Growth without ecodisasters?

Growth without ecodisasters?

4m1o~phw Encronm~nr Vol. IS, No. 5, pp. 877-878. 1981 c“ Pergamon Press Ltd 1981 Prmted m Great Bntam BOOK REVIEW Growth Without Ecodisasters? edit...

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.4m1o~phw Encronm~nr Vol. IS, No. 5, pp. 877-878. 1981 c“ Pergamon Press Ltd 1981 Prmted m Great Bntam


Growth Without Ecodisasters? edited by Nicholas Pohmin, Halsted Press, John Wiley, 1 Wiley Drive, Somerset, NJ 08873, U.S.A., 1980. xxvi+675 pp, Price $49.95.

Let me begin this review by saying that this is in my opinion a very important book. It is potentially, in fact, one of the more important books of the last few years. It is also, by turns, inspiring, infuriating, and several other things. I have gained some important ideas by reading it. It constitutes the proceedings of the Second International Conference on Environmental Future, held in Reykjavik, Iceland, in mid1977, some 6 y after the first such conference. Quite a remarkable list of scientists and other figures in the environmental scene either attended or sent papers that were presented on their behalf. The United Nations Environmental Program underwrote the attendance of a number of representatives of developing countries, and I am most envious that I was not able to participate myself. There is little question that those who attended came away instructed and inspired, and that many who read this book will likewise gain much useful knowledge and inspiration. In my opinion, the brief essay by Schumacher is, by itself, worth the price of the entire volume. There is little question in my own mind that the so-called “developed” countries are, almost without exception, somewhere in the middle of the process of decadence. I think the process is still theoretically reversible, although I seriously doubt that a working majority of the population is interested in achieving this. I have heard this expressed in the past in a number of very effective ways, possibly the best being somebody’s statement that we have become totally preoccupied with elegance of means without any consideration of whether the ends are even vaguely desirable. Schumacher has given it another formulation that is only possible from his particular standpoint as an economist of marked theological training. He points out that economic goods generally can be separated into two classes, those that are useful by virtue of their being “consumed” and those that are useful by virtue of simply being. (There is a temptation to refer to these as expendables and capital goods, but the concept is broader than that-the concept extends to a distinction between a particular performance of a piece of music and the score of that piece of music. The point is simply whether, following a cycle of its proper use, the item by its nature is or is not in its original state.) But Schumacher further generalizes the concept by appropriating new labels for these two categoriesephemeral or eternal. He then makes the point that one of the distinguishing marks of our age is our ephemeralization of things that should be eternal. Music, cars, houses, philosop hies, machine tools, factories-all these are built, not for durability, but for transitory use and abandonment These are memorable labels, and I have already found them most useful in my thinking. Overall, there are 18 sessions with one or two main papers in each session, an evening plenary lecture, a manifesto from the attendees, and a great deal of preserved discussion. At least two nobel laureates were present, Jan Timbergen and Linus Pauling. Other names doubtless familiar to readers here include Thomas F. Malone, F. Kenneth Hare, Reid A. Bryson, Edward D. Goldberg, Beatrice E. Willard and Maurice F. Strong. I remarked earlier that in many respects I found the book infuriating. One feature that so affected me is mechanical. There seem to have been a number of mechanistic problems

