June 28, 2017

The Way – an overview (Ecologist)

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This was the final outline of what would become Edward Goldsmith’s great work The Way: An Ecological Worldview (first published in 1992).

Many of the key principles of ecological thinking which it discusses had already been published by Goldsmith in several different forms previously (see Related Articles on the right below).

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 18 No. 4–5, 1988.


I think we must be very grateful to Arne Naess for having coined the term Deep Ecology, a term that has certainly caught the public’s imagination and that is now here to stay. We are also indebted to him and his colleagues, George Sessions, Bill Devall and Warwick Fox, to name the most obvious ones, for having so ably sketched the views and policies of the Deep Ecology Movement.

I thoroughly agree with the eight principles set out by Naess in the Platform of Deep Ecology. Deep ecology seems to differ from the more pragmatic and matter-of-fact views and policies of the Ecology or Green movement that has developed during the last twenty years, largely in its very necessary subjective, emotional and slightly mystical approach.

Deep Ecology has of course been much criticised, and the criticisms have often been constructive. Henryk Skolimowski, for example, thinks that Deep Ecology needs its own cosmology and eschatology. I see eschatology as being very much a part of cosmology. Grover Foley calls for the formulation of the laws of ecology or Deep Ecology; but Arne Naess sees Deep Ecology more as a forum for those who share similar views on man’s relationship with nature, than as a clearly formulated world-view or cosmology and does not seem to think that such a set of laws is necessary.

I disagree. In my view, only a clearly formulated world view is likely to give rise to a comprehensive and clearly formulated strategy for assuring the preservation of what remains of the biosphere – and hence the survival of our species.

67 principles

What I propose to do in this essay (if what follows can be thus termed) is to propose a very tentative world-view or cosmology in the form of a set of 67 laws or principles, which are seen as governing the Cosmos and the cosmological process.

I shall take the Cosmos to be the ecosphere or Gaia – that is to say nature, or the biosphere, taken together with its interacting atmospheric environment viewed subjectively, emotionally and mystically as it has always been viewed by vernacular man, and as I am convinced it must be viewed, if we are to survive.

I doubt if these laws will be accepted by the Deep Ecology Movement. Among other things, they are concerned with a host of theoretical issues, with which few are likely to be conversant.

Those who are – our mainstream biologists, ecologists and anthropologists – will certainly reject them. I hope they do. If they do not, then I know that the laws must be seriously wanting, for I regard today’s mainstream natural sciences (biology, ecology and anthropology) as being very seriously misguided – especially mainstream ecology.

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The perversion of ecology

Thus if ecology is “the study of the structure and function of Nature” [1] or indeed of Gaia, [2] as Eugene Odum – possibly the last holistic ecologist in academia – sees it, then modern academic or scientific ecology is not ecology at all. It does not even admit that Gaia exists, let alone that the ecosphere (a more formal term for Gaia) has an overall structure or associated function.

Early academic ecologists at the turn of the century, on the other hand, might well have accepted the implications of the Gaia thesis, but since the 1940s and 1950s, ecology has been progressively perverted so as to make it conform ever more closely with modem reductionistic and mechanistic science, a story which is told very eloquently and very convincingly by Donald Worster in his seminal book Nature’s Economy; [3] a book which should be compulsory reading for all those in the ecology or Deep Ecology movement.

Significantly, modern scientific ecology has developed little theory and almost no laws. This point has been made by a number of the more thoughtful ecologists. Ramon Margalef, for instance, notes that

“ecologists have been reluctant to place their observations and their findings in the frame of general theory. Present day ecology is extremely poor in unified and ordered principles.” [4]

Peters has also noted that

“ecology has been criticised for being richer in metaphor than in true theory”. [5] Haskell has gone so far as to say that “It is no more possible to make present ecological theory produce accurate predictions than it is to make a wild cherry tree produce fancy dessert cherries.” [6]

This is not surprising. Laws are developed to explain observed regularities. A world displaying such regularities is necessarily an orderly world, but the order of our biosphere is denied by modern ecology. Glacken, for instance, tells us that “there is disorder in the universe and order must be proven not assumed”. [7] However, I regard it as fundamental to the world-view of ecology or Deep Ecology, that the world is, on the contrary, highly orderly.

