October 22, 2017

The Way – Introduction

Below is the Introduction that appears in the Special Edition of Edward Goldsmith’s magnum opus, The Way – An Ecological Worldview, published by Veltune Publishing, 8th November 2014.


MODERN SOCIETY is rapidly destroying the natural world on which it depends for its survival. Everywhere on our planet the picture is the same. Forests are being cut down, wetlands drained, coral reefs grubbed up, agricultural lands eroded, salinised, desertified, or sim­ply paved over. Pollution is now generalised—our groundwater, streams, rivers, estuaries, seas, and oceans; the air we breathe, the food we eat—all are affected. Just about every living creature on earth now contains in its body traces of agricultural and industrial chemicals—many of which are known or suspected carcinogens and mutagens.

As a result of our activities, it is probable that species are being made extinct at least one hundred to a thousand times faster than the natural rate, with only a fraction of these being known to science.1  The earth’s magnetic field is being changed, with no one knows what possible con­sequences. The ozone layer that protects humans and other living things from ultraviolet radiation has already been severely depleted; and our very climate is being so transformed and destabilised that within a few decades we will probably experience climatic conditions in which no hu­man has ever lived before.

By destroying the natural world in this way, we are making our planet progressively less habitable, and if current trends persist, it may very soon cease to be capable of supporting complex forms of life. This may sound far-fetched—unfortunately, it is only too realistic. Over the course of thirty years, my colleagues and I documented the trends and the likely outcome ad nauseam in The Ecologist.

Why, we might ask, are we doing this ? The answer is that our society is committed to economic development or ‘progress’—an undertaking that by its very nature must systematically increase the impact of our eco­nomic activities on an environment ever less capable of sustaining it and ever more deeply degraded by it.

An idea of the gross mismatch between the impact of human activi­ties and the environment’s capacity to sustain them is provided by the fact that at the turn of the twenty-first century we had coöpted for our own use and for our various economic activities some forty per cent of the biosphere’s terrestrial net primary production (NPP).2  What is more, if economic activities continue to expand at this rate, within no more than a few decades we would be coöpting one hundred per cent of NPP—which, of course, is not remotely conceivable.

All this has been of little, if any, concern to our political leaders. They continue to go about their normal business as if the problem did not exist. Thus, although 170 scientists sitting on the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up by the United Nations, warned them that carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced by sixty to eighty per cent immediately in order to stabilise climate, the British government began work on the largest road-building plan in the country’s history and talked happily of doubling its road capacity by the end of the twentieth century. 3  The then incumbent American administration openly admitted that, whatever the climatic consequences, it planned to go on increasing carbon emissions into the foreseeable future, refusing to set either targets or deadlines for their reduction.4  Since then, our politicians have shown at least some willingness to recognise the problem—however, their total failure to reach agreement on any serious policy only ensures that carbon emissions will continue to rise well into the future.

Corporate interests are, if anything, even less concerned. The oil in­dustry has been very active in lobbying governments to prevent them from taking any measures that, in the interests of reducing carbon emis­sions, might lead to a reduction in oil consumption with a consequent dip in sales.

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The indifference of science

In general, the main constraint on governmental action to tackle the serious environmental problems that face us is the lobbying campaigns of these very powerful industrial groups intent on defending their petty short-term interests, come what may.

More surprising, however, has been the almost total indifference with which the scientific world has viewed these critical problems. Its acknowl­edged role is to provide governments and society at large with knowledge that serves the public interest and maximises the general welfare. But how can it achieve this task if it systematically ignores the fatal process that is rendering our planet ever less habitable and that, if unchecked, must inevitably lead to the extinction of our species along with countless others? Our scientists bring to mind those Australian Aborigines, who, when they first sighted Captain Cook’s impressive ship sailing up the Australian coast north of Botany Bay, went about their normal activities as if this strange monster were simply not there.5  Perhaps they hoped—consciously or unconsciously—that by ignoring it to the point of not rec­ognising its very existence they might induce this aberration to go away and leave them alone.

The parallel is more than superficial. In both cases, a life-threatening challenge is systematically ignored because its occurrence is irreconcilable with the prevailing worldview, which would be totally discredited were the challenge shown to be real. The American anthropologist A.F.C. Wallace shows convincingly that tribal peoples will go to any lengths to preserve their cognitive structure or ‘mazeway’, as he refers to it (chapter 66). A scientist will go to equal lengths to do so—as Thomas Kuhn, Michael Polanyi, Gunther Stent, and other enlightened philosophers of science have shown (chapter 12).

The underlying worldview that scientists share with almost everybody else with influence in our society, I refer to in this book as the worldview of modernism, which is faithfully reflected in the reductionist paradigms of science and economics.

