NGOs as a driving forceby José A. Lutzenberger
I became an environmentalist out of despair. As a student in agronomy I often spent my vacations surveying paddy-rice fields, measuring the crop size for the bank that financed the planters. That was in the late forties. Our rice fields are artificial swamps of a sort and most of them were and often still are contiguous to natural wetlands, the majority of which were mostly intact. This gave me a chance to enjoy intensive observation of South American waterfowl, from plover, ibis, ducks to egret and crane, cormorant and spoonbill to various species of storks, as well as the stately tajã, a giant plover, the size of a turkey, and all the smaller birds, and all that lived in and around the water or on the fields and in the woods. From early childhood I had always been a naturalist, so these were some of the happiest times of my life. Our climate in Rio Grande do Sul is subtropical, but most of the birds are the same that live in the Pantanal, that is tropical. Some of them even migrate between our region all the way south to Patagonia and through the Pantanal to Amazonia. Among the swallows that hunt insects in low flight, almost scraping the water, some are known to go as far as North America. Then there was the capibara, the largest rodent in the world, the nutria and, sometimes, we could even observe one of the most graceful and playful creatures I know, the otter. Everything was so intact, most of the landscape was pristine. Farming was still what we today would call organic farming. But nobody used this term and the word ecology was yet unknown.
Some twenty years later, after having lived and worked in other countries, I came back to my home state in Southern Brazil. I then did a lot of travelling and saw most of the rice growing regions again. I was shocked, horrified! The birds had been decimated almost to extinction. Intensive and ruthless use of agri-poisons, not only in the rice plantations but on all crops, was causing more damage than uncontrolled hunting and partial obliteration of habitats had ever done before. In some cases it was so bad that big rice planters would invite hunters to hunt out everything they could before the application of the first poison, with the argument that it would all die anyway. At the time a terrible herbicide1 was in use. It was applied into the water, dripped from drums mounted over the entry canal of the paddy. It killed all life in the water and hence everything that fed on it.
I'm the kind of person who, when confronted with something bad that could be changed for the better, will get a very bad conscience if they did not act. Fortunately this attitude is not too rare yet or the World would not be teeming with NGOs.
I talked to my colleagues, the agronomists. Most of them did not care, but some did. We then campaigned for a law that would make it a requirement for farmers, when buying their poisons, to present a prescription signed by an agronomist. The agronomist would be responsible and liable in case of damage.
Most of the poisons were used preventively. In the case of insecticides, the farmers would spray as soon as they saw any insect whatever, even lady beetles. People are so alienated from Nature today they often cannot distinguish a spider from an insect. The chemical industry even proposed "spraying callendars". The spraying was against pests that could appear at the respective time, not only against what really constituted a threat. The poisons were cheap, and credit was subsidised.
After a couple of years we had a majority of agronomists for prescription. We then asked for one more step. To avoid conflict of interest, only agronomist not working for the chemical industry should be eligible for writing prescriptions, for the same reason a pharmacist should not prescribe what he sells. This provoked a lot more opposition, as too many agronomists made their living selling or promoting agri-chemicals. A few more years and we won. The Ministry of Agriculture always fiercely opposed any idea of prescription, but we got the semi-official bank that had the monopoly for agricultural credits to accept it as a policy for granting them.
This rapidly led to a considerable reduction in the sales and use of poisons. Previously it had also been the policy of the bank to require that a sizeable portion of the credit money go into pesticides, whether needed or not. It is easy to imagine who suggested this to them. Agronomists also became more careful, many even looked into books on toxicology. Some developed methods of appraising whether pest attack was economically significant or not, suggesting chemical warfare only when serious reductions in yield were to be expected. More often then not, the cost of the damage caused by some bug or fungus is quite inferior to the cost of the poison. Many farmers learned to recognise their pest better and realised they could also make more money by spending less on unnecessary inputs.
