October 23, 2017

Why we only accept a policy if we know it will not work

Published in The Ecologist Quarterly, winter 1978.


Garrett Hardin has said that if a policy has a chance of solving any one of the basic problems facing our society today then it is certain to be unacceptable. If it is acceptable, then we can be perfectly sure that it will not work. He is of course right. The question is why? A key question, as it is only once viable policies become acceptable that we can hope to apply them.

The first relevant consideration is that in our industrial society, the policies we apply are almost entirely technological and the trouble with technological solutions is that they are only of use for solving technological problems. How to fly people to the moon and bring them back again is a technological problem. We have indeed solved it and this is a very remarkable achievement. But it is irrelevant . It solves none of the problems that confront our society today any more than does the development of the microprocessor.

Our problems are of a very different order and as I have tried to show in The Ecologist for many years, they are mainly the symptoms of the disruption of biological, ecological and social systems under the impact of demographic and economic growth. Technology can do no more than mask the symptoms of this disruption, thereby rendering our disrupting activities that much more tolerable and enabling us to go on applying them for that much longer.

What is more, the facts are confirming the theory. In spite of the incredible sums of money and all the energy and ingenuity devoted to the application of technological solutions to the problems that confront us, the problems they are supposed to be solving are getting worse by the day.

Medical technology is totally failing to stem the growing incidence of such diseases as cancer, ischaemic heart disease, diabetes, and diverticulitis – increasingly known as the diseases of civilisation – as their incidence continues to increase with per capita GNP.

The use of ever larger amounts of synthetic organic pesticides has actually increased the proportion of the world’s crops that is eaten by pests and has given us but temporary respite against major infectious diseases, such as gonorrhoea and malaria, which are now staging a major comeback.

Fertilisers have not enabled us to maintain the fertility of our soils. The rate of erosion and desertification has never been higher. Dams and other structural flood controls have only increased – directly and indirectly – the damage done by floods; nor do burglar alarms and armoured cars, however much money we spend on them, arrest the world-wide increase in crime, delinquency, vandalism and the other symptoms of social disintegration.

The trouble is that the methods we use for dealing with our problems are not in the least bit affected by our failures.

In spite of the incontestable fact that our solutions do not work, we go on applying them undaunted. The consumption of pesticides and fertilisers, the production of burglar alarms and armoured cars, the installation of ever more absurd and useless gadgetry in our schools and hospitals, and the building of bigger dams and other technological white elephants – all are proceeding at a pace that only increasing capital shortages can hope to moderate.

Why, we might ask, is man, supposedly the wisest of God’s creations, so incapable of learning by experience?

There seem to be a number of associated answers:

  • The first is that our industrial society moves from one crisis to the next. To survive, it must provide quick results even at the cost of creating far more serious long-term problems. Only technological solutions can satisfy this requirement. Ecological solutions are inevitably slow since it takes time to reconstitute the largely defunct natural systems whose reconstitution can alone provide lasting solutions.
  • The second is that the solutions we apply are the only ones that are compatible with the quasi-religious world-view of industrialism whose central tenet is that by means of science, technology and industry we can create a material paradise on earth from which all the problems that have beset man since the beginning of his tenancy on this planet will have been eliminated.
  • The third is that our society is specifically organised to apply such solutions. It is an atomised society, in the sense that basic social structures – such as the extended family, the lineage group, the clan, the tribe etc. – have almost totally disintegrated. The isolated individuals have been reorganised instead into new structures, economic and bureaucratic rather than social ones – the organisation that best suits the requirements of the market and the bureaucracy and hence that which most favours the achievement of what has become society’s overall goal, the production of the maximum number of goods and services as measured by GNP.
  • The fourth is that the institutions of an atomised society are not subjected to any real social control. They function largely independently of each other and technological solutions are the only ones that can be applied in isolation. Thus the Minister of Health can build new hospitals, engage more doctors and arrange for the manufacture of more potent medicines. In our industrial society, however, ill-health is not the result of a shortage of these things. it is largely due to eating devitalised food contaminated with thousands of chemical additives, drinking polluted water, breathing polluted air and not taking enough exercise. The Minister of Health however cannot change peoples’ diet. This is the Minister of Agriculture’s job, nor can he prevent the pollution of the water we drink or the air we breathe. This is the job of the Secretary for the Environment – nor can he get us to take more exercise, for this may well be the province of the Minister of Sports.
  • The trouble – and this brings us to the fifth reason – is that the Minister of Agriculture cannot change our diet either, nor can the Secretary for the Environment reduce pollution levels, nor for that matter can the Minister of Sports get us to take more exercise. Indeed, the processed foods that are alone available to the bulk of us, the increasingly intolerable pollution levels in our environment and our sedentary way of life are inevitable features of the industrial society in which we live. The only measure that can enable all but an elite to eat fresh natural foods, live in a pollution-free environment and take the necessary physical exercise, is to phase out our industrial society and develop a totally different one.

Unfortunately the professional status, self-esteem and physical livelihood of practically everyone today are dependent on the preservation of our industrial society, indeed on its further expansion, and so long as this remains the case, policies that are likely to work must remain unacceptable.

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