Can Life Prevail? (Voisiko elämä voittaa) [*]

by Pentti Linkola, 2009

Can Life Prevail? is a translation from the Finnish [16] of 35 essays and articles written between 1989 and 2002 with a preface added in 2004. They begin with reflections on nature and the human impact on nature, drawing on the author’s 50 years of ornithological travels on foot, horseback, bicycle and rowing boat through Finland. As the book progresses, the author’s focus shifts from describing and lamenting the damage to Finland’s ecology and humans’ separation from nature to advocacy of what he feels his country needs to achieve real sustainability, healthy citizens and a rich biosphere.

In his native Finland, the only country in which his books have been published, Pentti Linkola (b. 1932) is a controversial figure. Can Life Prevail? is the first collection of his writing to appear in English.

He tackles ecological problems as a biologist driven by a “love of life” and as a "deep ecologist" [17], not as a politician. He outlines what he believes must be done and leaves it for others more adept in the political sphere to implement a successful transition. Although all of Pentti Linkola’s proposals are fully consistent with the aim of achieving long-term environmental sustainability, few feature in the green manifestos we are familiar with. Above all else, Linkola reveals to us the ideological constraints we have imposed on our thinking about more sustainable biophysical arrangements.

A program for sustainability in Finland

The following extracts from Linkola’s 205-point program [1] bring out the flavour of his plan to reverse human demographic and technological expansion and return to a local, healthier and simpler lifestyle in harmony with the rest of nature's processes. [2] He puts forward his proposals not as a total solution, but in the hope that they will "give nature a little more time". [18]

Population

• The cornerstone of any population platform is the dismantling of the freedom of procreation, the most senseless form of individual freedom. The population will have to be reduced to about ten percent of what it is now. [13]

• Procreation licences would be denied to families deemed genetically inadequate or unsuitable for the raising of children.

Energy

• Fossil fuels, including peat, will be abolished on the first day the program is implemented.

• Bodies will first be warmed by clothing rather than air [ie, space heating].

Forests

• Reforesting a significant portion of field acreage will be made possible by replacing grain with mostly animal protein ... hunting and fishing will provide a greater proportion of food but within ecologically prescribed limits.

Food production and consumption

• The position of agriculture as the country’s primary source of livelihood should be acknowledged: society should strengthen the agricultural sector by all possible means.

• Farming will be organised into small units, agricultural machines will be abolished and a major portion of the population will be made to practise light agricultural work.

• Half a million horses will be reintroduced onto farms to perform heavy duties, and sufficient land turned over to the production of their fodder.

• Most commodities will be rationed: rationed foodstuff will be allotted according to age, body build and profession, so even the bulkiest performers of heavy work will be guaranteed sufficient nutrition, yet obesity will be unknown.

• Domestic cultivation and gathering of food will not be regulated.

Transport

• Transport use will be radically reduced as people will be required to live and work in their home districts, travelling only by walking, skiing, cycling, rowing and paddling.

Technology and manufacturing

• Since metal, plastic and rubber products will be in little demand, the majority of cars, household appliances etc. will be pressed into blocks and transferred, firstly, to fill mines.

• No product will be manufactured unless there is a buyer in real need of its use.

• The construction of new buildings will cease.

Education and culture

• The school system will be cherished as the most precious aspect of society ... foreign languages will be removed from the syllabus of elementary schools, less mathematics will be taught ... civil skills will be taught to adults as well as children (these include responsibility to one’s neighbour, nature and mankind), ... every citizen will learn how to mend, patch and handle the common tools, build axe shafts, file saws, gut fish and skin animals.

• Universities will be maintained whatever their cost. However, university buildings and equipment will be modest ... research will focus on the humanities, philosophy and natural sciences ... applied sciences will concentrate on supporting the new economy (repair of buildings, production and preservation of food stuffs).

• Art and music will be widely practised and taught, but buildings specifically devoted to the practice of the arts will be abolished.

Health

• The opulent excess of fat, even obesity, would be decreased by regulating, controlling and normalising the nutrition, vitamin and hormonal levels of adolescents. A drop of twenty centimetres in the average height could realistically be achieved; the same goes for a drop of twenty kilos in the average weight. This is a very important step to be taken and among one of the most humane ones in order to reduce the demographic burden.

