October 23, 2017

The logic of reorientation

This article is condensed from a paper by Edward Goldsmith which appeared in Teach-In for Survival, published by Robinson & Watkins Books, London, in 1972.

The book comprises the talks made by participants at the ‘teach-in on A Blueprint for Survival’ held at Imperial College, London, in May 1972.

This condensed version was published in the journal Manas Volume XXVI Number 41, 10 October 1973 (a pdf version is available here).


The environmental crisis is a crisis of values. Our society as a whole is moving in the wrong direction. It is geared to achieving something that is quite unachievable . . . a materialist paradise on earth, from which drudgery, poverty, social inequality, ignorance, unemployment, famine and disease will have been eliminated once and for all.

It is fashionable to pour scorn on the conventional visions of paradise proposed by the principal religions of today and, a fortiori, the more outlandish sects that have sprung from them. None, however, is as naïve as this vision of ours today. Its achievement would violate not only the fundamental laws of thermodynamics but also practically all the basic values of biological, ecological and social organisation. It must devise for itself a different goal – one that is achievable without destroying the biosphere of which we are an integral part.

Now, the behavior pattern of a society is like that of any natural system. It is determined by that model of its relationship with its environment that it has built up during the course of its experience. In the case of a society, this model is referred to as a world-view or weltanschaung. It is precisely this world-view which must be changed. In other words, we must totally revise the basic beliefs that our society entertains regarding its relationship with its environment.

Let us briefly examine some of the basic beliefs which underlie our present social behavior pattern. Firstly, we strongly believe that Man is above rather than a part of Nature. The implications of this are enormous. It means that we feel justified in regarding ourselves as somehow exempt from its laws. We accept that animals cannot be taken from their natural habitat and introduced into a totally alien one with impunity.

Yet we do not hesitate to force members of our species to live in an environment which is even more different from that in which we evolved and to which we are adapted. It means that we feel justified in exercising the most terrible tyranny over other forms of life, and that we regard the rest of nature as something put there to serve our day-to-day requirements. Clearly, everything must be done to make people realise that they are as much part of nature as the most humble forms of life: amoebas, slime-moulds and the like.

Another of our basic beliefs is that Man is free. By this is meant that he does not have to accept any constraints on his natural inclinations. Freedom, taken in this sense, has nothing to do with the freedom of which the Greeks wrote and which simply meant that the state was subject to constraints imposed by the society as a whole, as opposed to the arbitrary whim of a dictator, i.e., it formed part of a self-regulating society.

Freedom in our sense of the word simply means disorder or entropy. As the biosphere evolved out of the primaeval dust, so did the original entropy give rise to order or negative-entropy. This is the same thing as saying that as matter organised itself into ever more complex forms so did constraints accumulate, and hence so was there a corresponding reduction in what we call freedom.

In refusing to accept constraints, whether we know it or not, we are denying the possibility of a family, a society, an ecosystem, in fact of any sort of organisation. We are opting for social entropy and eventual breakdown.

Fundamental to our world-view is the belief that human problems are due to something called ‘ignorance’, which can be combated by something else that we call ‘education’. We are convinced that if we build enough schools, and universities, we will teach the population of the world to behave in a rational and humane manner. Wars will be avoided, crime and other deviations will be banished, people will understand the importance of keeping the population down and will cease having too many children, etc . . . We in this country already spend over £2,000 each year on education, which is roughly £40 per head, or nearly double the total income of an inhabitant of a country like Nigeria.

Our educational system could conceivably be introduced into but a handful of rich industrialised countries. There is not the remotest chance that most countries in Africa, Asia, and South America could spend anything like the amount of money on education that we do. Even if they did, would this really be to their advantage? Is there any evidence that ‘education’ is solving the problems that it is supposed to solve? Are the rich ‘educated’ nations more peaceful than the poorer ones? Are they more humane? Are they less prone to criminal behaviour and other social deviations?

The opposite appears to be true; the more we study the behaviour of simple tribal societies the more we find them to be free from the social problems at present afflicting our urban society. On theoretical grounds alone we can predict that institutionalised education cannot provide the panacea for our social ills. The fact is that what we refer to as ‘education’ has little in common with that essential process that education is in a simple stable society – a process whereby information is communicated via the family and community to a growing child so that it becomes capable of fulfilling its essential functions as a member of its family, community, and ecosystem.

Like all behavioural processes, the educative one is made up of a series of steps that must occur in the right order, proceeding from the general to the particular. It is the generalities that are most important, as they colour all the particularities into which they are differentiated.

