Memories of Teddy - Sandy Irvine

I count myself lucky that I was able to call Teddy a friend. I stayed at his house twice and went with him to a number of events. I think it important to be clear about Teddy for three reasons

  1. He is a major part of the real green tradition of which many GP members are ignorant or ill informed
  2. There is much to learn from Teddy’s strengths and weaknesses.
  3. We should do right by the man simply for its own sake.

Teddy was a true polymath, with a veracious appetite for knowledge and an equally remarkable capacity to synthesise ideas from a rang of otherwise compartmentalised disciplines. One can spend hours fruitfully rummaging around the website that houses his main writings ( I know of few personal sites to rival the wealth of insight to be found there. This is a fair summary of his achievements: . He was attacked from all sides, some of the criticism echoing what DCF mentions [Editor's note: this refers to private email correspondence]. Teddy made this excellent reply to such attacks: . I once interviewed Teddy for Real World, the predecessor of Green World. In it, he make some further points on the same lines:

"The Blueprint for Survival" is a remarkable document which, generally, has stood the test of time, unlike most manifestos put out by the Green Party.

One problem is, I suspect, that usage of the word ‘hierarchy’ has changed. When Teddy used it, he was talking in terms of structures as in, say, the notes on a piano keyboard. Teddy would stress that parts of a system must work together for the sake of both the ‘whole’ and the individual components. But that does not, ipso facto, mean exploitation or domination of the individual. C Sharp does not oppress A Minor. He would argue — rightly — that the whole is not just the sum of the parts and that one cannot understand it by narrower and narrower study of all the little bits of which it is composed. True again and it is a foundation for a green ‘take’ on health care, for example, amongst many other things, from farming to architecture.

On top of his own writings, Teddy played an invaluable role of making more accessible the work of others. Many people will have come across such trenchant thinkers as Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Herman Daly, José Lutzenberger, and many more because Teddy published material by them in The Ecologist.That great critique by Paul Ehrlich of Barry Commoner’s erroneous theory of "flawed technology" is just one outstanding feature from its archives. Thus a veritable green gold mine was created. Anyone wanting to find out why the World Bank should be wound up as quickly as possible, for example, simply has to do a bit of reading in the back pages of the journal.

There has been an overall decline in the standard of intellectual discourse which helped to marginalise ‘big’ thinkers like Teddy (see Tragically, just they are needed the most, a number of similar people have also died within the last 10 years, including David Brower, Neil Postman, Garrett Hardin, Stan Rowe and Arne Naess. Of currently active ones, only a handful rival Teddy. David Ehrenfeld comes to mind. Of course within specific fields, the picture is a brighter, be it Herman Daly on economics or Richard Heinberg on energy policy. Then there is a layer of theorists-cum-practitioners such as Wes Jackson in agriculture and, on matters architectural, Robert and Brenda Vale.

To an unusual extent, Teddy saw that the crisis ‘without’, i.e. the accelerating  destruction of the ecological web of life, constituted a twin track alongside the crisis ‘within’ the decay of social bonds inside the human community. In both cases, he saw things as they were, without the reassuring balm from more mainstream commentators. For him, there could not be ‘growthism’ without ecological regress. Above all, Teddy demonstrated that, contrary to the deprecating assertion by enemies, environmentalism is not a single issue. A worldview that puts first the Earth and the conservation of its richness and diversity cannot but adopt a variety of policies on technology, economics, social, political and cultural matters. It is a very slippery red herring to suggest that people like Teddy ignored such matters as even a quick glimpse at the titles of his writings soon confirms (see his website for plenty of examples). But he resolutely stuck to the principle of the ‘ecological imperative’.

At a personal level, Teddy was a kind and generous man. He work closely with a number of women including Vandana Shiva. If he had been as ‘sexist’ as some of his enemies say, I do not think such as cooperation would have been so warm and enduring. In a sense he was the classic Edwardian gentleman and perhaps that was reflected in the way he conducted himself. My father, a lathe operator by trade, was impressed when he once talked once to Teddy by how courteous he was. But he was brave too, taking on many powerful ‘establishment’ figures. He also dug deep into his (large) pockets for many a good cause. In my experience, such people are most often attacked by middle class trendy radicals keen to be more proletarian’ than thou. A person from a similar background and also a very talented man, Paul Foot, was also subject to such attacks (being born with silver spoon in his mouth etc). But when I once took Foot to meet some steelworkers at the old Consett steel works, the men he met thought it great that he was prepared to help them. The same should be said of Teddy: he gave so much for the cause.

