The industrial society in which we live, and that we take to be normal, desirable and permanent, is in fact aberrant, destructive and necessarily short-lived.

Acceptance speech – Edward Goldsmith

If I am here today, it is that some 25 years ago the obvious fact dawned upon me that the industrial society in which we live and that we take to be normal, desirable and permanent, is in fact aberrant, destructive and necessarily short-lived, and that rather than further increase our dependence upon it, we should, on the contrary, reduce such dependence and set out systematically to phase it out.

It was to argue the case for such a policy that in 1969, I, together with a few like-minded people, set up the Ecologist and that we wrote, two years later, our Blueprint for Survival which obtained a lot of publicity and helped trigger off what is now the Green Party in the U.K.

If our modern industrial society is abnormal rather than normal, it is that though humans have been around for several million years – it is only in the last one hundred and  fifty, that, in a tiny area of our planet, we became industrialists – and in the last fifty that industrialization has become a global phenomenon.

If our industrial society is destructive rather than beneficial, it is that it is geared to continuous expansion, i.e. to economic development which involves systematically substituting for the biosphere, or the world of living things, or the real world, a totally different organization of matter which we might refer to as the techno sphere; the world of human artefacts, or the surrogate world. As the techno sphere expands so must the biosphere contract and what remains of it become correspondingly degraded. Economic growth is thus biospheric contraction; the two processes are but different sides of the same coin. The trouble is that we did not evolve as part of the techno sphere – its proudest creations, such as the motor-car, the television set and the computer are nice to have, but we can live without them, and indeed have done so for perhaps 99% of our tenancy of this planet, but we cannot live without the products of the biosphere – such as fertile soil, abundant and clean water and a favourable and stable climate – and yet, as economic development proceeds, it is of these and similar inestimable biospheric benefits that we must be correspondingly deprived – giving rise, among other things, to growing poverty, malnutrition and disease.

If our industrial society is necessarily short-lived rather than permanent, it is that it cannot survive the destruction of the biosphere, nor indeed – and this is very much more important – can human life itself – and this destruction is already very  far advanced. Indeed, everywhere in the world today, croplands are being over-cropped, pasture-lands over-grazed, forests over- logged, wetlands over-drained, ground-waters over-tapped, seas and oceans over-fished as man co-opts for his own use fully 40% of the present Net Primary Product (NPP) of our planet’s terrestrial photosynthesis.

At the same time, the living world is being systematically over-burdened with ever-growing volumes of wastes of all sorts, including toxic chemicals, heavy metals and radionuclide, while billions of tons of carbon-dioxide and other greenhouse gases are drastically changing the very chemical composition of the atmosphere.
Robert Goodland, the leading ecologist of the World Bank – perhaps the institution that has, up until now, been most committed to economic development – insists that “current throughput growth in the global economy cannot be sustained”. Leading Dutch economists Tinbergen and Hueting call for an end to “production growth” in rich countries. The truth is that it is utterly irresponsible to seek to increase economic development any further, yet it still remains the unquestioned goal of almost every government in the world today and no government has even suggested that it might be otherwise. Even the Secretary General of the Brundland Commission insists that a five-fold to ten-fold increase in economic activity is required over the next fifty years – ironically, so as to achieve sustainability. The achievement of this goal is, of course, not even remotely possible. It would mean, among other things, co-opting 200 to 500% of the Net Biological Product (NBP) of photosynthesis on this planet – to achieve which, magicians rather than scientists and economists would be required. The trouble is that it is by undertaking development schemes – and the bigger ones the better – that governments, transnational corporations and international agencies can best satisfy their immediate political and economic interests, to which these powerful and utterly self-serving organizations are willing to subordinate all other considerations.

Consider that huge complex of dams to be built on the Narmada River in India. It will not only drown vast areas of the most fertile land on the subcontinent and important stretches of natural forest teeming with wildlife, but it will force about one million tribal people from their traditional lands, most of them into the slums of the nearest conurbations – and all this just to provide hydro-electricity and irrigation water for at best a few decades – after which the irrigated lands will be transformed – as they always have been in the past – into salt-encrusted  deserts and the silted-up reservoirs into muddy wastelands.

