December 11, 2017

The Cosmic Covenant

This is transcript of a talk by Edward Goldsmith on 2 February 1998 at the Religion & Environment Education Programme (REEP) Conference for Bishops & Theologians, chaired by the Bishop of London.

Published in Fourth World Review, 1998.

See also additional material.


“freedom – the right of a particular form of life to lead the life that it was designed to lead by its evolution or creation – and also in the case of the human species by its cultural upbringing.”

The environmental problems we face today, such as the destruction of the world’s forests, the drainage of its wetlands, the pollution of its groundwaters, rivers, estuaries, seas; the erosion, compaction and desertification of its agricultural lands, the chemicalisation of just about everything, and of course global climate change – the problem that dwarfs them all – are not unrelated.

They form a veritable syndrome, and, what is important, they are the inevitable consequences of the policies that we apply, all of which are designed to contribute to the overriding policy of promoting massive, uncontrollable, economic development that we identify with progress. Unfortunately, we believe quasi-religiously in economic development. It underlies the world-view of modernism – of the secular religion of today – which is unfortunately the source of all our problems.

Underlying the world-view of this secular religion is the fundamental assumption that the world is badly designed. God did a bad job, and it is incumbent on man, armed, as he is with all his science, technology, industry, and free trade, to transform it in accordance with his vastly superior design.

To a truly religious person this dogma should clearly be seen as the ultimate blasphemy; yet few people see it that way. Nearly everyone today seems to accept the preposterous view that modern man is actually ‘improving’ the world – making it a better place to live in – against, I might add, all the evidence to the contrary that is accumulating by the minute.

Of course, people still pay lip-service to a transcendental religion – in our part of the world to some form of Christianity. But it is indeed only lip-service that they pay to it. The real religion with which they have been imbued since their most tender childhood is the secular religion of progress. In any case, modern Christianity, like most modern mainstream religions, has changed very considerably over the years.

From serving above all to link people together, to the whole creation, and to the creator, as etymologically the term originally implied, it has become little more than a biopolar relationship between an asocial, anecological man and a God who seems to share the same characteristics. Something must be done about this if life is to regain its meaning and also if we are to survive very much longer on this beleaguered planet.

The two main speakers this morning have showed us that originally, ancient Judaism as well as early Christianity did serve to bind man to the whole creation and to the creator himself. But the original theology has been perverted and must be reconstituted, which means returning to our roots so that religion can once more fulfil its original role and spearhead the shift towards a less destructive way of life.

To say as the Metropolitan John of Pergamon, among others, has done, that the destruction of the environment is a sin, is not by itself sufficient. People can only understand and believe that it is a sin, indeed the ultimate sin, if this notion is totally consistent with the theology that sees the preservation of the creation as man’s overriding duty, as we have been shown today was the case in the early Judeo-Christian tradition. Also, we must realize that if to destroy the environment is a sin then development can no longer be the acceptable goal of governmental policy.

Of course it is every type of development that I refer to. In the last 30 years since I have been involved in the environmental movement, I have heard over and over again that the sort of destructive development we have had so far is not real development. The development process has been mismanaged we are told. We must do it properly. What we need is a new sort of development, the “rural development” of McNamara when he was President of the World Bank, the “eco-development” of Maurice Strong when he ran the United Nations Environmental Development Programme, the “intermediate development” of Dr Schumacher, or the “integrated development” which at one time was all the rage. Of course today it is “sustainable development” that is supposed to provide a panacea to all our problems.

However, nothing has changed. If anything, development has become even more socially and ecologically destructive and morally repulsive, especially with the development of the global economy, that in effect, globalizes this immoral and destructive process.

The second point I want to make is that this process is now completely out of control. I do not see anything in place that can conceivably stop the continued destruction of the world’s forests until there are no accessible forests left, or rather until it has become uneconomic to cut down any more. There is no law anywhere to prevent corporations from clearcutting forests or draining wetlands, or generating greenhouse gases that must inevitably destabilize the world’s climate.