Teddy was not of course course perfect. Who is? Sometimes he was too cavalier so concerned was he to give the ‘big picture’. Thus his sensible argument that we must learn from hunter-gatherer societies (the best example, to date, of long lasting societies on Earth)  could too easily give the impression that we ought to revert to such lifestyles (not that easy!). He sometimes shied away from the issue of overpopulation. He certainly did mention population growth as a threat in its own right. But he saw it as a side-effect of ‘development’, not something with its own internal dynamics. He also stuck to generalities, preferring not to ‘name names’. This was particularly the case with India whose soaring population can only bring catastrophe but a country where he had many friends whom he did not want to offend.

There was also a tendency in Teddy’s work towards a certain theoretical looseness and imprecision. Terms like ‘economic development’, ‘growth’, ‘technology’, ‘modernisation’, ‘entropy’, and ‘deindustrialising society’ are sometimes used in a somewhat cavalier fashion. At other times his thinking tends towards absolutes, with necessary riders left out. Issues tend to become back-and-white matters, with shades of grey blotted out. Often his argument would have carried more weight — and persuade more people — if words like ‘usually’ and ‘most’ had been used instead of “every’ and ‘all’.

At times there was a certain reductionism in Teddy’s thinking. This can be seen in his theorising about the origins, nature and role of the state. In his view, this entity was an artificial construct, at best a burden if far worse, foisted on civil society. To some extent his later position diverged from his work in the “Blueprint” period of the early 70s when he seems to have thought that the presentation of a reasonable case to the ‘powers-that-be’ would make them see the light and change their erroneous ways. Of course they didn’t and destruction-as-usual continued, aided and abetted by governments of all political hues, despite all the telling evidence and arguments of the Blueprint for Survival, the MIT Limits To Growth Report and other such studies. The behaviour of governing elites perhaps led Teddy to throw the baby out with the bath water, not recognising how essential government action could still be in the struggle for sustainability.

He also tended to latch on, hook, line and sinker, to an idea. The best example was globalisation, about which he and his associates in the IFG ( produced some first rate material. But he failed to take due accounted of counter-trends. Again he went for the ‘grand narrative', omitting nuances. Indeed his very own writings on the local backlashes against globalised culture, coupled to coming resource ‘peaks’ (eg long-term rises in cost of bunker fuel), suggested that globalisation would go into reverse, like it or not.

Many critics of his work usually placed him on the right-wing side of politics. But Teddy defied such glib classification. He was militantly opposed to big business, for example, and saw governments (and mainstream parties) as but willing tools of the global corporations. Many might see that as ‘left-wing’. Yet he passionately stressed the importance of the (extended) family, a stance often associated with the conservative right. Far more importantly he took stances that simply do not fit easily on any left-right spectrum, not least in his commitment to localism, a steady-state economy or in his rejection of ‘mega-technologies’ like giant HEP schemes or genetic engineering. Teddy’s conservatism was really ‘conservationism’ and was about the creation of what has been called the ‘conserver society’. It is one which protects and nourishes both the health and integrity of ecological life-support systems — what Teddy saw as the ‘real wealth of nations’ – and that of people, their physical and cultural well-being, including the fund of local skills and knowledge. Such conservatism made him sceptical about the claims for indiscriminate and rapid technological innovation, sweeping economic change, and self-indulgent social experimentation.

Such a stance cut against worship of the great god of Unlimited Progress. It stood opposed to the laissez-faire economic theories of Hayek and his ilk. It further stands in opposition to those scientists and social theorists who endorsed theories of open-ended and value-free randomness. But it also sat uncomfortably with the libertarian currents unleashed by the swinging 60s as well. Indeed, since the 60s, the broad left and green movements have succumbed to a culture of entitlements and a focus on individual empowerment. So-called ‘New Age’ and indeed many other ‘positive’ thinkers endorse a theory of unlimited human potential. For Teddy, this was not the sustainable way. He saw people as part of the rest of nature, necessarily needing to follow its ‘rules’ if society was to survive.

Sorry for writing at such length but I feel a personal stake in giving Teddy his due.


[from private email correspondence with the author's approval]

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