The Spell of Development

In the 1998 science fiction film, Deep Impact, a meteorite is about to strike Earth and cause a mass extinction. Disaster is averted thanks to heroic astronauts who sacrifice their lives to save Earth by blowing up the asteroid.

According to scientific estimates, extinction of wildlife and transformation of the biosphere by industrial civilization in the past few centuries, accelerating in the past few decades, has cumulated in destruction greater than was wreaked by the meteorite that terminated the Cretaceous Epoch and the age of dinosaurs 65 million years ago — our ancestors living back then would have been smallish four-legged creatures we would wantonly be exterminating today were they around.

Obviously, for those of us who take nature to heart, although our numbers are much greater than the Deep Impact saviour crew, there is no such one-off solution to stop industrial civilization on its destructive trajectory.  

Extinction looms over the albatross as a result of industrial fishing, threats at breeding sites and ocean plastic pollution. If this happens, a whole animal culture will be extinguished, with its particular dances, songs, courtship rituals, life-long bonds and transmission of skills to the young. One tagged albatross has flown the equivalent of six round trips to the moon in her 65-plus years of life. She understands winds and water in ways no human ever will.

The dolphin and the whale have their own mode of perceiving and communicating and possess languages with extensive vocabularies. “Within a humpback’s half-hour song there are a hundred million bytes. A million changes of frequency, and a million tonal twists…An Odyssey, as information-packed as Homer’s, can be told in thirty minutes.”  These oceanic cultures are threatened by human restlessness too.

Swiss nature artist and philosopher Robert Hainard (1906 – 1999) wrote that in this age we should take pride in our animal faculties to be distinguishable from robots and justify our existence.

Hainard also believed that a day would come when the degree of civilisation would be measured by the size and wildness of nature it would leave to flourish.

The opposite is true today where the level of civilisation attributed to a culture or nation hinges on the heaviness and extent of its ecological footprint.

Since Christopher Columbus first set foot on a Caribbean island in1492, exploration and colonization brought Western people into contact with indigenous peoples in different parts of the world. As their presence on the land was light, they were assimilated to fauna and flora and treated at the coloniser’s discretion too. 

There is a movement today to rehabilitate indigenous peoples by showing that they, like Westerners, managed their environment with a human-centred approach.

Speaking about Australia where James Cook first landed in 1770, historian Bill Gammage demonstrates continent-wide intensive management before white settlement in his book, The Biggest Estate On Earth. How Aborigines Made Australia.

In the same vein, Charles Mann in 1493.Uncovering the New World Columbus Created claims that Amerindians were as manipulative of nature as were the invading Europeans.

English settlers founded Jamestown in the 1600s in the Chesapeake Bay area in the England-sized indigenous empire of Tsenacomoco whose landscapes they failed to recognize were under cultivation.

What the English saw resembled natural ecosystems. Maize and beans grew together. Below them grew squash, gourds, pumpkins and melon. On fallow communal lands grew naturally occurring plants but they were medicinal or edible, Mann underlines, thus useful for humans.  

The Europeans also misinterpreted another seemingly undomesticated feature of the landscape. Amerindians let dam-building beavers transform narrow quick-flowing streams into pools that were easier to navigate and retained water throughout the year, creating ecosystems that provided complementary sources of food.

Because of their invisible human footprint, entitlement to their own land would be denied Amerindians, Australian Aborigines and other indigenous peoples through the doctrine of terra nullius, land belonging to no one.

Today the required norm for civilization – in its modern incarnation, development – is a much heavier footprint than what 17th or 18th century European colonizers had in mind.

Its signs are air-conditioned skiing resorts in hot deserts; airports; artificially snowed-up mountain resorts complete with artificial indoor beaches; dense road networks; gigantic container ships; high-rise buildings; industrial fishing fleets; industrial plants; large-scale, mono-cropped fields worked from air-conditioned combine harvester cabins, sprayed aerially with pesticides; luxury hotels;  mega cities;  mega dams;  mega malls; nuclear plants; and satellites.

