JR'S Free Thought Pages
A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright
2004 Massey Lectures – A review
First, a few quotes from the book:
“We’re running 21st Century software on hardware last upgraded 50,000 years ago or more. (p. 35)
“Patriotism may indeed be, as Dr. Johnson said, "the last refuge of a scoundrel," but it's also the tyrant's first resort. People afraid of outsiders are easily manipulated. The warrior caste, supposedly society's protectors, often become protection racketeers. In times of war or crisis, power is easily stolen from the many by the few on a promise of security. The more elusive or imaginary the foe, the better for manufacturing consent. The Inquisition did a roaring trade against the Devil.46 And the twentieth century's struggle between capitalism and communism had all the hallmarks of the old religious wars. Was defending either system really worth the risk of blowing up the world?” (p. 49)
“Necessity,” wrote Milton, is always the tyrant’s plea.’” (p. 90)
“With kingship came new uses for writing: dynastic history and propaganda, the exaltation of a single individual. As Bertolt Brecht dryly reflected in his poem about a worker looking at the Pyramids:
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone? ...
Young Alexander conquered India.
By 2500 B.C., the days of collective landholding by city and corporation were gone; the fields now belonged to lords and great families. The Sumerian populace became serfs and sharecroppers,42 and beneath them was a permanent underclass of slaves — a feature of Western civilization that would last until the nineteenth century after Christ.
States arrogate to themselves the power of coercive violence: the right to crack the whip, execute prisoners, send young men to the battlefield. From this stems that venomous bloom which J. M. Coetzee has called, in his extraordinary novel Waiting for the Barbarians, "the black flower of civilization"43 — torture, wrongful imprisonment, violence for display — the forging of might into right.” (p, 71)
“The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies lives the elite, a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.” (p. 109)
“Charles Dickens gave the social costs of industry a scalding and prescient critique in Hard Times, asking whether the “Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist,” and foreseeing the new religion of the bottom line: “Every inch of the existence of mankind from birth to death,” he wrote in 1854, “was to be a bargain across the a counter.” (p. 119)
This book is a must read for anyone remotely concerned about the future of the planet. It’s not a warm fuzzy feel-good book for deluded people – and it’s not just lefty rhetoric. Like Jared Diamond, Wright sees the big picture and his prognostications are not encouraging, arguing that over the past 10,000 years we humans in our so-called “civilized societies” have learned nothing from history and continue to make the same self-destructive blunders again and again. "Our present behavior is typical of failed societies at the zenith of their greed and arrogance", Wright tells us and if we do not change – and change quickly – we are doomed. With the real estate crash and financial system and stock market meltdowns that have plunged the world into a global depression, it would be interesting to hear Wright’s comments today. Take off your rose tinted spectacles and read the book. It’s a short book of only 132 pages with 54 pages of endnotes so many of you ought to be able to read it in one sitting.
Below is text from p. 120 to the end of the book, including some very interesting follow up endnotes:
While we may learn from the past, we don't seem to learn much. That last generation before the First World War — the time of the young Einstein, Oscar Wilde, and Joseph Conrad's novel of terrorism, The Secret Agent — was in many ways a time like ours: an old century grown tired; a new century in which moralities and certainties were withering, bombers were lurking in the shadows, and industrialists declaiming from their mansions that unfettered free enterprise would bring a New Jerusalem to all.
More thoughtful observers sensed that change was running out of control, and began to fear that with the powers of industry, mankind had found the means to suicide. They saw jingoistic nation-states engaged in an arms race. They saw social exploitation and vast urban slums, contaminated air and water, and "civilization" being conferred on "savages" through the barrels of machine guns.41
What if those guns were turned not on Zulus or Sioux but on other Europeans? What if the degradation of the slums caused degeneration of the human race? What, exactly, was the point of all this economic output if, for so many people, it meant deracination, misery, and filth? By the end of his voyage, Wells's Time Traveler regards civilization as "only a foolish heaping that must inevitably ... destroy its makers in the end."
No doubt many will say that we stand here to prove those gloomy Victorians wrong. But do we? They may have been wrong on the details they imagined for our times, but they were right to foresee trouble. Just ahead lay the Great War and 12 million dead,42the Russian Revolution, the Great Slump — leading to Hitler, the death camps, the Second World War (with 50 million dead), the atom bomb. And these in turn to the Korean War, the Cold War, the near-fatal Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda. Even the most pessimistic Victorian might have been surprised to learn that the twentieth century would slaughter more than 100 million in its wars — twice the entire population of the Roman Empire.43 The price of history does indeed go up.
