Archeology of the Idea of Development
Forty years have passed since the U.S. began to circulate the idea of “development” as a worldwide objective. The results are frightful. Plants and animals are disappearing, never to be seen again. Entire cultures are vanishing, swept away by the technologies of progress. Are there alternatives? Neither winners nor losers know how to escape from the “development” trap.
Fallen buildings hide their secrets under mountains of earth and rubble. and mental structures are often erected on foundations covered by sand for years or even centuries. Shovels in hand, archeologists work through the layers to expose the foundations and thereby discover the origins of a monument in ruins. It could turn out to be that mental constructions are ruins. How did this happen? What does dominant thinking mean? How does it fit with what we know? Digging up the answers to these questions is accompanied by surprises and sadness, a slowly emerging tale of past splendors.
The idea of development is already a ruin in our intellectual landscape, but its shadow, which originated in a past epoch, still obscures our vision. This is a good moment to unearth the archeology of this idea and discover its foundations, together with the numerous constructions built on top of it, to see it as it really is: the antiquated monument of an immodest era.
World Power in Search of a MissionA windy snowstorm was attacking Pennsylvania Avenue on January 20, 1949, when Harry Truman, President of the United States, defined the majority of the world as "underdeveloped areas" in his inaugural speech before Congress, The term thus suddenly appeared as a permanent feature of the landscape, a conceptual pivot that grouped the immeasurable diversity of the planet's southern hemisphere into a single category: underdeveloped. Thus was the new vision of the world announced for the first time: all people of the earth would have to follow the same path and aspire to a single goal: development. The path to follow was extremely clear in the President's eyes: "Greater production is the key to prosperity and peace." After all, wasn't the United States the country that had come closest to this utopia? According to this criterion nations take their places as runners, stragglers or leaders, and "the United States has preeminence among nations in the development of industrial and scientific techniques."
Hiding personal interest behind a mask of generosity, Truman outlined a technical assistance program designed to "alleviate the suffering of these people," through "industrial activities" and "a higher living standard." Looking back after forty years, we recognize that Truman's speech inaugurated the South's race to catch up to the North. But we can also see now that the runners have spread out along the track, some have fallen, and others have begun to suspect that they're running in the wrong direction.
The idea of defining the world as an economic arena was completely foreign to colonialism. The designation originated in Truman's time. Certainly the colonial powers saw themselves as participants in an economic race. The overseas territories were supposed to serve as the source of raw materials and markets. But it wasn't until after World War II that they had to survive by themselves and compete in a global economic arena.
For England and France, domination over their colonies during the colonial period was mainly a cultural obligation that originated in their civilizing vocation. Lord Lugard formulated the "double mandate" doctrine: economic benefits, of course, but above all the responsibility to elevate "the colored races" to a higher level of civilization. The colonialists ended up controlling the natives like masters, not like planners promoting the supply and demand spiral. The colonial empires were perceived as political and moral spaces in which authoritarian relationships set the tone, not as articulated economic steps towards trade relations.
Development as an ImperativeAccording to Truman's vision, the two terms of the double mandate converge under the imperative of "economic development." The change in world vision allowed the concept of development to emerge as a standard of universal value. In the Development Law of 1929, still under the influence of the colonial framework, development was seen only in a transitory way: the concept was applied exclusively to the first duty of the double mandate and represented economic exploitation of resources such as land, minerals and forestry products. The second duty was defined as "progress" and "well-being."
Only resources could be developed, not men or societies. It was in the corridors of the State Department during the war that the conceptual innovation matured: "cultural progress" was absorbed by "economic mobilization" and development was enthroned as the reigning concept. A new vision of the world thus found its succinct definition: a country's level of civilization could be measured by its level of production. From then on entire peoples and societies could, and should, be seen as objects of development.
Defining the economic exploitation of land and its treasures as development was a legacy of 19th-century productivist arrogance. Through the trick of a biological metaphor, a simple economic activity was converted into a natural and evolutionary process, as if hidden qualities were progressively developed toward their final state. The metaphor says that the real destiny of natural goods should be found in their economic utilization; all economic uses are one step more in leading the good's internal potential to that goal.
Western Hegemony IncludedThis metaphoric basis permeated Truman's call to development and permitted the universal axiom of developed/undeveloped to be transformed into a theological belief. Third World societies were not seen as diverse and incomparable possibilities of vital human organization, but were all placed on one "progressive" track and considered more or less advanced according to criteria and direction from hegemonic nations.
This reinterpretation of world history was not only politically gratifying, but also epistemologically unavoidable; no thinking about development can escape a sort of retroactive teleology, since underdevelopment can only be recognized by looking back from a state of maturity. Development without predominance would be like a race with no direction. Thus was Western hegemony logically included in the development proclamation. It is no coincidence that the prologue to the United Nations Charter ("We, the people of the United Nations...") echoes the Constitution of the United States ("We, the people of the United States..."). Speaking of development means nothing other than projecting the US model of society on the rest of the world.
Truman really needed this reconceptualization of the world. The European powers, which were losing their colonial subjects, represented a fallen world, and the United States, the nation that emerged from the war as the most powerful, was obliged to act as the new world power. To do this it needed a new global order. The concept of development presents the world as a collection of homogenous entities that remain united not through the political domination of colonial times, but through economic interdependence. Thus, US hegemony had nothing to do with the possession of territories, but everything to do with the opening to commercial penetration. In this framework, young countries were allowed to go through an independence process and automatically came under the wing of the United States when they declared themselves subjects of economic development. Development was the conceptual vehicle that allowed the United States to behave as the herald of national self-determination, at the same time that it founded a new type of world hegemony, an anti-colonial imperialism.
The South According to The North's ImageThe leaders of the recently founded nations—from Nehru to Nkrumak, from Nasser to Sukarno—accepted the North's image of the South and internalized it as their own. Underdevelopment became the cognitive basis for the establishment of nations throughout the Third World. During their battles against colonialism, some of the new leaders had learned the lesson about the hegemony of western productivism from the USSR through the Third International. It was essentially the same. Nehru—in opposition to Gandhi, incidentally—expressed it in 1949: "It is not a question of theory. Whether communism, socialism or capitalism is the most effective method for bringing necessary changes and satisfying the masses will be established by itself. Our problem now is to raise the standard of the masses."
Beyond all ideological skirmishes, economic development as the basic goal of the state—mobilizing the country to increase production—fit beautifully into the Western concept of the world as an economic arena.
As in all types of competition, this rapidly produced its professional training team. The World Bank sent the first of innumerable missions in July 1949. After their return from a mission to Colombia, the 14 experts presented decisive final conclusions: "Sporadic and short-term efforts will have a hard time improving the general panorama. The vicious cycle can be seriously broken only through the overall redesign of the entire economy, together with the health, education and food sectors."