• From childhood, citizens will be made to develop immunity to the most common strains of bacteria. In other ways, too, the medical sciences will leave the path of Pasteur to embrace practices more in accordance with Darwin.

National political and administrative arrangements

These occupy the remainder of this review.

It is not clear if Linkola is serious about all the points in his program or if he is laying out one possible sustainable future and provoking us to come up with a better way to attain – quickly – true sustainability and the preservation of the biosphere's processes – if we can.

Rationale for Linkola’s reforms

Justifying this program, Linkola writes: “faith in humanity is the greatest of all follies. If man knew what was good for him, would history be chock-full of wretchedness, war, murder, oppression, torment and misery? ... the sole glimmer of hope lies in a centralised government and the tireless control of citizens ... the underlying error that is leading us astray is a political system based on indulgence. Our society and ways of life are based on what man desires rather than what is best for him. These two things – desire and necessity – are as far from one another as east and west.” Linkola is critical of democracy because leaders must aim first for short-term popularity within the wholly human subset of affairs preoccupying people at election time rather than what is best for the health and well-being of the entire biosphere over the long term. For Linkola these two are irrevocably and fundamentally irreconcilable. The environmental crisis is now such that a choice must be made between nature and society.

How would human affairs change after these reforms?

What we would lose

Looking into the future Linkola says “Besides guaranteeing its main goal, the preservation of life [ie, the health of the Finnish biosphere], the suggested model of society would also secure an incomparably better standard of living. What are the sweet, cherished traits of the modern world that man would lose? Record suicide rates, exhausting competition, unemployment, stress, job insecurity, alienation, depression, the need for psychological medication, bodily decay, individual arrogance, corruption, crime...”

What we would gain

“What would be left, then, would be: an endless spectrum of arts and hobbies (singing, music, dancing, painting, sculpture, books, games, plays, riddles, shows); numerous museums, the study of history, local customs and dialects, genealogy, the countless pursuits related to biology; handcrafts and gardens, clear waters, virgin forests, marshlands and fells; seasons, trees, flowers, homes, private life – in other words, a genuinely human life.” (p 205)

Why we need an authoritarian government

“Why then, is a strict central government needed? I have already referred to the shameful history of mankind. If ordinary individuals, the people, are given the chance to choose, like magpies they will again and again go for the shiny things, leaping like moths into the flames. A government led by a few wise individuals is necessary to protect the people from themselves.” (p 205) Linkola assumes that the wise individuals will remain true to their original purpose of protecting life processes; he has no answer to the question Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? [3] or how to replace powerful leaders if they go off the rails (Mugabe, Mobutu, Stalin et al.).

Contemporary reaction to Linkola’s proposals

Whatever Linkola may see as his message, because his writing is grounded in clear practical illustrations and precepts, others readily take from his writing what their prepared minds select. They may do what is intellectually easy: ignoring those aspects that do not resonate with their predispositions. Here are six features of Linkola’s writing that (a) many traditional greens would find unacceptable, yet (b) are welcomed by those from the political far right:

1. Linkola is determinedly anti-democratic.

2. He opposes immigration – not for ethnic or cultural homogeneity, but to reduce the Finnish population to a sustainable level.

3. He is unsentimental about how the human population should be reduced.

4. He admires the forest conservation programs and outdoor youth activities of the Nazis in the 1930s.

5. He condones – in language that resembles fascist rhetoric [4] – violence to achieve the ends he advocates [19] “resort to violence against violence: to a tougher, sharper, more astute, massive and determined violence; an iron will ...” (p 174).

6. He praises the 9/11 attackers for the damage they did to the operational heart of the environmentally destructive US.

7. He advocates economic contraction and 'undevelopment' (Joseph Tainter's term) rather than economic growth and increasing complexity and formal administrative coordination by government. [23]

These features have attracted contemporary fascists [5] and repelled many others, distracting – because of our culture’s prejudices – from Linkola’s environmental message. Many of those who have experienced authoritarian government would not welcome its return over their lives, but Linkola puts it to us as our only choice: authoritarian government or environmental and human catastrophe.

