The Ecologist: The Challenge of Solving Ecological Problems

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One of the most concise, level-headed overviews of England's (and our) ecological problems we've seen as published in the August 1971 issue of the Ecologist.

The Ecologist is an environmental monthly published in England, consistently runs lucid, well-reasoned observations on the “fine mess” we’ve all gotten ourselves into. We’d like to introduce you to the magazine with the following editorial that appeared in the August 1971 issue . . . it’s one of the most concise, level-headed overviews of England’s (and our) ecological problems we’ve seen.

The Vessel Without a Pilot

It is sheer illusion to suppose that our Government is controlling this society.

Yet unless it is controlled, it cannot remain stable, which is the same as saying that it cannot survive.

Control is the process of keeping a system on its right course. This implies that it has a right course. The fact that it has is one of the most important and least recognised scientific principles. All systems including social ones are goal-directed and their goal being spatiotemporal is in fact a course or trajectory–a “creode” as Professor Waddington calls it. This course leads towards continued or in some cases increased stability which is to say that it is the one most favouring survival.

Unfortunately, control mechanisms can occasionally break down, and this is what has happened to our society, which is increasingly out of control, and which can be likened to a vessel without a pilot whose aimless course is determined by the random play of winds and currents.

Absence of control is evident in everything our Government does.

Thus, we know that vast cities are undesirable. The example of America is only too eloquent. Yet do we try to prevent further urbanisation? No, we simply set up bodies like the Centre of Environmental Studies to devise means of overcoming the countless social and ecological problems that arise as society becomes increasingly urbanised.

We know that this country is grossly over-populated, but do we try to work out and implement ways of reducing the population? No, instead we lodge people in housing developments which we know to be socially undesirable, and feed them on mass produced food containing an ever-increasing number of potentially dangerous chemical additives.

We know that there are already far too many motor-cars in this country, but do we try to limit their number to the present 11 million? No, instead we plan to build ever more motorways which will eventually make our cities uninhabitable, as is the case in Los Angeles where they are said to occupy over 60 per cent of the total city area.

We know that cancer is to a large extent caused by environmental factors–at least 80 per cent of all cases, according to Dr Sam Epstein, one of the leading American experts oil the subject, but do we try to create a healthier environment? No, we prefer to spend millions on. cancer research to find ways of treating diseases we should never have been suffering from.

We know that the world is about to run out of fuel and other key resources without which our industrial society cannot possibly continue, but do we try to reduce our dependence on these inputs which we shall very soon have to do without? Not a bit of it; we are as busy as ever developing our industries and even seeking to industrialise the rest of the world that has so far had no need for these ever-rarer resources, and we justify this on the fake assumption that human ingenuity will always enable us to find satisfactory substitutes.

In this way we are undoubtedly adapting, but in the same way that our pilotless vessel adapts when it yields to the winds that blow it against the rocks.

In fact our Government is controlling nothing. It is merely seeking to accommodate pressures which it is incapable of controlling, and as society as a result becomes increasingly unstable, so the unsoundness of and hence the damage done by each new expedient used to accommodate increasingly undesirable pressures must increase. Eventually, new pressures can no longer be accommodated and society breaks down.

The process of moving to a series of equilibrium positions involving ever lower stability is referred to by Stephen Boyden as “pseudo-adaptation”. I suggest adaptation as opposed to real “homeotelic” adaptation. (1)

The trouble, of course, is that heterotelic adaptation can only lead to further heterotelic adaptation. It gives rise to a positive-feedback situation from which there seems to be no escape.

Thus to accommodate ever more motor cars we build more motorways. People can now live further from their work. Residential suburbs come into being that would have no raison d’être, save for the motor-car. Cities become designed around it. More and more people find employment either in making, selling, repairing motor cars, or in activities dependent in some way on their continued use, such as motels and businesses built along motorways, or simply in hospitals looking after people suffering from diseases caused by the air pollution they give rise to or treating victims of road accidents. The more motor-cars we succeed in accommodating, the more dependent on them–one might say addicted to them–our society becomes, until eventually to do away with them must mean its total collapse, just as the society of the Herero pastoralists collapsed when the German colonialists in South West Africa deprived them of the cattle around which their entire life revolved.

To break out of the vicious circle that heterotelic adaptation has led us into and bring our society once more under control can only be done very gradually indeed, and must take a long time. We must start now reversing that host of closely-related trends that are leading us to ecological disaster, and, not when it is practically upon us, when only the most radical and socially disrupting measures can save us from it.

(1) From hetero=different, homeo=same and telos=goal or end. Heterotelic adapatation tion establishes a system’s equilibrium in a position which does not favor the survival or stability of the larger system of which it is part.