An overview of The Way published in World Review – New Books for a New Century Vol 1 No 3, 1996
Modern man is rapidly destroying the natural world on which he depends for his survival. Everywhere on our planet, the picture is the same. Forests are being cut down, wetlands drained, coral reefs grubbed up, agricultural lands eroded, salinized, 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, are all 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 mankind’s activities, it is probable that hundreds of species are being made extinct every day, with only a fraction of these being known to science. The earth’s magnetic field is being changed, with unknown possible consequences. The ozone layer that protects humans and other living things from ultra-violet radiation is being rapidly depleted; and our very climate is being so transformed and destabilised that within the next forty years 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, in no more than a few decades it may cease to be capable of supporting complex forms of life. This may sound far-fetched; unfortunately, it is only too realistic. My colleagues and I have documented the trends and the likely outcome ad nauseam in The Ecologist over the last twenty-six years.
Why, we might ask, are we doing this? The answer is that our society is committed to economic development or progress—a process which by its very nature must systematically increase the impact of our economic activities on an environment ever less capable of sustaining it, and hence 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 we now coop for our own use and for our various economic activities, fully 40 per cent of the biosphere’s terrestrial net primary production (NPP). What is more, if economic activities continue to expand at the present rate, within no more than a few decades we would be co-opting more than 100 per cent of NPP—which, of course, is not remotely conceivable.
All this is 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, though all the scientists sitting on the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up by the United nations, have warned that carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced by 60-80 per cent immediately in order to stabilise climate—and hence prevent a world climatic catastrophe—no government has made any serious moves in this direction. If the emissions of carbon-dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas has fallen in the UK, it is only that our manufacturing base has seriously declined and that coal has been largely replaced by natural gas to power the generation of electricity. In general, the main constraint on governmental action to tackle the serious environmental problems that face us are the lobbying campaigns of powerful industrial groups, such as the oil industry, 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, in general, has viewed this critical problem. 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 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. Perhaps they hoped that by ignoring it to the point of not recognising its very existence, it might just vanish 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. American anthropologist, A.F.C. Wallace, has shown convincingly that tribal peoples will go to any lengths to preserve their ‘cognitive structure’ or ‘mazeway’ as he refers to their worldview. 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.
The worldview, which today’s scientists share with everybody else in our society, I refer to as the worldview of modernism, which is faithfully reflected in the paradigm of economics and the paradigm of science. One of the two most fundamental tenets of this worldview and its derivative paradigms is that all benefits, and therefore our welfare and real wealth, are manmade—the product of science, technology and industry. 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 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 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 no value of any kind to these benefits. 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 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 maximize economic development or progress. I define this process, above all, as the methodical substitution of the technosphere or surrogate world—the source of man-made benefits—for the ecosphere or real world, that is the source of natural 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. Thus, 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 totally freak conditions that could not possibly 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, hence, from adapting to it so as to maximise our welfare and our real wealth. Instead, they serve primarily to rationalise economic development or ‘progress’—the very process that is leading to the destruction of society and of the natural world with consequences that are only too evident to all.
How, one might ask, is it possible for our ‘objective’ scientists to behave in so unobjective a manner? The answer is that science is not objective, but is influenced by the scientists’ metaphysical beliefs1. In reality, scientists slavishly reflect the paradigm of science, with which they have been imbued, and hence the world-view of modernism which this paradigm in turn so faithfully reflects.
One reason why scientists accept the paradigm of science, and hence the worldview of modernism, is that these serve to rationalise the policies that have given rise to the modern world. This is the world in which they, and indeed all of us, have been brought up, and which it is very difficult to avoid regarding as the normal condition of human life on this planet.
Just as the abandoned children who sleep in the sewers of Rio de Janeiro and live off petty crime and prostitution regard their 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 by 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 watching violent and sadistic films on television.
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 our schools and universities. Thus, the modern discipline of economics is based on the assumption that the destructive economic system operative today is normal; the discipline of sociology on the assumption that our modern, atomised and crime-ridden society is normal; our political science on the assumption that the elected dictatorships that govern modern nation states are normal; and our agricultural science on the assumption that large-scale, mechanised, chemical-based agriculture (which rapidly transforms arable land into desert) is normal. It simply does not occur to our academics that what they take to be normal is highly atypical of humanity’s total experience on this planet—necessarily short-lived, and totally aberrant. They are like biologists who have only seen cancerous tissue and understandably mistake it for a healthy organism.
