November 17, 2017

Pointing the way (interview)

Real World magazine Interviews Teddy Goldsmith about A Blueprint for Survival, The Way, and the need to move towards a sustainable society. Published in Real World No. 6, summer 1992.

Our discussion started by going back to A Blueprint for Survival. Its warnings about the future were dismissed by many at the time. It was attacked for excessive alarmism and lack of faith in human technological prowess. Today, Goldsmith remains unrepentant. Indeed, he said, the Blueprint‘s predictions were if anything too conservative and that, in many areas, things have turned out to be worse than he feared at the time.

Real World asked whether he now saw any failings with the Blueprint. In reply, he pinpointed its naive assumption that governments would adopt the necessary programme to save the Earth. In fact, there has been no sign of them doing so. Nevertheless, he would still stress the importance of co-ordination since the phasing out of harmful things depends upon the introduction of more benign alternatives but now he emphasises citizen action.

He also thought that the Blueprint had not been very clear about the real root of our problems. For example, though population growth is a terribly serious problem, he now views it as the consequence of economic development, the real enemy.

The modernist fallacy

We turned to his new book [The Way] which explores the world views that have brought humanity to the brink of social and environmental ruin. First we looked at what is wrong with what Goldsmith calls “modernism”. The dominant view, he argued, wrongly assumes that all wealth is human-made. For example, it treats health as the product of hospitals while law and order is equated with more police and jails. In particular, science, technology, and industry are seen as the providers of all benefits. Furthermore, it is assumed that we should strive to maximise human-made benefits, in other words, pursue more economic development.

When questioned about the world view appropriate to truly sustainable societies, Goldsmith argued that it must recognise that all benefits flow from the normal functioning of the living world, the biosphere. Everything, he stresses, depends upon respect for its integrity. He includes not just environmental services such as a stable and favourable climate, fertile soil, clean and ample water. If we cut down forests, for example, we lose soil and water supply.

More controversially, he regards social structures such as the family and cultural patterns found in what he calls “vernacular” societies as part of the “natural” order of things. Such societies knew and accepted these facts of life. Their social structures sought to maintain the critical order of the biosphere. Such behaviour patterns are “the way”, a term used in cultures around the world, sometimes explicitly as in the ease of Taoism, at other times more implicitly in tribal religions.

The notion of ecological stability is central to Goldsmith’s approach, so the discussion moved to certain theoretical issues surrounding it. Real World raised the point that many scientists and others argue that stability and order are meaningless concepts, that there is no ‘goal’, that everything is random. Goldsmith remained unmoved. He regarded such views as the by-products of the reductionism that holds sway over many scientists. He argued that in fact it is characteristic of all living things, from individual cells to ecosystems, to maintain the order of the whole. Mainstream science has not started from this holistic perspective and therefore is deeply flawed.

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What is Nature?

Not surprisingly he had little patience with another popular argument, namely that, since people are part of nature, everything they do is therefore ‘natural’. Genetic engineering, for example, has been defended on such grounds. Of course, he replied, words can be used to mean whatever their user wants. Yet if everything is ‘natural’, the word has no meaning – something has to be ‘unnatural’ for something else to be ‘natural’.

In the ensuing discussion, Goldsmith focused upon what is normal. For example, he argued, in a pioneer ecosystem, randomness is normal, yet, over time, order develops creating greater stability. Similarly, individualism is natural in ‘pioneer’ societies as well as ones that are disintegrating – Goldsmith cited Los Angeles as an example of the latter. Egoism and aggression thrive. He also quoted examples from other species. Baboons, he pointed out, are highly aggressive when confined in zoos yet back in the wild such behaviour is minimal.

Warming to his argument, Goldsmith referred to heavy metals and chemical compounds such as mercury and chlorinated hydrocarbons which may be naturally occurring but which are not normally taken in by living things. Therefore, he concluded, that humans should avoid technologies that depend upon their use. More generally, Goldsmith rejected the claims of those who view evolution as an open-ended process. What people today call ‘progress’, he argued, is in fact anti-evolution since it is simplifying and destabilising the biosphere.

