Ecorealism Part III: Concluding Thoughts

From the front page of the Washington Post, on the question of whether global warming will cause nature to pass beyond a tipping point. Unfortunately now the PR campaign has picked up on the pop-culture notion of the Tipping Point.

Note the rampant conditionality and hyping of these two paragraphs (in bold)

“This “tipping point” scenario has begun to consume many prominent researchers in the
United States and abroad, because the answer could determine how drastically countries need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years. While scientists remain uncertain when such a point might occur, many say it is urgent that policymakers cut global carbon dioxide emissions in half over the next 50 years or risk the triggering of changes that would be irreversible.

There are three specific events that these scientists describe as especially worrisome and potentially imminent, although the time frames are a matter of dispute: widespread coral bleaching that could damage the world’s fisheries within three decades; dramatic sea level rise by the end of the century that would take tens of thousands of years to reverse; and, within 200 years, a shutdown of the ocean current that moderates temperatures in northern Europe.”

Now its true that I’ve own selected two pagraphs and this is American newspaper and not a peer-reviewed scientific magazine (like Nature or National Geographic). Still it is instructive I think on the framing of the issue for public consumption and outlook. No evidence cited to support the claims.

Other potential problems: the melting of the Greeland and/or West Antartic ice sheets. Scroll down further in the paragraph and quote: “While both the Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets as a whole are gaining some mass in their cold interiors because of increasing snowfall, they are losing ice along their peripheries. That indicates that scientists may have underestimated the rate of disintegration they face in the future, Oppenheimer said. Greenland’s current net ice loss is equivalent to an annual 0.008 inch sea level rise.
The effects of the collapse of either ice sheet would be “huge,” Oppenheimer said. “Once you lost one of these ice sheets, there’s really no putting it back for thousands of years, if ever

So the ice sheets are in fact gaining ice in some parts and losing it in others. And again, note the very non-conextualized reference to “putting them back” (that is if they collapse, IF) for “a thousand years, if ever.”

And that leads to the topic I want to discuss and conclude my series of posts on this subject: complexity, biocentrism, and the modernist assumptions (and metaphysics) of the environmental movement.

In short I’ll be articulating due to the analysis of Alston Chase from In A Dark Wood (sobering read) on the development of environmental thought, legislation, and policy recommendations. His analysis shows that environmentalism that continues to this day to be stuck in patterns of thinking (a worldview) predicated on science of the 1950s and 1960s. As the majority of the scientists and environmental thinkers today are products of that time period and were awakened by seminal works such as Silent Spirng by Rachel Carson (Al Gore officially credits her as opening his mind to the issue), it is not surprising that this is the case.

First, a bit of techincal background. In integral thought, it is said, that an injunction (a practice, experiment, procedure) undertaken highlights a worldspace (an occassion arising with at least the 4 dimensions-perspectives known as the quadrants). Out of the continued undertaking of injunctions, a worldview arises. Certain facts arise only in certain worldspaces.

What are normally refered to in common parlanace as “paradigm shifts” are in fact to due to with worldviews. Very few of us undrertake the paradigms (that is the injunctions) of say quantum physics, ecosystems science, or “open” nonequilibrium complexity studies. But some or all of those become “pop” culture references, invoked to justify a certain worldview, usually political and involving policy recommendations. So for example quantum theory is often invoked to support the notion that the world is inherently unpredictable bc for example quantum theory states that no one can predict both the position and momentum of an electron simultaneously (the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle). That is in fact what the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states, but expanding from the realm of electons movement and speed to human culture, political establishments, etc, is wildly out of place and unhelpful in the extreme.

Just so, mainstream environmentalism, as I will show, took notions from the emerging fields of cybernetics, ecosystems, and physical mathematics, forging a worldview out of those injunctions-experiential worldspaces.

In Marxian terms, the base (the injunction) brings for the superstructure (the worldview). The superstructure congels onto the base after a period of time. Eventually the base (new injunction) has shifted but for a time the old superstructure (worldview, LL) remains. There is then a break between base and superstructure, the superstructure-worldview being outpaced by the new injunctive paradigms.

This disjunction is important because it is the worldview (the superstructure) that in large measure sets the agenda of policy, public opinion, and the media, as shown by the article just cited.

Though it will sesem at first paradoxical, given that most of us think of environmentalism as a more postmodern (or anti-modern) leftist political movement, the fact is that environmental management and public relations side is stilled mired in a modernist worldview with a postmodernist scientific base.

For environmentalism to develop it will always require of course greater and greater precision in injunctions, greater creativity, and better evidence. But also, and less noted, is that right now the injunction (the base) of ecological science is way out ahead of the worldview-politics-PR of the environmental movement.

Without exposing the unconscious patterns (philosophical, historical, social, and political) of the superstructure (worldview) prominent in Env. Thinking, what occurs is that the movement ends up promoting policy based on old, outdated scientific knowledge. The superstructure-policy outlook of the Enviro movement now is based on the science and math of the 50-60s. Not to mention, as I will also show, that the math and science of the 50s-60s had its own philosophical underpinnings, unconscious to itself, which have also been picked up by the Enviro movement.

Here begins the story.

The word ecology was coined by the German biologist and thinker Ernst Haeckel in 1866. The word comes from the Greek words: oikos (living relations) and logos (study of). Oikos can mean “house”. As in economics, the study of one’s own “house.” So ecology came to be an interdisciplinary movement, studying the inter-relation of our house (Planet Earth).

