2. NGOs as a driving force
In companies, as in other human organizations, powerful
tendencies toward inertia and maintenance of the status quo mean that change is
usually driven either by competitive pressures or profit-seeking. Moreover, in
industrial societies business usually has effective control over most actions of
government. The result is that the movement toward sustainability has to be
driven mainly by citizens, who have learned to mobilize themselves in so-called
"NGOs" - non-governmental organizations. Business needs to see this "other"
perspective, and therefore our dialogue begins with this point of view.
NGOs have concerns for health and safety of individuals and
communities, environmental protection, political responsiveness, and many other
areas, and they have proliferated immensely in most countries of the world. They
pressure governments to take new actions and reform traditional practices; they
attempt to use the power of media and public opinion to influence companies
directly; and they educate the public about issues, so that citizens can exert
pressure directly upon companies - either through changed consumer behavior or
publicly visible demonstrations and other actions.
Josutzenberger is an agronomist and engineer from the
Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul who spent many years working for the large
chemical company BASF but then quit his job and began a vigorous and successful
campaign against the activities of the agrochemical industry. Lutzenberger
served as Brazil's Minister of the Environment from 1990 to 1992 and is today
one of the best known environmentalists in the Southern Hemisphere.
In spite of his high profile as an environmental activist,
Lutzenberger is also a successful businessman who knows how to cooperate with
large companies and change them from within. For example, he fought Riocell, a
large cellulose and paper factory in southern Brazil, for many years because of
the way it polluted the environment, but during those years he always remained
on speaking terms with the factory's director. Eventually, the director ended up
hiring Lutzenberger as a consultant - with dramatic results. Before
Lutzenberger's involvement with the company, Riocell spent half a million
dollars a year burying its (mostly organic) waste in huge pits, which polluted
and devastated the environment. Now, the factory hands over its total waste to
Lutzenberger's waste management company, where it is processed, turned into
fertilizer and other products for organic farming, and sold to a network of
organic farmers. As a result, the environmental degradation has stopped, the
factory saves half a million dollars a year, and 99.6% of the waste is sold. The
waste processing involves low technology and thus is labor intensive, supporting
50 full-time jobs.
In addition to his waste management company, Lutzenberger also
runs a landscaping company. He created a park right on the Riocell factory site.
Instead of waste dumps, there are now fish ponds and reeds with an abundance of
birds. The whole park, situated on a big delta, is a thriving ecosystem, wrapped
right around the factory. Thus at Riocell, ecological sustainability has become
an industrial achievement.
In this chapter, Lutzenberger shares his reflections on years
of environmental activism, reviewing the process by which NGOs he has been
associated with have attempted to reduce Brazil's use of agricultural toxics.
The story illustrates both the energy and tenacity that NGOs bring to their task
and the resourcefulness with which industries fight back.
We believe that people like Jose Lutzenberger and the NGOs they
represent are like antennae in our society, reflecting the mood and spirit of
the time before ordinary people can see it. In previous centuries, artists have
often served as such sensitive antennae. Perhaps the NGOs of the environmental
movement in our time should be considered equivalent to the Michelangelos,
Beethovens, and Van Goghs of previous eras.
I became an environmentalist out of despair. As a student in
agronomy in the late 1940s I often spent my vacations surveying paddy-rice
fields, measuring the crop size for the bank that financed the planters. Our
rice fields are artificial swamps of a sort and most of them were and often
still are contiguous to natural wetlands, the majority of which were mostly
intact. This gave me a chance to enjoy intensive observation of South American
waterfowl, from plover, ibis, and ducks to egret, crane, cormorant, and
spoonbill. There were various species of storks as well as the stately taja, a
giant plover the size of a turkey, and all the smaller birds that lived in and
around the water or on the fields and in the woods. From early childhood I had
always been a naturalist, so these were some of the happiest times of my life.
Our climate in Rio Grande do Sul is subtropical, but most of the birds are the
same that live in the Pantanal, which is tropical. Some of them even migrate
between our region all the way south to Patagonia and through the Pantanal to
Amazonia. Among the swallows that hunt insects by flying so low they almost
scrape the water, some are known to go as far as North America. Then there was
the capibara, the largest rodent in the world, the nutria, and sometimes we
could even observe one of the most graceful and playful creatures I know, the
otter. Everything was intact; most of the landscape was pristine. Farming was
still what we today would call organic farming. But nobody used this term and
the word ecology was yet unknown.
Some twenty years later, after having lived and worked in other
countries, I came back to my home state in Southern Brazil. I then did a lot of
travelling and saw most of the rice growing regions again. I was shocked,
horrified! The birds had been decimated almost to extinction. Intensive and
ruthless use of agri-poisons, not only in the rice plantations but on all crops,
was causing more damage than uncontrolled hunting and partial obliteration of
habitats had ever done before. In some cases it was so bad that big rice
planters would invite hunters to hunt out everything they could before the
application of the first poison, with the argument that it would all die anyway.