It is for this reason that the earliest part of one’s education is the most essential, that the mother is the most important educator and that the family unit is so essential, as is also the small community to whose influence a child must be more and more subjected as he grows up. The educative process is, in a stable society, indistinguishable from the normal process of growing up. It involves constant feedback between the child and the different components of his social environment. It is only with us, as the family and the community gradually break down, that we tend more and more to institutionalise education.

However, such institutionalised education gradually loses its purpose. It cannot adapt a child to fulfilling its functions within the family and the community, as those cease to exist as viable self-regulating units of behavior. It slowly becomes an arbitrary process whereby increasingly random data are communicated by professional educators to alienated and goal-less children. At best it can provide them with the means for fulfilling certain economic functions within our technological society.

It cannot, however, satisfy psychological and social requirements, and must thereby have but a superficial effect on basic behavioural tendencies. Clearly, we must completely revise our idea of education. For it to fulfill a useful social function it is necessary, first of all, to decentralise our society so as to re-create the family and the community, the essential framework for any sound educative process.

Another of the tenets of our industrial society is that the modern ‘scientific method’ provides us with an objective means of understanding the world in which we live. It is essential to realise that science is not in the least bit objective. At the moment when it has suddenly become apparent that our society is heading towards disaster like a moth towards a light, it appears a little paradoxical that scientific knowledge has never accumulated faster, and that something like 90 percent of the scientists who ever lived are at present at work.

Is it not after all the object of science to provide facts for the making of a public policy that may best serve the interests of our society? Why then are we not moving in a more sensible direction? The answer is that the main body of scientists has accepted the basic tenets of the technological world-view, hook, line, and sinker. They are accepted as gospel, and to criticise them is to draw upon oneself the wrath, even the sanctions, that heretics have often met with from the established church.

Indeed, rather than serve as the critics of our technological society and offer us some protection against its worst abuses, scientists have been involved in it, as instrumental to it. Rather than act as objective judges of the technocracy society, they have provided it with a priesthood. Its world-view is formulated with up to date ‘scientific terminology,’ and is sanctified by an impressive array of empirical data conferring on its basic tenets a degree of indubitability that few religious dogmas have so far enjoyed.

The reason why this has been possible is that scientific knowledge is defined in a very subtle way. It refers specifically to data accumulated as the result of experimentation. Information deduced from basic principles does not qualify unless it can be tested empirically in the artificial condition of a laboratory. Now it is quite obvious that many chemical pesticides are useless as they accumulate up food chains and thereby do more damage to predators than to the target species that they control.

In the same way, it is quite evident that efforts to eradicate infectious disease by waging chemical warfare against their vectors must be counter-productive since it means substituting a precarious, highly simplified, externally-controlled, and very unstable device, for a much more complex set of highly stable, self regulating controls.

However, such information is not regarded as constituting scientific knowledge because it is not backed by the requisite experimental data. Needless to say, these can only be acquired by trying out these iniquitous devices, thereby providing the agro-chemical business with the green light. If devices of this sort are judged purely empirically, then we shall tend to be seduced by easily obtainable short-term results, and discount long-term consequences.

The appalling confidence trick being carried out on us by the scientific world is also facilitated by the division of science into a host of watertight compartments. Needless to say, the ecosphere is not divided up in this manner. Each part of the ecosphere is closely interrelated with every other. Specialists whose knowledge is confined to a single such compartment can have but a biased and incomplete view of the whole. Their view of occurrences within their own field, which are constantly subjected to the influence of external factors, must also be imperfect.

Fortunately, one can discern the beginning of a reaction against this totally misguided ‘scientific method’. It is being increasingly recognised that the only way to understand the behaviour of complex systems is by building an inter-disciplinary model, whose variables are chosen for their relevance rather than because they fall within the confines of a particular discipline.

Predictions as to the behaviour of a system are made on the basis of simulation, which is simply another word for deduction. The deductive process is a little more refined than that advocated by the rationalist philosophers of old, in that situations are interpreted in the light of a model – a hierarchical organisation of information, constituted by a set of interrelated principles with different degrees of generality and probability – rather than from one or more unconnected general principles.

This method has recently been used to understand the functioning of industrial society on a global level and to establish the options open to us over the next few decades. The study of the question undertaken by Professor Meadows et alia and sponsored by the Club of Rome has given rise to a popular book called The Limits to Growth, which will perhaps be one of the most influential documents of our time.

