September 20, 2017

The Way – an overview (Resurgence)

An article written for Resurgence magazine around the time of publication of Teddy’s great work The Way in 1992.


I regard the book as my life’s work. I started working on it more than forty years ago, and have worked on it, on and off, ever since. It starts off by showing how totally aberrant is the ‘world-view of modernism’ with which we have all been imbued since our most tender childhood. This world-view unfortunately colours all the disciplines into which modern knowledge has been divided, and in particular what we might refer to as the ‘paradigm of science’ and that of modern economics – which I consider in some detail.

For me, the most fundamental tenet of the world-view of modernism is that all benefits are man-made, the products 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. Education is seen as a commodity that can only be acquired in schools and universities. Law and order, rather than being natural features of human society, are seen instead as provided by our police force in conjunction with the law courts and the prison system.

Even society is seen as man-made, 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 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 maximize human welfare can only mean maximizing their availability – hence economic development, which we equate with ‘progress’, and 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, such as poverty, unemployment, homelessness, crime, delinquency, drug-addiction, malnutrition, disease, even environmental degradation, and, according to some adepts, death itself, will have been eliminated once and for all.

I then try to show that, in terms of the world-view of ecology, real benefits, and hence real wealth, are on the contrary, derived from the normal functioning of the natural world and of the cosmos itself. Our greatest wealth must be the favourable and stable climate that we have enjoyed for hundreds of millions of years, our forests and savannahs and fertile agricultural lands, our rivers and streams, springs and ground waters, our wetlands and coral reefs, our seas and oceans, and the myriad forms of life that inhabit them. Also included in this great wealth are the extended families and cohesive communities within which we have lived for perhaps 95% of our experience on this planet, and which have provided us with inestimable and irreplaceable services.

If the critical order of the natural world and of our society is the source of all benefits and all our real wealth, it must follow that our overriding goal can only be to preserve it, come what may. Significantly this was very much the goal of traditional societies when they were imbued with what is often referred to as a chthonic religion – or the religion of the Earth.

Common to all these societies is the belief that man’s welfare depends on preserving the critical order of the cosmos which is seen as encompassing individual people, their families, communities, and societies, the natural world and the world of the ancestral spirits and the spirits of nature (the chthonic gods).

Significantly, the entire cosmos is structured in accordance with the same plan. In Bali, to give a fairly typical example,

“man is a tiny part of the overall Hindu-Balinese universe but he contains its structure in microcosm. Man’s body has three parts – head, body and feet – just as the universe, macrocosm, has three parts; the upper world of God and heaven, the middle world of man, and the underworld. Man is a kind of scale model of the universe, with exactly the same structure – as is the island of Bali and each village, temple, house, compound, building and occupant of it.” [Fred Eiseman, 1989, Bali: Sekala and Niskala, Vol.1, ed.David Pickell, Pickell-Periplus, Berkeley, USA]

This meant that to preserve the critical order of the cosmos meant preserving that of all its constituent parts, which were all seen as governed by the same fundamental laws. A key concept in the world-view of many ancient societies was that of the path, or Way, that had to be followed in order to observe the cosmic law and 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 Asha among the ancient Persians, as Tao in ancient China (a term later taken up by Lao Tsu and the Taoists) and Dike or Themis among the Hellenes.

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 follow the Way.

Thus in ancient Greece, as Donald Hughes notes [Donald Hughes, 1983, Gaia: an ancient view of the planet, The Ecologist, Vol. 13, No. 2-3] major problems such as “hunger, ill-health, 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” – punishments for having diverted from the Way in pursuit of the anti-Way or what the ancient Greeks would have called the ‘ou Themis’ (the opposite to the Themis). The only way to combat these ills, therefore, “was 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 unknown.

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

Illness is taken to be the consequence of a person’s upsetting 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. The delicate balance existing within the natural environment, between nature and society, and within society itself, is bound to affect the whole.

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. To be effective, he has to apply his treatment to the disturbed part of the ecosystem. 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.”

[Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1977, Cosmology as ecological analysis: a view from the rainforest’, The Ecologist, Vol.7, No.1.]

In this manner, vernacular man correctly diagnoses diseases and other discontinuities as the symptoms of social and ecological maladjustments brought about by diverging from the Way, and thereby violating the laws of the cosmos and disrupting its critical order: maladjustments that can only be eliminated by correcting the divergence and returning to the Way.

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. To do this, we build factories for manufacturing the chemicals, shops in which to sell them, hospitals in which to adminster them and universities in which to train the chemical engineers, pharmacists, doctors and other specialists involved in manufacturing, selling and administering them.

Thus we put our faith in scientific, technological and industrial development, or progress – precisely what our society is organized to provide. This may occasionally serve to cure individual sufferers; it will always serve the interests of industrialists and their political allies; but it will do nothing to reduce the incidence of the disease.

All the other ever more daunting problems which confront our society today are interpreted in much the same way. Each one is made out to appear soluble by the expedients that science, technology and industry can provide and is rationalized and legitimized in terms of the world-view of modernism. Thus poverty is seen to be primarily a shortage of material goods and technological devices and of the money required to purchase them. Economic development can solve this problem, since it will enable us to build factories which can manufacture these commodities, and provide jobs to enable people to earn the money required to pay for them.

The rapid degradation of the world’s remaining agricultural lands is invariably attributed by governments and international agencies to traditional agricultural techniques. Thus USAID attributes the rapid deterioration of the “soil resource base” in arid lands to mismangement, based on the use of “traditional technology and agricultural practices” – though in fact such traditional methods of cultivation have been used sustainably for thousands of years.

The population explosion is seen above all to be the result of a shortage of family planning devices – so much so, that the World Bank estimates that to achieve “a rapid fertility decline goal” in sub-Saharan Africa, would mean increasing the amount of money spent on “family planning” 20 times 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, whether it be unemployment, crime, delinquency, drug-addiction, alcoholism, pollution, resource depletion, global deforestation or global warming. Each is interpreted in terms of our aberrant world-view in such a way that rationalizes policies we have already decided to adopt: those that make the greatest contribution to economic development and hence best satisfy the requirements of the corporations and institutions that dominate our society.

In other words, instead of interpreting our problems as the inevitable consequence of economic development or progress – that anti-evolutionary process that diverts us ever further from the Way – we interpret them instead as evidence that economic development has not proceeded far or fast enough – and that, in effect, we have not deviated sufficiently from the Way.

This 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 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 ancestors in the light of which they were capable of understanding their relationship with their environment and of adapting to it as we can no longer do.

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