What is more, even if any such laws to be enacted there is no possible mechanism for implementing them, especially as it is in the immediate interests of governments to collude with the corporations responsible for the destruction, as it will temporarily at least increase their tax income while providing many of their members with often massive kickbacks.

Worse still, with the signing of the GATT Uruguay Rounds Agreement, any such laws would almost certainly be classifiable as ‘non-tariff barriers’ and judged illegal by secret panels of the World Trade Organization (WTO). What is more, if the multilateral agreement on investments (MAI) is signed, such laws would be even more obviously illegal. This shameful agreement would in effect make it illegal for any government to pass a law that reduces the profits of a corporation. In anticipation of the signing of this agreement, the Ethyl Corporation of America is actually suing the Canadian government for $250 million because it refuses to let them sell in Canada a toxic additive to petrol that would apparently reduce their profits by that amount.

The third point I want to make is that if current destructive trends persist for long enough – and they do not have to persist for very long – 40, 50, 60, at the most 100 years, our even more degraded world will have ceased to be capable of supporting complex forms of life and we will almost certainly become extinct as a species. Fortunately it is unlikely that they will continue that long. Something will bring them to an end.

But – let us be realistic – that something, whatever it is, will almost certainly not be an intelligent and responsible decision taken by a government anywhere in the world. It would not be politically expedient for them to take such decisions, for their precious political careers would come to an abrupt end if they made even the most tentative suggestions that the requisite decisions should be made. In effect, we have delegated the solutions to our problems to disasters of different sorts – economic disasters, social disasters, and of course ecological and climatic disasters, if the others do not occur first.

Having said this, it is quite clear that today there are no cosmetic solutions to our problems. It is too late to fiddle around with things. We are past that stage. If all today’s social and ecological trends lead to catastrophe, quite obviously the only responsible course of action is to reverse these trends and reverse them very quickly indeed.

If today’s policy is to create a global economy totally controlled by vast, uncontrollable, and socially and ecologically irresponsible trannsnational corporations catering for the world market, we must instead create a network of loosely connected local economies, largely in the hands of small and medium sized companies that are integral parts of local communities and societies, and for whose welfare they feel deeply responsible.

It is only in this way that we can reduce the impact of our economic activities on an environment that cannot sustain the present impact – an impact that we are still busily trying to increase by globalizing the economy and making it ever more dependent on the use of highly destructive new technologies such as genetic engineering.

It is only in this way too that we can conceivably provide people with jobs or other means of assuring their livelihood, for even today, it is the small and medium sized companies that provide the bulk of available jobs – the transnationals – in spite of all their hyper – providing but an insignificant proportion of those that are today available. What is more, it is also only in this way that we can create the economic infrastructure for renewed families and communities which the global economy cannot conceivably do.

We need to move in this direction for yet another reason. This morning we all agreed that it was only within the context of a cosmic or ecological religion – which early Judaism and early Christianity once were – that people can be made to realize that the destruction of God’s creation is a sin – the ultimate sin. Unfortunately, an atomized mass society such as ours, made up of alienated people for whom the object of life is little more than immediate self-gratification, and that is organized into totally artificial surrogate social groupings, such as governmental institutions and commercial corporations, cannot conceivably be imbued with this sort of religion.

Let us not forget that the main feature of a cosmic religion is its accentuation of man’s obligations to society, the natural world and the all-encompassing cosmos itself. There is no point preaching such a religion to people who have been taught that obligations of any kind are but unacceptable constraints on their individual ‘freedom’. Nor are such people likely to accept these ideas if they have been taught from their earliest childhood that the God they worship has little concern for the fate of society, the natural world, and the cosmos.

Unfortunately it is by imbuing people with these utterly irresponsible ideas that we maximize the immediate interests of the large transnational corporations that control the global economy we have institutionalized in the last few years. Fortunately this global economy cannot last for long. It is organized in such a way, and is at the same time so highly automated, that it could probably function with less than 20 percent of the world’s work force – thereby marginalized 80 percent of humanity – something which is impossible to do without creating unparalleled human misery and all sorts of social conflicts.

