Can Life Survive?
by Robert Hart
(minor edits by C. Greene P.E.)
Only the indomitable will to survive of ordinary people, coupled with their instinct for mutual aid at times of crisis, can save life on earth at this most crucial period of world history. It is useless to put any trust in the powers-that-be. Blinded by their incessant search for short-term profits and petty authority, they will never be induced to take the drastic steps that are essential.
Throughout history, visionaries and prophets, who have cared passionately about the future of the human race, have sought guidance, not from the rich and powerful, but from oppressed and despised minorities. Only under wellnigh intolerable ‘marginal conditions’, does human nature plumb its full potentialities of inner strength and practical wisdom, that can enable it to pull through against seemingly insuperable odds.
As a young man, Kropotkin infuriated his aristocratic father by rejecting a life of luxury and ease at the court of St. Petersburg in favor of a posting to a military unit in Siberia. In the then largely unexplored eastern fastnesses of the Russian empire, he sought and found proof of the thesis that mutual aid, rather than conflict and competition, is the crucial factor in evolution. Similarly, I suggest that Gandhi, Kagawa and Baba Amte sought out the ‘lowest of the low’, not only out of compassion for their plight, but because they found in them inspiration and encouragement for the colossal regenerative tasks which they were undertaking.
They were establishing new poles, by which the dynamics of human development could be regulated. At the present time similar poles of achievement are being set by the women of Africa and the Himalayas who, out of selfless dedication to their families, undertake ever-lengthening and ever more exhausting journeys on foot in search of wood and water. In both the developmental and environmental spheres, the pendulum swings continually between ‘North’ and ‘South’, the rich world and the poor. ‘Northern’ statesmen, administrators and industrialists see the problems only in the light of charity and population control: how little money they can decently spend on ‘relief while putting most of the blame on the ‘South’ for their economic and ecological problems and for not checking the ‘population explosion’. Such attitudes betray gross ignorance of the true facts. Environmental degradation is overwhelmingly the responsibility of the ‘North’: its prodigious emissions of polluting gases and other chemicals, with its wholesale destruction of trees and chemical contamination of soils, combined with its ruthless economic and political exploitation of the ‘South’. The ‘North’s’ first duty is not to lecture the ‘South’ and administer meagre charity, but to get off its back.
If the South were allowed to work out its own salvation, freed from domination, not only by the North, but also by its own North-sponsored dictators and ‘elites’, there is ample evidence that it would find solutions to its economic and ecological problems from which the North could learn valuable lessons. Despite all the encroachments and invasions of Northern political and economic imperialisms, a characteristic feature of many Southern societies is still the largely self-governing and self-sufficient local community. Such a community provides comprehensive answers to economic, ecological and even population problems. Bound together by ties of mutual aid, the members have the wisdom and sense of responsibility not to burden their successors with multitudes of mouths that will be unable to be fed. At the same time, the co-operative labour of farming, growing and craftsmanship, often involving music and other cultural activities, together with the natural beauty of the environment, satisfies the inhabitants’ emotional and creative urges in ways unimagined by soul-starved Northern city dwellers.
Such communities often exist in remote or difficult areas, rejected by the North as offering sparse or risky financial returns on investment. It is the hardships of life in such areas that strengthen the inhabitants’ cohesiveness. The day may well come when many people in the North will be glad to study their survival techniques. Already life in many Northern inner cities is becoming so intolerable that many people are being drawn to adopt ‘Southern’ ways of life. A prospectus for a summer camp in the Shropshire countryside issued by Whose World?, a group with headquarters in Manchester, asks: Do you believe in the need for a radical transformation of society? Do you long for a world that’s truly equal and just; where we all live sustainably and non-exploitatively; where everyone’s needs are met now and always?
• It then states the aims of the camp:
• To provide all of us who come with an experience of what simple, non-materialistic, communal living — consensus decision-making, trying to look after each other emotionally etc. — could be like and have fun while doing so.
