International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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15th World Vegetarian Congress 1957
Delhi/Bombay/Madras/Calcutta, India


Change in the Pattern of Western Civilization
Dr, RALPH BIRCHER

Everything created by man is an idea before it becomes tangible. We dream of a better reality. Although we acknowledge the incomparable value of our western civilization and the achievements of our ancestors which are: so to speak, the capital on which we are now living, we are also conscious of all the mischief that has disturbed the order of life, no less than our task as "good shepherds."

We have before us the consequences of this confusion: growing ill health and lack of vitality, disintegration of the pattern of life and code of values of our civilization, growing fear and bondage to ugliness, disease, and evil, and on alarming degeneration of the inner life under the overwhelming oppression of the outer life.

Today we have reached the point where most people admit to themselves, or to others, that they have lost all faith in the future and that they find the high traditions of the past too exacting to maintain. The result is that they live without any sense of purpose. When this attitude becomes general we shall have reached the end of our civilization.

The Time is Ripe.

We who are gathered here believe in the future. We can visualize it, and try to realize it, but too often we vacillate between hope and despair. Can we have any faith in the future while the world seems to drift daily further away from the goal which we envisage? This we do know: only at the right moment in time can a particular conception be realized. Is the time now ripe for us to realize our aim? I have carefully pursued this development for 30 years - it is my main task - and believe I may tell you that the time is ripe. It may be recognized by a thousand signs and symptoms which have become obvious in the many different aspects of life. The climate of thought is changing. Out of a disintegration of the old code of values a new and contentious one emerges and gives rise to a strange sense of excitement. Countless people dream, think, and experiment in the same direction, mostly unknown to each other, and when you have watched, compared, and examined all this over a long period, then there gradually appears, in its wholeness, a new pattern of life, a new conception of the world of the kind we desire.

The guarantee for success does not lie in this general awareness alone. Not only is an opportune time needed but the individuals must also be ready for it. Most of the attempts and projects are isolated. timid, hazy, tentative, and laborious. In a world that thinks differently these efforts are constantly liable to be choked and stunted, and before the new order can establish itself the old one usually becomes powerful again and makes a dangerous counter-attack. No opportunity must now be missed to accelerate the change before it is too late. Through disciplined thinking and constant endeavour our conceptions must develop that final degree of clarity of formulation, which convinces us by its own momentum and urges us to realization. On the one hand me must restrain all that is hazy or extreme, and on the other hand we must overcome our fear of the overpowering conceptions and methods which are opposed to us. Courageously we must think out the matter completely and try out our theories in reality, in the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci who lived by the motto "Rather death than fatigue!" It seems to me that we must guard against escape into an island paradise even in thought.

New Codes of Value

One cannot create a new code of values, a new pattern of life and a new worldpicture before one has thoroughly grasped, experienced, and at the same time outgrown the old code, the traditional pattern the existing picture. Therefore we must spare no effort to understand the spirit of Natural Science and Technology. If, for instance, we want to investigate a new pattern of life, and with it the nature of our future outer existence, its correct social structure and relationships, then we must understand the sociology of contemporary life.

Even though this science cannot help our progress we must understand how far it has attempted to solve the basic problems of life by means which are inimical to life, heartless and irreverent, such non-human agencies as money and machines. To prove this, is the reason why I have studied social economy so thoroughly. I wanted to see clearly into these matters. In doing so I became absorbed in existing knowledge, for it is a fascinating study, and then I grew more and more disappointed, for the essential answers were not forthcoming.

I tried to find alternative forms of economy and contrasting patterns of life; for nothing else so clearly provides that necessary survey as a widening of the horizons by means of comparison and contrast. And so in my search I came across the small mountain republics of the 17th and 18th century in the Swiss canton of Wallis, as well as several Indian cultures of Latin America, and the Hunzas who live near Kashmir in India. The more I studied this the more apparent it became that in these patterns of life, seemingly "off the beaten track " was to be found the valuable pattern for our future. Often it happens that what has been suppressed and neglected in one epoch becomes a leading idea in the following epoch. And those strange distant Hunza patterns of life embody what has been suppressed in Western society.

