October 22, 2017

We can’t have our cake and eat it

A leading article for The Ecologist Vol. 1 No. 13, July 1971. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


When, in time of drought, a tribal rainmaker fails to bring about the required rain, the tribesmen, sadly surveying their parched fields and ailing crops, do not question the efficacy of the magical rites that they performed in vain. Age-old tradition has conferred on the rainmakers a respectability that no individual failures can possibly impair. They are above suspicion – they provide a priori verities that cannot be questioned without casting some horrible doubt on the tribe’s entire world view.

Thus, there is no alternative but to ascribe the rainmaker’s failure to some technical flaw in the performance of his rites – the presence, for instance, of someone who has violated a taboo. And this is precisely what we do.

Today we are faced with the perfectly hopeless failure of our scientists, technologists, businessmen and politicians to arrest the ever more rapid disintegration of our environment. If we were capable of looking at our problems objectively, it might conceivably occur to us that the reason why the efforts of so many able and highly educated men have been so totally fruitless is that there is something radically wrong with the basic principles underlying our world view, and that the entire behaviour pattern of our industrial society, rather than any of its avoidable features, may in fact be unadaptive and leading us to inevitable disaster.

Progress, the end towards which all such efforts converge, appears to involve above all the substitution of technological processes for natural ones. The former by their very nature, however, are dependent on the use of non-renewable natural resources such as metals and fossil fuels.

What is more, their extraction and transport must inevitably cause serious environmental disruption. By their very nature, they must also give rise to pollution, and it is naïve to suppose that this can be brought under control. The USA must spend about $31 billion to build secondary sewage treatment plants and about $90 billion to install tertiary treatment plants so as to have relatively clean water. The capital costs of controlling air pollution from stationary sources alone has been estimated at about $100 billion. To control pollution from moving sources would involve yet another massive outlay and this is only the beginning.

In addition, many types of pollutants cannot be controlled – heat from the combustion of fossil fuels, for instance – and the only way to avoid pollution by fertilisers and pesticides is by limiting their use, which simply means preventing the industrialisation of agriculture, a key component of economic and social ‘progress’.

Another essential concomitant of progress is urbanisation. It is inevitable, for as soon as machines take over in the fields, the ‘uncompetitive’ small farmers and farm labourers must move to the cities.

From the ecological point of view, the optimum deployment of a population is in small villages. It is in this way that it has the minimum impact on the environment.

Think what would happen if 550 million Indians were shifted from the half-million villages they inhabit to cities of over a million inhabitants. In the villages excrement is returned to the fields where it belongs. In the cities, its disposal would require several hundred billion dollars worth of sewage plants. In traditional villages, little state welfare is needed, for the extended family looks after its sick and elderly members, while in the cities an elaborate bureaucracy is required to dispense aid, at unbelievable cost, to an ever more chaotic and demoralised population.

Eventually, when all the basic requirements of life are provided by machines and the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe are all furnished by factories of different sorts, the instability of our society will be such that the slightest technical hitch, the unavailability of some key resource, an industrial dispute, an act of sabotage – any of these could lead to the collapse of the whole caboodle. Most of the politicians of the so-called developing countries insist on industrialisation and ‘progress’, and they think that they can achieve these ends without at the same time incurring the terrible social and ecological problems that industrialised countries are encountering – problems that, just like the unsuccessful rainmakers, they ascribe to a mere technicality of some sort.

This is a sheer illusion. It is precisely Progress that is causing all our problems, and only by foregoing Progress can our problems be solved; but it needs a lot of courage to face this, and still more to sell it to an electorate.

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