August 20, 2017

Better pick the edelweiss

A leading article for The Ecologist Vol. 3 No. 8, August 1973. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


The first prerequisite of good management, whether it be of a fish and chip shop or of a nation state the size of Britain, is to get one’s priorities right. As problems appear, they must be arranged in accordance with their importance and dealt with at the appropriate echelon of command. A major-general who did the job of a lance-corporal would not only probably do it very badly but he would not have time to do his own job – that of running his division, i.e., dealing with the generalities affecting the division as a whole rather than the particularities that affect but a small part of it.

The same principle guides the behaviour of all natural systems. The mechanism of perception for instance is so designed that an animal sees only those things that are relevant to its behaviour pattern – in fact it arranges the constituents of the environment according to their relevance to it, i.e., in such a way as to elicit the most appropriate pattern of responses.

Now Britain is faced with a lot of problems, and if Mr. Heath were a good manager he would begin by arranging them in their order of priority, and would deal first with the ones that most affect Britain as a whole and over the longest period of time.

What is Britain’s major problem? The answer is fairly obvious. We have developed a particular way of life that can only be sustained under very specific conditions. We need to import from abroad massive quantities of material resources (about 95 percent of our requirements) and a considerable amount of food (about 50 percent of our requirements) and to pay for these imports we must be able to manufacture and export finished goods in sufficient quantities. Unfortunately, conditions are becoming ever less favourable to the perpetuation of this process. Mr. Heath should be giving serious thought to one of two possibilities:

The first is to take all necessary measures to keep the ball rolling in the face of mounting difficulties. This would probably mean leaving the Common Market, whose members are in very much the same position as we are, and linking up instead with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, that have precisely those things that we are short of, i.e. space, mineral resources and food.

The second is to opt out – admit that our way of life is no longer viable and adopt a Blueprint for Survival-type programme to achieve a more sustainable economy. He does not even appear to have considered these questions. So long as the golden goose goes on laying golden eggs, he is satisfied that it must be in good health. He brandishes the golden eggs to the electorate with eager-beaver self-satisfaction, as a proof that “we have never had it so good”.

The balance of payments is excellent, the standard of living is high, therefore everything must be fine and our prospects excellent. There is no attempt to examine whether these are the appropriate criteria by which to judge the welfare of a society. The fact that they seem to be compatible with homelessness, delinquency and general demoralisation – is of little interest to him: his enthusiasm going instead to grandiose projects, such as Concorde and the Channel Tunnel.

One must ask whether these are the toys of a self indulgent Billy Bunter – or are they the pyramids of a technological age, born of the convulsions of a dying society and the fantasies of a latter-day Cheops? Perhaps, in reality, they are but the stereotyped responses of a man confronted with the terrible new problem that he is psychologically incapable of facing – a horrible ogre which has appeared from nowhere and which, he tries to persuade himself, might be induced to go away and leave him alone if its presence were simply not acknowledged, or even better if we were to detract attention from it by undertaking such highly impressive economic megaprojects.

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