The pattern of life of the Hunza people is diametrically opposed to ours: unbelievably primitive and poor, 10,000 people packed together in a small area, they support themselves on their own soil, almost without animal food, fuel, salt, stimulants or luxuries. Very short of calories, fat and protein, nevertheless they maintain an amazing vitality and resistance through their marvellous integration with the eternal laws of life. They fulfill their tasks of good husbandry and creative fulfillment of the divine purpose and from all this they gain a radiant happiness, a joy which is unparalleled and which to us seems like a fairy tale. Their pattern of life reveals only an elementary division of labour and no fine art except that of festivals, dancing, and gracious social intercourse, but their very culture expresses the perfection of harmony, so that it is a work of art in itself.

Yet this pattern is not very profitable for our purpose. We shall understand better if we turn to the ancient culture of the agricultural Indians of Latin America, of the period of the pre-Colombian civilization and as they are today, in so far as they have resisted the engulfing civilization of the West. The study so fascinated me that I devoted several years to it, especially as I had the opportunity to get to know it in its own setting.

Indian "Wantlessness"

The strange thing is that these Indians have a really remarkable immunity against our advertising in all its forms. How much annoyance has been caused to the planters and commercial travellers by this "damned wantlessness' ! With us, advertising is the heart and soul of all business. Our economy would never have grown so tremendously if advertising had not constantly made things and services which used to be unnecessary into necessities, and our social structure will collapse if we take advertising away from it. It will be noticed that I do by no means mistake the advantages or the necessity of advertising, but one must have become acquainted with the pattern of life of the Hunzas or the Indians to recognize how through advertising, our standard of living has become too high and how very far we have removed ourselves from every realistic conception of man's essential need of material things for health and happiness.

From time immemorial the Indian has always asked himself: "How little do I need in order to be healthy and happy ?" For many generations now we, in the Western world, have only asked ourselves: "How much do we need 'l ,, And so our minimum need and standard of living has grown like mushroom.

We have considered this a fortunate development. no doubt it is impressive, but it has reached the point when the burden of our outer existence almost completely represses our inner existence, our health. and happiness. While we have founded our pattern of living on this mushroom growth of material things the Indian has founded his on genuine necessities of life : everyone works hard in order to gain these as his unquestionable human right and human duty, and in this way he is fed, clad, and housed, no matter what happens. This gives him a serenity, and freedom of which we know little. Even though his production methods, compared with ours, are time-wasting and uneconomic, yet with him this outer existence occupies only a small part of his total time; for the real necessaries of a man's life are amazingly few, though we still have to discover why this should be so, and the Indian is left with an amount of leisure which we may well envy. We take our recreation to make us fit to continue in our slavery. He works in order to gain leisure. But in no way does the Indian do this as a "Lazzarone" or "Spiv." He fills his leisure with joyful, creative activity, with his real vocation, a fact which makes his life rich and happy, because in it he can fulfill himself. He works as a carter, breeder, cultivator, potter, physician, pedlar, basket-weaver or fortune-teller or in whatever capacity he is fitted for by the gifts with which the Creator has endowed him. If he does not at first find the right calling, then he changes till he finds what suits him. for he can easily change over, because his living does not depend on this leisure-time activity.

What he does is done for the joy of doing it. What he earns from it provides him with the comforts and luxuries of life. It is well when it brings him in a lot, and it is also well if it brings him only a little, and if he earns nothing then it is no tragedy because his health and happiness, and the basic needs of his family are assured. He gives his whole attention, interest, and imagination to everything he creates and he follows his inner life which unfolds in this kind of work and it results in quite a different code of values, a code of values that does justice to the real worth of things, and that is the reason why the Indian resists all advertising so splendidly. One just cannot deceive him.

Who can tell whether one of our tasks for the future may not be, quite simply, to emancipate ourselves from the influence of all advertising?

It goes without saying that in our present state of affairs we cannot simply adopt the Indian's pattern of life, but the knowledge of it may help us to infuse a new spirit into our circumstances. I said before that often, when the time is ready, there is an almost imperceptible change of values, and what used to be despised reasserts itself and plays a main part. We may not notice this for a long time. because we are too pre-occupied with the old conceptions; but when we have equipped ourselves with such guiding principles as underlie the Indian pattern of life we begin to see many interesting things which otherwise might have escaped our notice.

At the present time something is happening in North America which confirms all this. Our Western pattern of life has been driven in the U. S. A. to the most one-sided extreme : division of labour, the application of the principles of the stopwatch and conveyor-belt and mechanization that has spread even into the field and into the home. Nearly all the food is produced by machines and is carried home pre-packed and pre-cooked. The flight from the land and the dissolution of the family have in the U. S. A. progressed further than in Europe. Jazz has been victorious over classical music, the horrorcomic over noble literature. Nowhere else is technology so overwhelmingly advanced as it is in America.

