Ecologism : Core Themes

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  • Ecologism : Core Themes
    • From Having to Being
      • Human beings are blessed with massive know-how and material wealth, but possess precious little know-why. Humans have acquired the ability to fulfill its material ambitions, but not the wisdom to question whether these ambitions are sensible.
      • Schumacher ‘Man is now too clever to survive without wisdom’.
      • Provides the cultural basis for environmental degradation. ‘Consumer Society’ encourages people to place short term economic considerations ahead of longer term ecological concerns, in which nature is nothing more than a commodity or resource.
      • Critiqued materialism and consumerism, as it creates a culture of happiness being equated to consumption of material possessions. Erich Fromm called this a ‘having’ attitude of mind.
      • Undermines psychological and emotional well being. Ever greater material desires leave consumers in a constant state of dissatisfaction, works through keeping people in a generation of new desires, keeping people in an unending state of neediness.
      • Seeks to reshape our understanding of happiness and human well being.
      • Deep ecologists believe we need a ‘paradigm shift’ otherwise we will not move past old politics and its concepts and assumptions.
      • Emphasise ‘being’ and satisfaction that is derived from experience and sharing leading to personal growth and spiritual awareness.
      • Warwick Fox claimed to go beyond deep ecology in embracing transpersonal ecology the essence of which is the realisation that ‘things are’ that humans beings and all other entities are part of a single unfolding reality.
      • Alternative models have emphasised the importance of quality of life issues thereby divorcing happiness from the simple link of materialism.
      • Shallow ecologists have serious misgivings with this seeing it as religious mysticism or new age ideas.
      • For Naess, self realisation is attained through a broader and deeper ‘identification’ with others’ such ideas have often been shaped by Eastern religions, most profoundly Buddhism which believes in no self, and the delusion of individual ego, enlightenment involves transcending the self and recognising the oneness of life
    • Ecology
      • The central principle of all forms of green thought is ecology. Ecology means the study of organisms ‘at home’ or ‘in their habitats’, and developed as a distinct branch of biology out of a growing recognition that plants and animals are sustained by self-regulating natural systems – ecosystems – composed of both living and non-living elements.
      • Such ecosystems are not ‘closed’ or entirely self-sustaining; each interacts with other ecosystems. The natural world is therefore made up of a complex web of ecosystems
      • The development of scientific ecology radically altered our understanding of the natural world and the place of human beings within it. Ecology conflicts quite dramatically with the notion of humankind as ‘the master’ of nature, and instead suggests that a delicate network of interrelationships
      • Ecologists argue that humankind currently faces the prospect of environmental disaster precisely because, in its passionate and blinkered pursuit of material wealth, it has, quite simply, upset the ‘balance of nature’
      • Ecologism provides a radically different vision of nature and the place of human beings within it, one that is ‘ecocentric’ or nature-centred rather than anthropocentric.
      • The ‘shallow’ perspective accepts the lessons of ecology but harnesses them to human needs and ends. In other words, it preaches that if we conserve and cherish the natural world, it will continue to sustain human life. This view is reflected in a particular concern with issues such as controlling population growth, cutting back on the use of finite, non-renewable resources and reducing pollution.
      • The ‘deep’ perspective completely rejects any lingering belief that the human species is in some way superior to, or more important than, any other species, or indeed nature itself. It advances the more challenging idea that the purpose of human life is to help sustain nature, not the other way around.
    • Sustainability
      • Ecologists argue that the ingrained assumption of conventional political creeds, articulated by virtually all mainstream political parties (‘grey parties’), is that human life has unlimited possibilities for material growth and prosperity.
      • From an ecocentric perspective, the promise of unlimited prosperity and material affluence, ‘growth mania’ as Herman Daly (1974) called it, is not only misguided but also a fundamental cause of environmental disaster.
      • Indeed green thinkers commonly lump capitalism and communism together and portray them both as examples of ‘industrialism’.
      • The term industrialism, as used by environmental theorists, relates to a ‘super-ideology’ that encompasses capitalism and socialism, left-wing and right-wing thought. As an economic system, industrialism is characterized by large-scale production, the accumulation of capital and relentless growth.
      • As a philosophy, it is dedicated to materialism, utilitarian values, absolute faith in science and a worship of technology. Many ecologists thus see industrialism as ‘the problem’
      • A particularly influential metaphor for the environmental movement has been the idea of ‘spaceship Earth’, because this emphasizes the notion of limited and exhaustible wealth.
      • The concept of spaceship Earth does serve to redress the conventional belief in unlimited resources and unbounded possibilities.
      • Living in a spaceship requires an understanding of the ecological processes that sustain life. Most importantly, human beings must recognize that spaceship Earth is a closed system.
