October 22, 2017

The Great Misinterpretation

Development is the cause and not the solution to the world’s problems, argues Edward Goldsmith in a speech delivered at the “Third World Debt and Environmental Destruction” meeting held in Rome, 7 – 8 July 1988. The event was co-organized by L’Espresso magazine, La Nuova Ecologia magazine, and the Italian North-South: Biosphere – Survival of Mankind – Debt Campaign.


The most dramatic event in the history of the people of the Third World is the almost unbelievable devastation of their societies and their natural environment over the last 40 years. The destruction wrought in four decades is probably greater than all the destruction wrought during man’s tenancy of this planet.

  • We have seen deforestation on a massive scale; countries which were 60 to 70 percent forested 40 years ago hardly have a tree today. We have seen the degradation and desertification of range lands on an enormous scale.
  • We have seen the destruction of agricultural land, drying up of rivers, streams, springs, wells.
  • We have seen massive urbanisation and the development of huge slums.
  • We have seen impoverishment on an unknown scale and we have also seen famine; famine which for the first time in human experience is not just occurring in a specific regions but is on a continental scale with two-thirds of the countries of Africa affected; not just an acute famine, but a chronic famine which will probably get worse.

Now of course the World Bank, the main international institutions, and national governments, will attribute all this destruction to poverty and population. Those are the “causes”. Why – if this were true – has all this occurred in 40 years? Why do we see the same phenomenon occurring in countries which are neither poor, in terms of conventional definitions of that term, nor over-populated. Australia, for example, is now one of the most environmentally devastated areas of the world and yet has a very small population with a very high ‘standard of living’. The real reason for this devastation is ‘economic development’. Development, we have been told, is going to create a paradise on earth. But it has been responsible for this massive devastation which impoverishes humanity more than any other previous incident in human history.

It can be shown that population growth in itself is the product of development. In the United Kingdom, with the Industrial Revolution, the population escalated from 8 million to 30 – 40 million in only a few generations. The same occurred everywhere. Population growth is the natural consequence of development because it destroys in-built cultural population control strategies. For instance, in traditional societies there are taboos against sexual activity during lactation, which means that when a woman feeds the baby for three years her sexual activity is limited. Each society had population control strategies. Development destroyed these controls and societies are destroyed as the inhabitants lose their lands and are forced into slums.

Population in economic development necessarily creates the insecurity that it is supposed to combat. When you force people from their lands because of environmentally destructive development schemes, you destroy their cultural pattern and shift them to large slums. It is quite evident that there are no better means of creating that insecurity which we know leads people to have more children as a means of assuring their survival in the hostile world.

There is no better way of impoverishing people than to deprive them of their land and to force them into slums. So why then do we develop? If we look carefully at the traditional societies that we insist on transforming and developing, we see that there is strictly no reason for changing them. As Vandana Shiva pointed out it is simply not true to say that Amazonian Indians are poor, to say that tribal people living in their natural environment are poor in any way. Maybe they do not have electric toothbrushes and videotape recorders. But if you consider what poverty really is, they do not suffer.

People’s needs are biological, social, ecological, spiritual, and ethical, and there is every reason to suppose that Amazonian and other tribal peoples are perfectly satisfied. One needs only to read descriptions of North-West America before the white men settled there – nobody could say these people were poor. Poverty too is the product of ‘development’.

I spent several years of my life studying irrigation and in our book The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams we showed that the only viable, sustainable systems of irrigation are those developed and practised by tribal peoples and other traditional peoples. If you look at problems of food storage, 30 percent of the food production in the world, according to the FAO, is eaten by parasites, by fungi, etc.

If you look at the only satisfactory systems of food storage, again they are in those developed by tribal peoples. Surely it is an astonishing irony that we should be systematically transforming the lives and culture of precisely those people who had mastered the problems that face humanity today. They, too, did not build atom bombs with which to menace their neighbours. They did not change the chemical composition of the atmosphere or cause deforestation and desertification. There can be no greater irony, no greater tragedy, than that.

The reason why we are so insistent on transforming these people is that they do not contribute to economic expansion. In fact tribal peoples are not economic. But then nor are rain forests. Nor are marsh lands, nor are any of the things that make life on this planet possible. All must be destroyed if we are to satisfy economic criteria.

