November 25, 2017

You’ve never had It so good

A leading article for The Ecologist Vol. 3 No. 11, November 1973. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


Mr. Heath announced his intention to commit this country to further economic growth. Let us consider the implications of such a policy. We have all been taught since our most tender childhood that science, technology and industry are enabling us to create a materialist paradise on Earth from which the basic human problems of poverty, unemployment, disease, ignorance, war and famine will have been eliminated once and for all.

It is increasingly evident, however, that this is not happening. In fact, in spite of massive economic growth throughout the world, these problems are everywhere on the increase.

Nowhere are science, technology and industry more developed than in the USA. If they provided a means of solving human problems, then there, at least, one would expect them to be solved. Yet the US is in terrible shape. 21 million people are officially classified as poor. Unemployment levels are rising. 25 million people are suffering from malnutrition, although many of them have colour television sets in their rooms. The nation’s health is deteriorating fast. The educational system is breaking down. Crime is reaching epidemic levels, and the prospect of new wars looms more menacingly than ever before. What has the US gained by economic growth? The answer is nothing. What are we to gain, if we move further in that direction? The answer is also nothing.

The truth is that we have totally misinterpreted the real nature of the problems for which economic growth is supposed to provide a remedy. We have defined them in such a way as to make them appear amenable to technological solutions – the only ones our society has to offer. In reality, our problems are of a much more subtle kind.

Ignorance, for instance, we tend to regard as deprivation of that sort of knowledge obtainable in capital-intensive educational establishments; totally disregarding the cultural wisdom which, in a traditional society, is transmitted from one generation to the next without the aid of institutions of any kind, and which far better achieves the real goal of education, that of teaching children to fulfil their functions as members of their families and communities.

Ill health we regard as something that is automatically improved by increasing expenditure on doctors, dentists, hospitals and drugs. These have little to contribute to the health of a population. They can but provide a repair service for the biological damage resulting very largely from our increasing biological maladjustment to an environment for which our evolution has simply not designed us, and which, with economic growth, must diverge ever further from the optimum. (It is no mere coincidence that the incidence of cancer, ischaemic heart disease and diabetes, very low in pre-industrial societies, increases almost in direct proportion to per capita GNP.)

If economic growth is not solving human problems, its cost in terms of the resulting biological, social and ecological damage is very much more than anyone ever thought. Mr. Heath has been warned repeatedly that the biosphere cannot sustain the massive quantities of 50,000 or so different pollutants with which it is being bombarded.

He has been warned that the world’s finite resources are not sufficient to sustain further growth for very long. He has been warned that social systems throughout the world can no longer stand the increasing strains imposed on them by the population explosion, massive urbanisation and increased mobility. As could be predicted, he has chosen to ignore these warnings and heed instead the comforting voice of largely second-rate government ‘experts’ who, mainly for reasons of diplomacy, reassure him that such warnings are unfounded.

Yet every day it becomes clearer that these warnings are, if anything, based on a very conservative estimate of present-day realities. The situation is far more serious than we thought when we wrote the Blueprint For Survival. In the meantime the Confederation of British Industry is clamouring for more growth, as is the Trades Union Congress. It is politically expedient to satisfy the short-term demands of the large and powerful sectors of the electorate that they represent.

It is also politically expedient to maintain that all is well, that the British people ‘have never had it so good’ and to avoid embarking on that radical programme of change that is necessary if our society is to adapt to biological, social and ecological realities. Mr. Heath’s behaviour is indeed quite predictable, but so are the consequences for which posterity will one day hold him responsible.

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