An Illusion of Progress

| 1st July 2003
Our sick society and stupid economics are dragging the planet to the edge of apocalypse. Earth’s survival depends on a completely new way of thinking. By Kirkpatrick Sale

Imagine that a small child with many bruises is brought into a doctor’s office. The physician is told she has been repeatedly beaten. The first question asked would surely be: ‘Where does it hurt?’ Then there would be an examination and the application of whatever remedies are possible. But only a callous or immoral doctor would refrain from asking other questions. ‘How did it happen? Who did it? How long has this been going on? Why? How can we prevent it from happening again?’

Now imagine there is a society that suffers many injuries by way of environmental assaults; some of the injuries would be obvious and open raw sores, others more hidden but deeper wounds. The first questions we should probably ask would once again be along the lines of: ‘Where does it hurt? What are the problems? What is being done to violate the air, water, soil, forests, seas, animals – the society’s very sustenance?’ And then, like the doctor, we would examine those practices in detail and set about remedying them. We might even ask: ‘Who did it?’ And maybe we might even find the people responsible, and make them pay for the consequences of their activities and promise never to act similarly again. Perhaps.

The degenerative planet
This analogy would fit fairly accurately the situation in the 1960s when the environmental movement – triggered by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring – began. And it also works for today – 41 years later. We have, more or less, learned what specific damage we are doing to our world – global warming, intense weather, ozone depletion, deforestation, overpopulation, air and water and soil pollution, toxic waste, nuclear energy, resource depletion, acid rain, desertification, topsoil erosion, species extinction, chemical poisoning, overfishing… We have identified the major ailments, publicised them from time to time, and on occasion tried to fashion modest remedies for them.

I hasten to say ‘on occasion’. Because almost all the ailments that get our attention are those that endanger people; we ignore a great many others that threaten other species – coral reefs, say, or rainforests. And many even of those that endanger us are not seriously addressed by our system; there are now, for example, almost 90,000 man-made chemicals – the great majority of which have never been tested for human safety.

And I hasten to emphasise ‘modest’. Because most of the remedies we have come up with have been Bandaids for gaping wounds. For 41 years we have been calling attention to our environment – an immense amount of legislation passed, many agencies and bureaucracies established, a huge set of codes and restrictions spelled out, great casebooks full of court cases assembled, environmental lobbies and citizens’ groups active across the world, hundreds of billions of pounds spent on studies and cures and correctives. But the hard truth is that most of the assaults on the environment go unchecked, and our total negative impact on the earth has not lessened in all this time; in fact, that impact has increased. As the Living Planet Report (an analysis by an international team of scientists) showed last year, the earth’s natural ecosystems have declined by 33 per cent over the last 30 years.

Worse still, the environmental pressure that humans have placed on earth – our total ecological footprint – has magnified. As the Harvard biologist EO Wilson recently declared: ‘[Our impact] is already too large for the planet to sustain. It’s growing larger, and the earth has lost its ability to regenerate’.

The irrelevance of individual action
And the reason for this predicament? Our refusal to ask the other two essential questions any rational doctor would ask a sick patient: ‘Why did this happen? Is there a way we can prevent it from happening again?’

So, why did this happen? Why do most countries in the world have an economic and political system that has not only permitted this assault on the earth in the first place, but which allows it to continue (with only a few amelioratives and moderations) even when the negative consequences are so obvious? Why is it that our answer to environmental crisis is, first and foremost, individual ‘lifestyle’ reforms – recycling, solar panels, rainforest coffees, hybrid cars, string bags, organic food, composting, double-pane insulation, and the like?

The whole individualist what-you-can-do-to-save-the-earth guilt trip is a myth. We, as individuals, are not creating the crises, and we can’t solve them. Take our crazy energy consumption. For the past 15 years the story has been the same every year: individual consumption – residential, by private car, and so on – is never more than about a quarter of all consumption; the vast majority is commercial, industrial, corporate, by agribusiness and government. So, even if we all took up cycling and wood stoves it would have a negligible impact on energy use, global warming and atmospheric pollution. I mean, sure, go ahead and live a responsible environmental life; recycle, compost, ride a push-bike; but do it because it is the right, moral thing to do – not because it’s going to save the planet.

If we really want to understand why this happened we have to ask ourselves another question: ‘Why is it that we seem willing to live with the threat of apocalypse rather than trying to seriously alter a world where consumption, of anything, is seen as unrelieved virtue, production, of anything, is regarded as a social and economic necessity, and more, of anything (like children or cars or chemicals or PhDs or golf courses or recycling centres), is unquestioningly accepted?’

The answer, of course, is that the great majority of people do not want to do away with an economic system (it is called industrial capitalism) that provides them with material riches (sometimes in great abundance), longer lives, and non-stop palliatives like entertainment, alcohol, prescription drugs, sports and television. And the few who would like to do away with it are essentially powerless and ignored, accommodated, intimidated or repressed by the governmental and corporate powers-that-be.

