May 25, 2017

The next thirty years

Writing at the turn of the Millennium, The Ecologist founder Edward Goldsmith predicts hard times ahead over the next thirty years unless radical action is taken soon.

We have no publication information for this article and assume that it was unpublished.


When I founded The Ecologist I didn’t believe that by the year 2000 we would still be leading the ‘advanced’ lifestyles that we in the industrialised world lead today. As we wrote in A Blueprint for Survival, a special issue of The Ecologist, in January 1972,

“The principal defect of the industrial way of life, with its ethos of expansion, is that it is not sustainable. Its termination within the lifetime of someone born today is inevitable – unless it continues to be sustained a while longer by an entrenched minority at the cost of imposing great suffering on the rest of mankind.”

Nearly thirty years later I stand by this statement though I have to admit that I thought at the time that it was very optimistic, but the modern industrial system was obviously more resilient than I thought, and the natural world better capable of absorbing its increasingly destructive impact.

Perhaps we should, at least, be grateful for that, or should we? I ask this question because the longer our industrial society lasts, and the more developing countries are brought within its orbit, the further we will have strayed from a sane, stable, ‘sustainable’ world, which means that when the collapse occurs it will be all that more traumatic.

Predictions are always dangerous, of course. However, for me the most striking feature of the next thirty years will be the major and increasingly disruptive discontinuities that will make life on this planet ever more difficult and more precarious. The usual reaction to such a statement is that I am not taking into account human ingenuity and the incredible advances being made today in every known area of science and high technology.

But for me they are all irrelevant. Science and technology can solve impressive technological problems like going to the moon – but the real problems we face today are of a very different order. They are caused by the disintegration and breakdown of natural systems like biological organisms, families, communities, ecosystems, and the ecosphere, or Gaia herself, i.e. the biosphere together with its geological substrate and atmospheric environment.

Against such problems science and technology are largely impotent. What they can do above all is serve to mask their symptoms, which means prolonging the agony – for a while at most. There is no scientific or technological gimmickry that will bring together the members of a family or of a community that have disintegrated, nor that can extract from the atmosphere all the greenhouse gases that are responsible for global warming.

The discontinuities I refer to are likely to occur in four areas:

Economic collapse

Firstly, and probably most immediately, in the global economic arena. The global economy, whatever its blinkered opponents may say, is inherently unstable. In 1979 and 1980 there was a terrible financial crisis in South America, which required massive injections of cash by the IMF to prevent the Western banking system, which had grossly over-invested in South American countries, from collapsing. Then came the near collapse of the Mexican economy in 1994, which required further massive injections of cash from the IMF.

By this time the Japanese bubble economy had been pricked, and in 1997 came the near collapse of the Thai economy and the devaluation of its currency, which was largely responsible for the near collapse of most South East Asian economies, particularly that of Indonesia, which has never really recovered, and also that of South Korea, the Philippines, etc.

Further massive injections of cash were poured in by the IMF, again to save the Western banking system. In September 1998, Wall Street itself was on the verge of collapse, and was only saved in extremis by Alan Greenspan’s timely intervention. In the meantime, the Russian economy collapsed and has never recovered and there have been financial crises in Brazil and Venezuela and elsewhere.

Today the Japanese economy, which appeared to recover, is heading for yet another slump, and the American economy is still pretty shaky, its deficit on current account running at a rate of nearly $300 billion a year, and increasing all the time.

For how long can this last? At present the economic system is literally held together by the American consumer, who not only keeps the American economy going but also that of the Third World by sopping up a considerable proportion of the latter’s exports, which it can ill afford to do.

If the American consumer, who accounts for 75 percent of the US GNP decides to give up his seemingly endless shopping spree, which he must do one day, just as the Japanese consumer has already done, there will be little left to hold the world economy together. What is more, it could collapse for other reasons.

At some point in time foreign investors may decide that the US cannot go on spending money it does not have and may panic and sell its US shares and Treasury Bonds, with potentially drastic consequences. A combination of these and other similar events could give rise to a massive Stock Exchange collapse, and for many people, who know very much more about it than I do, it is but a question of time before this happens, and when it does it will cause far more unemployment, poverty, and human misery than did the famous crash of 1929.

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The massive increase in poverty in the Third World

Even without a world economic collapse, poverty and unemployment are the two most serious social problems we face today. In Third World countries, the bulk of the population still lives off the land, on small farms, often of no more than a few acres. As these countries are ‘developed’ in the context of the global economy so will these small farmers be forced to grow increasingly expensive, commodified, patented and often genetically engineered varieties of their major crops that they never previously had to purchase, let alone pay royalties on.

These new varieties require other costly off-farm inputs (fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation water) which small farmers can ill afford. So too will the market for agricultural produce be opened up to cheap subsidized food from the USA which, with the signing of the NAFTA treaty, has already occurred in Mexico with drastic results, and, under pressure from the WTO, is now occurring in India and elsewhere.

This inevitably means that vast numbers of small farmers will be pushed off the land – in India perhaps as many as five hundred million of them, and with them will go the artisans, street vendors, and all the other components of a genuine local economy – most of them being forced to seek refuge in the nearest conurbation, where unemployment levels are already very high.

We will then have cities of 40, 50 or even 100 million people, with the vast majority of the inhabitants living in indescribable poverty and squalor in the most sordid possible slums.

