Thursday 19 July 2012

Dr Henryk Skolimowski: Eco-Philosophy in an Historical Perspective

Skolimowski - pic courtesy of Wikipedia
Eco-Philosophy in an Historical Perspective
Henryk Skolimowski, February 2008

My path to Eco-philosophy led through many indirect trails—via analytical philosophy, philosophy of science, philosophy of technology and philosophy of man. I came to the United States in 1964, still convinced that America was the harbinger of the future, and that technological progress was the key to all progress. My first months in Los Angeles were intoxicating if somewhat bewildering.

I was constantly told that there is no further west, and that Los Angeles is it. Somehow my life in Los Angeles did not quite feel the paradise I was told I was in. I also began to notice that this wonderful progress was not as wonderful from a close range as it appeared from a distance. The freeways were always crowded. If a new one was built, it was clogged in a few months. I was told by a knowledgeable civil engineer that freeways do not relieve traffic; rather, they attract traffic. This was quite a novel way of looking at things. It began to dawn on me that this may be the case with our wonderful technologies — they do not satisfy our needs but increase them.

Then came the Hippie Revolution while I was still living in Los Angeles. I actually lived off Sunset Boulevard where all manner of things were happening. Listening carefully to the voices of the young angry men at the time, I came to the conclusion that the problems of Western civilization were much deeper than we cared to acknowledge. The rebellious young souls were persistently asking me: "You are a philosopher. Tell us where we have gone wrong."

The question was not whether we had gone wrong but where and when. I was disturbed by these questions as I had assumed, along with others, that we were the most rational and therefore most perfect of civilizations.

While searching for the causes of Western civilization backfiring upon itself, I scrutinized the last four centuries of Western culture and especially Western philosophy. I came to the conclusion that the fault was in the very blueprint, right there, in the 17th-century mechanistic philosophies which laid the foundations for the whole civilization. It was then that we assumed that the universe is a machine, that knowledge is power, and that nature is ours for exploitation and plunder. We simply conceived of a wrong idiom for the interaction with nature.

I slowly came to the conclusion that progress is a loaded die and that technology which pushes progress per se is a malevolent entity; and that 'objective' science which allowed itself to be used for the purposes of exploitive technology is not neutral but an accomplice of the entire, dubious scheme. Thus I came to view the very underpinnings of Western civilization as unsound, and really dangerous.

I saw the beauty and the potency of technology. But I also saw that technology was condemning itself by the fruit it has been bearing: desolate environments, atomized society, and individual alienation — all being the consequences of a certain way of reading the world and interacting with it. These views on technology and progress, which were also extended to science and its underlying mechanistic cosmology, I formed in the late 1960's and early 1970's. They were all foreshadowed in my paper written and published in 1970, and entitled: "Technology—the Myth Behind the Reality"; and then continued in such papers as "The Scientific World View and the Illusions of Progress," "Science in Crisis," "Does Science Control People or Do People Control Science?"

While thinking about the vicissitudes of our mechanistic world view I was struck many a time how slow we are in learning. We consider ourselves to be a clever, quick and intelligent people. Yet we learn awfully slow from our past mistakes, and we are so reluctant to see and admit that the whole blueprint of our civilization is riddled with shortcomings, is in tatters, and has always been lamentably lacking in vision.

In the late 1970's the conservative backlash started to assert itself strongly. Many of my colleagues, who were once in the forefront of radical thinking, began to "adjust." It became "unpopular" to uphold radical, ecology-oriented views. I saw no reason to "adjust" my views as the whole matrix, which I recognized as defective and misfiring, was still intact. One "knowledgeable" person at the time, upon learning that I was working on a philosophy in the ecological key, said to me: "Why do you do that? Ecology is no longer in vogue." This struck me as funny. How can ecology not be in vogue (I thought) while we had not solved any major problem caused by polluting technologies?

So, I quietly went on developing my ideas. In 1981 I published the book Eco-philosophy, Designing New Tactics for Living. With the permission of the reader I will recall the circumstances leading to the publication of this book, which probably was the first systematic treatise on eco-philosophy.

The first outline of my Eco-Philosophy was sketched in the following circumstances. On 20 June 1974, I was invited by the Architectural Association, School of Architecture in London (one of the best schools of architecture in Europe) to participate in the symposium entitled, "Beyond Alternative Technology." We were convinced, already at this time, that the Ecology Movement had somehow burned itself out. Building windmills and insisting on soft technology was not enough. So four of us took the floor to ask ourselves, "Where do ! we go from here?"

Each of us had exactly ten minutes to deliver this message. What can one say in ten minutes? Not much. And yet one can say quite a lot. Instead of analyzing the shortcomings of the Ecology movement, I decided to make a leap forward and ask myself, "What is most troubling in the foundations of our knowledge, and what other foundation could we imagine as the basis for new thinking and a new harmony?" The sketch which I delivered was entitled Ecological Humanism. In it were formulated the major ideas that became the backbone of my Eco-Philosophy. It happens rarely that one is aware of the exact point of a new departure in thinking. It was perhaps a coincidence that the Architectural Association immediately published my text. And it was by a fluke of a chance that I kept one copy.

