October 22, 2017

Why not, we’ve got a licence?

A leading article for The Ecologist Vol. 28 No. 3, May 1998. Revised in January & February 2000, and republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


In the modern world, all benefits are seen as man-made – the product of economic development. 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 drugs. Law and order are provided by our police force in conjunction with the law courts and the prison system, and so on.

And yet no value is attributed to the irreplaceable benefits derived from the normal functioning of the natural world, which assure the stability of our climate, the fertility of our soil, the replenishment of our water supplies, and the other vital components of a functioning planet. It follows that to be deprived of these non-benefits cannot constitute an economic ‘cost’ – and the natural systems that provide them can thereby be destroyed with almost total impunity.

This attitude is further rationalised by mainstream scientists, who set out systematically to denigrate natural processes. Darwin described nature as “clumsy, wasteful, and blundering”, and Sir Peter Medawar, the Nobel Laureate, talked despairingly of “nature’s own artless improvisations”. Mainstream science also sees the natural world as individualistic, aggressive and terrifyingly cruel. For Darwin “all nature is at war.”

To Lester Ward, the American sociologist, the terrible shortcomings of the natural world are, as Donald Worster puts it,

“but an invitation to Man to become nature’s engineer and create a paradise on Earth of his own design whose functioning he can plan and direct in all its detail.”

For T. H. Huxley, Darwin’s most celebrated disciple, it is possible to create a good world where we behave ethically towards each other, but for this to be possible we must declare war against the evil world of nature. As Huxley put it,

“the ethical progress of society depends not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.”

This is one of the basic tenets of what is in effect a secular religious cult, which follows in direct line from that of a number of well-documented religious cults that flowered in the early history of the Western world. One of the best documented is that of the Gnostics, the ‘heretical’ early-Christian movement which, like mainstream scientists, saw the natural world as inefficient, more so, positively evil. They did not deny that there was order and law in the cosmos, but believed it was a rigid and inimical order, a tyrannical and evil law, devoid of meaning and goodness, alien to the purposes of man and to his inner essence.

Hence, for the Gnostics, God and the cosmos were no longer intimately related, as in primal society and even the Classical world. They had become alien to each other – indeed, opposites. So Man was condemned to cosmic solitude as he is condemned too by mainstream science.

However, there is one big difference between the position of the Gnostics and that of the mainstream scientists of today. For the former, God required that humanity break away from the evil world and restrict life to that of the spirit. The latter, though accepting the same premises, come to a very different conclusion. The world, they agree, is inefficient, and badly designed – but the answer is not to hide from it but to redesign and transform it, according to their far better design. This is the ultimate presumption and also the ultimate blasphemy, Homo Scientificus has deified himself. It is incumbent on him to recreate the world.

The contrast between the scientific world view and that of primal people could not be more striking. Mircea Eliade and other great students of religion have shown how most rituals performed by traditional peoples served, above all, to maintain the order of the cosmos which was seen as encompassing society, the natural world and the world of the Gods. In many societies, a word existed for the path that had to be taken in order to do so: the Tao of the ancient Chinese, the R’ta of the Vedic Indians, and as Father Murray and Margaret Barker make clear, the Sedeq of the ancient Hebrews.

These concepts also meant justice, morality and indeed the divine law. No distinction was made between this law as it applied to society (nomos in Greek), that which governed the natural world (the Greek dike, and the dikeos of early Christian theology) and that which governed the all-embracing world of the gods (usually referred to by the Hellenes as Themis) so that, as Pythagoras is said to have noted, he who violates any one of them, violates them all.

What a contrast with the modern legal system, which serves above all to protect property, indeed one could annihilate the living world and make our very species extinct without violating a single one of the laws that modern man has enacted. What an indictment of the world view that our law so faithfully reflects!

Man is inherently a religious being and religion is, even today, a powerful force and could be very much more so if it were seen once more as providing the basis of an ecological and hence a cosmic world view with which we could all once more be imbued. To do this, of course, means reviving the largely forgotten cosmic roots of the Judeo-Christian tradition and indeed of the other mainstream religious traditions of today.

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