Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Toward Ecosophy

Two weeks ago, in The Ecology of Social Change, I suggested that the great flaw in most of today’s schemes for social change is their failure to grasp the ecological dimensions of human society. That flaw has been almost impossible to avoid, because it is not simply a matter of consciously held beliefs; many of the people drafting plans for social change these days have learned quite a bit about ecology. It’s the unexamined and often unconscious presuppositions underlying most such plans that blind them to ecological reality – and the struggle to confront one’s own presuppositions is very challenging work.

One of the things that makes the end of the industrial age so difficult for many people today, after all, is the way that it drives a wedge between science and what has often been called scientism. Science, at its core, is simply a method of practical logic that tests hypotheses against experience. Scientism, by contrast, is the worldview and value system that insists that the questions the scientific method can answer are the most important questions human beings can ask, and that the picture of the world yielded by science is a better approximation to reality than any other. Science and scientism are not the same, but it’s one of the most common habits of modern thought to assume their identity – or, more precisely, to fixate on science and fail to notice that scientism as a distinctive worldview exists at all.

This is not a new thing; most sets of intellectual tools have given rise to their own worldview and values. Classical logic followed the same trajectory. Greek and Roman philosophers took logic as their basic toolkit, defined reality as whatever could be reduced to verbal statements and analyzed by logical means, and consigned the rest to the apeiron, the realm of the formless and unknowable. The results predetermined most of the successes and failures of the ancient world’s intellectual history. It’s easy enough to condemn the old philosophers for their failures – the debates about justice, for example, that never quite stopped to ask if there might be something wrong with the ancient world’s economic dependence on slavery – but of course equivalent blind spots pervade modern thinking as well.

What verbal statements were to classical logic, quantification is to the scientific method: phenomena that can’t be expressed in numbers usually can’t be investigated by the scientific method. Many scientists have reacted by consigning anything that can’t be quantified to their own version of the apeiron. Recognizing this bad habit is not a condemnation of science, or even of scientism; rather, it is simply an acknowledgment of the fact that no tool is suited for every job. Still, the natural tendency of a small child with a hammer to believe that everything is in need of a good whacking isn’t the only factor at work here; the scientific method itself very often becomes an obstacle in the way of clarity.

Worldviews and values, after all, are among the things the scientific method handles most poorly – it’s very hard to quantify a value judgment – and this problem becomes particularly serious when the scientist faces the worldview and values that derive from science itself. No controlled double-blind experiment could possibly prove, for example, that truths revealed by science are more important than those uncovered by other means, much less that the scientific method is the best hope for the human future! The fact that scientists have made these claims doesn’t make them scientific. Rather, they’re among the value judgments that unfold from scientism.

The same point can be made with even more force about humanity’s supposed “conquest of nature,” perhaps the most distinctive concept of scientism. A military metaphor that defines humanity as Earth’s enemy is an odd way to understand our relationship with the natural systems that sustain our lives. Still, scratch today’s attitudes toward the natural world and the hackneyed image of Man the Conqueror of Nature is rarely far below the surface. Even the narratives of modern environmentalism, far from rejecting this view, reinforce it; most of them glorify human power, in fact, by embracing the claim that humanity has become so almighty that it can destroy the Earth and itself into the bargain.

The conflict between these beliefs and the hard realities of the predicament of industrial civilization could not be more stark. Human limits, not human power, define the situation we face today, because the technological revolutions and economic boom times that most modern people take for granted resulted from a brief period of extravagance in which we squandered half a billion years of stored sunlight. The power we claimed was never really ours, and we never conquered nature; instead, we stole as many of her carbon assets as we could reach, and spent most of them. Now the bills are coming due, the balance left in the account won’t meet them, and the only question left is how much of what we bought with all that carbon will still be ours when nature’s foreclosure proceedings finish with us.