A constant increase in production implied nothing other than the reconditioning of entire societies. Did the state ever have a more fervent objective? From then on came an unprecedented flowering of agencies and administrations "guided" by numerous theories to direct all aspects of life—to count, organize, unwisely intervene and sacrifice—all in the name of climbing out of underdevelopment. Today that scene looks more like collective hallucination. Traditions, hierarchies, mental habits—the entire social fabric—dissolved into the mechanistic models of the planners. This way the experts could apply the same institutional reform designs throughout the world, using an outline that almost always followed the pattern of the "American way of life." There was no longer any reason to let things "mature for centuries," as in the colonial period. After World War II, the engineers went out to develop entire societies, a task that would be implemented in a few years or at most a couple of decades.
A Shattered IdeaDeep fissures began to appear in the edifice at the end of the 1960s: the announced promises of development were built on sand. The international elite, which had been busy piling one development plan on top of another, frowned. The experts at the ILO and the World Bank suddenly realized that the growth policies were not working. Poverty was increasing in the shadow of welfare, unemployment was growth-resistant and steel factories could not improve the food situation. It was clear that the identification of social progress with economic growth was pure fiction.
In 1973, Robert McNamara, then president of the World Bank, summarized the situation: "Despite a decade of unprecedented growth of the Gross Domestic Product, the poorest segments of the population have received relatively little. Schematically, the top 40% of the population receives 75% of total income."
As soon as the failure of Truman's strategy was admitted, another development strategy with a new objective was proclaimed: rural and small peasant development. The logic of this conceptual operation is obvious enough: the idea of development was not abandoned, but its field of application was broadened. In rapid succession, unemployment, injustice, eradication of poverty, basic needs, women, and finally the environment, were converted into problems and became objects of special strategies in a similar way. The meaning of development exploded to embrace a growing multitude of contradictory practices. The development business acquired self-propelling velocity; for every new crisis a new strategy could be designed to solve it. Even the underlying motive of development slowly changed, while a chorus began to point out that development did not mean promoting growth, but protecting oneself from it. With this completion of the semantic chaos, the concept fell to bits.
A Concept Full of EmptinessThus, "development" has become an amoebic word with no form. It expresses nothing because its limits are porous. But it has not been eradicated because its dissemination appears to be benign. Those who speak the word mean nothing, but try to have the best intentions. Development has no content, but possesses one function; it allows any intervention to be sanctified with the highest and most evolved goal.
Development has been emptied of content, but a curious remnant remains and care must be taken. Truman's assumptions travel like blind passengers under cover of the word. Applying these assumptions implies that there are always lead runners showing the path to the stragglers. This suggests that progress is the result of planned action. Even without economic growth in mind, anyone who speaks of development evokes the notion of universality, progress and feasibility. This demonstrates that Truman's influence is inescapable.
This inheritance is a weight that keeps one walking in place. It keeps people—in Michoacán, Gujarat or wherever—from recognizing their own right: to refuse to be classified according to a forward/backward plan and to assume their freedom to recreate themselves in diversity and ingenuity. Development always looks at other worlds in terms of what they lack, and obstructs the causeway of autochthonous alternatives that could be inspiring. It should be emphasized that the opposite of development is not stagnation. From the swaraj of Gandhi to the ejidos of Zapata, we see surprising examples of change in each culture. Distinctions like backward/advanced or traditional/modern have become almost ridiculous given the dead-end of progress in the North, from the poisoning of soils to the greenhouse effect. Truman's vision will fall before the face of history, not because the path has been a trick, but because it leads to an abyss.
The idea of development was once a dominant monument that inspired international enthusiasm. Today the structure is crumbling and is in danger of total collapse. But its imposing ruins still persist and block the exit. The task is to move the ruins to one side so as to discover new lands.
"We're not poor, We're Tepitans!"I wanted to kick myself, but then my observation seemed to be the most natural in the world. It was six months after the catastrophic earthquake of 1985, and I had spent the day walking through Tepito, a rundown neighborhood near the center of Mexico City, inhabited by common people but threatened by speculators. We expected ruins and resignation, depression and dirtiness, but our observations proved different; there was a proud neighborhood spirit, vigorous activity, with small construction cooperatives all over. We saw a flowering underground economy.
But at the end of the day, a little lightheartedly, I finally said: "All of this is very good, but at the end of it all these people are terribly poor." Immediately one of our companions exclaimed emphatically: "We're not poor, we're Tepitans!"
What a reprimand! Why did I make such an offensive remark? I had to admit to myself, with shame, that the cliches of the development philosophy had sparked this voluntary reaction.
Discovering the "Low Income" Sector"Poverty" on a world scale was discovered after World War II. It was not a topic for debate before 1940. In one of the first World Bank reports, from 1948-49, the "nature of the problem" is outlined: "Both the need and the potential for development are clearly revealed in these simple statistics: according to the United Nations Statistics Office, average income per person in the United States in 1947 was over US$1,400 and in 14 other countries it was between US$400 and $900. For more than half the world population, however, the average income was less—sometimes much less—than $100 per person. The magnitude of this discrepancy not only demonstrates the urgent need to elevate the living standard in underdeveloped countries, but also the enormous possibilities of doing so."
Whenever "poverty" is mentioned in the documents of the 1940s and 1950s, per-capita income is used as a statistical measure, with its importance lying in the observation that it is ridiculously lower than the average in the United States.
When one thinks that income can serve to indicate social perfection, as occurs in the economic model of society, one is inclined to interpret any other society that does not follow this model as "low income." In this way, the perception of poverty on a global scale is simply the result of a comparative statistical operation, the first of which was carried out in 1940 by economist Colin Clark.
As soon as the income scale was established, order reigned in a previously confusing planet: horizontally, worlds as different as the Zapotecs, Tuaregs and Rajasthani could be classified together, while a vertical comparison with "rich" nations required relegating them to an almost immeasurable position of inferiority. This way, "poverty" was used to define entire peoples, not by what they are or want to be, but by what they lack or what others hope them to be. Economic disdain thus took the place of colonial contempt.
This conceptual operation also provided the cognitive basis for intervention. And the nature of this intervention was the logical consequence of the fact that the individuality of each country had been reduced to the quantifiable criteria of living standards: where "low income" is the problem, "economic development" is the only admissible answer. It was barely mentioned that poverty could also be the result of oppression and therefore require liberation. Or that self-sufficiency could represent a strategy to minimize risks, essential for long-term survival. Even less mentioned was that a culture could be directing its energies to areas other than the economy.
