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What Really Matters


new internationalist
issue 235 - September 1992

Illustration by KORKY PAUL
What really matters
A possible route - beyond the lies, towards global survival.

It's not altogether surprising that the neo-Malthusian anti-populationists want to cure the South's 'people-plague' (yes they actually call it that) rather than examine their own consumeritis and techno-addiction. As the beneficiaries of a sick, unbalanced system, why should they want to bring about a genuine cure?

Their nineteenth century guru, the Rev. Malthus, didn't like sharing either. When anarchist-philosopher William Godwin suggested that in a society where people lived 'in the midst of plenty and where all shared alike the bounties of nature's misery, oppression, servility and other vices would disappear, Malthus wouldn't hear of it. 'All cannot share alike in the bounties of nature,' he stated decisively, as if that was that.

It's very tempting to believe someone who sounds so certain. I've just been reading Shakespeare's 'Othello' with my daughter (it's her exam text) and its villain, the murderous Iago, sounds so confident he has the innocent Othello crumbling before him within moments, believing in all the illusions he spins. But neither of these paired roles of murderer or ditherer is presented by Shakespeare as a model for healthy action: they are the split halves of the predator-victim psyche - and the stuff of tragic endings. What we need to find out is how to live happily ever after.

If it's any comfort, the prolifically creative Shakespeare looked to female fertility as a potent healer of split psyches and ecological crises. But female fertility has for centuries been mistrusted as disgusting, messy, frightening or even sinful by those who prefer to place their trust in order and control. And this may also be a clue to why fears about the growing environmental crisis are now linked so powerfully to rapid population growth.

As I said before, we used to worry about resources running out, but that problem we sometimes think we can cope with, by imagining mechanical ways to 'get more out of less' - for example, by building microchips or growing higher-yield crops. But now we are faced with a new kind of fear, of crossing ecological thresholds into uncontrollable and irreversible catastrophes. It's like the difference between people who work very hard but know they have a way to recover - say by having a snooze - and people who overwork until they die of a heart attack. No amount of snoozing is going to help: extinction is forever. Similarly, once we have set the process of global warming catastrophically in motion, what can we do? Nothing but wait to fry or drown.

And this fear of uncontrollable ecological collapse seems to echo 'uncontrollable' population growth: it is easy to put them in the same box of fear. Feeling in control therefore becomes a key need. We eagerly don the patriarchal healers' robes and tell other people, the grateful 'uncontrolled' patients how to control their births.

At the London launch of the latest UNFPA report, a member of the audience asked Dr Sadiq why the report did not call for population policies in countries in the North. (After all, one child in the North makes so many more times the environmental impact of one child in the South.) A flustered Dr Sadiq, surprised out of bureaucratic discretion into a more characteristic honesty, replied: 'Oh, I don't think our donors would like that.'

Quite so. The rich countries dominate the UN agencies - even one headed by a woman from the South personally committed to women's empowerment.

So how are we now to move towards healing the ecological crisis? In the journey from page four to page twenty-seven, certain principles do emerge. For a start, we must drop the idea that we in the North have all the answers. The North appears 'successful' only if we look at a very narrow slice of time and space; as soon as we expand our vision to include the whole planet and several generations, our way of living is shown to be impossibly unsustainable. To stop pushing our false perceptions on the South would be a good start.

For us in the North to compensate the South (with interest) for the environmental and human costs we have made them incur would make more sense. At the least we should change the worst rules of our economic game: by cancelling the Southern debt; paying fair commodity prices; reducing arms sales; no longer dumping hazardous products, wastes or dirty technological processes on the South; controlling TNCs.

We also need to take on board some unaccustomed humility, and recognize that people in the South do not need to be managed' and controlled according to blueprints from the North. Indeed, even the seductive Northern concept of the 'global commons' can be .a way for the North to suggest that 'what's mine is mine but what's yours is ours'. Rather, people in the South need to be allowed to redeem their sense of personal security, so that they can feel re-empowered to manage their own lives. Restoring the right to one's own piece of land is one key to that security.

Landlessness is the cause of massive rural distress, and adds to the homelessness in cities. Environmentalist and scientist Vandana Shiva believes that it is the re-distribution of land in Kerala that caused its much-vaunted fall in fertility, rather than economic growth. Land-rights, especially for women, can also make the people who work it feel secure enough to lavish the time and energy on old, sustainable methods of cultivation that respect the generosity of the land, instead of joining in the rape-the-land methods of big farmers.

And this leads to the heart of what is so soul-destroying about modern poverty. To live simply and frugally according to the values one has chosen is not to be 'poor', as many people who have chosen the spiritual path of voluntary simplicity will attest. The key lies in that word 'voluntary'. If I have very little because that is all I have chosen to have, I am rich: for I have everything I want.

I am richer still if I can deploy that little according to my own values. But if the profoundest ways I know of living are forcibly taken away from me, I am poor to the point of death, for my life is lived at the mercy of others - and according to values that hold no meaning for me. No wonder the Kalahari nomads died when they were put in white prisons.

Those of us who have more than enough need to explore the possibilities of 'appropriate consumption'. Buddhist scholar and community leader AT Ariyaratne told us a story once about a very rich man who invited him home to dinner. Each plate on the table was guarded with serried ranks of silverware. The rich man wanted An to talk about world hunger, he said, because it concerned him deeply. What could he do to help?

Ari said, 'This.' And leaning forward, he cleared away four-fifths of the knives and forks and spoons. We all laughed - but, An added, the sad thing was the rich man never understood what he meant.

Real choice for humans, both as consumers and as social beings, is a matter of quality, not quantity. Shelves filled with impersonal goods, like address books filled with reminders of shallow friendships, present us with meaningless choices. As the Earth's possible end comes into view, we are faced with choosing what really matters to us all - perhaps the opportunity in the planet's crisis. And extraordinarily enough, it could be that caring for what really matters to us is what will save us.

Looking after children's rights, we have seen, helps protect the environment, not destroy it. Educating girls is another human right that needs to be extended rather than diminished: it too benefits the environment in the long term through lowering infant mortality rates. And providing women with their right to health care and genuinely empowering birth planning methods turns out not only to be more ethical but more successful in the long term than rapid-result coercion. A good tree bears many good fruit.

But it is counter-intuitive (or rather, counter-brainwashing) for us to take in that having what we really want, behaving according to values we really believe in, could actually be for the general good. We have so long been brought up to assume that we must sacrifice what we really want if we want to be good: to give up our deepest desires. The hardest stumbling block for environmentalists may be to get across the idea to its Northern customers that living simply is not the same as living meanly: it may be more about having enough, though no more than enough, of what we really, deeply, want. At Rio, Maurice Strong cleverly re-phrased 'voluntary simplicity' as 'sophisticated modesty to take away the edge of asceticism that turns some people off.

We may come to prefer our leaner, more spiritual selves. But while we cling to the idea (since we, too, are deeply insecure, and not about to let go our habits of mind easily) that having more is better for us and gives us more freedom of choice, we are not likely to part with our hold on the world's resources. And the death of the planet, and the end of all choice, may be the result.

If we - all of us on planet Earth - are to have a future, it seems inescapable that we will have to make sacrifices. But the consolation is that the sacrifices we most need to make are of the things we need the least. What we can retain - and indeed extend - are the rights that matter most, for these not only protect the quality of human life but also care for the environment.

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New Internationalist issue 235 magazine cover This article is from the September 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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