longer available. Worse still, it is also but a question of time before governments find it impossible to pay unemployment benefits to the increasing hordes of the unemployed. When this point is reached, there will be hell to pay, unless of course governments are wise enough, which is unlikely, to allow the development of a large informal economy and thereby reduce people’s dependence on the functioning of the formal economy in which there will be ever less place for them.

There are many other reasons, which I cannot go into here, for supposing that the formal economy will seriously contract in the next decades and that we will soon cease to benefit from the insulation it provides from the problems it creates. This being so, it is high time that we faced reality, high time that we learnt to interpret correctly the increasingly intractable problems that face our world and that are leading to so much impoverishment, malnutrition and starvation.

The scope of economics must clearly be widened very drastically if it can hope to take into account all the changes occurring to biological, social and ecological systems. Yet this is what is required.

Science itself also requires to be considerably modified. At the moment it is wedded to a particular methodology which basically consists in breaking up natural systems under consideration into their component parts so as to examine them separately in controlled laboratory conditions and then explain their relationships largely in terms of one-way cause-and-effect relationships that can be quantified and expressed in the language of mathematics. This is a very crude methodology, and in order to justify its use, scientists have developed a view of the world of living things that is correspondingly crude and rudimentary.

The complex interrelationship between the different parts of the biosphere and its component systems at all levels of organisation and hence the very structure of the biosphere, are difficult to explain by examining its component parts separately from each other or in terms of one-way cause-and-effect relationships. Nor can these interrelationships be easily quantified and explained in mathematical terms. So they are largely ignored.

In addition, all sorts of important concepts like “mind”, “consciousness” “interpretation”, “prediction”, even “organisation” are all very difficult to deal with in terms of scientific methodology. Hence, they too tend to be ignored in scientific discussions of such subjects as evolution and behaviour, which I think it can be shown cannot be really understood without reference to them.

A new methodology is required and it must be that which would best enable scientists to understand—which I do not believe they do at present—the full complexity and sophistication of the world of living things of which we are part when compared to the coarse and rudimentary nature of the technosphere with which it is being systematically replaced—a process which is at present largely their function to rationalise.

What is required for facing reality—and hence for understanding the true relationship between man and his natural environment—is a Great Reinterpretation.

This Great Reinterpretation must provide that organisation of knowledge that must be communicated to our youth if they are to learn to preserve rather than to destroy their environment, and in this way assure their survival and that of their children.

The Great Reinterpretation must lead to the development of a new ecological worldview, one with which our children might eventually be imbued as the industrial system breaks down, and [as] the worldview that rationalises it loses its credibility.


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