At the time a terrible herbicide was in use. It was applied into the water,
dripped from drums mounted over the entry canal of the paddy. It killed all life
in the water and hence everything that fed on it.
I'm the kind of person who, when confronted with something bad
that could be changed for the better, will get a very bad conscience if I do not
act. Fortunately this attitude is not too rare yet or the world would not be
teeming with NGOs. I've worked as a government official, and government can do
useful things - if it is prodded enough. But the impetus comes from the NGOs of
the world, as our Brazilian story makes clear.
I talked to my colleagues, the agronomists. Most of them did not
care, but some did. We then campaigned for a law that would make it a
requirement for farmers, when buying their poisons, to present a prescription
signed by an agronomist. The agronomist would be responsible and liable in case
Most of the poisons were used preventively. In the case of
insecticides the farmers would spray as soon as they saw any insect whatever,
even lady beetles. People are so alienated from nature today they often cannot
distinguish a spider from an insect. The chemical industry even proposed
"spraying calendars." The spraying was against pests that could appear at the
respective time, not only against what really constituted a threat. The poisons
were cheap, and credit was subsidized.
A couple of years later, campaigning within the associations of
Brazilian agronomists who worked at the county, state, and federal levels, we
obtained a majority for prescription. We then asked for one more step. To avoid
conflict of interest, only agronomists not working for the chemical industry
should be eligible for writing prescriptions, for the same reason a pharmacist
should not prescribe what he sells. This provoked a lot more opposition, as too
many agronomists made their living selling or promoting agri-chemicals. A few
more years and we won. The Ministry of Agriculture always fiercely opposed any
idea of prescription, but we got the semi-official bank that had the monopoly
for agricultural credits to accept it as a policy for granting them.
This rapidly led to a considerable reduction in the sales and use
of poisons. Previously it had also been the policy of the bank to require that a
sizable portion of the credit money go into pesticides, whether needed or not.
It is easy to imagine who suggested this to them. Agronomists also became more
careful; many even looked into books on toxicology. Some developed methods of
appraising whether pest attack was economically significant or not, suggesting
chemical warfare only when serious reductions in yield were to be expected. More
often than not the cost of the damage caused by some bug or fungus is much lower
than the cost of the poison. Many farmers learned to recognize their pests
better and realized they could save money by spending less on unnecessary
Initially it was only the regional office of the bank that imposed
prescriptions but, then, by lucky chance, the president in the national
head-office applied the new policy to the whole country. That was decidedly too
much for the Ministry. It suddenly issued a decree that also instituted
prescription, but with somewhat different provisions. Where we excluded
agronomists working for the chemical industry, they allowed all of them, whether
self-employed, employed by farmers or working for the government, and including
those who were in industry to sign the prescriptions. There was another
important addition. We made no distinction among poisons concerning
toxicological classification. Prescription applied to everything, but the
Ministry now limited it to only those pesticides in toxicological classes I and
II, the most toxic and persistent. Classifications III and IV, which then
included relatively harmless substances such as sulfur, were free.
Well, it was still progress compared to the initial situation,
where any small boy could go to the farmers' supply shop and freely buy
extremely toxic and/or persistent poisons, without even being asked what he was
going to do with them. Brazil also had a world-class toxicological
classification for agricultural biocides. So we were not too unhappy.
Then something interesting happened. The Ministry of Health issued
a new classification. Now all the really bad stuff that was on the market in
Brazil and that had been classified I and II was shifted to III and IV ... But
the agricultural bank decided not to follow suit; they continued as before.
Then, again within a very short time, another curious thing happened. The
national agency controlling the banks took away their monopoly and allowed all
banks to lend to farmers. Some of them reinstituted the obligation that a
certain percentage of the money must go to pesticides.
So we decided to work on a different level. In our state
legislature we got a majority of deputies to approve a new law that made
prescription mandatory and that required state registration for all
agri-poisons, regardless of whether they had federal registration or not. The
definition "agri-poison" (agro-to) became law, as against the word used by
industry, "defensivo agrla,'' which translates freely as "defensive
treatment." The new law also banned chlorinated hydrocarbons and gave NGOs power
of appeal in registration. In only a few days our governor, who had never shown
an interest in these questions, vetoed the law. Could all this be coincidence?
Our state constitution allows the governor's veto to be overthrown
by a seventy-five per cent majority. It was unanimously overthrown. Soon, other
state parliaments voted similar laws, some better than ours, which had some
flaws because it had been prepared in a hurry. Among other details we had
forgotten to include the aspect of advertising that did not draw attention to
the danger involved with these poisons. Sixteen states now had good legislation.
