October 26, 2016

Living with nature

This is the original editorial piece that launched The Ecologist in July 1970.

The Planet Earth is unique in our solar system in displaying those environ­mental conditions required to sustain complex forms of life.

In what are, in evolutionary terms, very recent times, its surface or biosphere has been seriously disturbed by two events giving rise to tendencies which, if unchecked, could transform it into a lifeless waste.

The first of these events was the agricultural revolution that occurred some 10,000 years ago. Until then, man was a hunter-gatherer and the societies in which he lived were endowed with cultural controls that permitted them to fulfil their correct ecological functions within that vast integrated system that is our biosphere.

When he discovered agriculture, he possessed a means of increasing his numbers beyond ecological requirements.

He also developed new needs; and to satisfy them, he hacked down forests, extracted minerals from the earth and built great cities. Man had set out on his career as a parasite.

Fortunately, the host, our biosphere, had considerable resources. It possessed vast primaeval forests sheltering every type of bird and mammal, while its unpolluted oceans and crystal-clear rivers teemed with myriad forms of life. Thus the parasitical activities of agricultural man caused only a localized infection which our biosphere soon learned to live with.

Meanwhile, to look at the other side of the medal, man, with his new wealth, developed a way of life that we have called civilization. It was characterized by great elegance of thought and form.

The second event that disturbed our biosphere was more serious. Man learned to harness the energy of fossil-fuels locked up within the earth’s crust. He built machines driven by this energy, and industry was born.

The results were cataclysmic. The population of the world at the end of the 18th century was probably about 800 million and it had taken at least a million years to achieve. 100 years later it had risen by another 800 million. Forty years then sufficed for a further such increase, while today it will take eight years to add that many people to our congested planet.

Dr. Aubrey Manning in No Standing Room points to the intolerable consequences of this population explosion. That it is incompatible with the survival of civilized man is beyond doubt; that it might, if unchecked, lead to his extinction is not far-fetched. In the meantime, more people has meant more agriculture to feed them, thereby permitting still more people requiring still more industry and in turn still more agriculture; and so the disease has spread and is still spreading, exponentially.

What, it might be asked is the pathology of this disease? In what way is our biosphere being affected?


First of all, the disease gives rise to waste. In a balanced ecosystem, the waste products of one process serve as the raw materials for another and waste is reduced to a minimum; but when one of its parts expands beyond its optimum size, it generates more waste than the others are capable of absorbing.

In this way, the ecosystem, previously made up of finely differentiated parts, each with a specific role to fulfil, gradually accumulates random parts or waste which only serve to clutter up its delicate structure and reduce its ‘order’ and efficiency.

We normally think of waste as things that cannot be made use of in the course of our every-day life: rubbish, in fact, that has not been collected by the dustman.

However, we are reaching the point where, vis-a-vis the biosphere, we ourselves, the food we produce that will permit more of us, and the products we manufacture – motorcars, refrigerators and the like – are all waste. All have long since ceased to play any useful ecological role; all increasingly interfere with the subtle mechanisms of our ever less efficient biosphere.

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Natural resources

Waste, however, cannot be produced from nowhere. As in all processes, raw material is required. In this case it is our biosphere itself, whose essential parts are chewed up by innumerable machines and systematically transformed by innumerable machines into waste.

Until now, we have assumed that these parts, or resources, as we anthropocentrically refer to them, are limitless.

Progress, as we conceive it, to the achievement of which all our efforts are geared, demands a continually increasing standard of living, which chiefly means boosting our consumption of agricultural and industrial produce.

It is perfectly evident that such expansion is only conceivable if our stock of the requisite raw materials is also expanding. Yet we know that this is not the case. Our planet’s stock of minerals and fossil-fuels, for instance, is already sadly depleted, and it is only a question of time before it is totally exhausted.

Once this occurs, that already tottering technological superstructure – the ‘technosphere’ – that is relentlessly swallowing up our biosphere, will collapse like a house of cards, and the swarming human masses brought into being to sustain it, will in turn find themselves deprived of even this imperfect means of sustenance.

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But our biosphere is being affected in yet another way. It is one of the basic principles of ecology that stability is achieved by increasing complexity, or diversity. Yet most human activities are tending towards the systematic simplification of our biosphere. By cultivating one crop where previously there were countless varieties, we are reducing complexity and hence stability.

By cultivating a single high-yield strain of a particular crop throughout the world, we are replacing countless local strains (see “The Green Revolution: triumph or calamity?”) and thereby further reducing stability. By destroying and absorbing countless non-industrial cultures, we are reducing cultural complexity, and thereby rendering our species that much less stable and that much more vulnerable. (See Robert Allen’s Eskimo Knell).

By replacing subtle and highly complex natural processes such as those that normally prevent the explosion of bacterial and insect populations by crude ham-fisted technological ones such as antibiotics and pesticides, we are further simplifying our biosphere and further increasing our vulnerability.

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Social disorder

The disease is also affecting human societies. The latter, like all other systems, have an optimum structure that cannot be maintained when growth is too rapid and when they are subjected to environmental conditions to which they simply cannot adapt – and I include in this category the vast urban wastes that we refer to as our cities.