At the beginning of my address I said: Oswald Spengler has written that "Techniques 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 techniques are, in the last resort, the tactics for living. Because modern technology has failed us as a set of tactics for living, it has also proved in the process to be economically counter-productive and ecologically ruinous.

At the end of my 10 minutes, I affirmed: 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 conquistadore, but as a guardian and steward; 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.

These ideas turned out to be fruitful, and during the next 25 years I built a whole tree of new philosophy around them. The reception of my book on Eco-philosophy (of 1981) was at first lukewarm, as the climate, particularly in the USA, was frozen by Reagan's ideology. Remember Reagan's famous ecological pronouncements such as "Trees are polluting the air;" or, with regard to redwoods: "If you have seen one sequoia tree, you have seen them all." However, as time went by, the book came to be noticed, and was eventually translated into some ten languages.

Obviously the time was getting riper for some kind of a new philosophy which would give a new account of nature and of the universe. So in 1984 a new book on Eco-philosophy appeared entitled Deep Ecology, by Bill Devall and George Sessions.

Actually I saw Deep Ecology as a potential ally. However people from the Deep Ecology camp saw the situation somehow differently. I suppose they wanted to see Deep Ecology as the only solution. Session thus denounced my book as "virulently anthropocentric." At first I was amused by the charge because I thought he had not cared to read my book carefully. Then I realized that he did not want to read my book carefully. The Deep Ecology camp wanted a straw man whom they could attack. All these personal matters would not be worth recording if it were not for the fact that there is a deeper issue at stake. And this issue is: What is the most fruitful way of viewing the human person? What is the most illuminating way of looking at evolution?

I was a bit amused by being lectured by some young men of Deep Ecology on the nature of the human condition, and on the nature of life at large, as if they had a monopoly on those sublime truths. In their anti-anthropocentric fervor they simply forgot that whatever they said against anthropocentrism was inherently bound by their own anthropocentric condition (unless they consider themselves to be some kind of gods, beyond the human limitations). So it was one form of anthropocentrism against another. In the debate that ensued, I finally had to ask some questions and make some rebuttals. I pointed out that we simply cannot escape from our human consciousness.

All those claims which we make on behalf of others — the trees, the brooks, the mountains, the fields, the foxes, the whales, and the last, but not least, the dying cultures being decimated in the Amazonian forests — by whom are they made? With what kind of mandate, and from whom? If a mountain were to speak on behalf of all others, she might just as well shrug her shoulders and say: let it be as is; all things come and go; emerge and perish; all is natural; let natural forces prevail. It is also likely that the mountain would not want to talk on behalf of others. It is our peculiar propensity to do so. It is our peculiar moral burden to have to do so. We care for others because we feel that we must. This is our human predicament, part of the glory of our species. We do not know whether other species, with their consciousness and sensitivities developed as they are, would wish to take the responsibility for all others.

Let me state it very clearly: All claims made on behalf of the biotic community are made by human beings; they are filtered by human sensitivities and by human compassion; they are based on our human sense of justice, on our human recognition of how things are and how they ought to be; they are pervaded with human values — all these claims are therefore deeply and profoundly embedded in our anthropocentrism, whether we care to recognize this or not.

In the final analysis we might say that what justifies our action is the principle that "everything has a right to live." This is a noble Buddhist principle, which actually predates Deep Ecology by some twenty-five centuries. This Buddhist principle is a religious one. Like all religions, this principle has been formulated and articulated by the human mind. We do not have any other mind. Also, we posses the sensitivities that are peculiar to the human species. Thus, in one sense we are so deeply embedded in our anthropocentrism that we can never leave it behind. We can only try to be enlightened about its nature.

Taking responsibility for all is (paradoxically) an expression of our anthropocentrism. So far as we know it is confined to our species. Other species do not seem to be haunted by this particular moral compulsion. It is, therefore, clear that we must attempt to liberate ourselves from the vicious and lethal forms of anthropocentrism, but not from all forms of anthropocentrism, for this would be both impossible and undesirable. Above all, we need to approach the problem of anthropocentrism with due humility.

I am bound to repeat some of the sentiments I have already expressed. In spite of the frailty of our nature, and in spite of our imperfections,
• Thou shalt not deride the beauty of the human condition;
• Thou shalt not insult the glory of the evolutionary process;
• Thou shalt not spread the cancerous views that humans are a cancer among the species.

We are engaged in one of the crucial battles for the survival of the species. What we need are views that are empowering and affirming us, not the morbid ones that declare us a doomed species or, at any rate, the species that does not deserve to survive.

Because of its versatility, curiosity and irrepressible experimental drive, the human species, was bound to make mistakes — particularly when it became intoxicated with the power of new technologies and the power of reason itself. But we must not look at the human species from the perspective of its most destructive period. Moreover, during the last 150 years, when one segment of humanity was engaged in a systematic containment and destruction of nature, the rest of the human species coexisted with nature rather peacefully .

Let us take our clue from some of the most illustrious exemplars of the human kind-- the Buddhas, the Jesuses, the Gandhis, the Schweitzers, the Martin Luther Kings. And let us celebrates with those lights the glory of the human condition, while we are bringing about the dawn of the Ecological Epoch, which will be a spiritual one at the same time.