These included all those where agri-poison use was intensive.
We were all very surprised at the help we got from our state
deputies. I think the success was due to the fact that the issue was not raised
by a green party as it would have been in Europe but by concerned citizens and
NGOs, oriented by experts in the field. The leaders of the movement were all
agronomists and their associations on the county, state and federal levels
embraced the fight. This was in the early eighties. Today these associations are
mostly back in the hands of people who follow the official line.
Brazil does not have a green party worth that name. I think this
is very good. I always thought ecology must permeate all parties; it is too
important to be appropriated by one group. When ecological issues are presented
as the defense of life for our children and of future generations, who can
openly be against it? As a party issue the story would be different.
We were very happy but it did not last long. The chemical industry
went to the Supreme Court and argued that our state laws were unconstitutional.
They insisted only the federal level could decide and said the Ministry of
Agriculture could decide by decree.
It took the Court about a year to reach a verdict. The nine
Supreme judges individually took the dossier home for study and then decided
separately. After some time, four had already decided in our favor. We were sure
to win. We knew the opinions of two of the other five. But then, another
coincidence: three judges retired and were replaced. The industry won. I hope
someday someone will tell this whole fascinating story in all its detail.
But industry did not reckon with another coincidence, this one
against them and of their own making. It so happened that soon after the
decision, the new Minister of Agriculture was a friend of ours, a traditional
politician from our state, who had been one of our governors. Since the law now
said the minister could decide by decree, he did. But one more coincidence
occurred. It did not take a month before the minister was replaced. His
successor had nothing more urgent to do than to revoke the decree.
This short outline of a very complicated story that is not over
yet and that now goes into its third decade illustrates how difficult and
frustrating it can be for environmentalists to overcome the unending ruses of
the powerful. But it also shows the power of the citizen. If you are
knowledgeable, have determination, and accept personal sacrifice, there is much
that can be achieved. In this case, even though the industry often seemed to
come out on top, something was won that they cannot destroy. There is now a new,
growing consciousness in agriculture and among consumers. The use of poisons has
gone down considerably. The initial aim of the industry, an eight-fold increase
in sales from 1974 to 1984, was only half reached and then sales fell back to
almost the initial amount.
So nature has had a chance to recover. In the case of our paddy
rice the water fowl are all back, as beautiful as ever. I cannot describe the
joy it gives me when every late afternoon, on Gaia-Corner, the rural center of
our Foundation, I can observe enormous flocks of egrets and ibis flying to their
roosting places in V-formation. A couple of cranes have taken up residence with
us and cormorants dive for fish. A family of otters build their caves at our
More and more younger and also older farmers, agronomists, and
students come to our courses on organic rice growing and regenerative farming.
Soon we will also bring here whole classes of youngsters with their teachers. We
will show "how to wonder," as Rachel Carson would say, to help them see the
marvels of the living world and to relate to it in a spiritual way.
Our place is especially well suited for this. When we first saw it
ten years ago, it was like a big sterile crater. An enormous quarry, producing
gravel for road building, had just been closed down. We had to fight a project
to turn it into a garbage dump for the nearby city. Then the big hole filled
with water. It is now a pond with two hectares of crystal clear water, in some
places up to twenty meters deep, teeming with fish, water snails, and freshwater
crabs. All around it nature is coming back and we manage to grow our crops and
have cattle, pigs, chicken, ducks, and guinea-fowl, while keeping one third of
the land in recovering wilderness. Biological diversity is growing at a rate we
never thought possible. Only when we show our visitors photographs of what this
place was do they realize the incredible powers of regeneration of nature.
But this is not a happy ending, only a small seedling in the
clearcut. The problem with poisons in agriculture may be a little less serious
but it is still there, and it is getting more complicated. Now, allied with
biotechnology, it threatens to initiate a replay of the Green Revolution. Few
people, even in the ecology movement, seem to see what is happening. During a
recent international meeting on biotechnology and farmers' rights, some of the
participants put most emphasis on "safeguards," thus implicitly accepting
biotechnology as it is being introduced to agriculture by the same powers that
forced the poisons.
This brings us to one of the most fundamental aspects of
environmentalism today. If you want to be efficient, you must be knowledgeable.
Otherwise there is danger of attacking at the wrong point or arguing on the
wrong level the level the powerful choose and on which they almost always win.
