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THE THREE ENVIRONMENTS OF MAN

 

Alexander King

 

 

Abstract: The thesis of this paper is that each individual lives simultaneously in three separate but interacting environments. The external environment is that of physical Nature and it is argued that a number of macropollution phenomena threaten human life on earth and hence the necessity to replace our present exploitation of Nature by an approach of symbiosis. Until now, science and technology have contributed to the creation of a dominantly materialistic society suggesting the need for compensatory research to develop the spiritual and emotional elements of existence. The innermost environment is that of the secret and only partially conscious life of the individual. The qualities of nations and societies arc seen as projections of the egoistic properties of the individual and it is suggested that the future of humanity can only be assured by the cultivation of a total human solidarity as a matter of enlightenment common to self interest.

(A. King, TJUS, p. 59, 1991)

 

The word ecology was originally coined to describe that branch of biological science which investigates organisms relationships with one another and with their surroundings. Today the term is used in common parlance and by the media with a variety of meanings, often vague and nearly always value-loaded. In this brief paper we start from the original definition and, as a consequence of anthropocentric arrogance, essentially in terms of human ecologythe interaction of people with their environment; the value judgments cannot, of course, he far behind.

Following the publication of The Limits of Growth in 1972, a series of discussions took place on what was termed, the outer limits, namely the extent to which the ecosphere was capable of supporting the growing demands of world population and economic growth. Subsequently, the concept of inner limits was evoked, the capacity of our social and political organization and inventiveness to master the evolving situation of growing complexity and rapid change with the uncertainties it engenders. In these two zones to be explored, I would plead for priority attention to be focused on investigation of the innermost limits within each human individual, which are finally determinative of collective human performance and of the future of society and the planet.

It seems to me, then, that each one of us humans exists simultaneously in three different but linked environments and that a projection of this concept describes the workings of society. There is the external environment of the planet, the earth, the waters and the atmosphere, the internal and secret world of each individual, isolated and hidden, while somewhere between and linked to both there is the social arena where the individual units react, from a vast spectrum of alliances ranging from marriage and the family right through to the United Nations, evolving common action for security prosperity, and satisfaction.

1. The External Environment

This is the most visible of the three environments, the realm of Nature. Until recently it has been taken for granted, a constant in the dynamics of evolution: air and water have been regarded as free goods, externalities for the economists. Our approach to nature is exploitative as indeed has been that of men against men and men against women. Science has been pursued in order to wrest Natures secrets. The bounty of Nature had been assumed to be infinite. In the wishful thinking of nearly all governments, indefinite continuation of economic growth is a major objective with ever increasing demands for raw materials and energy. It is appropriate to mention here how quickly these demands would increase with the long term continuation of exponential growth. If, for example, an economy would grow at an annual rate of five percent it would, by the end of the century reach a level of about 500 times greater than the current level. Even if the use of materials were to decline sharply in relation to the rise in economic output, the problem of acquiring, processing and disposing of the materials would be staggering, to say nothing of the difficulty of dealing in a nonviolent way, with the psychological, social, cultural, and political problems resulting from continuous, rapid, and undifferentiated economic growth. As with all other systems of exponential growth, including that of our bodies, the curve must eventually flatten out, either by radical changes of policy and lifestyle or by catastrophe.

These problems may not as yet have reached crisis level but the warning signals are already clear and particularly in relation to the impact of human activity and behavior on the first environment. For the first time since humans spread over the surface of the planet and began to exploit its resources their activity appears to have a major and possibly irreversible impact on the natural equilibria. Certainly at earlier times practices of slash and burn, of overcultivation and over-grazing were disturbing, but done in ignorance. Today we have a much greater understanding of the natural laws and of the vulnerability of our habitat, but our former acceptance of ourselves as being an integral part of the natural system has changed to that of its exploiter. Furthermore, our species, despite its capacity to envisage the future, is so obsessed by the desire for immediate gain and the satisfaction of transient desires, that we pay too little attention to the problems of sustainability and ignore the rights of future generations.

Concern by the general public about the deterioration of environment is relatively new. The early fathers of the industrial revolution had a vision of the abolition of poverty and of universal social justice, but in the event the exploiters took over with little regard to the environment and social welfare, with the result of the arising of the dark, satanic mills of Victorian England and the pea-soup fogs of London. These were relatively local phenomena and over the next century medical evidence and public outrage led to considerable improvements, but it was not until the 1960s that pollution phenomena were generally seen as global in significance and menacing for the future. Publications such as Rachel Carsons Silent Spring and Schumachers Small is Beautiful attracted popular attention and helped to widen the realization that new approaches to technology and nature were necessary.

