October 23, 2017

The Way – a synthesis

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This article by Edward Goldsmith represents the ‘synthesized statement’ of his great work The Way: an ecological worldview. It was published in InterCulture Vol. XXX no. 1, Winter – Spring 1997, Issue no 132.

Ecosophy and silvilization (Editor’s preface—InterCulture)

These two connected and complementary shock words, key ideas, emerging myths might summarize this whole issue.

Ecosophy: it means the wisdom of the biosphere, of the ecosphere, of nature, of the universe, rather than that of human thought concerning nature. Nature has a tendency to maintain its fundamental structure, to which Man must learn to adjust (Goldsmith). Nature is the great educator, the great economy. It could be said that it is the way of ontonomy, the one to which our primordial ancestors have tried to gear into and that we unfortunately try to replace with the alienating way of autonomy and heteronomy.

Silvilization: (from the Latin silva (forest)) by thus contrasting ‘civilization’ and ‘silvilization’, one does not mean to make a direct critique of civilization nor to replace it with silvilization, but to shatter the myths of civilization, of citizenship and of civil society, as having to be the unique point of reference or horizon of intelligibility of the social order. So one makes room for ‘silvilization’, natural and primordial living, thus refusing to equate the beautiful word ‘savage’ (from silva, the savage being the forest-dweller, the man of nature) with primitive, fierce, brutal, ferocious backward.

It must be clear to all thinking people that the policies adopted by governments just about everywhere to solve the problems that confront us today, such as poverty, unemployment, homelessness, disease, malnutrition, crime, drug addiction and environmental degradation, do not work. If they did, then these problems would not be increasing as they all are, and at an unprecedented rate.

This being so, the only responsible – indeed the only honest – course of action, must be to step back to reconsider the basic assumptions on which these policies are based.

Such assumptions, we would find, are closely interrelated – so much so that together they constitute a very coherent world view, one that in my book The Way I refer to as the world view of modernism.

A world view is the “conceptual framework” to use Michael Polanyi’s expression, into which society’s knowledge is organized, and in the light of which its individual members and the groupings into which they are organized – families and communities in the case of a traditional society and corporations and state institutions in the case of an atomised industrial society – and the society itself – seek to understand their relationship to the environment (in particular, the man made environment in the latter case), i.e. to the world of which they are part and to the all-encompassing cosmos or the world of the gods and spirits.

It is on the basis of such a purely subjective world view and that of its ‘constituent paradigms’ that a society’s behaviour pattern, and – in modern society – its political and economic policies are mediated. It is on the basis of them too that such policies are rationalized and hence legitimized.

Thus Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations showed that it is by behaving in the most egoistic way possible that we maximize not only our own material interests but also those of society at large – a cheerful philosophy which rationalized the individualism and egoism that marked the breakdown of society during the industrial revolution. Darwinism was rightly described by Oswald Spengler as “the application of economics to biology”, Darwin’s “natural selection” being but a biological version of Smith’s “invisible hand” and serving, above all, to legitimize the Promethean enterprise of our modern society by making it appear to be a natural process.

To modify a world view is very difficult, since it constitutes a highly coherent and self-consistent whole, and thereby enjoys great credibility regardless of whether or not it reflects a society’s relationship with its environment with any sort of accuracy.

Its coherence is largely due to the fact that, like all organizations of information in the natural world (such as a genome or a mind), it exerts a determinant influence on the nature of its constituent parts. Thus each of the disciplines into which modern knowledge is divided depicts its subject matter in terms of a specific paradigm, one which slavishly reflects the worldview of modernism. Thus the living world, at every level of organization, is seen as made up of discreet particles that are individualistic, competitive, and geared only to maximizing their individual interests and their survival, without any regard for the interests and survival of the larger natural systems of which they are, in effect, but the differentiated parts, and whose very existence is often denied.

What also makes a world view difficult to modify is that individuals and societies themselves have a psychological stake in maintaining the integrity of their world view in the face of any new knowledge that might serve to discredit it. The American anthropologist A. F. C. Wallace refers to this as “the principle of the preservation of cognitive structure”.

It can be shown that the same is true of professionals who seek to preserve that paradigm in terms of which they see their particular discipline, long after it appears, in the eyes of most sensible people, to have been totally discredited.

