Published as Chapter 65 of The Way: An Ecological Worldview, originally published in 1992.
This text is taken from the revised and enlarged edition, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1998.
“The lower doctor heals the illness,
The medium doctor heals the whole person,
The higher doctor heals human society.”
Sun Sze-Ma, Chinese physician, 8th century AD
“Man has lost his way in the jungle of chemistry and engineering and will have to retrace his steps, however painful this may be. He will have to discover where he went wrong and make his peace with nature. In so doing, perhaps he may be able to recapture the rhythm of life and the love of the simple things of life, which will be an ever-unfolding joy to him.”
Richard St Barbe Baker
Developing natural systems can only maintain themselves on their course, or along their constellation of chreods, if they can deal effectively with any external or internal challenges that might divert them from it. To do this, they must either isolate themselves from such challenges (resistance stability) or, alternatively, correct diversions from their path or Way (resilience stability) which requires that they interpret the problems caused by such divergences correctly.
Vernacular man in the classical world understood, as Hughes notes, that “hunger, ill-health, erosion, poverty and general ruin” were only different forms “that the earth’s revenge could take for the terrible mistreatment meted out to her by man” – punishments for having diverted from the Way in pursuit of the anti-Way or what the ancient Greeks would have called the ‘ou Themis’. 
The only way to combat these ills, therefore, was to treat the Earth with greater care, which meant to return to the Way of the ancestors who lived in the Golden Age when such ills were unknown. Vernacular people invariably interpreted disease in this way. Thus among the Tukano of Colombia, as Reichel-Dolmatoff notes,
“Illness is taken to be the consequence of a person’s upsetting a certain aspect of the ecological balance. Overhunting is a common cause and so are harvesting activities in which some relatively scarce natural resource has been wasted. The delicate balance existing within the natural environment, between nature and society, and within society itself, is bound to affect the whole.” 
To restore this “delicate balance”,
“The shaman as a healer of illness does not so much interfere on the individual level, but operates on the level of those supra-individual structures that have been disturbed by the person. To be effective, he has to apply his treatment to the disturbed part of the ecosystem. It might be said then that a Tukano shaman does not have individual patients: his task is to cure a social malfunctioning.” 
He does this by re-establishing the rules that “will avoid over-hunting, the depletion of certain plant resources and unchecked population increase”. 
Quite clearly then, the shaman is more than a medical practitioner. He is a “truly powerful source in the control and management of resources”, for he can really affect the incidence and severity of diseases over which the modern medical practitioner has no control whatsoever.
Victor Turner shows that among the Ndembu of East Africa, the doctor sees his task in very much the same way. It is
“less as curing an individual patient than as remedying the ills of a corporate group. The sickness of a patient is mainly a sign that ‘something is rotten’ in the corporate body. The patient will not get better until all the tensions and aggressions in the group’s interrelations have been brought to light and exposed to ritual treatment. The doctor’s task is to tap the various streams of affect associated with these conflicts and with the social and interpersonal disputes in which they are manifested – and to channel them in a socially positive direction. The raw energies of conflict are thus domesticated in the service of the traditional social order.” 
The philosophy underlying this interpretation of disease and means of curing it is even more explicit in the case of the Qollahuaya diviners of the community of Kaata in the Bolivian Andes. They see their community as an integral part of an ayllu – conceptualising their mountainous territory as a human body, with communities living on the high ground, the central areas and in the lowlands. According to Joseph W. Bastien, the head of the ayllu is the
“moist puna area, where herders graze alpacas, llamas, sheep and pigs; the grasses that grow there are its hair; its eyes are the lakes of Apacheta. Its trunk is formed by the sloping terraced fields of potatoes, oca and barley.” 
The Kaata also has a heart, and a liver, that produce blood and fat and are the “principles of life and power”. They are circulated by the diviners throughout the community and in particular into the “Earth shrines” by means of rituals and ceremonies in which the sick people “eat with the mountain”.
For the people of Kaata, human health is thereby identified with the integrity of their ayllu: it follows that when people, their society and its environment “work together to form one body, the bodies of sick individuals become whole”; and the sick are restored to health. The body metaphor provides in this way “a systemic model in which there is an analogy between the human body and the environmental and social bodies”.
Diseases are diagnosed as “signs of disorders between man and his land, or between his vertical ayllu and Ayllu Kaata”. The disease is then combated “not by isolating the individual in a hospital away from his land” but instead by “gathering the members of his social group in ritual and together feeding all the parts of Ayllu Kaata”.
Bastien sees this as being very much the approach to disease of the people of the Andes in general. For them disease
“is an organic, cultural, environmental and social phenomenon . . . By means of the body metaphor, diviners not only examine, but also inter-relate the complex networks of environmental factors and social structure with physical distress. This often prevents subsequent illness because action is taken to change social and environmental causes of the sickness.” 
In this manner, vernacular man correctly diagnoses heterotelic diseases as the symptoms of social and ecological maladjustments, brought about by diverging from the Way, and thereby violating the laws of the cosmos and disrupting its critical order: maladjustments can only be eliminated by correcting the divergence and returning to the Way.
Modern man, on the other hand, interprets problems in terms of cause and effect relationships on the basis of which, a disease is attributed to a discreet event such as the action of a bacterium, virus or other pathogen – which must be eliminated, usually by waging chemical warfare against it.
To do this, we build factories for manufacturing the chemicals, shops in which to sell them, hospitals in which to administer them and universities in which to train the chemical engineers, pharmacists, doctors and other specialists involved in manufacturing, selling and administering them.
Thus we put our faith in scientific, technological and industrial development, or progress – precisely what our society is organised to provide. This may occasionally serve to cure individual sufferers; it will always serve the interests of industrialists and their political allies; but it will do nothing to reduce the incidence of the disease.