Rather, as was the case in the industrialized nations since the emergence of the proletariat and later of the welfare state, poverty was defined as a lack of buying power that could be banished through economic growth. Under the flag of "poverty" the forced reorganization of many societies into monetary economies subsequently became a moral crusade. Who could seriously refuse to approve such a well-based demand for economic expansion?
Going Down to the Biological MinimumUntil the end of the 1960s, when it was no longer possible to close one's eyes to "economic development's" clear failure to raise the living standard of the majority of the population, a new concept of "poverty" became necessary: "We should work hard," said McNamara in 1973, "to eradicate absolute poverty by the end of this century. This means, in practice, eliminating malnutrition and illiteracy, reducing infant mortality and raising life expectancy until they reach the standards of developed nations." Anyone who lives under the externally defined minimum standard is declared "absolutely poor."
The parameter of per-capita income was thrown into the garbage bin of development concepts. This led to two changes of focus in the international discussion about poverty. On the one hand, attention was directed to the abysmal internal differences within societies, which had been completely clouded by national averages. On the other, income proved to be a very inexact indicator of the real living conditions of those who were not totally integrated into the monetary economy.
The efforts to explain poverty in terms of qualitative criteria emerged from disillusion about the results of mechanical growth stimulation, but also implied a new form of reductionism. From the first efforts in England at the beginning of the century, the calculation of the absolute poverty threshold has been based primarily on a formula that involves nutritional values. The absolute poor are those whose food consumption does not exceed a certain minimum of calories. The problem with these definitions is not that they have brought about a confusing manipulation of norms, but that they reduced the reality of hundreds of millions of people to an animalistic description.
In an attempt to find objective and useful criteria, the path was opened to a concept of the world that ignores the rich variety of what people can hope for and fight for, simplifying infinitely varied human situations into a simple series of data about survival. Is a minimum common denominator conceivable?
With such atrophied categories, it is not strange that the measures that are adopted—which range from distributing cereal to people who eat rice to literacy campaigns in regions where writing is almost not used—have frequently been so insensitive to and disrespectful of the population's self-esteem.
Clearly, reducing living beings to levels of calorie consumption enormously facilitates the international administration of development aid. It permits a clear classification of clientele, without which world strategies would lack sense, and is permanent evidence of a global state of crisis, without which there might be doubts about the legitimacy of certain development agencies. This new concept of poverty rescued the paradigm of development at the beginning of the 1970s, especially in its official version that the satisfaction of basic needs required growth, or at least growth "with redistribution." Thus was established the link with the growth dogma of the previous decade.
Poverty? Frugality, Plunder and ScarcityBinary divisions like health/illness, normal/abnormal, or, more to the point, rich/poor, are like mental levelers; they level a multifaceted world and flatten anything that does not fit. The stereotyped discourse about "poverty" has been re-disfigured to the point of making the different and contrasting forms of poverty irreconcilable. It does not, for example, distinguish frugality, plunder or scarcity.
Frugality is a characteristic of cultures free from the accumulation frenzy. Almost all needs of daily life are satisfied with survival production and only a small part are acquired in the market. From our point of view, people living this way have few belongings; perhaps a small house, some pots and a Sunday outfit. Their utensils are few and money plays a marginal role. All commonly have access to fields, rivers and forests, while family and community work guarantees the services that are paid for with money in other places. Despite being a "low-income sector," no one is hungry. Great excesses are often spent on jewelry, parties or large constructions. In a traditional Mexican community, for example, private accumulation of wealth is a motive for social ostracism; prestige is obtained precisely by spending the last penny on community celebrations. "Poverty" in this case is the way of life of a culture that recognizes and cultivates a state of sufficiency. Sufficiency only turns into humiliating poverty when it is oppressed by an accumulating society.
Plunder becomes rampant as soon as frugality loses its sustenance. Links with the community, land, the forest and water are the most important prerequisites for survival without money. Plunder strikes as soon as these links are weakened or destroyed. On innumerable occasions peasants, nomads and forest dwellers have fallen into extreme poverty after having been pulled off their lands, savannas and forests. In fact, the first state policies about poverty appeared in 16th-century Europe, a response to the sudden appearance of vagabonds and beggars triggered by the fencing in of lands, because the community had traditionally been in charge of guaranteeing care for widows and orphans, who are the classic cases of homeless poor.
Scarcity derives from the modernization of poverty. It primarily affects urban groups trapped in the monetary economy as workers and consumers whose buying power is so low that they are not successfully integrated into that economy. They are not only vulnerable to market whims, but also live in a situation in which money assumes a growing importance. Their ability to improve by their own efforts gradually diminishes, while their desires, fed by the splendors of high society, grow infinitely. This desire effect is what characterizes modern poverty. Poverty based on merchandise, though described as "the social question" in the 19th century, led the welfare state to its policy of income and employment after the 1929 world economic crisis. It was precisely this vision of poverty, influenced by Keynes and the New Deal, that led to the post-war development discourse.
More Frugality, Less PlunderingUntil now, development policy has seen "poverty" as the problem and "growth" as the solution. It does not admit that it has been working primarily with a concept of poverty determined by the experience of the northern hemisphere's mercantilist needs. With the less prosperous "homo economicus" in mind, it has promoted growth—often producing plunder—and has led diverse cultures from frugality to ruin. Why? Because the culture of growth can only be built upon the ruins of frugality, and plunder and market dependence are its price. After forty years, isn't it time to draw some conclusions? Whoever wants to end poverty should build upon sufficiency. Careful growth management is the most important way to fight poverty.
It appears that my friend from Tepito understood this when he refused to be labeled as "poor." His honor was on the line, as was his pride. He was committed to the Tepitan form of sufficiency, perhaps because he sensed that without it there would be plundering or an eternal scarcity of money.
To Have and to Hold... ObjectsThe image that a society has of itself can be made up of two completely different principles: either the person-person relationship predominates or the person-object relationship predominates. In the first case, events are examined in light of what they signify for neighbors or parents, ancestors or gods. In the second, all society's circumstances are judged according to how they contribute to the acquisition and ownership of things. The modern epoch, whose thinking and aspirations turn principally around property, production and distribution, is totally in the power of things. The use of technology is its beautifying ritual.
It was not until after World War II, precisely in the "development" era, that Third World countries were seen via this concept of reality. For the first time, they were perceived from a viewpoint centered on materialism. Stimulated by the experience of societies that invested all their physical and mental energies in propagating things, development strategists looked at the world again and found a distressing absence of useful objects wherever they looked. What was of primordial importance in many communities and peoples—the weaving of relationships with neighbors, ancestors, gods—dissolved in the air when they looked. For this reason, the principal popular image of the Third World was of the dispossessed fighting desperately for survival while that which constituted its strength, honor and hope remained out of perspective.