What is more, theories that do not conform with an established paradigm, and hence with the world view as a whole, tend sooner or later to be moulded into that shape that enables them to do so. Thus, in the last 60 years, the behaviourists made psychology conform to the paradigm of science. The neo-Darwinians and, even more so, the sociobiologists did the same for theoretical biology.

Modern sociology has also become mechanistic and reductionistic, and the development of the New Ecology in the 1940s and 1950s has given rise to what is in effect a Newtonian ecology, that, rather than provide the theoretical foundations for the environmental movement of today, as most environmentalists tend to believe, serves instead to rationalize and hence validate the very process of economic development or progress that is the principal, if not the only, cause of the environmental degradation that it strives so ardently to combat.

In this way our academic knowledge has been made, Procrustean-like, to conform to the paradigm of science, and hence to the world view of modernism, stretched or shrunk to fit an atomized 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.

What is more, knowledge that cannot 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, organized rather than atomized, co-operative 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 or the corporation, and tending to maintain its stability or homeostasis rather than geared to perpetual change in an undefined direction. It disposes, in fact, of any knowledge that might enable us to understand the true nature of the world we live in.

It follows that in terms of this aberrant world view 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. An ecological world view in the light of which all this becomes possible must thereby be a most urgent requirement.

I have tried in my book The Way: an ecological world view to state what must be the basic principles underlying it. These principles are all closely interrelated, forming an all-embracing and self-consistent model of our relationship with the world in which we live as well as an associated explicit or implicit set of instructions designed to lead those imbued with it to adopt the associated pattern of behaviour.

It was always clear to me that the inspiration for this world view must come from the world view of the earliest period when people everywhere really knew how to live in harmony with the natural world. I have often been criticized on this score. However, it seems to me highly presumptuous to postulate an ideal world view, 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 the ecosphere is capable of sustaining it for more than a few decades. (see The Way)

What has struck me more recently is that the basic principles underlying the world view of early vernacular societies were everywhere the same, as is emphasized by Mircea Eliade in his many books, and by the proponents of the Perennial Philosophy, such as Ananda Coomaraswamy, René Guénon, Titus Burckhardt, and others, and that these principles must also necessarily underlie a truly ecological world view. The first of these principles is that the living world or ecosphere is the basic source of all benefits, hence of all wealth.

The second is that the ecosphere [1] will only dispense these benefits if we religiously preserve its critical order. From these two fundamental principles follows the third, which is that the overriding goal of an ecological society must be to preserve the critical order of the natural world or of the cosmos. I will not say very much about the first of these principles as it is implicit to the other two. I will deal briefly with the second principle though this is also implicit in the third, the only one I shall deal with in any great detail.

Order is a basic feature of the Gaian hierarchy, as traditional man fully understood. His own body, his home, his temple, his society, the natural world and the cosmos itself he saw as organized according to the same plan, governed by the same law, and hence as constituting a single organized whole. [2]

The word ‘cosmos’ itself originally meant order. In many cosmologies, as Mircea Eliade notes, the cosmos came into being once God had succeeded in vanquishing a vast primordial monster or dragon that symbolized the original chaos. Often, the monster’s body served as raw material out of which the cosmos was fashioned.

Thus Marduk fashioned the cosmos out of the body of the marine monster Tiamat, and Yahveh built the cosmos out of the body of the primordial monster Rahab. However, so as to prevent the cosmos from reverting to the original chaos, that victory had to be re-enacted every year. [3]

Order is usually defined as the influence of the whole over the parts. Rupert Riedl sees it as “an expression of conformity to law”. [4] I prefer to define it as

“an expression of the constraints that are imposed on the whole by the parts, which the latter must observe if they are to fulfil their homeotelic [5] functions within the larger systems of which they are part, and thereby maintain their integrity and stability.”

That the world is orderly is evident. If it were not, we could not understand it. There could be no science of any kind, however we wished to define the term. To quote Rupert Riedl once more, “A world without order would have no meaning. It would be neither recognizable nor conceivable”. [6]

Evolution and its constituent life processes build up order. Individualistic systems become organized, differentiated, and hence specialized in the fulfilment of various functions. As this occurs, so competition yields to co-operation, so the incidence and severity of discontinuities is reduced, and so the systems become more stable. Indeed, order implies organization, differentiation, specialization, co-operation, and stability. They are but different ways of looking at the same fundamental feature of the living world.

