November 25, 2017

De-developing the Third World

The nature of development is to force people to exchange the essential for the superfluous—to sacrifice the biosphere on which life depends, for short term increases in material consumption. The only possible outcome is increased poverty and deprivation. This is why development must be reversed – degrowth, or ‘de-development’, is the way forward.

Editorial article, published in The Ecologist Vol. 7 No. 9, November 1977.


The United Nations Conference on Desertification has come and gone. What good has it done? Perhaps more people are now aware that a third of the world’s agricultural land is rapidly being turned into desert. But no one can really believe that as a result of any decisions taken at this conference, the tide of global desertification is likely to be stemmed.

Consider the measures proposed to counteract this terrible process. Many of them are little more than high-technology games. Governments were exhorted, for instance, to “compile desertification maps”, to use “satellite data”, to adopt a “computerised resource inventory system for management and planning” and to utilise “reference systems for remote sensing imagery”.

But what can all this do other than divert attention from the real issues involved and delude the public into believing that something constructive is really being done? The solution does not lie in documenting the progress of desertification but in reversing it. If one jumps out of an aeroplane, it is not an altimeter that one needs, as Robert Allen puts it, but a parachute.

Consider now some of the other proposals. Governments are urged to “ameliorate degraded range-land”, to introduce “improved systems of livestock and wild life management”, to develop “diversified and integrated systems of production” and to “improve the welfare of pastoral communities”.

But just how these things are to be done, we are not told. They are but vain exhortations which everybody knows will never he implemented. The reason why is simple. The basic cause of desertification is development. The object of this process is to increase the level of material consumption. If people are to consume more they must also produce more and this, especially in the dry and arid tropics, must have very serious consequences.

This means, for instance, that pastoralists must increase the size of their herds, thus causing overgrazing and soil erosion. Eventually they must settle and pursue an agricultural way of life even if the land is not suitable for this purpose and this will give rise to even more soil erosion. Also, to increase productivity, they must irrigate their land. Vast numbers of wells must he dug, consequently the water-table will fall and as a result, more land will turn to desert. Alternatively, vast, permanent irrigation systems must be constructed causing the water-level to rise, and soil salinisation to ensue.

There is a further problem. The inevitable consequence of the early stages of development is a population explosion. This, among other things, increases the need for firewood – the main source of fuel in much of the Third World. Further marginal land is thereby deprived of its protective cover, which can only mean still more soil erosion and so the process goes on. But is there any means of stopping it?

Since the processes involved are precisely those that are necessary to increase the standard of material consumption, which is what development is all about, we have to face the unpleasant reality that desertification can only be prevented by reversing the process of development i.e. by de-developing.

This of course, the delegates to the United Nations Conference could not admit. Industrial countries are firmly committed to developing the Third World from which they derive a high proportion of their resources and which is a necessary market for their manufactured goods. Third World leaders, however, have a still greater stake in it.

A politician from the Upper Volta, for instance, who last year attended a preparatory meeting for the Desertification Conference, was told of the results of a case study that showed that intensive development was turning an area of the Sudan into a desert. He responded,

“We cannot accept such conclusions and if the UN Conference reaches such conclusions we cannot accept them either.”

His country, he said, intended to increase its population from 6.5 million to 30 million, all of whom, he insisted, would have the same standard of living as the inhabitants of California.

It is essential, before it is too late, that politicians of this sort be made to understand that not only is such all enterprise totally impossible, it is also equally undesirable.

Indeed, it is not only to prevent desertification that de-development is required but to combat poverty itself. Poverty, in the Third World, is not material deprivation, caused by a shortage of consumer goods and technological devices as many people think it is. It is, above all, biological deprivation. Indeed, everywhere, one finds ever more massive populations trying desperately to scratch an ever more precarious living, from land that looks more and more like the surface of the moon. That is why they are poor. Yet, in their efforts to develop, they continue to divert key resources from the countryside – where they are directly or indirectly essential to agriculture – to the expanding cities.

In this way, valuable agricultural land is cemented over, forests are cut down for timber with all sorts of ecological consequences that must inevitably affect agricultural production, and above all, increasing quantities of water are used up for industrial and domestic purposes.

Let us not forget that it is neither tractors nor fertilisers nor pesticides that provide the principal limitation on food production in most of the Third World. It is water.

It is considered that 1,500 litres of water are required to produce a kilo of wheat, 4,500 litres for a kilo of rice, and 30,000 litres for a kilo of prime beef. In the dry tropics, because of the high evaporation rate, very much more is needed than in temperate areas, ten times more in the Sahara for instance, than in Morocco, and 30 times more than in Southern Italy.

Still more stupendous amounts of water are required, however, for industrial purposes. A ton of steel, for example, requires 150,000 litres, and a ton of streptomycin 4 million, million litres, while, at the same time, domestic consumption increases dramatically, once development gets under way and people start installing flush-toilets and washing machines.

In non-industrial cities, a daily consumption of 10 litres per person is probably the norm. Once they become industrialised however, this can increase by a factor of 20 or even 50. In Chicago for instance, daily consumption is said to be 1,000 litres, and in San Diego, California, about 2,400.

Indeed, it seems certain that if we were to industrialise the cities of the Third World, the amount of water that would have to be diverted from agricultural to urban uses would be sufficient to cause famine on an unprecedented scale.

In addition, in order to develop, Third World countries require foreign exchange. Unless they possess oil or other such sought-after commodities, they can only get this by exporting the produce of their soil, either food-crops such as cocoa, coffee, tea, sugar etc. or non-food crops such as timber, rubber, jute, cotton or copra, much of which occupy valuable land that could be producing food for the local population.

In San Domingo, for instance, 25 percent of the land is devoted to the production of cash crops largely for export. In the Philippines the figures is 55 percent and everywhere the money earned in this way is spent on building motorways and office-blocks and on acquiring the rest of the paraphernalia of a modern consumer society – all of which has remarkably little relevance to solving the real problem of the Third World – which is how to feed its exploding population.

On these grounds alone, and there are many others, development cannot be regarded as a sensible goal for the countries of the Third World. It is little more in fact, than a means of exchanging the indispensable for the superfluous: – and for the West to encourage them in this direction, is to provide them with what can only be regarded as negative aid.

De-development provides a much more realistic goal. By phasing out their cities and their capital-intensive industries, neither of which they can afford, the countries of the Third World can concentrate instead on building up a healthy rural economy capable of coexisting with its environment, rather than systematically destroying it. Material prosperity will never be within their grasp but what they can develop is another type of prosperity – probably a more satisfying, certainly a more durable one, based on a more subtle exploitation of the vast capital that Nature has put at our disposal.

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