What is Eco-philosophy?
Some Founding Principles
A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
or what’s a heaven for?
is “ecological” in the broadest sense: it sees humanity as one with nature,
as an integral part of the process of evolution which carries the universe
onward from inanimate matter to life, to consciousness, and ultimately to
The central concept of
eco-philosophy is “The World as Sanctuary.” This is offered as an
alternative to the Newtonian vision of “World as a Machine.” This new
worldview emphasizes the unique, precious, and sacred nature of our planet. All
other principles of eco-philosophy follow from this one.
The five key
tenets of eco-philosophy are:
The world is a sanctuary.
Reverence for life is our guiding value.
Frugality is a precondition for inner happiness.
Spirituality and rationality do not exclude each other, but complement
In order to heal the planet, we must heal ourselves.
Eco-philosophy arose in
response to the failings of both the mechanistic worldview and the impotent
linguistic/analytic philosophy that came from it. These failings are evident in
our violent and selfish attitudes toward fellow humans, and in our widespread
abuse of the environment.
Oswald Spengler has written
that “Technics are the tactics for living.” This is a very useful phrase
indeed. I shall take advantage of it while stating our dilemma and while
searching for possible solutions.
Modern technology, or
better—western technology, has failed us not because it has become
economically counter productive in the long run; and not because it has become
ecologically devastating, but mainly because it has forgotten its basic
function, namely that all technics are, in the last resort, the tactics for
living. Because modern technology has failed us as a set of the tactics for
living, it has also proved in the process to be economically counter-productive
and ecologically ruinous.
indictment also affects Alternative Technology. Alternative Technology has
started rather vigorously, captured the imagination of many, and is now fizzling
out. Why? Because Alternative Technology has not taken itself seriously enough,
that is, as a new set of tactics for living.
When pushed to an extreme,
Alternative Technology has either become an idolatry of new kinds of gadgets, or
else a crass ideology of the New Left: a feverish process perpetuating itself,
though perhaps empty of content. Alternative Technology has been waning
because it did not go to its roots; it did not confront itself with the ultimate
task of all technics: to become a set of tactics for living.
The tactics for
living are not merely new uses of old instruments. Culture is a fundamental part
of the tactics for living. Thriving and healthy, culture provides a set of
dynamic structures for living. Within the western world, particularly during the
last 150 years, and especially during the last 50 years, culture (as well as
religion) has been systematically misunderstood, mystified, misread and
distorted, and taken either to be a sickly product of decadent minds or an
anachronism of the pre-technological era. In either case, culture was considered
more or less spurious. But culture and religion are an inherent part of the
human strategies for survival and well-being.
I have chosen to call this
new set of tactics for living, which encompasses New Technology, New Culture and
New Ideology, Ecological Humanism. Ecological Humanism is not a new label for
old things, nor simply pouring old wine into new bottles. I must point out, in
particular, that Ecological Humanism has little to do with traditional
humanisms; and it quite sharply separates itself from Marxist or Socialist
humanism, which calls (along with other humanisms) for the appropriation of
nature to man.
Traditional humanism has
emphasized the nobility of man, the independence of man, indeed the greatness of
man who is cut in the Protean mould. This conception of man went hand in hand
with the idea of appropriating nature to the ends and needs of man. Marx fully
accepted this conception of man and the idea of the appropriation of nature (or
simply using nature) to man’s advantage, or, indeed, to man’s content.
Ecological Humanism is based
on the reversed premise. It calls for the appropriation of man to nature. We
have to see man as a part of a larger scheme of things: of nature and cosmos. We
have to transcend and abolish the idea of the Protean (and Faustian) man. The
consequences of this reversal are quite far reaching, and I will just touch on
some of them. On a more practical level, Ecological Humanism signifies, among
other things, frugality, recycling, the reverence for nature, which are really
three different aspects of the same thing.