Technology: A Trojan HorseEven though this definition of the Third World did not capture the reality of life for many people, it formed the basis for the formulation of global benevolence programs. A classic example was John F. Kennedy's exhortation to Congress in March 1961 to finance the Alliance For Progress: "Throughout Latin America millions of people are fighting to liberate themselves from the yoke of extreme poverty, hunger and ignorance." At the root of that speech about people's material aspirations throughout Latin America—from traders in the Gulf of Mexico to cattle ranchers in the Pampas—the strategic conclusion became clear: "They see in the North and the East the abundance that modern science can extract. They know that the tools of progress are within their reach."
From Truman's promise to provide scientific and technological aid, to the hopes of some countries in recent years of overtaking the older industrialized nations with the help of biotechnology and information technology, the "tools of progress" have been seen as the guarantee of successful development. In reality, if there was ever one doctrine that united the North and the South it was this: more technology is always better than less. Its decisive relevance is derived from a world vision centered on the material. Its popularity, therefore, derives from the tragic fallacy that modern technology has the innocence of tools: can't it be compared to a hammer that one uses or does not use as needed, but that, when used, enormously increases the arm's own abilities?
Among all social classes, nationalities and religions, the consensus was for "more technology," because it was seen as a powerful but essentially simple medium that could be used when necessary but did not affect those who used it. Modern technology appeared to be applicable to any cultural project. For this reason, technology turned the South into a captive of the North, even though in reality a model of civilization only follows its own footprints. Like the entrance of the Trojan horse in antiquity, the introduction of technology prepared the way for a conquest of society from within.
What Lies Behind a BlenderCommercial artists can be particularly thanked for representing modern technology as the victorious heir of primitive techniques. The jungle drum is painted as the precursor of intercontinental computerized mail, the search for medicinal plants is compared to the synthesis of antibiotics, and lighting fire with a flint is shown to be an underdeveloped form of nuclear fission. It is hard to say that another fiction has contributed more to hiding the true nature of technical civilization, which sees modern technology as nothing more than a simple tool, albeit a particularly advanced one.
We take the example of a blender; turning and vibrating, it makes solid fruit into a juicy mass. A marvelous tool! So it seems. But a quick look at the cable and the socket reveals that we have before us the domestic terminal of a national or world system. Electricity comes through a network of cables and lines fed by generator plants that depend on water pressure, ducts or storage tanks, which themselves require dams, coastal platforms or perforation towers in faraway deserts. And this entire chain only guarantees an adequate and punctual supply if each of its parts is managed by armies of engineers, planners and financial experts who, for their part, need administrations, universities, complete industries, occasionally even military installations. As with a vehicle, a pill, a computer or a television, the blender depends on the existence of dispersed and interconnected organization and production systems. Those who plug something in are not using a tool, they are plugging into a combination of systems. Between the use of simple techniques and the use of modern equipment is found the reorganization of all society.
No matter how innocent they appear, the products of the modern world only work when great sectors of society behave according to plan. This includes the suppression of both individual willingness and opportunity, as well as the rare remnants of spontaneity. After all, the blender does not revolutionize anything if it is not guaranteed that everything happens at the correct time and place in the system's complete chain, and is of adequate quality. Coordination, programming, training and discipline—not only the electricity—are the elixir of life for these excessively complacent apparatuses. They appear to be useful and to save labor, but they demand performance by many people in different places. These tools only work to the degree that the people themselves become tools.
But things do not often work out this way, especially in underdeveloped countries. A great quantity of unused equipment, moldy machinery and factories operating at half capacity are eloquent witnesses to this situation. To "technically develop," a country needs to put into practice a multitude of requirements and they must be simultaneously satisfied if interconnected systems are to be installed and made to function. This generally implies gradually dismembering traditional society so as to reorganize it in accord with functional requirements. No society can continue being the same. There is no blender without the total remodeling of society. Faced with this task, it is not surprising that, since the beginning of the 1960s, the development debate has ceaselessly repeated: "integral planning instead of gradual solutions."
A Whole World VisionAny technical invention is much more than a support. It is culturally powerful. The overwhelming effects of its power dissolve not only physical resistance but also attitudes toward life. Technology reshapes feelings and molds world visions. The prints it leaves on the mind are probably harder to erase than those it leaves on the landscape.
Who has not experienced the emotion of speed at the wheel of a car? A slight movement of the foot is enough to liberate powers that greatly exceed those of the driver. This incongruence between a small effort and its powerful effect, typical of modern technology, gives space to the delightful feelings of power and liberty that accompany the triumphal advance of technology. Whether a vehicle or an airplane, a telephone or a computer, the specific power of modern technology lies in its ability to break through the limitations put on us by our own bodies, space and time, and to eliminate exhaustion, distance, duration and social dependence.
There is something more in this than conformity of feelings. Something new becomes real: it is probably not an exaggeration to say that profound structures of perception are changing with the massive invasion of technology. A few key words can be enough: nature is seen in mechanical terms, space is conceived as if it were geometrically homogenous and time as if it were linear. In a word, human beings are no longer what they were and they feel ever less capable of treating technologies as tools, that is to say dominating them.
Through technology transfer, several generations of development strategists have worked arduously to help the countries of the South to advance, with irregular economic results but success—totally unconscious—in the cultural sphere. The raining down of machines on so many southern regions may or may not have been beneficial, but it is clear that it has displaced people's traditional ideals and aspirations. Their place has been taken by a world of concepts emotionally and cognitively accommodated in the coordinates of technological civilization, not only for the limited number of beneficiaries, but also for the much greater number who watch the fireworks from the outside.
Optical IllusionAs everyone knows, magic consists of achieving extraordinary effects through the manipulation of powers that are not of this world. Cause and effect belong to different spheres. In magic, the sphere of the visible mixes with the sphere of the invisible.
Whoever steps on the accelerator or turns a handle dominates a remote and invisible world in order to precipitate an event in the immediate and visible daily world. Suddenly incredible velocities and powers, whose effective causes are hidden beyond the horizon of direct experience, are at one's disposal. The fireworks occur at the scene, while the giant machinery that makes them possible works behind the scene, out of our vision. The reason for the magic of technology that keeps so many people enchanted, especially in the Third World, is found in this separation of cause and effect, in this invisibility of the systems that penetrate society and produce technical miracles. The power of a car's velocity excites the driver precisely because its prerequisites—pipelines, streets, assembly lines, etc.—as well as its consequences—noise, pollution, the greenhouse effect, etc.—lie beyond what can be seen through the windshield. The glamour of that moment is based on an enormous transferal of its cost: the time, effort and management of the consequences are detoured to the systems that function behind the scenes of society. The attraction of technical civilization often depends on an optical illusion.