All the other ever more daunting problems which confront our society today are interpreted in much the same way. Each one is made out to appear soluble by the expedients that science, technology and industry can provide and is rationalised and legitimised in terms of the world-view of modernism.
Thus poverty is seen to be primarily a shortage of material goods and technological devices and of the money required to purchase them. Economic development can solve this problem, since it will enable us to build factories that can manufacture these commodities, and provide jobs to enable people to earn the money required to pay for them.
The World Bank and other Multinational Development Banks (MDBs) insist that the object of the destructive economic development that they finance is the eradication of poverty. Thus, in the President of the World Bank’s 1987 address to his Board of Governors, he stated that his purpose that day was to
“outline the Bank’s strategy for steady advance towards restored global economic growth, for steady progress in the fight against poverty.”
Bilateral aid agencies seek to maintain the same fiction. “The principal purpose” of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a former US Secretary of State told his country’s Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, is “to meet the basic needs of poor people in the developing countries”  – which is difficult to reconcile with the fact that about 75 percent of American bilateral aid is ‘tied’ to the purchase of American manufactured goods, and serves principally to subsidise American exports.
The rapid degradation of the world’s remaining agricultural lands is invariably attributed by governments and international agencies to traditional agricultural techniques. Thus USAID attributes the rapid deterioration of the “soil resource base” in arid lands to mismanagement, based on the use of “traditional technology and agricultural practices” – though, in fact, these techniques have been used sustainably for thousands of years.
Broske G. Schoepf also notes how a scientist sent to Zaire to work on the Man and the Biosphere programme (MAB) saw peasant cultivators as “enemies of the environment”.  On the other hand, corporations operating large plantations were viewed by him as “progressive in their contributions to development – as forces with whom alliance and accommodation are to be sought”.
Margaret Thatcher, in her 1989 address to the United Nations General Assembly, attributes the degradation of agricultural land to what she calls “cut and burn” agriculture, and recommends action “to improve agricultural methods – good husbandry, that ploughs back nourishment into the soil” – a rather rosy view of modern agriculture.
Malnutrition and famine are also attributed to archaic agricultural practices and, in particular, to low inputs of fertiliser. A report based on a 20-year study jointly undertaken by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and other organisations, insists that the amount of food produced in the world is a direct function of fertiliser use, without mentioning the diminishing returns on successive applications of fertiliser, experienced wherever farmers have adopted modern agricultural methods.
According to the FAO, malnutrition and famine are also due to poverty. People starve because they do not have the money required to buy food; it follows that
“the income of the poor must be increased so that their basic food requirements can be translated into effective demand.” 
Hence more economic development – even though, in spite of the unprecedented economic development of the post-war years, more people than ever before now lack the money to buy food.
The population explosion is also primarily attributed to poverty. Poor people are insecure, which leads them to produce more children who can be put to work to earn money for their parents. This means that to bring population growth under control requires rapid economic development that will provide them with the money they require to assure their security, assuring in this way a ‘demographic transition’ as has already occurred in the industrial world.
No mention is made of the fact that this transition only occurred in the industrial world once per capita income had reached a much higher level than Third World people can conceivably hope to achieve. Nor is it noted that economic development, by destroying families and communities, annihilating their natural environment and forcing people off the land and into the slums, is the greatest source of their present insecurity.
The population explosion is seen above all to be the result of a shortage of family planning devices – so much so, that the World Bank estimates that to achieve “a rapid fertility decline goal” in sub-Saharan Africa, would mean increasing the amount of money spent on “family planning” 20 times over by the end of the century – an extremely convenient approach to the problem from the point of view of the manufacturers of birth-control pills, condoms and IUDs.
So it is with all the other problems that confront us, whether it be unemployment, crime, delinquency, drug-addiction, alcoholism, pollution, resource depletion, global deforestation or global warming. Each is interpreted in a way that rationalises policies we have already decided to apply: those that make the greatest contribution to economic development and hence best satisfy the requirements of the corporations and institutions that dominate our society.
In other words, instead of interpreting our problems as the inevitable consequence of economic development or progress – that anti-evolutionary process that diverts us ever further from the Way – we interpret them instead as evidence that economic development has not proceeded far or fast enough – that, in effect, we have not deviated sufficiently from the Way.
This is the essence of the Great Misinterpretation – the ultimate manifestation of modern man’s cognitive maladjustment to the industrial world that he has created. It draws us into a chain-reaction leading to ever greater social and environmental destruction, from which we must waste no time in extracting ourselves if we are to have any future at all on this planet.
|1.||J. Donald Hughes, “Gaia: an ancient view of the planet”. The Ecologist Vol. 12 No. 5, September-October 1983; pp.54-60.|
|2.||Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, “Cosmology as ecological analysis: a view from the rainforest”. The Ecologist Vol. 7 No. 1, 1977; pp.4-11.|
|3.||Reichel-Dolmatoff, ibid.; pp.4-11|
|4.||Victor Turner, “A Ndembu doctor in practice”. In Ari Kiev ed., Magic, Faith and Healing. The Free Press, New York, 1967; pp.230-263.|
|5.||Joseph E. Bastien, “Metaphorical relations between sickness, society and land in Qollahuaya ritual”. American Anthropological Association Bulletin No. 12, 1981; pp.19-37.|
|6.||Bastien, ibid.; pp.19-37.|
|7.||William Dermon, “US aid in the Sahel, development and poverty”. In Jonathan Barker ed., The Politics of Agriculture in Tropical Africa. Sage, London, 1984; p.88.|
|8.||Broske Grundfest Schoepf, “Man and biosphere in Zaire”. In Barker ed., ibid.; p.284.|
|9.||FAO, Land, Food and People; p.94. Development Series No. 30, FAO, Rome, 1984.|