But order cannot increase indefinitely. There is an optimum degree of order at each level of organization of the Gaian hierarchy, for the natural systems that make up the Gaian hierarchy must, in different conditions, display a specific degree of order. Organisms must display a higher degree of order than do families, which in turn must be more orderly than the communities of which they are part, and which must in turn be more orderly than societies which in normal conditions tend to be loose organizations of families and communities. The ecosystems of which they are all part must also be more loosely organized and hence display a still lower degree of order.

These differences must be respected, or those key natural systems would become incapable of fulfilling their respective homeotelic functions that they alone, at their particular level of organization, are capable of fulfilling.

The ecosphere, of course, exists in time as well as space. It is best seen as a spatio-temporal entity. The spatial aspect is but an abstraction, as is its temporal aspect. Ludwig von Bertalanffy sees structures as “slow processes of long duration” and functions as “quick processes of short duration”. [7]

If we accentuate the temporal aspect of a natural system and see it more as a process than as a structure, then a disordered or random process is one that can move in any direction. Its behaviour is unpredictable. As order builds up, however, the process becomes subject to the influence of the whole of which it is a part. Its range of choices becomes limited as it becomes a differentiated part of the larger ecospheric process committed to the achievement of a single overriding goal. Hence purposiveness is just another word for order or organization as applied to life processes. The two are inseparable.

Indeed, animals will eat and drink and reproduce because these processes are as much part of them as are the organs that assure these purposive functions. The same is true for families, communities, ecosystems and the ecosphere itself. As the biologist Colin Pittendrigh notes “organization without purpose is an absurdity”. [8]

In terms of an ecological world view the hierarchy of the ecosphere must be seen as displaying a single spatio-temporal order, and its structure and function must be governed by a single set of laws, whose generalities apply equally well to biological organisms, vernacular communities, societies, ecosystems and the Gaia herself. Vernacular man knew this. Thus Radcliffe Brown tells us that while for us the order of nature is one thing, and the social order is another, to the Australian (aborigine) they are part of a single order – as indeed they were, for all traditional peoples who were imbued with the chthonic world view.

If the order of the living world, whether seen spatially or temporally, is not apparent to reductionist science, it is that unless one sees a natural system holistically within its correct field – as part of the hierarchy of larger systems in which it evolved, to which it is homeotelic and to whose influence it is subjected, one cannot see that it is orderly and hence purposive.

Critical Order

Equally important is the critical nature of the order displayed by the natural systems that make up the ecosphere. Thus, clearly the structure of an organism, like that of any other natural system, is critical: its various body fluids, for instance, must have the ‘normal’ chemical and biological composition, or what would be the point of pharmacological tests? The basic features of a human community are also critical. However much it may differ in its details, it must be composed of extended families, and intermediary social groupings which link people together to form a cohesive unit of social behaviour capable of maintaining its homeostasis in the face of change.

A cultural pattern must also display a critical order and cultural traits can only be understood in accordance with their functions within it. The suppression of vernacular customs and institutions because they appear undesirable, when judged by our particular standard of morality, can have fatal results on the culture involved, very much as the extraction of a key organ can result in the demise of an organism.

If societies have a critical order, so too must ecosystems. They must be made up of green plants that are capable, via photosynthesis, of mobilizing the energy of the sun, herbivores that can feed off the plants, predators that can feed off the herbivores, applying quantitative and qualitative controls on their populations, and decomposers that can break down biological material into its constituent parts to serve as the raw materials for the perpetuation of the whole cycle.

The ecosphere itself, the overall ecosystem, must for the same reason display a critical order. That the earth’s atmosphere must do so at a chemical level is clearly noted by James Lovelock. Among other things, its carbon dioxide content is critical; if it were too low, the earth would be too cold, and if too high, its temperature would exceed that which most forms of life could support. Its oxygen content is also critical; if it were too low, then some species would not be able to breathe, while if it were too high, the earth’s atmosphere would become so inflammable that a single spark could set off uncontrollable fires.

It must follow that adaptive changes occurring to any natural system are those that serve to maintain its critical order and hence its stability within the context of the critical order or stability of the whole Gaian hierarchy.