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Underlying tenets of the “scientific” worldview

One of the two most fundamental tenets of the worldview of modern­ism and its derivative paradigms is that all benefits (and therefore our welfare and our wealth) are artificially manufactured (chapter 39)—the product of science, technology, and industry, and of the economic devel­opment that these make possible. Thus, health is seen as something that is dispensed in hospitals—or at least by the medical profession—with the aid of the latest technological devices and pharmaceutical prepara­tions. Education is seen as a commodity that can be acquired in schools and universities. Law and order, rather than being natural features of human society, are seen instead as provided by a police force in conjunc­tion with law courts and a prison system. Even society is seen as artificial, brought into being by the ‘social contract’. Not surprisingly, a country’s wealth is measured by its per capita Gross National Product (GNP), which provides a rough measure of its ability to provide its citizens with all such manu­factured commodities—a principle faithfully reflected in modern eco­nomics. The inestimable benefits provided by the normal functioning of the biosphere—such as a favourable and stable climate, fertile soil, and fresh water, without which life on this planet would not be possible—are totally ignored and assigned no value of any kind. It follows that to be deprived of these ‘non-benefits’ cannot constitute a cost, and the natural systems that provide them can therefore be destroyed with economic impunity.

The second fundamental tenet of the worldview of modernism fol­lows quite logically from the first—it is that to maximise all benefits (and hence our welfare and our wealth) we must maximise economic devel­opment or ‘progress’, which is, above all, the systematic replacement of the biosphere or real world (the source of natural benefits) by the techno­sphere or surrogate world (the source of artificial benefits). To question the efficacy of this fatal process, or to suggest that it might not be en­tirely beneficial, is to blaspheme against the holy writ of what is in effect the religion of the modern world. No true believer will accept that the terrible social and environmental destruction we are witnessing today is the inevitable product of this sacred process. Instead, it will be imputed to deficiencies or difficulties in its implementation—government inter­ference, corruption among local officials, or freak conditions that are unlikely to recur.

In this way, the worldview of modernism and its specialised para­digms prevent us from understanding our relationship with the world we live in and of adapting to it so as to maximise our welfare and our real wealth. Instead, it serves primarily to rationalise economic develop­ment or ‘progress’—the very activity that is leading to the destruction of the natural world, with consequences that are only too evident to all (chapter 65).

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Science is not objective

How, we might ask, is it possible for our ‘objective’ scientists to behave in so unobjective a manner? The answer is that science is not objective—a fact that has been well established by Michael Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn, and other philosophers of science (chapter 15). One reason why scientists accept the reductionist paradigm of science and hence the worldview of modernism is that these particular ‘ways of seeing’ rationalise the policies that have given rise to the modern world in which they, and indeed most of us, have been brought up. It is very difficult for people to avoid regarding the world they live in—the only one they have ever known—as being the normal condition of human life on this planet. Just as an abandoned child who sleeps in the sewers of an urban slum and lives off petty crime and prostitution regards their own lot as totally normal, so scientists re­gard it as normal that our rivers have been transformed into sewers; that our drinking water is contaminated with human excrement, pesticide res­idues, nitrates, radionuclides, and heavy metals; that our agricultural land is eroding faster than soil can possibly form by natural processes; that our natural forests are being systematically replaced with ecologically vulner­able and soil-destroying monocultures of fast-growing exotics; that our cities are increasingly ugly, chaotic, and polluted; and that our children spend most of their spare time being entertained by violent and sadistic imagery on the screen. All this, and much else that is totally aberrant and destructive, most mainstream scientists will take to be normal.

This general human tendency to regard the only world we know as normal is reflected in just about all the disciplines that are taught in schools and universities. Thus, the modern discipline of economics is based on the assumption that the destructive economic system that oper­ates today is normal; the discipline of sociology on the assumption that the modern atomised and crime-ridden society is normal; political science on the assumption that the elected dictatorships that govern modern nation states are normal; and agricultural science on the assumption that large-scale, mechanised, chemical-based agriculture (that is rapidly trans­forming much of our arable land into desert) is normal. It simply does not occur to many academics that what they take to be normal is highly ätypical of humanity’s total experience on this planet—necessarily short-lived and wholly aberrant. They are like biologists who have only seen cancer­ous tissue and understandably mistake it for a healthy organism.

Another reason why the scientific community still accepts the reduc­tionist paradigm of science is that, though it paints the most misleading picture of reality, it is nevertheless very coherent and self-consistent. This must be so, for scientific theories are not adopted by mainstream science because they have been proved to be true by experimentation in control­led laboratory conditions, or even as a result of simulation on a mathe­matical model, but because, above all, they happen to fit in particularly well with the prevailing paradigm of science. Those theories that do not conform, what is more, are systematically contorted into a shape that en­ables them to do so.

During the twentieth century, the behaviourists made psychology conform to the reductionist paradigm of science. The neo-Darwinists and, even more so, the sociobiologists did the same for biology. Modern sociology has also become mechanistic and reductionistic, and the de­velopment of the new ecology in the 1940s and ’50s has engendered a ‘Newtonian’ ecology, which rather than provide the theoretical founda­tions for the environmental movement of today (as most environmen­talists firmly believe) serves instead to further rationalise and hence legitimise the very process of economic development or ‘progress’ that is the principal, if not the only, cause of the environmental degradation that they seek so ardently to bring to an end (chapters 1, 22, and 38).

