Development in the Ecological Age
Development in the Ecological Age
By Charles Eisenstein /

Do you live in a developed nation or a developing nation? If your nation has an extensive system of roads, rail and airports, if it is fully electrified, if it is mostly urban and suburban, if modern medicine is widespread, if literacy and education are near-universal, if most people are connected to the Internet, and if, most crucially, per capita GDP is high, then most people would say you live in a developed nation. Otherwise, it will be classified as developing—still on the way to acquiring these things.

Implicit in the developed/developing distinction is the assumption that the course of social and economic evolution exemplified by the developed countries is normal, inevitable and generally desirable. If I am developed and you are developing, that means that your destiny is to be like me.

Today, some key flaws in the narrative of development are become obvious. Most flagrant of all is the problem of resource use and ecological footprint. There aren’t enough resources on earth for every human being to live like a North American or Western European, nor can the air, forests and oceans sustain that much pollution. A host of social ills as well seem to be development’s inseparable companions, and not mere temporary dislocations to be fixed with yet more social engineering.

Nonetheless, development as a normative concept has remained essentially unchallenged. Instead, we speak of ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ development, rarely wondering whether development itself, as conventionally understood, might be an inextricable aspect of an ecocidal culture.

No disembodied ideological construct, development is rooted in deeper, less visible ideologies and cannot be rejected without disrupting these as well. A deep critique of development quickly leads to territory so radical as to make the critic sound like a half-wit who has never considered ‘the benefits of education’ or ‘the benefits of modern medicine’ or ‘the progress we’ve made in alleviating poverty and feeding the hungry.’ In fact, development is wedded to deep assumptions that we take for granted about human nature, the nature of reality and the nature of existence itself. It is, in other words, an integral part of the defining mythology of our civilization.

Our civilization, however, faces a great and growing crisis that is relentlessly eroding the foundation of its deepest narratives. The ecological crisis in particular, the grievous damage we have done to the beauty of the earth, is beginning to cripple the smug certainty that humanity is on the right track in its glorious ascent over nature. The story of development is still strong, its dominance near total, but a cavity is growing at its core. The time has come to interrogate development on a fundamental level, to reveal how deeply wedded to it we are, and what an alternative vision of the future might be.

Development Economics

The narrative of development—‘destination: us’—is a colonialist narrative that devalues the existing lifeways of people around the world and seeks to conform them to the image of the dominant power. For the last sixty years, the application of development policies mirrored this colonialism in a direct economic sense. The rhetoric was that the West would, through financial grants and loans, help backward countries move through the transition from agricultural to industrial society. In practice, it meant making local labor, lumber, land, minerals, petroleum and so forth available to global capital. Most of the funding ended up either in the hands of tiny local elites or was funneled back to the global corporations who implemented the industrial mega-projects the development aid funded. The recipient nations were left with vast unpayable debts that they could only service by rendering unto Caesar their natural resources and pools of cheap labor to generate the foreign exchange currencies in which the loans were denominated.

To this day, the world financial system depends on the continuation of ‘development.’ Stripped of its techno-evolutionary gloss, what development really means is monetization. When a country speaks of ‘developing’ its ‘forest resources,’ what does it mean? It means to develop them as a source of products. What does a real estate developer do? He turns land from a place into a product, making ‘improvements’ on it that raise its monetary value. What is it to develop a market? It means to convert its non-monetary exchanges, reciprocity, sharing and mutual aid into marketable services.

Consider, for example, a remote village in India where everybody occupies that oft-lamented condition of ‘living off less than two dollars a day.’ Imagining ourselves with such an income, we see a life of relentless hunger and deprivation. The truth may be quite different. Consider that the people there grow most of their own food within extended families that may number over a hundred people, so they don’t need money to buy food. Similarly, everyone knows how to build a house out of freely available materials, so they don’t need money for housing. If land is owned in common by the extended family, no one needs money for rent either. Entertainment, drama and play are functions of village life that don’t require money as well. There is no need for insurance, as people take care of each other. There is no need to pay police, as informal social pressure and perhaps village councils enforce social norms. Of course, in the extended family there is no need to pay for cooking, cleaning or child care. And the village might have rich traditions of herbal and folk medicine.

Now replace the mud-brick houses with concrete. Replace the extended family compounds with nuclear family apartments. Replace systems of mutual aid with insurance. Replace communally held land with deeded property. Replace culinary knowledge with fast food restaurants. Replace the identity conferred by local stories and relationships with identity derived from brands. Replace walking with automobiles. Replace traditional songs with entertainment products. Replace sustainable subsistence agriculture with commodity export crops. Replace experiential land-based learning with school-based curricula. Replace the village healer with a medical clinic. Send all the young people to the cities. That is called development.

