They were called by different names in a less skeptical age—oracles, prophets, seers—but there have always been those who can see better than the rest of us and who feel compelled to urge us out of complacency. Barbara Ward is one of these, now called an environmentalist: one of the first to warn about pollution; the first to draw attention to the global misery of the poor; the first to paint a picture of a fragile and interdependent planet threatened by destruction through too much growth of population and industry. If what she sees now is simple, that we are facing a global crisis, what she prophesies is simple too—we must conserve and we must share. With its whirl of ideas, examples and fantasies, her new book reads like an environmental I Ching. Open it anywhere and it
proffers the same warning: pay attention to what’s happening in the world, “and do so in time.”
In Progress for a Small Planet, Ward is still attempting to find a sane growth strategy for both the developed countries and the Third World, still struggling tenaciously to reconcile desires for progress with human survival. Arguing that the future is not an either/or situation, not a choice between a scientific technology that devours human values and a primitive return to the dark ages, Ward insists there is a
balanced solution: “It is in this growing sense of intermediate possibilities—of output, thought and work which are not extreme in their politics or their technology—that the best hope lies.”
The other concerns of the early ’70s are still with her, altered only by the Janus-faced perspective of history; the book serves both as a “progress report” and a parable by which Third World countries can learn from our mistakes. There are her familiar prophecies about the dangers of nuclear energy. Arguing that nuclear power is a “Faustian bargain” at best, she writes that, at worst, it may turn those it fuels into tragic heroes of a more ominous myth—“Prometheus stealing heaven’s fire and chained forever to a bare rock.” There is her increasing apprehension of developing nations that concentrate on “modern” technology, ignoring their one abundant resource—labor. An oversight, she adds, that is the major cause
of widespread unemployment and social unrest in the developing world and hastens “the hemorrhage of depressed people to the cities.” But it is the growth of cities that she sees as the death knell of our society: “Population growth is mainly concentrated in cities the size of which there has never been in all of history. By 1985, we shall have 273 cities of over a million: perhaps as many as 17 will exceed 10 million. The organization and control demanded by this phenomenon is almost inconceivable.”
This is not just one more lament at the wailing wall. Progress for a Small Planet suggests more solutions than any of Ward’s other works, and in so doing may turn out to be the most important book of her life. Frustrated with the absence of concrete results from Habitat, the 1976 UN conference on the environment, and sensitive to critics who have called her environmental ideas impractical, she has written a kind of how-to manual to fix the world. Her research alone is staggering—she pulls together a vast assortment of environmental experiments from around the world—and may well put to rest the argument that it is impossible to maintain a standard of life worth living while attempting to control both pollution and consumption. For instance she cites: a new recycling design for an ammonia plant that cuts water use by 90 per cent and cuts costs by two-thirds; the burning of garbage in 200 Western European plants to provide heat for homes and factories; the factory in Strasbourg, France, which recovers edible protein from the polluting waste products of its yeast production. The book is upbeat:Lyndon Johnson kept her famous treatise of the ’60s, The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations, next to his Bible; those considering prospects for the ’80s should keep this one next to their beds.
The assumption on which her thinking rests is simple; Ward argues that if people were committed to solutions, problems would be resolved. Asking for a profound shift in consciousness, she lays out two indispensable conditions for survival: we must “abandon the perpetual pursuit of ‘more’,” and we must identify ourselves with the world, not nations, not homes. Proposing that in the name of fairness we should extend the domestic model of taxation to an international scale, she recommends transferring $30 billion a year from the rich nations to the poorer as a first step. Then, before the reader yawningly files the idea along with unqualified support for motherhood and apple pie, she reveals that the cost would not be much more than “one per cent of the developed nations’ GNP and less than 10 per cent of the world’s annual $400 billion spent on arms.”
If there is a weakness in the book it surely lies in her appeal to justice to solve the world’s problems. But justice may come from a sense of urgency as well as conscience, and Ward is as good as anyone at applying the goad of fear. Faced with the nightmarish prospect of two billion more bodies added to this planet’s load by the end of the century— when “no nation, no race, no culture can escape a truly global destiny”—we may find ourselves more than sleepwalkers in her visionary dreams.
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