December 11, 2017

The Earth Report – Preface

The highly influential Earth Report, edited by Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard, was published in 1988 by Mitchell Beazley, London. The US edition was published by Price Stern Loan, Los Angeles, California, also in 1988. Edward Goldsmith wrote the Preface which is reproduced below. Other chapters were:

  • “Man and the Natural Order” by Donald Worster
  • “The Politics of Food Aid” by Lloyd Timberlake
  • “Nuclear Energy after Chernobyl” by Peter Bunyard
  • “Man and Gaia” by James Lovelock
  • “Acid Rain and Forest Decline” by Don Hinrichsen
  • “Water Fit to Drink” by Armin Maywald, Uwe Lahl and Barbara Zeschmar-Lahl

This book documents relentless, seemingly unending environmental destruction – the drainage of wetlands, the destruction of coral reefs, the extinction of species, the erosion, desertification and salinization of agricultural land, and its paving over to accommodate roads, housing estates and factories. It deals with the contamination of groundwater and surface waters by agricultural and industrial chemicals, the acidification of lakes by acid rain (which is also involved in the degradation and death of forests), the apparent depletion of the ozone layer by fluorocarbons and other industrial chemicals, and the destabilization of climate as a result of the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

It is also about escalating human problems such as the population explosion, massive urbanization with an ever-growing proportion of humanity living in squalid shantytowns, the impoverishment, the malnutrition and the famine which, for the first time in the human experience, has become chronic over a entire continent and is rapidly spreading to others, the inexorable growth in the incidence of the ‘diseases of civilization’, in particular cardiovascular disease and cancer, and the equally inexorable spread of infectious diseases to areas where they were previously unknown.

The book shows that people’s reactions to all this is influenced by one or other of two different and opposed views of the world. At one extreme the natural world or ‘biosphere’ we inherited is seen as fundamentally hostile – “red in tooth and claw” to use Tennyson’s famous phrase – and the lives of those who derive their sustenance directly from it as “nasty, brutish and short” to use Hobbes’s equally famous phrase. Those who hold that viewsee it as our duty to transform theworld as radically as possible to make it more hospitable and hence to ensure that our lives become more pleasant and civilized, and also longer. This transformation they call ‘progress’, and equate it with economic growth, measured in gross national product (GNP).

The opposite view is that we ourselves have created that hostility; that our needs are not so much material as biological, social, cultural, aesthetic and spiritual, and were admirably satisfied in the natural world we inherited. Most people see some merit in both views, and try to reconcile them in their daily lives.

Unfortunately, the first view dominates our modern world. All benefits are seen as derived from the man-made world or ‘technosphere’, to which economic growth gives rise. Human welfare is measured by per capita GNP. Support comes from modern economics, which attributes no economic value to those benefits provided free by the normal functioning of the biosphere, such as fresh air to breathe, clean water to drink, fertile soil, regular rainfall and a predictable climate, without which we could not eat. It must follow that in destroying our environment, as we are doing, and hence in depriving ourselves of such biospheric non-benefits, we are seen as incurring no costs. This, partly at least, explains why, in terms of the dominant world view, all this destruction is viewed with such indifference.

Those who nevertheless concede that such destruction cannot occur with total impunity, deny that it is in any way connected with economic development. Indeed, how can a process that has been identified with progress give rise to such undesirable side-effects? The destruction, it is maintained, can only, on the contrary, be the work of the poor, whose life has remained “nasty, brutish and short”, and who are so preoccupied with day-to-day survival that they cannot consider the side-effects of their activities on the environment.

The population explosion is also seen as the product of poverty, the poor being necessarily insecure and hence requiring as many children as possible to look after them in their old age. Malnutrition and famine are also attributed to poverty, the poor being unable to invest in modern agricultural technology, and thereby being forced to make use of archaic and unproductive agricultural methods, while, for want of cash, they are unable, when the harvest fails, to buy the food they require to feed themselves and their families.

In other words, economic development is not only exonerated of any blame for causing the environmental and human problems described in this book, but is actually made out to provide their only solution.

Such an interpretation is accepted by many people today, since most of us are employed by, and have thereby become dependent for our livelihood on, the continued expansion of the international agencies, government departments, institutions and business corporations which have come to replace the original social groupings in which man has spent the greater part of his experience on this planet.
Such an interpretation is also convenient for those who direct such surrogate social groupings, and whose income, professional status, power and influence are clearly at stake. Thus, it is not surprising that this interpretation is clearly reflected in all the literature published or sponsored by the World Bank, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the other institutions sponsored by the development industry, rationalizing and thereby legitimizing the development enterprise to which they are so totally committed.

Today, however, an increasing number of people are coming to question the dominant world view, and one can see emerging among them the rudiments at least of what we might refer to as the ‘world view of ecology.’ In terms of this world view, it is only in the aberrant man-made world in which we live that we require the material goods made available to us by economic development. Their role is largely to provide some sort of compensation for real benefits, those that satisfy our real needs, and of which economic development is depriving us. As economic development systematically transforms the biosphere, however, so those real needs are ever-less well satisfied, and so is our requirement for material compensations correspondingly increased.

That economic development is the cause of all the problems considered in this book seems clear. How else can one explain that destruction is occurring in both temperate and tropical countries, whether their economy is centrally planned, as in the communist block, or under a regime of free enterprise, as in the West?

How else can one explain that more destruction has been wrought to the fragile fabric of the biosphere during the last 40 years, since global development has really got under way, than during the preceding two or three million years of the human experience on this planet?
Indeed, we can no longer afford to delude ourselves, the situation is too critical. Our choice is a simple one: either we put our society on a radically different course so as to reduce, rather than- continue to increase, its destructive impact on the biosphere, or we delegate this task to the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.

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