Development With Soul --
An Interview of Alastair McIntosh
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty,
HUMAN ECOLOGY IS more than a
subject, it is a perspective that embraces the natural environment,
society and ourselves. It is the 'science of community'.
As a Fellow of the
Centre for Human Ecology in Edinburgh, Alastair McIntosh is an
activist and academic working on ways people can live, develop and
relate to their surroundings.
Peter Gibb. Margaret Thatcher said there was no such thing as
society. But for you the idea is important?
Alastair McIntosh. For me, community is about the expression
of life. It's about living not just any old life, but abundant life.
And it's something that is more than just a convenience, and more than
just a so-called community of interests. It's the articulation of our
interconnectedness as human beings -- our membership one of another.
It's about the principle that no person is an island entire unto
themselves. We are all connected through the bedrock, and therefore
inasmuch as I do to my neighbour, it comes back on me.
Community is living in accordance with that principle. I see it as
essentially spiritual in its depth because if s about a three-way
interrelationship, with one another, with the natural world, and with
whatever our understanding of the divine basis of life might be.
Peter Gibb. In this context how do you find 'development'?
Alastair McIntosh. Development is a word some people would
like to see abandoned, because it's been abused, and used synonymously
with economic growth.
But my view is we need to reclaim these words. Development,
etymologically, means the unfolding of something. Hence we use the
word correctly when we talk about foetal development -- the unfolding
of the foetus in the nurturing environment of the womb. Similarly,
with human development, the word implies the unfolding of the full
potential of what it is to be a human being living life abundantly.
Peter Gibb. So the term 'sustainable development' is an
attempt to reclaim 'development'?
Alastair McIntosh. That's right. The term sustainable
development has come about in response to the fact we live in a cancer
economy, where growth for the rich is proceeding at such a pace it's
destroying the earth and undermining the possibility of dignified
development for the poor. So social and ecological justice must be at
the heart of sustainable development.
Peter Gibb. We often think of how the human species fits into
its environment as a matter of balance between conservation and
Alastair McIntosh. There ought to be no tension between
conservation and development if we understand development in the way I
have defined it. The reason in practice there is a tension is
Firstly, simple human selfishness -- the not-in-my-backyard effect -
whereby some are willing to take the fruits of development but not
suffer any of the costs. More importantly, the whole process of
modernity from the 16th century onwards has been one of colonisation
of community and community resources. This has now translated itself
into advanced capitalism, where it's acceptable to exploit others and
the natural world to concentrate material wealth.
The result is we now live in a state the French sociologist Durkheim
called anomie. People have lost the sense of their bearings,
their roots and connection to one another. What Carl Jung saw as the
greatest disease of modern times -- meaninglessness -- has blighted
people's lives, and without vision, as one of the prophets said, the
people perish. That's the danger of the times we're in.
Peter Gibb. Indebtedness in the modern world would appear to
Alastair McIntosh. I understand indebtedness at two levels,
and these relate to the function of money and what money actually is.
The primary quality of money is as an accounting system of
obligations and credits between people. It lubricates supply and
demand for goods and services. I don't think anybody -- including any
of the great religions in the world -- can have any problem with money
at that level. It's simply a keeping of scores between people.
What gives money secondary qualities, and makes it morally
challenging, is when you start to expect a rate of return from the
money itself. In other words, I don't just lend you money and expect
you to pay it back, perhaps with a little bit added for
administration, inflation and bad losses. But I expect you to pay it
back with interest: which gives me, as the economists would say, a
positive rate of return. In other words I make money simply because I
This is what is known in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic religious
systems as usury. Usury means that wealth creates its own wealth. When
money takes on this second-order characteristic a moral question
arises which I think is at the heart of much of the malaise in the
Peter Gibb. The international debt scenario between the rich
industrial nations and so-called 'under-developed' countries is very
Alastair McIntosh. The way forward lies in the lessons of
Islamic economics. International debt has usually been structured by
us giving something that costs us relatively little, but means a lot
to the recipient. Loans were given to corrupt regimes, or used in
projects that resulted in commodity prices collapsing. So that whereas
at one time, a Tanzanian farmer's coffee crop might have bought a
tractor -- now it's enough to buy a bicycle. Consequently, not just
this generation of Tanzanian coffee growers, but also future
generations, have become economic slaves to the West and its
Many people in the West invest in pensions and so on, without
realising the return is partly predicated upon a form of slavery --
debt slavery. I don't think that's an acceptable way to live. The
difference with an Islamic system is that it would not permit the
extraction of usury from a country that can't pay. It would only
permit a rate of return to be linked to the prosperity of the body or
nation taking the loan. So a sharing of profits would be acceptable.
But to continue extracting interest when there are no profits would be
considered deeply immoral. If we had such a system we would see a very
different world scenario than we see today.
Peter Gibb. The opium trade in the 19th century was an example
of exchanging cheap commodities for debt -- and we now have the
creation of intellectual property rights through bio-patenting.
Alastair McIntosh. Well that's right. I mean all these things
hook people into a relationship where wealth not only doesn't trickle
down, but it actually funnels back up. It doesn't have to be like
that. It is like that because we have canonised greed, and base our
economic relationships on something other than service to one another.