• To provide support and encouragement for all of us working towards a vision of a just, sustainable, non-violent way of life.
• To build a network of people and communities who want to promote active nonviolent resistance and simple, anti-materialist ways of living.
As regards the economic advantages of Third World village communities, many of them satisfy their basic needs, and some even have surpluses for sale, from agroforestry systems that provide an intensity of land-use unknown in the North. Villages in Java, one of the most densely populated rural areas in the world, are surrounded by dense green screens of forest gardens, or pekarangan, in which many of the 500 different species of food plant which the people consume are grown.
These forest gardens provide the best comprehensive, constructive answer to one of today’s predominant environmental preoccupations: what to do with the rainforest. Well-meaning Northern environmentalists get very hot under the collar when rainforests are mentioned, asserting forcefully that, at all costs, they must be preserved in toto. But the forests are far too valuable resources to be kept in glass cases. The tribal peoples who make them their homes have an encyclopedic knowledge of all the right answers. They know almost every plant and what its uses are. At the same time they use the wild plants to provide shade and shelter for economic crops such as bananas, pineapples and coffee. More than half Tanzania’s coffee output is derived from the famous Chagga gardens on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. The forest garden is the world’s most advanced system for supplying basic needs, not only food, but fuel, timber, textiles, energy and many other necessities.
Agroforestry, in fact, provides the only safe, non-polluting, sustainable answer to the Northern industrialism that is causing such appalling damage to the world’s environment, and which is rapidly disintegrating. In fact, the only comprehensive, constructive answer to both the world’s economic and ecological crises is a post-industrial order, which far-sighted Greens have already been advocating for a number of years.
The colossal dangers to all life represented by greenhouse gases, radioactive wastes, CFCs, halons and deforestation will never be overcome by the small-scale piecemeal tinkering measures put forward by statesmen at the Rio conference. Nor will the colossal and ever-increasing suffering caused by poverty, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, violence and avoidable disease be overcome by ‘market forces’, bank loans and IMF-sponsored hydro-electric schemes.
In a world order of which the basic unit would be the small self-sufficient community, meeting most of its essential needs by means of agroforestry, small workshops, and small-scale alternative technology devices, there would be little or no need for road, rail or air transport using polluting fuels.
Energy needs would be met by environmentally friendly, non-polluting wind, water, tidal, geothermal, solar and biogas systems. All wastes would be recycled. Above all, there should be a total ban on the barbarous practice of war, which causes unspeakable damage to the environment as well as untold human suffering.
Civilized methods of solving disputes based on reason, mutual respect and psychology, as advocated by religious leaders throughout history, should be developed. All life on earth could be annihilated by nuclear war as well as by environmental degradation. War never brings lasting solutions to any problem, because it does not eradicate the deep-seated psychological and moral causes of conflict. Imperialistic drives, if suppressed by military action, reappear in economic, political and cultural forms, which do just as much harm to human bodies and minds — in more subtle ways — as does armed conquest. The Second World War has led to a period of environmental destruction, homelessness, human misery, disease, torture, violence, crime and corruption unprecedented in history.
Paul Harrison’s latest book on the worldwide ecological-economic crisis is called The Third Revolution. The three revolutions which he considers crucial to human history are the Neolithic, the Industrial, and the present Environmental Revolution. The Neolithic Revolution took place when Stone Age men and women, having developed axes almost as sharp as steel, began their onslaught on their forest home, which has continued with increasing ferocity ever since. Rejecting their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, Neolithic men and women tried to gain control over their environment by domesticating wild animals and wild crops and thus establishing agriculture. At the same time they developed the crafts of spinning, weaving, pottery and carpentry, and built the first towns.
A little later, war appeared for the first time on the human scene, as did the erosion of upland areas caused by deforestation. Both these trends were greatly intensified by the discovery of metals. The Industrial Revolution, which began at the beginning of the 18th century, has had infinitely more drastic effects on both human life and the environment. While it has brought great and undeniable benefits in lessening toil, facilitating travel and, above all, in greatly extending the dissemination of information, its wholesale pollution of the environment and use of weapons of mass destruction are totally unacceptable. If human life is to survive beyond the middle of the next century in any tolerable form — or at all — both these features of industrialism must be superseded.