Years ago in our wine-growing region in the northeast of our state
a very potent total herbicide was introduced. It had serious toxic effects on
people and was therefore soon abandoned after having been in general use. The
manufacturers reacted by insisting it was only a question of improper use, that
farmers were not using protective clothing and masks, were not using the right
concentrations at the right time, and so on. As so often, it is the victim who
was blamed. Most farmers and agronomists were inclined to accept these
arguments. I then argued as follows: even if this product were as harmless as
distilled water, as good for health as mother's milk is for the baby, it still
should never be used in our vineyards. I reminded the farmers, all descendants
of Italian immigrants who came here in the middle of the last century, that
their grandfathers, when they introduced wine growing here, did something quite
different from what they did in Italy. There, in a much drier climate, they grew
the vines on trellises, but here, on the rocky slopes where they lived and in
our very humid climate, where weeds grow luxuriously when not controlled, they
preferred a continuous arbor, high enough for cows or sheep to graze underneath.
They kept a good green cover of rye grass with vetches and clovers. Their vines
were healthy and the farmers used only the traditional, harmless
copper-fungicides. The new herbicide, regardless of whether it presented
toxicological problems, was a disaster because it destroyed the green cover that
kept the vines healthy. The cattle had kept the grass short. So, instead of
spending money on plant-killers, the farmer had free pasture. Most wine growers
now keep their vineyards green again. But the herbicides also caused serious
erosion, and with weakened vines, the farmers resorted to the new carbamate
fungicides that cause still more problems, including more insidious
In the case of biotechnology in agriculture today we also have a
situation where many good people are fighting against the lesser part of the
evil without seeing the great overall dangers. The Green Revolution caused the
uprooting of millions of peasants worldwide and there was another, even more
irreversible disaster: uncounted thousands of varieties of traditional cultivars
were lost forever. In the case of rice, for instance, these varieties were the
result of thousands of years of conscious or unconscious selection by the
peasants themselves. Today we sow the same varieties in Louisiana, Hawaii, in
southern Brazil and Uruguay, and in all of Southeast Asia. The same has happened
to wheat, barley, rye, or maize; apples, pears, etc. In the Andean countries,
Central America, and Mexico, Indian peasants cultivated an incredible wealth of
varieties of potatoes. What survived the Green Revolution will soon be wiped out
by biotechnology, when the same corporations that put the farmer in the position
of total dependency on agri-chemicals succeed in making him equally dependent on
their patented seeds, some of them selected not for resistance to pests, but
resistance to pesticides. So it is nonsense to fight the planting out in the
field of genetically engineered strawberries. They could never survive, much
less spread out without our help. Most of our cultivars are plants that live, so
to speak, in symbiosis with us humans. A field of maize or wheat not harvested
cannot survive into the next year. Native vegetation will take over. Of course
this does not apply to organisms that can survive in the wild, especially
bacteria, fungi, and insects.
What we must now fight in biotechnology as now directed by big
corporations is the patenting of living beings, parts of living beings, or
processes with living beings. During the last two decades the same corporations
that forced agricultural poisons onto the farmers have bought almost all the
seed companies. They insist on patenting. Among other tools for making the
farmer still more dependent on them, they are spending millions of dollars on
research to put on the market patented seed that is already covered with layers
of fertilizer, fungicides, insecticides, and a total herbicide that kills every
plant that happens to be near but for which that particular patented seed is
Legislation to foster such schemes is already on the books in many
countries. In Brazil, until now, we have been able to prevent it. In Canada, Pat
Mooney was the pioneer in making the world conscious of what is happening. In
our parliament tremendous pressure is now being applied to our legislators to
approve this kind of legislation. This time, we may lose.
Otherwise, there is nothing wrong with molecular biology and
genetic engineering, but it should not be used to create still more structures
of dependency. It could really bring great benefit if it was directed at true
advantages for humanity. Suppose, among other things, we learned to really
understand how genes control structure and growth, not just the synthesis of
proteins. We might then be able to have an amputated arm grow back. This is
still possible in frogs and other lower vertebrates; it just may be possible for
Agri-poisons and biotechnology are only part of the problem.
Modern agriculture is not only ecologically pernicious and socially disastrous,
it is just not the solution for the problem of feeding the human masses. Even if
it can temporarily, with absurd subsidies, produce surpluses that then require
additional subsidies to destroy, in the not very long term it will lead to total
calamity. No process that builds on nonrenewable raw materials and energy can
last very long. But it also is not as efficient as it pretends to be.
When comparing modern agriculture with traditional peasant
cultures, it is always said that, while in the past forty to sixty per cent of
the population had to work the land to feed itself and the rest, now, in First
World countries, less than two per cent are sufficient; one farmer can feed
fifty people. If this were true, we really would have no alternative. But it is
a fallacy, when not a deliberate lie. When looked at systemically, traditional
peasant agriculture was an autarchic system of production and distribution of
food, that is, it produced its own inputs. The peasant produced his own
fertilizer, dung from his animals, and his energy too. He used draft animals
that grazed on his pasture or were fed hay or silage that also came from his
soil: solar energy captured by photosynthesis. He also delivered the food he
produced practically into the hands of the consumer at the weekly local market.
