The Earth Is Not an Ecosystem

In 1966, at the age of twenty, I joined the Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), one of the many volunteer organizations that sprang up in the 1960's to promote "international development."  Outside of Canada, and often within Canada as well, the easiest way to identify CUSO was as "the Canadian Peace Corps" — after the civilian "army" created by John Kennedy to help nations, as he said,  "struggling for economic and social progress."  Most industrialized countries had such an organization, and their volunteers often flocked together during those years.  At the time I joined CUSO I had little attachment to the idea of development, and little knowledge of it.  I was impelled more by a romantic image of India, which had begun when I read Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, and I thought that CUSO might help me to get there.  In the event, there was no place for me in India, but I was offered a situation in Sarawak, one of the eastern provinces of Malaysia which lies along the northwestern coast of the Island of Borneo.  I accepted and was plunged willy-nilly into the world of development..  Two years later, back in Canada, I began to associate with a group of "returned volunteers" whose experiences had made them, like me, increasingly quizzical about the idea of development.  We were not alone.  By the end of the 1960's — the "development decade," as the U.N. had proclaimed it — development had begun to appear to a lot of people as a neo-colonial undertaking.  Fundamental economic relationships between rich and poor remained unequal and exploitative, and dribs and drabs of"development assistance" seemed more like sugar coating than real justice.  More adventurous currents of thought questioned the very idea of development, as a one-size-fits-all blueprint for "modern" societies.   Pre-eminent among these more adventurous thinkers, for me, was Ivan Illich, then the presiding spirit of the Center for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico.   In 1968 in Chicago, he lectured to another group of volunteers, the Conference on Inter-American Student Projects, and advised them to come to Latin America as students, if they would, but not as helpers or, in his words, "demonstration models for high service consumption."  This lecture spoke to me and, around it, my own nascent criticisms of development began to coalesce — the beginning of a relationship that continues to occupy me to this day, fifteen years after Illich's death.   In 1970, my friends and I brought him to Toronto, along with many other critics of the. development crusade, for a big "teach-in" called "Crisis in Development." Eighteen years later I prevailed on Illich to do a series of interviews with me for Ideas. They were broadcast early in 1989 under the name "Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman: Conversations with Ivan Illich", and you can find them on this page under "Illich."  The interviews were recorded in State College Pennsylvania, the home of the Pennsylvania State University, where lllich then gave a weekly lecture series during the fall term.  When I arrived there, I found him immersed in an on-going consultation with friends and colleagues called, bluntly, "After Development, What?"   This meeting was one of several such gatherings that would eventually lead to the publication of The Development Dictionary (Zed Books, 1992).  This was an attempt, in the words of its editor Wolfgang Sachs, to write an "obituary" for the "age of development,"  in the form of a series of essays on keywords in the development discourse.  As I got to know Illich better, and was drawn into his world, I would join this attempt to find a way of speaking of livelihood "after development."  The result was several radio series, which I now want to present on this site. The first of these, "The Earth is Not an Ecosystem," was broadcast on Ideas in 1992, the year many of the world's leaders gathered with great fanfare in Rio De Janeiro to redefine economic progress as "sustainable development" at the so-called Earth Summit.  In the same year, a group of representatives of grass-roots organizations from around world met in Orford, Quebec under the auspices of the Montreal-based InterCulture Institute.  The institute's, for me, invaluable journal, also called InterCulture, had for years been a voice for those who challenged the very idea of a monolithic, universally valid process called development and an advocate of what might be called deep pluralism.   In Orford, alternatives to development rather than "sustainable development" comprised the agenda.  One of InterCulture's main inspiration, the Hindu/Spanish priest and philosopher, Raimon Panikkar, was there.  So were several of the people I had first met at the "After Development, What?" meetings in State College in 1988, including, notably, Gustavo Estava from Mexico and Majid Rahnema from Iran.   The line-up of the six programmes is as follows: Part One - Raimon Panikkar and Nick Hildyard;  Part Two - David Tuchschneider and Tierno Kane; Part Three - Gustavo Estava;  Part Four - Smithu Kothari;  Part Five - Majid Rahnema;  Part Six - Didiji (Swadhayaya), Majid Rahnema, and R.K. Srivastava. The image above is from an altarpiece by the medieval painter Meister Bertrand, now displayed in the Kunsthalle of Hamburg, where I fell under its spell.  Its Christian cosmology is just one many possible examples of the ways in which the earth can be imagined as something other than an ecosystem.

