An inquiry into the relationship between economics and ecologics
RE-CALIBRATING THE SCIENCE OF ECOLOGIC
I must apologize for giving the wrong impression by the title of this Discussion Group. The Science of Ecologic has seemingly mislead everyone into thinking it would focus narrowly on Ecology, Deep Ecology or Ecosophy. This might be a good subject for someone else to take on but it is not what I am about.
No one gets the ironic allusion in the title. It comes from Hegel’s ‘Science of Logic’, a book that no one else seems to have read. In it Hegel summarizes his system. He saw it as superceding and replacing the whole compendium of western philosophy from Plato onwards in one monumental opus. It also claims to reveal the laws of development of civilization itself and point to a future omega point of the Absolute Idea.
Logic it maybe but Science it certainly is not. Hegel claims it’s a science because that was the trendy, ‘in’ thing to do in the early 19th century. It added a cachet. Potential readers would conclude it must be true, if its scientific.
My title poses the question; what if we re-addressed all the same holistic issues as the idealist Hegel and the materialist Marx both tackled, but now, in the light of the real science of Ecology?
A root cause of the crises we are facing in today’s world is the legacy of Descartes. This is the myth of human exclusivity: that one species of earthly life can separate itself out from the rest of the biotic community. He went even further. He claimed that there was a categorical difference, not just one of degree, as Darwin later proved. Humans were subjects, the rest of the universe was composed of objects. Non-human animals were supposed to be machines – automatons. Even human bodies were demoted to machine status, only the mind having real objective and subjective existence.
So within this paradigm of fundamental disconnection with nature, modern science was born. Over the next 300 years it has been applied in the technology on which we now all depend. Built into the paradigm is the unspoken assumption that, because man alone is made in the image of God, the purpose of the rest of the earth is to serve as a resource to him in any way he chooses.
But modern science, recovering from the unfortunate circumstances of its Cartesian birth, has matured and doggedly pursued truth using its own methods. Rejecting theories for which it can find no evidence and slowly building a great edifice of knowledge from bricks of observed facts, it has expanded its base from cosmological, physical and chemical properties to those of life itself, including its human manifestation - physiological, emotional, and psychological – not just the cogito.
Ecology, the study of the relationships between life forms and the physical environment in which they are embedded and co-create, reveals a world of wonder, an ongoing miracle that surpasses all mythologies of the supernatural.
We are bound and tethered to an industrial technology from an earlier epoch, when Descartes’ machine model of the universe went still unquestioned. We may wish to re-connect with the Organic but we in the over-developed world cannot survive without our machine made toys. Even if we could, there are few of us that would be brave enough to try, and the overwhelming majority of us, as individuals, are in fact quite content with life as it is, isolated from all other life as it often unnaturally is.
Climate scientists have warned that unless 'business as usual' is changed, catastrophic global warming will ensue. Immediate steps to reduce (to zero) the burning of fossil fuels is the most urgent requirement and this is widely recognized, and beginning to be implemented in some countries.
What 'changing business as usual' means, beyond this first step, is controversial and needs discussion. Many are now saying that the market economy has gone too far and has created a market society in which everything is for sale, including people. Others have pointed to the enormous waste of resources inherent in the business model in which creating, and then catering, to 'addictions' is seen to be more profitable than satisfying felt human needs.
Would the freedom of the individual be better served in a world where our market society transforms itself into a participatory society and would such a transformation lead to the repair and healing of the global eco-system?
Well the market society we have actually turned into, as distinct from the ideal market economy envisaged by Adam Smith, is one in which money, the only sanctioned measure of value, has itself become the supreme value. In the ceaseless battle for market domination the winning corporations have grown bigger and fewer and they have gone global.
By contrast, a participatory society would not be a global monoculture served by an atomized body of individual consumers competing for goods, but a multitude of small communities networked together to accomplish larger aims but focused mainly on the day to day art of living. As OWS demonstrated, people with common problems, left to themselves, will find appropriate solutions, by cooperation and consensus decision making or direct democracy.
It is often remarked that the ‘best things in life are free’ but what are the best things? If you could ask any individual life form this question you would get the same answer. The dolphin would answer: ‘dolphins are the best’. She might add, ‘God made us in her image’ (or maybe not. Dolphins are pretty intelligent). She would continue; ‘the sea is a very good thing, and the smaller fish are very good because they are delicious to eat’. ‘What about the air above the sea?’ ‘That’s good too. I love to leap up into it with my friends. Of course I breathe it too but I don’t think much about that’. ‘What do you pay for all these good things?’ ‘Sorry. I don’t understand the question’.
It is a truism to say that we humans evolved in an environment for which we were less well equipped to survive than any other species. We had no built in weapons to defend ourselves with or with which to hunt. We had no built in insulation. We were physically weaker. All we had to our advantage was opposed thumbs and a super brain. We might have gone extinct early on if a chance mutation had not given us language. This was the superb tool which would enable all the others. Other species communicate by aural signals and almost certainly think in some way. But language, using grammar and syntax (which are innate, according to Noam Chomsky) enables far greater precision, in thought, and therefore also in communication.