The Victorian scientific romances had two modern descendants: mainstream science fiction and profound social satire set in nightmare futures. The latter includes several of the last century's most important books: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, and a number of post-nuclear wastelands, of which Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker has to be the masterpiece.
With the nuclear threat fading (maybe), modern apocalyptic novels have revisited concerns first raised before Hiroshima — especially the risks of new technology, and how our species might survive without abandoning its humanity for antlike order. (Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Brave New World was the strong case Huxley made for the devil of order, a case harder to answer now than in 1932.) The clanking monsters of Erewhon have taken subtler forms that threaten the whole biosphere: climate disruption, toxic waste, new pathogens, nano-technology, cybernetics, genetic engineering.
One of the dangers of writing a dystopian satire is how depressing it is when you get things right. Ten years ago I began work on my novel A Scientific Romance, a title I chose because I wanted to acknowledge the Victorians, and because my theme was our amour fou with science. For satirical purposes, I made what I thought were wild extrapolations from things in the news. I had a character die of mad cow disease, thinking that in the final draft I would probably have to kill her off with something less far-fetched. By the time the book was published in 1997, dozens of people really had died of mad cow.44 Other elements of the satire — climate change that turns wintry London into a tropical swamp, a race of genetically modified survivors, and a gm grass that doesn't need mowing because it has the self-limiting properties of pubic hair — no longer seem quite the funhouse mirrors they were when I began. Just a few months ago, something more specific came to haunt me. In the jungle like ruins of London, my protagonist finds a street blocked off and buildings fortified with concrete slabs. Here, he deduces, an embattled British government must have spent its final days in the 2030s.45 Earlier this year, I read in the paper that Tony Blair's government is planning to surround the Houses of Parliament with a fifteen-foot46 concrete wall and razor wire.47
I don't want to be a prophet, and I certainly don't claim to be. It doesn't take Nostradamus to foresee that walls will go up in times of crisis - though the thickest walls are in the mind. A telling feature of the real mad cow disaster was how long the British government did nothing except hope for the best. In her recent dystopia, Oryx and Crake, which concentrates on biotechnology, Margaret Atwood also portrays the collapse of civilization in the near future. One of her characters asks, "As a species we're doomed by hope, then?"48 By hope? Well, yes. Hope drives us to invent new fixes for old messes, which in turn create ever more dangerous messes. Hope elects the politician with the biggest empty promise; and as any stockbroker or lottery seller knows, most of us will take a slim hope over prudent and predictable frugality. Hope, like greed, fuels the engine of capitalism.
John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. This helps explain why American culture is so hostile to the idea of limits, why voters during the last energy shortage rejected the sweater-wearing Jimmy Carter and elected Ronald Reagan, who scoffed at conservation and told them it was "still morning in America."49 Nowhere does the myth of progress have more fervent believers.
Marx was surely right when he called capitalism, almost admiringly, "a machine for demolishing limits." Both communism and capitalism are materialist Utopias offering rival versions of an earthly paradise. In practice, communism was no easier on the natural environment. But at least it proposed a sharing of the goods. Capitalism lures us onward like the mechanical hare before the greyhounds, insisting that the economy is infinite and sharing therefore irrelevant. Just enough greyhounds catch a real hare now and then to keep the others running till they drop. In the past it was only the poor who lost this game; now it is the planet.50
Those who travelled in their youth, and have gone back to old haunts after twenty or thirty years, can't fail to observe the massive onslaught of progress, whether it be the loss of farms to suburbs, jungles to cattle ranches, rivers to dams, mangroves to shrimp farms, mountains to cement quarries, or coral reefs to condominiums.