I do not mean to imply here that the village healer is categorically superior to the medical clinic that replaces her. What I want to illuminate is that the ideology of development goes hand in hand with powerful economic forces. Each one of the changes listed above represents an investment opportunity on some level. When people en masse begin paying for functions once performed in a gift economy, GDP rises, which is essential for the survival of our financial system. In a system in which money is created as interest-bearing debt, the absence of growth means fewer lending opportunities, rising indebtedness, rising unemployment and increasing concentration of wealth. Without growth, pressure grows to financialize assets, liquidate natural wealth, cut social services and essentially direct all resources toward the servicing of debt. A developed country, according to one definition, is a country in which there is little room for further economic growth. For the system to survive, new, high-growth markets must be developed, giving the system a new lease on life.

Development, in other words, is more than an ideology; it is an ideology in service to an economic necessity which, in turn, is not a real necessity but contingent on a growth-dependent debt-based financial system. Until that system changes, the pressure to develop—to convert natural resources into commodities and social relationships into services—will not abate. However laudable, ideas like ‘green development’ cannot escape this pressure but only channel it into one initially promising form after another that end in disappointment as each becomes yet another expression of the money chase. The current obsession with biofuels is a good case in point. Presented as a carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels, they have become the occasion for a massive land grab in Brazil and other countries, often with perverse effects like deforestation and the eviction of subsistence peasants and the indigenous from their land. ‘Development’ in this instance is taking the form of the conversion of land, forests, self-sufficiency and photosynthetic capacity into money.

None of this is to say that the less-developed nations should stay the way they are. That would be just as colonialist as to prescribe our own model of development. The outsider coming in and saying, “We know better than you,” and enforcing that belief with economic or military power is the essence of imperialism. It is also naïve, however, to say, “Look, those people want to develop, they want cars and TVs and luxury high rises and iPhones. Who are we to tell them they shouldn’t have them?” Sure, they want those things, but what is the context of that wanting? If the context includes a financial system that exerts constant pressure to financialize, mass media that project glamorous images of modernity, an educational system that names traditional ways of life as primitive and traditional knowledge systems as superstitious, then, of course, they will want those things. Similarly, it would be hypocritical indeed to castigate countries in South America for drilling and mining in the Amazon, when such activities are so strongly incentivized by the system that the critics themselves participate in. Yet that is what happened in Ecuador: in 2007 President Rafael Correa boldly proposed to leave a vast section of the Amazon undrilled if the global community would pay Ecuador $3.6 billion, about one-half the value of the oil therein. The global community failed to agree, and last year Correa declared the idea dead.

The Ideology of Ascent

Aligned though it is with global economic forces, development draws on an ideological wellspring that transcends economics and justifies our present system. It isn’t as some leftists have claimed, that the ideology of development is merely the servant of the economics of development. Rather, both spring from a deeper source. Both are fully at home in the Story of the World that defines modern civilization.

One thread of that story offers a kind of metahistorical narrative I call ‘the ascent of humanity.’ It says humanity started off naked and helpless, barely better than animals, struggling for bare survival. Instead of science, we had superstition; instead of technology, we had rituals. Fortunately, thanks to our big brains, we began to ‘develop’—to master the forces of nature, to control fire, to domesticate plants and animals, to build and invent and grow. We progressed from hunting and gathering, to agriculture, to industry, and now to the Information Age: from the biological to the mechanical to the purely mental, from the natural world to a manufactured world to a virtual world. Soon, the story goes, our triumph will be complete. We will conquer disease with genetic engineering and nanotechnology. We will conquer space. We will engineer body parts, synthesize food, expand our minds with computer add-ons. We will apply science to society too, using political science, psychology and economic science to end poverty, crime and mental suffering. This is the glorious destiny before us, that Descartes predicted four hundred years ago when he said that technology will make us the ‘lords and possessors of nature.’

A fierce debate has been raging in anthropology ever since the time of Hobbes and Rousseau over whether the original condition of human beings was better or worse than the civilized condition. Was life, as Hobbes put it, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short?’ Has modern civilization coincided, as writers like Jared Diamond, Stephen Pinker and Napoleon Chagnon assert, with decreasing violence and increasing civility? Or are we to believe Marshall Sahlins, David Graeber, Frans de Waal and Helena Norberg-Hodge, who make the case that ‘primitive’ people enjoyed if not a romantic Eden, at the very least far more leisure, cooperation, connection and security than most people in modern society?

