As the title suggests, this book is mostly about the material basis of the world in which we live. Over the course of the last two centuries, that basis has undergone some fairly radical changes which, taken together, constitute a revolution in the relationship between human society and its natural environment. This is especially true of the so-called 'developed' nations which have built considerable wealth from advanced industrial economies. But industrialisation is also the aspiration of almost every other country in the world. So the evolution witnessed during this period of extraordinary change is really global in extent.
Industrialisation has not come without a price, however. It relies on continued access to limited material resources. It imposes increasingly demanding burdens on the environment. These are—in part—the material concerns to which the title of this book alludes. The prospects of global warming, ozone depletion, pollution of water supplies, soil degradation, deforestation, desertification (and so on) have haunted the progress of civilisation and now threaten to undermine economic development. Many people acknowledge the urgency of these problems and the need for action. But there is a fundamental division over the appropriate response.
Some point to the enormous benefits which the industrial economy has provided: increased life expectancy, reduced manual drudgery, better education, and technological advances in health care, transport and communications. They see economic growth as crucial for the translation of these benefits to the global population and the development of new technological solutions to environmental problems. They argue that wealth is critical to the improvement of environmental performance.
Others insist that the pursuit of economic wealth and the indomitable rise in material expectations are the root cause of environmental degradation. They point to the increased material throughput of the industrial economies and the disproportionate burden placed on limited resources by the wealthy nations. They believe that radical measures are needed to curb environmental emissions and restrain economic expansion.
The idea that environmental protection and economic development are in natural opposition to one another has emerged as a common assumption, almost a defining characteristic of the dispute. One side has used this assumption to argue for better environmental protection and reduced economic activity. The other has used the same assumption to argue for increased economic activity with which to pay for environmental protection.
Two elements within a complex dialogue are beginning to disturb this well-established division of views.
The first is the suggestion that the industrial economy is showing signs of internal stress. Saturation of Northern markets, the growth of global competition, and systemic rises in unemployment levels have troubled the developed nations during the latter part of the twentieth century. It no longer seems as clear as it used to do that an economic system predicated on continued growth is viable.
The second element is the arrival of what might be called 'preventive environmental management'. Proponents of this emerging approach insist that it is possible to protect the environment without jeopardising economic competitiveness. They cite evidence of firms which save money and reduce pollution simultaneously. They talk of redesigning industrial policy to benefit both the environment and the economy. The idea that you can profit from improved environmental performance has gradually eroded the simplicity of the early debate and offered the promise of new kinds of solution to the underlying conflict.
How far can this new approach take us? To what extent is it feasible to implement the necessary changes within the existing economic system? How will they affect the behaviour of companies, governments and individuals? Must we change the system itself to accommodate these new ideas? Does preventive environmental management impose limits which will eventually constrain our development? Most fundamentally, will these new strategies deliver an acceptable level of environmental protection, without jeopardising human welfare?
These are among the questions which I have set out to examine in this book. The task is a frighteningly complex one, partly because it needs to draw on a very wide knowledge base. So the first chapter in the book starts out in the realms of pure science: ecology, physics, thermodynamics. The middle ground over which the book travels is largely technological. In fact, I have attempted to relate the discussion to practical examples from start to finish.
On the other hand, this is not a traditional technical textbook. Economics must play an absolutely vital role in the reorientation of industrial society, because it has played an absolutely vital role in the development of that society. But history, philosophy and psychology also creep into the discussion with a kind of uncanny persistence, as the book develops. We are not simply technological creatures living in an advanced industrial economy. We are complex human beings enmeshed in an intricate historical and social framework. Realistic solutions to systemic problems will not be found without paying attention to the breadth and depth of that underlying framework.
A part of my aim in this book is to guide the reader through at least a part of this complex network of interrelated intellectual disciplines. Each of them is important to a full understanding of the problems facing us. Each of them has a role to play in our search for solutions. But this is not just a guidebook. In fact, I am seeking to convey a very particular thesis about the reinvention of the industrial economy.
The starting point for that thesis is a recognition that the environmental concerns of the late twentieth century are material to the future of the industrial economy, and possibly to the survival of the human species. Much of the book is dedicated to the search for practical ways of reducing the material impacts of human activities. Throughout the book, however, I am also attempting a specific critique of the economic model which drives this material system. Towards the end of the book I will present a vision of human development which provides something of an alternative to what many would regard as the prevailing wisdom. Perhaps ironically, this vision has at its heart the idea that we have placed an undue emphasis on the material dimensions of human society. Material concerns are not, at the end of the day, the limit of human experience.
Inevitably, not everyone will agree with the thesis I am presenting. Inevitably also, there are aspects of the discussion which I have not been able to accord the weight which perhaps they deserve. Nevertheless, it is my belief that the breadth and scope of the reflections in this book are vital to a successful solution of the environmental problems which face the world today.
Tim Jackson University of Surrey, June 1995
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