In 1966, at the age of twenty, I joined the Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), one of the many volunteer organizations that sprang up in the 1960's to promote "international development."  Outside of Canada, and often within Canada as well, the easiest way to identify CUSO was as "the Canadian Peace Corps" — after the civilian "army" created by John Kennedy to help nations, as he said,  "struggling for economic and social progress."  Most industrialized countries had such an organization, and their volunteers often flocked together during those years.  At the time I joined CUSO I had little attachment to the idea of development, and little knowledge of it.  I was impelled more by a romantic image of India, which had begun when I read Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, and I thought that CUSO might help me to get there.  In the event, there was no place for me in India, but I was offered a situation in Sarawak, one of the eastern provinces of Malaysia which lies along the northwestern coast of the Island of Borneo.  I accepted and was plunged willy-nilly into the world of development.. 

Two years later, back in Canada, I began to associate with a group of "returned volunteers" whose experiences had made them, like me, increasingly quizzical about the idea of development.  We were not alone.  By the end of the 1960's — the "development decade," as the U.N. had proclaimed it — development had begun to appear to a lot of people as a neo-colonial undertaking.  Fundamental economic relationships between rich and poor remained unequal and exploitative, and dribs and drabs of"development assistance" seemed more like sugar coating than real justice.  More adventurous currents of thought questioned the very idea of development, as a one-size-fits-all blueprint for "modern" societies.   Pre-eminent among these more adventurous thinkers, for me, was Ivan Illich, then the presiding spirit of the Center for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico.   In 1968 in Chicago, he lectured to another group of volunteers, the Conference on Inter-American Student Projects, and advised them to come to Latin America as students, if they would, but not as helpers or, in his words, "demonstration models for high service consumption."  This lecture spoke to me and, around it, my own nascent criticisms of development began to coalesce — the beginning of a relationship that continues to occupy me to this day, fifteen years after Illich's death.   In 1970, my friends and I brought him to Toronto, along with many other critics of the. development crusade, for a big "teach-in" called "Crisis in Development."

Eighteen years later I prevailed on Illich to do a series of interviews with me for Ideas. They were broadcast early in 1989 under the name "Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman: Conversations with Ivan Illich", and you can find them on this page under "Illich."  The interviews were recorded in State College Pennsylvania, the home of the Pennsylvania State University, where lllich then gave a weekly lecture series during the fall term.  When I arrived there, I found him immersed in an on-going consultation with friends and colleagues called, bluntly, "After Development, What?"   This meeting was one of several such gatherings that would eventually lead to the publication of The Development Dictionary (Zed Books, 1992).  This was an attempt, in the words of its editor Wolfgang Sachs, to write an "obituary" for the "age of development,"  in the form of a series of essays on keywords in the development discourse.  As I got to know Illich better, and was drawn into his world, I would join this attempt to find a way of speaking of livelihood "after development."  The result was several radio series, which I now want to present on this site.

The first of these, "The Earth is Not an Ecosystem," was broadcast on Ideas in 1992, the year many of the world's leaders gathered with great fanfare in Rio De Janeiro to redefine economic progress as "sustainable development" at the so-called Earth Summit.  In the same year, a group of representatives of grass-roots organizations from around world met in Orford, Quebec under the auspices of the Montreal-based InterCulture Institute.  The institute's, for me, invaluable journal, also called InterCulture, had for years been a voice for those who challenged the very idea of a monolithic, universally valid process called development and an advocate of what might be called deep pluralism.   In Orford, alternatives to development rather than "sustainable development" comprised the agenda.  One of InterCulture's main inspiration, the Hindu/Spanish priest and philosopher, Raimon Panikkar, was there.  So were several of the people I had first met at the "After Development, What?" meetings in State College in 1988, including, notably, Gustavo Estava from Mexico and Majid Rahnema from Iran.  

The line-up of the six programmes is as follows:

Part One - Raimon Panikkar and Nick Hildyard;  Part Two - David Tuchschneider and Tierno Kane; Part Three - Gustavo Estava;  Part Four - Smithu Kothari;  Part Five - Majid Rahnema;  Part Six - Didiji (Swadhayaya), Majid Rahnema, and R.K. Srivastava.

The image above is from an altarpiece by the medieval painter Meister Bertrand, now displayed in the Kunsthalle of Hamburg, where I fell under its spell.  Its Christian cosmology is just one many possible examples of the ways in which the earth can be imagined as something other than an ecosystem.