Another reason why our academics remain religiously imbued with the worldview of modernism is that the view is totally 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 conform to the paradigm of science and hence with the worldview of modernism. Those that do not conform, what is more, are systematically tortured into a shape that enables them to do so.
Thus, in the last sixty years the behaviourists made psychology conform to the paradigm of science. The neo-Darwiniams and, even more so, the sociobiologists did the same for theoretical biology. Modern sociology has also become mechanistic and reductionistic. In addition, the development of the New Ecology in the 1940s and 1950s has engendered a Newtonian ecology that rather than provide the theoretical foundations for the environmental movement of today (as most environmentalists firmly believe) serves, instead, further to 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.
In this way all academic knowledge has been made, Procrustean-like, to conform with the paradigm of science, and hence with the worldview of modernism. It has been 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.
Knowledge that cannot, by its very nature, be moulded into the desired shape, however true and important it might be, is by the same token ruthlessly rejected. This disposes of all theories based on the assumption that the world is orderly and purposive rather than random; organised rather than atomised; cooperative rather than purely competitive; dynamic, creative and intelligent rather than passive and robot-like; self-regulating rather than managed by some external agent (such as the state and the transnational corporations); and, tending to maintain its stability or homeostasis rather than geared to perpetual change in an undefined direction. In other words, it disposes of any knowledge that might contribute a real understanding of the world we live in.
It follows that in terms of the aberrant worldview we can never correctly interpret the problems that threaten our survival nor determine what must be the policies needed to bring to an end the destruction of the planet, nor develop a non-destructive and fulfilling way of life. In these conditions, an ecological worldview is a most urgent requirement.
I have tried to state clearly the basic principles underlying such a worldview. These principles are all closely interrelated, forming an all-embracing and, I hope, self-consistent model of our relationship with the world in which we live. I have worked on this subject for several decades but in recent years my approach has undergone a considerable change. It was always clear to me that the inspiration must come from the worldview of vernacular societies, in particular from the chthonic (earth-oriented) worldview of the earliest period, when people everywhere really knew how to live in harmony with the natural world. I have often been criticised on this score. However, it seems to me highly 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 a man-made technological world without asking themselves whether we are capable of adapting to it or whether indeed the ecosphere is capable of sustaining it for more than a few decades.
What has struck me more recently is that everywhere the fundamental features of the worldview of early vernacular societies were basically the same. They emphasised three fundamental principles that must necessarily underlie an ecological worldview. The first is that the living world or ecosphere is the basic source of all benefits and, hence, of all wealth. The second is that the living world will only dispense these benefits if we religiously preserve its critical order. The third, which follows logically from the others, is that the overriding goal of the behaviour pattern of an ecological society must be to preserve the critical order of society, the natural world and of the cosmos (that encompasses them).
A cursory study of the worldview of vernacular and, in particular, chthonic peoples, shows that many societies actually had a word or term for such a behaviour pattern.2 These terms can often refer to the critical order of the cosmos, but they are generally used to denote the path or Way that must be taken in order to preserve this critical order. If other societies do not have a specific term for it, the concept of the Way is, nevertheless, built into their worldview. Explicit or implicit adherence to the Way is critical. It is only by following it that we can hope to subordinate the petty, short-term, political and economic considerations that at present alone preoccupy us, to fundamental social, ecological and moral imperatives—the basic condition for survival on this beleaguered planet.
1. This is a fact that has been well established by philosophers of science such as Michael Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper, A.N. Whitehead and Paul Feyerabend. It is also supported by thoughtful biologists such as C.H. Waddington and Ludwig von Bertalanffy.
2. The terms used by various societies include ‘the R’ta’ of the Hindus in Vedic times, which later became ‘the Dharma’—a term also used by the Buddhists; ‘the Asha’ of the Avestas; the ‘Ma’at’ of the ancient Egyptians; and the ancient Chinese ‘Tao’.Back to top