2. The Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Publication of ECO-PHILOSOPHY, DESIGNING NEW TACTICS FOR LIVING

In 1981, I published a small book on Eco-Philosophy, which turned out to be a classic, outlining a new field of philosophy, and which was translated into some twelve languages. At first the critics fussed that there was no such field of philosophy; (there wasn’t, for the field had just been created.) Other critics maintained that the harsh criticism of science and technology by Eco-Philosophy was unwarranted for science and technology would provide solutions.

This was an illusion. The book maintained (and was right in doing so) "that we have constructed a deficient code for reading nature. Hence our deficiency in interacting with nature." Other critics still, (especially Deep Ecologists) who were most unsympathetic to Eco-Philosophy, nowadays use its label to surreptitiously promote their own ideas — which is flattering to Eco-Philosophy, but not quite right and proper, morally. In short, Eco-Philosophy has survived well during the last twenty-five years.

One of its strengths has been from the beginning its quiet but firm insistence that spirituality and ecology must be seen as aspects of each other; and that traditional spirituality must be reformulated and resurrected — for the World is a Sanctuary and we are its shepherds.

During the last twenty-five years Eco-Philosophy has not been resting on its early laurels. I have relentlessly articulated its message in the following works:

• Eco-Theology, Toward a Religion for Our Times, (1985)
• Living Philosophy, Eco-Philosophy as a Tree of Life (1992)
• A Sacred Place to Dwell (1993)
• The Participatory Mind ab (1994)
• A Philosophy for a New Civilization (2005)

These volumes provide a blueprint and a philosophical and moral reconstruction of the whole civilization.

Since the publication of Eco-Philosophy (in 1981) the world has not become a better place to live — in spite of the fall of Communism. In actual fact, the world has become a worse place to live. The philosophical, moral and economic resources of Capitalism have turned out to be a poisoned chalice. They contribute to our plights and misery, instead of ameliorating our condition. Capitalism is bankrupt philosophically and morally. Hence all our other problems.

We need a clean and compassionate philosophy, which is reverential to human life and to all creation. Without a sound and sane philosophy we drift and whither. Philosophy is our compass.

I do not mean to claim that Eco-Philosophy is the only truth. But we have to have some visionary alternatives to the present philosophical barbarism.

Why is Eco-Philosophy important? Because it was able to offer a coherent, rational, and comprehensive world view — as an alternative to the mechanistic-scientific world-view. The mechanistic world-view dominated Western civilization for over two centuries. In the twentieth century, the climate of thought was created according to which materialist-mechanistic philosophy was invincible and that there was no other credible alternative to it. As science and technology were supposed to be the kernel of this dominant philosophy, we, human beings, were supposed to accept the consequences of science and technology — even if we found them humanly questionable. Since science and technology showed little respect for intrinsic values and spiritual aspects of human life, we were supposed to act likewise. In brief, within the mechanistic world-view we became stuck intellectually and morally. We felt like being in a harness, which did not feel right. But we were told that this is how things are and we must accept them.

Eco-Philosophy was a frontal challenge to this enormous mechanistic edifice, which no one dared to question. Clergymen and theologians were too intimidated by the authority of science. Philosophers had the necessary equipment to see through the frailties and inadequacies of mechanicism, but they have kept on napping, even after interesting alternatives began to appear. The entire academia proved to be visionless, petrified and driven by the interests of the status quo.

So it was left to a few brave individuals to cry out that the king is naked, that the universe is not a mechanism but a Sanctuary, that we are not robots within a machine but shepherds of being, that the spiritual nature of the human must be upheld; otherwise humankind will whither.

Eco-Philosophy (and the book of 1981) was in the forefront of these new voices. I hasten to add that it was not the only such voice. But it was one of the early swallows. It was, for thinking people, an enormous liberation to learn that we are not stuck in the mechanistic prison forever.

Well, the next question must be asked. Why have we not gone further along the alternative path? This is a painful one to try to answer. Part of the answer is that we (alternative voices and visions) have not been unified enough to make a bigger difference. But a more important reason has been is that we have been marginalized, belittled and often derided for not being "rational" enough, while the mechanistic monster has been blindly and irrationally destroying natural environments, cultures, and human beings.

Just at the time when my book was published, President Reagan in the USA started his counter-revolution, which could be called "unrestrained selfishness." This was a blow to all attempts to healing nature and bringing sanity to humans and societies. I couldn’t believe at first that the black knights of greed could reverse the evolutionary process of the last three centuries, whereby the wealth was progressively shared — with the poor benefiting more and more. I was even more flabbergasted several years later when another vicious form of selfishness emerged; and the black knights of globalize started to loot the whole world.

This process of naked greed and robbery cannot go forever. It is not natural. It is pathological. Sane and honest people will not allow it to continue.

In closing, let me say that although alternative visions of reality have had a rough passage to actualize themselves, they are gaining — all the time … if only because the present mechanistic world is visibly disintegrating. So mark my words, the New Renaissance is not far off.