In the meantime, efforts to reverse these trends will be strenuously opposed by the increasingly powerful and uncontrollable transnational corporations that control the World Trade Organization, and at the rate at which these are merging with each other it is but a question of time before only a few are left in each sector of the world’s economy.

As this happens it is also but a question of time before the survivors find it more profitable to cooperate rather than compete with each other. Already they are undertaking joint ventures and forming strategic alliances. Eventually they will join forces, at which point we shall be entering a new era of corporate central planning that will have much in common with the state central planning of the ex-USSR, except that it will be on a global scale, and that it will be even less accountable to anyone or anything but itself.

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Runaway science and technology

The third area in which these discontinuities will occur will be the problems caused by runaway scientific and technological innovation. Science and technology today have largely merged. Funding is available for scientific research insofar as it gives rise to new products of commercial value.

For this purpose holistic science is valueless. The contemplation of totality does not lead to the development of antibiotics, pesticides, genetically modified crops, or new hydrogen bombs, but the reductionist science required for these purposes does not, in turn, enable scientists to understand the possible effects of these innovations on society and the natural world, i.e. on the ecosphere as a whole.

We could probably get round this problem if such activities were under the control of serious and public spirited regulatory bodies, but these no longer exist. Those that we still have are now controlled by the very industries whose activities they are supposed to regulate. This is true throughout the world and, as a result, whole industries with a great potential for social and environmental destruction are simply out of control.

The nuclear industry is a case in point, and we are likely to be faced with several more Chernobyls in the next decades. So is the chemical industry. Of the 70,000 or so chemicals it has put in the environment, and the thousand or so chemicals that it introduces every year, few have been studied even in the most summary manner.

Hence the cancer epidemic that now affects one man in two and one woman in three, hence the massive reduction in the human sperm-count, hence too the ever-worsening erosion of the ozone layer which protects us from potentially lethal ultra-violet radiation. Let us not also forget that the damage done so far by ozone-destroying chemicals – and it is already desperately serious – has resulted from those that were introduced into the atmosphere more than 20 years ago. What will it be like when those that have been introduced since then begin to have their effect?

Another potentially devastating scientific and technological initiative which, it appears, is now fortunately being brought under control as a result of massive public pressure, is genetic engineering, in particular its agricultural application. In the words of Nobel Laureate David Baltimore “the biotech industry has grown up in an era of almost complete permissiveness.”

As for the new field of transgenic transplantation, the implications are too horrible to contemplate. Organs, tissues, and body fluid, transplanted from one form of life to another will carry with them viruses and other micro-organisms peculiar to the species from which they are derived, with potentially lethal effects on the host organism and that can trigger off an epidemic that can devastate the species to which it belongs.

It is more than likely that the present AIDS pandemic arose when serum was extracted from green monkeys in central Africa, and used for the production of vaccines against polio or smallpox. This hypotheses fits in with the established fact that practically every major epidemic to have affected the human species has been caused by micro-organisms that previously inhabited other forms of life and with which, for various reasons, we have entered into closer relationships.

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Climate change

The most serious technological-related disaster of all time is global climate change, more correctly referred to as ‘global climate destabilization’. Even if we phased out emissions of all greenhouse gases tomorrow we would still be committed to climate change for some 150 years because of the residence time of the gases that have already been introduced into the atmosphere.

Governments and international agencies have done almost nothing about it. The problem is simply too big for them, and would require action which would force them to abandon their overriding goal of maximizing economic growth. Cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases proposed at Kyoto are still barely on the agenda, especially in the USA where Congress – under pressure from the big corporations, and in particular from the oil industry – still refuses to ratify this incredibly weak agreement.

This means that our lives will be increasingly disrupted by the growing incidence of hurricanes, floods, droughts, and sea-level rises, and in North Europe the possible freeze-up (ironically caused by global warming) as the Gulf Stream progressively weakens with the reduced salinity of the seas caused by the rapid melting of the Arctic ice cap.

We could of course slow down this process and hope that the climate will eventually stabilize and leave us with a world that is still largely habitable, but if we do not take rapid action, and serious action at that, we shall undoubtedly be faced with the greatest catastrophe in human history, and so far, as already noted, there is little sign of any such action being taken.

Nor is it likely to be taken so long as the international corporations, that the WTO has literally freed from all obligations to society and the natural world, are allowed to maintain their almost total control over the international agencies, and national governments. That is why if we are to survive on this planet for very long our first priority must be to fight these corporations, and the only effective tool at our disposal for doing so is to inform the public of what is really going on.

Hopefully the public will react more and more strenuously and in this way the necessary public pressure can be applied on governments to come to their senses, as it has been in the last year or so against their plans to impose genetically modified foods on the world population.

The good news is that the public is at last beginning to wake up and that public pressure is proving increasingly effective, as it was against Monsanto, and as I have just heard against the cynical plan to impose highly costly installations on local councils where open-air markets are still held – on the flimsy pretext that they are unhygienic, though the real reason is so that their business can be taken over by vast supermarket chains

The large demonstrations that are now beginning to occur wherever The World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the IMF, and the Biotech Industry now choose to convene are symptoms of the growing feeling by the public that there is a serious gulf between the interests of these monster corporations and those of humanity and the natural world. In this respect Seattle was a watershed, and so was Washington a few months later.

If the public becomes sufficiently informed and continues to react as it has been doing this last year against the sordid agenda of its political and industrial leaders we might indeed be faced with a very much rosier future.

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