Does The Third World Point To The Future?

One of the articles in What Is Enough? (IC#26)
Originally published in Summer 1990 on page 6
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute


Many people assume that the Third World should model itself after the industrial West. But Western nations seem to benefit from an unsustainable lifestyle only because they are able to transfer its real costs – to the Third World in particular. This transfer, in turn, accounts for much that is dysfunctional in Third World societies.

The Eurocentric world view (now largely accepted by Third World societies) is practically blind to the value or potential in a Third World lifestyle. But as the First World’s societies break down environmentally, socially and economically, it is becoming clear that the industrial model of progress is unworkable.

Third World countries could improve and maintain lifestyles which have traditionally been sustainable. But if they industrialize after the models of the West, the implications are frightening. Scientists al ready predict a near doubling of the world’s population by the year 2025, and global environmental catastrophe unless present levels of energy use are drastically reduced. If Third World countries continue to industrialize, environmental and social disaster will be unavoidable.

But neither world leaders nor the "environmental community" appear to be aware of what is going on, or what needs to be done. For example, Western governments and news media assume that Eastern Europe has a right to join the West in its entropic pursuit of glitz and excess. And the thrust of Earth Day 1990 was about maintaining the American lifestyle through in creased recycling, insulation, and driving energy efficient cars.

This is the old American Dream, cosmetically made over but with its foundation still in the idea of super abundance. How is global humanity, already starving by the millions, to emulate this lifestyle? Will all the world’s people drive energy efficient cars? Will the entire planet, then, be paved to accommodate them? Where are the resources to build large houses, swimming pools, and air conditioners for the planet’s growing billions?

It is absurd, of course, to propose the American standard of living, no matter how efficiently managed, as a global model. How then can Americans set themselves apart morally from the rest of the world, in terms of how they live and use the planet’s resources?

In the "undeveloped" nations, cultural habit and economic necessity force people to use few resources. This is particularly evident in the way the built and natural environments coexist. Where there are no cars or money to hire bulldozers, houses nestle among the natural vegetation. They are reached by simple tracks. Natural and found materials (thatch, mud, cardboard) are often used directly. A single outdoor tap may serve the water needs of an entire community, and pit latrines are common. No garbage truck comes to haul the trash away; the little that is generated is disposed of locally. Westerners may appear more sanitary – but a check of how many wash their hands after using a public lavatory might do much to shatter that myth.

The seductive pull of industrialism now reaches every corner of the planet. The traditional Third World lifestyle is being disrupted by worsening ecological conditions every where, yet there is a general acceptance that non-Western lifestyles are doomed. Why? Everything we know suggests that we should all be living in small houses, abandoning the private automobile, and resisting all forms of paving. We should instead be growing food where we live, composting all human and organic waste, and conserving water. Until recently, these practices were common to all parts of the Third World.

Instead of aid that supports industrialization, the West should be offering assistance that bolsters the old sustainable lifestyles, supplementing them with appropriate or intermediate technologies that in crease energy efficiency and hygiene. Equally important, the West needs to preserve those older, more sustainable lifestyles that still exist within its own boundaries.

One good example is East Palo Alto, where I live and work. Although surrounded by the wealthy, educated, technologically advanced First World communities of Silicon Valley, it bears great resemblance to the Third World. Its majority population is a conglomeration of low income ethnic "minorities," primarily Blacks and Latinos. Shunned as a backwater, it is perceived as a haven of urban crime and drug dealing. The deeper truth, however, is that East Palo Alto could become a model for the coming age of urban agriculture.

A large section of East Palo Alto was built by an early visionary of sustainability. The city’s rural characteristics result from what remains of the Charles Weeks Poultry Colony, a utopian urban agricultural cooperative which thrived there between 1916 and the Depression.

Weeks was a "practical idealist" who believed that "the highest independence of which Man is capable can be had in a little garden intensively cultivated, where neither wage earning nor the hiring of help enslave." Subdividing 600 acres into one- to five-acre lots, he developed the slogan, "One Acre and Independence," advertised widely for settlers, and formed an agricultural cooperative called Runnymede.

As the world wakes up to the practical and spiritual need to grow food right where we live, East Palo Alto has a chance to go "back to the future" by embracing this exceptional treasure in its history. It also has the tradition, climate, soil, infrastructure, and economic necessity to become a hub of urban agriculture and historical continuity. The large developments now planned for the city promise money, but only to a few, and they would displace many local citizens. A revival of local agriculture, however, would provide labor-intensive job opportunities and create a common nexus for the different cultural groups, who do not now communicate.

Instead of money, this approach values community pride and survival. By refusing "business as usual" East Palo Alto could provide international leadership and set a unique example of development based on real human needs and limits. Nothing but such a utopian vision can save the world.