We still have differing cultures and political systems, but at the economic level there is now only one big civilization, feeding on the whole planet's natural capital. We're logging everywhere, fishing everywhere, irrigating everywhere, building everywhere, and no corner of the biosphere escapes our haemorrhage of waste.51 The twentyfold growth in world trade since the 1970s has meant that hardly anywhere is self-sufficient. Every Eldorado has been looted, every Shangri-La equipped with a Holiday Inn. Joseph Tainter notes this interdependence, warning that "collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. ... World civilization will disintegrate as a whole."52
Experts in a range of fields have begun to see the same closing door of opportunity, begun to warn that these years may be the last when civilization still has the wealth and political cohesion to steer itself towards caution, conservation and social justice. Twelve years ago, just before the Rio environmental summit that led to the Kyoto Accord on climate change, more than half the world's Nobel laureates warned that we might have only a decade or so left to make our system sustainable. Now, in a report unsuccessfully hushed up by the Bush administration, the Pentagon predicts worldwide famine, anarchy, and warfare "within a generation" should climate change fulfill the more severe projections.53 And in his 2003 book, Our Final Century, Martin Rees of Cambridge University, Astronomer Royal and former president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, concludes: "The odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilization . . . will survive to the end of the present century . . . unless all nations adopt low-risk and sustainable policies based on present technology.'54
Skeptics point to earlier predictions of disaster that weren't borne out. But that is a fool's paradise. Some of our escapes - from nuclear war, for one - have been more by luck than judgment, and are not final.55 Other problems have been side-stepped but not solved. The food crisis, for example, has merely been postponed by switching to hybrid seed and chemical farming, at great cost to soil health and plant diversity.56
Following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the world's media and politicians focused understandably on terrorism. Two things need to be said here.
First, terrorism is a small threat compared with hunger, disease, or climate change.57 Three thousand died in the United States that day; 25,000 die every day in the world from contaminated water alone. Each year, 20 million children are mentally impaired by malnourishment.58 Each year an area of farmland greater than Scotland is lost to erosion and urban sprawl, much of it in Asia.
Second, terrorism cannot be stopped by addressing symptoms and not the cause. Violence is bred by injustice, poverty, inequality, and other violence. This lesson was learnt very painfully in the first half of the twentieth century, at a cost of some 80 million lives.59 Of course, a full belly and a fair hearing won't stop a fanatic; but they can greatly reduce the number who become fanatics.
After the Second World War, a consensus emerged to deal with the roots of violence by creating international institutions and democratically managed forms of capitalism based on Keynesian economics and America's New Deal. This policy, though far from perfect, succeeded in Europe, Japan, and some parts of the Third World.60 (Remember when we spoke not of a "war on terror" but of a "war on want"?)
To undermine that post-war consensus and return to archaic political patterns is to walk back into the bloody past. Yet that is what the New Right has achieved since the late 1970s, rewrapping old ideas as new and using them to transfer the levers of power from elected governments to unelected corporations - a project sold as "tax-cutting" and "deregulation" by the right's courtiers in the media, of which Canada certainly has its share. The conceit of laissez-faire economics - that if you let the horses guzzle enough oats, something will go through for the sparrows61 - has been tried many times and has failed many times, leaving ruin and social wreckage.62
The revolt against redistribution is killing civilization from ghetto to rainforest.63 Taxes in most countries have not, in fact, been lowered; they were merely shifted down the income pyramid, and diverted from aid and social programs towards military and corporate ones. The great American judge Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "I don't mind paying taxes; they buy me civilization." Public confidence in a basic social safety net is essential for lowering birth rates in poor nations, and for a decent society in all nations. The removal of that confidence has set off a free-for-all that is stripping the earth.
During the twentieth century, as I noted earlier in this book, the world's population multiplied by four and the economy by more than forty. If the promise of modernity was even treading water - in other words, if the gap between rich and poor had stayed proportionally the same as it was when Queen Victoria died - all human beings would be ten times better off. Yet the number in abject poverty today is as great as all mankind in 1901.64
By the end of the twentieth century, the world's three richest individuals (all of whom were Americans) had a combined wealth greater than that of the poorest forty-eight countries.65 In 1998, the United Nations calculated that US$40 billion, spent carefully, could provide clean water, sanitation, and other basic needs for the poorest on earth.66 The figure may be optimistic, and it may have grown in the past six years. But it's still considerably less than the funds already set aside for the obscenely wasteful fantasy of a missile shield that won't work isn't needed, yet could provoke a new arms race and the militarization of space.
Consider Tainter's three aspects of collapse: the Runaway Train, the Dinosaur, the House of Cards. The rise in population and pollution, the acceleration of technology, the concentration of wealth and power - all are runaway trains, and most are linked together. Population growth is slowing, but by 2050 there will still be 3 billion more on earth. We may be able to feed that many in the short run, but we'll have to raise less meat (which takes ten pounds of food to make one pound of food), and we’ll have to spread that food around. What we can't do is keep consuming as we are. Or polluting as we are. We could help countries such as India and China industrialize without repeating our mistakes. But instead we have excluded environmental standards from trade agreements. Like sex tourists with unlawful lusts, we do our dirtiest work among the poor.
