Ghandiji versus Darvin

Another Gandhi, Jayanti has arrived. The great man’s ideals have largely been forgotten. The one saying of his that has suddenly become fashionable, and is repeated endlessly by the greens, is that nature has enough for everybody’s need but not enough for everybody’s greed. Charles Darwin, author of Origin of the Species, would have told you this is quite false.

Gandhiji was a great man, but not an expert on the struggle for survival between species. But it is typical that we venerate Gandhhi-ji’s errors and neglect his greatest teachings. We face serious environmental problems which must be tackled by intelligent analysis, not by falsehoods marketed with a “Made by Gandhiji” label.

Darwin showed that, far from being bountiful, nature was so parsimonious that every species faced mass death and extinction. Nature killed not just through inter-species competition but through vagaries like droughts, floods and Ice Ages.

Humans evolved from apes as hunter-gatherers. Anthropologists estimate that nature could sustain no more than two to seven such hunter-gatherers per square mile. Nature killed off any significant population expansion in any given area. So humans were forced to march across continents for sheer survival. They finally solved the problem through a great technological invention — agriculture.

Today, simple-minded greens tend to look on traditional agriculture as “natural,” and only on chemical fertilisers and pesticides as man-made. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Traditional agriculture involved clearing forests, draining swamps, levelling and ploughing land and planting I selected species of grain with a view to increasing yields. This was the bounty of technology, organisation and markets, not of nature. Not even agriculture could prevent nature from killing massively through drought, its standard form of population control. A few years of good rain led to a dramatic expansion of all species, but there inevitably followed a drought which killed and restored the original population balance. Drought (aided by floods and disease) helped keep the human population fairly stable for long periods in history.

In Gandhiji’s state, Gujarat, a drought in 1630 killed over one million people. Peter Mundy, a British traveller, described the scene. “The highways were so full of dead bodies that we could hardly pass them without treading on or going over some…. Women were seen to roast their children, and men travelling on the highways were laid hold of to be eaten.” So, if some greens had gone to Gandhiji’s state in those days to proclaim that nature had enough for everybody’s needs, they would promptly have been eaten, and yet ever body’s need would not have been met.

Mass starvation ended only when humans organised high-‘ yielding varieties to create agricultural surpluses, facilities to store surpluses in good years, early warning systems to alert decision-makers to impending disasters, transport systems to rush grain to needy areas and employment schemes to put purchasing power in the hands of those impoverished by nature’s disasters. Technology, organisation and markets were the saviours.

The bogus mantra about nature’s bounty is chanted today by greens urging a new life-style with decreased material consumption. This is a variation of the Club of Rome’s claim in the 1970s that the world was about to run out of oil and other materials because of roan’s greed. Yet today the prices of all commodities, including oil, are so depressed that exporting countries have a tough time.

Far from running out of materials, the world has a surplus of them despite ever-growing GNP. The reason is that technology, organisation and markets have reduced the material content of GNP more successfully than any pleadings of greens. The oil and commodity crisis of the 1970s sparked R and D, which conserved energy and material use in very conceivable field. This meant GNP could rise with little or no rise in material consumption. Any material shortage raised prices, inducing R and D, which would ultimately solve the supply problem. R and D also solved environmental problems when given the right organisational incentives (when CFCs were banned in aerosol cans, R and D soon produced a substitute which was also cheaper).

Greens castigate technology for creating environmental problems. They often fail to see that, intelligently applied, technology can solve the same problems. We need to consume more intelligently, not consume less.

Most greens refuse to face up to the harsh economic fact that reduced consumption causes a recession, unemployment and misery. Under consumption caused the Great Depression of the 1930s. This did not lead to an environmental paradise, merely to a huge human disaster.

Greens have every right to crusade for a new lifestyle. They could say, “We know that cutting material consumption will cause a depression, but we believe such hardship is necessary to create a new world where people are less attached to material needs.” That would be an honest and courageous stand, an experiment with truth. But if they claim that we should reduce consumption because nature has enough for everybody’s need that is an experiment with falsehood.

What do you think?