December 11, 2017

Spiritual and technological paths to sustainability

This is a transcript of the introductory address given by Edward Goldsmith to the Spiritual and Technological Paths to Sustainability conference organised by REEP (the Religious Education and Environment Programme) at the Marco Pallis Memorial Conference, Regents College, London, 18 October 1997.

“The Prime Minister indicated in his speech at the G8 Summit that the planet cannot be saved from ecological disaster by technological gadgetry alone. But we cannot wait until everyone aspires to a life of voluntary simplicity. We need visions of the future which bring together appropriate technologies. We need more enlightened ways of living. But how can this be achieved? What kind of technologies do we need to abandon and to adopt? What changes will this involve in our values and lifestyle? What kind of spiritual practice and education are required? What kinds of technology encourage, hinder or complement such a way of life?”

Other lectures: “Green machines or simple living” by Peter Harper (Centre For Alternative Technology); “The purpose and passion that propels technology” by Dr Ruth Conway (National Curriculum); “Biotechnology” by Liz Hosken, Gaia Foundation.


Our Conference is entitled “Spiritual & Technological Paths To Sustainability”, so I shall discuss each of these notions in turn, starting with sustainability.

I am pleased we are talking about sustainability rather than ‘sustainable development’, which I regard as a contradiction in terms since I see development as necessarily increasing the impact of our activities on the environment – which can no longer sustain even the present impact. So to increase this impact still further is highly irresponsible and does not merit the term sustainable. In contrast, sustainability is a serious concept.

There are two definitions of ‘sustainable development’. The first definition is particularly undesirable and the weaker of the two definitions. It suggests that all environmental destruction can be compensated for by capital accumulation, which, of course, is totally unacceptable. This definition fails for another reason: technology cannot solve the sort of problems humanity is facing today.

The second definition of ‘sustainable development’ fails for the same reason as the first: humanity has developed too much already and has to reduce its impact on the biosphere in order to survive.

In a sense, technology is very good at solving certain problems – mainly technological problems. It is a technological problem to go to the Moon or to shoot a rocket to the planet Venus, to repair a motor car, to produce computers etc. All these things are technological problems, and we are very good at solving technological problems. Technology enables you to extract more oil out of an oil-well – much more. It enables you to achieve all sorts of things, but what it is very bad at doing, is repairing the destruction done to natural systems.

Natural things tend to repair themselves, if the damage is slight. There is a healing process in the forest very similar to the healing process which takes place if your arm is cut. But this process can only heal if the damage is limited. So there is no way you can restore the functioning of natural systems which have [severely] disintegrated.

For instance, there is no gadgetry or gimmickry, however ingenious and however elaborate, that can bring together a family that has broken down. It is not a technological problem that can be solved by technological means. Similarly, you cannot restore a community—or a cultural pattern which holds a community together—using technology. Once they are destroyed, there is no way that you can re-engineer a cultural pattern. It may re-develop by itself – it may return – that is possible. But there are no technical solutions to these problems.

There are no technological solutions to restoring an ecosystem that has broken down. For example, if you destroy the Amazonian forests, the idea of restoring them is preposterous. Scientists have only identified a minute proportion of the different species that reside there. Only 1.8 million species have been identified [worldwide] by scientists, but nobody knows how many species really exist [altogether]. They talk about 30 million plants, animals and reptiles, but it could be 100 million. Nobody really knows, so it is absolutely preposterous to believe that technology can solve the problems we face today.

Technology, however elaborate, will not enable us to restore the functioning of the natural systems that make up the world of living things, and which are being devastated at an ever increasing rate. So this whole notion of putting aside money to solve these kinds of problems is pointless, because money can only buy technological solutions, but neither money or technology cannot solve all our social, economic, ecological and climatic problems.

Let us now consider sustainability. Nothing is sustainable today. I cannot think of one major industrial project that humans are involved in today that is sustainable. For example, large dam projects are not sustainable. To begin with, there is a limited number of places where you can build them. Once the dams silt up, where do you re-build them? Power stations in general are not sustainable. Development, as I mentioned earlier, is not sustainable. However, the worst problem with development is that it is open-ended – it seems to go on for ever.