But what is the modern farmer? Not much more than a tractor driver
and applier of chemicals. The individual farmer is a very small cog in an
enormous and complex techno-bureaucratic structure that includes oil fields,
refineries, mines, steel mills, aluminum smelters, big dams that flood
rainforests and wipe out Indian tribes or uproot rubber tappers to make the
electricity for the aluminium smelters, tool and tractor makers, combine and
truck manufacturers, a sizable portion of the chemical industry and the banking
system, agricultural schools, extension services, agricultural experiment
stations, plus an industry that did not even exist before, the food
manipulating, denaturing, and contaminating industry - and a lot more, such as
all the packaging, deep freezing, pre-cooking, and what not.
So, if we want to compare the traditional farmer with the
modern-day farmer we must compare the systems. How was food produced and
distributed then and today? Modern economic macro-accounting doesn't make this
kind of calculation. The different industries are seen as different parts of the
economy and in the gross national product, only money flow is compared. If we
compared the complete systems, we would certainly find that today, also, at
least forty per cent of all working hours are for production and distribution of
food. We would have to include the working hours necessary to earn the tax money
that goes into the subsidies. Overall, we haven't really gained very much in
terms of man-hour efficiency. What we have is a different distribution of tasks
and a tremendous increase in environmental costs.
Of course, it can be argued that it is much more comfortable to
sit in front of a computer in the bank than to trudge in the fields. But then,
it need not to be as hard anymore as it was in the past. Intelligent organic
farming, with the right crop rotation, companion planting, green manure, and
integration of crops with animal husbandry, makes totally unnecessary what I
still saw in Germany in the 1950s - women on all fours in sugarbeet fields
pulling weeds with their hands. With today's comforts, life on the farm can be a
lot more interesting, more humanly significant, and healthier than the lives of
most city workers.
In the 1940s, when I studied agronomy, all agricultural research
and experimentation was still directed toward organic methods. It was not the
farmers who asked for a change in course, it was industry that imposed it on
them. The banks, the schools, and the government catered to the interests of
industry, not to the interests of farmers, of consumers, and of ecological
Among the high environmental costs of modern agriculture are
energy and raw materials. Traditional agriculture worked with solar energy via
photosynthesis in its crops. Today it is fossil fuels and even nuclear power
that goes into food production. Worse, agriculture now consumes more energy than
it gets from the sun. This can be compared to an oil well that uses more energy
in the pump than can be recovered from the oil pumped up. This kind of oil well
is harmful for the economy as a whole, but it can be profitable for the owner if
he is subsidized. That is why modern agriculture needs massive subsidies.
To make some of the fertilizers, enormous amounts of electricity
and fossil fuels are used to fix nitrogen from the air in highly pressurized
containers and at very high temperatures (Haber-Bosch process), a process that
legumes do at ambient temperature with minimal energy use and with the help of
certain bacteria on their roots, at no extra cost for the farmer. To make
phosphorous fertilizers, phosphate mines are depleted at a rate that will
exhaust them even before the oil is gone. Whole islands have been demolished in
The absurdity of modern food production systems is even more
evident in intensive cattle, pig, and chicken rearing. Here we are faced with
massive destruction of food for the sake of "vertical integration." The chicken
slaughterhouse also owns the feed factory and the hatchery for the chicks. These
are not even races anymore, they are registered chicken brands. The "producer"
must buy all his inputs from the company, at prices they control, and he must
sell his produce to the same people, again at prices they dictate! He may think
he is a self-employed entrepreneur, but in fact he is a laborer with no
guaranteed salary and no social security. These schemes have little to do with
efficiency in production but very much with power structures, with developing
techno-bureaucratic structures for the creation of dependency.
In the past, our farm animals produced the fertilizer to keep
soils fertile; today, they produce waste. In Europe alone, hundreds of millions
of tons of slurry - liquid cattle or pig manure - are treated as dirt. Until
recently, much of it was simply dumped in the ocean. Now, when it is put back
where it belongs, on the soil, it is done in ways that degrade, not improve, the
soil. This leads to heavy leaching of nitrates into the subsoil and hence into
wells, springs, brooks, and rivers, creating manifold health problems.
Where traditional agriculture worked with closed cycles just as
ecosystems do, its modern counterpart opens cycles that should be kept closed.
The fertility of our soils ends up in immense and growing garbage dumps and in
the sewers. Some modern sewage treatment plants are now, on the pretext that the
sludge is contaminated with heavy metals, drying it with high energy input, then
burning it and dumping the ashes. Nothing could be more absurd!