I must emphasize that
Ecological Humanism is not just another fancy name for saying that we should be
less wasteful, for it signifies a fundamental re-orientation of the multitude of
things. Not many people, Marxists in particular, are aware that traditional
humanism, as based on the ideal of the Protean man and the idea of the
appropriation of nature (with the tacit acceptance of both present science and
present technology), are simply incompatible with the ideal of harmony between
the human species and the rest of nature.
Now, let me spell out some
of the consequences of Ecological Humanism. On the practical level, as I have
already mentioned, Ecological Humanism spells out a new kind of technology based
on the idea of frugality, recycling, the reverence for nature, new economy; of
which the reverence for nature is not a spurious ornament, but an intrinsic part
of a new design.
On the level of the
individual, Ecological Humanism signifies (that is, after we cease to be
consumptive hogs) inner exuberance instead of the restless outward activity;
empathy and compassion rather than ruthless competition; understanding in depth
rather than merely handling of information.
On the level of the entire
culture, Ecological Humanism signifies a fundamental switch from the traditional
idiom, in which man asserts himself against things ‘out there’, tries to
impress himself on the world, to the idiom, in which man will mesh himself with
the things ‘out there’.
It is by now clear to you, I
hope, that no New Technology can provide a solution by itself, that no new
Culture can provide a solution by itself, that no New Ideology can provide an
answer by itself, but that each must become an aspect of a larger paradigm, an
aspect, in other words, of a new set of tactics for living.
In the realm of ideology,
Ecological Humanism points towards social relationships based on the idea of
sharing, and stewardship rather than owning things and fighting continuous
ruthless battles in open and camouflaged social wars. In short, Ecological
Humanism is based on a new articulation of the world at large:
it sees the world not as a place
for pillage and plunder, an arena for gladiators, but as a sanctuary in which we
temporarily dwell, and of which we must take the utmost care;
it sees man not as an acquisitor and conquistador, but as a guardian and
it sees knowledge not as an instrument for the domination of nature, but
ultimately as techniques for the refinement of the soul;
it sees values not in pecuniary equivalents, but in intrinsic terms as a
vehicle which contributes to a deeper understanding of people by people, and a
deeper cohesion between people and the rest of creation;
and it sees all these above mentioned elements as a part of the new
tactics for living.
The Cosmos is a benevolent
being that came into existence to generate life (Anthropic Principle); and then
to bring about human life. Human beings are not an accident in the Cosmos. But a
consequence of its nature. Creativity is an essential aspect of the nature of
the Cosmos. Why is the Cosmos creative? Because it is on the way to its
self-realization. We are a part of the self-realization of the Cosmos.
The Cosmos is physical and
trans-physical. It is governed by physical laws and trans-physical laws. Among
these trans-physical laws, the laws of creativity and of transcendence are most
important. Some have called them spiritual laws in contrast to the physical
Human beings emerged out of
the slimy soup of evolution. Then they developed amazing powers of imagination,
creativity, art. Through these powers they were able to remake the shapes of the
universe and of themselves. They have become co-creative partners of evolution.
We humans are cosmic beings.
For what else can we be? We are the rocks and the stars, the leaves and the
trees. We incorporate all stages of the evolution of Cosmos in our blood veins
and in our brains. Moreover, we are the antennae of the Cosmos. In order to
think the Cosmos had to create thinking beings. We are the eyes of the Cosmos,
the minds of the Cosmos, the loving arms of the Cosmos’ true participants of
the creative feast of the Cosmos.
We should feel
comfortable in this Cosmos for it is our home.
WORLD IS A SANCTUARY
The time has come to abandon
the metaphor which has for so long dominated our perception of the world and to
reject the damaging assumption that the world is a clock-like mechanism within
which we are little cogs and wheels. It has led us to reduce everything,
including human life, to the status of components of this great machine. The
consequences have been disastrous. Only when we find a new metaphor and invent a
new conception of the world shall we be able to stand up to the senseless,
destructive forces that have swept over our lives.
According to one
tenet of ecological thought the world is a sanctuary and we should treat it as
such. This assumption is the basis of a completely different outlook on the
universe and our place within it. If we live in a sanctuary, then we must treat
it with reverence and care. We must be the earth’s custodians and shepherds.