Initially it was only the regional head-office of the bank that imposed prescriptions but, then, by lucky chance, the president in the national head-office applied the new policy to the whole country. That was decidedly too much for the Ministry. It suddenly issued a decree also instituting prescription, but with somewhat different provisions. Where we excluded agronomist working for the chemical industry, they allowed all of them, whether self-employed, employed by farmers or working for the Government and including those who were in industry to sign the prescriptions. There was another important addition. We made no difference in the poisons concerning toxicological classification. Prescription applied to everything, but the Ministry now limited it to only those pesticides in toxicological class I and II. III and IV were free. Well, it was still progress compared to the initial situation, where any small boy could go to the farmers supply shop and freely buy the most fulminating and/or persistent poisons, without even being asked what he was going to do with it. Brazil also had a very good, one of the World's best, toxicological classifications for agricultural biocides. So we were not too unhappy. Then something interesting happened. The Ministry of Health issued a new classification. Now all the really bad stuff that was on the market in Brazil and that had been classified I and II was shifted to III and IV... Funny! The bank decided not to follow suit, they continued as before. Then, again within a very short time, another funny thing happened. The national agency controlling the banks took away the monopoly and allowed all banks to lend to farmers... Some reinstituted the obligation that a certain percentage of the money must go to pesticides.
We decided to work on a different level. In our State Legislature we got a majority of deputies to approve a new law that made prescription mandatory and that required state registration for all agri-poisons, regardless of whether they had federal registration or not . The definition "agri-poison" (agro-tóxico) became law, as against the word used by industry, "defensivo agrícola", that translates freely as "defensive treatment". The new law also banned clorinated hydrocarbons and gave NGOs power of appeal in registration. In only a few days our governor, who had never shown an interest in these questions, vetoed the law. Could all this be coincidence? Incredible coincidence!
Our state constitution allows the governor's veto to be overthrown by a 75% majority. It was unanimously overthrown. Soon, other State Parliaments voted similar laws, some better than ours, which had some flaws because it had been prepared in a hurry. Among other details we had forgotten to include the aspect of advertising that did not draw attention to the danger involved with these poisons. Sixteen states now had good legislation. These included all those where agri-poison use was intensive.
We were all very surprised at the help we got from our state deputies. I think the success was due to the fact that the issue was not raised by a green party as it would have been in Europe but by concerned citizens, oriented by experts in the field. The leaders of the movement were all agronomists and their associations on the county, the state and the federal level embraced the fight. This was in the early eighties. Today these associations would not do it, they are now mostly back in the hands of people who follow the official line.
Brazil does not have a green party worth that name. I think this is very good. I always thought ecology must permeate all parties, it is too important to be appropriated by one group. When ecological issues are presented as the defense of life for our children and of future generations, who can openly be against it? As a party issue the story would be different.
We were very happy, but it did not last long. The chemical industry went to the Supreme Court and argued our state laws were unconstitutional. They insisted only the federal level could decide and said the Ministry of Agriculture could decide by decree.
It took the Court about a year to reach a verdict. The nine Supreme jugdes individually took the dossier home for study and then decided separately. After some time, four had already decided in our favour. We were sure to win. We knew the opinions of two of the other five. But then, another coincidence: three judges retired and were replaced. The industry won. I hope someday someone will tell this whole story in all its detail, a fascinating story!
But the Industry did not reckon with another coincidence, this one against them and of their own making. It so happened that soon after the decision, the new minister of agriculture was a friend of ours, a traditional politician from our State, who had been one of our governors. Since the law now said the Minister could decide by decree, so he did. One more coincidence. It did not take a month and the Minister was replaced. His successor had nothing more urgent to do than to revoke the decree.
This short outline of a very complicated story that is not over yet and that now goes into its third decade illustrates how difficult and frustrating it can be for environmentalists to overcome the unending ruse of the powerful. But it also shows the power of the citizen. If you are knowledgeable, have determination and accept personal sacrifice, there is much that can be achieved. In this case, even though the industry often seemed to come out on top, something was won that they cannot destroy. There is now a new, growing consciousness in agriculture and with the consumer. The use of poisons has gone down considerably. The initial aim of the Industry, an eightfold increase in sales from 1974 to 1984, was reached only halfway and then fell back to almost the initial amount.
In the case of our paddy rice the water fowl is all back, as beautiful as ever. I cannot describe the joy it gives me when every late afternoon, on Gaia-Corner, the rural center of our Foundation, I can observe enormous flocks of egrets and ibis flying to their roosting places in V-formation. A couple of cranes have taken residence with us and cormorants dive for fish. A family of otters build their caves at our pond.