Creative Self Expression.

However, during the last three to five years, spontaneous and unparalleled reversal has begun in the U.S.A., a reversal that was not anticipated. Whenever the five-day week and the prolonged week-end became general, masses of the employees began to stream back to the country, not, of course, as farm-workers, but they moved their homes from the towns into the surrounding country as far as daily travel by car would permit. Besides this, there is the fact that nowadays industry is no longer concentrated in giant factories and giant towns, but is dispersed throughout the countryside. Here in the country the workers build their houses, and a great many of them establish big "self-supporting" gardens, sometimes even a small farm. Horticulture with composting has a considerable following among these new self-supporting gardeners. I said .'They build their houses," and I mean this literally, for many build their houses themselves in their leisure time.

They send for a "house catalogue" and order ("a postcard is sufficient."). Some families over there have started to make their own clothes. For very little money an extremely practical loom can be purchased on which, according to instructions, anyone can weave materials either heavy or fine, simple or in complicated patterns. These materials, often woven with wool from their own sheep, are made into dresses, suits and coats at a price and of a quality with which the textile industry can no longer compete. Thus there are weaving, building and other crafts being practised within the family. The age of "Do it yourself," of hobbies, has started a most varied and productive activity in spare time, each person following his own inclination and for his own enjoyment. And this applies most of all to gardening. Small machines, all new and very practical, have been produced in great numbers and variety, specially to meet the demands of these amateurs, and the trade in all seed goods and garden articles has experienced an unprecedented increase. Gardening has become a real hobby of people who formerly rejected it. This shows how much things hare changed! Thus this new movement has satisfied the hunger for a really productive activity, for creative self-expression, for a rich personal sphere of a living and a right relationship to food, to the home and to the things of personal use. All this is "latest news," of a new development whose scope no one
can foresee. It has sprung up of its own accord, not planned or organized by any one.

What is before us reminds us in some ways of the Indian pattern of life mentioned above with inter-changing roles of basic and voluntary occupations. Here the standard of living is very much higher. Yet there is a healing tendency in this process which reduces what is false and inflated in the standard of living. These people not only derive joy from the sound satisfaction of their creative needs but also from the satisfaction of their real, physiological, organic needs, and from the true unity and the natural pattern of order into which they have grown. With it their health, their happiness, have increased, and thus many unnatural cravings for "ersatz" satisfactions decrease gradually of their own accord, such as the cravings for refined, too highly concentrated, or unnatural foods, for stimulants and intoxicants, for strong spices and for over-eating. The natural and more wholesome foods from their own gardens are available and therefore out, as they feel, to be consumed. The presence of this food in the garden exerts a gentle pressure and supplants the shop goods. The joy of creating things yourself automatically replaces a great deal of time wasting, of pub-crawling, of merely watching games: of lotteries and gambling on games. Many of these newly created activities in America have been facilitated by modern methods of economy, through rationalization and by propaganda, all of which, strangely enough, have made possible this new development of self-healing. And if even more such facilitation should be achieved, if we could rely on the support of all influential and well meaning people and on the materialization of the four-day week, which in America is accepted as very likely, then we should have every reason to rejoice.

Full-Rounded Family Life

We spoke about the strengthening of family feeling and unity. This alone, I believe, is worth almost any cost to achieve, and in this development you get it as a by-product.

Let us suppose an Indian or a Hunza came to us, one of those vital old men with a deep, kindly, and humorous understanding of life, and looked at things as they are today. He observes everything, by the same method that Lorimer used to study the Hunzas, he goes about it in a quiet and friendly way, gets to know people and animals and is interested in everything. And after some time we might ask him what he thinks about our life. He would probably say, "I wonder again and again at all you have accomplished, at all the opportunities you have created for thinking, working, experiencing and enjoying, and yet I am sorry for you. Your life is so overloaded with what is unnecessary, unessential and unreal: it is burdened too heavily with far too great a concern for the outer existence, it is so tired, ill and fearful, so lacking in sense and happiness, so unrelated to the source of life!" He might express it differently, but that would be his meaning. And if then we pressed him for his opinion on what we were lacking most of all, where we needed healing most of all, I have no doubt he would answer without hesitation : "Your families are no longer families."