How could anyone come up with ideas like these? I can imagine Linkola trekking or rowing for days on end, observing birds, fishing and living off the land and composing his articles in the open air. That is, he has not tempered his ideas by discussing them with other people – rather he has sharpened his proposals and enriched his observations as he absorbed himself in the natural world. [22]

Piecemeal reforms or revolutionary change

There is also Linkola’s despair that the environmental prospects are so dire that it would be futile to transition incrementally to new societal arrangements. He argues instead for a tabula rasa – a clean slate – and leaves open the possibility that this need not be mitigated to avoid violence. Mao Tse-Tung used the Red Guards to impose a cultural revolution on China, but the most thoroughgoing attempt at a tabula rasa in recent history has been that by Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia.

Solutions to the environmental crisis not owned by the left

Linkola has performed a useful service in breaking what is, in effect, an assumption of entitlement to the environmental/green movement, love and wisdom by the left, social democrats, intellectuals and others. Australians and Americans who are already suspicious of the left or offended by its assumption are inclined to be similarly suspicious of the environmental movement – condemned by association. William Lines, in his history of the Australian conservation movement, Patriots, showed that environmental activists were often motivated by a feeling for “place” and that this translates politically into a positive feeling for country and nation. By this reckoning, there is potential for strong environmental advocacy by the radical right in Australia. In the UK, the far-right British National Party has a clearer and less equivocal environmental platform than the major parties in that country.

Sustainability in one country?

Perhaps it is typical of a naturalist who sees all life (including human life) through a biologist’s eyes that Linkola fails to put sufficient weight on how human nature will be expressed in politics under his program. If Linkola’s vision of a sustainable [21] Finland came to pass and other nations became very environmentally stressed, can he imagine that the country would not be invaded by environmental refugees or other nations or foreign corporations looking for lebensraum, forest timber, hydro power or other resources? A low-tech peasantry scattered through a country of forests would be no match for a determined, well-armed invader. Russia, to which Finland was annexed 1809-1917, might feel it had some right to Finnish resources if its own were seriously depleted. And we would not expect any invasion to be environmentally sensitive: it would, almost certainly, plunder the Finnish environment. Would there be no government in exile? No internal underground? No organised criminal opposition? Linkola makes no mention of “ecological police”, but without such an institution, it is difficult to see how “human nature” could be prevented from continuing in its ecologically-destructive ways. [10]

Is Pentti Linkola’s program fascist?

Is Pentti Linkola a fascist? And if he is, does it matter? It does matter because Linkola’s proposals have been labeled fascist and because of the deep negative emotional resonances associated today with the term “fascist”.

On the evidence of this book, Linkola is not a fascist.

The defining characteristic of fascism [6] is nationalism and, although Linkola loves Finland, his affection is for Finland as a country, an ecological entity, rather than Finland as a nation, a political or cultural entity. [12] Furthermore, Linkola does not meet other criteria for fascism: he has no place for national expansion by conquest or population growth, [14] militarism, a mass militarised ruling party, admiration of manufacturing, technology [16] or finance capitalism, [15] anti-Semitism or racism. Nor does he focus criticism on feminism or communism. On the other hand he shares with fascists a organicist conception of community; yet, unlike the fascists, his view of community is not rooted in national ideology but in biophysical reality. Rather than communities being mobilised to further nationalistic goals, he sees communities operating autonomously: under broad national direction but not mobilised to contribute to national progress or aggrandisement.

Ecofascism

“Fascism” is an emotive word and is used liberally and indiscriminately to criticise far more than is justified on the evidence. One example is the term “ecofascism”; this has frequently been applied by conservative populists to discredit deep ecology and even mainstream environmentalism. The term has thereby been smeared and rendered unavailable for Linkola’s position. Linkola certainly shares with fascists a contempt for democracy and a preference for strong authoritarian government – in his case to deal effectively with the emerging environmental crisis.

Misanthropy

Linkola has also been labelled a misanthropist, but balancing Linkola’s biologist’s attitude to the plague species Homo sapiens with his clear love of real people, conviviality, community and the arts, we can dismiss this labelling. To give Linkola any existing label is futilely procrustean; his program is in a category new to political science.