More and more younger and also older farmers, agronomists and students come to our courses on organic rice growing and regenerative farming. Soon we will also bring here whole classes of youngsters with their teachers. We will show "how to wonder", as Rachel Carson would say, to make them see the marvels of the living world, to relate to it in a spiritual way.
Our place is especially well suited for this. When we first saw it ten years ago it was like a big sterile crater. An enormous quarry, producing gravel for roadbuilding, had just been given up. We had to fight a project to turn it into a garbage dump for the nearby city. Then the big hole filled with water. It is now a pond with two hectares of crystal clear water, in some places up to twenty meters deep, teeming with fish, watersnails and freshwater crabs. All around it Nature is coming back and we manage to grow our crops, have cattle, pigs, chicken, ducks and guinea-fowl, while keeping one third of the land in recovering wilderness. Biological diversity is growing at a rate we never thought possible. Only when showing our visitors photographs of what this place was, do they realise the incredible powers of regeneration of Nature.
But this is not a happy end, only a small seedling in the clearcut. The problem with poisons in agriculture may be a little less serious, but it is still there, it is getting more complicated. Now, allied with biotechnology, it threatens to initiate a replay of the Green Revolution. Few people, even in the ecology movement seem to see what is happening. During a recent international meeting on biotechnology and farmers rights, some of the participants put most emphasis on "safeguards", thus implicitly accepting biotechnology as it is being introduced to agriculture by the same powers that forced the poisons.
This brings us to one of the most fundamental aspects of environmentalism today. If you want to be efficient, you must be knowledgeable. Otherwise there is danger of attacking at the wrong point or argueing on the wrong level, the level the powerful choose and on which they almost always win.
Years ago in our wine growing region in the Northeast of our State a very potent total herbicide was introduced. It caused serious problems of intoxication with people and was therefore soon abandoned after having been in almost general use. The manufacturers reacted by insisting it was only a question of improper use, that farmers were not using protective clothes and masks, were not using the right concentrations at the right time and so on. As so often, it is the victim who is to blame. Most farmers and agronomists were inclined to accept. I then argued as follows: if this product was as harmless as distilled water, as good for health as mother's milk is for the baby, it still should never be used in our vinyards. I reminded the farmers, all descendants of Italian immigrants, who came here in the middle of the last century, that their grandfathers, when they introduced wine growing here did something quite different from what they did in Italy. There, in a much drier climate they grew the vines on the espalier, here, on the rocky slopes where they live and in our very humid climate, where weeds grow luxurious when not controlled, they preferred a continous pergola, high enough for cows or sheep to graze underneath. They kept a good green cover of ryegrass with vetches and clovers. Their vines were healthly and the farmers used only the traditional, harmless copper-fungicides. The herbicide, regardless of whether it presented toxicological problems, was a disaster, because it destroyed the green cover that kept the vines healthy. The cattle had kept the grass short. So, instead of spending money with plant-killers, the farmer had the free pasture. Most wine growers now keep their vinyards green again. The herbicides also caused very serious erosion and with weakened vines, the farmers resorted to the new Carbamate fungicides that cause still more problems, including more insidious toxicological ones.
In the case of biotechnology in agriculture today, we also have a situation where many good people are fighting against the lesser part of the evil, without seeing the real great dangers. The Green Revolution caused the uprooting of millions of peasants worldwide and there was another, even more irreversible disaster, tens of thousands of varieties of traditional cultivars were lost forever. In the case of rice, f.i., uncounted thousands of varieties were lost. They were all the result of thousands of years of conscious or unconscious selection by the peasants themselves. Today we sow the same varieties in Louisiana, Hawaii, here in southern Brazil and Uruguay, or in all of South East Asia. The same has happened to wheat, barley, rye, or maize; apples, pears, etc. In the Andean countries, Central America and Mexico, Indian peasants cultivated an incredible wealth of varieties of potatoes. What survived the Green Revolution will soon be wiped out by biotechnology, when the same corporations that put the farmer in the position of total dependency with agri-chemicals succeed in making him equally dependent of their patented seed, some of them selected not for resistance to pests, but resistance to pesticides. So it is nonsense to fight the planting out in the field of genetically engineered strawberries. They could never survive, much less spread out without our help. Most of our cultivars are plants that live, so to say, in symbiosis with us humans. A field of maize or wheat not harvested can not survive into the next year. Native vegetation will take over. Of course this does not apply to organisms that can survive in the wild, especially bacteria, fungi and insects. What we must fight in biotechnology is the patenting or registration of living beings, parts of living beings or processes with living beings.