We know all this without the old Indian, for it is the conclusion of everyone who has studied the implication of the laws of cause and effect, in psychology as well as in sociology, in biology, education and religion. These problems everywhere would be much less serious, they would even partly solve themselves if we had families in the deepest and fullest sense of the word.

We all know the Peckham Experiment, that classical blue-print of all our endeavours, the starting point of a new biology. To be ignorant of this would seem unpardonable for tiny of us, specially as it produced the first reliable diagnosis of the prevailing state of ill health. There you will find emphasized the central position of the family as a focus of experience, integration, as a nursery of all culture. Only when we realize the degree of atrophy that has affected the average contemporary family in its unity and warmth of affection, only when we see what a poor wreck, what a starved dummy this family now appears, absorbing as it does far too little spiritual and mental food from its environment and living on its own substance without extending its tentacles in all directions in order to effect a creative interchange with its near environment - only then shall we understand the seemingly startling but deeply serious statement of the Peckham Biologist: "This atrophy renders most unprofitable the entire economy of life, from the level of bodily metabolism to that of the state economy. The more withered or undeveloped this function of the family becomes the more does it crave for and become attached to material goods." A sound, full-rounded family life, which is the prime requirement for any rebirth of our Western culture, will never be created in a flat but only through house ownership and a self supply garden. in which the variety of work in house and garden produces a true feeling of family unity and affection and a deeper insight into the nature of the world around us. It stimulates communal productivity, the ability to supply one's own needs and a right relationship to food and to personal requirements. This cannot be got more cheaply, and on it we must concentrate all our efforts, all the better that spontaneous development in this direction has now started!

"Ersatz" Satisfactions

Let us once more look at the high degree of wastefulness in our contemporary living: from bodily metabolism to national economy, and let us consider it from another angle. This wastefulness stands in strange contrast to our almost frantic efforts to rationalize our economy - this economy of which we are so proud. I am thinking of the 101 ersatz satisfactions which the man of today adopts, which he has to adopt because he has almost forgotten the real satisfaction of whole food, family happiness and creative activity. If nowadays we add up what a nation spends on alcohol, sweets and confectionery, coffee, tea, chocolate, and tobacco, what it spends on rubbishy literature, films, "art," radio, television; what it spends on so-called culture, so called festivals, so-called sport and so-called travel and contrast all this with its expenditure on real food, real joy, real sport and real culture, then you will be forced to a horrifying conclusion. Or am I wrong in this?

One afternoon I should like to take you on a tour of the restaurants, tearooms and confectioners of Zurich - and Zurich is still a relatively healthy and progressive city from our point of view. We should receive a deep impression of what Bircher-Benner called the tantalization of nervous hunger: this false appetite, this craving in excess of any real need, for sweets (Rezentes), luxuries, concentrated foods for eating in between meals. This strange feeling of being unsatisfied which shows itself in all aspects of life, not only in matters of food. This hunger for stimulants has led, if we estimate it in calories, to an average overconsumption of 50 per cent above our real physiological needs, a figure which is derived from the findings of the Swiss commission for wartime nutrition. and which applied to the Swiss people in 1938. To day this percentage has certainly not decreased and I leave it to your imagination to visualize how the matter stands in other countries. Fifty per cent do you see the economic consequences of this? Here we are only concerned with calories and have not yet considered alcohol and stimulants, nor any of the other "Paradis artificials."

Exploitation of Meat Eating

As an example I will deal here with just one of these stimulants and point to a consequence which has hardly been considered public - I speak meat consumption.

For us in Switzerland 50 kg. of meat per person per year is considered a normal; in the U.S.A. the figure is 80 kg. and in Australia 130 kg., but the majority of people on the earth can hardly equal 5 kg. per year because it is economically impossible to procure so much. A seventy-year-old American consumes during his life-time 150 carcasses of fat cattle, 26 fat sheep, 310 fat pigs, 228 forced-fed calves, 2.400 forced-fed chickens, etc. Thinking people must face the irrefutable fact that meat consumption is not necessary where other foodstuffs can always be procured for maintenance of life nor for sound health or the production of the highest human culture. Thus meat is not one of the real needs of life. Thinking people must face the fact that a meat consumption which exceeds 10 kg. per person per year can only be maintained at the cost of a tremendous waste of the food production possibilities at our disposal. Who considers the grotesque social injustice towards the poor and the so-called under-developed nations of the earth? This injustice lies in the fact that we not only practise such a heavy overconsumption meat and eggs but that we represent it as our natural right as a necessity - while the others, the Negroes, Chinese and Malays, are perhaps supposed to eat dyed "chlorella-alges" if we give them any thought at all.

