December 11, 2017

Survival and modernity – a dialogue on our times

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A dialogue between Edward Goldsmith and Krishna Chaitanya. Published by India International Centre – Quarterly, spring 1987 (India International Centre, 40 Max Mueller Marg, New Delhi – 110 003, India). Reprinted in Vivekananda Kendra Patrika, February 1988.


The life-support resources of the planet are being rapidly exhausted to cater to the insatiable and ever-multiplying appetites of a consumerist culture which threatens to become globally pervasive. Soil, water and air are being increasingly polluted by industrial production that expands to generate artificial demand while neglecting genuine needs. The crucial balance of Nature is threatened by wanton destruction of Nature’s own regenerative capability. With a nuclear stockpile that has already acquired the equivalent of three tonnes of TNT to kill each man, woman and child on earth, our epoch has become the most critical in history.

The central thesis of this dialogue shared by the two thinkers, Edward Goldsmith and Krishna Chaitanya, is that the industrial way of life is no longer sustainable. It must end, one way or another, within the foreseeable future. Mankind, feel both thinkers, could meet the logical end only in two ways: either by an act of will to alter the course of progress fundamentally, or by allowing consequences to overtake it. This dialogue, on the malaise of our times, would therefore be of interest to readers.

Edward Goldsmith is the editor of The Ecologist magazine published from Cornwall, UK. For the past two decades he has dedicated himself to sensitising British society to the environmental hazards of the industrial and technological civilisation. He is consultant to several environmental protection agencies and a member of the Wadebridge Ecological Centre, which has brought out his three well-known volumes: Can Britain Survive? (1971); The Stable Society (1977); and The Social and Environmental Impact of Large Dams (1984), issues he has pursued with diligence. It was in the early Seventies, with the publication of the book he edited, A Blueprint for Survival (Tom Stacey, 1972) that Goldsmith shot into fame. The document pointed out the imminence of a possible environmental crash and the means to avoid it.. It sold over a million copies.

Krishna Chaitanya is the author of over thirty books on culture, literature and art. The work most closely related to the theme of this dialogue is his pentalogy on the philosophy of freedom: The Physics and Chemistry of Freedom; The Biology of Freedom; The Psychology of Freedom (Somaiya, 1972, 1975, 1976); The Sociology of Freedom and Freedom and Transcendence (Manohar, 1978, 1982). Reviewers have regarded the work as “building up to a spire of certitude on the foundations of a radically fresh interpretation of the sciences” and as having “the potentiality to be an optimistic philosophy in the Age of Overkill”.

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Krishna Chaitanya: Teddy, I don’t know whether you have read that lovely poem by Paul Eluard which is really on peace, though titled “Liberte”. It is full of images of serene but very simple domestic items of happiness. He wishes to live in a world where he can play with his grandchildren and then wishes the world to continue, so that they, in turn, can play with their grandchildren. He talks of his puppy also, playing with the kids – all very unpretentious. But I have a feeling that even these simple joys are going to be denied to us.

If I remember right, the Club of Rome’s first report was The Limits to Growth. Now, the idea of unending growth, the hangover of the growth mania of the 19th and early 20th centuries, seems to me to be preposterously ambitious. I am more concerned about survival. Therefore, I was very happy that The Ecologist’s report, A Blueprint for Survival, which came out in January 1972, three months before the Club of Rome’s report, went to the primaries. It stressed survival, not growth. That is more realistic; and I think it said that if we fail to take very serious corrective measures to change our lifestyle radically, possibly by the end of the century, certainly within the lifetime of our children, the world will grind to a stop. So, Eluard’s dreams will never be fulfilled.

The situation, as of now, seems to be that we have a choice of how we are going to meet our end! We may starve to death on a planet completely exhausted of its life-support resources, or suffocate to death in a total mess of pollution, or be burnt to cinders, all in the holocaust of a nuclear bomb. Which is your choice. Can anything at all be done to avoid this terrible fate?

Edward Goldsmith: I quite agree with you. I think it is very unlikely that our grandchildren will lead the sort of life we would wish them to lead. I think that the very survival of our species today is threatened. Tropical forests are being cut down so rapidly that in two or three decades at the most, all the accessible ones will have gone – with terrible ecological and climatic consequences. The hot tropics are being systematically desertified.