But agri-poisons and biotechnology are only part of the problem. Modern agriculture is not only ecologically pernicious and socially disastrous, it is just not the solution for the problem of feeding the human masses. Even if it can temporarily, with absurd subsidies, produce surpluses that then require additional subsidies to destroy, in the not very long term it will lead to total calamity. No process that builds on non renewable raw materials and energy can last very long. But it also is not as efficient as it pretends to be.
When comparing modern agriculture with traditional peasant cultures, it is always said that, while in the past 40 to 60 percent of the population had to work the land to feed itself and the rest, now, in First World countries, less than two percent are sufficient. That one farmer can feed 50 people. If this were true, we really would have no alternative. But it is a fallacy, when not a deliberate lie. When looked at systemically, the traditional peasant, within the economy as a whole, was a system of production and distribution of food, a system that was autarchic, that is, it produced its own inputs. The peasant produced his own fertilizer, dung from his animals, and his energy too. He used draught animals that grazed on his pasture or were fed hay or silage that also came from his soil. It was solar energy captured by photosynthesis. He also delivered the food he produced practically into the hands of the consumer on the weekly market. In the Portuguese language the days of the week are still called "second, third, fourth market", etc. (segunda-feira, terça-feira...).
But what is the modern farmer? He is not much more than a tractor driver and applier of chemicals. He is a very small cog in an enormous and enormously complex techno-bureaucratic structure that includes oilfields, refineries, mines, steel mills, aluminium smelters, big dams that flooded rain forests and wiped out Indian tribes or uprooted rubber tappers to make the electricity for the aluminium smelters, tool makers and tractor, combine and truck manufacturers, a sizeable portion of the chemical industry, of the banking system, etc., etc, agricultural schools, extension services, agricultural experiment stations, plus an industry that did not even exist before, the food manipulating, denaturing and contaminating industry and a lot more, such as all the packaging, deep freezing, pre-cooking, and what not.
So, if we want to compare the traditional farmer with today's situation we must compare the systems. How was food produced and distributed then and today? Modern economic macro-accounting doesn't make this kind of calculation. The different industries are seen as diferent parts of the economy and in the GNP only money flow is compared. If we compared the complete systems, we would certainly find that today, also, at least 40 percent of all working hours are for production and distribution of food. It would have to include, even the working hours necessary to earn the tax money that goes into the subsidies. We didn't really gain very much in terms of man hour efficiency. What we have is a different distribution of tasks and a tremendous increase in environmental costs.
Of course, it can be argued that it is much more comfortable to sit in front of a computer in the bank than to drudge in the fields. Even then, it need not to be as hard anymore as it was in the past. Intelligent organic farming, with the right crop rotation, companion planting, green manure, integration of crops with animal husbandry, makes totally unnecessary what I still saw in Germany in the fifties - women on all fours in sugarbeet fields pulling weeds with their hands. With todays conforts, life on the farm can be a lot more interesting, more humanly significant and healthier than the lives of most city workers.
In the forties, when I studied agronomy, all agricultural research and experimentation was still directed toward organic methods. It was not the farmers who asked for a change in course, it was industry that imposed it on them, the banks, the schools and government adjusted to the interests of industry, not those of the farmers, of the consumer and ecological sustainability.
Among the high environmental costs of modern agriculture are energy and raw materials. Traditional agriculture worked with solar energy via photosynthesis in its crops. Today it is fossil fuels and even nuclear power that goes into food production. Worse - agriculture now consumes more energy than it gets from the sun. This can be compared to an oil well that uses more energy in the pump than can be recovered from the oil pumped up. This kind of oil well is harmful for the economy as a whole, but it can be profitable for the owner if he is subsidized. That is one of the reasons why modern agriculture needs massive subsidies.