How can our science be called objective as long a it continues to search for new reasons why meat should be indispensable. Shall we never learn to heed such men as Prof. Henry C. Sherman, of Columbia University, and a member of the Board for Food and Nutrition of the National Research Council in Washington; a man who is not a vegetarian, but who is only objective enough when he writes in his work "Nutritional Improvement of Life" (1960): "Every man with a sense of social and international justice must become deeply conscious of the fact that our excessive consumption of meat and eggs is a relic of colonial exploitation which we must abandon as we must abandon other colonial methods, for it represents a provoking injustice towards other nations! "

Unreal standards Living.

Please understand that here I have used meat only as a symbol and "pars pro toto for our standard of living in general. This standard we have constantly held up to the economically underdeveloped nations in the example we set in our science, in our films and in our advertisements. In their dreams this example has become their standard whether they hate or admire us, but it will never become possible to provide them with such a standard. Moreover it is a standard which because it is devious and unreal will do untold harm to these races, whether they become successful or not, We who have created this standard and imposed it on the world must ourselves overcome it, too. That is our inescapable task and we who understand it will do all we can to help.

We live, as we know, in what has been called the atomic age and therefore in a time when science has produced such terrible and dangerous weapons that those who handle them should really be wise men. It has been said that either all scientists who do not care about the result of their developments should be killed, or that humanity as a whole should be fully informed about them. But it is rather late for either of these methods, for already we have a state of affairs in which powers that can do untold damage lie in the hands of people who no, I will not go into this any further. We know well enough that the world today is full of those who are ill, mentally unbalanced, immature, primitive even, and that the truly wise amongst us are not always in the right positions. "Only whole men (and these are the wisest) can save the world to day" Prof. Sinnott told the Academic Youth Organization.

A new Era will Dawn

If I should now have to give a synopsis of the kind of education that has to be accomplished for mankind, and if I had to recapitulate the numerous experiences and suggestions that I know of them I could find nothing better to say than that which Philip Emannual von Fellenberg, Pestalozzi's friend, proposed and demonstrated in a prophetic foreshadowing of our present day situation. His first principle demanded the greatest possible simplification of the outer needs, the greatest possible order of life for the adolescent generation in order to create a maximum vitality, a living potential. Second in importance he stipulated the culture of the heart and a joyful spirit; ; the inspiration of deepest feeling was to penetrate all thinking and doing.

To enable us to fulfill our task, the development of true feeling must be safeguarded against the exaggerated one-sided development of the intellect. And only third in importance he put the training of the intelligence or the clarification of ideas and the exercise of conscious thinking. Not that this mattered less, to the contrary.

The culture of the mind has declined and urgently needs to be strengthened, but vitality and depth of feeling are its pre-requisites. Von Fellenberg's fourth principle, founded on the others, is the development of the personality, i.e., integrity and considered judgment. And last of all - if at all - comes the accumulation of knowledge.

Agriculture and creative work in house and garden, such as the production of food and goods for personal needs, are the essential basis of such an education. In this way von Fellenberg trailed even the most destitute children who, in Hofwil, grew up into splendid young people, a true aristocracy which later on easily made up for their lack of knowledge, who filled each post faithfully and who became strong promoters of the common good, who did not shrink from any task or responsibility. That is just what we need to-day and we may be convinced that such a training will appeal to our youth.

If we now return to the "Do-it-yourself" and " Back-to-the-land " movement in America, then we shall find that it is searching for just these conditions of life which are required for the training of the "whole" individual of the future, and that it expresses this need in the shape of a spontaneous development. A similar need slumbers doubtless also on this side of the ocean, and when it gains momentum it will result in something that will perhaps look rather different, less American, more European. It will express our own feelings and will not be on such a generous scale because we have less space and less money at our disposal, but it will be no less gratifying, no less exuberant and will have the advantage of a more thorough preparation.

I admit that our goal of a truly humane world poses many other problems which have to be thought out and tested with as much thorough care as the garden-homestead scheme, but if we can develop this project then it will not be long before our .dreams and ideas become reality. A new era will dawn, an era which will combine the advantages of the life of the Hunza people with those of our own civilization and culture, but without its menacing anxieties.