The Greek philosopher Plato and the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius both warned of the danger of the destruction of the earth by deforestation and overgrazing.
Richard J. Barnet has recently joined these illustrious thinkers with a book, "The Lean Years, Politics in the Age of Scarcity" (Simon & Schuster; $12.95).
Specifically, Mr. Barnet has warned that "Under the banner of 'grow or die,' industrial capitalism produced a highly complex civilization, but the drive to accumulate now threatens to destroy society." Thus, he concludes, "Clearly, human survival requires new ways of thinking and a new sorting of values."
The publisher reports that so far this summer a lot of people in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, and Boston have decided to try to "sort out values" with Mr. Barnet's book. The sales in these important "centers of ideas, " the publisher says, are very good.
The book probably won't go down very well with industrialists, financiers, and entrepreneurs. Mr. Barnet examines oil, minerals, food, water, and other resources and attempts to find ways to divide them among a planet whose appetite is steadily growing. Capitalism becomes the whipping boy.
For those who hold a conservationist, no-growth, "small is beautiful" philosophy, this book will be like the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. It has also attracted some attention among a fair number of policymakers in Washington. Thus, Mr. Barnet, who is also founder of the Institute for Policy Decisions, finds himself the subject of comment, both good and bad.
For example, Jack Patterson, a senior writer for Business Week, writes that the author "has provided neither the factual nor the analytical basis to justify the total dismantling of the world's political and economic structures. . . ." Mr. Patterson concludes that the book should be read, but with "caution."
However, Garry Wills, a leftward-leaning journalist, says it "might be the most important book you'll read this year." Robert Sherrill, another left-leaning writer, was disappointed that it did not go further and advocate the revolutionary overthrow of a system Mr. Sherrill maintains is patently unfair. Finally, Robert Lekachman, writing in the New York Times, found the book a "cogent, frequently eloquent inspection of the economics and politics of food, water, energy, and minerals," although adding nothing new to the arguments governing their use.
In an interview, Mr. Barnet said there is some urgency that the issues he raises be considered. First, he notes, there is mounting unemployment; second, there is a government trend toward austerity. In times of austerity, he says, "there's a greater need, from the point of view of preserving minimum social peace, of transfer payments . . . the austerity means that you start cutting unemployment benefits, you start cutting social security, you start cutting welfare. And then people begin to look at government much more." Thus, he says, we have entered a period he terms "the lean years."
But rather than rely upon the system to correct itself, Mr. Barnet would make some major changes. For example, he states, "The eighteenth-century political structures in the United States, the old-fashioned parliamentary democracies of Europe, and the one-party state are all inadequate for democratic resource planning."
What then, does he propose? Massive worker participation in the decisionmaking process: "The most impressive achievement of socialistic societies is that thousands who lived rote lives under the old regime are now awake," he intones in his book.
Another Barnet solution -- this for the problem of world poverty -- is to disperse technological information. He proposes that "The monopoly of sophisticated technology must be broken in the interests of a minimum world order."
Does he advocate shipping lasers to India? Computer terminals to Cambodia? Satellites to the Sudan? Again, he is vague. He merely says the world must take up the concept of "stewardship." By itself he might not find any arguments from the chairmen of most major companies about the concept.If by "stewardship," however, he means the dismantling of the economic system, to be replaced by a world welfare system, he can probably expect some disagreement.
Finally, Mr. Barnet would rely increasingly on government at a time when the trend is toward less government. Government would provide the answers to the energy problem as well as productivity lapses, he holds.
Paradoxically, in person he denies he wants to nationalize industry. "Obviously, merely converting the private bureaucracies into public bureacracies ," he says, "giving people a GS-18 salary instead of a half million dollars might save some money, but it's no answer to the problem, and it's not what I'm proposing." At the same time, there is no hiding his scorn for business, particularly that of the major oil companies. For example, he sniffs, "A planning system which operates only on a very narrow incentive basis -- that is, the incentive to operate on the chairman of an oil company, and I interviewed a lot of them -- is not the incentives that are going to produce the energy that we need when we need it at a price that we can afford. And that's just a fact." But he adds that "we have a mixed economy and must live with it."
Mr. Barnet concludes: "I would be dishonest if I said that I had solutions to all these problems.The one thing that I think is important is to be very skeptical of the facile solutions that are being proposed today by people who are pretending, but who are really promoting fairy tales." In some quarters, his ideas may fit the fairy tale category very easily.