To make some of the fertilizers, enormous amounts of electricity and fossil fuels are used to fix nitrogen from the air in highly pressurized containers and at very high temperatures, (Haber-Bosch Process), a process that legumes do at ambient temperature with minimal energy use and with the help of certain bacteria on their roots, at no extra cost for the farmer. To make phosphorous fertilizers, phosphate mines are depleted at a rate faster than today's consumption of petroleum and there is no substitute! Whole islands have been demolished in the Pacific.
The absurdity of modern food production systems is even more evident in intensive cattle, pig and chicken rearing. Here we are faced with massive destruction of food for the sake of "vertical integration": The chicken slaughterhouse also owns the feed factory and the hatchery for the chicks. These are not even races anymore, they are registered chicken brands. The "producer" must buy all his inputs from the company, at prices they control and he must sell his produce to the same people, again at prices they dictate! He may think he is a self-employed entrepreneur, in fact he is a labourer with no guaranteed salary and no social security. These schemes have little to do with efficiency in production, but very much with power structures, with developing techno-bureaucratic structures for the creation of dependency.
In the past, our farm animals produced the fertilizer to keep soils fertile, today they produce waste! In Europe alone, hundreds of millions of tons of slurry - liquid cattle or pig manure - are treated as dirt. Until recently much of it was simply dumped in the ocean! Now, when it is put back where it belongs, on the soil, it is done in ways that degrade, not improve it, it leads to heavy leaching of nitrates into the subsoil and hence into wells, springs, brooks and rivers, with all the health problems this entails.
Where traditional agriculture worked with closed cycles, just as ecosystems do, its modern counterpart opens cycles that should be kept closed. The fertility of our soils ends up on the imense and growing garbage dumps and in the sewers. Modern sewage treatment plants are now, on pretext that the sludge is contaminated with heavy metals, often drying it with high energy input, then burning it and dumping the ashes. Nothing could be more absurd!
And the animals in the feedlots, chicken concentration camps and pig dungeons are fed grain and even - the hight of lunacy - dried milk. Instead of complementing food production for humans on our fields, they now compete with us, they need extra crops, such as the soybean fields in Southern Brazil for which the remaining subtropical rain forests in the Uruguay valley were wiped out or tropical rain forests are cleared in Asia to give way for maniok to make tapioca for the fat cows in Europe that produce the "seas of milk" and "mountains of butter".
Peasant agriculture was sustainable forever, modern agriculture is suicidal.
Now we are threatened with a replay of the Green Revolution. If biotechnology, as now directed, does not soon change course, it will put the modern farmer into still more of a straightjacket than he already is in and will contribute to another massive wave of uprooting among the remaining peasants in the Third as well as in the First World.
In October 1993, in Bangalore, India, at the opening of a conference on "Farmers Intellectual Rights", there was a demonstration by half a million farmers against GATT, the World Bank, against biotechnology and for sustainable farming. This gives us hope again. The leader of the Indian farmers said that, if necessary, he could bring twenty million people to New Delhi. The media almost totally ignored the event.
Why did they protest against the World Bank and GATT? Because they realise these technocratic instruments threaten them, they want agri-business to substitute for the small farmer everywhere. Even if they don't openly say so, that will be the result of the globalization of the economy. The uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, is for the same reason. NAFTA will make the survival of the Mexican peasant impossible. The Indian peasants will not be able to compete with American agri-business. When American industrial workers protested as well, it was because they know that to the extent that real wages will go down in Mexico, with increasing migration to the cities, American big business will export jobs to Mexico.
It is bad enough when European farmers are uprooted, as can now be observed in Spain or France. Old peasant wisdom is lost forever. In the Third World it is much worse. The Mexican peasants are Indians, descendants of the Mayas and Astecs, with many different languages and cultures. When the village empties and the peasants languish in the slums of the cities, everything is irreversibly lost, it is cultural genocide. This is what the Asian farmers in Bangalore knew could happen to them.
