THE WAY: An Ecological World-View
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1993.
442 pp., $20.00 (paperback).
LIKE THE FROG that unwittingly dwells in water about to boil, human beings are poised on the brink of ecological catastrophe. And instead of helping us find our way, science, state, and church—claims British veteran Green writer and campaigner Edward Goldsmith—are only hastening our demise.
Founder and co-editor of the respected magazine The Ecologist and author of several books, including The Imperiled Planet, Goldsmith has labored for almost twenty years to bring us The Way. He has codified basic ecological principles into sixty-six short—if somewhat complex—chapters designed to spell out the building blocks of ecological truth: namely, that the biosphere is the source of all benefits and wealth, and that the basic goal of society is to preserve the order of the natural world.
What Goldsmith offers here is not a New-Age eco-bible or a blueprint for a new world order, but a harsh critique of the thinking behind modernism and an impassioned call to return to the ethics that preceded it. Goldsmith argues that it is modernism—with its belief that economic development is our highest priority—that is slowly, but surely, turning up the heat.
What seems to anger the author most is the shocking indifference displayed by the academic world to our impending doom. He notes that even the science of ecology has conformed to the paradigm of reductionist science—one designed to suit a mechanistic world, structured to satisfy short-term economic and political interests. The ecology we need, says Goldsmith, is:
not ecology that involves viewing the biosphere on which we depend for our survival at a distance and with scientific detachment. We will not save our planet through a conscious, rational, and unemotional decision, signifying a contract with it on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. A moral and emotional commitment is required. Indeed, one of the key tasks of ecology must be to redirect our emotions into the role they were designed to play in helping us to preserve the critical order of the biosphere.
Much of the criticism of reductionist and mechanistic thinking will be familiar to the reader, however, Goldsmith takes it further by launching an attack against the priesthood of science, and some scientists in particular, with almost vitriolic zeal and by introducing some new terms to help dt;fine the battle: “The more the environment of living things differs from that in which they evolved, the more their behavior is likely to be maladjusted, unadaptive, or heterotelic.” (“Homeotelic” behavior is that which seeks to maintain the critical order of the whole.)
The course of evolution, the author insists, follows opportunity and a plan. Excellent and convincing is the critique of randomness, augmented with the often-quoted words of the great French naturalist J. P. Lamarck, who said, “The word randomness only expresses our ignorance of causes.” Underscored here is the awareness that living beings are not random machines—that they arise and conduct their lives with purpose. The mission of all living things, Goldsmith says, is to contribute something to the maintenance of the earth’s stability.
The author seems repulsed by the misguided scientific search for “objective” knowledge. Perception itself is, of course, a subjective process. Never do we detect actual objects around us, but rather, by sensing patterns of light and shade, we construct an internal model upon which we act accordingly. Unable to notice all the data in a given moment, we select only what is within the limits of our genetic range and what is considered culturally relevant. But what Goldsmith only hints at, but never explores fully, is the deeper crisis of perception itself that afflicts not only scientists, but all of us. While he suggests that our vision is obscured by the self-serving paradigms of market-oriented science, he is less vocal about the obfuscation of reality that is effected by human greed, hatred, and delusion.
The author challenges the assumptions of our blind acquiescence to the demands of the emerging technosphere. He calls it the “Great Misinterpretation”—the ultimate manifestation of modern man’s cognitive maladjustment to the industrial world he has created. Readers will question whether modern science with its mechanistic paradigm has had any positive effect on life at all, for the common assumptions that modern people eat better, are in better health, or are happier are skillfully refuted here. (Unmentioned, though, is the incontestable fact that those who do survive live much longer.)
Also not mentioned here is that the emerging eco-crisis is fueling a strong desire felt by many for a positive vision of the future. Nowhere does Goldsmith suggest the slightest sense of confidence that we will find the Way in the nick of time, that we will learn from our mistakes so as to usher into being a new ecological era. If his study were not so rich with the history of our erroneous thinking, so detailed in its justifiable indictment of modernism, it might be dangerously close to being just another book that tells us how wrong and hopeless things are, devoid of any inspiration for the future.
