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.