July 23, 2017

An ecological worldview

Judith Elliston interviews Teddy Goldsmith for Pataphysics.

The article may also be found on their previous website here.


Judith Elliston: Do you think there is a heightening happening in late-capitalist development, before the end – a speeding up of bio-destruction and growing inequalities, failure of democracies, etc . . . ?

Teddy Goldsmith: We have got everything back to front – the whole direction in which our society is moving in today is suicidal. Simply on the basis of climate change, if we don’t bring about massive changes in how our society and our economy are run we will make this planet largely uninhabitable, probably before the end of the century.

The truth of the matter is that economic development, rather than providing a solution to our problems is in fact the main cause of these problems. Take the issue of poverty. It is a man-made phenomenon related to poverty. There were no slums and no real poverty in tribal societies. In West Africa, tribal people there have no word for poverty – the closest thing to a poor person is an orphan – someone who lacks social support, or someone who is not a member of a family or community. The security provided by these key social units was enormous. Nyere, who was Prime Minister of Tanzania, always used to say that such is the solidarity in an African village that it is impossible for anyone to die of starvation unless the whole village is starving.

Unfortunately economic development, wherever it has occurred necessarily destroys the family and the community and creates an atomised society in which people can only depend on their job and on the welfare state for their security, and these are both very poor and unreliable sources of security.

Do you think this widespread lack of connection is due to the mechanistic paradigm?

It is certainly an important factor. We are imbued with a world-view that is diametrically wrong. I realized this at Oxford. This world-view serves above all to rationalize the suicidal direction in which our society is moving. This is even true of ecology as it is at present taught in our universities. Originally it was with the idea of progress. Ecosystems, if you destroy them, can usually recover by a process called succession – that is to say by a series of steps that must occur in the right order. This process comes to an end when the ‘climax’ is reached, which is basically the most stable state that is possible in a given condition.

However, this idea was difficult to reconcile with that of unlimited change in a given direction, which is what is implied by the notion of economic development and progress. So the ecology taught in our universities is now being changed. Succession is now seen as a series of ad hoc moves – rather than the strategy – it does not necessarily come to an end when a climax is reached, on the contrary, it goes on for ever. An ecosystem in fact is now seen as something that is in constant flux. In this way even ecology, which was the holistic science par excellence, has become reductionistic.

Still, it is now claimed by modern ecologists that you can understand the functioning of an ecosystem by examining its component parts – which is clear nonsense, for this ignores the very principle of organization. If living things are organized they become differentiated and form an integrated whole, and there is no way that they can be understood separately, for that would mean pretending that they are still totally autonomous as they were before becoming organized. Once we take the decision to a global economy the actors can only be multinational corporations.

The small company in the street next door cannot possibly take advantage of the global economy, on the contrary it is almost certain to be put out of business unless it chooses to become a sub-contractor for a big company, which usually means buying your imports from this company and selling the outputs to it, enabling it thereby to decide exactly what margin they would grant you, which is usually very small. It follows that as soon as you have got a world economy we are handing over the power of governing the world to the multinational corporations, which is precisely what they are doing today.

In America the oil industry no longer has to lobby the government, it is the government. In these conditions it is going to be very difficult to survive as the interests of these multinationals are in total conflict with those of humanity and the natural world.

And they are outside democracy . . . ?

Indeed they are. As soon as a country signs up for an IMF loan and is subject to a structural adjustment programme it is no longer free to govern its own country. Its economic policy and hence the policy of its country as a whole is geared to economic ends – it is run by a non-elected foreign, and non-elected body, called the International Monetary Fund.

Nowadays, of course, it is much worse because the WTO (World Trade Organization) has imposed a structural adjustment programme on the whole world and it is a permanent one. The WTO has in fact become the world government. Indeed, it has its own legislature in that it can pass its own laws, its own executive in that it can implement these laws, and its own judiciary in that it can penalize those who violate it. The organizations who control these institutions are only interested in their own immediate interests – above all to expand the size of their market and to cut the cost of labour and raw materials.

What they are now doing is implementing the agreement they inherited from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) used to open up the markets of Third World countries to highly subsidized Western foods. In India there are some 400 – 500 million small farmers, many of whom have only an acre of land at their disposal, and they have no way in which they can compete. This means that they will be driven from their land and most of them will end up in the slums. There is no land to plough, no jobs, and no help from the government.

Why do countries agree to take these products if it will ruin their own agricultural infrastructure?

Governments today, within the context of the global economy, have a different agenda than do masses of people who they have been elected to govern. Third World governments for instance represent the interests of the West much more than they do those of their own citizens. In the UK at least 70 percent of the people do not want GM crops, but Mr Blair is still pushing for their adoption. They don’t want the country covered in highly polluting incinerators, but the Blair government insists in building over a hundred of them throughout the country. I could draw up a whole catalogue of such examples.

