September 19, 2017

The two ecologies

Edward Goldsmith predicts the rise of a radical ‘Ecological’ subculture that

“rejects the industrial world because of its mediocrity, its ugliness, its un­naturalness and its hypocrisy – in fact because it fails to satisfy basic social, aesthetic and spiritual needs”

Intrinsic to this movement will be a rethinking of the ‘scientific’ method that pervades the modern worldview, and of the false science of reductionist ‘ecology’.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 5 No. 10, December 1975.


The People Party has become the Ecology Party. It is growing fast and in the next election (the third it will have contested so far) it should field enough candidates to be eligible for free television time (50 are required). Ecology may soon be a force in British politics.

In France, at the last Presidential election, there was an Ecological candidate: René Dumont. He obtained 330,000 votes or 1.2 percent of the total, roughly what the People Party obtained in the October 1973 election.

In Alsace, the Ecologie et Survie Party contested the last French legislative election. It is becoming very influential and hopes to obtain at least 5 percent of the votes in the next one (in the Spring of 1976). Already, in some villages it has the support of between 30 and 40 percent of the inhabitants.

In New Zealand, the Values Party, in Australia, the Australia Party, in Tasmania, the United Tasmania Party, are emerging as forces to be reckoned with. Their programmes are all largely based on Ecological principles.

These new parties are but the political expression of a growing movement which reflects the strongest reaction so far to the industrial world and the values which it enshrines. This movement is taking many forms. The most obvious is the refusal of an increasing number of young people to get involved in what is usually referred to as the ‘rat race’.

Instead, they opt out, living as best they can on the periphery of society. Many take to drugs or indulge in other forms of retreatism as a means of cutting themselves off from a world which is increasingly intolerable. Others find a niche for themselves in the country, indulging in various crafts and, in particular, in subsistence agriculture, by themselves or in groups – organised along various experimental lines.

They come from all sectors of society; not just the middle class as is often supposed – and are developing, largely by convergence, a unified view of the world around them. What one is seeing in fact, is the emergence of a new sub-culture – one which, for reasons I shall give further on, is likely to become dominant within the next decade. What then, are its main features?

Firstly, it rejects the industrial world because of its mediocrity, its ugliness, its unnaturalness and its hypocrisy – in fact because it fails to satisfy basic social, aesthetic and spiritual needs. Particularly interesting is the rejection of modern science as a means of acquiring knowledge.

Reductionist science

A professor at an American University recently complained, in an article in Natural History, that his students had adopted a totally unscientific and hence “illogical” attitude towards diet. They were all convinced that food grown organically was healthier than food grown with the aid of chemicals. His insistence that scientific measurements did not confirm this conclusion fell on deaf ears. His students placed greater store on their instincts than in the measurements.

As we shall see, if science is a means of obtaining valid information rather than the performance of the empty rituals which, today, go under the name of ‘scientific method’, then it is they who are being scientific not he. Measurements are only meaningful if relevant factors are being measured, and ‘scientific method’ does not provide a means of determining which are the relevant factors.

Since the tendency is for those that cannot be measured to be regarded simply as not existing, the relevant factors are usually those which present technology enables one to measure, quite apart from the fact that they must also be those which happen to fall within the particular field of study of the specialised researcher involved. If one takes into account all the factors which ‘scientific method’ chooses to ignore in favour of laboratory experimentation, then it can easily be shown that the students were right.

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Natural ‘science’

But do we, in fact, need scientific measurement? What is illogical about using our instincts as a guide to our behaviour? What, after all are instincts for? Three billion years of evolutionary research and development have designed them for this purpose. If our scientists have the presumption to suppose that they can do better, then surely the onus of the proof must rest with them.

It is highly significant that most country people whose minds have not been warped by too close a contact with our seats of learning, know instinctively what is right and what is wrong.

They know, for instance, that it is wrong to douse our fields with a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals; wrong to deprive our land of organic matter; wrong to lock up our poultry in concentration camps whose squalor would turn the stomach of the most callous SS guard; wrong to close village schools so that our children might be consigned to vast factory-like comprehensives; wrong to force people to live in shoddy apartment blocks in urban wildernesses, among motorways, rubbish dumps and gas containers: and even more wrong to create a society and a way of life in which all these things become unavoidable.

Yet our scientists do not seem to have established these obvious facts. Their reaction to these statements would be that there is no ‘evidence’ to support them and that they do not, thereby, constitute true knowledge.

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Industrial technology

Equally interesting is the rejection of modern technology. In a sense, nuclear power stations, giant oil tankers, supersonic transports, and in particular, spacecraft, are monuments to the industrial age, just as were the pyramids to 5th dynasty Egypt.