The globalization of the economy with GATT and all the common markets is now threatening not just peasants and small farmers, the export of jobs to where labour costs are lowest is causing unemployment in the First World too. And, worse than the destruction of jobs, is the systematic disruption of all historically and systemically grown, stable, locally adapted, just and sustainable social structures. Everywhere people are being massified and alienated, become uprooted, lose their traditional values and ideals, are confronted with only the hedonistic, orgiastic ethics of modern advertising. Small wonder, that even in rich countries such as Switzerland, youths of even well to do families slide into the squalor of places such as Letten Station in Zurich, where thousands of young people languish in filth and stupor, physically and mentally destroyed by hard drugs.
When conventional wisdom divides the World into rich and poor countries, what is usually left out of the argument is the fact that the poor people of today were not poor at all. While their traditional cultures were intact, with very few exceptions, they were rich, rich in human fulfilment. What made them poor was development. Colonialism disrupted their solid social structures and demolished their economies, as when peasant farming for self-sufficiency was forced to give way to big plantation farming for export to the central powers.
This process continues today, but the dominating powers are not governments anymore and they do not have to send armies to occupy other people's land to install an administration of their own. Neocolonialism is much smarter and much, much more efficient. When I was Minister of the Environment in Brazil, I often had to face arguments by some of our military that the First World would eventually occupy Amazonia and take it away from us, that they wanted to have control of all the mineral and other resources. "Nonsense" I replied. "It is you who are giving it to them on a silver platter. They would not be so foolish as to occupy it".
Years ago, in Africa, a guy in Senegal said - "During colonial times the situation was transparent. When somebody spoke French and was white, I knew he was one of my exploiters. Now my worst enemies have my color of skin and speak my dialect".
A good example of neocolonialism is the Tucurí-Carajás complex. The First World, with its multilateral development banks, conceived, proposed and financed a huge dam that flooded three thousand square kilometers of pristine forest, finished off two Indian tribes, uprooted more than ten thousand rubber tappers and other forest dwellers, caused a series of other environmental disasters, some indirectly triggered by it, such as the destruction of more than a hundred thousand square kilometers of virgin forest (an area larger than Portugal or Austria) and cost the Brazilian people an additional endebtment of over six billion dollars. What was this dam for? The electricity, only some eighthundred megawatt, goes to multinational aluminium smelters and is delivered to them below production costs. Why? Because the smelters can argue that they need subsidised electricity to compete with low world-market prices for aluminium. But why is the price of aluminium so low? Because of the Tucurí-Carajás scheme! So what do we have? The First World imposes and finances a scheme that makes it possible for it to get resources from the Third World at ridiculously low prices and the Third World pays all the costs - social, environmental and financial; no occupation of foreign land necessary.
In Neocolonialism the central powers are diffuse and the situation is much more complicated. It is not the British, French or Dutch, or even the Germans and Italians anymore, it is the transnational corporations and they do not really belong anywhere. Today they are the centres of technology development and the technologies they develop and impose are not necessarily conceived to satisfy true human needs, they are conceived mostly in their interest, to conquer markets, to solidify and amplify their power.
So we need a political and ecological critique of technology. Even among environmentalists, many do not realise what is happening. Politicians are either ignorant or connivant. When we fought poisons in agriculture, we were addressing misguided technologies. The requirement of prescription for the sale of pesticides is a technical fix, so is registration and other controlling legislation. We must now go much deeper. Of course, technical fixes are important and necessary. For some industries that is all we need, but technical fixes are not always sufficient. We must rethink all our technology, not only in agriculture, but also in energy generation, in transportation, industry, health, sanitation and especially in education.
In the case of agriculture the longterm solution is organic agriculture, or, to use a more appropriate term, regenerative agriculture. Fortunately it has already progressed to the point where it cannot be demoralised anymore by those powerful corporations and institutions that feel threatened by it. Now, even they are reluctantly paying lip-service to it. Here, renewed and massive activity, a lot of practical work, is now necessary. Millions of young people who yearn for morally significant activity, and many older people too, can embark with enthusiasm. Consumers everywhere are also becoming aware and are asking for clean, health-promoting food.