Many improvements have, of course, resulted from the arising of the environmental and conservation movements. In the industrialized countries, environmental policies and environmental ministers have arisen: legislation has helped to remove the grosser manifestations of pollution, principles such as the polluter pays have alerted industry to the need to accept a new social responsibility rivers have been cleaned up, while everywhere local groups are vigilant with regard to developments which might threaten the environment, sometimes with great common sense and at other times with fanaticism.

A new and more difficult situation has arisen with the appearance of macropollution, phenomena which are of global significance and beyond the capacity of individual nations to eliminate. The first of these was the world wide diffusion of chemicals such as DDT, which are virtually non-biogradable, are detectable at great distances from their place of origin and can enter into the food chain. In such cases elimination can, in principle, be secured by multiple legislation, but this is a slow and complicated process. At present the three most pressing instances of macropollution are acid rain, destruction of the ozone layer and the so-called greenhouse effect. Here we shall restrict ourselves to discussion of the greenhouse effect as illustrating the difficulties of the nation in preventing its development to world crisis level.

It has been noticed that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been increasing since the beginning of the century. This is due partly to the burning of the fossil fuels, coal, petroleum, etc, arid partly to a reduction of Natures absorption of CO2 through the green leaf as a result of the extensive cutting down of the tropical forests, itself an environmental degradation with possible climatic consequences. Carbon dioxide inhibits the reflection (If solar radiation into outer space and this influences the temperature of the earths surface. It is considered that further accumulation of this gas will lead to a significant warming up of the earth. Great uncertainties exist with regard to this phenomenon, especially as to the extent to which the oceans are capable of absorbing the excess carbon dioxide and at what rate, but after a period of controversy the atmospheric scientists seem to have reached a consensus that the effect is real. A number of different and sophisticated models indicate that a doubling of the existing carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere would result in an average increase in the global temperature of between 1.5 percent C and 4.5 percent C and that the doubling is expected to be reached before the middle of the next century Furthermore, it has been realized recently that other greenhouse gases such as methane and oxides of nitrogen are also showing increased concentrations in the atmosphere which would bring the effect much closer in time. The warming up effect would be much greater at high latitudes than at the equator and this would greatly alter the thermal gradients of the planet, causing considerable modifications of wind and precipitation patterns, and consequent profound, but at present quite unpredictable changes in the agricultural capacities of the different regions of the earths surface. In addition we should have to expect a rise in sea level resulting from both thermal expansion and the melting of land-supported ice. This might be on the order of half a meter and would threaten low lying costal areas everywhere. A country such a Bangladesh could hardly exist in such conditions.

This scenario, which is probable but not certain, has enormous implications for the planethuman, economic, and political. If allowed to develop to crisis dimensions, it would be irreversible in practice, it being estimated that if all burning of fossil fuels were to cease at the point of the doubling of carbon dioxide concentration, it would take nature some 900 years to reestablish the present equilibrium. All this illustrates the difficulty of planning in uncertainty which we are likely to encounter increasingly. We know too much, yet not enough. Although the greenhouse effect and its threats have been described recently and quite extensively in the media, governments are apparently quietly ignoring its eventuality It is, of course, quite realistic in the light of present evidence to expect them to abandon the burning of oil and coal in the absence of the early possibility of alternative energy policies, yet when it becomes impossible in political terms to ignore the phenomenon it may be too late to find the remedies. Nevertheless, many delaying, buffering and insurance measures could be initiated; for example, considerable increases in fuel efficiency are attainable to reduce consumption and hence carbon dioxide emission; stress might lead to diversion to the use of natural gas which consists mainly of methane, producing less carbon dioxide than the long chain hydrocarbon molecules of coal and petroleum, per calorie of energy generated; retention of nuclear fission might have to be contemplated as one of the options in the long transition to a new energy system, seen as less dangerous than the burning of coal. There is great need to intensify research into the economic development of soft energy systems; the speeding up of research in plant breeding will be called for, making use of the new biology towards the availability of a wide and diverse range of resistant strains to increase the flexibility of agriculture during climatic change.

There would appear to be an imperative need to start consideration of such measures now: the lead time of research, through technological development to production on a significant scale is very long, longer indeed than the time when the crisis level of change may be reached.

