Unsustainable Civilization?

A Brief Report of a Debate

by Donald Wesby


Has human civilization any rights over nature? Which can be the human expectations for the third millenium? These were among the questions suggested in the announcement of a debate held in Amsterdam on the night of Friday, 21 March 1997. Host was the local Italian Cultural Club, organizer the Leiden Association "forum"; the speakers -- in order of intervention, Dr. Marco C. Bernasconi (The OURS Foundation), Dr. G. Giudice (DG II of the EC), and the Rt. Hon. Lino de Benetti (Italian MP for the Green Party) -- were moderated by G. Mica (past head of ESTEC's Systems Department); the whole proceedings were in Italian. The debate reached no conclusions, but it might have provided some interesting lesson.

For sure, this writer does not need to comment upon the Space Option Concept, presented by the first speaker, who possibly put an excessive emphasis on the power generation aspects: the public may then have concluded that this application is the essence of the proposed solution - notwithstanding the clear, if short, mentions of other issues (e.g. Earth vs Universe) and benefits.

The summaries of the EU policies offered (at personal title) by the second speaker were exemplary for the complacency and the superficiality of the governmental actions: here, a few examples may be in order. The problems that were theme of the debate have been but only recently acknowledged by the Commission, it was recognized. The Commission's perspective is essentially limited to the European arena, and only since the preparation of the Rio conference has an element of global analysis entered their considerations. In Europe, the population is actually stagnant and the major issue confronting the government is the high jobless rate. It was further stated that the approach for a European contribution toward the solution of the "megacrisis" foresees a change in the way natural resources are used, change stimulated by doubt on the thesis that growth must perforce be associated with degradation and by the acknowledgement that growth is not only source of problems. This changed attitude wishes indeed to mitigate the environmental impact of economic activities and aims at "using the environmental protection to generate new wealth"; given an analysis that the joblessness results from a previous industrial growth that remained indifferent to its external consequences, presently a transfer of the manpower resource for environmental activities is being implemented. Later, it was observed that the cases were environment issues were solved while preserving economic growth were all due to direct state intervention, demonstrating the efficacy of such a policy (no specific examples were given). The Space Option arguments were welcome as supporting the thesis that new, "cleaner" technologies will be obtained.

One can thus conclude that the European Commission does not have any strategy that even considers that the future may harbor some difficulties other than the "run-of-the-mill" economic problems, let alone one that tries to cope with such crises. True to its legend, the Commission intends to use the verbiage around the "sustainable growth" for interventionist policies and for the introduction of new levies. The rest of the world is, at best, a good market, at worst... a bad market for European products; anything else is speculation and does not deserve any credibility. It follows that one has no right to be suprised that national governments are similarly blind, deaf, and dumb: after all, they can rely on the "high-power," "independent," and "objective" analyses from Bruxelles...

It was the address by the Hon. de Benetti that we were mostly looking forward to, however. Given his background as theologian, philosopher and editor, before becoming a political figure, he is of course an attractive speaker, making good use of his notes; intense, he projects well his convictions, so strongly indeed that his internal anger at times swells up quite near to the surface. His initial message is surprisingly moderate and tolerant: no single ethics is sufficient, anthropocentrism and biocentrism are not to be set in an adversary position, "deep" ecologism lacks a truly ethical foundation, ecology is but one ermeneutic means for understanding the world, new technologies are acceptable and even necessary... how can anybody disagree with this charming gentleman? But even before one has had the opportunity to begin to penetrate this maze, the discussion of what ought to be the answers to the questions of the debate generates some strident sounds. Sustainability can be achieved, he offers, by a global social pact resting on four pillars:

According to the speaker, answers to such questions can only assume an empirical, collective form given by the society at large.

Upon reexamination, however, all the known problems of ecozism reemerge. "No single ethics" is but a camuflaged constructivist call for multiculturalism; biocentrism is accordingly "repackaged" not rejected, ecology may be an instrument among many others, but it comes out sounding like the engineering for political thinking. The "new social pact" finally does not really address the human distress in the megacrisis: it is not enough to repeat statistics about the lack of water or shelter, or about denutrition, then recite a highly political program to make that program efficient against those woes. Disarmament? Not even economically can such a measure help, given the small GNP fraction invested by the major Western Countries; in the near term, disarmament is more costly than maintaining the forces at the present level -- without mention of the social disruption of such measures (think of displaced workers in the West and of the pauperized troopers in Russia). A reorientation of economic development may be beneficial for the industrialized and emergent countries, and offer some spin-off to the underdeveloped world: is not even a medium-term measure, however, nor is its efficacy in the least improved by accusing the Wold Bank & co. to be "the cause of hunger in the world." Neither do coercitive levies become "market conform" just because the EU (or any other government) labels them so. Our friends have long expressed high skepticism about the opportunity, the need and the usefulness of "new citizens rights" - particularly as long as the "old" ones (the rights to life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness) are so poorly implemented; furthermore, the examples given seem rather "Eurocentric" and of doubtful significance. My genetic heritage, in DNA terms, is already protected -- at least as long as my carcass is protected from state or medical abuse; in a sensible culture, this may include bodies both alive and dead. Am I healthy? Then, I'll probably give little thought to my genetic makeup. Am I sick? Then, I may consider some change in it: the important issue is here that the decision must be mine, not the state's or society's. Should I decide to clone myself, I'll probably be egocentric enough to know that the clone (even if artificially aged, even if with my own memories transplanted) is another person and I'm myself. The thesis of the "diabolical questions" finally closes the loop and brings us again to the constructivist hell.

The economists, on the other hand, are always right since they never descend on a common ground with their disputants; they may thus refuse to even enter the discussion or they incorporate post hoc (or even ante hoc, as Julian Simon has unashamedly admitted) the fruit of others' work.

The public tended to refuse all proposed solutions. In one of the more articulated interventions from the floor, the Space Option was found wanting because it allows us to continue as before, the present form of ecozism was labelled as mere utopy, the EU course as insufficient. The overloaded tray of the debate had contributed to hide the fact that the Space Option would allow continuity for everybody (not just "us rich people") until another (less utopic?) dream is formulated. Complacent critical citizens apparently find it easier to reject "Western culture" than to accept the reality of the Universe beyond this planet. Another gentleman observed that the world's course is already set and the Space Option is only an heroic attempt at averting an unavoidable disaster. Let it be.

This "Inch'Allah" attitude is probably strongly associated with the Mediterranean culture of the attendance, with millenia of geophysical and political upheavals selecting for such a character. How well it will fare in the next millenium remains, of course, to be seen.


TOF, 1997

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