We are seeing, for the first time, famine on a continental scale. Two-thirds of the countries of Africa are affected by it and the totally irresponsible policies of the FAO, the World Bank and the bilateral aid agencies can only exacerbate that problem rather than solve it. Massive industrial pollution is now seriously changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere – killing off forests throughout the industrial world and making lakes so acid that they can no longer support fish life. These, and many other equally disastrous trends, could easily combine to make our planet uninhabitable for the complex forms of life, in a matter of decades.

What is particularly distressing is that the authorities do not seem to care one iota. The most current reaction of our politicians has been to deny the problems. To give you a few examples, our Government has constantly denied that there has been soil erosion in Britain. However, two years ago, the Soil Survey of England and Wales published a report to show that the extent of soil erosion was quite serious. What was the Government’s reaction? It did not even consider changing the present highly destructive agricultural practices in order to reduce erosion. All it did was to make sure that the Soil Survey could no longer publish such subversive information, by drastically reducing its budget.

In the USA, Dr. Doherty, of the University of Florida, found that the sperm count of students at his University had been seriously reduced, so much so that many of them were now functionally sterile, while the spermatozoa that remained were contaminated by all sorts of pollutants including DDT and PCBs. Needless to say, this horrifying information did not lead to any change in pollution control policies. All Mr. Reagan’s administration did was to close down Dr. Doherty’s unit!

The response of international institutions is still more irresponsible. They pretend to do something about the problems – while, in reality, applying politically expedient policies that can only make the problems worse. Thus, as I already mentioned, the world’s tropical forests are being cut down at a horrifying rate. We know that this will lead to the elimination of a considerable proportion of the world’s plant and animal diversity. This will also give rise to erosion and desertification that can only further increase global impoverishment and famine. It will also, almost certainly, affect the global climate, probably very dramatically. This was made clear at a meeting organised by the United Nations University in Brazil in February 1985, which was attended by my colleague Peter Bunyard.

But how have Governments reacted? The answer is that they just have not. Their attention is monopolised by totally superficial short-term considerations, those that they judge relevant to the achievement of their overriding goal – that of staying in power. On the other hand, the international institutions have reacted, albeit somewhat belatedly. The World Resources Institute in Washington, in conjunction with the World Bank and the FAO, has drawn up an eight million-dollar plan to save the rain forests. That is what it is meant to do but in reality, it does nothing of the sort. It is a shameful document that does not even suggest abandoning any of the large development schemes financed by the World Bank and similar organisations which are causing much of the forest destruction, or curtailing the activities of logging companies. Its main preoccupation seems to be to set up more destructive eucalyptus plantations.

Krishna Chaitanya: Yes, we have an enormous amount of evidence to show that we are heading towards destruction. But tell me this – why is it that the people who belong to the ruling hierarchies of the various States of the world, refuse to realise that they too have personal stakes in survival, and when the big crash comes, they will also perish? Why this hostility to change? Is it because they can remain in power only by assuring the people that all is well, and that they do not care two hoots about what is going to happen day after tomorrow? You know of my strong conviction that unless there is an internal transformation deep in the psyche, no external arrangement or ‘fixing’, can work. Is that not plain to see?

Edward Goldsmith: Perhaps they think that by making enough money, ways can be found to survive the inevitable crunch. However, I think the best way to look at the whole issue is in terms of the breakdown of social control. A tribal society, which I regard as the norm, is under control – a control exerted by public opinion, reflecting traditional values. This assures that the social unit functions as a co-ordinated whole, the parts co-operating with each other so as to achieve the society’s overall goal. However, once society breaks down, it disintegrates into its component parts, each one of which is concerned only with the satisfaction of its own aberrant short-term interests.

This is basically what has happened in our society. Had the different parts into which our society has now disintegrated, been relatively small and powerless, it might have been tolerable, but today, the segments are massive and increasingly powerful. Government departments; international institutions; multinational corporations; all of them concerned only with their own immediate interests can rapidly make this planet unliveable and that is precisely what they are doing.