Let us consider what exactly this ‘development’ really is.

One of the main features of economic development is that it is very similar to 18th and 19th century colonialism. The object of colonialism was to find somewhere to invest surplus capital, to have access to cheap and abundant labour, to obtain a market for manufactured goods, and to obtain abundant cheap food and other resources. If Third World peoples refused to trade we would invade their countries. The British, for example, invaded China because the Chinese refused to buy opium produced by English merchants in India. The object of these colonial wars was to force people to trade with us.

Today the policy is exactly the same: Bretton Woods in 1944, the World Bank, the GATT and the IMF were set up for the express and explicit purpose of restructuring a Western European economy devastated by war, but its main purpose was to bring Third World countries within the orbit of international trade so as to expand the Western economy in a permanent manner as a means of preventing the recurrence of the famous crash of 1929 and of the years of Depression that followed.

How does it work? It has to assure the recycling of capital as in colonial days, but the problem now is very much bigger because of the massive accumulation of capital from 1973 onwards in the Arab countries, and this money had to be re-circulated. The IMF and World Bank recycled that capital in Africa and elsewhere. Today we are faced with the vast surplus accumulated in Japan which must be recycled, and much of it into the Third World.

We also have to export – we have to ensure that the Third World imports our manufactured goods. The IMF therefore visits a Third World country and promises a loan on condition that the borders are opened to Western goods and quotas and tariffs are dropped. This has created the debt of today. We have seen the most extraordinary orgy of spending in the Third World on armaments, on all sorts of Western made products, and on all sorts of white elephants like nuclear power stations that don’t work.

To pay for imports the Third World must export. This has been one of the main causes of environmental destruction. They export their forests and all their food products which should really be for the use of the local people. Can you prevent starvation under such conditions? When they have sold their food, what do they sell next? They sell their children. Thailand has 700,000 young girls forced to work in sex holiday enterprises and the government actually asked fathers to be patriotic and donate their young girls to these schemes so as to earn the country foreign currency.

We have seen the systematic cashing in of Third World resources: anything which can be sold is being sold. Everything is being sacrificed simply to earn currency to finance totally superfluous Western imports, and to pay the debt this buying has caused.

Trade for the Third World involves the systematic exchange of indispensables such as forests, food, families and children, for manufactured goods from the West. But even without the imports and exports, even without the debt, even without national trade, the process of development is still unacceptable because, if you look at a country like the US, the richest country in the world, the same devastating processes are occurring there as well. The US will soon cease to be the bread basket of the world, and soon might not even be able to feed its own population. Wherever you look in the US you see terrible erosion, desertification and salinisation of the soil. Not even the most fertile land in the world can survive the destructive impact of modern agriculture. Still less can the very delicate soils of the tropics.

This terrible process is unfortunately a malignant one. No one will admit that development is really the cause of these problems. Instead, they say it is not development but some technical aspect of development. We must move to a new type of development. Mr. Macnamara moved to “rural development.” Then it was ‘appropriate development’, and then the United Nations Environmental Programme invented ‘eco-development’, and now it is ‘sustainable development’ invented by Ms. Brundland and by the World Bank.

Only the title has changed, not the policies. And in spite of the terrible and known destructiveness of many of our development strategies, we continue to apply them. The FAO, for instance, admits that 50 percent to 80 percent of the land put under perennial irrigation is now suffering from various degrees of salinisation. It is generally known that practically all the land in the Third World that you irrigate with large dams will eventually end up as salt deserts. It is very well documented, but we continue to do it. If you look at their plan to feed the world – Agriculture 2000 – they want to massively increase the amount of land under perennial irrigation.

If we know that development does not work, why do we continue? The answer is that development is the natural product of the sort of society we have created. For hundreds of thousands of years society was organised into families (clans if you like), communities and societies, which fulfilled their necessary ecological functions. They were part of the world of living things and fulfilled their functions within this world of living things.

These social units have been destroyed and they have been systematically replaced with purely economic and political units such as corporations, government departments and international agencies whose law is strictly to keep on functioning.