Such perspectives are impossible to square with most contemporary attitudes about nature and humanity’s place in it, and they conflict just as sharply with the Enlightenment faith in reason as the door to a better world. From the perspective of that faith, it’s axiomatic that anything unsatisfactory is a problem in need of a solution, and that a solution can be found for it. The suggestion that deeply unsatisfactory conditions cannot be solved but, rather, have to be lived with, is unthinkable and offensive to a great many people. Yet if human life is subject to hard ecological limits, the narrative of human omnipotence falls, and a popular and passionately held conception of humanity’s nature and destiny falls with it.

It’s easy to turn scientism into the villain of this particular piece, but scientism is simply a recent example of the human habit of using successful technique to define the universe. Hunting and gathering peoples see the animals they hunt and the plants they gather as the building blocks of the cosmos; farming cultures see their world in terms of soil, seed, and the cycle of the year; the efforts of classical civilization to inhabit a wholly logical world, and those of modern industrial civilization to build a wholly scientific one, are simply two more examples. Nor was scientism always as maladaptive as it is today. During the heyday of the industrial age, it directed human effort toward what was, at that time, a successful human ecology. In retrospect, scientism’s limitless faith in the power of human reason turned out to be a case study in what the ancient Greeks called hubris, the overweening pride of the doomed. At the time, though, this wasn’t obvious at all, and there’s a valid sense in which scientism has become problematic today simply because its time of usefulness is over.

Still, the cultures best suited to the deindustrial age will have to embrace an attitude toward nature differing sharply from scientism: an attitude that starts from humility rather than hubris, remembering that “humility” shares the same root as “humus,” the soil on which we depend for the food that keeps us alive. That attitude offers few justifications for today’s arrogant notions about humanity’s place in nature. Still, just as Greek logic was pulled out of the rubble of the classical world and put to use in a string of successor civilizations, the scientific method is worth hauling out of the wreckage of the industrial age, and could function just as well in a culture of environmental humility as it does in today’s culture of environmental hubris. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that the environmental sciences offer the most likely meeting ground for such a project of rescue.

Every culture draws on the techniques it finds most useful to provide it with its worldview. Industrial civilization thus drew most of the ideas of scientism, and even more of its symbolism and emotional appeal, from the world revealed by Galileo and Newton in the seventeenth century and embodied in the first wave of industrial technology a century later. In the same way, the crucial role ecological knowledge will likely play in the wake of the industrial age makes the emergence of a broader way of thinking modeled on ecological science a near-certainty over the centuries immediately ahead of us.

Call that way of thinking ecosophy: the wisdom (sophia) of the home, as distinct from – though in no way opposed to – the “speaking about the home” that is ecology, or the “craft (techne) of the home” that is ecotechnics. Ecosophy isn’t a science, any more than scientism is, nor is it a religion – though ecological religion is likely to be significant in the deindustrial age, whether it borrows existing religious forms or evolves new ones of its own. Rather, ecosophy is a worldview and value system that gives meaning to ecology and ecotechnics, and makes sense of human life not in terms of some imagined conquest of nature, but of our species’ dependence and participation in the wider circle of the biosphere.

Some elements of ecosophy already exist, and others will evolve gradually as the twilight of the age of cheap energy makes environmental realities impossible to ignore. Still, there is also a point in sketching at least some of the outlines of an ecosophic worldview here and now. The Christian worldview of the Middle Ages appeared in the writings of theologians such as Augustine of Hippo long before it rooted itself in the imagination of the medieval world; in the same way, founders of modern science from Galileo to Darwin explored the worldview of scientism in their writings, and from there it spread into popular consciousness. Some of the essays in the months to come will discuss authors that have contributed most to the emerging ecosophical worldview, and explore angles along which a vision of human existence founded on ecology might be developed.


John Michael Greer said...

I'll be on the road for most of the next week, and so it may be a while before your comments get posted -- please do comment anyway!

Evan said...

I hope David Abram makes your list of writers who are on the cutting edge of "ecosophy." His book, The Spell of the Sensous, is the most compelling book on ecology and perception I have ever read. It has inspired me to pursue the path I walk.