Krishna Chaitanya: It was probably Buckminster Fuller who first started really thinking in terms of the planet as a unit. Cutting through all political and geographical divisions, he started building up data about the resources of the planet at a planetary level. And I do not know whether you have seen the reports of the Worldwatch Institute of Lester Brown, called the State of the World.

Edward Goldsmith: Of course.

Krishna Chaitanya: There is a report on every primary life-support resource, of the world. It is very clear that if the developed countries leave the Third World to the dogs, the consequence will soon catch up with them too. I just do not understand how these people can forget that they too will go down along with the rest of mankind. Is it true, then, that the lesson of history is that we do not learn any lesson from history? For we do not need any more data on the catastrophes that are about to overtake us and yet we think that something will intervene to save us. Or are we still hugging the superstition that technology can fix it?

Edward Goldsmith: Today’s technological achievements are indeed very impressive. For instance, technology can enable man to fly to the moon. But so what? Man has never suffered from not flying to the moon. The truth is that most of the problems that confront us and even threaten our very survival are of a non-technological nature. They are due to the breakdown of natural systems.

Thus, in the present-day West, there is an epidemic of crime, delinquency, drug addiction and alcoholism. This is unavoidable as a society develops, because development destroys social structures and cultural forms and people are made to live in a void, without a family, a community, a culture, without beliefs and without a goal structure. In other words, their fundamental psychological and social needs cease to be satisfied.

Now there is no technology that is going to bring back together the members of a family that has broken down; no gadgetry that can recreate a culture that has disintegrated; no machine that can constitute a community that has become no more than an anonymous mass of alienated people.

Nor can the setting up of specialised institutions do any real good. At best, they can only mask the symptoms of social breakdown. Thus, we can build prisons to house criminals and de-alcoholisation centres to which we can consign our alcoholics; but all they can do is treat the symptoms of a disease whose real cause – economic development – we are incapable of addressing, since it is our society’s overriding goal to which all other considerations are mercilessly sacrificed.

Krishna Chaitanya: You are quite right in saying that technology cannot restore the family and its deep bonds which have enabled man to survive all the cataclysms of history so far. But I shall go further in my criticism to say that technology cannot guarantee even that which it primarily set out and claimed to do. For example, production to raise everybody above poverty. In fact, it has created poverty. And we now seem to be shackled to it. The Indian idea of karma can be applied in a new context.

Do you remember Jacques Ellul’s revealing study, The Technological Society? He proved that if you allowed your instrumentation or technology, to rise beyond a certain level of power, you lose your control over it. It will cease to be your instrument and the determinants of autonomous technology will become the inevitabilities of our fate. And Galbraith did a study which allowed that in 1903, if Ford had wanted to change over to the battery or steam, he could have done it, because the total investment was only about $30,000; but today for developing a single new model of a car, the investment goes up to $60 million. You just can’t pull out.

According to Mark Hatfield, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Pentagon is spending $25 million every hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The prosperity of quite a lot of people is tied up with this rate of expenditure. There is a revealing study of Hanford, the place in Washington State where plutonium is processed for bombs. It used to be a village; it is now a flourishing city. This study shows that people are very very happy; they don’t care about the terrible work they are doing.

One or two people who got tied up with the peace movement were first ostracised and later sacked. So, this is what I am worrying about. Even with the awakening among the people – and there is a lot of it now – even if we make a decision, “It is all wrong, we have got to go back”, can we do it? Many of the people in the well-paid death industry, are sending their children to Ivy League colleges, living in fine apartments and maintaining a very high standard of living. Going back to peace means not only surrendering those standards but may mean even privation, one meal every alternate day. Are we prepared to accept that?

You see, my worry throughout has been that it is too late; awareness has come too late. There is a tremendous desire for radical change but the Karmic grip is tight on us. I wish somebody would tell me that I am unduly pessimistic, that we still can change but if we can do that, it will almost be like a tremendous religion conversion. What do you think about the possibilities here?

Edward Goldsmith: I share your pessimism. The march of regress seems unstoppable. Consider that as soon as you set up an industry that builds, say, 200,000 houses a year; it will want to do so indefinitely, even when there is no more land left in the country to build the houses on, or people to put in them. What is more, it will become increasingly rich and powerful and hence increasingly capable of persuading politicians to cooperate with it. It thus becomes little more than a cancer. The dam-building industry in your country is in that situation today. It is almost impossible to stop.