A lot is at stake here since the Rousseauvian view calls into question the primary justification for modern society and, by extension, for the program of development. We might lament social injustice and environmental degradation, but we can console ourselves with the thought that at least we have improved on primitive conditions. At least, says the Hobbesian, we aren’t struggling day-by-day for survival. At least we don’t have to worry about our neighbor clubbing us over the head. Humanity is progressing. It is too bad that indigenous people have suffered when they have gotten in the way of civilization, but really it is all for their own good in the end. Soon all will have the benefits of education, of air conditioning, of all the modern comforts and conveniences. Yes, a lot is at stake in the debate over the nature of primitive life. Perhaps that explains the unusual vitriol that permeates the debate.

It is no accident that those of the Hobbesian persuasion tend to support the fundamental politics of Western neoliberal democracy and to support the spread of ‘Western values’ around the world. If industrialization, with all its horrors, hasn’t even made us better off, then we need to question the whole enterprise starting with its most basic assumptions. The mass media and established opinion tends to support the narrative of ascent. For example, Stephen Pinker’s much-celebrated book, The Better Angels of our Nature, which argues that thanks to civilization and the rise of democratic values, violence has been in a long decline—we have risen above our primitive state and our biology (except for the Muslims, who haven’t yet accepted Western democratic values and are therefore more violent).1

From the Hobbesian vantage point, the logic of development is irrefutable. In this trajectory from biological to mechanical to virtual, some cultures are further along than others; they are more ‘advanced.’ The conservative might say, “Too bad for the laggards; we assert the right of power.” The liberals might say, “Oh no, we must help them catch up.” But both agree on the basic narrative.

Those who question the narrative of ascent and progress are accused of ‘romanticizing the past,’ no matter how exhaustive their research or rigorous their argumentation. I remember a recent conversation I had with a business professor in which I cited anthropological work by Marshall Sahlins and Richard Lee, two eminent anthropologists of the previous generation, suggesting that hunter-gatherers enjoyed vast amounts of leisure time and little survival anxiety. The professor doubted that any respectable journal would publish such nonsense. To him, romanticizing the past is the only explanation for such views, so violently do they contradict assumptions most people take for granted.

Significantly, the word ‘romanticizing’ carries an anti-scientific connotation, suggesting that a rational, sober person not given to flights of romantic fancy would agree that humanity is progressing beyond its primitive origins. After all, science itself is an inseparable part of that ascent. Not only does science offer the defining worldview of modernity, but it is also the basis of the technology that runs modern life. Furthermore, conventional evolutionary biology essentially embraces a Hobbesian view of the state of nature, in which selfish genes program organisms to maximize reproductive self-interest. This paradigm of the gene and of evolutionary biology is rapidly disintegrating, but it remains a sponsoring assumption of the story of ascent and development. In its stead, a new paradigm of symbiosis, cooperation and interdependency is emerging in which competition plays a lesser role. These traits are not exclusive to civilized people, nor even to human beings at all: animals too, we are now realizing, demonstrate qualities of empathy and altruism.2

It need hardly be said that our economic system is well at home in the worldview of ascent. For one thing, because there is always more debt than there is money, it pits individuals against one
another and makes the competitive view of human nature seem true. The economist echoes the social biologist’s grim view of human nature: human beings seek to maximize financial self-interest. Secondly, because our system drives and requires growth, it pushes us to become, quite literally, the ‘possessors’ of nature, propelling the conversion of nature into property. Thirdly and relatedly, it encourages the domination of the world, the conquest of nature, by valuing all things in a utilitarian frame—in terms of their value to us. Finally, it echoes science’s onward march of quantification by converting a multiplicity of often qualitative values into a single metric of value called money. As we have seen, these same characteristics of money drive the process of economic development. Resting in the larger narrative of ascent, economic development seems nearly unquestionable.

A Living Universe

This narrative of the ascent of humanity rests on an even more fundamental worldview that is embodied in science (as we have known it). I call it the story of Separation. It says that we are separate individuals in an objective universe that lacks the qualities of self. Composed of generic particles and impersonal forces, the universe is alien, purposeless and dead. We associate progress with an escalating domination of nature because we deny the universe’s inherent creative energy, sacredness and purpose. When we recognize that nature is itself dynamic, creative and alive, then we need no longer to transcend it, but to participate in it more fully.

What does the land want? What does the river want? What does the planet want? These are meaningless questions unless one grants the land, water and planet some kind of consciousness. Science has told us that would be an anthropomorphic projection: without a central nervous system none of these things can ‘want’ anything. The world outside ourselves lacks the qualities of a self: desire, intelligence, purpose, consciousness, sacredness. Therefore, without compunction we can impose these things onto the dead substrate of nature, which, after all, is just an amalgam of generic particles shifting around according to impersonal forces.

