July 16, 2003

You are all degenerates

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You are all degenerates. The world is in a catastrophic state, society has become enfeebled and communities are under threat. Yet you are gorging yourself on disposable consumer goods while the world starves. The environment is about to implode and it is your fault. Yes you. You, with your semi-formed, nine to five, commuter-belt attitudes. You with the kids and the mortgage. You with your swanky hire- purchase car and your contempt for cyclists. Yes you, homo modernus celticus. You are part of the problem.

Artistic licence notwithstanding, this attitude sums up the view of the most extraordinary movement to have emerged in recent years – the “sustainable” industry.  “Ah yes, but is it sustainable?” is the quip used by many when faced with a variety of issues from economics to politics, from finance to culture. Arguably, the sustainable industry is the hippest, most appealing, most right-on ideology doing the rounds these days. But what does it really mean?  In the past ten years since the Rio summit, the term “sustainable economics” has entered into common parlance as a benchmark against which all economic progress can be measured. This week, the high priests of sustainability are chatting down in Jo’burg, pointing fingers at the rest of us and telling the poor what is best for them.

The most interesting aspect of the sustainable industry is just how all-encompassing it has become. Sustainable economics is the credo of the new moralists of the right and the environmentalists of the left. It is an umbrella movement where Aine Ni Conaill meets Naomi Klein, where the Pope talks to Jean Marie Le Pen and Mary Robinson and Gerry Adams sing from the same hymn sheet. It is an extraordinary hybrid that has emerged as an antidote to the doctrine of globalisation.

Maybe they are right. Maybe individualism, fashion and consumerism are breeding like a virus that will ultimately overwhelm our society’s fragile immune system. Maybe we are gambling with our ecosystem in a game of Russian roulette that will lead to environmental Armageddon. But maybe not. The fact that we have been here before argues for an element of scepticism.

A century ago, in the face of huge technological advances various movements sprang up questioning the sustainability of everything. The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century was regarded as a golden age for prosperity, science, human inquiry and social utopia. It was the era of the big set piece battles between science and religion, between superstition and modernity, between medicine and fate, between madness and psychotherapy. Innovations occurred with frightening speed. Electricity, the bicycle, the car, urbanisation, socialism, immigration, the cinema and the telephone emerged within a ten-year period. Death rates halved in a twenty-year period between 1880 and 1900 in Europe, many killer diseases were tamed and diet improved dramatically as did access to education.   Yet faith in innovation to deliver material progress also led to a counter-reaction: the fear of degeneration. Then as now technical progress and terror of social degeneration were two sides of the same process. Anxiety about degeneration gripped the chattering classes across Europe in the same way as it has today. Maybe the reason fear of degeneration is so powerful today – with the right claiming the end of traditional community, family values and social ties and the left claiming the end of the environment, the domination of faceless big business and the exploitation of the third world – is because degeneration is not a theory, rather it is a set of anxieties. This set of anxieties is brought into focus by a sharp sense of nostalgia and a yearning for some mythical old order.

Development today mirrors the angst of a hundred years ago as summed up in Max Nordau’s runaway bestseller “Degenerates” published in 1898.  Nordau summed up the fears of many when he declared, “We stand in the midst of a severe mental epidemic, a sort of Black Death of degeneration and hysteria”. The degenerates, according to Nordau, were a disconnected elite, aloof from the common man, who embraced change and modernity and rejected tradition, community and the old way of life that held societies together. He argued that as societies became more complex, cities grew and became less friendly and commerce became more global, the community would fracture. He postulated that this demanded an institutional response, a new hierarchy, an all-powerful system of international governance to prevent total anarchy, which he saw as an inevitable consequence of a free-market free for all.

Degeneration struck a chord but unfortunately also opened up the way for many of the social experiments that dominated politics in Europe until 1945. However, the same stuff is alive and well today in the sustainable pamphleteers. Degeneration is not limited to the moral or religious right, it is flavour of the month on the left as well. Common to both sides is an attack on economic growth and consumerism as the prime source of social improvement. It can be termed the “bicycle good, Man United jersey bad” school of modern sociology. According to the degenerates, society does not need more cash, but a stronger set of values to guide it. There is no more powerful version of this than the image of ecological degradation.

The environmental argument is well rehearsed and is very persuasive. We are running down our resources, we will run out of fossil fuels and even before we do we will change the earth’s climate so much that life will not be worth living. As a result we should stop consuming and the third world should stop having babies. If we spend less and there are less people around, the resource that is the world will last a bit longer.

Up to now, the world has put its faith in technical progress, human ingenuity and luck and thus far it has paid off. Maybe it will pay off again. The point is that back in the 1960s we were told that the big fear was global cooling. In the 1970s the terror was running out of oil by 2000. In the 1980s it was the dangers of nuclear power and in the 1990s we went on to global warming. All the time, human brilliance has allowed us to increase our quality of life, using less rather than more resources.

The Earth Summit will end with a call for less growth, less babies, more community, more solidarity and more awareness. Many will lament the passing of old communities and the old way of doing things and modernity will be accused of breaking the bonds with land, family and community. In short, the terror of degeneration will dominate. This may be right but history shows that we have been here before and the world has prospered without a set of guiding values imposed from on high. There is still room for scepticism in this sea of right-on certainty.