E Goldsmith, R Allen, M Allaby, J Davoll and S Lawrence for The Ecologist (1972)

The principal defect of the industrial way of life with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable. Its termination within the lifetime of someone born today is inevitable - unless it continues to be sustained for a while longer by an entrenched minority at the cost of imposing great suffering on the rest of mankind. We can be certain, however, that sooner or later it will end (only the precise time and circumstances are in doubt) and that it will do so in one of two ways: either against our will, in a succession of famines, epidemics, social crises and wars; or because we want it to - because we wish to create a society which will not impose hardship and cruelty upon our children - in a succession of thoughtful, humane and measured changes. (p15)

These opening, indelible words provoked widespread interest and concern in the early 1970s; although the report is essentially a constructive plan for the future it was interpreted as a statement of impending catastrophe and promoted a macabre interest in doomwatch.

The rationale for the expectation that industrial society will inevitably collapse is that exponential growth of population and consumption must inevitably disrupt ecosystems and lead to failure of food supply and exhaustion of resources. Instead of permitting this to happen:

our task is to create a society which is sustainable and which will give the fullest possible satisfaction to its members. Such a society by definition would depend not on expansion but on stability. This does not mean that it would be stagnant - indeed it could well afford more variety than does the state of uniformity at present being imposed by the pursuit of technological efficiency. (p39)

Four conditions were identified by the authors for such a stable society to exist: minimum disruption of ecological processes; maximum conservation of non-renewable resources; population stability with birth rate equal to death rate; and a social system which ensures that individuals can enjoy rather than be restricted by the first three conditions.

[1] Concern was expressed that ecological processes are being disrupted by the introduction of foreign substances and excessive quantities of existing substances.

Pollution control by the dispersal of noxious wastes may only be playing for time and lead to serious problems in the long term. Dispersal into the air by tall chimneys, and dumping into waste heaps on the land or into the sea needs to be replaced by either extraction and recycling of minerals or the development of wastes which are so close to natural products that they are not harmful.

Pesticides were discussed as an exemplar of undesirable foreign substances deliberately being introduced to the environment with no clear understanding of the ecological consequences. The report suggested that their use be reduced in three stages: first by a freeze on the introduction of new persistent pesticides; secondly by the replacement of existing persistent pesticides by non-persistent ones (i.e. ones which can be broken down quickly in the ecosystem); thirdly by the replacement of all or most pesticides by natural control measures.

Inorganic fertilisers were recognised as valuable, but their overuse leads to pollution of freshwater systems by run-off and diminishing yields of crops due to slow deterioration of the soil. Three stages of change were suggested: first a freeze on further development of fertiliser usage; secondly a gradual substitution of organic manures for inorganic fertilisers and re-introduction of rotational practices including leys and, thirdly, the introduction of highly diversified agricultural practice instead of monocultures.

[2] The maximum conservation of non-renewable resources was seen by the authors as entailing a change from an economy of flow to an economy of stock.

They suggested that throughput of raw materials could be reduced by three measures: a raw materials tax which could be proportional to the availability of the raw material and thus would encourage recycling; an amortization tax which would be proportional to the estimated life of the product, such that the longer the life planned for a product the less the tax - this would help to conserve materials; and a power tax which would penalise power ¬intensive processes and would thus help to conserve fuel as well as encourage labour-intensive processes.

They also noted that planetary genetic resources were being diminished at an alarming rate and measures to protect areas of tropical rain forest, tropical scrub forest and arctic tundra were proposed.

[3] Population stability. In terms of the U.K. the authors reckoned that the ecological carrying capacity of the land would be a population of 30 million people and they advocated educational and birth control policies which might achieve that level within 150 to 200 years. On a world scale they looked for the implementation of policies for only two children per family by the end of the twentieth century.

[4] In terms of a new social system the authors argued for decentralisation on four grounds: first that small communities provide much greater opportunities for public participation in decision making; secondly that diversified agriculture and localised industry can be closely responsive to peoples' needs if based on small communities; thirdly that small communities enable individualism to flourish through community life; and, fourthly, that the impact on the environment of many small communities is less than that of equal populations located in fewer but large communities. Although they saw the small community as the basis of society, and expected each to be as self-sufficient and self-regulating as possible, they stressed that the small community should not be inward-looking or closed to the rest of the world. There must be an ‘efficient and sensitive communications network between all communities.’ They emphasised that the goal should be ‘to create community feeling and global awareness’.

Having established these strategies for creating a stable and self-¬sustaining society the authors then presented an orchestrated programme for implementing them over a one-hundred year period - from 1975 to 2075.

They concluded:

The stable society, with its diversity of physical and social environments, would provide considerable scope for human skill and ingenuity. Indeed, if we are capable of ensuring a relatively smooth transition to it, we can be optimistic about providing our children with a way of life psychologically, intellectually and aesthetically more satisfying than the present one. And we can be confident that it will be sustainable as ours cannot be, so that the legacy of despair we are about to leave them may at the last minute be changed to one of hope. (p68)