Consider now that most, if not all, pre-modern cultures took for granted precisely what science denies. Theirs was a living world. The qualities of self extended beyond human beings, not only to animals but to plants and even to mountains, rocks, clouds and water. From such a worldview, respect for nature was a matter of course. Development—social and technological evolution—could exist in such a society but it wouldn’t be a matter of imposing human will onto nature. It would involve listening to nature, understanding what wants to be born of the relationship between people and the rest of creation. It would ask, “What are our gifts and how can they serve the whole?” It is because they see the world as alive, aware and listening that the cultures we call primitive usually conducted a lot of ceremonies. A ceremony for lighting the lamp, for opening the irrigation channel, for planting the seed, for breaking bread at each meal, even for entering a room. Life was a constant conversation with a living universe.

Education is normally regarded as one of the unequivocal benefits of development, but as with (money-measured) poverty, the matter is not so simple. Education as practiced in school undermines the ceremonial worldview in several ways. First, it physically separates children from the land and from the processes of life—from the vantage point of a classroom, the universe indeed seems dead. Second, it substitutes a new set of rituals—the examination, the clock, the bell—for the non-mechanical rituals of the living world. Third, it delivers a curriculum that contradicts the sacred worldview by advancing the metaphysics of science. Fourth, it offers as an aspirational object the modern life of an educated person working in a city for a salary. Finally, it promulgates a way of knowing that assumes an external world of objects and facts, invalidating not only local systems of knowledge but local ways of knowing as well.

The essence of colonialism is, “Our ways are better than yours.” Today, many people in the colonizing societies, faced with the rapid deterioration of the ecological basis of civilization, are questioning whether our economic ways are indeed better than those we once called backward. It is time now to extend the questioning to other ‘ways’—ways of seeing, ways of healing, ways of growing food, ways of knowing—that we also assumed to be superior. The Western environmentalist might admire the sustainable water use practices of a traditional villager and wish they be preserved, but is likely to see the ceremonies around water as a kind of superfluous add-on to concrete conservation practices. He might oppose the privatization of water, the drawdown of aquifers for industrial purposes, the pollution of rivers and lakes. But does he go so far as to say, “We must do these things because water is a living, sacred being that must be respected?” Or does the instrumental reason come first, the utilitarian concern about what will happen if we waste and pollute water? In other words, is it we in the end who really know better than the ‘developing’ world about the nature of this universe?

When we see water, minerals, trees and so on as something less than sacred, as not having the qualities of self, then there is no alternative but to treat them in a utilitarian mode (i.e., to ‘develop’ them). The mindset of development is inherent to the way we see the world. Unless the deep narratives of ascent and separation change, any variant of development that we offer is unlikely to bear results much different from what we have seen already.

That means that it is not primarily we in the developed West who must once again carry the latest knowledge—even if we think it is ‘green’—to the backward people in the rest of the world. It is rather we who must learn from them because we have mostly forgotten how to listen to nature, how to interact with it as if it were an intelligent, sacred being. It is we who must ‘develop’ that way of seeing and then apply it to the healing of our society and the lands we have harmed. That doesn’t mean that we have no gifts to give the rest of the world: there may be technologies such as photovoltaics, solar ovens and certain agricultural discoveries that fit into more ancient stories of the world. I believe that we will even find ways to use electronics and the Internet that enhance rather than erode local, land-based, ecological ways of life. Everybody in the world can learn from each other. But it is those of us who have been trapped in a dying and deathly story of ascent and separation that most fundamentally need to learn from the rest. Those who have resisted colonization can help us decolonize ourselves as well.

We are at the brink of new territory. Until now, as societies grew in scale they entered more and more deeply into the stories of ascent and separation. Even Gilgamesh won glory for his conquest of nature. The challenge before us is to translate the worldviews of small-scale societies into the context of billions of people. What would a mass society look like if it saw nature not as an object of domination and a source of resources but as a sacred mother, intelligent and alive? What would development look like if traditional worldviews were seen not as relics of a superstitious past to be transcended but as carriers of vital information about how to live on this planet? What would technology look like conceived as a servant of nature’s healing from the last five thousand years of damage?

The story of ascent, the story of separation, and all the institutions built upon them are in a state of crisis—of which the economic crisis is an important part. As the crisis intensifies, the core of the dominant culture will have an increasing need for new stories. These, we will discover, are not really new at all, but have been waiting for us in the corners of the world that have escaped, to some degree, the colonizing effects of development. Perhaps the most important thing people in those places can do is to preserve and develop their Stories of the World. We will need them for our future ‘development.’

1 Edward Herman and David Peterson offer a devastating critique of this book’s main arguments (International Socialist Review, Issue 86.)
2 See, for example, Frans de Waal’s book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. Crown, 2009.

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Development in the Ecological Age