October 23, 2017

How can we survive?

Thirty years ago, the same year as the first Environment Summit (the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment) in Stockholm, The Ecologist published A Blueprint for Survival. Now, on the eve of Johannesburg, the magazine’s founding editor Edward Goldsmith asks why, in the face of mounting environmental crises, nothing has changed.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 32 No. 7, September 2002.

Why are we unable to escape the terrible mess that the planet is in? The conventional answer is that we have the solutions, but that we are experiencing some difficulties in putting them into practice. Once the final flaws are ironed out, hey presto, Heaven on Earth.

What we fail, or refuse, to realise is that the solution we are pursuing is not the solution at all. In fact it is the very root of the problem.

To begin with, the basic assumption of this world view is that, in creating the world, God (or if we prefer, the evolutionary process) somehow did a bad job. Man’s mission on this planet, we therefore presume, is to develop technologies that will enable us to redesign the World in accordance with our vastly superior plan.

What lends credibility to this infantile world view is that it is the very basis of modern science. And science is seen as the ultimate arbiter of truth. Indeed, science has become very much part of our secular religion.

To be seen as scientific is to be seen as right and therefore beyond question. On the other hand, to be branded as unscientific is to be denied legitimacy and held up to ridicule.

In fact, the very declarations of our scientists are now imbued with an aura of sanctity, previously reserved for the holy texts of the established religions.

False Utopias

The idea of progress was firmly built into the Utopia of Francis Bacon, regarded as one of the founders of modern science, along with René Descartes and Galileo Galilei. None of them really saw science as an objective study, but rather as an imperialistic enterprise, whose goal it was to subjugate the natural world.

The Scientific Academy of the New Atlantis – Bacon’s Utopia – he called Solomon’s House. Its goal was “enlarging the bounds of human empire to the effecting of all things possible”. The suggestion was that every scientific intrusion into the workings of nature was necessarily beneficial and that therefore no limits could or should be imposed.

For Bacon this enterprise would create “a second nature”, in other words, a manmade, science-and technology-inspired surrogate world, which was seen as a vast improvement on the natural world.

The scientists of Solomon’s House would then be in a position to ensure “the prolongation of life” and “the restitution of youth”, as well as “the retardation of age” and “the curing of diseases counted as incurable”. They would even be capable of “regulating climate” and “making new species”.

There was indeed no limit to what they could achieve, or to the extent to which they could transform the natural world. Nor was there the slightest concern for the implications of implementing this puerile and megalomaniac dream, which modern science has only achieved imperfectly and in the very short term, and at the cost of creating the terrible mess we are in today.

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The religion of progress

Our economists are also imbued with the Religion of Progress. Economics, as taught in our universities, is, above all, designed to rationalise and hence legitimise, economic growth. Or as it is called when imposed on Third World countries – development.

If scientists are the priests of our technological society, then economists are its cardinals and archbishops. Indeed, for an economist to brand a project as uneconomic is possibly even more damning than for a scientist to condemn it as unscientific.

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An act of supreme arrogance

One of the main problems with modern economics is that it is based on a minute, totally atypical, and necessarily short-lived sample of the total human experience on this planet – that of the industrial age. Economists thereby assume, as do our sociologists and political scientists, that 99 percent of human experience on this planet is irrelevant to solving to the problems we face today. This is, among other things, an act of supreme arrogance.

Until recently, however, society was above all based on the extended family and the community. This cannot be a coincidence. Its members were bound by a strong set of reciprocal obligations towards each other. This provided the basis of their ‘economic system’, namely the production and distribution within these social units of the food and artefacts that they required. This, it is critical to realise, took place without any money changing hands.

Nor, for that matter, was money required to motivate the members of these traditional communities to fulfil the other functions required to assure the welfare of their members: the raising of their children, the care of the old and the sick, their religious rituals, and the maintenance of law and justice.

This is important because the principal argument for economic growth is that money is vital for assuring people’s welfare and solving whatever problems they suffer from.

Thus the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations insists that if people are hungry it is because they cannot afford to buy food. So too the World Health Organization assures us that people are disease-ridden and die young because they cannot pay for medicines.

Hunger and disease are thereby classified as but two of the many forms which poverty must take. Meanwhile, only one solution, economic growth, is capable of generating the money we think is required. This is, of course, what they want to make us believe at Johannesburg.

No one seems to have pointed out to the promoters of this lethal process that, until recently, people could feed themselves very satisfactorily without money, and usually maintain themselves in excellent health.

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The myth of ‘poverty’

One could go further than this and point out that ‘poverty’ itself is not a term that made much sense in the context of a pre-development community. What seems certain, rather, is that its members did not regard themselves as poor.

In fact, if we are to believe the French sociologist Serge Latouche, the West African societies, in which he lived and worked, do not even have a word for ‘poverty’. Helena Norberg-Hodge, who spent much of her time in Ladakh, a Tibetan society in the Himalayas, in the last 30 years, also tells us that the Ladakhi had no word for ‘poverty’.

Marshall Sahlins, the well-known anthropologist, regards poverty as “an invention of civilisation”.

For Latouche the word closest to poverty in the vocabulary of West African people is that which denotes an ‘orphan’, that is, someone who is deprived of social support. This is not surprising since in a pre-development society a person’s family, community, and land – of which development necessarily deprives them – are their principal sources of wealth and security.

Significantly, the late Julius Nyerere, when Prime Minister of Tanzania, told us that

“in an African society . . . nobody starved, either of food or human dignity, because he lacked personal wealth; he could depend on the wealth possessed by the community of which he was a member.”

