from Edward Fullbrook
There is a letter of mine in the current issue of the London Review of Books. It is as follows.
Old Blue Banger
In 1963 I backpacked through Southern Sudan. So, naturally, reading Jonathan Littell’s ‘A Journey in South Sudan’, I tried to make connections between there then and there now (LRB, 30 June). I wasn’t very successful. Place and tribe names remain the same, but today’s referents seem to belong to a different anthropological period from the ones I knew. Littell writes:
“The streets of Juba … were metalled not long ago and the traffic never lets up: there are 4x4s with radios and humanitarian logos, more luxurious SUVs … vans, pickup trucks, motorcycles, endless streams of public minibuses, the occasional Hummer, bright yellow or orange. There are many substantial-looking buildings, bars, restaurants, businesses, cellphone and computer shops, beauty salons, clothing stores.”
In 1963 the only real buildings in Juba were a Barclays Bank and a government guest house that was far beyond my means. Twice a day you might see a battered Land Rover or a small lorry, but no bikes, motor or otherwise, that I remember.
One day on Juba’s main street a car appeared, an old blue banger. What a sight! I hadn’t seen a car since leaving Khartoum four weeks earlier. It pulled up beside me and a white man’s bald head came out from a rear window. He introduced himself as the American ambassador. ‘I flew down in a Piper Cub from Khartoum just for the day.’
Even then Juba was half an anthropological period removed from the rest ofSouthern Sudan. Beyond the city limits, loin cloths were virtually the only apparel, and for men they were optional. Utilitarian spears were an everyday sight. Between Wau and Juba, a distance of 350 miles, I saw only one structure that was not made entirely from un-machined materials. It was a gazebo with metal insect screening tacked onto a light frame of milled timbers. Inside, its African owner, also in his early twenties, served me tea and told me his life story in perfect Home Counties English. His mother had died in an epidemic and his father in the claws and jaws of a lion. Missionaries passing through took him into their care and eventually back to England. Recently he had graduated from a British university and had returned to help his people – although of course he didn’t express it this way – into a different anthropological period. Obviously he and others succeeded; Littell otherwise would not have gone to South Sudan to write his article. I don’t mean to be nostalgic or sentimental, but it was with some sadness that I read it.
So you have a rough picture of what life in terms of economic development was like in Southern Sudan half a century ago. But I was not in any way thinking of economics when I wrote it. Reading my letter in print this morning just as I was about to put on my economist hat, however, it occurred to me that in my travels back then through Southern Sudan I had observed concrete examples of two economic ideas now rapidly moving upwards on the global intellectual agenda. And both have recently featured in the RWER.
The first was a steady-state economy. Outside Juba they predominated everywhere and had for at least centuries. The economies were local in structure and geared not to growth but instead to maintaining a level of sustainable sufficiency, so that, baring externalities (conquest from the north and technology from the West) the quantities and qualities describing their economies were independent of time.
The second large timely idea whose exemplification I observed in Southern Sudan is rarely enunciated but is increasingly with us because it is implicit in the concept of a steady-state economy. Realizing such an economy depends on the values which predominate in the society to which it belongs. More precisely, it requires a non-consumer society, meaning one in which its members’ primary identity and purpose are independent of consumer aspirations. Economies belong to cultures and visa versa. Each depends fundamentally on the other. Selling the idea of a steady-state economy depends on selling the idea of a non-consumer society. That is a job not yet seriously begun. Clearly also it is an idea that has now been lost in Southern Sudan. They of course were starting from an ultra low level of economic development. And I would not for a second deny any people the right to attain a level of economic development that is considered right for others. But I cannot with confidence say that the people there in 63 – who more than once sheltered me overnight for free in their conical huts of thatch – were not as happy or happier than those living there today.