Their total irrelevance, however, to the solution of the problems the world faces today could not be better illustrated than by the meeting up in space of the American and the Russian astronauts. This, possibly the most extraordinary technological feat of all time, occurred at a time when it had become apparent to practically all thinking people that the world’s problems (population growth, urbanisation, poverty, unemployment, famine, pollution, resource depletion, etc.) are totally out of control.

Indeed, all the pathetically misdirected energy, ingenuity and enthusiasm which has gone into designing and producing these devices has done little more than exert additional stress on our natural environment and hence to increase still further the biological, social and ecological disruption of which these problems are but the symptoms.

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‘Alternative’ technology

Along with the rejection of modern technology, has grown up a veritable cult of small-scale, largely non-polluting technology – variously referred to as ‘intermediate technology’ (Fritz Schumacher) ‘appropriate technology’ (Gandhi Peace Foundation in India), ‘alternative technology’ (Peter Harper and others) and ‘low impact technology’ (Andrew MacKillop).

Indeed, the windmill, the water wheel, the methane gas plant, the composting lavatory and the solar collector have become, among Ecologically minded youth, the symbols of the new sub-culture they are creating.

Also rejected are industrially produced consumer goods whose accumulation is regarded in communist and capitalist societies alike, as the ultimate goal of human endeavour. These they realise are but paltry compensations for the limitless benefits which nature once provided for nothing.

Indeed, it is only because of the methodical disruption of natural systems by industrial society that we have become so dependent on its compensations and also on the money required for their purchase. Such considerations have rarely entered the thoughts of most of our scientists, glued as they are to their test-tubes and logarithm tables.

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Natural capital

Yet the principles involved are easily ascertainable. Consider, for instance, the Indians of the north-west coast of North America. By all accounts, they inhabited a veritable Garden of Eden. It is said that so numerous were the salmon, that they could walk across the rivers on their backs, while so abundant were the shell-fish which littered the seashore “that when the tide went out, the table was laid”.

At the same time, game animals proliferated in the luxuriant forests which also provided limitless quantities of fruits and berries. In such conditions it was necessary for them to enter into but few if any monetary transactions. Hence, in terms of our singular set of classifications, these unfortunate people had a very low standard of living – indeed, they were desperately poor.

Consider now the opposite situation of the American astronauts on the Moon. This inhospitable waste is incapable of satisfying any of Man’s basic biological and social needs. Everything required to keep an astronaut alive must be brought with him, even the oxygen for him to breathe. The cost of living on the Moon is thus incalculable. Indeed, a man vegetating under some small plastic dome, economically breathing his limited supply of oxygen, feeding on a variety of tasteless and largely toxic synthetic foods, and praying all the while that a fault does not arise in the elaborate and highly delicate technical apparatus on which his very survival must hinge, would thereby be enjoying the highest possible standard of living – one which is totally beyond the means of the richest Arab Sheikh of the Persian Gulf.

Now consider what happened when the white man took over the North West Coast from its original inhabitants. He did not take long to pollute the rivers and the seas, kill off the salmon, poison the shellfish, cut down the trees which once provided the fruit and the berries, exterminate the game and build huge urban wildernesses to which the necessities of life had now to be brought from afar as if to the Moon.

In addition, as these wildernesses became further industrialised, so did the quality and elaborateness of the material goods required for survival, increase from day to day; for industrialisation, by its very nature, must create needs faster than it can hope to satisfy them.

If one studies the full implications of this transformation – typical of what has happened throughout the industrialised world – one realises that our Ecological youth is fully justified in its yearning for a return to nature, in its worship of everything that is natural: natural wildernesses, natural foods, natural medicine, the open air life as well as the rejection of everything that is artificial, synthetic and contrived.

Their set of values, in fact, is the only one that can truly be regarded as Ecological – in the sense that only a society which has accepted it can conceivably develop a behaviour pattern that will not lead to the systematic and cumulative destruction of the environment on which it depends for its sustenance, cancelling in this way, several billion years of evolution. In fact, only such a set of values, as Sir Frank Fraser Darling points out, can be regarded as truly moral.

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Activism

Fortunately, today, it is not only that of a group of youthful dropouts. It is also beginning to spread among respectable members of our mainstream society. This is so in Alsace, where the Ecological movement has so far taken its most active form. Non-violent resistance here is building up against Government efforts to transform Alsace into a French Ruhr. Alsatian activists have involved in mass sit-ins, sometimes up to 20,000 people taking part – at sites where the building of large factories to Baden-Wurttemburg and the Swiss Canton of Basel, both of which are menaces with similar environmental disruption.