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Isolated from reality

Another of the problems with modern economics is that it is studied in isolation. Its practitioners know almost nothing about society and the natural world. As the late Professor Nicholas Georgescu Roegen, a dissident economist at Vanderbilt University, pointed out:

“the economic process is depicted by modern economists as a circular diagram, a pendulum movement between production and consumption within a completely closed system.”

As a result,

“the fact that there is a continuous influence between the economic process and the physical environment carries no weight with a standard economist.”

In other words, economic development is seen as a purely economic process, whereas by its very nature it must give rise to the most dramatic social, ecological, and cognitive transformations. If our knowledge were not so fragmented, they would be regarded as the integral components of this lethal process.

The reason economic development is so socially destructive is that it is, above all, a process whereby the functions that were previously fulfilled effectively and entirely for free by the traditional families and communities are taken over by the state and commercial enterprises that then commodify them.

Of course, this enables them to contribute to Gross National Product (GNP) – or as it should more realistically be known, ‘Gross National Cost’ (GNC). As this occurs, these key social units, now divested of their natural functions, must inevitably atrophy, like muscles that are no longer in use. What they leave behind is an atomised mass of socially deprived and alienated individuals – the main cause of the current epidemic of delinquency and drug addiction.

At the same time a vast number of people, not only in the Third World, but also in the industrialised countries of the West, no longer have access to these now-commodified benefits. If the current global trends towards the further privatisation of key goods and services proceeds as planned, then their numbers can only escalate.

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The dangers of development

Economic development has very much the same effect on ecosystems, on whose sustainable functioning human life, as well as all other living things, depends. As development proceeds, however, these critical functions which are provided entirely free, are also repackaged by the State and the corporations and sold off.

Thus the nitrogen used to fertilise our land is increasingly produced at great cost in factories rather than fixed by nitrogen-fixing bacteria on the roots of leguminous plants. The water we use, instead of being stored for free in the aquifers beneath the forest floor, is held in expensive, man-made reservoirs that, in tropical areas, silt up in a few decades, and often more quickly.

Development also involves a transformation of the world view with which pre-development people were imbued. Thus, instead of seeing our survival as dependent on the preservation of the critical structure of the cosmos, we now see it as dependent on its systemic annihilation.

As development proceeds, we become ever more hooked on the cancer-like expansion of the surrogate world we have created – Bacon’s “new nature”. This is not because it is really designed to satisfy human needs, but because we are at the same time being deprived of the real world on which we previously depended.

Unfortunately, just about every serious problem that confronts us today is interpreted, by those who govern us, in terms of this aberrant world view. More precisely, its highly flawed paradigms of reductionist science and modern economics are interpreted in such a way as to make it appear a viable solution: one involving more science, technology, and capital investment.

This will, of course, only further boost the profits of the vast corporations that, with the globalisation of the economy, now largely control our governments and international agencies. In this way, the problems caused by economic development are simply transformed into business opportunities.

But such pseudo-solutions can only mask the symptoms of our problems. The problems themselves can only really be solved by putting economic development into reverse.

Of course, this is not remotely acceptable. Hence the problems can only worsen – and the money required for providing ever more pseudo-solutions constitutes an ever-growing proportion of our Gross National Product (GNP). This is the main reason I prefer to refer to GNP as ‘Gross National Cost’.

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Rethinking the land

To give a typical example, the agricultural economist Philip Raup tells us that

“there can be no permanent shortage of agricultural land. To suppose the opposite is an error that stems from wrongly considering the availability of resources in physical rather than economic terms. Indeed, if some land is unsuitable for agriculture, this is only a reflection of current market conditions. If the land were really needed, then the necessary science, technology and capital, would make it productive.”

Of course, if this were true we would not have to abandon some 7-8 million hectares of agricultural land every year. If the land has been destroyed it is because industrial agriculture is so incredibly destructive.

It is also because modern society is incapable of controlling its population, any more than it can its natural resources. If there is a land shortage, it is also because, for development to occur, we must accommodate the sprawling infrastructure of the industrial society it creates.

Significantly, the three countries of South-East Asia regarded as having achieved the most economic growth – as Lester Brown tells in his book Who Will Feed China? – have lost between 40 and 52 percent of their cereal-growing land in the space of less than 40 years.

It is not clear how these countries will feed themselves if this is allowed to continue (especially as it is also occurring in the countries from which the South-East Asian countries might import food to meet demand).

The only way to solve the problem of land shortages is clearly to put these trends – all of which are the inevitable consequences of economic growth – into reverse. At present we cannot do this. However, if we fail, the unstable global economy must one day collapse of its own accord.

I’ve mentioned that the present epidemic of crime, delinquency and drug addiction is caused by the breakdown of the family and the community, again the inevitable consequences of economic development. Building ever more prisons as we are doing today, is likewise but a means of masking symptoms of our sick society and of providing the now privatised “prison-industrial complex” with a superb business opportunity.

An effective campaign against poverty requires de-commodifying the real necessities of life, and so putting development into reverse. This is essential for slowing down climate change, the most daunting problem mankind has ever faced. Significantly, the day we learned how to mobilise the energy contained in fossil fuels, within the context of a market economy, we were condemned to climate change. This is a sufficient indictment of the industrial society, which today the whole world seeks to emulate.

Indeed, if we are to survive for much longer on this planet, we have no alternative but to turn to some of the main features of the traditional predevelopment society. This will mean that most of us will live in largely, but not entirely, self-sufficient villages, geared to the small-scale, low-tech production of food and artefacts. It also means that our social and cultural life will, as it once did, play a much more important part in our lives.

Finally, it also means that we must be imbued with a very different world view, one in which we see human survival as dependent upon a return to traditional communities and the preservation of the natural world of which they are part, rather than on the surrogate and unsustainable world that economic development brings.


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