November 19, 2017

Twenty years on: the message remains the same

Editorial article by Edward Goldsmith published in The Ecologist Vol 20 No 4, July–August 1990, the magazine’s 20th anniversary issue.


This is our twentieth anniversary issue. Now may be the time to look back and take stock.

I suppose my first reaction is one of amazement that The Ecologist should have lasted so long. Among other things, we never thought that it would have to. Everything we said in our first issue – a rather dilapidated example of which lies here in front of me – seemed so utterly obvious; even at the time it was almost embarrassing to have to say it. What was far less obvious to us though, was why everyone else did not see it the same way.

Whatever the reason, and many were suggested, we felt sure that a few good issues of The Ecologist would soon put that right. Once our politicians came to realize that our modern industrial society was an aberration – and that all the strategies they proposed for solving the problems that confronted us could only exacerbate them, it seemed clear that they would reconsider their assumptions, develop a less aberrant society and work out and implement a very much more realistic set of strategies. There would then be no need for The Ecologist or other similar periodicals, and we could return to our previous occupations. It is astonishing how naive we were at the time.

My second reaction is a mixed one. I suppose that my colleagues and I experience today some measure of satisfaction at the thought that what we said 20 years ago appears very much more credible now than it did at the time. But this feeling of satisfaction is tempered by several considerations.

Common sense

The first is that our views were not particularly original. They were based on information that was available to anyone – and the conclusions we drew were no more than sheer common sense.

In our first issue, Jean Liedloff, one of the founders of The Ecologist (but better known for her remarkable book The Continuum Concept) noted that the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere had been increasing by 0.2 percent per annum since the beginning of the industrial era and that, should CO2 emissions continue unabated, this would eventually lead to the melting of the polar icecaps and the flooding of coastal areas. The thesis was not new. It was first proposed by the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1896, and in 1957 the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California showed that about half of the CO2 emissions from humanity’s activities were being trapped in the atmosphere. Humanity, the authors of the study noted, was “engaged in a great geophysical experiment”.

Also in our first issue, Peter Bunyard, another founder of The Ecologist, warned of the inevitability, of a Chernobyl-like nuclear accident:

“The chances are that sometime, somewhere, a nuclear reactor and its container structure will be breached by an explosion; or that a sealed tank full of seething radioactive waste to be entombed far from man’s dwelling places will get ruptured. The consequences in either case could be a radioactive cloud several hundreds of times more lethal than that which settled upon Hiroshima or Nagasaki.”

The radioactive fall-out from Chernobyl was about 50 times greater than that of Hiroshima – and only about 3 percent of the crippled reactor’s radioactive contents were released. Again, Peter Bunyard’s opinion was based upon the best available information. He knew of the Windscale fire of 1957 which itself “vented more radioactive waste than had fallen on Hiroshima after the bomb.” He had read the writings of such people as Dr John F. Gofman and Dr Arthur G. Tamplin who had worked for the United States Energy Authority’s Lawrence Livermore Radiation Laboratory before becoming disenchanted and leaving to publicize their concerns over nuclear energy. He knew of the systematic campaign of disinformation that had and still is being undertaken by the nuclear industry worldwide.

He knew too that it is impossible to build any sort of machine that cannot go wrong, and that if that machine happens to be a nuclear installation, it can make vast areas uninhabitable and increase the incidence of cancer and infant mortality among large numbers of people, as the Chernobyl accident will clearly do.

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Sound Husbandry

In the same first issue, another founder, Michael Allaby, argued very convincingly that the Indicative World Plan drawn up by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization could not serve its stated goal of feeding the world. The plan involved applying the ‘Green Revolution’ in order to replace traditional varieties of wheat and rice with high-yielding varieties. The latter required enormous inputs of fertilizers and if the new varieties were to succeed, Allaby noted, we would “have to find ways of increasing fertilizer availability throughout the entire developing world so that each farmer has access to up to 27 times the fertilizer he uses at present”.