The activists have had ample opportunity to develop their own techniques of non-violent resistance against the authorities. These have much in common with the methods used so effectively by Gandhi against the British colonialist powers. Indeed, Ecology groups in general are becoming increasingly aware of their connection with Gandhi-ism. Jayaprakash Narayan’s Sarvodaya Movement in India stands for precisely the same principles as they do, (though they may be formulated in a different vocabulary), and their social goals are also the same.

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What is ‘ecology’?

At this point we might well ask what has all this to do with ecology with a little ‘e’, the academic discipline taught in our universities? This question is already being asked by many, though by no means all our professional ecologists, who are horrified to find their cosy little discipline being vastly expanded to embrace almost everything, worse still, to become a social movement – even worse, a political party. Why does the same thing not happen to microbiology or limnology they might well ask?

The answer is that many of our ecologists have not yet faced all the implications of the principle which underlies their discipline.

The principle is that the constituent parts of the natural world are closely interrelated – not in a random way – but in a way which is very ordered and hence predictable.

The first implication is that reductionism – the study of things in vacuo in laboratory conditions, which underlies scientific method, does not provide information about the real world – because things in vacuo do not exist in the real world any more than do unicorns.

Our scientists in fact, who think they are studying the real world are really plunged in a world of their own and the test-tube, as a means of understanding and predicting world events, may well be of less value than the crystal ball. This, needless to say, is an implication which most ecologists, keen as they are to maintain their status within the scientific community, are not willing to accept.

On the contrary they have desperately sought to reconcile the principle of the interrelationship of the constituents of the natural world with those of ‘scientific method’ and have mainly come to distinguish themselves from other scientists in that, rather than study things in vacuo, they have come to study interrelationships in vacuo.

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General systems

This leads us to a second implication, one which the more enlightened ecologists accepted some 30 years ago. That is, that a bit of the natural world, within which a set of interrelationships can be seen to obtain, has an identity of its own and constitutes, in effect, a system, (in this case an ecosystem) in the same sense that an organism, a society or a population are ‘systems’ and that these interrelationships are nothing more than its metabolism.

This principle should theoretically lead our ecologists to the most important new discipline of General Systems, which shows that the basic principles of the behaviour of all natural systems, whether they be cells, organisms or ecosystems are the same, and also that of cybernetics, closely associated with General Systems which shows that the mechanism of control used in all natural systems is the same. But these considerations which could only lead to the development of a General Theory of Behaviour and a model of the biosphere as a whole, would cause ecologists to diverge too far from accepted scientific method, and very few indeed have dared to take them into account.

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Human ecology

It would also lead them to realise that human beings are very much part of the world’s ecosystems and that a realistic Science of Ecology must include that of human behaviour and also of the societies into which man is organised. Most ecologists avoid having to face this issue by confining their studies to micro-ecology – the study of very small ecosystems, duck ponds and the like.

More recently, the necessity of studying larger ones (macro-ecology) has impressed itself on a number of ecologists and the new discipline of Human Ecology is tentatively emerging, while among Anthropologists yet another new subject – Cultural Ecology – which concerns itself with cultural adaptations to environmental changes – is beginning to develop under the aegis in particular, of Andrew Vayda – who for some reason calls his journal Human Ecology.

Though the founders of these new academic disciplines are moving in the right direction, they are moving very slowly. The dramatic implications of the discovery of the ecosystem have by no means all been faced. Perhaps the most important of these is that the biosphere, the all-encompassing ecosystem, of which all others are part, is hierarchically organised. Its component systems are at once divisible into smaller systems and part of larger ones. Unfortunately, reductionist scientific method permits the study of the former but not of the latter. It enables us to examine the relationship between a man and the organs, tissues, cells, molecules and even the atoms which compose his body, but not the family, the society, let alone the ecosystem of which he is part.

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Systems modelling

As intimated, however, there is such a methodology available, though few of our scientists or ecologists understand it – as was evidenced by the very naive reaction of both Nature and Science, the two official organs of science, to the publication of The Limits to Growth, that key study of the world situation, which makes use of precisely this methodology.

It consists in first determining what arc the variables which are relevant to explaining a given situation, regardless of what field they may fall in. This is referred to as ‘systems analysis’.

The second step is to determine how these variables are related to each other. This is referred to as ‘modelling’.

The third consists in interpreting and predicting changes in the real world by simulating them on the model. Thus, if it involves a change in the value of one variable, we can see, in terms of the relationships we have already established, how this will effect the value of the other variables and hence of the model as a whole. This step is known as simulation.

The validity of the relationships and of the model as a whole is judged simply in terms of the adaptiveness of the responses based on it. There is no proof that it is right. All one can say is that it is the best available for our purposes. What is particularly important, however, is that the model should be of the biosphere as a whole and not just of what appears to be a relevant sector – otherwise one cannot understand the relationship of a component system with all the larger systems of which it is part.