Of course, there are a few instances where specific industries have been brought under control. One example is the nuclear industry in America. Nuclear power stations are preposterously expensive and totally uneconomical. In America, the power generating industry is run by private enterprise and private industry does not like losing money. That is why no new nuclear power stations have been ordered in that country since 1978 and why a hundred orders have been cancelled. As a result, the U.S. nuclear industry can only stay alive by exporting nuclear power stations to countries where the State pays for them and disguises their real cost from the tax-payers. It is only in such countries (such as the UK, France and the USSR) that nuclear power stations can now be built.

The same sort of thing is happening with the dam-building industry in the USA Dams were being built largely because the State paid for them. Now the law has been changed and requires local communities to contribute. So dam building too, has almost come to an end in the USA and the industry keeps going largely by persuading Third World countries to buy these highly destructive and totally uneconomical devices.

Krishna Chaitanya: This brings me back once more to my pessimistic reading that we learn nothing from history. For example, the damages caused by a very big dam were well documented soon after the Aswan was built in Egypt. It was found that a great many disease germs were piling up there. Down below, the peasants used to build homes with bricks from the riverine mud or silt. That is no longer possible. There are other well-known ill-effects. Yet, we go in for building bigger and bigger dams.

And the same question arises – why do the rulers of developed countries persist in this kind of thing, knowing full well that they too will go down with the rest of mankind? From them, there now comes a radiation and an infection to catch the Third World leadership who have also begun to gang up with the big fellows. The Third World leadership ought to know that ‘big’ ultimately spells ‘ruin’. What then, are the people going to do? Are there any methods of radical conversion; pervasive conversion of attitudes by which we can deflect these rulers from their irresponsibility?

Edward Goldsmith: There cannot really be a piecemeal solution. Even if we could stop certain destructive activities, we would not stop the development process as a whole and this, as I have already made clear, is the basic cause of impoverishment, famine and all the other problems that confront us today.

This may sound paradoxical to some people. One problem with the language we use is that it is most favourable to expressing the paradigm of modernism. In other words, the language helps to rationalise the sort of activities which are destroying our planet. In fact, we live in a hostile verbal environment. What we require is a new language or a new verbal environment for the formulation of a new paradigm, that can serve to rationalise more sensible and less destructive policies.

Consider the term ‘economic growth’, which you used at the beginning of this discussion. It involves systematic transformation of the world of living things, the biosphere or the real world, which is the product of the evolutionary process, into a totally different world; the world of human artefacts, the technosphere, or, if you like, the surrogate world. Now this process is ‘anti-evolutionary’ in that it must necessarily reverse the evolutionary process. This must be clear since the technosphere can only grow at the expense of the biosphere from which it derives its resources and to which it consigns its waste products. In other words, ‘economic growth’ is but another word for ‘biospheric contraction’. They are but two sides of the same coin.

It follows then, that when one asks what are the ‘limits to growth’, we are really asking what are the ‘limits to biospheric contraction'; or, in human terms, at what point do we regard the physical and mental impoverishment, the malnutrition, the famine and the disease that biospheric destruction must give rise to, as unacceptable.

Krishna Chaitanya: Let me cut in on that – how are the people so deluded and made to forget the human costs? You know, E.J. Mishan, who wrote the introduction to your book, Can Britain Survive? has pointed out that this calculus of GNP is a funny kind of thing. The number of accidents on the road and the expenditure involved in setting these people right, or just burying them, jacks up the income of physicians and undertakers and that in turn jacks up the GNP. Armament expenditure goes into GNP! So, unless the people are absolute fools, they ought to be able to see through this kind of prosperity. Still, for the sake of immediate prosperity we give our loyalty to the rulers! It is a terrible kind of situation.

Edward Goldsmith: I know it is. It has been pointed out that you can double a country’s GNP by the simple expedient of getting every woman to cease looking after her own children for nothing and to look after her neighbour’s children instead – for which she would, needless to say, require a salary.

Krishna Chaitanya: Shades of Dada!

