The case for a land-based economy

mark at mark at
Wed May 25 22:03:53 BST 2011

Of course we need industrial goods, but to save Earth we must cut 
by Simon Fairlie
The Guardian, Wednesday 25 May 2011

[This is a response to George Monbiot's article in the Guardian on 
Monday 2nd May entitled "Let's face it: none of our environmental 
fixes break the planet-wrecking project"; Ref: 

Of course we need industrial goods, but to save Earth we must cut 
by SF

We could lead more fulfilling lives by slowing down the rate of 
technological progress

George Monbiot asks whether I and other advocates of a more land-based 
economy are "really proposing that we do without [industrial goods] 
altogether" (Let's face it: none of our environmental fixes break the 
planet-wrecking project, 3 May).

The short answer is no. There are a few primitivists who do advocate 
this, but I am not one of them. "Most of those who advocate an 
off-grid, land-based economy have made no provision for manufactures," 
says Monbiot. That is a fair point, but it doesn't negate the fact 
that we could drastically reduce industrial production in wealthy 
countries without undermining human wellbeing; indeed people might 
lead more fulfilling lives if they consumed less.

The most obvious way of cutting production is to make things to higher 
standards. If everything were made to last twice as long then we would 
only need to make half as much of it. This requires us to slow down 
the rate of technological progress so that goods (and humans) do not 
become functionally obsolescent so quickly.

Monbiot asks how we would find "the energy required to make bricks, 
glass, metal tools and utensils, textiles … ceramics and soap". Take 
bricks: for several years I lived in a cob house – built in 1911 from 
rammed unbaked earth – which was warm and delightful. I have also made 
unfired bricks with a device called a block ram, and 30 years later 
they are weathering fine.

Half of Britain sits on a limitless supply of building stone, which 
was formerly extracted from harmless village quarries without any 
assistance from fossil fuels, but which now is inaccessible because of 
planning restrictions. The use of cob and local stone would mean 
building slower and hence less – that would be a good thing. In any 
case, if we cut industrial production by half there would be plenty of 
bricks and other material to recycle from redundant factories.

As for textiles, it is plain from the charity shops that grace every 
high street that we suffer from a glut of clothing, while the wool 
from 15 million sheep is almost valueless.

Reducing consumption of goods is not a recipe for abject poverty. Half 
the world still lives without superabundance, but where there is 
misery it is because of lack of food, water, simple medicines and 
adequate shelter – not because of a shortage of cheap T-shirts, 
factory-fired bricks, or 17 varieties of cleaning product. If we 
consumed less in the wealthy countries there would be resources and 
energy available for people who really are suffering.

Monbiot's question was posed within the context of his recent 
conversion to nuclear power. Though I could probably be persuaded to 
accept a small amount of it if we significantly reduced our 
consumption of global resources at the same time, Monbiot's stance in 
these articles sends the wrong message. By advocating nuclear power 
without making clear that the overarching requirement is for people in 
industrialised countries to reduce consumption, Monbiot suggests that 
there are techno-fixes that will allow us to go on extracting the 
world's resources at an ever accelerating rate – and that is both 
unsustainable and undesirable.

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