Vernacular man when imbued with a chthonic world view fully realized this, so much so that his main preoccupation was to maintain the critical order of the cosmos, for he knew that it was by doing so that his welfare would be maximized. The corollary of this was that to violate the critical order of the cosmos could only lead to the most terrible calamities. Hence, the elaborate system of ‘taboos’ or prohibitions that prevailed in all vernacular societies.

This all-pervading fear of disrupting the critical order of the cosmos is reflected in the taboos set up in all tribal societies against mixing things that are seen as belonging to different classes or provinces into which the cosmos is seen to be divided. This goes a long way towards explaining food taboos. Thus it is taboo to eat pork among the Hebrews, this is because the pig, as Mary Douglas notes, “is put into the class of abominable, unclean creatures” [9] along with water creatures that do not have fins and scales.

They do not fall into natural cosmic categories either. Nor do air creatures that do not fly or hop on the earth, and do not have wings and two legs. To eat such creatures can only reduce a person’s vital force and simultaneously threaten the critical order of the cosmos. Mixed marriages between people from naturally exogamous social groups are seen in the same light; they threaten the critical order of society and thereby that of the cosmos of which it is part.

Among the Igbo of Nigeria, according to Emefie Ikenga Metuh, “deviations which disrupt the natural order are called Aru; literally, abominations”. The word Aru, however, also means “crime against nature”. Such crimes include a number of unnatural acts that defy normal behavioural categories, such as a man having sexual intercourse with his father’s wife or with an animal. The birth of twins and a hen hatching but one chick also fall into this category. These taboo events are Aru because the Igbo believe “that they transgress the laws guiding the ontological order and will therefore bring disaster to the community”. [10]

Unfortunately, economic progress cannot occur without disrupting the critical order of the natural world, so, not surprisingly, as the world view of modernism and the associated paradigm of science slowly developed to rationalize and hence validate this anti-evolutionary enterprise, the idea that the world was orderly and that this order was critical was slowly abandoned. Instead the ecosphere was increasingly seen as random, in particular its temporal aspect – and also as highly malleable. Thus for Descartes, living things in general – and for John Locke, the human mind itself – are but pieces of wax: “flexible, malleable, ours to shape as we please” as Passmore puts it. [11]

Most modern historians and sociologists also see society in this way. H. A. L. Fisher, for instance, tells us that man does not have a nature, only a history, rationalizing in this way his contention that history is but a series of random and unconnected events. Edward O. Wilson also talks of the “extreme plasticity of social behaviour”, implying that we can adapt to living in just about any social and environmental conditions, including of course those that economic development or progress impose upon us.

When ecology developed, partly as a reaction against the reductionist and mechanistic paradigm of science, (12) it sought to re-establish the essential notion that the ecosphere is organized or orderly, and that this order is critical. This notion was largely embodied in the principle of the ‘balance of nature’, which was then seen as a basic principle of ecology. Thus S.A. Forbes saw “an ideal balance of nature as one promotive of the highest good of all the species”. [13] W. C. Allee and the other principal members of the Chicago school of ecology in the 1940s also accepted the principle of the balance of nature, according to which “the community maintains a certain balance, establishes a biotic order, and has a certain unity paralleling the dynamic equilibrium and organization of other living systems”. [14]

In the 1930s and 40s however, ecology was systematically perverted so as to make it conform to the paradigm of science and hence to rationalize economic development or progress, and ecologists sought to discredit the concept of the balance of nature in the same way as they questioned the established ecological principles: that ecological succession leads to a climax, that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and that complexity gives rise to stability.

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A natural system at any level of organization that is capable of maintaining the basic features of its critical order in the face of internal or external challenges, is referred to as ‘stable’. A stable system is not thereby geared towards change but towards the avoidance of change. Change occurs not because it is desirable per se, but because in certain conditions, it is necessary, as a means of preventing larger and more disruptive changes. It follows that stability is not the same as immobility. An immobile system is not stable because it is not capable of adapting to environmental challenges, and its order is thereby vulnerable to large-scale disruption.

Needless to say, mainstream science as well as mainstream ecology accentuate change – perpetual change – so as to make it appear that economic development or progress is a natural process. Needless to say, the opposite is true. Stability has been the most striking feature of the world of living things.

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