December 11, 2017

Changing values (edited version)

Edited extract from the introduction to Green Britain or Industrial Wasteland? by Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard (Polity Press, February 1988). Written in 1986, and republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

The full Introduction as originally published can be found here.

See ordering information for the Funbook.

Underlying the environmental destruction we are witnessing today, as Jonathon Porritt notes, lies a value system which is wedded to the belief that:

“Human needs can only be met through permanent expansion of the process of production and consumption – regardless of the damage done to the planet, to the rights of future generations, to the human spirit and to the living standards of all those who end up as the losers in this global, all-encompassing human race.” [59]

Indeed, in terms of the value system of industrialism (and, in particular, in terms of modern economic theory) the environmental damage we are inflicting on the planet is of no consequence whatsoever. Today’s economists are trained to maximize ‘benefits’ and minimize ‘costs’. By definition, a ‘cost’ must reflect a deprivation of some sort – more precisely, the deprivation of some ‘benefit’.

Yet nature’s benefits – the fresh, clean water that flows in unpolluted streams and rivers, the rain that naturally irrigates our crops, a stable and predictable climate, and the fertility of the soils upon which our agricultural system depends – are all taken for granted by economists and ascribed no economic value of any sort.

As a result, the loss of nature’s benefits is not considered a cost. It does not appear to have occurred to economists that if our activities interfere too radically with the workings of nature, then nature might no longer be capable of providing the benefits we now take for granted and upon which our very survival depends.

So long as we adhere to such a cock-eyed view of the world, we will continue to believe that if a project is ‘economic’ – that is, if it maximises the short-term return on the resources it uses – it must be ‘good’ for the country, regardless of the environmental damage it causes. The environmental movement must expose such thinking for the nonsense it clearly is. We must convince our government that economic growth – the ‘permanent expansion of the process of production and consumption’ – cannot solve the basic problems that confront us today: material goods cannot compensate for the breakdown of communities nor the destruction of the environment; institutions, staffed by anonymous civil servants wearing (to use John McKnight’s phrase) ‘the mask of care’, cannot replace a mother or, in a cohesive community, even a neighbour; and technology (however sophisticated) cannot solve the problems of alienation, alcoholism or drug abuse because these are not technological problems.

The crisis we are facing today is not caused by a lack of material goods, nor even by a lack of technology: it is caused by the biological, ecological and social disruption we have inflicted upon the world in our relentless pursuit of material ‘progress’. It can only be solved by re-establishing the social, biological and ecological systems we have disrupted. Only then can we hope to achieve a sustainable, just and self-reliant society.

The Chilean Economist Manfred Von Neef notes how even Lord Keynes warned that “the importance of economic problems should not be over-estimated with the result that matters of higher and more permanent significance are sacrificed to its supposed necessities.” [60] We have ignored that warning. We cannot afford to do so any longer. A fundamental change in the attitude of our political leaders is required – one which will lead to a veritable reversal of present policies. At stake is whether or not we and our children are to inhabit the industrial wasteland our politicians are busily creating for us, in what could still become once more ‘a green and pleasant land’.


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