Linkola’s personal example

Pentti Linkola stands out not only for his ideas and his total unconcern for political correctness. He has always lived with the simplicity he advocates (he has worked as a fisherman [20], not a salaried biologist) – and his unremittingly austere lifestyle has itself attracted admirers. Although Linkola’s program is something he says a government must implement, he has adopted the lifestyle he advocates in advance of government action. Furthermore, he is not one of those who seize the environmental imperative to further their own, unrelated agendas. [7] Linkola explains that our human desire for ease and comfort is both natural and – now that we depend on increasing technological complexity and have an ecological footprint score greater than 1.00 – our undoing:

“Man has been dominating the globe without rivals ever since the invention of the stone axe, and our lives have become unnaturally and hopelessly comfortable” (p 145).

Conclusion

Linkola’s program puts biology first, differing from other approaches to the environmental crisis in his assessment of the evidence for both the scope and seriousness of the crisis, the assumptions he makes about human nature and his proposed political and social arrangements to ensure his program’s effectiveness.

A strength of Linkola's proposals is that they do not depend on a change in human nature, our attitudes, our priorities etc. He is reconciled to the fact that the species that brought us ethnic cleansing, the Gulag, Kampuchea, the Rwandan genocide, drug lords, suicide bombings and environmental destruction is us. The same species also brought forth Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, J S Bach, William Shakespeare, the Red Cross, the people you and I admire and hundreds of millions of loving relationships in the world today. Linkola is not in denial about the negatives and he addresses them directly. This puts his program ahead of others who lack his courage and honesty.

One weakness in his program is his failure to address the transition and how his proposals might become practical arrangements for everyday living for Finns. Another weakness is his selective consideration of human nature [8]. A third weakness – shared with most reformers – is faith that the future he imagines will be far more fulfilling, enjoyed and embraced than the present; that is, he makes too uncritical a case for both the benefits and the popular acceptance or tolerance of his program [8].

Technical note

The translation into English is generally good (and occasionally inspired [9]) but stilted and there are lapses in the proof reading. I have been in correspondence with the translator and he assured me that, in the original Finnish, Linkola’s writing is fluid and sophisticated.

Recommendation

The book is recommended for anyone whose mind is open to alternative political and social arrangements to achieve biophysical ends. Such openness has, I believe, potential to draw new and significant segments of the population into the push for a sustainable future.

Notes

* This review is a longer version of a review accepted for publication in the journal Nature and Society. A copy is available in Russian here. I am conscious there may be gaps or inadequacies in this version - something that easily happens if you are working alone so I welcome your comments and suggestions. Please e-mail them to me. David Orton has also reviewed Can Life Prevail? available as a .pdf here.    Back to top

1. Pages 185-203. A proposal on competition in society and one on unemployment appear on page 185. 12 points on agriculture appear on pages 186-187 and 191 wide-ranging points are presented on pages 192-203.    Back to text

2. Some of Linkola's points extracted here have been edited lightly to compress them for this review.    Back to text

3. "Who will guard the guardians?" (Juvenal)    Back to text

4. I have no knowledge of Finnish, so cannot vouch for the translation of this or any other part of Can Life Prevail?    Back to text

5. See, for example, the YouTube videos about Linkola.    Back to text

6. This paragraph draws on Fascism by Kevin Passmore, and The Fascist Tradition by John Weiss.    Back to text

7. In Australia, Trotskyites formed Green Left as a vehicle for entryism into the green movement; some of those urging a vegetarian diet to mitigate global warming; those who claim that the 2008-09 global financial crisis (or other significant development) presents a "golden opportunity" to implement their own personal agenda.    Back to text

8. Linkola says mankind's unquenchable desire for indulgence and ease means that humanity will choose to destroy the environment rather than sacrifice comfort and convenience. [11] He proposes an authoritarian government to design and oversee the population to prevent humans' natural tendency to net destruction. However he does not take human nature into account by considering the response of the populace to the social/psychological implications of and responses to – his largely practical 205-point plan. That is, he assumes the populace will accept (or, at least acquiesce in – albeit with coercion) sufficient austerity and the implied greater discomfort to preserve the natural environment. My own feeling is that Linkola's proposed authoritarian government would face widespread and continuing dissatisfaction and this would be expressed through insurrection, disruption, fear, false rumour, incremental weakening through concessions to special interests including fairness and social justice, a host of 'black market' behaviours by seekers of advantage, comfort and ease – all of which would, ultimately, be at the expense of the environment. North Korea maintains its tyranny partly through starving its population; integral to Linkola's plan is adequate nutrition for all. He also makes it clear he does not want a culture of fear and terror. (p 155)     Back to text