If civilization is to survive, it must live on the interest, not the capital, of nature. Ecological markers suggest that in the early 1960s, humans were using about 70 per cent of nature's yearly output; by the early 1980s, we'd reached 100 per cent; and in 1999, we were at 125 per cent.67 Such numbers may be imprecise, but their trend is clear - they mark the road to bankruptcy.
None of this should surprise us after reading the flight recorders in the wreckage of crashed civilizations; our present behavior is typical of failed societies at the zenith of their greed and arrogance. This is the dinosaur factor: hostility to change from vested interests, and inertia at all social levels.68 George Soros, the reformed currency speculator, calls the economic dinosaurs "market fundamentalists." I'm uneasy with this term because so few of them are true believers in free markets - preferring monopolies, cartels, and government contracts.69 But his point is well taken. The idea that the world must be run by the stock market is as mad as any other fundamentalist delusion, Islamic, Christian, or Marxist.
In the case of Easter Island, the statue cult became a self-destructive mania, an ideological pathology. In the United States, market extremism (which one might expect to be purely materialist, and therefore open to rational self-interest) has cross-bred with evangelical messianism to fight intelligent policy on metaphysical grounds. Mainstream Christianity is an altruistic faith, yet this offshoot is actively hostile to the public good: a kind of social Darwinism by people who hate Darwin. President Reagan's secretary of the interior told Congress not to bother with the environment because, in his words, "I don't know how many future generations we can count on until the Lord returns."70 George W. Bush surrounded himself with similar minds and pulled out of the Kyoto Accord on climate change.71
Adolf Hitler once gleefully exclaimed, "What luck for the rulers that the people do not think!" What can we do when the rulers will not think?
Civilizations often fall quite suddenly — the House of Cards effect — because as they reach full demand on their ecologies, they become highly vulnerable to natural fluctuations. The most immediate danger posed by climate change is weather instability causing a series of crop failures in the world's breadbaskets. Droughts, floods, fires, and hurricanes are rising in frequency and severity. The pollution surges caused by these - and by wars - add to the gyre of destruction. Medical experts worry that nature may swat us with disease: billions of overcrowded primates, many sick, malnourished, and connected by air travel, are a free lunch waiting for a nimble microbe. "Mother Nature always comes to the rescue of a society stricken with . . . overpopulation," Alfred Crosby sardonically observed, “and her ministrations are never gentle.” 72
The case for reform that I have tried to make is not based on altruism nor on saving nature for its own sake. I happen to believe that these are moral imperatives, but such arguments cut against the grain of human desire. The most compelling reason for reforming our system is that the system is in no one's interest. It is a suicide machine. All of us have some dinosaur inertia within us, but I honestly don't know what the activist "dinosaurs" - the hard men and women of Big Oil and the far right - think they are doing. They have children and grandchildren who will need safe food and clean air and water, and who may wish to see living oceans and forests. Wealth can buy no refuge from pollution; pesticides sprayed in China condense in Antarctic glaciers and Rocky Mountain tarns. And wealth is no shield from chaos, as the surprise on each haughty face that rolled from the guillotine made clear.
There's a saying in Argentina that each night God cleans up the mess the Argentines make by day. This seems to be what our leaders are counting on. But it won't work. Things are moving so fast that inaction itself is one of the biggest mistakes. The 10,000-year experiment of the settled life will stand or fall by what we do, and don't do, now. The reform that is needed is not anti-capitalist, anti-American, or even deep environmentalist; it is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking. From recklessness and excess to moderation and the precautionary principle.
The great advantage we have, our best chance for avoiding the fate of past societies, is that we know about those past societies. We can see how and why they went wrong. Homo sapiens has the information to know itself for what it is: an Ice Age hunter only half-evolved towards intelligence; clever but seldom wise.
We are now at the stage when the Easter Islanders could still have halted the senseless cutting and carving, could have gathered the last trees' seeds to plant out of reach of the rats. We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones. If we don't do these things now, while we prosper, we will never be able to do them when times get hard. Our fate will twist out of our hands. And this new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past.
Now is our last chance to get the future right.
41.Yearly spending on weapons by Europe’s Great Powers was 158 million pounds in 1980, 288 million in 1910 and 397 million in 1914 (see Eric Hosbawn, The Age of Empire, 1875-1914 [New York: Random House, 1987], p. 350). Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, an 1882 play about polluted water and corrupt civic practices, is one of the first environmentalist works. See Ibsen  1979.