And the animals in the feedlots, chicken concentration camps, and
pig dungeons are fed grain and even - the height of lunacy - dried milk. Instead
of complementing food production for humans on our fields, they now compete with
us. They need extra crops, such as the soybean fields in southern Brazil for
which the remaining subtropical rainforests in the Uruguay valley were wiped
out, or tropical rainforests that are cleared in Asia to make way for manioc to
make tapioca for the fat cows in Europe that produce the seas of milk and
mountains of butter.
Peasant agriculture was sustainable forever. Modern agriculture is
In October 1993, in Bangalore, India, at the opening of a
conference on "Farmers' Intellectual Rights," there was a demonstration by half
a million farmers against GATT, the World Bank, and biotechnology, and for
sustainable farming. This gives us hope again. The leader of the Indian farmers
said that, if necessary, he could bring twenty million people to New Delhi. The
media almost totally ignored the event.
Why did the farmers protest against the World Bank and GATT?
Because they realize these technocratic instruments threaten them by replacing
small farmers with agribusiness everywhere. Even if they don't openly say so,
that will be the result of the globalization of the economy. The uprising in
Chiapas, Mexico, is for the same reason. NAFTA will make the survival of the
Mexican peasant impossible. The Indian peasants will not be able to compete with
American agribusiness. When American industrial workers protested as well, it
was because they know that to the extent that real wages continue to go down in
Mexico, with increasing migration to the cities, American big business will
export jobs to Mexico, and American real wages will also continue to drop.
It is bad enough when European farmers are uprooted, as can now be
observed in Spain or France. Old peasant wisdom is lost forever. In the Third
World it is much worse. The Mexican peasants are Indians, descendants of the
Mayas and Aztecs, with many different languages and cultures. When the village
empties and the peasants languish in the slums of the cities, all is
irreversibly lost; it is cultural genocide. This is what the Asian farmers in
Bangalore knew could happen to them.
The globalization of the economy with GATT and the common markets
is now threatening not just peasants and small farmers. The export of jobs to
where labor costs are lowest is causing unemployment in the First World too. And
worse than the destruction of jobs is the systematic disruption of all
historically and systemically grown, stable, locally adapted, and sustainable
social structures. Everywhere people are being massified and alienated, becoming
uprooted, losing their traditional values and ideals, and being confronted with
only the hedonistic, orgiastic ethics of modern advertising. Small wonder that
even in wealthy countries such as Switzerland, children of rich families slide
into the squalor of places such as Letten Station in Zurich, where thousands of
young people languish in filth and stupor, physically and mentally destroyed by
When conventional wisdom divides the world into rich and poor
countries, what is usually left out of the argument is the fact that the poor
people of today were formerly not poor at all. While their traditional cultures
were intact, with very few exceptions they were rich, rich in human fulfillment.
What made them poor was development. Colonialism disrupted their solid social
structures and demolished their economies, as when peasant farming for
self-sufficiency was forced to give way to big plantation farming for export to
the central powers.
This process continues today but the dominating powers are not
governments any more and they do not have to send armies to occupy other
peoples' land to install administrations of their own. Neocolonialism is much
smarter and much, much more efficient. When I was Minister of the Environment in
Brazil, I often had to face arguments by some of our military that the First
World would eventually occupy Amazonia and take it away from us, that they
wanted to have control of the minerals and other resources. "Nonsense," I
replied. "It is you who are giving it to them on a silver platter. They would
not be so foolish as to occupy it."
Years ago, in Africa, a man in Senegal said, "During colonial
times the situation was transparent. When somebody spoke French and was white, I
knew he was one of my exploiters. Now my worst enemies have my color of skin and
speak my dialect."
A good example of neocolonialism is the Tucurarajcomplex.
The First World, with its multilateral development banks, conceived, proposed
and financed a huge dam that flooded three thousand square kilometers of
pristine forest, finished off two Indian tribes, uprooted more than ten thousand
rubber tappers and other forest dwellers, caused a series of other environmental
disasters, some indirectly triggered by it, such as the destruction of more than
a hundred thousand square kilometers of virgin forest (an area larger than
Portugal or Austria) and cost the Brazilian people an additional indebtedness of
over six billion dollars. What was this dam for? The electricity, only some
eight hundred megawatts, goes to multinational aluminum smelters and is
delivered to them below production costs. Why? Because the smelters can argue
that they need subsidized electricity to compete with low world-market prices
for aluminum. But why is the price of aluminum so low? Because of the surplus
production of the Tucurarajscheme! So what do we have? The First World
imposes and finances a scheme that makes it possible for it to get resources
from the Third World at ridiculously low prices and the Third World pays all the
costs - social, environmental and financial. No occupation of foreign land is
In neocolonialism the central powers are diffuse and the situation
is much more complicated. It is not the British, French, or Dutch, or even the
Germans and Italians anymore, it is the transnational corporations and they do
not really belong anywhere. Today they are the centers of technology development
and the technologies they develop and impose are not necessarily conceived to
satisfy true human needs, they are conceived in their interest, to conquer
markets and to solidify and amplify their power.