The threats to the environment result directly from the enormous increase in the totality of human activity as compared with the past when its waste products could be absorbed easily by the soil, the atmosphere, the rivers, and the oceans. They are greatly influenced, too, by the nature of our activity.

The most obvious component in the growth of human activity is, of course, the increase in our numbers. At the beginning of this century there were some 1.8 billion people on the earth; before its end this will have exploded to more than six billion, while the demographers estimate that the world population can he expected to level off around 10-12 billion by the middle of the next century, thus putting still greater pressure on the air, the earth, and the water. But there is a still greater component in the growth of human activity namely the increased consumption per capita which economic growth has made possible, as well as the cheapness and proliferation of mass produced goods spawned by the industrial revolution. In Europe, before the industrial revolution per capita consumption was probably not much different from that in many Third World countries today while, according to Patsy Hallen, one Australian now uses fifty times the resources of one Kenyan. At the extreme the disparity may be as great as 1: 1 00 or even more. This is not only an illustration of social injustice, but an indication of our upscaling of the exploitation of nature. Compounding population and per capita consumption, I suggest that the total of human activity has increased something between twenty and fortyfold in my lifetime; it is patently obvious that the environment is beginning to resist.

In this picture we must also include the criminally wasteful use of resourcesmaterials, energy and humanfor military purposes. It is difficult to understand how the world can tolerate this waste in face of extensive hunger, poverty, disease, and under-development which themselves generate war and violence. It is difficult to be precise on the magnitude of the resource consumption. National financial expenditure on defense gives some indication. The present world total appears to be about $650 billion, a fourfold increase since the end of World War II and a twentyfivefold escalation since the beginning of the century Figures of this magnitude are not easy to appreciate in perspective, so some comparisons may be useful. It has been pointed out, for instance, that for many years, annual military expenditure of the world has been comparable to the combined GNP of all the countries of Latin America and Africa together; the annual budget of UNICEF is equivalent to about four hours of world military expenditure; the elimination of smallpox under WHO guidance took ten years to achieve, but cost less than $100 millionless than the cost of developing a small air-to-air missile.

2. Man, Technology, and the Materialist Society

We come now to the question of the nature of society as it has evolved during the last two centuries and how this has determined the quality of the enhanced activity of its individuals and collectives. This is the second, the inner environment which feeds on the first and begins to imperil its sustained existence as a resource base. Denis Gabor, the Nobel laureate inventor of holography and one of the early members of the Club of Rome stated: Our present society is based materially on an enormously successful technology and spiritually on practically nothing.

With the development of an ever more sophisticated technology, our lifestyles and goals have been gradually adapted to permit the enjoyment of what has been perceived as material progress, a process which has, of course, greatly increased the prosperity of a wide range of the citizens in the industrialized countries, reducing many of the grosser forms of poverty improving health conditions, extending life expectancy general if not always appropriate education and providing many social amenities. Recognition of the fact that technology has a determinative role in world development is quite recent and even the economic system which relies so heavily on technological solutions to problems has yet not fully come to terms with it. It is still implicit in the thinking of many economists that new technology arises in response to the interaction of economic forces and is, as it were, one of the muscles in the arm of Adam Smiths invisible hand. There is, of course, some truth in this; however, an increasing number of technological developments arise from discoveries in the research laboratories which could not have been foreseen and do not relate to formulated consumer demand. From the beginning of human history, with the shaping of the first flint implements, technology has been the main agent in the struggle upwards from subsistence and, even more obviously, in attaining superiority in war and conquest. We must regard technology, then, as an instrument of man and not as an autonomous force. It serves, and we must also associate science with this, the Faustian attributes of humankind, the destructive as well as the creative. Many philosophers as well as poets from William Blake onward have warned against its negative aspects, but the material bounty of its offerings has always persuaded entrepreneurs and the public to exploit it.