Equally important is that the model should not just represent the biosphere at a particular moment in time, for systems are processes as well as things, and it is relationships with whole processes which we are interested in. Such a model need not necessarily be quantitative. Precision does not consist in measuring concepts which are often irrelevant, but in choosing the relevant ones. The principles involved are far more important than any measurements we might make. Information is more important than mere data, and in any case, precise measurements are often logistically impossible to obtain.

Needless to say, such a model does not exist, and until it does, we can be aware of but a fraction of the relationships which could make our model useful for interpreting and predicting changes in the world we live in – and the least important ones at that.

Truly frightening is the lack of interest in the scientific world in developing such a model, worse still is the failure of scientific method – as accepted by the bulk of our ecologists – to provide a means of doing so.

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Beyond reductionism

As it is, if we examine known relationships with the family, the community and the ecosystem of which we are part, then the total unacceptability of current human values becomes quite evident. Liberalism, individualism, materialism and economism are only justifiable if we are on our own, so to speak, unconnected to any larger systems than those which we ourselves constitute as individuals.

As soon as we realise that we are part of such larger systems, then these values must be rejected, for if the interrelationships obtaining within these systems are orderly, it means that the range of choices of the sub-systems are limited to those functions which are required of them for the larger systems to function properly, and hence to survive.

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Environmental and societal cancer

If their range of choices were not so limited, if the subsystems could simply pursue their own independent goals regardless of the effect of such behaviour on the systems of which they were part, then the latter would inevitably disintegrate. This is precisely what happens to an organism when it becomes cancerous. Its cells cease to act as its differentiated parts. They proliferate anarchically, just as do the members of a modern industrial society and of an ecosystem it has disrupted.

This is not just an analogy. The cell and the human being are simply specialised instances of a natural system and the basic principles of their behaviour, both normal and pathological are the same.

It follows that societies and ecosystems, whose parts have become random must inevitably collapse though they may be bolstered up artificially for a short time by means of external or institutional controls of various sorts.

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The technosphere

Indeed, that industrial society which is the natural outcome, of the ideals of liberalism, individualism, materialism and economism must inevitably destroy itself and the ecosystems where it occurs, is evident from its very nature. It consists in building up a totally new organisation of matter – the technosphere or world of material goods and technological devices to replace the biosphere – the world of living things. They are geared to radically different ends, the former to the satisfaction of mainly artificial, petty, short-term human wants, the latter to its overall stability, and hence to that of its constituent systems and sub-systems, including man.

The former can only expand by diverting resources from the latter and consigning to it the waste products which it must inevitably generate. The expansion of the former must thereby mean the contraction and deterioration of the latter. These two processes, in fact, are but different sides of the same coin.

This is by far the most important principle we must understand if we are to begin to solve the growing problems which face us today – problems, which, as has already been stated, can be shown to be largely the result of the cumulative disruption caused by the growing impact of the industrial world on the biological, social and ecological systems which make up the biosphere.

This essential principle has not been established by ecologists, for the reasons we have already gone into, but the Ecological movement understands it only too well, perhaps by instinct rather than by serious analysis – but, as already stated, that is what our instincts are for. It is for this reason that their attitude towards industrialism and everything that goes with it, is fully justified by what should be scientific method.

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The ecological movement

How then is the Ecological movement likely to develop? In my opinion, it is destined to become the dominant counter-culture and eventually it should provide the basis of the next world civilisation, if there is to be one.

Why can this be asserted with such confidence? The answer is that there is already considerable disenchantment with the conventional wisdom of our times and with the values which underlie it, and as the world situation goes from bad to worse – which inevitably it must – this disenchantment will give rise to total disillusionment.

Once this has occurred, the reaction to industrialism and everything it stands for will be radical, and this should see the massive expansion of the Ecological movement, which is the only truly radical movement of today.

Indeed, socialism and communism and, of course, fascism too, are as committed to the industrialisation process as is western liberal capitalism. They simply provide alternative recipes for baking the industrial cake, and alternative criteria for distributing the slices. The Ecological movement proposes a very different cake, and, what is more, the only one whose ingredients are, in fact, available.

It could undoubtedly have been predicted that once the Industrial Revolution had transformed the settled yeomanry of northern Europe into an alienated and anonymous horde, living on the periphery of increasingly prosperous cities, they would strive with all their might to gain a share in this prosperity. No other course was open to them.

One can now predict with equal confidence that having obtained the material benefits which go with this prosperity they will come to realise what little satisfaction they really procure, and what paltry compensations they provide for the associated destruction of the natural world which previously catered so admirably for their every need.

Furthermore, as even material compensations become increasingly less available, the only course of action which would appear desirable as well as feasible, must be to restore the natural world to something approaching its original glory and to learn once more to appreciate its immeasurable gifts.

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