The problem here is that industrial capitalism rests completely on two principles that simply fly in the face of ecological sanity. The first is the imperative of growth – of the market, of the firm, of industry, of first-quarter sales, of scientific knowledge and technological innovations, of population in general and a consuming population in particular. The second is the exploitation of resources, the using up of the earth’s irreplaceable treasures of every kind – from diamonds to oil, and forests to soil – for the benefit of human material comfort; there is only the merest consideration of the effects of this extraction, of what happens when the resources are manufactured into what economists call goods (although most of them are nothing of the sort), or of what happens when those goods are used, or how they are disposed of.

Economics is stupid
I was reflecting recently on just how stupid the teaching of economics is in most universities. Economics is a subject taught without any consideration of its most fundamental component – ecology, the systems of nature on which all economic life must ultimately depend. Hence, we have a profession that can measure the value of 100 bushels of wheat coming off a farm but which has no way of factoring in (subtracting, in fact) the amount of topsoil eroded or poisoned in the process, the damage to the surrounding ecosystem, the effect of toxic run-off from fertilisers in streams and bays, or the enormous environmental costs of mass-production artificial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides and high-tech farm machinery. Economists ignore this information not because they are idiotic, cruel or dumb, but because they are conditioned by their education to see the natural world only as resources; they do not understand the complexities of the science of ecology. No wonder the futurist and sustainable development expert Hazel Henderson says that economics is a disease.

Anyway, there it is: the imperative of growth, consumption and the exploitation of resources. That’s what makes up the heart of capitalism; it’s not capitalism’s fault, it’s just what it does. But as the environmentalist Jeremy Seabrook has said: ‘If it had been the purpose of human activity on earth to bring the planet to the edge of ruin, no more efficient mechanism could have been invented than the market economy.’

To put it starkly, that means that the environmental movement can never win, can never be anything but a tolerated gadfly, as long as it functions within capitalist society. It’s as simple as that. That is why such a dedicated and longtime activist as the late Jose Lutzenberger said a few years ago (perhaps without realising the whole significance of his remark): ‘In the environmental movement, our defeats are always final, our victories always provisional. What you can save today can still be destroyed tomorrow.’

Victories are provisional because they are superficial: you get them to build a toxic waste dump but not to stop producing toxins; you get them to make cars more fuel-efficient, but they do nothing about producing them, and using them, and paving over the land and building great warehouses to accommodate them. The victories are superficial because they do not get to the heart of the matter.

Fictionalising apocalypse
And the heart of the matter is that second question: ‘Is there a way we can prevent environmental injuries from happening again?’

I am not especially optimistic about answering that question in the affirmative. We don’t realise it, any more than fish realise they are swimming in water, but we are immersed in a culture, a way of seeing and living, that has erected a protective psychological shield that enables our society to go on doing what it does even though it knows apocalypse is pending. It is something that psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’: the ability to hold in your heart, in your mind, two contradictory beliefs or ideas – in this case, desire for the continuance of the capitalist system and the health of the planet.

We achieve this, I think, by allowing ourselves to make apocalypse fictional. Ever since Hiroshima began our knowledge of environmental disaster we have produced movies, novels, TV shows and suchlike that show what environmental crises, even a worldwide catastrophe, would look like. Note, of course, that humans always survive these crises. Just making movies and stories of such things allows us to put them in a whole separate realm of thought, and lets us remove them from the real world of politics and life.

We don’t really believe that we are headed for an apocalypse: that’s just fiction.

Besides, we can fix it before it comes. We are smart and rich, and getting smarter and richer. We can create any technology we want, and there is no environmental problem to which there is not a technological solution. This is a very old, very rooted belief: the techno-fix. It doesn’t matter that there’s hardly ever been a technological solution that didn’t create some new technological problem. One of the most egregious examples of this pattern is the way the treatment of US children in the 1940s and 1950s for acne, tonsilitis, adenoids and ringworm with high-dosage X-rays later turned out (according to the National Cancer Institute) to have given thyroid cancer to as many as 4 million people. But there are plenty of other examples: nuclear power, DDT, thalidomide; the list goes on and on.

And it doesn’t matter that the search for techno-fixes is beyond the control of the techno-fixers (or anyone else, for that matter) to the point that Bill Joy – one of the giants of Silicon Valley – was moved just last year to caution against the potentially disastrous consequences of continuing research into genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology.

No these things don’t matter; our belief in the techno-fix is solid and beyond challenge. And that’s why we don’t take seriously those who warn of apocalypse. And that’s why we’re unlikely to realise how we can change the way we live so as to save our planet.

But I would add this: if there is any hope here, if we can convince enough people of the true nature of our economic system and the reality of the threats it poses to the world it will be because of our asking all the relevant questions. Not just the obvious ones: ‘Where does it hurt? Who did it? How long has this been going on?’ But the harder questions, too: ‘Why is this happening? What will it take to stop it? And how can we fashion the elements of an ecological society – one that is modest, attentive to nature’s laws and embraces the values of the living earth – as if that society were the only one available, and prevent a return to previous wrongs?’

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of 10 books, including Human Scale and Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian legacy. He is currently working on a book about the Stone Age and the evolution of human domination

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2003