Okay class – hands up all who live in a developing nation. Hmm… not so many. Now, hands up those that live in a developed nation. Aah… quite a few.

Developing. Developed. International media of every kind use these words constantly. They seem to be globally understood, at least if the frequency of their usage is anything to go by, but despite using these terms myself I must confess that I’m struggling with their meaning. I get the context okay; I’m pretty sure I’m placing the words in the correct place, using them in appropriate contexts – but when I stop to consider the base definition, that’s when the proverbial spanner is thrown into the whirring cogs and gears of my mind.

I have a couple of dictionaries to hand. Let’s have a look:

developed, adjective wealthy and industrialized: wealthy and technologically advanced, with sophisticated manufacturing and service industries – Encarta

I guess I can go along with most of that. Countries that we generally regard as ‘developed’ are certainly wealthy and industrialised, and have sophisticated manufacturing and service industries. I get a little tripped up over the ‘technologically advanced’ bit though.

Let’s have a look at the definition of the root word here: develop.

develop, verb to change and become larger, stronger, or more impressive, successful, or advanced – Encarta

develop, verb to bring to a more advanced or more highly organized state; to cause to grow or advance; to evolve. – Bookshelf Basics

As I thought. The root word insinuates a progressive movement towards a goal — that goal being a state or condition that is better, more successful, and more advanced than before. Now, following this logic through we should conclude that a ‘developed’ nation has reached that goal. It’s arrived. Those of you that raised your hand at the beginning of the class, I must congratulate you.

Still, I have some lingering issues here. Have we in fact arrived at a more impressive, successful state? And what does ‘advanced’ really mean? We certainly have a lot of gadgets and inventions. We’re clever, but are we smart? We’re intelligent, but are we wise? Sensible?

If I break these two groups down to their base differences – what are they? A developing nation, I believe, is one that’s on the trailing edge of the industrial revolution. Here we think of subsistence farmers, herders, fishermen – families living self-sufficient lives in rural communities. A developed nation is vastly different, a lot more complicated, a lot more specialised, mechanised, and urbanised – and, I would propose, consequently a lot more vulnerable.

It is ironic that as industrialization provides more and more facilities to humanity, the inhabitants of the modern world increasingly become subject to the pressures and negative impacts of the industrial age. – Turkish Daily News

Atom cloud above Nagasaki

Ironic indeed. The machines we’ve invented to improve our lot in life have become an effective noose around our necks, to the point where they’re threatening to destroy us. Through the latter half of the last century a lot of attention was drawn to our ability to snuff ourselves out with the simple push of a bright red button in the middle of a President’s desk. But, didn’t this in-your-face representation of the industrial age merely distract us from even more insidious and globally calamitous ‘developments’, like dramatically reduced biodiversity, climate change, and resource extraction and depletion, like oil — and the extraction, depletion and contamination of water and soil? If we have in fact arrived, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what we’ve gained. If we ponder further we can see that our ‘developed’ society is full of ironies – incongruities we really could have, should have, seen coming.

Is our life actually better?

Follow along with some almost prophetic passages, written thirty years ago in ‘The Agricultural Crisis, a Crisis of Culture‘, by Wendell Berry:

There is nothing more absurd, to give an example that is only apparently trivial, than the millions who wish to live in luxury and idleness and yet be slender and good-looking. We have millions, too, whose livelihoods, amusements, and comforts are all destructive, who nevertheless wish to live in a healthy environment; they want to run their recreational engines in clean, fresh air. – p.15,16.

The disease of the modern character is specialization. Looked at from the standpoint of the social system, the aim of specialization may seem desirable enough. The aim is to see that the responsibilities of government, law, medicine, engineering, agriculture, education, etc., are given into the hands of the most skilled, best prepared people. The difficulties do not appear until we look at specialization from the opposite standpoint – that of individual persons. We then begin to see the grotesquery – indeed, the impossibility – of an idea of community wholeness that divorces itself from any idea of personal wholeness.