The Way does, however, offer us a religion for the future: ecology. Ecology, Goldsmith says, “is a faith in the wisdom of those forces that created the natural world and the cosmos of which it is a part; it is a faith in its ability to provide us with extraordinary benefits—those required to satisfy our most fundamental needs. It is a faith in our capacity to develop cultural patterns that will enable us to maintain the integrity and stability of the natural world.”
Some readers will find it a paradox when Goldsmith stridently maintains that life processes at all levels of organization (thus presumably including humans) are teleological—that is, purposefully designed to support homeostasis—and then also expresses doubt that we will survive our self-inflicted ecological blows. If our behavior is governed by the same laws that govern the Gaian hierarchy as a whole, then aren’t our ignorant and unseemly ways just a temporary aberration or, in the long view, just a minor geohistorical perturbation?
Goldsmith disagrees; he takes strong issue with Ilya Prigogine, the Belgian chemist and Nobel laureate, whom he accuses of something akin to scientific anarchy. The view attributed to Prigogine—that from a systems perspective, wars and ecological calamities can lead to a favorable reorganization of society—is condemned as the height of irresponsibility. “Development” and “progress” are seen as wholly destructive agents, with little or no distinction made between good and bad development. Goldsmith feels that “progress creates conditions that lie increasingly outside our tolerance range—a process which, if allowed to continue for long enough, must mean the eventual extinction of our species.” Meanwhile, “progress” and “development” are still very much in demand by the teeming masses. While the people of India, for example, may not want an expensive hydroelectric dam that will displace thousands of people, they, like the Chinese, would be most interested in consumer goods such as color TVs, electric juicers, or new Jeeps. Why, we may wonder, does the energy that powers cars and factories have to come at the expense of natural resources? Perhaps if we can move away from an oil-based economy toward a solar one, we can have progress and preserve the ecological order at the same time.
The author’s attack on modern social organization presumes that corporations cannot be geared both to their own profitability and to the larger purposes of the biosphere. The Body Shop, Seventh Generation, and even Ben and Jerry’s are examples of the many new corporations that promote ecological awareness and social change. And while it may be incontestable that a “technosphere” is now being created at the expense of the biosphere, perhaps in time there will be mutual adaptation, resulting in the metamorphosis of our greed-based growth economy into a need-based sustainable one. Goldsmith’s dichotomy between technological fixes and revolution in social and economic values seems too tightly drawn. Surely technology will have a major role to play in the transformation of our way of thinking.
Goldsmith uncovers the assumptions that underlie the culture of modernity: that things are permanent, or should be; that deep satisfaction or contentment is possible given just the right quantity of material things; and that there is a timeless, unchanging soul found only in humans. Considering the Buddhist laws of impermanence, suffering, and insubstantiality, nothing could be further from the truth. The author equates the Way, his principles of an ecological worldview, with the Tao and many Earth-based spiritual practices of native peoples, as well as with Buddhist dharma—”the universal law which embraces the world in its entirety, originated by Hindus and later taken up by Buddhists.” Buddhist practice also provides inner tools to help one look more deeply to allow us to dwell in a mindspace within which our embeddedness in the natural world can be a felt experience.
I’m a little uncomfortable with Goldsmith’s use of absolutes—”Way” or “Anti-way,” “Evolution” or “Anti-evolution”—and suspect that in the best of conditions human beings will always be in the presence of both in perpetual interplay. Nothing short of what Goldsmith calls a “social mega-mutation” will stop the collapse of society. “We must set out to combat and systematically weaken the main institutions of the industrial system—the state, the corporations, and the science and technology which they use to transform society and the natural world.”
As far as going to combat is concerned, I prefer to invoke a more Buddhist outlook and to concentrate on what we can do to purify ourselves and our relations with others, offering only compassion to nature’s offenders. “It is important that we forgive the destruction of the past and recognize that it was produced by ignorance,” the Dalai Lama has said. “At the same time, we should reexamine, from an ethical perspective, what kind of world we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations.” The Way is a valuable and comprehensive guide for doing just that.
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