The societal dominance of technology arose from the industrial revolution which, through the steam engine and later electrical, oil, and nuclear power, vastly augmented the puny muscular power of men and animals without increasing the knowledge and wisdom to master them. Today we are witnessing, in the microelectronics revolution, mind and memory being embodied in the machine, with great potential for liberation from work or else a further step in dehumanization, depending again on our wisdom ill their use. The success of science in World War II, which produced both penicillin and DDT, the computer and the nuclear bomb, persuaded governments that scientific research followed by technological development could. contribute decisively in creating wealth and well-being. Hence, the enormous increase in the resources made available for such activities. Parallel with this and related to it, the 1950s and 1960s witnessed in the industrialized countries a period of exceptionally high economic growth. By 1968, the unwanted byproducts of these movements became generally visible; growth had certainly produced affluence and had aroused expectations of endless continuation which would be impossible to sustain, yet much poverty and inequality remained; environmental deterioration became visible to all; the nuclear bomb hung as a Damoclean sword; the young could see no future and the general affluence permitted them to demonstrate their frustrations; million of line workers suffered boring, repetitive work, and all in all there was the sentiment that quality was leaking away from life. Nevertheless, the generalized pressure of demand for more money and more and more material goods persists within an economic system based on the stimulation of consumer spending. The luxuries of yesterday become the necessities of today; planned obsolescence speeds up the turnover of goods; the wastes of society accumulate and become increasingly toxic and difficult to dispose of as scientific sophistication diffuses into the everyday products of the material bonanza.

There is, of course, another side of the coin. Some of the wealth from economic growth has been diverted to the creation of social goods, unemployment benefits, national health services, welfare and training schemes, and the like with, in industrialized countries, alleviation of poverty and the provision of health care. In a number of countries this development has been so strong as to create the so called welfare state with all its costs as well as benefits. In some of the affluent countries of the North with aging populations the ever rising costs of health and welfare have reached levels difficult to maintain. It is felt also that the welfare state approach encourages an over-reliance of individuals on the state, with an unhealthy lowering of individual responsibility and initiative. The paternalism of enterprises and employers of the past, so much resented by the trade unions has been replaced by state paternalism, whose huge bureaucracies arc also resented as distant, faceless, and impersonal.

The materialist, technology-based approach to development has penetrated into societies and cultures of all kinds and even the most fundamentalist societies find it difficult to resist the promise of power and affluence which it appears to offer. For millions of the poor and underprivileged of the Third World, improvement of the physical basis of life is the primary necessity and policies of both the donors and receivers of development aid aim understandably at targets of economic growth for the poor countries. There is little evidence so far to indicate that the products of such growth as is achieved trickle down to the masses of the poor. Despite the malaise of the industrialized societies of the North, the fact of their overall prosperity unique in history and achieved through the pursuit of a technology-based economic growth, is taken to indicate that this is the single and inevitable path to be followed by all countries and all cultures.

The tragedy is that it has done so little to enrich aspects of human existence other than the material. The imperative needed now is to attempt to master technology in such a way as to contribute to the general and sustainable well-being of all people in this and succeeding generations within a global, holistic and even cosmic framework and to balance the material advances by cultivating social, moral, and spiritual attributes. We are in a world of transition towards an entirely new type of post-industrial or information society which presents new problems and new possibilities. To take a single example of the trends of this transition, the new technologies, through automation and the like will erode the work ethic and should greatly increase the lifetime quota of leisure for everyone. But will this merely generate a vacuum which will be filled with mechanical entertainment and all sorts of trivia, or can it be used constructively to provide fulfillment and individual development?

3. The Innermost Limits: The Environment of the Self

Throughout the ages, the triumphs of technology have enhanced the power of the human body; the automobile gives speed to our feet, the airplane gives us wings, our arms perform prodigious and marvelously diversified tasks through the machine, television and radio lend distance to our eyes and cars while, in confronting enemies, instead of bare fists or sticks we have intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads. Yet we see few signs of strengthening the other parts of our being. There is little evidence of any increase in human wisdom over the last 4,000 years, while the magnitude arid complexity of contemporary society demands new insights and incisive judgment in steering the destiny of humanity. Information we have in overabundance and also knowledge, but we must ask, with TS. Eliot, Where is the knowledge that is lost in information and where is the wisdom that is lost in knowledge?

It seems then that the corpus of society is out of balance, emotional, spiritual and even intellectual elements being overwhelmed by the weight of physical success and that establishment of a sane equilibrium can only come from a deeper understanding of the nature of the individual human being, full awareness of our motivations, honest acceptance of their negative and positive ingredients and cultivation of a basis for the growth of wisdom and creativity. It would seem that the fundamental problems, both of the individual and of its collectivity which is society lie deeper within human nature and that without a fuller knowledge of our inner limitations and potentialities, our approach to problem solving remains at the level of attempting to remove symptoms in the absence of a clear diagnosis of the disease. Attempts at disarmament, for instance, urgently necessary as they are, can never finally eradicate war, until we understand its origins within each one of us.