The first, and best known, hazard of the specialist system is that it produces specialists – people who are elaborately and expensively trained to do one thing. We get into absurdity very quickly here. There are, for intance, educators who have nothing to teach, communicators who have nothing to say, medical doctors skilled at expensive cures for diseases that they have no skill, and no interest, in preventing. More common, and more damaging, are the inventors, manufacturers, and salesmen of devices who have no concern for the possible effects of those devices. Specialization is thus seen to be a way of institutionalizing, justifying, and paying highly for a calamitous disintegration and scattering-out of the various functions of character: workmanship, care, conscience, responsibility.

Even worse, a system of specialization requires the abdication to specialists of various competences and responsibilities that were once personal and universal. Thus, the average – one is tempted to say, the ideal – American citizen now consigns the problem of food production to agriculturists, and “agribusinessmen,” the problems of health to doctors and sanitation experts, the problems of education to school teachers and educators, the problems of conservation to conservationists, and so on. This supposedly fortunate citizen is therefore left with only two concerns: making money and entertaining himself. He earns money, typically, as a specialist, working an eight-hour day at a job for the quality or consequences of which somebody else – or, perhaps more typically, nobody else – will be responsible. And not surprisingly, since he can do so little else for himself, he is even unable to entertain himself, for there exists an enormous industry of exorbitantly expensive specialists whose purpose is to entertain him.

The beneficiary of this regime of specialists ought to be the happiest of mortals – or so we are expected to believe. All of his vital concerns are in the hands of certified experts. He is a certified expert himself, and as such he earns more money in a year than all his great-grandparents put together. Between stints at his job he has nothing to do but mow his lawn with a sit-down mower, or watch other certified experts on television. At suppertime he may eat a tray of ready-prepared food, which he and his wife (also a certified expert) procure at the cost only of money, transportation, and the pushing of a button. For a few minutes between supper and sleep he may catch a glimpse of his children, who since breakfast have been in the care of education experts, basketball or marching-band experts, or perhaps legal experts.

The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world. He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people. From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health is poor. His air, water, and food are all known to contain poisons. There is a fair chance that he will die of suffocation. He suspects that his love life is not as fulfilling as other people’s. He wishes that he had been born sooner, or later. He does not know why his children are the way they are. He does not not understand what they say. He does not care much and does not know why he does not care. He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants. Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive. He feels that all his possessions are under threat of pillage. He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police went on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found to be incurably ill. And for these anxieties, of course, he consults certified experts, who in turn consult certified experts about their anxieties.

It is rarely considered that this average citizen is anxious because he ought to be – because he still has some gumption that he has not yet given up in deference to the experts. He ought to be anxious, because he is helpless. That he is dependent upon so many specialists, the beneficiary of so much expert help, can only mean that he is a captive, a potential victim. If he lives by the competence of so many other people, then he lives also by their indulgence; his own will and his own reasons to live are made subordinate to the mere tolerance of everybody else. He has one chance to live what he conceives to be his life; his own small specialty within a delicate, tense, everywhere-strained system of specialties.

From a public point of view, the specialist system is a failure because, though everything is done by an expert, very little is done well. Our typical industrial or professional product is both ingenious and shoddy. The specialist system fails from a personal point of view because a person who can do only one thing can do virtually nothing for himself. In living in a world by his own will and skill, the stupidest peasant or tribesman is more competent than the most intelligent worker or technician or intellectual in a society of specialists. – p.28-31.

Why is it such a failure, assuming we can make the great collective leap to admit this? Is it the technology, the science, the information? Or is it because, in our wielding of these things, they’ve been divorced from experience, observation, and empathy? Our specialisations have separated us from the results of our own work, disconnected us from the work of others, narrowed our understanding and our motivations. We’ve created a business and corporate world where the central charter is to protect itself — the business, not society or society’s members — and bring profit to the shareholders. Tractors and chemicals have detached the farmer from soil and soil life, and from the accumulated wisdom of centuries. In turn, this has enabled the systematic removal of almost everyone into urban centres where they’ve grown ever more out of touch with themselves and the world around them. Today we need scientists to notice changes in the environment, as we can’t seem to ourselves (and we have specialist skeptics to disbelieve them), and we expect environmentalists and politicians to put things right. The inventors that gave us this legacy must reinvent themselves, and now we listen to divergent proposed cures for our global woes – a myriad specialist solutions often as detached from each other, and nature, as the problems that gave rise to them.

Have we arrived? Are we developed? You decide.

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Thomas Hardy