Forty years of development have created a paradoxical situation: the magical "tools of progress" currently dominate the imagination in many countries, but the construction of systems to sustain them have gotten bogged down and may never be finished, judging by the reduction of resources and the environmental crisis. This breach between the recently acquired ideal and the reality far behind it is what will mold the future of developing countries. There was no way to put the Greeks back in the wooden horse once they had emerged in the heart of Troy.
Gandhi and Nehru: What to do with India?"If India ever decided to imitate England, it would be the ruin of the nation." Mahatma Gandhi developed that conviction in 1909, while still in South Africa; then, motivated by it, he spent forty years fighting for India's independence. He won the battle, but lost the cause. As soon as independence was won, his principle was forgotten. Gandhi wanted to expel the English from his country so that India could be more Indian. Nehru, in contrast, saw independence as the opportunity to make India more western. A murderer's bullet prevented the controversy between the two heroes of the nation from becoming evident, but the correspondence they maintained for decades clearly demonstrates it.
Gandhi was not persuaded by technical civilization, with its machines, motors and factories, because he saw in it a culture with a goal no more sublime than that of minimizing physical effort and maximizing material wellbeing. He could do no more than shrug his shoulders at such an obsession to obtain commodities. As if a good life could be built that way! Didn't India's traditions offer more valuable things, unperturbed for thousands of years? In many aspects, Gandhi was far from a traditionalist, but he insisted on a society that, in accord with Hindu tradition, prized a form of spiritual life. English-style industrialism is out of place wherever the swaraj, the serene liberty of following personal truth, is the rule. Gandhi promoted the renovation of innumerable Indian communities and a form of progress in accord with them. In his way of seeing, India was committed to an idea of the good life and correct actions that contradicted the prevailing ideals in England during the era of automation. For him, indiscriminate imitation of the West was simply out of the question. He allowed that some isolated elements could be adopted, but only if they contributed to a greater expression of India's aspirations.
Nehru disagreed. He saw no other alternative than to introduce the young nation to western achievements as soon as possible and to take the path to an economic civilization. From the outset, despite his great admiration for Gandhi, Nehru found Gandhi's vision "totally unreal." While he tried to avoid capitalism's excesses, Nehru saw Indian society primordially as an economy; that is, as a society defined in terms of its performance in the provision of goods.
When the Economy Dominates EverythingThe nature of man, the function of politics and the character of social reforms assume particular significance from a strictly economic point of view. Through it people are seen as if they were in a permanent situation of scarcity because they always have less than they desire. Politics' most noble task is thus to create the conditions for material prosperity, and this in turn requires reorganizing society in a national economy based on a series of local subsistence communities.
Nehru promoted precisely this Western self-deception, which was also at the heart of the idea of development: the essential reality of a society consists only of the relationships that function to get useful goods; all the rest is simply folklore or private issues. In this vision the economy overshadows any other reality. Economic laws dominate society rather than society's rules dominating the economy. This is why, whenever development strategists look at a country, they don't see a society that has an economy, but a society that is an economy. To assume this conquest of society by the economy is an inheritance of 19th-century Europe, which has been passed on to the rest of the world over the last forty years.
The Economy: Just Part of the DramaIn observing a group of indigenous people farming their mountains around Quiché, seeing the arid land, the primitive tools and the low yield, one could easily conclude that there is nothing more important in the world for them than increasing productivity. Solutions could be found rapidly: better crop rotation, improved seeds, small machinery, privatization and any other recipe that business administration can offer.
All of this is not necessarily erroneous. However, the economic point of view is notoriously myopic: it recognizes the cost-benefit relationship with great clarity, but is barely able to discern other dimensions of reality. For example, economists have difficulty recognizing that land confers identity on the indigenous because it represents the link with their ancestors. In the same way, economists rarely distinguish the central importance of forms of collective work, in which the community of a people finds free expression. The indigenous perspective is incompatible with that of economists: neither land nor work are, for the indigenous, simple production factors waiting for the optimum combination.
To draw the paradox: not everything that appears to be an economic activity is necessarily part of the economy. In reality, economists offer only one of many ways to understand activities oriented to goods and put them in a broader context. Things are obviously produced, distributed and consumed in every society. But only in modern societies does this happen with prices and products, property and work conditions formed predominantly by laws of economic efficiency. In other places different rules are valid and other models prevail.
It is not necessary to cite examples of ancestral beliefs like those of the Bemba, in Zambia, who see a good harvest or a successful hunting expedition as a gift from the ancestors, from whom they request favors in hopes of better production. Not even the chaos of bartering in the loud and overcrowded Arabian market has to do with outselling the competition. Which of the many merchants one chooses to buy from is determined by factors of social and geographic origin, as well as loyalty to certain Sufi sects. And of course, by sex. Trade is normally a man's job, though in Haiti, for example, women have the final word in this activity. In the same vein, it is enough to consider the planting cycles practiced by the Maharashtra farmers, who plan around the yearly weddings, festivals and pilgrimages. New cultivation methods can rapidly perturb this social calendar.
In societies that are not built on the compulsion to accumulate material riches, economic activity is linked to direct and instantaneous production. In reality, economic activities such as choosing an occupation, planting land or exchanging merchandise are understood as ways to represent that particular social drama in which the community members see themselves as actors. The history of that drama defines what belongs to whom, who produces what and how, what is exchanged with whom and when. The "economy" is closely linked to life and has not been isolated as an autonomous sphere that can impose its rules and rhythms on the rest of society. But in the West, the economy is the only thing that dictates the drama in which each must have a role.
Market: A Western InventionIn 1744, Zedler's Universal Encyclopedia involuntarily gave an ingenuous definition of "market": "That spacious public plaza, surrounded by decorated constructions or fenced in by posts, where at certain times every type of merchandise is offered for sale; the same place is also called plaza." The market, proclaimed as blessing and ruin for the last two centuries, this powerful idea, defined only as a location! The author of the entry appears to have been thinking only about multitudes, posts and baskets. There is no mention of market participation in "price fluctuations" or "equilibrium." The concept of "market" has almost nothing to do with the familiar contemporary concept. From that time to today, there has been a huge change in the market's image in society.
Adam Smith was the first thinker who used the term "market" in a way that no longer considered it as a location for selling merchandise but as a space, broad as society, through which all prices communicated. The term, which until then had meant a specific place, subsequently acquired its generalized and abstract significance: it now refers to the action of supra-individual equilibrium mechanisms.