There is no doubt about it that the WTO wants to kill off small farmers so that their business can be taken over by the multinationals that control it. Everything is done, for instance, to force them to adopt modern, i.e. high-input agriculture. This is required to serve the purposes of the massive and powerful agrochemical industry that sells the pesticides and the fertilizers, and also the engineering companies that build the dams that provide the irrigation water. Poor farmers cannot afford this. In addition there is a scheme to create a 600 square mile plantation of GM crops in Andra Pradesh. This is referred to as a Vision 2020 plan. It involves, among other things, pushing some 20 million small farmers off their land.

Where would these small farmers go? There is no other possible destination but the slums. Horrifying as this may seem this scheme is being funded by the British government, which is actually providing the Andra Pradesh government with £100 million for that purpose. What is amazing is that we have the gall to pretend that we are interested in fighting poverty, and it is all in the name of economic development.

Given the current situation, can protests linking environmental destruction with the weakening of democracies have much effect?

There are going to be a lot of protests by the anti-globalization movement, of which I am part, and more important than that by the growing hordes of the victims of the development process. Fortunately I don’t think that the global economy is going to last for long – it could easily collapse this year and if it is not this year it will be in the next few years. The fact is that it could not be more unstable.

During the last 20 years there have been nothing but financial and economic crises and they are getting worse and worse. The IMF has been spending billions in keeping indebted countries afloat, in the full knowledge that they would never be able to pay them back. The IMF is in effect little more than a department of the US Treasury – and the US Treasury has already spent an unbelievable amount of money in keeping the US economy afloat. Rather than fork up the $140 billion that the Argentine actually needs it has been left to its own devices – with only a very small amount of IMF assistance.

The great danger is that the Japanese economy will follow suit, and when that happens there will be hell to pay – it will no longer be 140 billions but trillions will be needed to keep the world’s second economy from going bankrupt. There is a good side of course to the story. When the Russian economy collapsed greenhouse gases dropped by 40 to 50 percent, so if the global economy goes there may well be a corresponding reduction in greenhouse gases. However, this will be at the cost of terrible misery just about everywhere, because we have become totally dependent on this global economy for our livelihood.

On the other hand if the global economy does not go the destruction of our planet will simply accelerate until it becomes largely uninhabitable. Let us not forget that it was Mr Clinton’s priority at the Ministerial Meeting of the WTO in November 1999 to pass a law that removed all constraints on the activities of the international logging companies. This would have enabled them to do whatever they wanted. They would have had total access to all the forests everywhere and to every market for their wood products, nor could they have been forced to adopt sustainable methods of logging or to adopt a system of labelling which would enable customers to identify timber that came from sustainable sources. In other words the destruction of our forests would become totally out of control.

Fortunately the Seattle meeting came to nought, but at the Doha meeting at the end of last year it appears that this ‘free logging agreement’, as it was referred to by its critics, is back on the agenda. This means that forest destruction is now totally out of control.

Are we up against Fascism on a global scale?

Well you could call it that. Fascism was involved with the corporate state, also a militaristic one, as the USA, whose corporations largely control the global economy is fast becoming.

Think about enormous military budgets that are becoming separate economies . . .

It may well be that you need a highly militaristic policy to provide the main industrial powers the markets and the resources they need to keep afloat – in particular the resources. I am thinking in particular of oil. The Bush administration is adopting a ruthless policy in Afghanistan and has created the deepest possible hatred of the bulk of the population of most Muslim countries. It is trying to reduce its dependence on Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries – largely for that reason.

This means that it will become increasingly dependent on oil from the Caspian Sea, the only other really massive source of oil – at least so it seems. This will make it dependent on pipelines. It can be one or two or even three thousand kilometres long, all running through Muslim countries that will be increasingly full of potential terrorists. Don’t forget that the simplistic policies of Mr Bush are manufacturing terrorists throughout the Moslem world. The question is how do you protect these pipelines. Is it possible to do so, even with the extra $48 billion that Mr Bush wants to spend on armaments?

Of course, the real answer if to phase out oil, and massively increase the production of renewable energy, but the Bush administration which is so closely linked with the oil industry, will not even consider this.

Apparently the average food on an American plate has travelled 2,500 miles.

That is true of most of the food in our supermarkets. Aid has got out of control. It no longer has anything to do with comparative advantage. Thus in the UK we export 120,000 tons of beef, or whatever it may be, to the Netherlands, and import a similar amount from the Netherlands. What has that got to do with comparative advantage? It is the same beef. It only serves the interests of the bankers, insurers, transporters, and merchants, who deal in these things.

The answer of course is to return to a local economy run by small and medium companies, catering for the domestic economy where possible. There will always been trade between countries but it can be drastically reduced. At the moment the opposite is the case. All considerations, whether they be social, ecological, or moral, are mercilessly subordinated to the overriding goal of maximising world trade. Fortunately, I don’t believe that this will last for long.

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