We have made it acceptable to allow making money out of money to run
riot in a world-wide casino economy. People are no longer bothered
what they invest in -- only in maximising their rate of return. Now
this is Mammon, And while the suffering is most obviously felt by the
poor, the real poverty is in those allowing these things to happen for
their own benefit.
Peter Gibb. In Soil and Soul you speak about your
younger life. How do ideas of mutuality and indebtedness relate to
your own upbringing?
Alastair McIntosh. In the community I grew up in, if somebody
needed money, and you lent it, no way would you ever think of asking
for interest on that money. Interest was a very alien idea that was
not uninfectious. But it's not something you do with your friends.
With your friends you operate on the basis of mutuality. I have, you
need: you take, and give back when I need.
Peter Gibb. We easily forget we're more friends than
Alastair McIntosh. I think this comes about from a failed
perception of reality. It comes from an individualistic, atomistic,
competitive ethos that has no real understanding of community, except
as something to exploit. As such, it comes about from a world in which
violence must be germane: because injust structures can only be held
it place by violence, albeit implicit or passive violence.
The question basically is whether we want to live in a world that
expresses the values of love or of violence. An economics system based
upon mutuality I would suggest, is predicated upon love.
Peter Gibb. You have argued in Geophilos that
intergenerational equity is the only basis of sustainable development.
How are our present systems failing and indebting our future?
Alastair McIntosh. Intergenerational equity is the idea that
each generation has a right to what it needs for life, and we
shouldn't compromise the needs of future generations.
A basic problem with debt is it contains emergent properties. There
is a scale of debt at which new properties not anticipated start to
emerge. For instance, you suddenly wake up to the fact -- hang on --
we can effectively mortgage the children's future! We can fool
ourselves into thinking we can have this hospital or whatever now,
by bonding our children, and their children, to paying it off.
Debt is one of many ways in which human beings delude themselves, and
allow themselves to be deluded. At this level it is a dysfunction of
consciousness, and one that leads to suffering of future generations.
So what would be the alternative to debt? Social justice here and now.
Just because you build that hospital by a Private Finance Initiative,
with future generations paying for it, doesn't mean society has had to
do any less work or use any fewer resources in building it. All it
means is that money has been moved around to somebody's long-term
Peter Gibb. As you say, PFI is a mechanism for providing
public services by mortgaging the future. What do you think of the
alternative of funding public services from the private benefits they
Alastair McIntosh. I think that land value taxation is an
important and powerful part of the portfolio of fiscal measures
needed, because so much economic activity is related to land -- in
terms of location and resource provision.
But while I am deeply in favour of land value taxation, i don't think
it can be a single tax as is often proposed, because not all economic
activity is land related. Similarly, why shouldn't we tax things like
alcohol and tobacco, which cause considerable social problems?
Peter Gibb. Our systems of financial accounting deeply affect
our day-to-day economic activity. Why is much of what we do today so
unenduring and throwaway?
Alastair McIntosh. I think all resource economists recognise
it's no longer economic to plant forests of oak. Nor is it economic to
build buildings lasting 60 years or more. Few economists see the
direct connection between that and the expectation of a real positive
rate of return on capital -- which means it makes no economic sense to
invest in anything that will last into the future -- like our
environment for instance.
Peter Gibb. What is the community land movement that has been
blossoming in Scotland in recent years about?
Alastair McIntosh. Community land ownership is the principle
of land being owned on a communitarian land-trust basis, for the
benefit of residents, in a democratic structure. It means land can be
used to give life, rather than merely to extract profit for
individuals whose sole qualification is their already massive wealth.
Peter Gibb. So what are the movement's benefits and
Alastair McIntosh. Community ownership, as on the Isle of Eigg
and elsewhere, has immediate practical benefits in terms of
self-determination and the stimulation of local enterprise. But even
more than that the benefits are psychological and spiritual, because
having an authentic and secure connection with place enhances people's
sense of belonging and identity and their capacity to develop
long-term life-affirming values.
Peter Gibb. Most recent Scottish community land acquisitions
have relied on outside support, indebting the community. Can community
development come about without debt?
Alastair McIntosh. I was a trustee of the original Isle of
Eigg Trust which launched the appeal that achieved the buyout. That
succeeded because we attracted 10,000 donations from around the world
totalling £1.6m. Now in no way is that a sustainable basis for
land reform. We did it, as have the Assynt crofters and the people of
Gigha, to provide patterns and examples of what can happen when
communities manage to take over the land.
However, if success is to be perpetuated in the long term, you either
have to use unethical Mugabe-type methods, or a more gentle way. I
propose that land value taxation should be levied on private land --
community-owned land being exempt. The proceeds from taxing private
landowners, both rural and urban, should go into a fund for buying out
land, thereby financing the lairds' own clearance.
Peter Gibb. Why is development without debt important?
Alastair McIntosh. I'm not simply saying society should
develop without debt, but without usurious debt. Finance should be on
a mutual footing, where one person's prosperity assists another's
need, and we don't have the poor financing the rich as we do now.
I see that as a central pillar of human dignity: of right
relationship with one another that builds community, but also enriches
our connection with place, and with the spiritual.
I see our economic relations as being very centrally a spiritual
issue -- connected with how we understand life and its meaning. Not
subjecting people to usury is a central part of moving towards the
world in which all can live not just any old life, but life abundant.