May 25, 2017

The fight must go on

Goldsmith looks back to the Blueprint for Survival, published in 1972 to coincide with the Stockholm Environment Summit (the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment), and finds that the core messages have only become more relevant and pressing with the passing of time.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 30 No. 5, July/August 2000.


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 in 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 30 years later, I stand by this statement. I thought at the time that it was, in fact, optimistic, but the modern industrial system was obviously more resilient than I though 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 the more traumatic.

Predictions

Predictions are always dangerous, or course. Nevertheless, for me the most striking feature of the next 30 years will be the major and increasingly disruptive discontinuities that will make life on this planet ever more difficult and more precarious.

I have learned over the years that the usual reaction from others when I make 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 technology. But for me they are irrelevant. Science and technology can achieve impressive technological feats 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 – 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 the symptoms, which means prolonging the agony – for a while at most.

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

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Economic collapse

Firstly, and probably most immediately, they will come in the global economic arena. The global economy, whatever its blinkered proponents may say, is inherently unstable. Back 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.

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 three hundred billion dollars a year and increasing all the time.

For how long can this last? At present, the world’s economic system is 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. 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.

And it could collapse for other reasons. At some point, 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. A combination of these and other similar events could give rise to a massive Stock Exchange collapse. 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.

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. 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. These new varieties require costly off-farm inputs (fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation water) which small farmers can ill afford.

Combined with the opening up of markets for cheap, subsidised Western agricultural produce, which has already happened under NAFTA, and now, under pressure from the WTO, is occurring in India and elsewhere, this means that vast numbers of small farmers will be pushed off the land.

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 sordid 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 Organisation. 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 co-operate 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 second 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. Yet 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.

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 arid 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. The chemical industry has pushed 70,000 or so chemicals into the environment, and the 1,000 or so new ones that it introduces every year have rarely 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.

Another potentially devastating 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, for example, 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 hypothesis 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 technology-related disaster of all time is likely to be global climate change. 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 this. The problem is simply too big for them, and would require action which would force them to abandon their overriding goal of maximising 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 lie increasingly disrupted by the growing incidence of hurricanes, floods, droughts and sea-level rises, and in Northern Europe a 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 stabilise and leave us with a world that is still largely habitable but if we do not take rapid and serious action we shall be faced with possibly 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 which the WTO has freed from all obligations to society and the natural world, are allowed to maintain their almost total control over international agencies and national governments.

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What must be done

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 it 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’s 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.

The large demonstrations that are now beginning to occur whenever 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, it is just possible that we might be faced with a very much rosier future.

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