Processes in the natural world, like the development of the embryo in the womb, are controlled by negative feedback. They do not go on for ever. Consider the growth hormone. A child goes on growing, but it does not grow for ever. Eventually the growth hormone [declines], and the child stops growing, otherwise the child would carry on growing indefinitely.

In fact, there is no natural process that goes on for ever. Remember that development is not a natural process. We pretend that it is a natural process, and that is why we call it development – to make it feel or sound as if it’s a natural process. We like to compare development to the development of an embryo in the womb. But it has nothing to do with natural processes: [economic] development just goes on forever, and there is no formal way of self-regulating or stopping [this] development process. For example, you would think that when a country, such as America, achieves a certain level of prosperity it would stop trying to prosper further.

The truth of the matter is that development creates more problems than it solves, and we interpret these problems in such a way as to apply to the problems those sort of solutions that we have decided in advance to apply – those that fit in with our particular worldview: those that satisfy the requirements of transnational corporations and the State, which in combination, attempt to run our society. These are necessarily ‘developmental’ solutions.

There is a huge crime rate in America. What is the solution? The State builds more prisons. Now there are 1.6 million people in prison in America and it is the fastest growing industry in California today. This is a typical example of a wonderful developmental solution: one that satisfies the requirements of the people who want to build prisons. But it is not a solution. The real problem has not been solved, and the crime rate just continues to increase exponentially. No matter how many prisons you build, you will need to build more prisons until there is no money left for building more prisons. So the problem is not solved, and the crime rate will just go on for ever. Economic development destroys society just as much as it destroys the environment, and it is self-evident that there is no possibility of sustaining [any kind of] ‘sustainable development’.

For the same reason, there is no real technological solution to the problem of sustainability. Technology can enable us to gain time. For instance, if you believe Amory Lovins and others, technology could help us reduce our impact on the global biotic environment by 60–80 percent using current technologies. Certainly 60 percent, but perhaps 80 percent is a [little] far-fetched. If the leaders of global civilization wanted to apply a crash programme today to solve all our social and ecological problems, this could be achieved. There would be many problems, but it is achievable. Certainly, it would be difficult to persuade corporations that have just invested in expensive but destructive and polluting machinery to abandon it within 2 to 4 years as opposed to 20 or 30. In addition, buying up all industrial installations and utilities – such as big power stations and motorways that would have to be closed down and replaced by other things – would cause certain problems, but it is do-able.

Political will, to use a very over-used term, has created the planetary crisis, and it is political will that can solve it. Unfortunately, transnational corporations have not been co-operating. It was recently announced that the oil company BP has begun to accept the existence of global warming. Whether that will translate into concrete and far-reaching action remains to be seen. Until now, the world’s oil companies have all desperately spent ‘zillions’ trying to pretend that the problem of global warming does not exist and trying to persuade President Clinton to do nothing about it. Immediate action is necessary, and technological solutions would gain us time in the transition to a sustainable world.

There are many other problems that would be solved. We could largely remove acid rain from the atmosphere; we could improve health in cities massively because there would not be so many on the roads, and so much pollution in the cities; we could reduce our energy dependence on the Middle East – which is a very unstable area; we could produce a vast number of jobs – and this is a very important issue because unemployment is now becoming the greatest social problem we face today.

You can build up a veritable catalogue of the problems that would be solved by adopting certain technological solutions – which are only a part-solution, as I’ve already said.

Through their front organisation called the Global Climate Coalition, the international oil corporations are saying that we cannot take these kinds of actions to solve global warming because the cost of doing something about global warming is so high. But applying the kind of solutions I have described would not involve a cost in the real sense of the term. It is only because the particular accounting system which we call ‘modern economics’ is totally fraudulent that it is possible to maintain a defeatist position. In terms of a normal accounting system – a realistic one – there would be vast cost benefits. In fact, it is necessary to adopt such a programme for dramatically reducing down energy consumption by 60–80 percent, whether or not global warming exists, [as] it still has to be adopted in order to solve all the [other] problems that we face today.