The idea of stewardship naturally follows from the assumption that the world is
These are the basic
components of what I call the ecological metanoia: simultaneously
changing our metaphor of the world, our attitude to it, and our thinking about
it. This can and is being done. Of course it is a large and difficult project,
and this is why it is progressing slowly, haltingly, some-times grudgingly. For
psychological and historical reasons, we are reluctant to change, but deep down,
we know that we must do so. This is not the end of the story, however. Other
important changes must occur before we arrive at a sane, sustainable and
One characteristic of our
times is the atrophy of meaning. Both religious people and secularists are aware
that there is a desperate search for meaning in modern society. We do not find a
meaning in consumption, entertainment and ordinary jobs. We look for a larger
purpose and we do not find it. For this larger purpose requires a transcendent
dimension to our life.
This is where eschatology
comes in. Eschatology is the sphere of human thinking which is concerned with
the ultimate ends of human life and thus with the meaning of human life, and
with the question of what gives meaning to meaning. Eschatology has
traditionally been the discipline which envisages transcendent goals as the
purpose of our life. These goals are often, but not always, religious.
Transcendent goals and purposes must not be mistaken for a religious agenda or
Why do we need a new
eschatology? Why do need a new transcendent purpose to give meaning to human
life? The answer is that secular eschatology, promising fulfillment here on
Earth, in materialist and secular terms alone, has failed dismally. Instead of
bringing happiness and fulfillment, it has robbed us of the deeper dimensions of
human life. Some secular humanists are aware of this and have attempted to
devise a new scheme, whereby a new transcendent purpose is grafted on to
secularism. They postulate a task of continual self-improvement in the pursuit
of perfectibility and freedom. But these are only words. If perfectibility and
self-improvement are to mean anything, they must be rooted in a deeper sense of
transcendence which goes beyond secularism.
Let us very briefly state
some of the main contentions of the new ecological world-view, which are also
components of the new eschatology. The universe is on a meaningful journey of
self-realization. We are a part of this journey. The universe is not a haphazard
heap of matter and we meaninglessly drifting particles in it. The new
Astrophysics, the New Physics and the Anthropic Principle all converge to inform
us that we live in an intelligent universe, self-actualizing itself. There is a
wonderful coherence in this process of continuous self-transcendence. Nowadays
this is well supported by science. I am not saying it is “proved” by
science, for science cannot prove such things. A leading contemporary physicist,
Freeman Dyson, has said: “Looking at all the ‘coincidences’ which have
occurred in the evolution of the cosmos, we cannot escape the conclusion that
the cosmos behaves as if it had known that we were coming.” A leading American
physicist, John Archibald Wheeler, maintains that when we look at the universe,
it is the universe itself which is looking at itself, through our eyes and
minds. For we live in a curiously participatory universe, and we are profoundly
woven in this stupendous participatory process.
We are the eyes through
which the universe looks at itself. We are the minds through which the universe
contemplates itself. We have an incurable urge to transcend because the will of
the universe to continually self-transcend itself is built into us. We are
cosmic beings. We share with the entire universe the dimension of transcendence
and the urge to self-realization. This has been the basis of all enduring forms
A wonderful journey lies
ahead of us as we seek to actualize the cosmic meaning which resides in us, to
help the universe and all its creatures in the journey of self-actualization and
in the process of healing the earth and making it blossom again.
*** *** ***
At a packed Forum at the Architectural Association (London) on Thursday June
20 (1974), four specialists put forward their views on the subject ‘Beyond
Alternative Technology’. Taking part were Edward Goldsmith, editor of The
Ecologist, Peter Harper, a frequent contributor to radical and
alternative publications, Gerry Foley of the AA Technical Services Unit and
Professor Skolimowski of the Humanities Dept, College of Engineering, Ann
Arbor, Michigan, whose contribution is reproduced here.
Though the Establishment has just discovered it: see the article in The
Observer, 26 May 1974.
This article first appeared in The UNESCO Courier, March 1997.