When societies cease to display their correct structure they become disorderly, and cease to act as adaptive units of behaviour. They break up into their constituent parts and their members, who cease to regard themselves as bound by any duties to a larger longer-term whole, become unhealthily preoccupied with the petty and the short-term to the detriment of the important and the long-term – a situation which can only lead to further social disintegration.

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Short-term preoccupations

To cater for these short-term requirements is the principal function of industry, whether it be organized on a capitalist basis as with us or in vast state enterprises of the Communist type. It is thus not surprising that we should be so preoccupied with economics as to have lost the ability to take into account the host of factors equally affecting our lives which are not neatly quantifiable in the narrow, technical jargon of economists geared to the study of short-term economic currents.

This is reflected in current agricultural practice. As Professor Lindsay Robb writes in Agriculture and Medicine – is a merger needed?:

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

Medicine is also concerned with the short-term. Its main preoccupation is with fighting the symptoms of disease, not the disease itself. Thus, Lindsay Robb describes our National Health Service as “a repair service for current sickness, rather than a health service”.

International bodies such as FAO are equally preoccupied with the short-term. The solution to the world’s long-term food problems advocated by FAO – the intensification of agriculture – is essentially a short-term one as Michael Allaby shows in: A Jump Ahead of Malthus.

Politics are exclusively concerned with short-term issues. In fact our government is a sort of universal nanny, showering short-term benefits of every conceivable sort on an ever more demanding and self-indulgent electorate. Unfortunately, to take the measures required to prevent the further spread of the disease means persuading the electorate to forego some of these benefits in the interests of its future.

In fact the nanny must become a schoolmaster. But is she willing to undergo so radical a transformation? Is she in fact capable of it?

On this score, the pronouncements of our politicians are not reassuring. Mr. Crossman publicly announces that Britain can easily support 75 million people, while Mr. Wilson and Mr. Jenkins even consider this desirable as it will increase consumer demand and enable our industry to benefit from the economies of large-scale manufacturing.

Such ignorance of the long-term factors involved in determining an acceptable population for this country, and such blind preoccupation with short-term economic values on the part of those called upon to direct our destiny are truly terrifying.

Needless to say, the Strasbourg Conference, one of the highlights of the European Conservation Year, reflected an identical attitude on the part of continental governments. All took it as axiomatic that the disease would be allowed to spread unchecked. Population growth and economic expansion were regarded by all as inevitable and though many expedients were proposed for rendering the ravages of the disease that much less intolerable, that effective action might be taken to check its spread was not so much as suggested.

Unfortunately, one cannot solve long-term problems with short-term solutions. One cannot cure the disease by eradicating its symptoms. On the contrary, by rendering it more tolerable one simply contributes to its perpetuation.

As Doctor Aubrey Manning writes in No Standing Room: “How can the planners be so myopic as not to realize that to plan man’s environment we must begin to plan the numbers of man himself?” And so too, must we plan his level of consumption, i.e. his ‘standard of living’.

To do so requires a radical change in our way of looking at man’s relationship with his environment, for it must involve taking measures that in many cases are contrary to our accepted values. Thus, to control population we may have to interfere with ‘personal liberty’, while to reduce economic expansion we are forced to curb ‘the march of ‘progress’ ‘. But surely all this is but a small price to pay if we consider the long-term alternatives to such a policy.

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A unified science

It is perhaps at the scientific level that the most basic change is required. At the moment science is divided into a host of watertight compartments, each one concerned with a specialized aspect of our biosphere. The latter, however, is not compartmentalized in this way. It is, on the contrary, a closely integrated system that came into being over thousands of millions of years, as a single process. By regarding its differentiated parts as separate self-sufficient fields of study, scientists like everyone else in our society, become preoccupied with the petty and the short-term and are blind to the long-term problems that beset us.

In addition, the factors that may influence a situation whose course they wish to predict and that must therefore be taken into account if such predictions are to be at all accurate, will not be conveniently limited to one such specialized field of study. As a result their predictions will not be sufficiently accurate to guide any major aspect of public policy. Indeed, if the object of science is to organize information so as to make predictions, then it is clear that modern science is simply not scientific.

To adapt Clemenceau’s famous formulation: “Science is too serious a matter to be left to the scientists”. And this will be so until they have developed a unified science, in terms of which it will be possible to understand the interrelationship between such diverse things as societies, plants, and minerals, in the light of their specific contributions to the workings of the biosphere.

Cybernetics or General Systems provide a tool for such an undertaking (see E. Goldsmith: “Bringing Order to Chaos“) and it is up to them to make use of it. Once this is done it is but another step for our educational apparatus to imbue people with that sense of values and to supply them with that information which will enable them to fulfil their correct functions as members of their families, communities and ecosystem.

In this way they will be able to learn to attach greater importance to the quality of life than to increasing their standard of living measured in terms of the accumulation of goods and services. Only then will man become capable of living with nature, instead of against it and thereby halt the spread of the disease with which he is afflicting the biosphere.


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