Indeed, to accept the Gaia thesis, which even mainstream scientists will very soon have great difficulty in rejecting without serious loss of credibility, is to see the ecosphere as a cybernetic system, capable of acting as a single unit for the purpose of maintaining its stability, or homeostasis, in the face of environmental challenges. For this to be possible the ecosphere must be seen as highly orderly, indeed as a highly organised co-operative enterprise, very much as the Natural Theologists of the 18th century saw it, and very much too as are all other natural cybernetic systems – the human organism for instance. This means that, contrary to what Glacken tells us, the onus must be on mainstream ecologists to prove that the opposite can possibly be true.

In listing what I take to be the principles of ecology (or Deep Ecology), I was faced with the problem that the constraints to which the ecosphere is subjected, and hence the laws that govern its structure and function, are highly interrelated. This means that it is difficult to list any one of them without first having listed the others. I have only been able to get round this problem by resorting to cross-references and to a certain amount of repetition, for which I seek the reader’s indulgence.

Another problem has been that in order to list the laws in something approaching a logical order, I have been forced to intersperse the more fundamental laws with the very much more secondary ones. In order to accentuate the fact that the laws are not of equal importance, the statement of the more fundamental laws has been put in bold italics and the accompanying explanations in italics.

Finally, it may be worth noting that this essay is, in essence, a summary of a book I have been writing (on and off) for some decades, and which may yet, one day, appear somewhere in print.

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1. Ecology is the study of the structure and function of Gaia, or of Gaia as a total spatio-temporal system.

Ecology, in the words of Eugene Odum, is the study of “the structure and function of nature”. [8] Since Odum accepts that nature or the biosphere, together with its atmospheric environment, constitutes a single living system which Lovelock refers to as Gaia, after the Greek goddess of the Earth, and which we can also refer to as the ecosphere, we can, and Odum agrees, consider ecology to be the study of “the structure and function of Gaia”, or we might say “the structure and function of the ecosphere”.

Because Gala is organised hierarchically, both in space and in time (see Principle 31), being made up of systems at different levels in the spatio-temporal Gaian hierarchy, ecology must include the study of systems or life-processes at all levels in that hierarchy. Studied ecologically, molecules, biological organisms, vernacular societies, populations and ecosystems must all be seen in the light of their role – both structural and functional – in assuring the stability (see Principle 37) of Gaia

This holistic definition is in stark contrast with the current, highly reductionistic definition of ecology as “the relationship of organisms with their environment”.

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2. Ecology is the study of Gaian laws.

To study the structure and function of the ecosphere is to seek out their pattern and hence to determine how the ecosphere is ordered (see Principle 20). The basic or general features of this pattern, or order, are non-plastic (see Principle 46) which is but a way of saying that they display continuity or stability (see Principle 37). This means that a Gaian, or ecospheric, structure and function are subject to constraints; that is, they are governed by laws.

Such laws, moreover, are not mere statistical regularities, as mainstream science tells us but the conditions of order – constraints to which Gaian structures and processes must be subjected if they are to display that order. Such constraints can be violated, as in heterotelic life processes (see Principle 65) but then there is a price to pay – namely reduced biospheric order with all its consequent discontinuities and maladjustments.

The increasing incidence and severity of discontinuities of all sorts such as wars, massacres, droughts, floods, famines, epidemics, and now climate changes are but part of the price that our modern industrial society must inevitably pay for violating, in so drastic a manner, the fundamental laws of the ecosphere.

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3. Ecology is a non-disciplinary study.

Ecology must accept von Bertalanffy’s thesis [9], that natural systems at all levels in the Gaian hierarchy (such as cells, organisms, vernacular societies, ecosystems, etc.) are similar in both structure and function (see Principle 24), which means that they are governed by the same laws. Those laws – the laws of General Systems – which von Bertalanffy sought to establish, must also be the laws of ecology, that is, the laws that govern the structure and function of the Gaian hierarchy. Ecology is thereby non-disciplinary.