So we need a political and ecological critique of technology. Even
among environmentalists, many do not realize what is happening. Politicians are
either ignorant or collusive. When we fought poisons in agriculture, we were
addressing misguided technologies. The requirement of prescription for the sale
of pesticides is a technical fix; so is registration and other controlling
legislation. We must now go much deeper. Of course technical fixes are important
and necessary. For some industries that is all we need, but technical fixes are
not always sufficient. We must rethink all our technology, not only in
agriculture, but also in energy generation, in transportation, industry, health,
and sanitation, and especially in education.
In the case of agriculture, the long term solution is organic
agriculture, or, to use a more appropriate term, regenerative agriculture.
Fortunately, it has already progressed to the point where it cannot be
marginalized any more by those powerful corporations and institutions that feel
threatened by it. Now, even they are reluctantly paying lip-service to it. Here,
renewed and massive activity, a lot of practical work, is now necessary.
Millions of young people who yearn for morally significant activity, and many
older people too, can participate with enthusiasm. Consumers everywhere are also
becoming more aware and are asking for clean, health-promoting food.
This effort could be helped and accelerated by a new orientation
in sanitary engineering. Today it concentrates mostly on megatechno-logical and
centralizing solutions, such as incineration or gigantic dumps where garbage and
rubble are compacted and isolated and the area "recultivated," all at very high
cost, up to hundreds of dollars per ton. In the case of toxic stuff the cost can
go up to thousands of dollars per ton, when it is not openly or covertly
exported to Third World countries (or even dumped in the ocean). In the case of
radioactive materials the situation is such that nobody has found a final
disposal solution yet.
The new orientation would not start from the premise that we want
to get rid of what we call dirt, garbage, waste, etc., but that we want, first,
to produce as little waste as possible and then to recycle whatever can be
reused that is, we want to work with closed cycles, the way living systems
always do. This applies first of all to the hundreds of millions of tons of
precious organic matter that are discarded annually from slaughterhouses; from
canning factories for meat, fruit, vegetables, and fish; from wine cellars,
breweries, tanneries, and sawmills - all that goes into urban garbage dumps and
sewers, as well as all the slurry from intensive cattle, pig, and chicken
operations. While this monumental waste continues, while most of the stuff is
handled in ways that either contaminate it or make recycling impossible,
hundreds of millions of hectares of good soil are degraded every year with
unnecessary mechanical tilling, causing erosion, and with massive use of
chemical fertilizers and downpours of poisons all practices that destroy soil
life and drastically lower the humus content. The soils are starving for organic
matter while industry and cities are destroying it. This situation must be
reversed. The cycles we have opened must be closed again. This is another great
field of activity for millions of intelligent people, an activity from which
uncounted numbers of NGOs and even businesses could prosper.
Modern medicine has become a multibillion dollar industry that
operates on the same principle that keeps the repair shops for cars going: let
the cars break down and we will repair them, preferably by exchanging spare
parts. It has now become so technologically sophisticated and so expensive that
most health care systems are breaking down. Here too we need a new orientation,
where prevention counts more than repair. Prevention means healthy food and
healthy life styles. Agriculture, industry, and health care must be linked in a
way quite opposite to how they are linked today, where industry contributes to a
sick form of agriculture which, therefore, produces food that makes us sick.
But our present environmental predicament is not just a problem of
technology gone astray. The problem is there because the technologies are
efficient, as efficient as their owners want them to be. It is not a question of
too many bandaids, either. Most serious damage is done by well-meaning people.
Better filters on our chimneys and exhausts, more efficient sewage treatment
stations, healthier and more sustainable agriculture, cleaner food processing,
more recycling of wastes, more and bigger nature reserves: all this will help,
but it is not enough. It will not save our descendants.
We must reexamine our aims. What is progress, what is development?
What is technology for? How are we going to put civilization back in step with
creation and at the same time make a just society?
I remember reading, decades ago, an essay by Bertrand Russell. It
was a thought experiment that, in essence, went like this: Suppose in an economy
there is a certain number of pin factories. They produce all the pins the people
need. Everybody is satisfied, both those who need the pins and those who
manufacture them. Then, somebody invents a machine that makes it possible to
produce the same number of pins in half the time, other factors remaining equal.
What would be the intelligent, socially desirable thing to do? All the pin
factories should use this machine and work only half time with the same income,
the same wages and salaries. Workers and executives would have more time for
leisure, for fun, for cultivating friendships and love, for sports, arts, music,
the enjoyment of nature, and so on. Other industries would find and apply
similar innovations. Technological progress would thus contribute to gradual
improvement in comfort for everybody, society would become more humane, there
would be more culture and beauty, and nature would be more protected, as we
would use fewer and fewer resources. But what happens in practice? They all buy
the new machines and everybody tries to produce and sell twice as much as
before. Fierce competition ensues, half the factories go bankrupt, half the jobs
are lost. In the end, the same number of pins are used but there is more
despair, frustration, and unhappiness.