This conceptual innovation was not an accident, but the reflection of a new social reality: an economy with a national reach. Before that, a national economy could not be assumed. Even in Europe at the end of the 17th century, trade was difficult between different regions of the same country. Of course, there has been trade since time immemorial—we need think only of the North German Hanseatic League or the splendors of Venice—but it was trade with other countries, and was limited to certain citizens who acted as a vanguard. And though history certainly knows of markets of all sorts and sizes, they were precisely places for local and temporary exchange, primarily between cities and the rural areas that surrounded them, with prices determined by custom.
In Adam Smith's century, however, the nation-state had formed a network of trade relations throughout society and had established the national market. As with today's developing countries, the young states of that period tried hard to make economic principles prevail everywhere, though at a lexicological level. While the term "economy" had been applied to the "domestic economy" of the prince at first , the entire nation was later transformed into a "political economy," and Smith became the theoretician of a society governed by market laws.
Alternatives to the Approaching Disaster?The transformation of society into a political economy was achieved only after a prolonged battle that demanded many sacrifices. Neither the way people earn their survival or property nor their idea of good conduct nor their sense of time was developed by a commercial "ethos." The merchant was not yet an entrepreneur, the land was not sellable, competition was seen as negative, usury had a bad reputation and those who worked for a wage lived on the margins of society. Because of all of this, capitalism's progress was marked by bitter disputes about whether, or to what degree, land and woods, food and money, workers themselves, could be treated as merchandise.
There have been similar changes in many parts of the Third World in recent decades as economic ideology has increased its pressure. The traditions of self-sufficiency have been tossed aside, local exchange relationships have been dissolved, collective forms of property have been destroyed and subsistence economies have been suppressed. For a long time, the guideline for international development policy was to create societies full of paid workers and consumers. The experts scrutinized countries to identify the "obstacles to development" that were preventing the free mobility of the "production factors." No cost was too high and few sacrifices too great to turn societies into adequately functioning political economies.
Without doubt, true miracles were forged and a great current swept through the continents of the southern hemisphere. History took a great leap. However, it is more and more clear that disaster looms. At the same time that the economy has finally managed to dominate the world, social ruptures and environmental destruction have become rampant. Societies see themselves as trapped: they can't give in to this autocracy but they can't escape it either.
In reality, during its ascent to the summit, the economy has suppressed its own alternatives and created a sterile earth in order to guarantee no-risk survival for human beings and nature. How could economic institutions be reinvented to permit people to live well, without being prisoners of the pernicious impulse to accumulate? Perhaps there is more creativity in the Third World to confront this historic challenge, simply because, despite everything, many people there still remember a form of life in which economic performance was not the supreme value.
The Environment: Responsibility or Control?Neil Armstrong's trip to the moon shed new light, not on our celestial neighbor, but on our own planet. Looking at the distant earth from the Apollo spaceship, Armstrong took pictures that now adorn the cover of almost all articles about the future of the planet: from far away, a small, fragile sphere, firm and brilliant against the darkness of foreign space, covered by a fine layer of clouds, water and continents. This is nothing less than a visual revolution, because since Armstrong's flight we have been able to see the globe in a way that made it possible for the first time for us to speak of our planet.
However, the possessive pronoun reveals at the same time a profound ambivalence. The word "our" expresses, on the one hand, a bonding, a common destiny, a reality that encompasses all, and on the other can indicate ownership and refer to the ability to use it freely. As a consequence, the photograph can provoke a sense of responsibility, but can also renew an inclination to control. This exact same ambivalence characterizes the development of the word environment. While it was initially understood in the spirit of the growth process, it is now an "adventist" word that announces a new round of "development." Effectively, now that the crisis of "ignorance," "poverty," and "hunger" have run their course, it appears that the crisis of planetary survival will promote a new abundance of "development" in the 1990s. It is no coincidence that the "World Commission on the Environment and Development" (the Brundtland Report) begins with a reference to the photograph of Earth taken from space and then concludes: "This new reality, from which we cannot escape, must be recognized and managed."
The World as a SystemThe "environment" occupied a conspicuous position on the international stage for the first time in 1972, at the United Nations Conference in Stockholm. The Swedish, concerned with acid rain and poisonous residues found in birds and fish, convoked the conference and got a rapid response, principally from the United States and Canada, where environmental conflicts were already a daily topic of conversation. A new category of problems emerged: "global issues" demanded a forum, and the UN jumped at the opportunity.
Stockholm was the first of a series of important conferences—on population, food, science and technology, desertification, etc.—that together altered our perception of the global space. The post-war period, when the world could be imagined as an open field with a multitude of nations each seeking economic growth for itself and against all the others, was over. This idea was slowly replaced by the image of an interconnected global system in which all nations must act within a set of restrictive conditions. The global space was seen less and less in terms of opportunity and more and more in terms of limitation.
The conceptual apparatus for this change was already available in the United States: an ecosystem philosophy with neo-Malthusian implications. The world was conceived as a system made up of the following five elements: population, technology, food, resources and environment. Its stability is at risk when these elements cease to be in equilibrium. In reality this disaster had already been predicted, given that population and technology demands largely threatened to exceed the capacity of resources. Unlimited growth was then considered a dangerous illusion, given that the world is effectively a closed system: it is finite and with limited cargo space. The Club of Rome popularized a perception of the planet's future as determined by the interaction of growth curves in the five dimensions.
This global ecosystem focus was successful only because it was totally compatible with the interests of the development elite: it shared their perspectives on the sublime culmination of world planning, and warned of world confusion in ordered and clear sets of neat data that clamored for action.
"Sustainable Development": Simultaneously Cure and DamageAlthough initially the criticisms of growth were a setback for conventional wisdom, they paved the way for the definition of a new development problem: long-term conservation of natural resources. Governments had little interest in "growth limits," but could not ignore the fact that growth depended on much more than the previously considered conditions of "capital formation" or "training of the work force."
Those who want long-term growth must stop destroying their resources now. This perception incorporated "efficient natural resource management" into the growth program. The redefinition of growth, presenting it as a problem of resource conservation, made the conflict between growth and the environment inoffensive and transformed it into an administrative exercise. Development planners should now also think about nature. The Brundtland Report's force is derived precisely from this perspective: "In the past we were concerned about the impact of economic growth on the environment, and now are obliged to be concerned about the impact of ecological pressure on our economic expectations."
However, a new obstacle got in the way of the happy union of the "environment" and "development." Environmental protection appeared to contradict the imperative to "eliminate poverty." Wouldn't the poor be left empty-handed if growth was limited? It was precisely the discovery that the poor are agents of resource destruction that allowed growth to be presented as an environmental protection strategy to "eliminate poverty." If there are no more poor people cutting down trees for firewood or overusing the land—goes the argument—it will also help the environment. This is why the Brundtland Report calls for "satisfying basic needs" as a resource conservation method.
