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Meet Edward Goldsmith

Meet Edward Goldsmith

Edward Goldsmith, Founder of The Ecologist, writer, philosopher and visionary

Born in 1928 in Paris and educated at Oxford, Edward Goldsmith is an environmental prophet. Editor, author, lecturer and campaigner, he founded ‘The Ecologist’ magazine in 1970 and has since challenged global leaders and economists to rethink their basic assumptions. Awarded the Honorary Right Livelihood Award (the Alternative Nobel Prize) in 1991, he remains a forceful critic of globalisation, accusing governments and corporations of inflicting mortal damage on the ecological foundations upon which all life on earth is dependent. He spoke to Bittu Sahgal in Mumbai, where he travelled to attend the World Social Forum, about his mission to save the planet.

Why are you so angry?

Modern man is wrecking the planet and doing so at an increasingly rapid rate. Our remaining forests are being systematically clear cut or simply burned, our agricultural land compacted, eroded, desertified or water-logged and salinised by modern irrigation methods, our waters contaminated with agricultural and industrial chemicals or slowly depleted with the growing cultivation of water-intensive cash crops, our rivers turned into open sewers or transformed into torrents that only flow during the rainy season, our wetlands drained, our coral reefs grubbed up or poisoned, and just about everything contaminated with as many as a hundred thousand different chemicals, only 5 per cent of which have even been tested – and in a very summary manner at that – for their toxic effects on different forms of life. “Why are more people not angry?” I might ask.

So is Edward Goldsmith the quintessential prophet of doom?

Far from it, though some like to describe me that way. In truth I am trying to move us away from doom. In ‘A Blueprint for Survival’, a special issue of ‘The Ecologist’ that was published in January 1972 and which sold half a million copies in 17 languages, we pointed out that: “The principal defect of the industrial way of life, with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable.” We also said that it would come to an end within the lifetime of someone born today, unless it was extended by a powerful minority at the cost of suffering imposed on the majority of mankind.

More than 30 years later I stand by the statement, but must admit the modern industrial system has been more resilient than I had originally thought. Also, the natural world seems more capable of absorbing the increasingly destructive impact of industry. But the longer this industrial society lasts, and the more developing countries are brought sucked into its orbit, the further we will have strayed from a sane, stable, ‘sustainable’ world. And when the inevitable collapse comes about, it will be all that more traumatic.

As President of the Climate Initiatives Fund and a Board member of the International Forum on Globalisation is this, then, your message to India?

I have no message. Just two questions: Where is the spiritual wellspring that once characterized India and was championed by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi? And, who will feed India in a world wounded by climate change?

Did you get your answers at the World Social Forum in Mumbai?

Yes and no. Most participants at the WSF were not aware of the extent to which the sentiment “another world is possible” depends on our ability to maintain earth’s ecological balance. But, equally, many key thinkers from across the world do share our concerns. They look to India’s ancient traditions and philosophies for inspiration.

So what is the kernel of your communication about our ecological circumstances?

Essentially, that the environment most friendly to the needs of living things is the one to which they have been adapted by their evolution and upbringing. It’s common sense. A tiger is adapted by evolution and upbringing to living in the jungle, which provides the tiger’s optimum environment. It is the jungle that can best satisfy its physical and psychological requirements; it is the food it finds there that the tiger has best been adapted to eating, and the smells encountered there that it has best been adapted to detecting, interpreting, reacting and enjoying.

Economists are trained to measure wealth in terms of Gross National Product and man-made commodities. Natural benefits – those provided by the normal workings of biospheric processes, assuring the stability of our climate, the fertility of our soil, the replenishment of our water supplies and the integrity and cohesion of our families and communities – are not regarded as benefits at all. They are not attributed value of any kind. The natural systems that provide these ‘non-benefits’ can thus be destroyed with total impunity. Photo: Anish Andheria.

Presumably this also applies to humans?

There is no reason to suppose that Homo sapiens is in any way exempt from this fundamental principle. We, too, survive and flourish best in the environment in which we evolved. But we are so radically altering that environment as to threaten our own future.

You wrote in 1990 that we had ‘5,000 Days to Save the Planet’. The deadline expires in November 2004. Like Cassandra, have you, perhaps, been ignored?

Ignored? Far from it. But remember 5,000 days was the deadline to set in place the global mind-shift, the start of the journey to save the planet. This involves deconstructing the urban nightmare and laying a worldwide foundation for a shift back to community life, with wholly different infrastructures for community living. Today education, for instance, is little other than a springboard for destructive lifestyles that masquerade as development. It must be turned on its head to create citizens who respect and work in harmony with the planet, rather than in conflict with it. We also need to de-link from fossil fuels and mega watts to what Amory Lovins calls ‘nega-watts’. This involves energy efficiency regimes and alternate fuels that provide real development, in place of the power plants that poison us, mines that tear up ecosystems and nuclear wastes that will kill our progeny. This is not a negotiable agenda. It is an imperative and will take five decades, not 5,000 days, to implement.