42.Some estimates for the Great War are in the 15 to 20 million range. The great influenza pandemic, which may have incubated in the trenches and field hospitals, killed a further 20 to 40 million worldwide.
43.Estimates for the dead of the two world wars, including victims of famine, massacre, and persecution, run as high as 187 million. See Martin Rees, Our Final Century: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century? (London: Heinemann, 2003), p. 25. The book is published in North America as Our Final Hour.
44.Mad cow is technically bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. In humans it is usually called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD. It is now clear that humans can catch the bovine form from eating tainted meat, especially if it contains any brain or spinal-cord tissue, which was often used as a binder in hamburgers and meat pies. This complex of diseases, which includes scrapie in sheep and kuru in New Guineans who practise ritual cannibalism, is neither viral nor bacterial and cannot be destroyed by normal sterilization procedures. Still not fully understood, it is thought to be caused by a self-replicating protein named a prion. The incubation period in humans is thought to be long, from several years to as many as thirty.
45.Wright, A Scientific Romance, chap. 4.
47.From an Agence France Press report carried in the Globe and Mail on March 24, 2004.
48.Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2003), chap. 6.
49.Americans seem to elect such people at least once a generation (though they can't exactly be blamed for electing George W. Bush in 2000). Like Bush with the Kyoto Accord, Reagan refused to sign the international Law of the Sea Treaty, thus condemning the world to decades more of unsafe tankers, toxic dumping, over-fishing, and the exploitation of seamen on ships registered under flags of convenience, such as Liberia.
50.Much of the worst environmental destruction by both systems since 1945 was caused by the arms race of the Cold War. Without that, both might have been easier on their surroundings (and kinder to the people under their control). Engels's view that "the productivity of the land can be infinitely increased by the application of capital, labor and science" (quoted in Ponting, Green History, p. 158) might easily have been uttered by an arch capitalist. Such nineteenth-century optimism, born in a time when the natural world was still vast and human impact less than a fiftieth of what it is now, lies at the root of our present impasse.
51.Pesticide contamination in Rocky Mountain lakes has been found to be greater than on the prairies where the chemicals are sprayed. The same is true of the poles. Contaminants pervade the atmosphere and condense in cold, "pristine" places.
52.Tainter, Complex Societies, p. 214. Tainter is an archaeologist. One might object that his eyes are fixed too firmly on the rear-view mirror. This is what the cheerleaders of progress will say, for a belief in modern exceptionalism - that the old rules don't apply to us - is the keystone of their disbelief in limits. But a growing number of "hard" scientists has begun to share the archaeologists', ecologists', and satirists' concerns.
53.According to the press, this report was commissioned by the long-time Pentagon adviser Andrew Marshall (Globe and Mail, February 24, 2004, referring to stories in the Observer and in Fortune magazine). Since Rio, the 1990s have overtaken the 1980s as the warmest decade on record, and the European summer of 2003 was the hottest ever recorded.
54.Rees, Our Final Century, pp. 8, 24. He adds: "Our choices and actions could ensure the perpetual future of life. . . . Or in contrast, through malign intent, or through misadventure, twenty-first-century technology could jeopardize life's potential." Rees is especially worried by potential rogue technologies, such as bioengineering, nanotechnology, cybernetics, and certain "doomsday" experiments on the frontiers of physics: As an astronomer, he advocates establishing a small human colony in space as soon as possible, to give intelligent life a second chance if things go wrong. But if we ruin the earth, are we intelligent? And why should we deserve another chance?
55.Declassification of American and Soviet sources from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and statements by those involved, show that the world came much closer to nuclear war than had been thought. Robert McNamara, then U.S. defense secretary, has written "we came within a hairbreadth without realizing it." See Ibid., pp. 25-28.
56.Following controversial legal rulings in the United States, biotech and agribusiness companies have taken out patents on crops (and even animals) they claim to have "invented." In fact, not even one new food staple has been developed from a wild plant since prehistoric times. All of our crop science — whether selective breeding or genetic manipulation — is mere piggybacking on the work of ancient civilizations. Appropriate research should be rewarded, but if we are going to allow private property rights over ancient food staples, then royalties should be, paid to the heirs of the true inventors, most of whom are struggling peasants who need the cash a lot more than Monsanto. Small wonder the have-not countries are suspicious of the rich countries' motives in aggressively promoting hybrid and engineered staples that threaten to contaminate and destroy the crop diversity that still exists in agriculture's old heartlands.
57.American Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that AIDS is a far greater threat than terrorism.