Egoism or the life force, as the Victorians used to call it, is a property of all living species in providing the primeval urge to survive, to reproduce, to prosper, and to excel; it is the driving force of innovation and progress. But its also manifests itself constantly in selfish and anti-social behavior, brutality lust for power, exploitation and domination over others. The struggle between the positive and negative aspects of egoism is the eternal Faustian drama and the achievement of a dynamic equilibrium between the two sides is the central objective of social policytoo much latitude given to the exercise of egoistic forces may produce a dynamic society, but can lead to corruption, lack of social justice and oppression.

We are haunted by our biological origins. The negative aspects of our nature, which we find difficult to admit to ourselves, including greed, vanity, anger, fear, and hatred, as well as, through the long process of organic evolution in achieving dominance over all the other species of creation and over weaker races of Homo sapiens. Now, having reached our present level of consciousness, aware of our own mortality and able to look into the future as the generational continuum of life, the negative features are no longer of use to US in the struggle upward, but they persist and have to be taken into account in personal and collective behavior. For centuries individuals held to some extent in check, by the hope of Paradise and the fear of Hell, but with the widespread loss of faith in religion and, indeed, in political ideologies and institutions, restraints have evaporated, minorities refuse to accept the decision of the majority, there is loss of respect for the law with mounting terrorism and crime.

These features, projected from the individual to the collective level, operate equally in the social environment. National egoism is equally ambivalent; it can express itself as a natural and desirable love of country or can be whipped up as chauvinism, xenophobia, hatred of other countries and styles of living and finally war; in international negotiations it often appears as advocacy of narrow self interest against the wider harmony and future well-being of a group of nations, including its own and often seems to sacrifice long-term self-interest to score an immediate tactical point.

Such matters are seldom admitted and when they are, they are shrouded in taboo. If this diagnosis is at all valid, there would seem to be a need for honest recognition of the existence and power if the negative aspects of individual and collective behavior, and to operate on enlightened self-interest within a framework, based on the understanding that it is overwhelmingly in the interest of every inhabitant of the planet to work to ensure that sustainable physical and social environments are achieved; it notle dluge.

Many social and political myths derive from ignoring the negative aspects of egoism. For example, the low efficiency of the Marxist economics can be seen as due in large part to a naive faith in human nature, a presumption that people give of their best in agriculture, industry, and elsewhere without personal incentive. This is quite unrealistic. Again, the private motives of politicians and other power possessing individuals, while the subject of plenty gossip, is seldom given sufficient weight in debate or at the polls.

If the above diagnosis is at all valid it would seem in the general interest necessary to modify many of the attitudes and practices of public life. Viewed against the threats and promises of the present situation, many of the antics of politics seem tragically absurd, such as the choice of leaders on the basis of their charisma in front of the television cameras or the cult of confrontation. Mutual slanging between members of different parties appears to take up much of the time of some parliaments, when striving towards consensus would seem to be called for in the national interest. The same is more dangerously obvious in many international negotiations. The time seems propitious, especially in East/West relations, but more generally, for a positive approach which would seek to explore and identify zones of common self-interest, and to cultivate and extend these.

Living as we do on the edge of the nuclear abyss in a world of exploding population and ecological threat and in the midst of a new technological revolution, it would seem vital to reassess the condition of all our three simultaneous environments.

Preservation of the external environment in which our biological existence is rooted demands that our own egoism be not limited to our own lifespan, but be extended to include at least our children and grandchildren with whom most people naturally identify, so that we shall strive, selfishly if you like, to secure conditions which will permit a dignified and truly human life for succeeding generations. Such an approach necessitates a long term perspective, not only in our own thinking and feeling, but in policies. The long term is the anathema of politics. Within the short electoral cycles of our countries, both administrations and opposition are chained to immediate issues which are of topical concern to the voter and the more fundamental problems which loom on the far horizon are ignored. Institutional arrangements which enable governments and the people to face the longer term needs are overdue, not only environmental concerns but many other elements of our quickly changing society.

It is frequently stated that the human individual is a microcosm of the totality of all things. The concept of the three environments is better served by inverting this statement and regarding society as the aggregation of all its constituent units, in a conviction that the reform of the life of societies and nations can only be derived from development, both moral and social, of the individual to make possible a constructive and balanced use of the egoistic force. Only through a deliberate cultivation within our separate, private microenvironments is a society o integrity harmony, and social justice likely to arise.

 

 

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