In addition, it is inherently unstable as the South American economic crisis of the early eighties, the Mexican economic crises five years ago [1993], and now the economic crises in the Far East, Russia, Mexico, Brazil, India, and Pakistan, make clear. It seems but a question of time before the world economy undergoes a similar fate and we are faced with global economic collapse. Whether this occurs or not, a vast proportion of humanity will, in any case, be forced to fend for itself outside the formal economy, which means developing an elaborate informal economy which will dwarf in size and importance the formal economy itself, that we have now globalized.

This will give rise to terrible chaos and human misery but it must also spell a slow and piecemeal return to a society that is organized once more into family and community groupings in which economic activity is on a very much smaller scale and caters for, at most, local and regional markets.

We must realize that it is in such societies that we have spent possibly as much as 95 percent of our tenancy of this planet – it is only in this sort of society that people are likely to feel a sense of obligation towards the world around them – the only sort of society that can possibly be imbued with the sort of cosmic religion that Father Murray, Margaret Baker, and Professor Nasr talked about this morning. One might go so far as to say such a society is a natural one for humans to live in, as one might add a cosmic or ecological religion is the natural one for humans to be imbued with.

Indeed, it has been shown by a succession of our classical anthropologists (Ralph Linfon, Melford Spiro, George Peter Murdock, etc.) that the family and the community have provided the basis of human society throughout the traditional world. There is no real exception to this rule. They key idea that man’s welfare is assured not by maximizing gross national product but on the contrary by preserving the critical order of society, the natural world and the all-encompassing cosmos, is equally natural to our species.

Mircea Eliade, and other great students of religion have shown how most of the rituals performed by traditional peoples served above all to maintain the cosmic order. In many societies in fact a word existed for the path that had to be taken in order to do so – the Tao of the ancient Chinese, the R’ta of the Vedic Indians, the Asha of the Avestas, the Maat of the ancient Egyptians, and as Father Murray and Margaret Barker make clear in their writing, the Sedeq of the ancient Hebrews. By following this path one maintained the harmony between heaven and earth – the original meaning of shalom – cosmic order in fact.

This was also the path of justice and it was by following it that one observed, at the same time, the moral law, the divine law, and the cosmic law. There was seen to be no distinction between the law governing society (the nomos of the Greeks) that which governed the natural world itself, (usually referred to by the Greeks as dike) and that which governed the all-embracing world of the gods (usually referred to as Themis).

What a contrast with modern man’s view of law! It is worth noting that today our law serves above all to protect private property, and one could destroy the living world and make our very species extinct without violating a single one of the laws that we enacted. What an indictment of the world-view, that our law so faithfully reflects!

As we return to a natural society, I think that the bulk of people will realize that the modern world they have left behind was little more than a terrible aberration. It may have provided us with a mass of ingenious gadgetry and undoubtedly with all sorts of comforts which were unknown in the traditional world, but it has also made a very large number of people very miserable indeed, for it has deprived them of the most important things in life.

The great Indian thinker, Krishna Chaitania, who died two years ago, defined that much abused term ‘freedom’ as the right of a particular form of life to lead the life that it was designed to lead by its evolution or creation – and also in the case of the human species by its cultural upbringing. It is this the ultimate freedom that we have been increasingly deprived of in modern times, and no amount of ingenious gadgetry can compensate for this.

We have always lived as members of families and communities, bound together with the natural world and the cosmos by a cosmic tradition and religion. For me, this must be man’s natural state, and it must be that which best satisfies his real needs and at the same time of course those of society, of the natural world, and of the cosmos. If we are to have a future we must abandon the illusion of scientific, technical and industrial progress which can only lead to global catastrophe, and, though we cannot recreate the past, it is a world that displays its principal features that we must seek to create.

Man is naturally a religious being. It is not religion as Karl Marx insisted, but materialism that is the opiate of the people. What is more, religion is even today a powerful force and could be very much more so if it were seen by the public at large as providing the very basis of the world view with which we must all be imbued if we are to survive on this beleaguered planet. Hence the critical importance of reviving the largely forgotten cosmic roots of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and indeed of the other mainstream religious traditions of today.

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