It is inhabited by people who score high in terms of “human development”, that is, they have a broad range of choices, access to income and a job, standardized education, high-tech healthcare, and a clean and safe environment. They also participate fully in community decisions and enjoy human, economic and political freedoms.  

Development concerns the whole world and in particular industrialized countries where it first appeared and is at its greatest extent.  “Emerging” countries are closing the gap and some “mature” countries fear that they are sliding down on the scale of development, witness the popularity of the US presidential campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!”.

A critical view of the development dream might read something like Evgueny Zamyatin’s We (1920) that describes a future world where wildness is the enemy and all life has been “perfected” to produce an entirely artificial civilisation. An individual who has undergone a routine brain operation is told, “You are perfect; you are on a par with machines.”  Futurologist Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, goes further. He actually looks forward to a takeover by artificial intelligence.

In Zamyatin’s fictional country, there is the Green Wall beyond which lies the wild world of nature. But industrialisation, which goes with development, extends in its production, consumption and disposal stages to the totality of the planet, including its oceans and atmosphere. 

Zamyatin’s country but even more so development is about a human-controlled world. So how far are those who mastermind development in control of the planet and the welfare of its people?

Insurance experts who prepared the 2016 assessment of risks for the World Economic Forum before its annual meeting in Davos warned that “climate change is exacerbating more risks than ever before in terms of water crises, food shortages, weaker societal cohesion and increased security risks.” It added that the number of forcibly displaced people is now almost 50% more than in 1940 when World War II was being fought.  

Wild fauna and flora is being sacrificed on a planetary scale in the name of development; however, sixty years after its extension to the whole world, universal development has not been achieved.

Although classic economists like Adam Smith celebrated the “progress of wealth”, they expected a steady-state would eventually be reached, but today’s decision-makers, whether from developing, emerging or developed nations, have no such plan. In the background may lurk the fear of leaving a patch of terra nullius that the other could snatch.

Once awoken from its spell, how ludicrous—and dangerous—development appears, with its classroom-style grading of countries from underdeveloped (fail), developing (pass), emerging (good; making rapid progress) to developed (excellence).  

Before the era of development, as today, societies have combined different sets of goods and evils; they have exchanged products, ideas and technologies. In a post-development world, the “package” a random individual gets for life will be neither better nor worse than it is today and wildlife will be given a reprieve from its death sentence meted out by industrial civilization.


Campbell, N.A, Reece, J.B., Biologie, Adaptation et révision scientifique de Richard Mathieu, 2e édition, 2004, page 1339 : « Selon certaines estimations, nous sommes en train d’infliger à la biosphère plus de dommages et d’entraîner vers l’extinction plus d’espèces que ne l’a fait l’énorme astéroïde responsable semble-t-il d’extinctions de masse vers la fin de la période du Crétacé, il y a 65 millions d’années. »

Elliott, Larry, Climate change disaster is biggest threat to global economy in 2016, say experts. The Guardian (online), 14 January 2016.

Griffiths, Jay, Wild, An Elemental Journey, 2006. [Evgueny Zamyatin, We]

Mann, Charles, 1493. Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, 2011.

Mermod-Gasser, Viviane, Robert Hainard. L’art, la nature, la pensée (film), 2014.

Rist, Gilbert, Le Développement. Histoire d’une croyance occidentale, 2e édition, 2001. (The History of Development. From Western Origins to Global Faith)

Roch, Philippe, Le penseur paléolithique. La philosophie écologiste de Robert Hainard, 2014. 

Rose, Deborah Bird, Nature as Power (video), FutureLearn, Environmental Humanities, University of New South Wales, 2016.

Van Dooren, Thom and Rose, Deborah Bird, We need new narratives (video), FutureLearn,  Environmental Humanities, University of New South Wales, 2016.

Whale and Dolphin Conservation,

Williams, Heathcote, Whale Nation, 1988.


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