At a lower level of generality, different specialised disciplines are required to study divergences in structure and function among different forms of life. Such disciplines, however, must share common ecological generalities. In this way, they can be co-ordinated, so that they may serve to paint between them a coherent picture of the structure and function of Gaia, which is impossible today using disciplines that have evolved in isolation and that are often very difficult to reconcile with each other; ecology and economics providing but the most obvious example.

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4. Ecology is holistic.

The “individualistic ecology” [10] taught in our universities today is an aberration. Reductionist science looks at the parts in isolation but the ecosphere is more than the sum of its parts; it is also the way these parts are organised and, since the parts, both at a molecular and at a cellular level, are very much the same in all living things, that organisation is critical.

Biological, and hence ecological, diversity (see Principle 26) are thus achieved by organising the same basic materials in a multitude of different ways. It is because of the way these materials are organised that a mammal differs from a bird, a bird from a reptile and a tropical ecosystem from an Arctic ecosystem.

The parts, moreover, are organised functionally, indeed purposefully, if this term is to have a meaning within the context of the ecosphere (see Principle 22), so as to fulfil differentiated roles in Gala’s strategy (see Principle 37). They are organised by their evolution and hence their ontogeny and their behaviour (see Principle 17) to fulfil such roles. This means that their status, and meaning, can only be determined by considering what are these specific roles and how they are fulfilled.

To study systems in isolation is thus self-defeating. Such an enterprise cannot reveal either their status or their meaning. It is but an exercise in scientific obscurantism and mystification.

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5. Ecology is subjective.

Because of the adaptive nature of the evolutionary life processes
– with their ontogenetic and behavioural components, that, over the last 3 billion years, have given rise to the complex and highly stable biosphere that industrial man has inherited – one must postulate that natural systems, including man (see Principle 18) have, in general, been cognitively adjusted to their specific environments. Goethe noted how this was true of man. In the words of Worster:

“Goethe considered that there was ‘a perfect correspondence between the inner nature of man and the structure of external reality, between the soul and the world.’ The World was thereby a reflection of man’s own image and man in turn reflected nature’s order, the two being inseparable. This called for a subjective and emotional attitude to nature.” [11]

It is only with the systematic destruction of the biosphere, or real world, and hence of the environment to which we have been cognitively adapted by our evolution and its equally systematic replacement with the technosphere, or surrogate world, of which we have had no evolutionary experience, that we have become cognitively maladjusted (see Principle 32) to our environment – as, indeed, have other living things to theirs. In such conditions, we are no longer capable of intuiting its basic features.

The attempt to replace subjective by objective knowledge is a vain one. Man has no more been designed to entertain objective knowledge than has any other living thing. Objective science is an illusion. Subjective, value-laden, metaphysical assumptions underlie all scientific propositions. This is admitted by the more thoughtful scientists and philosophers of science. Thus, the great C H Waddington admitted that “a scientist’s metaphysical beliefs have a definite and ascertainable influence on the work he produces”. [12] Karl Popper also realised that “scientific discovery is impossible without faith in ideas which are of a speculative kind, and sometimes even quite hazy; a faith which is completely unwarranted from the point of view of science and which, to that extent, is ‘metaphysical’ “. [13]

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6. The generalities of subjective ecological knowledge are subconscious.

We are not necessarily aware of the metaphysical knowledge that underlies our world-view. Michael Polanyi referred to such knowledge – knowledge that we cannot formulate in words – as “‘ineffable”. [14] Such knowledge, being the most general and fundamental (see Principle 46 and Principle 47), plays a very much more important role in determining our behaviour than does the knowledge of which we are aware.

This does not seem to impress epistemologists, nor philosophers of science, nor scientists themselves, for whom knowledge remains conscious knowledge – that which we can formulate in words, or better still, in figures. Only such knowledge is taken to be based on observation and reason and, thereby, to be objective, scientific and true.

Ecological knowledge must refer to the whole hierarchical organisation of our knowledge (see Principle 46) – including the generalities that are largely subconscious and the particularities that are conscious. It is on the basis of such knowledge that behaviour is mediated at all levels of the Gaian hierarchy.