Where was this fertilizer to come from, and how would it be paid for, he asked. Of course, it had to be imported, and India, where the Green Revolution is said to have been most successfully applied, now has to spend more money on importing fertilizers than it previously spent on importing grain. Allaby stated how “repeated applications of heavy fertilizer doses will damage the structure (of the soil) so reducing the effectiveness of the fertilizer itself and undermining the fertility of the soil”. This is precisely what has happened.

He noted too, that the high-yielding varieties were particularly vulnerable to pests, and that therefore massive amounts of pesticides would also have to be imported:

“It is inevitable that there will be great problems from pollution. There are likely to be serious pest, weed and disease outbreaks because of the disturbance of delicate ecological balances, and as resistance to the chemicals develops, as we know it will, there will be an almost irresistible temptation to move on to other, more sophisticated, more toxic compounds, which will further aggravate the situation.”

Again his warning has proved entirely accurate.

Allaby argued that there was only one possible solution to the world food crisis: to get away “from intensive and industrialized agriculture and back to sound husbandry” which would entail a return to small farms. These are very much more productive than the large farms that alone can afford the expensive inputs required by modern industrial agriculture.

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Piecemeal Treatment

Such a strategy is required in any case in order to protect public health. As Professor R. Lindsay Robb pointed out in our first issue: “The most important single factor in health is nutrition (which) is largely dependent on good quality food of pleasing flavour.” However,

“almost everywhere in the world today, agricultural policy is based on production of the largest quantity in the shortest time at the smallest cost and highest cash profit. There is virtually no regard for quality – nutritive value – or the future of the land.”

If he were alive today he would only need to point to salmonella in eggs, listeria in cheese and Mad Cow Disease to prove his point, not to mention the massive increase in the ‘diseases of civilization’ – cancer, diabetes, heart disease, diverticulitus, peptic ulcer and tooth-decay. All of these, as is noted in our first issue in Alan Maryon-Davis’s review of Diabetes, Coronary Thrombosis and the Saccharine Disease by T. L. Cleave, are clearly associated with the abominable diet of modern industrial men and women.

As Lindsay Robb wrote,

“In tackling the problem of illness in man or beast a common approach is to seek specific remedies for specific diseases through drugs, injections, antibiotics and so forth, to protect crops by using specific pesticides to kill specific pests and by engineering works to save the soil from being blown or washed away. This failure to recognize fundamental relationships, coupled with the piecemeal treatment of symptoms, is likely to result in a race between the emergence of new forms of sickness and the discovery of new materials to combat them. If so, man will be fighting a losing battle.”

This surely must be clear to all of us today. In spite of the massive arsenal of chemical weapons that we have built up, the incidence of infectious diseases such as malaria, schistosomiasis, filiariasis, dengue fever and gonorrhoea is increasing, while we are now faced with a new pandemic – Aids – which is already threatening to kill huge numbers of people in Africa and could soon affect other parts of the world in a similar manner. It is truly amazing that we do not yet see just how far conventional wisdom has got it wrong.

Moreover, it is not our national health service that can assure the health of our population. As Lindsay Robb wrote, it is “no more than a running repair service to cure recurrent sickness”. Indeed,

“our survival and continued existence on this planet depends not so much on the discovery of wonder drugs and pest killing sprays as on being able to maintain a high level of soil fertility.”

All this is clearly true. It was obvious to a number of Lindsay Robb’s contemporaries and predecessors and indeed to countless generations of traditional farmers all over the world. However, in the aberrant society in which we live, we have lost sight of the obvious.

Another factor which tempers any satisfaction that we at The Ecologist might experience in being proved correct is the horrendous nature of the problems that confront us today. Indeed, if we allow global warming, the thinning of the ozone layer, the contamination of air, seas, rivers and groundwater with ever larger amounts of increasingly toxic chemicals, the destruction of forests, the erosion, desertification and salinization of agricultural land, the extinction of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and plants and the continued runaway growth of the human population to continue unimpeded for another few decades, our planet will simply cease to be habitable, and the extinction of our species will become almost inevitable.