9. For example: "Man is more clueless than careless" (p 152)     Back to text

10. And yet could Linkola's proposed society afford a sufficiently large number of "ecological police" (my term, not Linkola's)? They would be non-producers and, like the parasitic priestly classes in past civilizations, sap communities of their food- tool- clothing- shelter-production surpluses and grind the actual producers down.     Back to text

11. Linkola's consideration of human nature is not one of direct biological determinism. "It is of course a truism that human nature is behind all human actions. This, however, does not make all deeds [or events] unavoidable ..." However, our drives and instincts limit the range of possibilities. (p 152)

12. Unlike a fascist, Linkola takes many opportunities to criticise or even ridicule the Finns, his own countrymen (eg, p 154). He also refers to ecological regions straddling and being more important than national borders. (p 183)     Back to text

13. Linkola advocates "a controlled pruning (of both population and its material standard of living) before [the otherwise inevitable] chaos breaks loose. In this manner violence could be minimized ..." (p 157)  See also suggestions as to Earth's maximum sustainable human population    Back to text

14. Linkola's often-expressed preference for a far smaller human population runs counter to the fascist promotion of national population growth.     Back to text

15. Indeed, Linkola despises economic competition, "... which is nothing but the immoral subduing of others [and which] must be disposed of in all areas of life. Even the thought of vying between nations or economical coalitions must be extinguished; no country is an enemy to be overcome."     Back to text

16. Pentti Linkola despises (p 70) and fears the swamping of Finnish culture by "the most horrid forms of market economy, an uncritical worship of technology, to automation and media vapidity ... (American) English has now been adopted as a second language in Finland." (p 20)     Back to text

17. Linkola frequently refers to himself (and others with a similar perspective) as a deep ecologist, guardian of life, protector of life etc.    Back to text

18. Page 19.    Back to text

19. Ward Churchill writes that those who draw the line at committing acts of violence in support of their cause are thereby declaring their commitment to non-violence to be more dear to them than the cause they advocate. Linkola appears to set his priorities by Churchill's principle. He seeks to protect the continuity of a healthy biosphere above all else. No "only if ...", "but only when ...", "Unless ...". He uses mischevous rhetoric to point to the big picture rather than transient 'human interest stories', so when seven people were killed in a school shooting in Finland, he grumped that it was nowhere near enough deaths - as the planet has about 6 billion more Homo sapiens than it can bear.    Back to text

20. You can view Pentti Linkola in his natural habitat on YouTube. I recommend this video, which intersperses images from his childhood with images of his present life, and this video of Linkola at home both outside (first two minutes) and inside, among his ornithological notebooks. This more recent video shows Linkola in August 2009. The dialogue in all is wholly in Finnish.    Back to text

21. For a thoughtful discussion about sustainability, see Joseph Tainter's August 2009 paper Human Resource Use: Timing and Implications for Sustainability

22. Viktor Postnikov has placed Linkola in the context of deep ecology in this post     Back to text

23. This is what Joseph Tainter says about 'undevelopment':

"Peer polity systems tend to evolve toward greater complexity in a lockstep fashion as, driven by competition, each partner imitates new organizational, technological and military features developed by its competitor(s). The marginal return on such developments declines, as each new military breakthrough is met by some countermeasure, and so brings no increased advantage or security on a lasting basis. A society trapped in a competitive peer polity system must invest more and more for no increased return, and is thereby economically weakened. And yet the option of withdrawal or collapse does not exist. So it is that collapse (from declining marginal returns) is not in the immediate future for any contemporary nation. This is not, however, due so much to anything we have accomplished as it is to the competitive spiral in which we have allowed ourselves to become trapped.

"Here is the reason why proposals for economic undevelopment, for living in balance on a small planet, will not work. Given the close link between economic and military power, unilateral economic deceleration would be the equivalent to, and as foolhardy as, unilateral disarmament. We simply do not have the option to return to a lower economic level, at least not a rational option. Peer polity competition drives increased complexity and resource consumption regardless of costs, human or ecological." Joseph Tainter, ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’, p. 214     Back to text

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