Are economists the stumbling blocks? You seem to suggest they might actually wind up destroying the earth.

They will if we let them. Economists place virtually no value on our forests, soils, wetlands, rivers, seas, or coral reefs, until the economic process has so degraded and destroyed them that they become sufficiently scarce to acquire an economic value.

Do you then attribute our ecological crisis to our dogged pursuit of economic development?

Yes. Since childhood most of us have been taught that all benefits are man-made, the product of scientific, technological and industrial progress, and made available via the market system. Thus health is dispensed in hospitals and education is a commodity that can only be acquired in schools and universities. Not surprisingly, a country’s wealth is measured by its per capita Gross National Product (GNP), which provides a rough measure of its ability to provide such man-made commodities, a principle faithfully reflected in modern economics. For economists trained in these ideas, natural benefits – those provided by the normal workings of biospheric processes, assuring the stability of our climate, the fertility of our soil, the replenishment of our water supplies and the integrity and cohesion of our families and communities – are not regarded as benefits at all; indeed, our economists attribute to them no value of any kind. It follows that to be deprived of these non-benefits cannot constitute a ‘cost’ and the natural systems that provide them can thereby be destroyed with total impunity.

How does this impact on the quality of human life?

It is increasingly clear that modern economic development gives rise to conditions that lie outside what ecologists call our ‘tolerance range’. The examples are legion. We now eat food grown by unnatural processes, which make use of a host of chemical substances: hormones, antibiotics, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. Our food is then processed in vast factories, with the result that its molecular and genetic structure is often totally different from that of the food we have been adapted to eat during the course of our evolution. We drink water contaminated with nitrates, heavy metals and synthetic organic chemicals, including pesticides, which no commercial sewage works or water purification plants can entirely remove. We breathe air polluted with lead, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides from car exhausts, sulphur dioxide from chimney flues, radioactive iodine, caesium and a host of other radio-nuclides from the flues of nuclear installations. It is hardly surprising, then, that we now suffer from a whole range of new diseases, often referred to as ‘diseases of civilisation’.

Photo: Debal Sen.

Even the millions marching against war and globalisation seem unable to grasp such ecological home truths. Can we ever hope to win critical mass support?

If we don’t, we face nothing short of human extinction. Man evolved in a rich and largely natural environment, but he also evolved as an integral part of the extended family, the lineage group and the small community. In other words, he evolved within a highly structured social environment. As economic development speeds up, however, the community and its intermediary associations disintegrate.

What is the alternative you advocate?

An ecological world-view. Where real benefits, and hence real wealth are derived from the normal functioning of the natural world and of the extended families and cohesive communities within which we have lived for perhaps 95 per cent of our experience on this planet and without which there can be no stable society. If this is so, then it must follow that our overriding goal can only be to preserve true societies and the natural world, come what may. Significantly, this was very much the goal of early traditional societies who were imbued with what is often referred to as a chthonic religion – or the religion of the earth.

You keep returning to India. As a Britisher, you must have some thoughts about the nation your country enslaved.

I do. I love this country and its earthy heritage. And I remember Lord Salisbury, who said to England that: “India must be bled”. We British killed India’s textile industry and forced you to buy our Lancashire textiles. Then we repeated this success around the world. My life is now dedicated to the proposition that latter day colonial powers are prevented from repeating such crimes, anywhere on earth.

The corporates who champion globalisation hardly see themselves as criminals. They say they merely want a level playing field for all players. Is that wrong?

Remember Goliath? He too wanted a level playing field. But David, on the other hand, wanted places to hide and retreat, from where he could defend himself with his sling shot. Would you like to fight Mike Tyson on a level playing field?

Heaven forbid! People either love you or hate you Teddy. Who really is Edward Goldsmith?

Certainly not the same person I was three decades ago. I have adapted over the years to a rapidly altered world, as have all of us. But my basic thesis remains unchanged. Over three decades 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. Not everyone is comfortable with such articulation. They are the ones who try and pin labels on me. I have variously been called a “Bolshevik” (l’Actuel, a French periodical), a “whacko-communist-liberal” (a viewer of the US television programme ‘C-Span), an “anarchist” (widespread sources), a “Jacobin” (Lyndon Larouche), a “Palaeolithic counter-revolutionary” (widespread sources), an “omnivorous pseudo-ecological tribalist” (Bob Finch of the Mundi Club) a “hypocrisy accumulation zone” (same source), a “Gaian-sociobiologist” (Wolfgang Sachs) a “madman”, (Professor Lewis Wolpert), and even more recently, so I am told, the “anti-Christ” (Cardinal Biffi).

Modern agriculture is highly vulnerable to, and a major cause of climate change, due to its greenhouse gas emissions and its damaging effects on soil and freshwater resources. A combination of traditional agricultural knowledge and techniques and newly emerging sustainable technologies, may hold the solution to the current crisis. Photo: Shailendra Yashwant.

That’s a bit extreme… even for one such as you, who inspires incredibly passionate support… and opposition.