Thus the Environmental Revolution, if it is to succeed, must be as drastic and far-reaching in positive ways, as have the two previous world revolutions in negative ways. It must involve equally radical transformations of life-styles; these cannot be imposed from ‘above’ but must be voluntarily adopted by the people most deeply affected. The motive- power for the Environmental Revolution can only be a worldwide eruption of constructive, non-violent People’s Power, comparable to the Gandhian ‘satya-grahas’ in India in the 1920s and 1930s and the overthrow of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.
Already there are many indications in many countries that such a movement is building up. Above all, there is increasing worldwide awareness of the fundamental importance of trees for healing the environment, assuring water supplies, ameliorating the climate, purifying the atmosphere, absorbing C02, exhaling oxygen, regenerating degraded soils, stopping erosion — and supplying basic human needs of food, fuel, building materials, textiles, oils and plastics. A pioneer campaign for the preservation of trees involving People’s Power — mainly Women’s Power — was launched in the early 1970s in an appallingly degraded sector of the Himalayas. Called the Chipko movement (Chipko means ‘embrace’), it began spontaneously when a group of women embraced trees to prevent them from being felled. From that dramatic start the movement has spread to other parts of India; it has led to a number of official bans on tree-felling and has generated pressure for a more environmentally friendly natural resource policy.
A tree-planting campaign, also largely involving women, is the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, which has spread rapidly and which its founder, Professor Wangari Maathai, is seeking to extend to twelve other African countries. There are similar campaigns in many other countries. In the Highlands of Scotland, one of the world’s many environmental black spots, a campaign is afoot to restore the Great Wood of Caledon, which once covered almost the entire area, and build up a prosperous forest economy, which might absorb many unemployed city-dwellers.
Similar wilderness areas throughout the world — almost all the result of human misuse of the land—could be restored by tree-planting campaigns which could lead to the provision of homes and vital, constructive work for countless millions of homeless, deprived people.
Certain countries, above all, perhaps China and Israel, have demonstrated that even the most arid of deserts can be transformed by trees into areas of fertility, prosperity and beauty. Restoration techniques have been scientifically worked out, involving the planting of drought-resistant trees and shrubs, which provide ‘nurse conditions’ for more delicate trees and other plants supplying fruit and many other economic products and supporting large populations. The main cause of the ecological crisis is not the ‘population explosion’, as many Northern analysts claim, but gross under-use of the world’s land resources.
Apart from totally unproductive deserts, which cover one-third of the earth’s land surface, there are vast areas of grassland, much of very poor quality, which is used for grazing cattle and sheep. The average food production of such areas is about half a hundredweight per acre per year. In the Highlands of Scotland it is reckoned that it takes five acres of grassland and moorland to support one sheep. Much of the rest of the world’s agricultural land is used for the mono-cropping of cereals, with an average production of two to four tons per acre per year. But under agroforestry systems annual production exceeding a hundred tons per acre per year is possible. Moreover, under such systems, a wide diversity of food and other useful plants is produced, supplying well balanced diets, as well as fuel, building materials and other necessities.
The food plants produced by an agroforestry system supply the most important factors in human nutrition, in which most diets, in the poor and rich worlds alike, are gravely deficient. These are fruit, whose natural sugars feed the brain and energize the body, and green plants, whose chlorophyll — the basic constituent of all physical life — has a special affinity for the blood. A diet designed for optimum positive health should comprise seventy percent of fruit and green vegetables, preferably consumed fresh and raw.
A disaster afflicting today’s world, which is at least as serious as any actual or potential environmental disaster, is the colossal toll of disease caused by bad or inadequate food. The malnutrition of poverty in the Third World is no more drastic in its effects than the malnutrition of affluence in the rich sector — the malnutrition caused by excess of fatty, clogging, over-flavored and chemically processed foods causes the ‘diseases of civilization’ which are no less lethal than the diseases caused by destitution and dirt.