In this way, all academic knowledge has been forced, Procrustean-like, into the reductionist paradigm of science; stretched or shrunk to fit an atomised and mechanistic vision of the world in which people are no more than machines and their needs purely material and technological—precisely those that the state and the industrial system are capable of satisfying. At the same time, any social and ecological problem that might arise is interpreted in such a way as to appear amenable to a technological solution—the only one that our modern industrial society can provide. It is all very neat and logical, but it is a pure figment of the sci­entists’ imagination.

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The misleading paradigm of reductionist science

Another reason why our scientists are still wedded to the paradigm of reductionist science is that it is capable of perpetuating itself, however wide the gap may be between the world it depicts and the world as it really is. For if knowledge is only accepted to the extent that it fits the paradigm, any knowledge that does not fit, however true and important it might be, is by the same token ruthlessly rejected (chapter 12). This disposes of all theories based on the assumption that the world is orderly and purposive rather than random and blind (chapters 26 and 27); organised rather than atomised (chapter 40); cooperative rather than purely competitive (chapters 44 and 45); dynamic, creative, and intelli­gent rather than passive and robotic (chapters 28, 29, and 32); self-regulating rather than managed by some external agent (chapters 20 and 23); tending to maintain its stability or homeostasis rather than geared to perpetual change in an undefined direction (chapter 19)—in other words, all theories based on the assumption that the world is alive rather than dead and machine-like.

In terms of this false paradigm, we can never correctly interpret the problems that threaten our survival, nor can we, on the basis of the world­view of modernism, justify the policies needed to bring to an end the destruction of the planet and the disintegration of society in order to de­velop a sustainable and fulfilling way of life. In these conditions, a holistic and ecological worldview—in the light of which all this becomes possible—must be a most urgent requirement.

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An ecological or “biospheric” worldview

I have tried in this book to state clearly the basic principles underlying such a worldview. These principles are all closely interrelated, forming a broad and self-consistent model of our relationship with the world in which we live.

I had worked at the book, on and off, for several decades before it un­derwent a considerable change. It was always clear to me that the inspira­tion must come from the worldview of traditional or vernacular societies—in particular, from the earth-centred worldview of the earliest period when people everywhere really knew how to live in harmony with the natural world. Interestingly, I have often been criticised on this score. However, it has always seemed to me as presumptuous to postulate an ideal worldview, as it is to postulate an ideal society, for which there is no precedent in the human experience on this planet, and whose biological, social, and ecological viability has never been demonstrated. If Karl Marx made that mistake, so too do today’s adepts of economic development or ‘progress’, who seek to create an artificial technological world without asking themselves whether we are capable of adapting to it (chapter 48) or whether the biosphere is capable of sustaining it for more than a few decades.

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The underlying tenets of a biospheric worldview

What struck me later on was that the main features of the worldview of early traditional societies were everywhere basically the same. They emphasised two fundamental principles that necessarily underlie an eco­logical or biospheric worldview.

The first is that the living world or biosphere is the basic source of all real benefits and hence of all true wealth (chapter 39) but will only afford us these benefits if we preserve its critical order (chapters 41 and 61).

From this fundamental first principle naturally follows the second, which is that the overriding goal of the behaviour pattern of an ecologi­cal society must be to preserve the critical order of the natural world (or cosmos) that encompasses it.

A cursory study of the worldview of traditional and, in particular, chthonic or ‘earth-centred’ peoples shows that many societies actually had a word for such a behaviour pattern—rta to the Hindus in Vedic times; a (asha) to the ancient Persians; ma’at to the ancient Egyptians; dharma, also to the Hindus and later taken up by the Buddhists; and dào (tao) to the Chinese (chapter 61). These terms can often refer to the criti­cal order of the cosmos, but they are generally used to denote that path or ‘way’ that must be taken in order to preserve its critical order. If many other societies do not have a specific term for it, the concept of the Way is nevertheless built into their worldview (chapters 62 and 63).

Explicit or implicit adherence to the Way is critical. It is only by follow­ing it that a society can subordinate the petty, short-term political and economic considerations (which at present alone preoccupy us) to fun­damental social, ecological, and moral imperatives—the basic condition for survival on this beleaguered planet. Hence the title of this book.

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  1. Baillie et alia 2004, pp. 41–2
  2. Vitousek et alia 1986, pp. 368–73
  3. see DoT 1989
  4. Leggett 1992, pp. 28–33
  5. Banks 1963, entry 15th May 1770

Baillie, Jonathan E.M., Hilton-Taylor, Craig, and Stuart, Simon N., 2004, IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: A Global Species Assessment, IUCN, Cambridge.

Banks, Joseph, 1963, The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768–1771, Vol. 2, Angus & Robertson, Sydney.

DoT, 1989, Roads for Prosperity, Department of Transport, HMSO, London.

Leggett, Jeremy, 1992, ‘Global warming: The worst case’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 48, No. 5.

Vitousek, P.M., Ehrlich, P.R., Ehrlich, A.H., and Matson, P.A., 1986, ‘Human appropriation of the products of photosynthesis’, BioScience, Vol. 36, No. 6.

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