58.Because of the mother's iodine deficiency during pregnancy. (These figures come from the Micronutrient Initiative, Ottawa, and were reported in "'Hidden Hunger' Weakens Physical, Economic Health," Andre Picard, Globe and Mail, March 25, 2004.) The statistics on water deaths come from Ponting, Green History, p. 351.
59.Reckoning those killed in the two world wars and the Russian Revolution.
60.Many of these policies were developed by the Bretton Woods Agreements of 1944, under the influence of John Maynard Keynes. Earlier forms of social safety net were already in place, notably Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. The postwar era, from the 1950s to the 1970s, has been dubbed the "Golden Age" by the historian Eric Hobsbawm in his magisterial survey of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World 1914-1991 (London: Michael Joseph, 1994). Margaret MacMillan points out that the speedy postwar implementation of the Marshall Plan was stimulated by the threat of "a single, clear enemy ... the Soviet Union" (MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World [New York: Random House, 2001], p. 61).
61.John Kenneth Galbraith, speaking at the Harvard Club, Toronto, 1994.
62.Especially since the 1929 Wall Street crash. One of the best descriptions of what conditions were like in the subsequent Great Slump is to be found in James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (New York: Ballantine, 1966). The conditions of the Dirty Thirties (the American dust bowl) are often blamed on drought, but their severity and the huge losses to erosion were caused mainly by bad farming practices in unsuitable environments. The dry plains are best left to the buffalo, who could probably provide us with as much food as we get from farming if wild or semi-wild herds were efficiently managed. See, for example, Manning, "Oil We Eat."
63.Between 1950 and the late 1970s, beggars and homeless people were nearly unknown in the First World. The practical consequence of deregulation has been a return to social Darwinism — a late-Victorian perversion of evolutionary thought that claims the poor are poor because they're inferior, and the best thing for the progress of the human race is to let them die on the street.
64.In 1900, the world still had untouched forests and fisheries, untapped oil reserves, unused hydroelectric potential, and vast expanses of farmland in prime condition. The amount of farmland per person has declined by 20 per cent in the past ten years. Production is maintained by industrial techniques that treat earth as little more than a hydroponic medium for chemicals. Groundwater is becoming contaminated and exhausted. In his book, published in 1991, Clive Ponting singled out Rwanda as an example of the gulf between the First and Third worlds, noting that the average Rwandan's income was one-hundredth of the average American's. Three years later, nearly a million Rwandans died in the worst genocide since the Second World War. Reckoning the dead as a proportion of population, this was the equivalent of slaughtering 35 million in the United States. The twenty-first century may have begun in Rwanda, not New York.
65.United Nations Human Development Report, released September 9, 1998. For a summary of highlights, see the Daily Telegraph, September 10, 1998. The three were Bill Gates (Microsoft), Helen Walton (Wal-Mart), and Warren Buffett (investor), with US$51 billion, $48 billion, and $33 billion, respectively. The report estimates that a child born in the United States, Britain, or France will, in its lifetime, consume and pollute more than fifty children do in the poor nations. It also estimates that in 1998, only $40 billion was needed to bring basic health, education, clean water, and sanitation to the world's poorest citizens. Gates alone could afford that and still have $11 billion left; he also owns more than the poorest 100 million Americans combined. Other sources indicate that within the United States, the ratio between the salary of a CEO and that of a shop-floor worker has soared from 39:1 in the late 1970s to about 1,000:1 today. See John Ralston Saul, "The Collapse of Globalism," Harper's, March 2004, p. 38, and The Unconscious Civilization (Toronto: Anansi, 1995), p. 14.
66.United Nations Human Development Report.
67.Sometimes "good" environmental policy can backfire. Brazilian scientists have reported that 9,300 square miles (24,000 square kilometers) of Amazon rainforest were lost in 2003 alone. Much of this was caused by the clearing of new land on which to raise beef and soybeans for the booming (mainly European) demand in GM-free food (BBC World News, April 8, 2004).
68.A state of affairs maintained, to a large degree, by the consumerist pornography of advertising.
69.George W. Bush's astronomical deficits seem designed to cripple the American state in all fields except the military. The result, if this goes on, will be to make America more like Latin America, where the army is often the only effective public institution.
70.James Watt, speaking in 1981. As noted above, social Darwinism claims that the poor are inferior, and that the best thing for the progress of the human race is to let them die.
71.Bush's attorney general, John Ashcroft, has said, "In America, there is no king but Jesus." See Lewis Lapham, "Reading the Mail," Harper's, November 2003, p. 9.