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Systems theory

Real World then switched the discussion to the possibility that Goldsmith’s approach might not be reductionist but it could be seen as highly mechanistic. Goldsmith replied by first recognising his debt to Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory. He stressed that he is well aware that the term ‘systems’ has been used and abused in all kinds of ways contrary to the ecological world view he advocates.

Indeed, some of the worst offenders, he argued, have been professional ecologists. Although the term does give the impression of a very mechanistic approach, he claimed that the reality is very different. It is about general laws governing structure and function which apply to all systems – individual cells and organisms, whole species and ecosystems – as they seek to maintain homeostasis. The key difference was between natural systems and technological ones which Goldsmith calls a “surrogate world”.

The problem of deducing values and norms from scientific ‘facts’ was discussed next, in particular whether there was a danger that he had fallen to the old trap of conflating ‘is’ with ‘ought’, the so-called ‘naturalistic’ fallacy. Goldsmith denied the very existence of such distinctions. Facts, he argued, are nothing more than disconnected fragments of information. Inevitably they are value-laden, no matter how disguised this might be: implicit in all of them is a world view.

In support of his contention that there is no such thing as objective knowledge, Goldsmith cited no less a figure than Francis Bacon, one of the founding fathers of the modern world view, who saw the accumulation of knowledge as the means of control, the key to human domination of nature.

The discussion next turned to the nature of a sustainable society. Goldsmith advocated small-scale, low technology, family-centred communities. He agreed with Real World‘s suggestion that many might regard that as a very restrictive way of living. This, he argued, was simply a reflection of the society in which they have been raised.

He stressed the penalties to be paid by not recognising the need for community and family structures as mechanisms of social controls. Without them, the road leads straight to the social disaster that is Los Angeles, and to the amoral behaviour of the modern business corporation. Constraints, in the sense of limitations upon behaviour, are, he pointed out, survival mechanisms: if parents do not behave in certain ways, for example, their children have no future.

During the discussion, Goldsmith frequently cited “vernacular” cultures as examples of a more ecological way of living. So Real World drew attention to the great environmental destruction that was done in many pre-industrial, even stone age, societies.

Goldsmith’s response was to look at the circumstances in which this happened. Usually it was in the context of population movement. For example, both the North American Indians and the Maoris destroyed many species as they moved into new lands. He drew a comparison with the introduction of exotic species into alien environments such as rabbits into Australia. They have not co-evolved with other parts of the ecosystem and do great damage before a balance is struck. He stressed that the Indians and the Maoris did learn eventually to live in their new environments. However, it takes time, which is the one thing, he concluded, we lack today because of our numbers and the of our technologies.

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The way forward

Real World then raised the thorny problem of how the ecological world view is to be sold, say, to a worker worried about mortgage repayments. Goldsmith was pessimistic in some respects. He said that it is probably too late for many people, particularly middle-aged men, to make what he called the equivalent of a religious conversion. He was, however, more hopeful about women who, he argued, are often more sensitive to the dangers inherent in our way of living. He also emphasised the importance of children both as possible converts as well as the means to persuade their parents of the need for a different society.

He also added that industrial society holds out bleak prospects for people like the car worker. The transnational corporations want bigger units in which to operate. There may be a huge influx of workers from Eastern Europe dragging down hard-won wages and conditions in countries like Britain. Alternatively, these firms might relocate in low wage countries – with the same effect.

Finally, we talked about Goldsmith’s own lifestyle. A recent Observer portrait depicted him denouncing the evils of materialism from the comfort of his very affluent surroundings. Was he worried that people might think him hypocritical?

Goldsmith replied that he had never disguised his background. The real point is whether an individual is dominated by materialism which, he claimed, wasn’t true in his case. His money had been spent on subsidising The Ecologist and similar ventures. He had devoted his life fighting for the Earth, donating his services free. Indeed, his fight is also a fight for the poor since they are the main victims of the ecocrisis.

He drew attention to a recurrent fact in history; namely, that revolutionaries had tended to come from outside the ranks of the most exploited and oppressed. It is the more well-to-do who are able to step back and diagnose the ills of the world.

On that note, the discussion ended. Given Goldsmith’s record in battling against the Earth’s many enemies, there are doubtless many politicians, bankers and corporate tycoons who wish that he had remained loyal to his class.


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