The role played in our behaviour by conscious, empirical and rational knowledge has in any case been grossly exaggerated. If our digestive systems, and the circulation of our blood were governed by conscious, empirical and rational decisions, we would not survive a single day.

If our adaptive relationship with our internal environment must be conducted by the unconscious parts of the brain, so must our adaptive relationship with our external environment; more precisely, it must be controlled by the predominantly subconscious knowledge, built into the cultural patterns of the vernacular societies in which man, until recently, lived. Things were then done not because they were deemed scientifically desirable, economically viable or politically expedient but because they were originally done that way by the society’s mythical ancestors who lived in the era in which the social laws were definitively established.

In this way, our external environment, like our internal environment, was protected from the depredations that would otherwise have been caused to it by out of control, conscious, empirical and rational knowledge. For this reason alone, as Jim Lovelock [15] points out, one must reject the thesis popular among environmentalists that man is, or can conceivably be, a conscious rational ‘steward’ of the natural world.

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7. The most fundamental ecological knowledge is acquired by intuition.

Observation, and induction based on it, are taken by empiricists and mainstream scientists to provide the only means of acquiring scientific knowledge. This can be criticised on many counts. First of all, observation is not the objective measuring rod it is supposed to be. On the contrary, it is highly subjective, involving as it does, the interpretation of data in the light of the observer’s subjective model, or cybernism (see Principle 34) of his relationship with his environment.

Induction simply does not occur, except perhaps in very simple forms of life. Knowledge is not built up that way at all, as Popper and others have clearly demonstrated. It is built up instead by developing a subjective mental model or cybernism by means of a complex organisational process, much of which occurs at the subconscious level.

Other epistemologists and philosophers of science have attached greater importance to ‘reason’ as a means of building up knowledge, without taking a great deal of trouble in defining that term. In particular, such philosophers see deduction from basic principles as an important (rational) means of acquiring knowledge. This is yet another process that probably does not occur in nature, since it is not from isolated principles but from a subjective, partly subconscious, model or cybernism that knowledge is derived and the process involved is more akin to the model builder’s ‘simulation’ than to the epistemologist’s deduction.

All these cognitive processes, however, whether they be observation and induction, or reason and deduction, only provide a means of acquiring conscious knowledge. No legitimate method, however, is proposed for the acquisition of subconscious knowledge. Yet there must be such a method; indeed, it must be that which we make use of to acquire our most fundamental ecological knowledge.

This method is best seen as the process whereby the most fundamental features of this relationship are interpreted in the light of the largely subconscious generalities or metaphysical principles underlying our world-view, one that reflects the total spatio-temporal experience of our cultural group, in its dealings with Gaia. Such knowledge is usually referred to as ‘wisdom’ and the method of acquiring it is normally called ‘intuition’.

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8. Ecology is emotional.

Ecology is a way of looking at the world, a subjective and emotional way, not just an objective and rational one. It involves seeing the world, as does the mystic, with wonder, with awe and with humility – as something to feel part of, to love and to cherish rather than to exploit, let alone systematically to transform as modern man is doing.

Thoreau considered that no true understanding of the Earth was possible that was not based on ‘love’ and ‘sympathy'; which for Worster “is the capacity to feel intensely the bond of identity or kinship, that unites all things within a single organism” [16] – which indeed man must feel if he is to behave as an integral part of Gaia, rather than as a heterotelic (see Principle 65) parasite that simply churns her up.

This attitude is of course irreconcilable with the paradigm of reductionist science which above all demands total objectivity, and in the words of Roszack,

“a Cosmos stripped clear of all the emotional and spiritual qualities men and women theretofore have found in the natural world.” [17]

But the elimination of such emotionalism as subjectivity from science – and hence from modem scientific ecology – is an illusion, as is clear from the outbursts of emotional indignation with which the scientific establishment greeted the publication of works such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Denis and Donella Meadow’s Limits to Growth, both of which undermined basic scientific assumptions and thereby threatened their status and prestige.

Reductionist science is in fact as emotional as it is subjective, for scientists are humans and as such have not been designed by their evolution to be unemotional any more than they have been designed to be objective.

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