Now, behind the notion of inter-relation stands some ancient philosophical pedigree. Haeckel was deeply influenced by German philosopher Georg Hegel. Hegel’s philosophy–way too complex to give even a brief overview–was a meta-systematic work. More important for these purposes was Hegel’s view of the State. Hegel promoted the Organic View of the State. The State, in his case the Prussian State, was the primary unit of political reality. The individual was only truly free to the degree that one united to and obeyed the State.

The State was the Whole, of which its subjects were inter-related parts. This view of Politics, stands in stark constrast to the Anglo-American tradition of liberalism, which emphasized the science of atomism. Each individual is separate, in competition, and the “whole” or “communal” is simply a by-product of the primacy of the individual. That view emphasizes democratic procedure, civil rights, constiuttional limits on government, all of which were abhorrent to Hegel.

Now, the view that all of Nature is one Whole, of which everything individual is a part is the “organic” view of nature.

Hegel’s view of course sets the stage for both Soviet and Nazi fascism, particularly the latter. I have remarked repetatedly that of the original Far-Right Totalitarian connections to Ecology and Environmental Movements.

Haeckel, the father of ecology, was also a promoter of eugencis and the Volk movemeent in Germany which, Romantically sought a Return to the Native German soil and pre-JudeoChristian Germanic traditions. This was well before Hitler.

The idea that there is one whole of which everything is a part is of coures the marriage of monism and holism philosophically. Haeckel himself believed in one substance (monism) that was the substrate of both physical and spiritual reality. This view of course is derived straight from Hegel and Schelling and the German Idealist Tradition.

In Nonduality, we say that neither the One nor the Many, but rather the One as the Many. Or the One (Monism) and the Many (Atomism) are both dualities/polarities of the Nondual. Both Monism (with Holism) and Atomism are dualistic notions. Sidenote: That is why Eastern Nondual Traditions have wrongly been used to link up with ecological science/primitive wisdom in the Western world. Whoops.

We know they are dualistic because they sccumb to the Dialectic. If everything is one “Whole” (Monistic Holism), then in reality everything turns out to be “Parts.” If everyone is just parts (Atomism), then in reality everything is an isolated wholes (Monads as Leibniz called us, like Monism).

The atomistic scientific-political nexus can still be seen in Anglo-American scientists like Daniel Dennet as his notion of the “selfish gene” or even in Darwin, promoting natural selection principally through the mechanism of survival of the fittest (which he got from English economist Malthus).

Another important theme we will see was that ecology went under the then common assumption (early classical modernist worldview) that nature tended towards stability and a perfect balance. This stability and balance was the outcome of preceived uniform patterns of nature the same throughout history—early scientific consciousness was seeped in the notion of the natural law and a teleology of homeostasis and stability. Again, those are not scientific but rather philosophical notions. These notions are the common worldview of the early modernist (orange wave) principally riding formal operational cognition and relativistic (not pluralistic) values structures. More on that in a sec.

So originally ecology laid in the dustbin because of the more metaphysico-spiritualist tendencies of Haeckel. It was not until 1935 that Oxford botanist A.G. Tansley coined the term ecosystem, therby retaining Haeckel’s biological organicism without the spiritualist-metaphysical backdrop of Hegel.

The ecosystem was the primary unit of nature. Now notice, the ecosystem is already an abstraction. Even the very notion–an ecosystem privileges a 3rd person (observer) plural perspective. Every moment is an occasion, which has four dimensions (subjective, intersubjective, objective, and interobjective). So ecology is right to point out that individuals can never be understood except in relation to their environment–every individual only arises in inter-individual modes of discourse, politics, economics, and geography.

But to go from saying that individuals can not be understood without context, to saying that the context (environmental, ecosystem) is primary or the real reality is a blunder of the first degree.

Ecosystems are not “discovered” in nature. They only “exist” in the mind of human scientistis. You can not “see” an ecosystem. What can see a forest, a landscape, a desert region, but an ecosystem is the sum of the inter-related activities/connections of all individual members. How does one “see” this with physicla eyes, taste an ecosystem, or smell it?

It is impossible. And this mistake is going to lead environmentalism down the deadend path it still has yet to turn back from today.

During the Second World War, Norbert Wiener, the briliant but erratic MIT mathematician, practiced a new paradigm (injunction). He was specifically interested in the notion of closed feedback loops. He was studying originally anti-anticraft ballistics, machines which would regulate themselves depending on the movement of enemy squadrons. Or think of a thermometer. The thermometer is a closed system and regulates itself up/down depending on the temperature.

The mathematics and science of cybernetics cross-fertilized with ecosystem science. So the ecosystem came to been viewed as a closed-feed back loop that would self-regulate.

So already we have all of the following notions in ecosystems science, philosophical in nature (which would become the pop scientific backdrop for environmentalism):

–Stability of Nature
–Uniformitarianism and Gradualism (The Regularity and Constancy of Laws of Nature over long periods of Time)
–The Whole is the Primary, of which the Parts are Secondary

Environmentalism picked up on the notion of closed-feedback loops and self-regulation of nature to promote the idea of preservationism and wilderness.

This idea, as I noted earlier, has its American roots in Puritan-influenced Pantheism, particulary the kind espoused by John Muir.

Return to Haeckel’s monism (via Hegel). Pantheism is a type of monism. The monism of Haeckel and the Idealists was a monism that included both physical and spiritual (transcendent) elements. Pantheism does not–pantheism reduces transcedence (Spirit) to the Immanent (Nature).

Nature in other words is Spirit. So Nature, as Spirit is the Whole, of which we are all the parts. And there you have the strange merger of American religious pantheism with German ecological science. The One Whole in this Case being the Pantheistic God of Nature.

Now, add the closed feedback loops of cybernetics, and wallah–Modern Enviro as Religion, psuedo-science. