June 28, 2017

The Way – an ecological worldview (talk)

Pages:  1   2   ALL 

A lecture by Edward Goldsmith organised by The Scientific & Medical Network, Fife, Scotland, May 1995, which provides an introduction to the philosophy presented in his book The Way: an ecological worldview.

“The whole of our experience is nothing more than a massive divergence from that path which we should have taken if we had wanted to maintain the critical order of the cosmos, on which we depend for our survival – and in fact, we have no alternative, but to return.”


I have been involved in publishing, editing and co-editing The Ecologist for the last 25 years. My main pre-occupation has been the destruction of the natural world – the world in which we live. Looking at our planet, I adopt a fairly pessimistic view, just like Jean Harding who talked to us earlier on. I see things very much like she does.

What are the changes that are required if we are going to survive on this planet in perpetuity? It is clear to me that these changes are of a very radical nature. I think we have to change the whole structure of our society. It is quite clear to me that since the world is now being destroyed so quickly, then it is largely because our economic activities are no longer under any control at all.


The corporations that now dominate this world, do exactly what they like. They are becoming more and more powerful, with the vast technology and finance now at their disposal, and this huge market we are creating for their goods, which will be even greater if the Uruguay Round of the GATT Treaty is ratified.

If that Round of the Treaty is accepted and allowed to materialise, then we are actually delivering the world on a platter to the large corporations to do whatever they like. There will no longer be any constraints whatsoever on their economic activities. The constraints will become automatically ‘GATT-illegal’. For instance, 90% of American environmental legislation would almost certainly be made GATT-illegal—so I was told recently by my friends in the media in Washington. So it is clear to me that man cannot co-exist with the multinational and transnational corporations. I find it difficult to avoid facing that conclusion.

Back to top

The State, its institutions and the legal system

It is the structure of our society which is the problem, and the State is particularly destructive. The modern State is a development agency just as much as a corporation is. They are both propped up by our Prime Ministers who are little more than managing directors. They buzz around the world trying to create markets for products and services which they want to sell. They are not concerned with any of the real issues – any of our own social, ecological or biological issues – they are only concerned with economics.

Even the law is not immune. It is an astonishing thought that we can completely destroy this planet, make it uninhabitable, and assure the extinction of our species, without violating a single law (audience laughter). It is a horrifying thought, is it not?

We obviously need a totally new law, designed to protect the world we live in, and hence ourselves, rather than just to protect private property, which is basically what the present law is doing. For instance, when Camelford had a terrible accident – the water supply became badly polluted – the health of a lot of people was affected. But they discovered that there was nothing they could do – the law was not on their side. If you demonstrated that you had been been very badly damaged, physically, it made no difference. You could not sue on those grounds, but you could sue if one of your cows had been killed (audience laughter), or even simply just damaged, because cows are classified as property – but the health of individual humans, is not. So the law will protect the cow (the property), but it will not protect you.

We need fundamental changes to our institutions, the corporations, the state itself, the legal system and everything else – fundamental changes. In my opinion, the only type of social and economic structure that works, is a traditional one – the one in which we always have lived, for 99% of our tenancy on this planet; that is, in families—and by families I mean, extended families and communities. You might say it is difficult to recreate them, and I agree. It is very difficult to recreate them. In fact, to solve any of our problems is extremely difficult, but to go on in the present direction is impossible.

That is the difference. What our leaders want to do is impossible—at the current rate, we will be extinct within 40 or 50 years. What we want to do is only difficult.

Back to top

Traditional societies and their worldviews

To me, there is no alternative to returning to the family and community, which are the units of all sorts of activities including economic activities – which is what they always were in the past. But, it is not just the structure which is critical as I discuss in my book The Way.

It is not only because of the way we are organised today that we are heading towards disaster, it is also because of the worldview with which we are imbued. It is a worldview which I see as being totally ineffective in terms of what we might call the paradigm of science, or what I think Fritjof Capra calls “the picture of the world that science paints”. This picture of the world that science paints, this whole paradigm of science, totally reflects the worldview with which we are imbued.

What is this worldview? It is quite clear that there is a close relationship between the structure of our society and its worldview. To me, a worldview basically serves to rationalise and hence legitimise a particular way. I think it is quite easy to see that, when looking at the behaviour of a tribal society. You can see that their mythology serves above all to legitimise their behaviour. The mythologies tell us exactly what their original ancestors believed – the laws that they enacted . . . it all tells a story – the story of their lives. If you read the story of their lives, you can almost see what they believed.

There is a writer called Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, who is a very famous Colombian anthropologist, who sees the mythology of a tribal society as the model. For him, instead of there being normal variables to the model as in a quantitative mathematical model, instead, the variables relate to the spirits, and there are clear relationships between them. This is so true that you can stimulate events in the real world, that affect a particular spirit in a particular way, and this will affect the other spirits in a different way. You know precisely what behaviour is required to re-establish the correct balance between these spirits – this is certainly the way that Reichel-Dolmatoff sees it: mythology is of enormous importance.

Back to top

The paradigm of science and the worldview of modernism

In a sense, I see much of our science as being a mythology which serves to rationalise all sorts of behaviour patterns. I once wrote a long article in The Ecologist attacking the philosophy of Ilya Prigogene who is a Nobel Laureate in chemistry and a cult figure in the intellectual world of Belgium and France. He is a ‘God’, like Hitler. He wanders around with all sorts of geneticists, anthropologists and biologists. He is a sort of pop-singer who wanders around with his trombonists and everything else. He is a cult-figure. But I think he is fundamentally wrong, and I tried to show that his whole thesis is little more than a scientific mythology serving to rationalise what he is really alluding to which is, genetic engineering. That is his principle pre-occupation, and to justify this genetic engineering and other super-style technologies, he has invented this massive scientific mythology, which in my opinion has no basis in the world of reality whatsoever.

For me, the most fundamental feature of this worldview, the most fundamental tenet, if you like, is that all benefits and hence all wealth is man-made. Nothing – none of this wealth – is derived from the normal functioning of the biosphere. Everything is man-made. Health is something that is acquired in hospitals by doctors, and in chemists by buying pills. Law and order – if there are crime waves in Los Angeles, you solve that by hiring more policeman, buying more burglar alarms and spending more money on prisons. It is man-made, you see – even society is man-made. It is a product of the ‘social contract’.

Primitive, normal society was ‘totally chaotic’ – for the people of luxury. The citizens we cannot take care of anymore must sign the contract, and agree to delegate power to some authority who will run with their voice. That is the social contract. Even social order is man-made. Before social order, in the words of Hobbes, man’s life was a “nasty, brutish and short” life – nasty, brutish and short. Astonishing. “Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (audience laughter).

Now if you really believe that all benefits are man-made, then clearly, economic development is inevitable – because economic development is the only means of assuring the proliferation of man-made institutions and technological devices – hence it must be the only means of maximising benefits and health, and hence our wealth. They fit in perfectly. These things follow perfectly, one from the other. These to me are the most fundamental principles.

Back to top

Diverging from the Way

There is a path or ‘way’ (which is the term I have used as the title of my book), which enables us to maximise benefits in health and wealth. Today, however, this path is economic development, which we are taught to identify with progress. Any problems, such as the ones occurring in Los Angeles today, are attributed to our failure to diverge sufficiently from this ‘way’ – from progress – we have apparently not progressed enough. People are starving in the Third World we are told, and the reason is because they have not invested sufficiently in fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation water, hybrid seeds and everything else. The problem of this lack of investment can apparently only be solved by more economic progress – to give them the wealth to buy all these things. If they are poor, then again, it is because there has not been enough economic growth. Now you will find these claims in the statements of all our main institutions, in particular, the World Bank and the Food & Agricultural Organization (FAO). This, to me, is their main thesis.

Back to top


Now there are many other aspects to this worldview of modernism, some of which, were described by Dr Rupert Sheldrake. It is a mechanistic, or mechanomorphic worldview, one where all living things are regarded as machines. The world is seen to be a machine, which of course made sense in the days of Descartes, because you could not have the world as a machine if there was no God to create the machine. But since then, we have abolished God. So we are now faced with a most absurd, the most absurd, dogma – because we are now faced with a machine that has come into being by itself, without a God who made it!

This idea is defined by Woodger. I do not know if you are familiar with The Biological Principles, but he goes into this in some depth in a book that is no longer widely-read. He points out that we now exist faced with a machine without a maker and without a heart. It is a self-created, or self-functioning, machine. That is the world we live in, which is most astonishing. If we talk about superstition, this must be the most absurd of all superstitions in existence, yet it is fundamental to the notion of the mechanistic world, and of mechanomorphism, which underlies the modern worldview.

Back to top

Sacred Ecology

Well of course, there are other aspects to this worldview. It is a world where the world is de-sanctified. The notion of sanctity, as Rupert Sheldrake talked about, is a very important notion too. It is not at all certain that we can survive in a world which has lost the notion of the sacred. The notion of the sacred, seems to me, fundamental, for any sort of sustainable society. I do not see that it possible to survive without it.

What is, in fact, the sacred? Well, it is a very difficult question to answer. But there are some answers that I like better than others. Mircea Eliade’s answer is, to me, very important. Both he and Titus Burckhardt, of the Perennial Philosophy school, provide a similar definition of the sacred.

Fundamental to the ecological worldview, which I will come to in a minute, is the notion that the biosphere is one, and that it is organised in a hierarchical fashion.

Back to top

The Cosmos

We also regard the cosmos as more than just the biosphere – and this cosmos has a definite structure, which tribal man, the original man, saw himself as part of. He believed very much in what became to be regarded as the microcosm-macrocosm worldview. He saw for instance, the structure of his body as being reflected in the body of his family, and of his community, and of the cosmos itself, as well as all his artefacts. For instance, the house of traditional man, was designed so as to reflect the order of the cosmos. It was designed according to the same principles. It was absolutely critical that it should be designed in this way, just as the society was designed so as to reflect the order of the cosmos. This concept is examined in great detail by Ananda Coomaraswamy who is another one of the great members of the Perennial Philosophy group.

Now for Coomaraswamy, and Eliade, something is sacred to the extent that it has been cosmicized (or brought into the structure of the cosmos). So for instance, if you started a new settlement or made a new village, it had to be sanctified. To sanctify it, meant bringing it within the structure of the cosmos, so you could relate to it in peace. This whole notion of cosmicization, or maybe only part of the notion, was so you could relate to it – so that it had meaning to you – for everything you did, because everything was related to the cosmos as a whole. Everything you did had an effect on the cosmos. The structure of your house, the structure of your tribe and your family, reflected the structure of the cosmos, which gave meaning to everything that you did, whereas the things we do today have no meaning at all.

So, this notion of the sacred seems to me essential, and once something is sacred you cannot destroy it – it is holy. You cannot change it – it is there. It is something which cannot be changed in any way, because it has been created by the gods who created the cosmos. As soon as you de-sanctify something, then it is open to exploitation, and once the whole cosmos itself is de-sanctified, then it is something that can be changed until the heart is content. You can do what you like to it – wipe it out. So this notion of the cosmos as sacred, to me, is a critical thing.

Back to top

Chthonic religion

But without going into all this, let us look at the opposite worldview – what I take to be the worldview of ecology. First of all, for me, the worldview of ecology is necessarily the worldview of Chthonic man. Now let us consider this Chthonic religion. Chthon was the god of the Earth. The Chthonic religion was really the religion of the Earth, and you find that people living in their families and communities – before they were organised into larger groups like nations – had a fundamentally Chthonic religion. The religion of the ancient Greeks, for instance, is very well described. Now this, Chthonic religion, has a very different worldview to the worldview of the modern world – it is the total opposite.

To begin with, the basic tenet of this Chthonic religion, which I take to be also the basic tenet of an ecological worldview, is that all benefits, instead of being derived from the man-made world, the technosphere, are derived instead, from the biosphere, or the world of living things. It’s exactly the opposite.

Back to top

The normal functioning of the biosphere

Now this is extremely important, if you think about it. What are the most important benefits we have? Clearly, it must be a favourable and stable climate, which is something we benefit from, and which is available on no other planet in our solar system, and, although it is by no means certain, exists nowhere else. This must be the most important – the most important – form of wealth that we have at our disposal. Obviously, fertile soil, abundant and clean water, all the wildlife, etc. – all these things must be, and are, our natural wealth as well.

And it is important to note that the biosphere itself, by and through its normal functioning, solves most of the problems which face us today. For instance, we may make pesticides, but probably 99% of all pests and potential pests are still controlled by the normal functioning of the biosphere – by all the different predators and parasites to which they are subjected.

We may make fertiliser in our factories, but it is probable that 99%, if not more, of all the fertility that is required to grow our crops and to keep our forests going is also provided by the normal functioning of the biosphere. If you were to kill off nitrogen-fixing bacteria you just would not be able to build all the fertiliser factories that we would require to make up for it, in so far as artificial fertiliser could make up for it.

So in fact, we depend totally on the normal functioning of the biosphere, yet we are destroying this biosphere rapidly, to fulfil our goal of expanding, instead, the technosphere, and to maximise the availability of technospheric ‘benefits’.

Back to top

Conflicting worldviews

Now, one can best illustrate this difference between the two worldviews with reference to the Chipko movement in the Himalayas. This is a movement which has been started by the villagers, who are trying to preserve their forests, because they know that their welfare depends entirely on the normal functioning of the forests. What happens is that when the loggers – usually government loggers – appear, the women stream out of their villages, and they go and hug the trees, and they tell the loggers that if they want to cut the trees down they must first kill them.

This movement has spread throughout the Himalayas and affects quite a substantial area. In fact, the leader of this movement is coming to London on 5th May 1995.

Sunderlal Bahuguna is a remarkable man. They have developed their own culture, their own songs and their own dances. It is quite astonishing how this has spread. The songs are particularly beautiful. In one of the songs, they recall a meeting between the village women and the forest officials, and they ask the question: “What are the forests for?”, and the forests officials answer: “The forests are for timber, resin and foreign exchange.” And then the women reply by asking the question again: “What are the forests for?”, and their answer is: “For soil, water and pure air. Soil, water and pure air are the basis of our life.”

So here you have a fundamental confrontation between two totally different and conflicting worldviews. One you might call the worldview of ‘modernism’ with which we are totally pre-occupied, because of the material and economic benefits to be derived from the forest; and the other worldview, which is the worldview of the village people, who see the forests only as a source of soil, water and pure air. They are not the least bit interested in the resin and the foreign exchange – it plays no part in their lives. So this is a confrontation between the two worldviews.

Back to top

The integrity of the biosphere

The second most important tenet of the ecological worldview, and hence the Chthonic worldview, must be that these benefits are only provided by the biosphere – so long as we respect its integrity. Now this is very clear. If you cut the forests down, clearly they will no longer provide you with the benefits. You won’t get the soil, the water and the pure air.

Let us consider today, what are the problems that we face? The problems that we face today are caused by the disruption of natural systems at all levels – the many diseases that we suffer from, or the degenerative diseases that are epidemic and escalating throughout the industrial world – whatever the problems may be. Social problems are caused by the breakdown of the family and the community, so hence we get all of these terrible problems like delinquency, crime and drug addiction, which are little more than symptoms of social deprivation and family and community breakdown.

Similarly, these floods, which we get now throughout the world, and which are increasing, and getting worse and worse; the epidemics, the droughts, climate change – all these problems are caused by the destruction of natural systems.

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Diaspora
  • Identi.ca
  • email
  • Add to favorites
Back to top

Pages:  1   2   ALL