Of course, this is an oversimplified metaphor, but it illustrates
how technology that could contribute to more freedom and contentment, as well as
less environmental impact, more often than not has the opposite effect.
My father, who lived from the 1880s to the 1950s, could hardly
have imagined all the time-saving devices we have today, but he certainly could
not have understood how short of time we are today despite all the computers,
faxes, modems, printers, photocopiers, global satellite transmission, high speed
trains and planes, expressways, and what not. The only time-saving contraption
he had was a phone and he boarded a plane only once in his lifetime. But he led
a beautifully productive life. As an architect and building contractor he left
behind artistic buildings and churches. He was also a professor at an art
school, and produced many precious paintings that portrayed the life of the
Gaucho, the cowboy of the Pampa, of the colonists in our peasant regions, and
also life in the cities. All of them are of historical value now, in a style
somewhat like Norman Rockwell, except that he painted only for fun. He never
sold his paintings, he kept them or gave them away. And what profound
satisfaction he got out of it all!
Ecological awareness must now go beyond confrontation and
technical fixes, beyond even fundamental reformulation of technology and
Most important and certainly most difficult of all is the
necessary rethinking of our cosmology. The anthropocentric world view Westerners
inherited from our remote Judeo-Christian past has allowed our technocrats and
bureaucrats, and most simple people, too, to look at Planet Earth as if it were
no more than a free storehouse of unlimited resources to be used, consumed and
wasted for even our most absurd or stupid whims. We have no respect for
creation. Nothing in nature is sacred. Nothing, except us humans, has sufficient
inherent value not to have to yield when "economic" or other human interests
dictate it. Mountains can be razed, rivers turned around, forests flooded or
annihilated, unique life forms or whole living systems eliminated without
qualms, or patented for personal or institutional power.
How else could it be that even with a man like Al Gore in the Vice
Presidency of the United States and with all the worldwide concern about the
wholesale devastation of tropical rainforests, the final demolition of the
Pacific temperate rainforest cannot be halted? Economists see creation of wealth
only in the money earned in the export from the rape of the forest, while
deducting nothing in their accounts of national wealth for the total and
irreplaceable loss of the whole ecosystem. For them only the abstraction we call
money is real and they think they can even create it out of nothing to produce
the necessary technologies that, miraculously, will help us overcome all
imaginable shortages and devastations. Funny, those who least understand science
and technology are the ones who most expect from it, to the point of believing
we can go on acting in the most irresponsible ways forever.
A beautiful coincidence: While writing this, early in the morning
of September 19, 1994 - spring in the Southern Hemisphere - at a table in front
of my cottage on Gaia-Corner, I feel a fleeting shadow passing me on the ground,
then another. Looking up, I see a pair of storks. They came straight from the
rising sun. After soaring in three large circles over our pond they continue
their flight due west. This is reality! How not to feel profound reverence?
How are we going to spread the new - actually very, very old
holistic ethics the planet now needs for the marvellous process of organic
evolution to be allowed to unfold unhampered again?
The human brain has the capacity to become an agent for increasing
creativity within the flow of life or it can continue disrupting it until it is
too late, until points of no return have been overshot.
With very few exceptions indigenous peoples (those we like to call
"primitive") developed mythologies, taboos, rituals, and attitudes that made
their existence compatible with the survival of the ecosystems they depended on,
sometimes even enriching them. In modern terminology we would say their life
styles were sustainable. Modern global industrial civilization, though, is
fundamentally unsustainable. It has now imposed on what remains of traditional
cultures the ethics of the gold miner who takes what he can from a place where
he has no roots, who refrains from no devastation in order to get to his bonanza
and, when there is nothing left of interest to him, leaves without remorse.
We need a new frame of reference, to put it in more technical
terms. If I said "mythology" many scientifically-minded people might protest.
James Lovelock suffered stinging attacks from people who thought he was too
emotional. But his concept of Gaia, the Earth as a homeostatic system that
regulates itself so that environmental factors such as temperature range,
salinity, redox-effect, acidity, mixture of gases in the atmosphere, cloudiness,
etc., remain within what is appropriate for life, lends itself both to a
strictly scientific interpretation and to more mythological ways of looking at
the world, which is what most people need.
The most urgent and noble task of NGOs now is to mobilize all the
forces that can contribute to the necessary change in world view. Our modern
technologies of communication and publicity make it possible. The political will
to do it can only come from below, from the