IT gave me something of a shock to go to Norway. The fur coats and suede jackets of Oslo's busy shoppers displayed an affluent gloss which far outshone Knightsbridge or the downtown areas of Toronto and Melbourne. I looked for the seamy side, without success. The country's railway workers were polite and well-educated, slums were hard to find and the gap between the highest and lowest paid groups is one of the lowest in the world.
Uncluttered by a colonial past and blessed with the recent discovery of huge reserves of North Sea oil, the country of four million souls could be at peace with itself. But not according to Erik Dammann, author of the bestselling, Future in Our Hands*. Listen:
The uncomfortable truth, which we must be mature enough to bear, is that the world is hungry because we demand a standard of living which is only possible by using the resources of other parts of the world and their poverty.
We can no longer allow ourselves to use half our incomes and our productivity on the consumption of fashionable rubbish, prestige goods and luxurious trivia.whilst those people on whom we build our progress still lack the possibility of a decent life.
The words were part of Dammann's speech on a summer evening in 1974 which changed his life, and those of many other Norwegians. His book had struck a responsive chord and an audience predicted to be 200 was, in fact, an eager mass of 3000. The meeting launched the Future in Our Hands movement.
The people who went to that meeting, and the 25,000 who have joined the movement since then, have decided that enough is enough. They have diagnosed that touch of sickness which is in us all and realised the ease with which we can infect others with our materialism. Competitiveness, yearning for prestige and discreetly hidden envy. Instead, through the hundred odd groups of Future in Our Hands, members have provided each other with support in a different lifestyle: a more modest one. Support, it was quickly realised, is essential. For second-hand clothes and using a bicycle can be the signs of a loser to the conventional eye. So personal change has meant joining and mixing with friends, family and colleagues where these different values are accepted.
Standing up to the consumer society and the pressures of advertising, local groups have arranged open meetings for political debate, set up exhibitions, sold their movement's magazine Common Sense and engaged in most of the tactics which action groups utilize. But it is the extent of the analysis that is different, Connections are drawn between starting up a second-hand clothes shop, renting land to grow vegetables, helping projects in Zimbabwe and Tanzania, fighting traffic pollution and racism, working for communal housing projects and looking to non-violent defence and disarmament: always trying to understand how all this is nibbling away at an oppressive and exploitative system of economic growth.
Obviously the Future in Our Hands movement has tapped a widespread wish for mutual support against the rat race and liberation from the pressure to consume. The predicament of the Third World, as outlined by Tanzania's President Nyerere, has also been taken to heart: 'However great an effort the poor countries make, they cannot overcome their own poverty in the foreseeable future, however much we reorganise our system to serve the interests of the mass of people, we are merely redistributing poverty, and we remain subject to economic decisions and interests outside our control...
'Our objective must be the eradication of poverty and the establishment of a minimum standard of living for all. This will involve its converse a ceiling on wealth for individuals and nations, as well as deliberate action to transfer resources from the rich to the poor within and across national boundaries.' Such aid is not humiliating, as Nyerere said, 'The transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor is a matter of right, it is not a matter of charity.'
For Norwegian members of the Future in Our Hands, reducing their consumption means struggling not to buy from the brightly lit mountains of goods at the supermarket. Such small steps, they say, have helped with their appreciation of the real values of life. Mending clothes, using bicycles, walking, taking time to play with their children - these old values have been rediscovered. However although this might have helped themselves, it has not freed up resources for the poor world.
That is why the movement wants Norway to step back from its dependence on the world trading system, and to set up a serious and well-funded project to look for alternative futures. They want to stop the broken gramophone record of 'more growth' that is being endlessly played by the military-industrial complex. Perhaps, it was suggested, our country could team up with one or two underdeveloped nations where there was a serious commitment to social justice. Norway could sell its oil at fair prices, far less than the OPEC rate and buy its partners exports also at a fair price, not one depressed by the cockpit of the London or New York commodity markets. Ambitious and far-reaching plans these may seem but every journey - the saying goes - has to start with the first step.
The organisation's manifesto spells out that if no change occurs, more than half the children living today are doomed to die of hunger and disease before they become adults. Whilst over-consumption is destroying the environment in the First World and certainly making us no happier, it is doing no good to the poorer parts of our planet either.
Many are prepared to reduce their own living standards if they thought it would be of use. The manifesto believes it will be if people act together. The ideas have been supported by Archbishop Helder Camara, Basil Davidson, Thor Heyerdahl, George McRobie, Gunnar Myrdal, Dennis Meadows and Jan Tinbergen. But it is really asking for your support too.
For further information write to: Future in Our Hands, International Secretary. 35, Oslo 1, Norway or any New Internationalist office listed on the inside front cover.
*The Future in our Hands by Erik Dammann, published by Pergamon Press, 1979.