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connected with the conference, apparently derived from the fact that a general strike occurred during the same time. In any case, the verbatim recording of the discussions had problems, and some heavy editing of the resulting record ensued. This is inevitable; I should hate to have preserved for all posterity some of the ungrammatical sentences I have been known to put together in the heat of a discussion. However, the editor has elected, whenever the words deviate in the slightest from the precise recording of a live conference, to place the words in brackets. He has also extensively annotated each discussion, further to emphasize the fact that bracketed words were supplied after the fact. The results are fully as useful to the general reader as the italicized words in the King James Version of the Bible; the only difference is that many readers never know why those words are italicized, and we are continuously bombarded with the reasons for the brackets. The picture that came to my mind was that of a classic cartoon by James Thurber, showing a very middle-class cocktail party, at which one of the guests was exclaiming, “One of us ought to be a Boswell, writing this all down!” While some of the discussion is quite delightful, it is never clear to me why it is necessary to make such a point of preserving it in its pristine and original glory. The results simply make for bumpy reading. There is a further feature that affects me personally; I cannot speak to its generality, but I suspect at least some readers may share this attitude with me. Stated bluntly, I am sick of breast-beating, and particularly of neo-Marxist breastbeating. Stated bluntly, I see no possible way to turn history back to a previous date and then rerun it with c&in key decisions reversed. Since this cannot be done, there is no particular point in flagellating us with the past. The fact is that, given our present population and social structures, it is impossible to manage our way out of our present difficulties without high technology-unless one is willing to accept famine on a scale never before contemplated. Whether we like it or not, high technology is unilaterally the product of the more-or-less capitalist west, and was bought at a price of a certain amount of environmental degradation. I am not in favor of environmental degradation. I am certainly not in favor of a return to wide-open 19th-century capitalism. On the other hand, I recognize the impossibility (while recognizing the attraction) of a return to a simple agrarian society at the present population levels of the world. We must have fast communication; we must have computers; we must have rapid transportation. Further, I personally believe that we have a great deal of need for a space program, both to provide us with further frontiers and for future resources. There is little question that we need a less consumptive life style. My wife and I really do not live up to the normal expectations of our income level, yet we have dozens of possessions that we have not used for years. Our house is a marvel of energy waste; it is poorly insulated, and so designed that it is essentially impossible to improve that particular situation. Since we bought it when we had five children at home, it is now far too large for us, as well. On the other side of the coin, I grew up during the 193Os,and I know very well what it is like to be unsure where the next meal is coming from; to spend long hours growing your own food and preserving it for winter; to hand-stoke a balky furnace with great lumps of high-sulfur, high-ash coal (you shoveled in 1 ton of coal and shoveled out 1900 lb of ashes); to buy trousers 4 in. too long and discard them only when they were 4 in. too short. Accurately remembered, the “good old days” were 877


Book review

invariably miserable. I went through 6 weeks in bed with scarlet fever, and an equal time with whooping cough. This paat summer I visited Central Africa, and there saw the ravages of those diseases, plus measles, polio and leprosy-all preventable and/or treatable. The life expectancy in that area is a trifle over 40~. The point I am making at great length is that, however attractive the simple life may be to individuals, it takes a real simpleton to desire it on a global basis. We cannot say that the development of modem drugs and modern technology in general is independent of the particular historic periods in which they evolved, including unbridled capitalism and concomitant environmental damage. It is undoubtedly true that we need to move in the direction of greater austerity in the future; there are simply too many people on this planet to allow for an alternative. But there must be a message in the fact that some of the greatest environmental damage is presently occurring in nominally Marxist countries, and some more in the developing countries. One of the things I saw in Africa was an attempt to save the few remaining large trees in Malawi by the introduction of ferrocement as a building material for small boats, replacing dugout canoes. The steel reenforcing mesh looks simple, but is critical in its metallurgy. Without the backup of high technology, that particular piece of appropriate technology would have difficulty getting started. My criticism, then, is that the present volume is rather long

on castigating past foibles for my particular taste. Nevertheless, much of the discussion is forward-looking, and there is probably less overtly political discussion than I have met at a number of such gatherings. Granted the extensive editing that had to be done to restore the verbatim transcript, and the fact that the volume is well indexed, it is probably not surprising that it has taken three years for publication. What strikes me as tragic is that I have no recollection of anything in the news media about the meeting at the time it occurred, or any publicity given to the “Imperatives” that were the final product. In short, with a remarkably distinguished list of speakers and attendees, with a number of extremely thoughtful and constructive presentations, and with a final set of recommendations that on average are of excellent quality, the actual impact of this meeting seems negligible. Conceivably, if this book were widely disseminated, that dead end could be.diverted. Despite my complaints about both mechanical and political aspects, it presents an admirable program. With a few exceptions, it is readable and comprehensible by anyone with a college education, and a fair number with less. There are things I wish it said that it fails to say, but it is overall of extremely high quality. But will it be read? being read, will anything out of it be implemented? 1 would hope so, but past experience does not make me sanguine on the subject. JAMESP. LODGE,JR.