If you set up a big company in India that builds dams, it will continue building dams. It has to use its investments, its labour, and has to keep paying dividends to shareholders. It is like a malignant cancer: the bigger they get the bigger their power and the more unstoppable they become. And, so, also the World Bank has just got to keep going, lending money, finding excuses for the money lending, employing 54 public relations men to try and disguise the fact that the money they are lending is actually financing the destruction of our planet.

The second reason is that we have developed a particular world view which is reflected in our science and in our economics. This world view interprets all our problems so as to make them appear amenable to the only solutions that we are capable of applying, the only solutions that are economically viable and politically expedient, i.e. solutions which involve more economic growth, more economic development.

If we have an epidemic of crime in England, what do we attribute it to? A lack of police, a lack of burglar alarms, a lack of prisons . . . why? Because we are good at making burglar alarms and building prisons, but we have no idea how to re-create the sort of coherent society in which we don’t have crime – it is not economic to do it.

If we have an epidemic of disease it is because there are not enough hospitals, not enough medicines. Why? Because we are good at building hospitals, good at making medicines. They contribute to economic development. We can do nothing about the real causes of the diseases which we are creating with our economic development – air pollution, the pollution of water and food – the unhealthy existence we are leading in a totally contaminated environment. About that we can do nothing because it is uneconomic.

And so it is with the problems of poverty and starvation. They are interpreted in such a way as to justify more economic development. They are attributed to underdevelopment. If people are poor it is because they need more washing machines, more electric toothbrushes. Every problem is falsely interpreted in this manner. I refer to this as ‘the Great Misinterpretation': the most fatal misinterpretation in the history of man on this planet. And this interpretation is inevitable because we look at these problems in terms of the world view with which we have all been imbued since our childhood. This world view of modernism if you like.

In terms of this world view, the world that we inherited, the world of living things, was imperfect. God did a bad job and it is up to us to improve it. Modern Man has been deified because with science and technology and industry he can create the paradise on earth which God failed to do. That is the basic tenet of the world view with which we have been imbued. In terms of this world view all benefits are man-made. There are no natural benefits, neither those of the stability of our climate, the availability of fresh water, or wild game to live off, of fertile soil.

We also consider the world randomly organised. We think it has no organisation of any type. That its organisation is random so that we can change it with impunity. This is also a fundamental aspect of the world view of modernism which rationalises and legitimises modern development policies.

If we are going to change these problems we need a totally different social structure. This means returning to traditional types of social structures with proven reliability. The family, the community are the only valid social structures. The family and the community, must again be the units of economic activity, as they must become again the units of political activity. The market system and the modern state are all equally intolerable as they can only exist by destroying.

And if we need a new society we need a new world view that rationalises such a social structure. And again, what this new world view must be we can only work out by looking at the world view of traditional societies.

The first tenet of this new world view is that the world we inherited was not imperfectly designed – it was perfect. God did not do a bad job. He did a very good job. Our benefits must be derived from this basis, from nature. Our needs are not material needs. Our needs, as I said, are biological, social, ecological and spiritual. It is only in the very conditions that we have created that material goods are required for the purpose of satisfying what our real needs are.

The world also is not disorderly. It is not randomly organised. It is highly orderly, it displays order and this order is critical – i.e. we cannot change it with impunity. Its order must be respected. Practically all traditional societies had this concept. This is a notion which means the order of the biosphere and the path it follows is perfectly critical. This path must be maintained, and diversions corrected, and all problems must be interpreted as diversions from the path that leads to the maintenance of the order of the biosphere.

Economic development can no longer be maintained. It is no longer an option. We cannot go on burning more fossil fuels, changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere and destabilising the climate. If the world climate warms up by 3 percent in the next 30 years, what will happen in 30 years from then? Can we survive that sort of change? It is by no means certain. Can we continue using the chemicals that are destroying the ozone layer? Can we continue desertifying our planet as we are today? Can we continue cutting down the remaining forests with impunity?

To return to a sensible social structure, to maintain the order of what remains of our biosphere, means violating political and economic constraints – in fact, overcoming them. That may appear difficult, but it is incomparably more difficult to overcome social and ecological constraints that we are trying to overcome today. To continue in the direction that we are going is global suicide because we can only violate these ecological constraints for a very short period. And no more.

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