Not really. It gets better. In the past couple of years Eric Krebbers and others of ‘Fabel van de Illegaal’ have launched heavy, vitriolic assaults at me, dubbing me, of all things, racist, fascist, neo-nazi, and an “extreme right-wing ideologue”! This suggests above all that my writings are difficult to categorise in terms of today’s conventional classifications, also that my views threaten and therefore are not popular among many sectors of today’s industrial society. Needless to say, I reject even more vociferously the globalisation of this destructive process, which, by its very nature, can only lead, if it continues for much longer, to the annihilation of the natural world, and among other things to the extinction of our species.

How do we even start to tackle the problem?

We start at home and then link up with others to restore ecological sanity in ever widening circles. It was with this purpose that I founded The Ecologist. We publish tough issues, at times strongly attacking some of the main organizations responsible for the horrible mess the world is in today – organisations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and various multinational corporations. In recent years multinationals have become so big that in terms of sales many are now bigger than the average nation state. Thus the sales of the Mitsubishi Corporation are bigger than the total GNP of Indonesia – a country with a population of 200 million people.

The multinationals, of course, claim they provide jobs.

With the support of governments, servants and politicians who represent the global interests more than those of their own people I might add. In reality, it is the small and medium size companies that provide the jobs. The combined sales of the world’s top multinationals are equal to 28 per cent of total world GNP, but they employ only 18.8 million people, less than one third of one percent of the world’s population. In the U.S.A. between 1979 and 1989, when large corporations shed four million jobs, small and medium sized companies created 20 million.

Just as a tiger is adapted by its evolution and upbringing to living in the jungle, its optimum environment, the human race survives and flourishes best in the environment in which we have evolved. But we are so radically altering that environment as to threaten our own future. Photo: N.C. Dhingra.

Technocrats in the employ of global corporates claim they serve the public interest by harnessing science for consumers.

Rubbish. Take the case of Monsanto. It is absolutely huge and is one of the world’s biggest producers of genetically engineered products. When we wrote against them they coerced our printers to incinerate all 14,000 copies of the Ecologist we had printed in the UK. The only interests they serve are their own. The same holds true for companies dealing in a host of products and services from petroleum and nuclear power to weapons, factory farming and chemicals.

The point is we did not evolve as part of the technosphere – 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 percent 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.

Are you saying that science and technology have no place in human life?

I acknowledge that science and technology can solve impressive technological problems like going to the moon – but the real problems we face here on earth today are of a very different order. They are caused by the disintegration and breakdown of natural systems like biological organisms, families, communities, ecosystems, and the ecosphere, or Gaia herself, i.e. the biosphere together with its geological substrate and atmospheric environment. Against such problems, science and technology are largely impotent. What they can do above all is serve to mask their symptoms, which means prolonging the agony – for a while at most. There is no scientific or technological gimmickry that will bring together the members of a family or of a community that have disintegrated, nor that can extract from the atmosphere all the greenhouse gases that are responsible for global warming.

In recent times, climate change seems to be dominating your personal agenda.

That has been the case for several years now. Because it is the most serious technological-related disaster of all times, causing our lives to be increasingly disrupted by the growing incidence of hurricanes, floods, droughts, and sea-level rises. We could slow down this process and hope that  the climate will eventually stabilise and leave us with a habitable world, but only if we take rapid action, and serious action at that. So far there is little sign of any such action being taken.

The only interest such global corporations serve is their own. But the public is coming to realise that there is a serious gulf between the interests of monster corporations and those of humanity and the natural world, and this is cause for hope. These citizens are protesting Shell’s role in the murder of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-wiwa.

How else are we likely to be affected?

To begin with the ecological changes will wreak havoc with species and ecosystems. A mega-diversity nation like India could wind up losing over 30 or 40 per cent of its wild species within a century. No computer models can possibly predict the consequences of such trauma on public health, food security and human longevity.

Modern agriculture is not only highly vulnerable to climate change; it is also a major cause of climate change due to its emissions of greenhouse gases and its damaging effects on soil and freshwater resources. A combination of traditional agricultural knowledge and techniques, combined with newly emerging sustainable technologies, may hold the answers we need and towards this end, India with its strong traditional agricultural base may just turn out to be the lighthouse the rest of the world needs to make its switch to sustainable – largely organic – agricultural practices. But if such lessons are not implemented at home then climate-induced soil instability and plant disease could result in the collapse of this great nation’s food security.

What lies ahead? Hope, or despair?

Hope. The large demonstrations that are now beginning to occur wherever the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank, the IMF, and the Biotech Industry now choose to convene are symptoms of the growing feeling by the public that there is a serious gulf between the interests of these monster corporations and those of humanity and the natural world. In this respect Seattle with its massive anti-globalisation, anti-WTO protests, was a watershed in November 1999, and so was Cancun in September 2003 (when warships were called out to contain the peaceful tidal wave of protests). If the public becomes sufficiently informed and continues to react as it has been doing these last few years against the sordid agenda of its political and industrial leaders, we might indeed be faced with a much rosier future.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXIV No. 1, February 2004.


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