April 24, 2014

The Ostrich Syndrome

From a talk given in 1970.

The ever increasing environmental problems that confront us and that we read more about every day in the daily papers, add up to what can he called without exaggeration an environmental crisis. The more we look at the situation, the more serious it appears. In fact this crisis is not only a challenge to our civilization but to our very survival on a planet that our greedy and short-sighted behaviour is making ever less fit to sustain us.

Unfortunately, to meet this challenge very radical measures must be taken. This involves facing facts that we are loathe face, as they run contrary to basic assumptions underlying the cultural pattern of industrial man.

Instead, by the most extraordinary exercise of wishful thinking, we try to persuade ourselves that certain superficial features of our way of life are responsible for our plight, and that correspondingly superficial measures are sufficient to restore the balance of nature that we have so rudely upset.

This attitude can aptly be called the Ostrich Syndrome. It characterises the behaviour of most of today’s politicians, business men, scientists [&] technologist’s, and is reflected in their pronouncements and acts. The last General Election [18 June 1970] could not provide a better illustration. It was fought over the most superficial issues while few of the really important problems that this country is likely to be faced with in the next few decades were as much as mentioned.

The Ostrich Syndrome is a very human tendency. I once observed a friend of mine who worked for none-too-serious business efficiency consultants, actually setting out to induce it in a customer. The latter was the managing director of a company that had been making a very considerable loss. The reason for this was apparent: he was hopelessly incompetent, as were his highly paid nephews, his son and his son-in-law, who all occupied key positions in this unfortunate enterprise. It was obvious that my friend could not tell the managing director what was really wrong with his company. This august and venerated figure could not be expected to face a problem that could only be solved by sacking himself and all his family. My friend had no alternative but to seek out and incriminate other defects in the organization, for the most part totally superficial ones. These the managing director could face with equanimity if not relief, and deal with without compromising the, to him, essential status quo.

It must be clear that our leaders are behaving very much like this managing director, and up till now their advisers on environmental issues, I regret to say, have behaved very much like my friend. A little bit of anti-pollution control here, a few more natural parks there, [and] it is generally assumed all will be well.

In other words, half-hearted and for the most part purely technological solutions are advanced and our basic way of life need suffer no change.

Technology has indeed a very big role to play. In the next few years we must develop and make use of all possible devices for reducing pollution and must learn to recycle waste products of all types, regardless of cost.

But this is not enough. Technological processes have many disadvantages. They are crude by nature’s standards and generate vastly more waste, and hence pollution, than do natural ones. They also use up vast amounts of natural resources of which the earth’s stock is strictly limited. In addition they tend to simplify the environment thereby rendering it less stable and more vulnerable.

The idea that we can solve the environmental crisis by purely technological means is but an instance of the Ostrich Syndrome. It is one that must be dispelled. I shall deal with another more general aspect of the syndrome, one that particularly concerns the people present in this room today.

It is confidently assumed by economists and politicians alike that the standard of living in this country will continue to increase and will just about double by the year 2000. This assumption is made on the basis of a very simple model of economic growth, making use of purely ‘economic’ variables. It is becoming increasingly evident however that economic forecasts must take into account other variables, of a social and ecological nature.

Let me make this clear. Great Britain is a highly industrialised nation. It earns its living by buying food and raw materials from abroad and transforming them into finished products which are then exported. This process has enabled us to attain a very high standard of living. However, we are very vulnerable as many things can go wrong with it. In fact, it can only function properly if, first of all, raw materials and food are available from abroad at a reasonable price, if we remain capable of manufacturing finished products of sufficient quality and at a sufficiently competitive price, and if our customers nave the inclination and ability to pay for them.

Whether or not these conditions are satisfied is clearly the basic thing we wish to know in predicting Britain’s economic future. I am not saying that they are the only things, but that only someone suffering from a particularly serious bout of the ostrich syndrome would venture any predictions without taking them into account. Yet this appears to be just what our politicians, economists, trade unionists, etc., are doing. And it is only [in] this way that they are capable of painting such a rosy picture of our future.

Let us look briefly at each of these conditions in turn.

It must be evident that the world’s natural resources are finite. On this basis alone it is perfectly evident that economic growth to which our entire society is geared, and which requires ever greater quantities of natural resources, cannot continue indefinitely. It is a matter of simple arithmetic. Yet few of us are aware of the extent to which natural resources are already depleted. Professor Preston Cloud, Chairman of the Natural Resource Committee of the Natural Academy of Science, shows in Mined Out (Vol. 1 No. 2) that by the year 2000 the world’s estimated reserves of platinum, silver, gold, tin, zinc, load, copper and tungsten at current mineable grades will be exhausted. Many others will be in short-supply, such as aluminium, cobalt, molybdenum, chromium, manganese, etc. It is impossible to maintain that our economy will not be affected by the gradual exhaustion of these key resources.