This effort could be helped and accellerated by a new orientation in sanitary engineering. Today it concentrates mostly on megatechnological and centralising solutions, such as incineration or gigantic dumps, higly disciplined, of course, where garbage and rubble is compacted and insulated and the area "recultivated", all at very high cost, up to hundreds of dollars per ton. In the case of toxic stuff the cost can go up to thousands of dollars per ton, when it is not openly or covertly exported to Third World countries or even dumped in the ocean. In the case of radioactive materials the situation is such that nobody knows a final answer yet.
The new orientation would not start from the premise that we want to get rid of what we call dirt, garbage, waste, etc..., but that we want, first, to produce as little waste as possible and then to recycle whatever can be reused, that is, we want to work with closed cycles, the way living systems always do. This applies first of all to the hundreds of millions of tons of precious organic matter that is discarded yearly from slaughterhouses, canning factories for meat, fruit, vegetables and fish; wine cellars, breweries, tanneries, sawmills; that goes into urban garbage and sewers, as well as all the slurry from intensive cattle, pig and chicken operations. While this monumental waste continues, while most of the stuff is handled in ways that either contaminate it or make recycling impossible, hundreds of millions of hectares of good soil are degraded every year with unnecessary mechanical aggression, causing erosion; with massive use of chemical fertilizers and downpours of poisons, all practices that destroy soil life and drastically lower the humus content. The soils are starving of organic matter while industry and cities are destroying it. This situation must be reversed. The cycles we have opened must be closed again. This is another great field of activity for millions of intelligent people, an activity for which uncounted numbers of NGOs and even businesses could prosper.
Modern medicine has become a multibillion dollar industry that operates on the same principle that keeps the repair shop for cars going: let the cars break down, we will repair them, preferably by exchanging spare parts. It has now become so technologically sophisticated and so expensive that most health-care systems are breaking down. Here too we need a lot of work based on a new orientation, where prevention counts more than repair. Prevention means healthy food and healthy life styles. Agriculture, industry and health-care must be linked in a way quite opposite to how they are linked today, where industry contributes to a sick form of agriculture that, therefore, produces food that makes us sick.
But our present environmental predicament is not just a problem of technology gone astray. The problem is there because the technologies are efficient, as efficient as their owners want them to be. It is not a question of too many bandids either. Most serious damage is done by well-meaning people. Better filters on our chimneys and exhausts, more efficient sewage treatment stations, a healthier and more sustainable agriculture, cleaner food processing, more recycling of wastes, more and bigger nature reserves, all this will help, but it is not enough. It will not save our descendants.
We must reexamine our aims! What is progress, what is development? What is technology for? How are we going to put Civilization back into step with Creation and at the same time make a just society?
I remember reading, decades ago, an essay by Bertrand Russel. It was a thought experiment that, in essence went like this: Suppose in an economy there is a certain number of pin factories. They produce all the pins the people need. Everybody is satisfied, those who need the pins and those who manufacture them. Then, somebody invents a machine that makes it possible to produce the same number of pins in half the time, other factors remaining equal. What would be the intelligent, socially desirable thing to do? All the pin factories should use this machine and work only half time with the same income, the same wages and salaries. Workers and executives would have more time for leisure, for fun, for cultivating friendships and love, for sports, arts, music, enjoyment of Nature and so on. Other industries would find and apply similar innovations. Technological progress would thus contribute to gradual improvement in confort for everybody, society would become more humane, there would be more culture, beauty, Nature would be more protected, as we would use fewer and fewer resources. But what happens in practice? They all buy the new machine and everybody tries to produce and sell twice as much as before. Fierce competition ensues, half the factories go bankrupt, half the jobs are lost. In the end, the same amount of pins is used, but there is more despair, frustration and unhappiness.
Of course, this is an oversimplified metaphor, but it illustrates how technology that could contribute to more freedom and contentment, as well as less environmental impact, more often than not, has the opposite effect.