Before there can be an Environmental Revolution there must be a Humanistic Revolution. The reason why ever-growing stretches of the earth’s surface are hells for human beings, whether they are squalid shanty-towns, polluted and violent inner-city ghettos, squatters’ camps, concentration camps or treeless wildernesses, is that the powers who run the world regard people as things, as objects of exploitation or domination. Communist capitalist developers regard human beings as mere pawns to be used for the furtherance of their personal power and wealth. Similarly, their only interest in a stretch of beautiful countryside is, not how its beauty can be preserved and enhanced, but how most effectively it can be ‘developed’; whether it can be made to generate more wealth as the site of a building estate, an industrial complex, a factory farm, an airfield, a hydro-electric dam, a nuclear power station, a motorway, a ‘theme park’, or a site for sustainable development.
The attitude of the powers-that-be towards Life in its infinite complexity, whether in the form of a human being or a tropical rainforest, is one of gross over-simplification. The human being is only of interest as ‘consumer’, ‘investor’, ‘labour’, ‘voter’, ‘soldier’ or ‘taxpayer’. The forest, with its vast diversity of species, is only of interest as a purveyor of timber, or, burnt to the ground and converted into pasture, as a brief purveyor of hamburgers. The only standard is short-term profit; no regard is paid to longer and wider prospects, to the needs and survival of living beings.
It is among ordinary human beings, not industrial chiefs, bankers, bureaucrats and politicians, that humanistic feelings are found in their greatest intensity. Among our tortured world’s supreme needs is the divine commonsense and compassion of the conscientious mother and housewife. This is a manifestation of the power of Gaia, the grassroots dynamic which must supply much of the motive force of the Environmental Revolution.
Unlike previous revolutions, this must be overwhelmingly non-violent and constructive. It will comprise an ever-increasing profusion of small growing-points, like the new plants that irresistibly spring forth in an area devastated by volcanic eruption.
Already it is possible to detect a multitude of such growing-points in almost every country. A report critical of industrialism was entitled Limits to Growth, but no limits should be placed on the growth of new village communities, family farms, organic market-gardens, conservation groups, Green organizations, and co-operative enterprises of all kinds. Even now, the people involved in these must number many millions. If only their efforts could be integrated and co-ordinates into a worldwide New Life Network, they could give rise to an NGO — a Non-Governmental Organization — which could speak with real authority in the United Nations.
As the primary impulse for all activity comes from the human psyche, the first essential, if mankind is to survive the colossal challenges of the present and future, must be a Moral Revolution. Mutual Aid, rather than money, power, status and self-indulgence, must be accepted as the basic Law of Life.
Modern communication technology has forcibly brought home the fact that it is One World. Disasters involving human suffering are shown on television screens with equal immediacy, whether they occur in distant countries or the next street. No longer can people shrug off responsibility for the tribulations of their distant cousins. In fact those tribulations are generally caused by negative or positive factors in the worldwide system and ethos which govern the way the majority of the world’s citizens live and work — a system and ethos based on blind selfishness and materialism.
Gandhi said, ‘There is enough in the world to satisfy everyone’s need but not everyone’s greed’. In fact, the technological know-how exists to give every human being adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, energy and opportunity for self-fulfillment. A worldwide campaign of resource development for need could be a ‘moral equivalent of war’, which would bring deep psychological as well as physical satisfaction to countless millions, not least among those who at present are seeking the soul destroying ‘satisfaction’ of exploiting, dominating or otherwise hurting their fellow human beings. Such a campaign, wholly constructive and transcending environmental problems as well as human barriers and rivalries — and involving the planting of trillions of trees — could usher in a period of positive peace and creative activity such as mankind has never known throughout history.
The alternatives face each one of us: a series of ever deepening environmental and economic disasters and conflicts or a world of unprecedented beauty, diversity and abundance.