Lance Michael Foster said...

hi JMG :-)

Toward Ecosophy...the first three books have some good historical context to consider for your upcoming posts on the development of ecosophy, the next two are on Bioregionalism (my own current focus), and the last is my one-stop-shopping classic that most reasonable non-ideologue people, from conservative to liberal, can agree on as a starting point for discussion:

1. Nature's Web: Rethinking Our Place on Earth - Peter H. Marshall

2. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau (Library of America) - Al Gore

3. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics - Roderick Frazier Nash

4. LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice - Robert L. Thayer Jr.

5. Bioregionalism - M. Mcginnis

6. A Sand County Almanac, with the essay "The Land Ethic" - Aldo Leopold

Lance Foster
The Once and Future Druid

SellCivilizationShort said...

"Every culture draws on the techniques it finds most useful to provide it with its worldview."

That's a good insight.

Frank Gifford said...

JMG, brilliant synthesis! Thanks for this blog. Frank from EntropyPawsed

marielar said...

I tend to believe the first step toward ecosophy is a personal encounter with nature while assimilating current knowledge about ecology. People need a dialectic between direct experience and current scientific knowledge to make sense of the more esoteric writings and sort the relevant from the purely ideological.

to follow up on the last week post, Tamara wrote:
"Marielar's comment about soil fertility and nutrients, I've read suggestions that the limiting factor in almost every soil is not the absence of nutrients but a lack of availability. In other words, there is some phosphorus -- probably enough -- in most soils, but it's not in a form accessible to plants. The solution to this isn't adding more nutrients, organic, mineral, or synthetic, but increasing the availability of existing nutrients by improving the soil biology, especially the health of mycorrhizal fungae. Phosphorus and sulfur in particular don't remain dissolved in water, so the primary way plants absorb them is through the action of mycorrhizal associates. According to what I've read (I'm going to try it myself this year!), adding the right kind of fungal spores and effective microorganisms can do a lot to repair soil health, and won't need to be done many times once a balanced soil ecology is established. Hope it works!"

Nutrient availability is function of a bunch of factors, microbial activity, pH, mycorhizea etc...
But also what level is in the soil.
It is very hard to make general recommendations which apply to all situations. Its certainly true that good practices will promote greater availability. But some soils are truly poor to start with or have been depleted severely.
If the topic interest you, I will refer you to the work of one of the great soil scientist, Hans Jenny, on the Mandocino Pygmy
Forest. Here a link to get you started.

in_the_light said...

Wow!!! Fantastic, John.

Scientism explains a lot when applied to many different facets of modern life. A lot of modern "hot topic" debates stem less from the facts surrounding the debates and more from fundamental differences in worldviews. Scientism is a wonderful insight into one of those word views that powerfully shapes one's thoughts and beliefs.

I wanted to comment breifly on the line regarding human limits, not human power, being what define our situation through the deindustrialization process. This is so key to understanding who we are and thus where we are going.

Capitalism has reached its limits in today's world. I believe what we are seeing is a total unraveling of centuries worth of movement in, essentially, one direction. In the 1600's it was feudalism that kept it going. In pre-1900 America, it was the enslavement of the African race that kept it growing. After emancipation, it became oil. Since time immemorial, the negative impact of human power struggles with one another were seen almost exclusively within the human population. With the coming of the industrial age, we did something that has never been done before. We put that toll of burden on something outside the human; our mother Earth began carrying that load.

Now, as we are seeing, the limits of what the Earth can handle and produce is approaching. And fast. As the system breaks down, who will be the ones to bear the burden of this war that rages on within the human race for power?

I theorize that no one will. And no thing. If there is one thing that the industrial age did for America and the world, it was allow the North to become more prosperous and have a stronger economy than the south without the use of slavery. Once emancipation happened, which by the way only happened so that Lincoln could get the help of enslaved blacks in the south to fight for the North, going back to some sort of slave labor would be very difficult if at all possible.

Ecosophy is a wonderful idea.

I wish I could expound for ever on this idea and topic.

Thanks for the great post.


Fed up completely said...