Like the dolphin we would have to say our own species is the best thing in our world. As such we would naturally place our relationships with each other, our loves and friendships and even our associations formed with unrelated others to carry out specific tasks as having the highest value.
We could call this the art of living. And the arts, per se, are an extension of this mother art. Games and all forms of play and recreation are other extensions. All are vital to our well being which is enhanced to the degree we participate in them, passively, and actively, even more so.
A participatory society is one in which we all participate in our local life ways and in which not all our activities must be mediated through the cash nexus.
What kind of setting would we naturally choose for this Renaissance of the art of living?
This was the question I answered in my book ‘The End of the Street’
but it is not exactly the question I want to address in this discussion group.
Most people seem to believe that the mechanized techniques whereby most of society’s goods are delivered to us was, is, and can only be, produced through the agency of the prevailing form of state supported capitalism. We must live with the one in order to enjoy the other. If we throw out the bathwater of the banksters, out will go the baby of machine technology. We should question this viewpoint.
Our life support system, the global ecosystem, is not threatened by technology itself but by the economic system that ignores it as an externality. All our technological progress could proceed under the tutelage of co-operative, worker owned and managed enterprises, subject to community control, and taking positive environmental and social impact as two of its goals. Indeed much of it already does so proceed, and it’s a trend that has been accelerating since 2008.
Another shibboleth due to be knocked down is the one that says we need to maximize the use of machine technology, artificial pesticides and fertilizers, GM etc. in agribusiness in order to feed the growing population of the world from the fixed area of productive land available.
Not true, according to Vandana Shiva and other independent scientists. The Green Revolution was a hoax that in the end did more damage than good. Monsanto’s activities in India, for example, have lead directly to the suicide of about a quarter of a million traditional farmers.
The partners Odum, in their book ‘A Prosperous Way Down’ have charted a course for healthy organic food production, fertilized naturally, which would appear to be the way to get back to a sustainable agriculture. Because this would be more, not less, labor intensive, they see a need for some populations to vacate the big cities and return to the rural areas.
Their vision of a new agrarian civilization, very similar to that of the 18th century in my view, will not fly. As a planner/architect I know that we will continue to need our big cities, and not vacate them. Without them the whole history of real progress, which is undeniable, will be eroded and perhaps eventually lost. How many babies are we willing to throw out with the bathwater?
But again it is not the land use aspects that I want to address. That is too specialized for a philosophical discussion.
It is a question of ethics. What principles should govern the rights and wrongs of machine use? For example I have read recently of ideas for manufacturing artificial meat and even using 3D printers to create artificial food products. These are ideas responding to the notion that human populations are outgrowing the supply of food available from agriculture.
But there are effective ways of stabilizing the world’s population humanely
so we could continue to eat real food. Ethically preferable, surely.
I would suggest the proper use of the machine is to move us in the direction of the elimination of onerous, unpleasant and stultifying work. An
improper use would be to replace a worker with a robot, unless that worker was at the same time given a chance to pursue his/her own self fulfillment in a more rewarding capacity.
Our economy and the ecology are on a collision course. The better our economy functions (as growth engine), the greater the damage to the global eco-system. The health of the Free Market Economic Paradigm is the disease of Free Life Ecological Paradigm.
Humanity must love and respect its natural home with the other residents, or cease to be human.
But our economic system we made. So we can change it.
Jesus said, in response to someone showing him Caesar’s head on the back of a coin: ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s’.
Still good advice, it seems to me, if we translate into modern terms: Caesar = The state sponsored system of mass production.
God = Life with its local economies and ecologies.
What about services as distinct from goods?
Where personal they are ‘godly’. Where not, Caesar can keep them.
NHS is both. Run by Caesar, it is administered by living individuals in face to face contact. So we cannot always make a sharp break. Nevertheless, questioning the allocation of parts of a process as to where it fits in the Machinic/Organic polarity is always going to be necessary if we are to get out of the hopeless morass of unforeseen consequences of market driven technology the world is experiencing.
If we translate the word ‘render’ in the Biblical quote as ‘recycle’ we intensify its relevance.
The arrow of progress points in two directions. Ideally, we should all be spending most of our waking hours creating (arts), recreating, child rearing, socializing, growing and consuming organic, vegan, locally-sourced food and drink, in a permaculture garden. Lots of birds, squirrels and deer sharing our space. Not a car or any vehicle in sight (except bikes). This is the Organic side and it includes all edible vegetation, its consumption, elimination and recycling as compost, back to the soil.
In a limited sense, the Organic arrow points back towards conservation and repair of the ecosystem, which will be labor intensive. Contrariwise the Machinic arrow points forward, towards the elimination of work, as we know it.
Conserve the earth. Contain the machine. Liberate both within their respective domains.