After making these conceptual readjustments, both conventional and socially conscious supporters of growth could live with requiring a conservative society. Environmentalism was no longer in contradiction with the traditional debates about growth and basic needs. The Brundtland Report incorporated environmental concerns into the development concept, erecting "sustainable development" as a conceptual ceiling to both violating the environment and making it healthier. As so many times in the last forty years, by recognizing its destructive effects, the "development" concept was stretched to include both the sickness and the cure.
System: A Dangerous ConceptSlogans are the crystallization of desires. "Ecology" has been converted into the slogan of our era because it contains the promise of bringing back together that which has been separated and healing that which has been injured. In few words, it fixes everything. No one notes the inability of modern institutions to see beyond the horizon of their specific interests and be responsible for the so-called collateral effects of their actions. Their high level of efficiency is based on their lack of interest in all consequences that don't significantly affect their own calculations. Not even the Third World has abstained from this: intensive agriculture causes the phreatic layer to drop, energy policies tolerate deforestation of the tropical jungles, chemical factories produce illness and sometimes death. That is why demands for long-term vision and integrated planning are reiterated in environmentalist reports on development policy.
Together with integration, system is one of the key concepts used in this type of literature to express holistic relations. But be careful! The language of systems is not innocent, because it molds perception according to an instrumentalist style. To see habitats as "systems," whether a pond in the woods or the planet Earth, implies identifying a minimum number of fundamental components and representing their interdependence in quantitative terms. In the case of the pond, the system can constitute an interaction between energy, mass and temperature. The world system can involve population, resources and environment. Essentially, this implies reducing a complex reality to a handful of abstract dimensions. This reductionism is inevitable; there is no other way to explain or predict a system's behavior. The language of systems eliminates the personality, local particularities and qualities of reality. It is insensitive to the individuality of a situation.
On the other hand, systems language cannot avoid seeing live communities from the viewpoint of control. It is, in its origin, the language of engineers and their administrators. The systems concept was invented between the two world wars, with the idea of describing organisms in a simple, mechanistic way, in which "all" was interpreted as "equilibrium." In the engineering tradition, the relationship between the whole and its parts was seen as a "self-regulating mechanism," with the function of maintaining this equilibrium. If its feedback mechanisms are known, the system's behavior can be simulated. The terms "ecosystem" or "global system" cannot shake off their engineering legacy. The language is compromised by its interest in regulation and control.
Although the term "environment" appears inoffensive, it obeys these interests splendidly. In contrast to "nature," for example, it doesn't reveal any life: it is abstract and lacks color. It is the encarnation of passivity. If we examine it more carefully, this should not surprise us, since "environment" is a concept of relationships that do not have their own existence, but unite all those important outside factors for a subject that normally is not better characterized.
What surrounds the environment? Why and for whom is it important? In the international environmental reports, the hidden issue is usually the national economy. The environment appears as the sum total of all the physical barriers that frustrate the dynamic of the economic system. The conditions for its continued existence determine what aspects of nature are presented as environment, and its adaptability is invoked to overcome these barriers. In this sense, the environment invites us to find solutions in a greater level of complexity, instead of pacifying the system's dynamic.
Who Owns the Trees?It is known that many rural Third World communities do not have to wait for experts from some precipitously founded eco-development institute to come down and give them, for example, soil erosion remedies. Concern for the well-being of their children and grandchildren has always been part of their cultivation methods and economies. Centralized environmental planning, however, threatens to enter into conflict with local ecologies in the future.
In the Himalayas, for example, the Chipko movement made the combative courage and wisdom of the women who protected the trees of their mountains with their bodies into a local symbol of resistance that spread beyond the borders of India. This success had its price, however; forestry administrators arrived and demanded the trees for them. They did studies, showed diagrams, noted growth curves and argued on the grounds of optimum rates. Those who had defended the trees to protect their means of survival and bear witness to the inter-connectedness of life were unexpectedly bombarded with research findings and abstract categories of economic resources. The suppression of local knowledge by experts and bureaucracies could increase even more through environmental planning.
In addition, the economic measures used for resource conservation can easily end up being disastrous for survival economies. After all, survival economies are intimately linked to nature; they live directly from it and can thus keep the monetary economy at arm's length. Wherever forests are turned into tree plantations or national parks, the communities that use them as living areas are threatened not only with expulsion, but also with economic degradation.
The reforestation programs that emerged from the Chipko movement favored rapid-growth trees. Their quality, growth and yield, and their effects on soil and the water balance were such that the forests could not shelter the indigenous. An ecology that aspired to manage scarce natural resources clashed with an ecology that wanted to preserve local communities. National resource planning can thus lead to a continuation of the war against subsistence, though through other means.
One World against Many WorldsSatellite photographs of the Earth that scrutinize crops, pasture lands and forests evoke a false universalism. No human beings appear in these photographs, nor does what nature means for them and their lives. Global resource management tends to ignore the local context. This ignorance used to be called colonialism.
There are currently some 5,100 languages on Earth. Close to 99% of them are from Asia, Africa, the Pacific and the American continent, and only 1% are from Europe. Over 400 languages have been identified in Nigeria and 1,682 in India; even Central America, which is very small geographically, has 260. Mountain valleys, islands, deserts and forests are frequently the places where minuscule linguistic worlds affirm their existence. A mosaic of linguistic areas, large and small, covers the planet. But all indicators suggest that within a generation only 100 languages will have survived.
Languages are gradually disappearing, at the same rhythm as species. Plants and animals are disappearing from the history of nature never to be seen again, and with the death of languages, entire cultures are disappearing from civilization's history. In the same way that certain species of plants and animals are responsible for the continued existence of vast ecosystems, languages are often the carriers through time of subtle cultures, because languages preserve the way the world is ordered, the way a group forms and the meaning of it all. In the heat of "development," entire concepts of what human beings signify evaporate together with languages.
Yet the death of languages is only the most dramatic sign of the world evaporation of cultures. Although the individual effects of transistor radios, agricultural advisers and nurses, the clock-run system and its ironclad market laws very frequently remain on the surface, their combined effect is forcing an unprecedented historic transformation. Any way one looks at it, the Gleichschaltung (uniformizing) of the world is at its apogee: a global monoculture is extending across the planet like an oil spill.