Edward Goldsmith: This would, of course, lead to all sorts of social problems, for the children would be deprived of their mother’s tender loving care and would be looked after instead by a paid worker who, to a certain extent at least, to use John McKnight’s expression, would “only wear the mask of care”. The fact is that the GNP is but a measure of the impact of the surrogate world on the real world – a measure of the destruction wrought to social and ecological systems.

Krishna Chaitanya: You know Herman Daly’s wisecrack? “If people have no bread, why don’t they eat growth?”

Edward Goldsmith: One of the problems is that the world economy can only survive by expanding. That is why it is continually necessary to bring in more traditional people into its orbit.

Both the World Bank and the IMF, were created, basically, to assure the continued expansion of the world economy. Their role is to lure Third World countries into the orbit of the industrial market system, by offering their Governments enormous loans on the condition that they accept IMF conditionalities. If they accept, the Governments have to open their frontiers to Western manufactured products. All import quotas and tariffs have to be abandoned and they must sell their food and raw materials in order to earn the foreign exchange required for paying for all the rubbish they import.

To achieve this, we must not forget, was the real object of colonialism. During the Colonial period, if the Third World Governments refused to buy our finished products and sell us their raw materials, we sent in the army. Today, we send in the I.M.F and the World Bank, to bribe them into accepting the very same policies and, what is more, we pretend that it is in their interest to do so.

If we are to stop this whole process, we have among other things, to imbue people with a very different world-view. This means teaching them the opposite of what they are being taught in schools and Universities today. It means rejecting modern science, modern economics and modern sociology. It means, in effect, creating a whole new culture. Can we do this in time? It seems very unlikely.

Krishna Chaitanya: That brings me back to my favourite point. You know, Schumacher’s last book was called A Guide for the Perplexed. Theodore Roszak reviewed it. He gave Schumacher the merited tribute, but then brought out a very important point. He said that isolated from the long history of our decline, a kind of segmental advice just doesn’t help, however well meant it is, however good it is. A radical rethinking has to be attempted; we have got to look into the vast negations of our time and see the horror there.

And he mentioned that we cannot side-step Nietzsche, Sartre, Kafka and Beckett, the four people who outline the state of our world-view today. According to Nietzsche, God is dead and there is nobody to replace him; even some kind of analogous concept is lacking. Sartre believed that man is without essence. For Kafka, existence is continuously running up against cruel and irrational riddles. Beckett’s view is that we are waiting in vain for somebody, other than us, to come to our help.

Today’s whole landscape of despair is sketched by the four writers he mentions. Now, though I have been gunning for these leaders of the world – the rulers of the world – at the bottom of my heart I believe that we get the Government we deserve and you cannot separate the people from the Government. So, let us take a closer look at the world-view we have inherited.

Two historic disenchantments have left us sadder but unfortunately not wiser. One was in the mediaeval ages. There were some who thought they had a liaison with the Transcendental and imposed a dogmatic creed on people. That led to the Inquisition, the burning of Bruno. So we changed over.

There was the scientific movement and science put in the place of dictated belief – a disciplined unbelief; that means, you shall not believe something unless it is proved. The tremendous optimism that science was going to do wonderful things for everyone and the pipe-dream of progress – unending progress, continuous progress, worldwide progress – was launched by the French Encyclopaedists. And look what has happened to them! Now, what are the parameters of our world-view, the basic view of Science?

You see, when Leucippus and Democritus developed the atomic theory in ancient Greece, the particle was an ensouled particle; it had the power of self-movement; it was divine. At the heart of physis or Nature, was nous or spirit. It meant that the atom was not a dead inert particle. Lucretius – I rate him very high – talks about the “inherent declination” of the atom, that is, its capacity for self-movement. And he derived the freedom of the will of man from that. It is a fantastic link-up and Lucretius here anticipates quantum physics and Sherrington.

But when the atomic theory was revived in modern times, we forgot all about this. Galileo said the brick of the universe was the inert particle and he added that particles moved only if pushed or pulled by external forces. Kepler assumed the same thing in the case of planetary motions. Newton integrated the whole and a drift of inert, dead particles, moving only if some force pushed or pulled them, fell into random conglomerations and produced the whole universe and evolution. That is the world-view of classical physics.

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