      • Open systems receive energy or inputs from outside, for example all ecosystems on Earth – ponds, forests, lakes and seas – are sustained by the sun.
      • All closed systems tend to decay or disintegrate because they are not sustained by external inputs.
      • Ecologists argue that the human species will only survive and prosper if it recognizes that it is only one element of a complex biosphere, and that only a healthy, balanced biosphere will sustain human life.
      • Policies and actions must therefore be judged by the principle of ‘sustainability’, the capacity of a system, in this case the biosphere itself, to maintain its health and continue in existence.
      • Sustainability sets clear limits upon human ambitions and material dreams because it requires that production does as little damage as possible to the fragile global ecosystem.
      • ‘It is not wealth that stands in the way of liberation’, Schumacher (1973, p. 47) pointed out, ‘but the attachment to wealth; not the enjoyment of pleasurable things but the craving for them’. The environmental movement therefore hopes that in future economics can be used to serve humanity, rather than enslave it.
      • Some approve of the idea of ‘sustainable growth’: in effect, getting richer but at a slower pace. This holds that the desire for material prosperity can be balanced against its environmental costs. One way in which this could be achieved would be through changes to the tax system
      • If, as the dark greens insist, the origin of the ecological crisis lies in materialism, consumerism and a fixation with economic growth, the solution lies in ‘zero growth’ and the construction of a ‘post-industrial age’ in which people live in small rural communities and rely upon craft skills. This means a fundamental and comprehensive rejection of industry and modern technology, literally a ‘return to nature’.
    • Environmental Ethics
      • Ecological politics, in all its forms, is concerned with extending moral thinking in a number of novel directions. This is because conventional ethical systems are clearly anthropocentric.
      • One ethical issue that even humanist or shallow ecologists extensively grapple with is the question of our moral obligations towards future generations.
      • Ecologists are therefore forced to extend the notion of human interests to encompass the human species as a whole, making no distinction between the present generation and future generations, the living and the still to be born.
      • An alternative approach to environmental ethics involves applying moral standards and values developed in relation to human beings to other species and organisms.
      • Peter Singer's (1976) case for animal welfare had considerable impact of the growing animal liberation movement. Singer argued that an altruistic concern for the well-being of other species derives from the fact that as sentient beings they are capable of suffering.
      • As a utilitarian, he pointed out that animals, like humans, have an interest in avoiding physical pain, and he therefore condemned any attempt to place the interests of humans above those of animals as ‘speciesism’, an arbitrary and irrational prejudice not unlike sexism or racism.
      • However, altruistic concern for other species does not imply equal treatment, and Singer's argument does not apply to non-sentient life forms such as trees, rocks and rivers, which do not possess value
      • Goodin (1992), for instance, attempted to develop a ‘green theory of value’, which holds that resources should be valued precisely because they result from natural processes rather than from human activities.
      • Critics of deep ecology nevertheless argue either that this position is based on an unrealistic, indeed Arcadian view of nature
    • Holism
      • Traditional political ideologies have never looked seriously at the relationship between humankind and nature. They have typically assumed that human beings are the masters of the natural world, and have therefore regarded nature as little more than an economic resource. In that sense, they have been part of the problem and not part of the solution.
      • The world had previously been seen as organic; however, these seventeenth-century philosophers portrayed it as a machine, whose parts could be analysed and understood through the newly discovered scientific method
      • ‘Cartesian–Newtonian paradigm’, amounts to the philosophical basis of the contemporary environmental crisis. Science treats nature as a machine, implying that, like any other machine, it can be tinkered with, repaired, improved upon or even replaced.
      • In searching for this new paradigm, ecological thinkers have been attracted to a variety of ideas and theories, drawn from both modern science and ancient myths and religions.
      • Smuts believed that science commits the sin of reductionism: it reduces everything it studies to separate parts and tries to understand each part in itself. In contrast, holism is based upon the belief that ‘the whole’ is more important than its individual ‘parts’;
      • During the twentieth century, with the development of ‘new physics’, physics moved a long way beyond the mechanistic and reductionist ideas of Newton.
      • In short new physics could provide a paradigm capable of replacing the now redundant mechanistic and reductionist world-view.
      • The idea of Gaia has developed into an ‘ecological ideology’ that conveys the powerful message that human beings must respect the health of the planet and act to conserve its beauty and resources.
      • Gaia, on the other hand, is non-human, and the Gaia theory suggests that the health of the planet matters more than that of any individual species presently living upon it.
      • Lovelock has suggested that those species that have prospered have been ones that have helped Gaia to regulate its own existence, while any species that poses a threat to the delicate balance of Gaia, as humans currently do, is likely to be extinguished.


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