My father, who lived from the eighties of the last to the fifties of this century could hardly have imagined all the time saving devices we have today, but he certainly could not have understood how short of time we are today with all the computers, faxes, modems, printers, photocopiers, global satellite transmission, high speed trains and planes, expressways, and what not. The only time saving contraption he had was a phone and he boarded a plane only once in his lifetime. But he led a beautifully productive life. As an architect and building contractor he left behind some of the most artistic buildings and churches, was professor at the Arts school and produced many precious paintings, portraying the life of the Gaucho, the cowboy of the Pampa, of the colonists in our peasant regions and life in the cities, all of historical value now, in a style somewhat like Norman Rockwell, except that he painted only for fun, he never sold his paintings, he kept them or gave them away. And what profound satisfaction he got out of it all.
Ecological awareness must now go beyond confrontation and technical fixes, beyond even fundamental reformulation of technology and technological infrastructures.
Most important and certainly most difficult of all is the necessary rethinking of our cosmology.
The antropocentric worldview we inherited from our remote Judeo-Christian past has allowed our technocrats and bureaucrats and most simple people too, to look at Planet Earth as if it were no more than a free storehouse of unlimited resources to be used, consumed and wasted for even the most absurd or stupid whims of ours. We have no respect for Creation. Nothing in Nature is sacred. Nothing, except us humans, has sufficient inherent value not to have to yield when "economic" or other human interests dictate it. Mountains can be razed, rivers turned around, forests flooded or anihilated, unique life forms or whole living systems can be eliminated without qualms, or patented for personal or institutional power.
How else could it be that even with a man like Al Gore in the Vice-Presidency of the USA and with all the worldwide concern about the wholesale devastation of the Tropical Rain Forest, the final demolition of the Pacific Temperate Rain Forest cannot be halted? What worldview is it that in a redwood hundreds or even thousands of years old sees only raw material to be shredded for pulp or split into one-use chop sticks. This approach to reality makes it possible for economists to see creation of wealth only in the money earned in the export from the rape of the forest, while deducting nothing in their accounts of national wealth for the total and irreplaceable loss of the whole ecosystem. For them only the abstraction we call money is real and they think they can even create it out of nothing to produce the necessary technologies that, miraculously, will help us overcome all imaginable shortages and devastations. Funny, those who least understand science and technology are the ones who most expect from it, to the point of believing we can go on acting in the most irresponsible ways forever.
Beautiful coincidence: while writing this, early in the morning, September 19, 1994 - spring in the Southern Hemisphere - at a table in front of my cottage on Gaia-Corner, I feel a fleeting shadow passing me on the ground, then another one. Looking up I see a pair of storks. They came straight from the rising sun. After soaring three large circles over our pond they continue their flight due West. This is reality! How not to feel profound reverence?
How are we going to spread the new - actually very, very old - holistic ethics the Planet now needs for the marvellous process of organic evolution to be allowed to unfold unhampered again?
The human brain has the capacity to become an agent for increasing creativity within the flow of Life or it can continue disrupting it until it is too late, until points of no return will have been overshot.
With very few exceptions the people we like to call primitive developed mythologies, taboos, rituals and attitudes that made their existence compatible with the survival of the respective ecosystems, sometimes even enriching them. In modern terminology we would say their life styles were sustainable. Modern Global Industrialist Civilization, though, is fundamentally unsustainable. It has now imposed on what remains of traditional cultures the ethics of the goldminer who takes what he can from a place on which he has no roots, who refrains from no devastation in order to get to his bonanza and, when there is nothing left of interest to him, leaves without remorse.
We need a new frame of reference, to put it in more technical terms. If I said "mithology" many scientifically minded people might protest. James Lovelock suffered stinging attacks from people who thought he was too emotional. But his concept of GAIA, the Earth as a homoestatic system regulating itself so that environmental factors such as temperature range, salinity, redox-effect, acidity, mixture of gases in the atmosphere, cloudiness, etc., remain within what is appropriate for life, lends itself both to a strictly scientific interpretation or to more mythological ways of looking at the world, which is what most simple people need.
The most urgent and noble task of NGOs now is to mobilize all the forces that can contribute to the necessary change in worldview. Our modern technologies of communication and publicity make it possible. The political will to do it can only come from below, from the citizen.
1 In this article I will not give names of people, brands or companies. It is the fundamental aspects and principles I want to stress.
2 Pesticides are classified into four toxicological classes where I. and II. include the most fulminating and/or persistant biocides, III. and IV. harmless stuff such as f.i. sulphur.
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