It is clear that everything must be done to ensure that the methodology involved be generalised to replace the ‘scientific method’ of today. Vernon Gifford has the Meadows’ model on a computer at Queen Elizabeth College. We plan to set up a team to work on this model, introducing certain new variables, and refining some of the relationships. At the same time, we have set up a number of teams to study different aspects of the Blueprint for Survival, such as water management, agriculture, town planning.

The next illusion, closely associated with the previous one, is that Man can control Nature by means of technology and create an environment satisfying his very short-term whim. This is possibly the grossest illusion of all. Unfortunately our society is entirely geared to the replacement of the mechanisms of Nature by technological devices designed, produced, and controlled by Man – to use the terminology of Max Nicholson, the replacement of the biosphere by the technosphere.

Unfortunately, this is a very costly substitution. The former is made up of complex, self-regulating and extremely subtle mechanisms, all contributing towards the maintenance of overall stability, which is but another word for survival. The latter is made up of very simplified, externally-regulated, and relatively crude devices, geared to the satisfaction of short-term anthropocentric ends.

Such substitution is only tolerable on a small scale. When carried out on a very large scale and globalised, it must become intolerable. Unfortunately, our society is geared to effecting this substitution as rapidly as the resources required for so ambitious an operation can be extracted from the biosphere and the lithosphere.

‘Scientific’ justification is easily produced for effecting this substitution in different parts of the biosphere. In general, it is assumed that the substitution will overcome what are taken to be Man’s material problems. Poverty, for instance, can, it is maintained, be totally eliminated by this means. But, in spite of the development of affluent urbanised societies, poverty is still with us.

In America, the richest country in the world, 25,000,000 people are said to be desperately poor and suffering from malnutrition. Some of these have colour television sets in their rooms. However, they have become too demoralised, too mixed-up, living as they do in a totally alien environment, to be capable of behaving adaptively, even to the extent of not being capable of feeding themselves. Poverty is more than deprivation of material things. Bert Todd once described it as a state of mind.

This may sound callous, but it is not that far off the mark! In any case, there is simply no empirical evidence to show that by means of technology, i.e., by increasing the GNP and hence the standard of living, one is contributing in any way towards eliminating poverty.

If anything, the opposite is true. There is no poverty in a tribal society. Poverty is something that occurs when the population expands to a level that can no longer be supported by the land. It grows as people drift into the shanty towns in search of work; it grows still further with the demoralisation, alienation, and general social breakdown that characterises the urban wilderness that modern industry must give rise to.

The only way to combat poverty is to de-centralise society – to create smaller, more viable, social units, to give people once more a feeling of belonging somewhere, to give them new loyalties and a new goal in life. In addition, poverty can be combated by restoring the fertility in the land and by reducing the population that it must support.

These are not problems that can be solved by political gimickry. What is required is a complex change in the values of our society. This is what we tried to say in the Blueprint. It is this that we must somehow succeed in bringing about. Now I think that there is already considerable disillusionment with our industrial life. Especially among our youth. Attitudes are changing fast, but will they change fast enough?

A crash program of change is required if we are to avoid the worst disasters. This means that we must act on every front. Unfortunately, the most effective change is likely to be the slowest. Children must be brought up by their parents to see things in a very different way. Also, education in Primary and Secondary schools must be modified and this is already beginning to happen.

Of course environmental education is also required in universities, but here we are dealing with people whose basic attitudes have already been formed. About thirty universities and polytechnics already offer courses in different aspects of environmental science, and interest in the generalist and general systems approach is also increasing.

At a meeting in Cambridge, Professor Waddington talked of the deficiencies of the modern scientific method, which is principally concerned with looking at details and which consequently loses sight of the whole. He talked of plans to set up a generalist course at Edinburgh to be called the School of the Man-made Future. There was tremendous enthusiasm for this suggestion and a petition that such a course be introduced at Cambridge was circulated and signed by a large number of people present.

The Conservation Society is also doing invaluable work as a pressure group, and Friends of the Earth, perhaps more than any other organisation, has attracted attention to some of the more striking anomalies of our industrial society. What is required, however, is some means of coordinating these activities, and also of taking the battle to the political arena. The vast changes required can only be brought about by Government action.

The Club of Rome is already acting at this level. It is clear, however, that politicians are, above all, interested in winning votes, and it would be unrealistic to suppose they are sufficiently interested in the future of the country they govern to be willing to forfeit votes to further its long-term interests. This, I think, is the main justification for a Movement for Survival.

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