This is something that few people are willing to face; fewer still seem willing to advocate those changes that must be brought to our society, our economy and our lifestyle if we are to reverse current trends and create a future for our children.

Consider global warming. Just to stabilize the concentrations in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, CFCs and nitrous oxide at their present levels (and therefore slow down but not halt climate change), the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that we must cut the emissions of these greenhouse gases by over 60 percent immediately.

However, even the governments which are considered the most progressive in these matters have committed themselves to no more than pegging emissions to their present levels by 2000. The British Government says it will not bring emissions back to their present levels until 2005, and the US refuses to accept even this pathetically inadequate target. Meanwhile the oil industry is now trying to dissuade governments from taking any action at all, citing a largely discredited study from a right-wing American policy institute which claims that we can expect a cooling early in the next century due to decreased solar activity.

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Creating a better society

But it is neither fear of ecological catastrophe nor resentment of those who refuse to accept the need for change that will ultimately lead us to take the necessary action – rather it should be the desire to create a better society, and one that can satisfy the biological, social, spiritual and aesthetic needs of its citizens. This our modern industrial society cannot do without annihilating the natural world upon which we depend for our sustenance and our inspiration.

We need to realize that modern industrial society is but a passing aberration. We made the same point in our first issue. In a review of the proceedings of an anthropological conference entitled Man the Hunter, Robert Prescott-Allen (who with his wife Christine went on to write the World Conservation Strategy for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature) noted that,

“of the estimated 80 billion people who have ever lived out a life span on earth, over 90 percent have lived as hunters and gatherers; about six percent have lived by agriculture and the remaining few percent (and that in spite of the current population explosion) have lived in industrial societies.”

Hunter gatherers are seen by us as being the most miserable of people and we insist on seeing their lives as “nasty, brutish and short” to use Thomas Hobbes’s consecrated phrase. But, as the participants at this conference demonstrated, nothing is further from the truth. Hunter-gatherers had plenty of food at their disposal and they did not suffer from malnutrition or famine.

As Colin Turnbull, one of the participants, writes of the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire: “Famine or anything approaching it is utterly unknown to the Mbuti who have the axiom that ‘the only hungry Mbuti is a lazy Mbuti’.”

James Woodburn said much the same of the Hadza of Tanzania: “For a Hadza to die of hunger, or even to fail to satisfy his hunger for more than a day or two is inconceivable.”

On the whole, they were very healthy people, showing no signs of the kwashiorkor, rickets, infantile scurvy or vitamin B deficiency which are often found among the malnourished of the tropics. They were also long lived. Out of one group of 466 bushmen, 46 were over 60 years old, “which compares favourably with the proportion of elderly in industrialized societies.”

Nor were they ‘poor’ if we use this term in a sensible way. As Marshall Sahlins noted at the conference:

“Our assumption that the hunter-gatherer’s lot must be hard is based on the theory behind all market economies – that man’s wants are infinite and can with difficulty be satisfied. The enviably short working hours and freedom from anxiety of the hunter-gatherer must be based on a contrary philosophy – that man’s wants are few and easily satisfied. The immense sophistication of our technology serves not to satisfy our needs but to increase them. The simple technology of the hunter-gatherer is perfectly adequate while he lacks the burden of our bourgeois impulses. It also has a much less radical effect on the environment.”

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Inspiration and knowledge

I am not suggesting that we all return to being hunters and gatherers. What I would insist on, and what The Ecologist has tried to show again and again over the last 20 years, is that there are various alternatives to our modern industrial society, alternatives, moreover, that are truly sustainable and that provide its members with a very much more fulfilling lifestyle. From them, as well as from the more suitable knowledge built up during the industrial era, we can derive the inspiration to develop the sustainable societies of our post-industrial future.

To make whatever contribution we can to the development of such societies must be our goal for the next 20 years, and, let us hope, it is also the goal of tens of millions of other people throughout the world. It is that prospect that today gives us the only cause for celebration.

Edward Goldsmith

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