This brings us to the spiritual answer. Now I have a certain problem with ‘spirituality’, due to the fact that we have divided up knowledge into many water-tight compartments which exist with virtually no contact with anyone or anything else. This incredible fragmentation of knowledge is something that makes it impossible to understand anything. If the Devil wanted to make sure that we understood absolutely nothing of our relationship with the world around us, he could not do better than to divide knowledge up into these water-tight compartments which we call disciplines. Therefore, we now have to abandon and dispose of these disciplines.

It is necessary to look at spirituality as whole. This would avoid the terrible fragmentation of knowledge, and we have fragmented everything. In fact, I can use the word ‘dis-embed’ everything – we have disembedded entire fields of knowledge from the whole. Seeing Gaia, or the ecosphere, as whole was something that all our early spiritual leaders accepted – in almost every spiritual tradition. All vernacular societies saw the Earth and the Cosmos in that light, but today, suddenly the Universe has been compartmentalized into different divisions of scientific knowledge, which apparently is more credible – according to James Lovelock and other scientists.

But if we see the world as whole, we can see this fragmentation as disembedding from the whole – and everything has been disembedded. Technology used to serve to maintain. It was limited and totally under control. It did not just develop without any sort of social, economic, ecological or spiritual control, [like] it is developing today – with all the destruction that it is causing. Tribal societies have their own technologies, but they are under control.

Dr Mary Douglas describes the two tribes on either side of the Kasai River: the Lele and the Bushong. The Bushong have a very elaborate technology and the Lele, a much less elaborate technology. But it would not occur to the Lele to adopt the Bushong technology because it is Bushong technology and not Lele technology. It would not really fit in with the Lele’s particular view of the world, with their metaphysics, [or] with the way their ancestors behaved, with their particular cultural behaviour pattern. So there is no question of adopting it. It is regulated through cultural control.

Everything we teach in our universities has been disembedded from the whole. Economics is completely disembedded. All you have to do is to read the very famous book The Great Transformation by Karl Polyani, which shows that modern economics does not apply to the economic life of tribal people. There is no Homo economicus in tribal societies or even in peasant societies. He points out that until very recently, economics was totally embedded or submerged in social relations: it did not have an existence of its own.

You could say the same thing for moral philosophy. Our moral philosophers like G. E. Moore, talk about morality as if it is something totally distinct from anything else. It is the same with philosophy. A philosopher recently wrote that philosophy had nothing to do with evolution. Philosophy has nothing to do with evolution! What is he talking about? These philosophers talk about completely abstract things with no relationship with the world around us.

I’m afraid to say that the this is equally true for spirituality, which, of course, is deeply linked to religion. I do not know how they can be distinguished, but in the world today they have been separated. Spirituality today is something that has been disembedded from the world, which used to be seen spiritually. In human history, the spirits of the world were connected to the living world. There were spirits of nature, spirits of society, ancestral spirits, and the structure or organisation of the spiritual world faithfully reflected how different tribal societies saw the real, living, natural world. The spirits were organised in such a way that they served to sanctify [society and] the natural world, so that we had to preserve it.

Now this to me is one of the most important things we need to do in the world today. I think that Peter Talbot Willcox of the REEP (Religious Education and Environment Programme) is very much involved in trying to do that. There are many writers who are making a big contribution to this field of re-embedding religion, and hence spirituality, into the natural world. At the moment, our modern religion, whether Christianity or other religion, is being described as a bi-polar relationship between an asocial, a-ecological and a-cosmic individual and an asocial, a-ecological and a-cosmic God.