What I have become attuned to is the way virtually everything on the TV or radio is framed in relation to scientism. If someone posits an opinion that stands outside the scientistic viewpoint, it is often done with an apologetic tone of voice.

It is like appeasing the gorilla. Cause if'n you rile the gorilla you gonna get stomped on big time.

Sure, we'll let you talk, just don't get too uppity.

E-Advocate said...

Wow. This post stopped me dead in my happy go lucky social change tracks. Because this reflects ALL aspects of our change culture, not just environmentalism, I had to look at where the "tip of the iceburg" is happening around the NPO sector.

Your views regarding historical worldviews reach all levels of culture. I spent many semesters in art history study to know how worldviews dig deep. Stunning writing!

Garden Manager said...

As in many of your posts, I am encouraged by your emphasis on pointing out the connection between conceptual systems and the way we actually behave in society. "Knowledge" is never neutral. I have believed for some time that the impact of science on our world view, which results in what you call "scientism" (to me, our de facto contemporary religion), is part of the problem we face.

For what it's worth, I make a humble reference to an attempt I made a few years back to describe this phenomenon and discuss my own thoughts on alternative thinking patterns. My approach was very different from yours. (Admittedly less clear and accessible!) But you might find it of some interest anyway.

You can find it here.

Jacques de Beaufort said...

Your planned essays sound great.
I'm wondering of you are still going to write about culture and the arts in a post-industrial age?

The artworld has recently realized that the game is up and people are scrambling to figure out how to react to the new set of conditions.

I feel that this is a transitional period, and it's difficult to reflect through the plastic arts on something that hasn't completely made itself visible.

spottedwolf said...

I will make a few comments after reading this post and the other comments.

1.Ecosophy is an old practice cross-cultural and worldwide in aboriginal just cannot coexist with industrialism's practice of seeking total event control..
2.All current forms of industrialism were born from ancient ecosophilogical societies or their derivatives...which in essence is the same thing..
3.Mankind needed a venue with which to see himself clearly in his yearning to understand existence ..that venue is industrialism for it brought all races to the table en masse..
4.Nothing in nature will always be perfect or imperfect as long as mankind seeks to define categorically...
5. In view of such as the "quark", "string theory", hologram study, plus recent admissions that science cannot prove the age of this earth or this universe it is wholly possible that mankind has evolved in classic linear fashion before current only to finally meet his reflection on an edge of self or natural destruction an unknown amount of times.
6. Until our personal backlogs of attitude have time to cleanse of preconcieved notions in personal loss/gain scenarios we will seek change generally in external ways...... which as has been pointed out again and again by John Michael.
7. All the well founded perspectives concieved since DNA became a human form pale in the face of survivalist attitudes.Mankind will continue "chasing his tail", pardon the pun, individually and collectively till we accept our own divinity...for lack of a better word.

Auer said...


are an amazing writer


have inspired me to live my life differently.

Thank you, John Michael Greer.

Eremon UiCobhthaigh said...

As always, an excellent post. I think that it is important for more people to be able to make the distinction between science and scientism, as you call it. I remember reading some article by Robert Anrton Wilson in which he described scientism as materialist fundamentalism.

sushil yadav said...

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Industrial Society is destroying necessary things [Animals, Trees, Air, Water and Land] for making unnecessary things [consumer goods].

"Growth Rate" - "Economy Rate" - "GDP"

These are figures of "Ecocide".
These are figures of "crimes against Nature".
These are figures of "destruction of Ecosystems".
These are figures of "Insanity, Abnormality and Criminality".

The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature [Animals, Trees, Air, Water and Land].

Destroy the system that has killed all ecosystems.

Destroy the society that plunders, exploits and kills earth 365 days of the year and then celebrates Earth Day.

Chief Seattle of the Indian Tribe had warned the destroyers of ecosystems way back in 1854 :

Only after the last tree has been cut down,
Only after the last river has been poisoned,
Only after the last fish has been caught,
Only then will you realize that you cannot eat money.

To read the complete article please follow any of these links.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

Delhi, India