Still worse [as Peter Bunyard shows in “The Power Crisis” Vol. 1 No. 4] Britain will soon be faced with a severe energy problem. Natural gas [from the North Sea] will probably run out in the next thirty years, while [world] oil reserves have been estimated as likely to last but another seventy years or so, and by the end of the century it is likely to be already in short supply. In the meantime our energy requirements are increasing drastically, and our only alternative source is nuclear power. So [in the UK] we plan to build a vast number of new nuclear power stations and to increase output from 4,000 megawatts (already half the world’s total) to 100,000 megawatts. But there are many snags to this.

Nuclear power gives rise to radioactive waste containing various radioisotopes that are the most toxic substances ever known. Much of this is released into the air and the seas. There does not seem to be any other way of disposing of it. If present plans for increasing nuclear power in Britain and the U.S. are implemented it is likely that what are considered to be safe levels will have been greatly exceeded by that time. The effect on life, especially sea life, may well be disastrous. Also, nuclear reactors are prone to accidents, and one must not forget that when there is a finite possibility of something happening, however unlikely it may be, it is simply a question of time before it happens.

It is not surprising that orders for nuclear power stations have been falling off drastically in the U.S. I feel, and I must say I sincerely hope that the same will happen over here. There are already signs to that effect. A nuclear power station that was to be built near Plymouth only the other day was cancelled because of fears for the safety of the local population.

In fact, there is bound to be a serious energy gap before very long. The U.S. is already beginning to feel it and it is only a matter of years before business activity will be severely affected.

Michael Allaby in “Green Revolution” (Vol.1 No. 3) writes about the world food situation. The Food and Agricultural Organisation held a second world conference in June (1970) in The Hague to try and work out how to solve the world’s food problem. Make no mistake, it is a very serious one. The demand for food is expected to increase at the rate of 3.9% per annum and supply only at 2.6% per annum. This makes a very big gap in thirty years’ time. The methods proposed by FAO to fill this gap are very dubious. They are, at best, short-term expedients that are extremely unlikely to prevent a world famine in the next decades, and let us not fool ourselves into thinking that we will not be affected—with our increasing dependence on imported food.

How about our ability to transform raw materials into finished products? Prospects here are pretty grim as well. The cost of a lot of things are likely to rocket in the next thirty years. Take health, for instance. The health of urban man appears to be deteriorating fast. [See Robert Waller in “The Diseases of Civilisation” (Vol. 1 No. 2).] The main determinants of health are the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. The quality of all three is decreasing alarmingly. The countless medicines given to us by doctors may give us short relief, but most simply tend to aggravate the problem. The National Health Service is already costing us nearly two thousand million a year. It is increasing annually. God knows what it will cost in 30 years’ time. An ever more infirm population and an ever costlier health service will clearly reduce our capacity to produce things competitively, and hence the market for our products.

Pollution control will also cost an enormous amount of money. [See Eric Albone in “The Ailing Air” (Vol. 1 No. 3), and Ronald Toms in “Seminar on Water Pollution” (Vol. 1 No. 3).] This money will simply have to be spent. It is not a question of weighing up the advantages of clean rivers and air against those of a lot of consumer goods that a high standard of living will allow us to buy.

We can live very well without plastic buckets and electric toothbrushes—we cannot live without water to drink and air to breath.

What it will cost, God only knows. Professor Barry Commoner has estimated that 100,000 million dollars are required to clean up America’s rivers (approximately twice our national budget) and it is said that in the U.S. 15,000 million dollars are needed to cut down air pollution from car exhausts.

Social disorder, the symptoms of which are crime, delinquency, alcoholism and drug addiction, are all increasing dramatically. Crime at more than 8% per annum among people between 17 and 30. Alcoholism is also on the increase. There are over half a million [alcoholics] in this country and this number is increasing. Needless to say, drug addiction is [also] reaching epidemic proportions.

The cost of all will be stupendous. In fact, if it continues at the current rate, and it is more than likely that it will, it is difficult to see how business will be able to function at all.

This takes us to the fourth condition: the capacity and willingness of customers to buy our manufactured goods. Our main trading partners are industrialised countries like the U.S.A., Germany, Japan. The same tendencies will be occurring in these countries and the resulting inflation and slow down of economic activity can only result in reduced purchasing power. In such conditions one can only expect them to limit purchases from abroad by tariffs or import quotas to basic necessities such as raw materials, and this can only have a serious effect on our economic position.

As I have already said, other factors must be taken into account if we wish to predict Britain’s position in the year 2000 and some may well be more favourable and may tend to counteract the apocalyptic tendencies I have discussed.

Nevertheless, the latter are very real and very serious and we must have the courage and foresight to face them today and take the necessary action. On the other hand, if we fall victims to the “Ostrich Syndrome” and refuse to accept their very existence, the results may well be disastrous.


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