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Issue 260
May/June 2010
On Being Human

Undercurrents

Going Back to Our Roots
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Illustration: Chris Haughton/Corbis

Illustration: Chris Haughton/Corbis

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Going Back to Our Roots

The green movement needs to revisit its fundamental principles; including (and especially) ‘Small is beautiful’, writes Julian Rose.

In the rush of excitement over both government and corporate moves to back green solutions for tackling climate change, many of the lessons so clearly spelled out by our founding fathers, including Leopold Kohr and E. F. Schumacher, have been all-too-hastily abandoned by those who should have known better.

Not only should we all be questioning the direction in which the environmental movement has moved over the past decade, but we should be asking why it has failed to come up with a dynamic, localised and ‘human-scale’ solution to the large-scale and government-backed, corporate agenda that continues to dominate our lives and our landscapes. Instead, there has been a noticeable and insidious growing level of largely passive ‘green’ obeisance to central government policies and EU handouts.

It is salutary to take ‘energy’ issues as an illustration of this. Here, it is plain to see the increasing monopolisation of green issues by market-oriented, profit-driven business enterprises and government institutions whose goals bear no relationship to the ones that inspired the term “Small is Beautiful” or the potent spark that title once ignited in our imaginations. There is no relationship, either, to the deeper concepts of ‘sustainability’ and ‘scale’ which directly connect appropriate technological advances with comm-unity regeneration and a due sense of proportion in all things.

What we have seen instead is widespread failure amongst large segments of society to recognise that most negative environmental impacts come about because of the profligate material expectations that continue to dominate our Western world – expectations that are raised and continuously promoted by powerful corporate, government and media vested interests.

Government calls to move towards renewable energy resources in order to “satisfy UK needs” (while meeting binding CO2 emission-reduction obligations) are really calls to continue to massage the needs of a consumer-fixated society rather than to address any of our actual needs, which, in truth, remain largely unknown. What is now known is that sentient human beings embody a greater need for spiritual, intellectual and emotional development than for the trappings of material opulence. The reason why this never gets mentioned is that we have allowed ourselves to be subjects of societal indoctrination, an indoctrination that promotes excessive consumerism as a baro-meter of human happiness and as being essential for the continuation of the now infamous holy grail: ‘economic growth’ and ever bigger profits for the dominant corporations.

But the long-sustained myth about the benefits to be accrued by this unending expansion of consumer-driven growth has recently been dealt a severe blow. There is no shortage of evidence of growing destruction to natural habitats and both ecological and human degradation continuing to be manifest even in ‘developed’ countries boasting a high GDP. Why then, in this ‘developed’ world, are the majority of green thinkers not converging on finding common and enduring answers to the ever deepening crisis in our midst? Are these deeper issues being sacrificed to the apparent imperatives of climate change?

If so, we need to recognise the fact and address it. Countries attempting to comply with national climate-change targets do so by postulating the need for so many million gigawatts of processed energy to fulfil ‘x’ perceived national demand. However, such calculations are predicated upon the wrong model: the current ‘living beyond our means’ one. The one that leads to the statement that we would need four more Planet Earths in order to supply the whole world with the standards of living “enjoyed” by Western Europeans and North Americans.

But what sort of standard of living are we enjoying when, for example, 10,000 tons of food is thrown out of households and supermarkets in England and Wales every day? When every rubbish tip is filled to bursting with packaging materials? When our impoverished soils are still being soused with thousands of tons of toxic agrichemicals every year? When almost everything we purchase today has three or four times less life-expectation than during the Victorian era? Is this still all going to be fine just so long as the generated energy that makes it possible is coming from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels?

The UK Green Party, for instance, is now publicly calling for help in the development of “Large-scale wind and tidal energy schemes” involving “massive investments” that will “raise wind energy production to the levels of Denmark by 2020”. Such ambitions seem to indicate that the Green Party is being swept along by the dictates of mainstream ‘business as usual’, in which broadly centralised energy-distribution patterns are main-tained and under the same corporate ownership – but driven by renewables instead of by fossil fuels.

Some may dispute this, but the impression being given is that there is a supposed ‘plus’ brought about by providing extra jobs through encouraging such schemes, and that this overrides the actual stand-alone merit of the schemes themselves.

So what would a renaissance of genuinely ‘people-led’ regional regen-erative initiatives actually look like?

The essence of my argument is that we don’t need ‘massive investment’ in any grand schemes. On the contrary, we need lots of small investments in highly diversified local and regional schemes, owned and run by the communities they serve. Integrated, local regeneration and ‘people-led’ creative solutions are, I would suggest, the imperative of our time.

There are signs of the emergence of such schemes within localised food and farming initiatives and through such initiatives as the Transition Town energy descent models. However, good as these are, they still fail to touch the broad swathe of green supporters needed to create a critical mass of public opinion for deeper change.

Fritz Schumacher and Leopold Kohr argued most cogently for “appropriate scale” in all things constructed to meet our daily needs; ones that are at once low impact and affordable and utilise local materials, thereby exerting a largely benign influence on our environment. Their words resonate ever more clearly as each year passes. We need to remind ourselves of this and act on such fundamental wisdom while we still have the chance. Large-scale wind farms, vast banks of photovoltaic panels, giant hydroelectric schemes are not the solution in the majority of cases. Not to climate change, nor to human change. Schumacher, in his wisdom, once stated that no structure should ever be built to a height taller than the tallest tree in the area, thereby never dominating Nature or humans.

How far we still are from this level of sensibility and vision! Instead we see green energy proponents applauding the establishment of regimented rows of 30-to-60-metre-high wind turbines that are increasingly marching across the landscape of the Western world, starkly symbolising continued obeisance to the gods of mass-produced power distributed through vast, centralised grid systems. It is a startlingly cogent reminder of just how sidelined and ignored the whole issue of scale, proportionality and environmental impact has been in the blinkered rush for idealistically flawed ‘green’ manufactured energy. ‘Scale’ as a humanitarian instinct guided by Nature, not by money and power.

So it has to asked, maybe even shouted: Why is it that the broader environmental movement is not promoting this sort of subtle and sensitive approach to our human and environmental needs? Why is so little emphasis given to the need for decentralised, human-scale solutions to the most pressing issues of our time? What has happened to environmentalists, ecologists, greens? Have the big environmental lobby organisations sold out to the ‘green’ corporate lobby? Are they simply the purveyors of a superficial greening of ‘business as usual’?

There is a pressing, urgent need to focus attention on the truly human-scale solutions that our world so profoundly needs and not to become obsessed with the grand technological fixes that are being mooted as potential deterrents to climate change. Let’s not be taken in by talk of a new ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ which so excites political figureheads and industrialists today. We citizens should have none of this. It’s more than time to take control over our destinies and cease supporting the out-of-control corporate theft of our futures.

Within the great shake-up which is now under way throughout a wide arena of planetary concerns, we have a one-in-a-million chance to do something radical: to help people take control of their lives at the local and regional levels, within communities, and not further appease the already ‘past its sell-by-date’ consumer-driven status quo.

Julian Rose is an organic farmer and President of the International Coalition to Protect the Polish Countryside. He is the author of Changing Course for Life: Local Solutions to Global Problems. www.changingcourseforlife.info

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