You see, neither they or the God they worship has any concern for the real world! Religion has been disembedded in just the same way as economics, philosophy, morality, technology, and everything else. These hugely important subjects have been disembedded. We have created studies or theoretical abstracts, which are totally separate and totally divorced from everything else.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the most obvious figure [involved in re-embedding religion] is Father Robert Murray in his critical book  The Cosmic Covenant. Also the works of the remarkable Margaret Barker – who works with Father Murray – has written a book called The Lost Prophet on the Book of Enoch, as well as The Gates Of Heaven and other books on these themes. Both these people are remarkable because they show how religion, in particular the original Jewish religion, was embedded in the cosmos, as was early Christianity.

Of course, Christianity was not only influenced by Judaism, but also by Hellenism, and the fact that Hellenic (Greek) religion was embedded in the natural world has been highly documented by many people. I highly recommend the works of Jane Harrison who was a great scholar of Greek religion, as was F. M. Cornford in his great book From Religion To Philosophy.

When it comes to an overview of religion and its ecological roots, one of the best books has just been published by the splendid Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who has spoken at a previous Marco Pallis Seminar. I highly recommend his most recent book Religion And The Order Of Nature, especially the chapter entitled “The Order Of Nature”.

I have tried to document the relationship between ecology and spirituality in my book The Way: an ecological world view in Chapter 61.

When you read about re-embedding of religion in the natural world, you find that all the religions of archaic societies were embedded in the natural world. Underlying these religions, often called ‘chthonic’ religions, was a notion of ‘the Way’ (hence the title of my book), which is the path which each person must take in order to maintain the order of the Cosmos. For example, among the Greeks, this path was called ‘dike’. Among the Jews, it was called ‘sedek’. If you take this path you maintain the order of the cosmos. The original meaning of ‘shalom’ (peace), was not just peace among men, it was peace among the whole of creation – it meant peace within the whole of creation. So this to me is the most critical point.

Now this alone will not make our society sustainable, because such a religion is only likely to be entertained by a society that is organised in a very different way. The original societies that we lived in, that entertained this type of religious view of the world, was comprised of families and communities which were loosely organised into different societies, and shared the same cultural pattern, but which were not political units.

We no longer have a society of this sort. Our society has been taken over. We have an atomised society. We have largely broken down all these social forms and the sort of beliefs that hold them together. Instead, we have created a socially atomised society organised into corporations, i.e. commercial companies and state institutions, which have a very different agenda. These organisations that we have created, by their very nature, are unlikely to entertain the sort of view of the world that I am describing and suggesting. So if we really want to re-embed all these things which I have mentioned – in particular: sustainable technology, embedded religion, holistic spirituality – then we need to change our modern society into an ecological society.

Of course, there is a possibility that it will be changed. There is a chance. This is not a lost hope. I have just finished a book with Jerry Mander entitled The Case Against the Global Economy: and for a turn towards the local about the great problems of corporate globalization. We look at what is happening to the global economy, which is now being subjected to this new industrial revolution based on the computer and its myriad of different uses.

I belong to a group called the International Forum on Globalization based in San Francisco and many of its members have contributed to our book. It is our vie that if governments and corporate industry decide to run the global economy with 20 percent of the workforce then 80 percent of humanity is going to be marginalized. That will completely change everything. When 80 percent of humanity is marginalized from the formal economy these people are not just going to sit there and do nothing. Since they will be forced to live outside the system, they will be much more willing to oppose it, because they will no longer have anything to lose by doing so. Many of them will revolt.

We think there will be a lot of revolutions in the next few years, and in the next decade or two, but a lot of people are going to re-organize themselves to form families and communities, or things like them. There is going to be a dramatic re-structuring of humanity into much more traditional types of societies. People will have to do this in order to survive. Jobs have been the main source of security for people in the world, but that has gone. The welfare state has been another source of security, but that is being systematically dismantled.

So let us face reality: if there is no other source of security then the only remaining source of security is the family and the community, which are precisely the sources of security which have satisfied the particular needs of people from time immemorial. Either by choice or necessity I think we undoubtedly have to move forward by returning to that.

Thank you [loud audience applause].

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