November 25, 2017

Towards an ecological worldview

This is one of several articles by Edward Goldsmith in which he formulates, in increasing detail, the necessity for humankind to adopt “an ecological world view”, and investigating its nature. These short works culminate in his great work The Way – an ecoloigical world view, first published in 1992. This article is of uncertain date and appears to be unpublished.

For me, the most fundamental tenet of the world-view of modernism, with which we have all been imbued since our most tender childhood, is that all benefits are man-made, the product of scientific, technological and industrial progress, and made available via the market system. 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 and education is seen as a commodity that can only be acquired in schools and universities. 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 such man-made commodities, a principle faithfully reflected in modern economics.

For economists trained in these ideas, natural benefits – those provided by the normal workings of biospheric processes, assuring the stability of our climate, the fertility of our soil, the replenishment of our water supplies and the integrity and cohesion of our families and communities – are not regarded as benefits at all; indeed, our economists attribute to them 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 thereby be destroyed with total impunity.

If all benefits are man-made, then to maximise human welfare can only mean maximising their availability – hence ‘economic development’, which we equate with ‘progress’ and which in terms of this world-view, will create a material paradise on Earth from which all the problems that are seen as having confronted us since the beginning of our tenancy of this planet, will have been eliminated once and for all.

In terms of the world view of ecology, on the other hand, real benefits, and hence real wealth are, on the contrary, derived from the normal functioning of the natural world and of the extended families and cohesive communities within which we have lived for perhaps 95% of our experience on this planet and without which there can be no stable society. If this is so, then it must follow that our overriding goal can only be to preserve society and the natural world, come what may. Significantly, this was very much the goal of early traditional societies who were imbued with what is often referred to as a chthonic religion – or the religion of the Earth.

In terms of this religion or world-view, all the constituents of the cosmos, which was seen as encompassing society, the natural world and the world of the Gods, were seen as governed by the same fundamental law. A key concept was that of the path, or Way, that had to be followed in order to observe the cosmic law and thereby to maintain the critical order of the cosmos. It was referred to as R’ta in Vedic India, later as Dharma, a term also adopted by the Buddhists, as Tao in ancient China, and as Themis or Dike among the Hellenes, a concept that took the form of Dikaiosyne in early Christianity.

Any major disaster occurring in a society imbued with this world-view would automatically be attributed to a failure to observe the cosmic law and thus to follow the Way. Thus in ancient Greece, as Donald Hughes notes, major problems such as “hunger, ill-heath, 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”. The only way to combat these ills, was therefore, “to treat the earth with greater care” and hence to fulfil one’s obligations to its protective deities, which meant to return to the Way of the ancestors who lived in the Golden Age when such ills were seen to have been unknown.

Disease, in particular, was interpreted in this manner. Thus among the Tukano Indians of Colombia, as the famous Colombian anthropologist Reichel-Dolmatoff notes:

“Illness is taken to be the consequence of a person’s upsetting of 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 . . .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 . . . It might be said then that a Tukano shaman does not have individual patients: his task is to cure a social malfunctioning, which he does by re-establishing the rules that ‘will avoid overhunting, the depletion of certain plant resources and unchecked population increase.”

In this manner, vernacular man correctly diagnoses diseases and other discontinuities as the symptoms of social and ecological maladjustments brought about by violating the laws of the cosmos and disrupting its critical order: maladjustments that can only be eliminated by re-establishing the original social and ecological harmony.

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. 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 corporations and their political allies; but it will do nothing to reduce the incidence of the disease.

All the other even more daunting problems which confront our society today are interpreted in much the same way. The population explosion is seen above all to be the result of a shortage of family planning devices – thus that the World Bank estimates that to achieve “a rapid fertility decline goal” in sub-Saharan Africa, would mean increasing by 20 times, the amount of money spent on ‘family planning’ 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. Each is interpreted in terms of our aberrant world-view in such a way as to rationalise the policies we have already decided to adopt: those that make the greatest contribution to economic development and hence that best satisfy the requirements of the corporations and international institutions that dominate our society. In other words, instead of interpreting our problems as the inevitable consequence of economic development or progress, we interpret them instead as evidence that economic development has not proceeded far or fast enough.

This, of course, can only draw us into a chain-reaction leading to ever greater social and environmental destruction. To extract ourselves, we must, among other things, denounce and discredit the world-view of modernism and the paradigms of mainstream science and economics that slavishly reflect it. Instead, we must systematically inculcate our youth with an ecological world-view, one that must necessarily draw its inspiration from the chthonic world-view of our distant ancestors in the light of which they were capable of understanding their true relationship with their environment and of adapting to it as we can no longer do.


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