August 20, 2017

The prostitute society

A leading article for The Ecologist Vol. 1 No. 6, December 1970, by The Editors. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


All but one of the papers presented at the third (and last) Conference of the Countryside in 1970, the great set piece of European Conservation Year in Britain, accepted the narrow criteria of current economic thinking. Yet they had before them a textbook demonstration of the consequences of our obsessive regard for lucre – this time made filthier than ever. The health of the nation was jeopardised, and our rivers were sacrificed on the altar of economics.

It is time we rethought our values. There should be a limit to the damage we are willing to do to our society and its environment for the sake of a little money. Yet the more we look around us, the more apparent it is that no such limit is likely to be set or even considered. Everything we cherish most is today for sale to the highest bidder. We are truly a prostitute society.

St. Paul’s, for example, one of the most magnificent cathedrals in the world, should be set in a fine square with avenues leading up to it on either side so that it may be contemplated from a distance. Instead, so that every available inch of land can be exploited commercially, it is so hemmed in by office blocks that one practically needs a helicopter to see it at all!

Hyde Park Corner, a spacious and well-laid-out place whose harmony has already been compromised by traffic, is now destroyed (with the connivance of the Fine Arts Commission) by a monster hotel.

Woburn Square, Carlton House Terrace, and 266 listed buildings were wrecked in 1969. Who benefits? Why are so many of our towns and villages being transformed into shapeless, soulless wastes?

Each month comes further news of inroads on our countryside. Whitbread’s brewery in countryside near Malmesbury, potash mines in the North York Moors National Park, copper extraction and an electricity substation in Snowdonia, proposals by Rio Tinto Zinc to block the Mawddach estuary and dredge it for gold, the flooding of Welsh valleys, the construction of a power station on the lovely Tamar River.

Pesticides and fertilisers are still being manufactured in increasing quantities in spite of mounting evidence that, used as widely and as indiscriminately as they are, they are not very effective – and incidentally contribute to the deterioration of soil structure and the soaring death toll of birds and other animals. Even Dr. Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize Winner and ‘father of the Green Revolution’, has stated that his brainchild – so lucrative to the agrochemical industry – has bought us merely a scrap of time.

Nor do we confine our greedy disregard to other species. Consider the two million Biafrans killed in the recent war, mostly with weapons made in this country and sent to their opponents partly in order to protect our Nigerian oil interests.

By insulting our rivers, desecrating our cities, degrading our countryside, killing off our wildlife, endangering our health with pollutants and helping to exterminate two million of our fellows, we have doubtless made quite a bit of money. What are we going to do with it?

One might be forgiven the hope that some of these horrors had been perpetrated in the name of some lofty ideal. Unfortunately the motives are mean. Progress for us is ‘economic growth’, and our ill-gotten gains will simply be spent on more office blocks, hotels, power-stations, barrages, mines, chemical plants, supersonic jets, oil – and wars to protect our sources of supply. All of which mean the destruction of everything that gives quality to our lives, and that makes them worth living.

We are trapped in a vicious circle, one of our own devising. Perhaps the day will come when we no longer take pride or pleasure in the gewgaws of our culture, when we realise that fulfilment does not come with trinkets, however sophisticated. It will come the sooner when those already concerned with the quality of our environment refuse to accept economic dogma and begin to defend and campaign for the wider acceptance of ecological principles.

The real problem we face is how to ensure a harmonious transition from an economy geared to endless ‘growth’ to one geared to social and ecological stability. This does not mean stagnation, but dynamic equilibrium. This should be the brief of the Standing Royal Commission on the Environment; it should pervade the thinking of Mr. Heath and his Secretary of State for the Environment; and it should exercise the minds of all of us, this conservation year.

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