Before the Wheel

Nicholas Russell on environment lessons from development history

In the European Parliamentary elections of July 1988, the Green Party won 15 per cent of the vote. With one bound environmentalism moved from a cause espoused by a few eco-freaks to a central place in public consciousness. Harmony, sustainability and the husbanding of scarce resources were all back on the political agenda after decades in which natural resources were considered limitless. The miracle of capital accumulation and economic growth had liberated mankind from its struggle to survive in spite of Nature. Man had finally conquered her. She was tamed, domesticated and safe. There was no longer any need to be respectful; to limit our demands.

If Nature is now biting back, we may have to rediscover the virtues of economic systems which pre-date the present world hegemony of liberal capitalism and Marxism. Only history can provide the framework for such a rediscovery. We need a new breed of green historian to re-analyse agrarian economies before the Industrial Revolution, to discover their strengths rather than dwell on their weaknesses. Over much of Europe, the economic base was the open field system. The time is surely ripe for a re-evaluation of this tenacious pattern of social organisation, in which resources held in common were managed for the benefit of all participants in the system.

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