The intolerable, biological, social and ecological costs of building such dams in tropical areas are well known. My colleague Nicholas Hillyard and I have published a three volume study of the subject. But this has not deterred decision makers from continuing to build them. The reason is that many powerful organizations stand to gain by doing so. In the case of the Narmada, this includes the main contractors who employ hundreds of engineers who must be kept doing “productive” work and have invested fortunes in earth-moving equipment and other types  of machinery that must be amortized. It includes the governments of industrial countries, whose corporations are to provide much of the engineering equipment. It includes the World Bank, the main financier of the scheme, that has 22 billion dollars to invest every year – a task that is increasingly difficult in view of the growing shortage of large projects that appear, even superficially, to have any chance of being economically viable and that are located in increasingly rare creditworthy countries. It includes the three State Governments involved, for with the billions of dollars that would be spent in their respective territories they could make a lot of friends among the sub-contractors, transporters, bankers, insurers and other businessmen – all of  whom could then be counted on to help them when the next election came round. It includes politicians and bureaucrats at all levels of government who are attracted by the kickbacks, which throughout the Third World today account for perhaps 20% of foreign investments in such large schemes – and the sum invested in this case is expected to be at least 20 billion dollars.

The Narmada scheme is not an isolated horror story. It is but one of the hundreds of large development schemes of this sort being built today throughout the World. In each case it is the politicians, the international agencies, the bureaucrats and the entrepreneurs who stand to gain – while the costs are paid by the poor – in particular the millions who are displaced by  these schemes – and of course by the natural world that is devastated by them.

Worse still, because these powerful groups are unwilling forego any short-term advantages in the interests of their respective countries and of the planet they inhabit, none of the ever more daunting problems that we face today can possibly be solved.

Thus nothing whatsoever is being done to reduce the rate of world forest destruction. The Tropical Forest Action Plan (TFAP) administered and promoted by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is no more than a vast  eight billion dollar economic development scheme in disguise, involving among other things, the replacement of vast areas of natural forest with industrial plantations of fast-growing exotics.

Nothing whatsoever is being done to stem the rapid erosion, salinization and desertification of the world’s croplands and rangelands. The FAQ’S plan to feed the world is yet another massive development scheme in disguise. It serves the interests of the agro-chemical industry, since it involves massively increasing inputs of fertilizers and pesticides; those of the farm machinery industry, since it involves doubling the world population of tractors; those of the livestock industry, since it involves doubling the number of beef cattle, and those of the dam building industry, since it involves a vast increase in the amount of land to be put under perennial irrigation. But all this can only lead to a corresponding increase in the destructive impact of our activities on the land, correspondingly reducing its capacity to feed the malnourished and the starving. It also means exporting most of the food produced rather than making it available to those who really need it, in order to earn the foreign exchange to pay the interest on the loans contracted to purchase all these inputs.

It also means ruining hundreds of millions of small farmers who cannot afford them – most of whom are condemned to a life of misery and squalor in the slums where they will seek refuge – and which, on current trends, will accommodate within twenty years, more than half of humanity.

And so it is with all the other problems that confront us – global warming for instance. Though the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) call for an immediate 60-80% reduction in the emission of the main greenhouse gases – which is generally recognized as essential, if we are to avoid a climatic catastrophe, governments have refused to take any effective action in this direction.

The U.S. administration’s position is that rather than forego any immediate economic benefits, we should be ready to adapt to climate changes even if they make much of our planet uninhabitable. America is big, and has many climatic zones, some of which should remain habitable. America is rich and can afford technological solutions, such as putting 50,000  one-square kilometre mirrors in space to reflect the sun’s radiation away from the Earth – yet another massive development project, which would satisfy the requirements of a number of powerful industrialists, but hardly provides a serious solution to  the problem.

It must thus be obvious that our modern industrial society is not capable of solving the problems that it generates and that today threaten the survival of our species, for to do so, it means adopting measures that are contrary to the short-term interests of those who determine its policies. What then do we do? We have to do something, and there seems to be no alternative but to phase out this monstrous society and replace it with one that is capable of solving its problems – one that can sustain itself without annihilating the natural world on which it depends for its sustenance.

There is only one sort of society that we know is capable of satisfying these conditions – it is the traditional community based society in which we have spent perhaps  9% of our existence on this planet. If such a society did not destroy its natural wealth, it is that its political and economic activities were conducted at the level of the family and the community itself, which – and this is essential – were also the units for other equally important activities such as bringing up and educating the children, caring for the elderly, performing essential ceremonial and religious activities and governing itself.

As a member of these key social units, man did not conduct his economic activities as a purely economic animal, as he does when working for a corporation, whether private or  government owned, but in the words of the American sociologist,  Marshall Sahlins “in his capacity as a social person, as husband  and father, brother and lineage mate, member of a clan and village.” It is also in this capacity, Sahlins could have added, that he fulfilled his political duties.

It is only in such conditions that political and economic activities that are today completely out of control, can once more, be systematically subordinated to social, ecological  and moral imperatives, as, indeed they must be if humanity is to have any future on this planet. Ladies and gentleman, we need to create such a society. We need to create it quickly while there is yet time and it is not our politicians, industrialists or international bureaucrats whom we can count on to do so for us – only we can do it.

The Ecologist
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Edward Goldsmith died in August 2009.