Forty years of "development" formed on the "one world" model have now gone by. If appearances don't deceive, the final result of it all is a terrifying illusion. Ideas like "domestic world policy," "united world market," or even "global responsibility" have stimulated noble minds, and are being newly debated with an even stronger tone of moral sentiment than in past years. But in an era of cultural evaporation their innocence is suspect.
The Idea of "Humanity" is BornIn the Fairmont Hotel in Union Square, San Francisco, at least one bronze plaque commemorates the conference, held there on May 4, 1945, that initiated a global hope. In Room 210, delegates from 46 countries agreed to the text of the United Nations Charter. Hitler's Germany had finally been defeated and Japan's turn was not far off. The Charter promoted principles designed to inaugurate an era of peace: down with acts of national selfishness, long live international understanding. The union of humanity was invoked on all sides, universalism was the idea of the moment. Roosevelt's four liberties would be applied "throughout the world" and "all people from all countries" would be guaranteed "the conditions for social and economic progress." According to this point of view, only on the horizon of a global society of human beings with equal rights can violence and war be eliminated from the face of the earth.
The United Nations appealed to ideals that had taken form during the European Enlightenment. Christianity had had its day, and "humanity" had emerged and become the dominant collective concept. The central idea of being children of God, however, continued to have profound effects. After all differences of class, sex and race had been invalidated, at least in the eyes of God, the Enlightenment proclaimed human nature as the basis of equality. The universality of being children of God was thus reformulated, after the abolition of Heaven, as the universality of human dignity. "Humanity" became the common denominator that united all peoples and made differences of color, skin, religion and social organization insignificant.
The "Others" are "Backward"But this did not erase the image of "other" in Europe. Just as Christians had their idolaters, philosophers of the Enlightenment had their savages. But while for Christianity the pagans populated geographically remote regions, for the humanity concept the savages lived in an earlier historical period. The Europe of the Enlightenment no longer felt spatially separated, other than chronologically, from the figure of the other. The union of humanity, that is, a world without the other, could be seen by placing the differences in a temporal context: the savages were not yet completely mature and responsible human beings.
In the Enlightenment, the idea of one humanity suggested that, as history progressed, differences would dissolve into one civilization. Development, as the UN Charter in particular exemplified, closely follows that tradition of conceiving of one world influenced by this evolutionary bias. The underdeveloped have of course taken the place of the savages, but the concepts remain invariable: a peaceful global society does not yet exist, but it can be reached through the development of backward peoples. Difference is seen as a threat that should be neutralized through development. Consequently, world unity will be achieved through westernization.
Under the Control of The "World Market"It seems strange to us today, but the founders of the United Nations, like the architects of development policy, were inspired by the idea that the globalization of market relations would guarantee world peace. Instead of violence, the spirit of trade would reign throughout the world. Instead of the power of arms, productive power would be decisive in competition between nations. It was thought that world unity could only be based on a network of closely linked long-term economic relations. It was hoped that weapons would fall silent where merchandise was in circulation. After World War II, the global order was conceived in terms of a unified world market.
With an ingenuousness barely distinguishable from deceit, the development prophets polished up a utopia envisioned in the 18th century as if time had stopped and neither capitalism nor imperialism had ever appeared. After Montesquieu, the Enlightenment had discovered trade as a means for refining bad manners. The logic that extends from Montesquieu to the United Nations and even to the new Ostpolitik is that rational calculation and cold self-interest—precisely the attitudes that make war and tyranny appear self-destructive—would be distributed with trade.
It is hard to deny that, at least after World War II, this logic was validated in some measure: as European integration or the Pax Americana illustrates, the conquest of foreign territories by bellicose states has given way to the conquest of foreign markets by industries in search of profits. However, it has become clear in the era of multinational banks and corporations that this focus on yesterday's utopia is full of traps today.
The world market, once used as the weapon against political tyranny, has itself become a hidden dictator, at whose dominion both the rich and poor countries tremble. The fear of falling behind in international competition has become the main motor for the organization of policies in the North and the South, in the East and the West. This leads the developing countries to greater self-exploitation in order to increase exports, and the industrialized nations to an ever more destructive and wasteful production mania. Both businesses and entire states are trapped in an inhuman competition, in which each participant depends on the decision of all the other players.
What is missing in all this uproar is the possibility of a policy of self-determination. The categorical imperative of competition in the world market repeatedly frustrates all attempts to organize society creatively. Some countries can't get by without agricultural exploitation, others can't abandon the path of high technology. It is a rare country today that appears to control its own destiny. In this respect, differences between countries are only relative. Certainly the United States enjoys greater scope than India, but it also feels intense pressure from Japan. For both winners and losers, the restrictions of the world market have become a nightmare.
United in "Spaceship Earth"?Since the end of the 1970s, the new image of "one world" has been affirmed in our consciousness: the physical finiteness of the globe. From terrifying desertification to the threat of climatic disaster, the signs are multiplying and proclaiming in a strident concert that the processes of life on Earth are losing their way. Local actions, like cutting down trees or driving cars, come together in a global disaster. The union of humanity is no longer a capricious idea of the Enlightenment, but is imposed on the peoples of the world as a biophysical fact.
Establishing the union of humanity, which has often been conceived of as an historic effort, is now being revealed as an ominous destiny. It is now accompanied by gloomy warnings instead of hopeful stimuli. The "one world or no world" formula captures this experience. The destructive power of human beings has become so great that they need to contain themselves and accept their global responsibility or they will self-destruct. From this point of view, humanity resembles a group of individuals put together in a boat by chance, with each one dependent on the others for his or her own survival. No one can tip the boat without sending all down, immediately, to their collective destruction.
Among the siren songs about this kind of ethical life preserver, things are definitely not pretty for the mosaic of cultures that is our world. Even in far away communities, the precious value of variety is vanishing as fast as world strategies are being implemented to keep the boat from sinking. Can one imagine a more powerful motive to forcibly align the world than saving the planet?
It is perfectly conceivable that the constraint of efficient consumer conduct and broad resource planning—with possible assistance from satellite observation and computer models—will push diversity even further towards nothing. An "ecocracy" that acts in the name of "one Earth" to try to pull the world out of its "criminal habits" and make it fit together well could soon become a threat to local communities and their lifestyle.
This perception, however, does not help us out of the dilemma that will have determining influence in the next decades: it is as self-destructive to think in "one World" categories as not to think in them. On the one hand, it is sacrilege in our era of cultural evaporation to think of one highly integrated united world. On the other, the vision of the planet as a multitude of different, only vaguely connected worlds cannot omit the ideas of ecumenism given the threatening violence and the destruction of nature.
It was certainly a memorable error to insist, in the development period, on uniting the world through westernization. The promise of unity became the threat of uniformity. Now, will it be enough to see the world as a dialogue between civilizations?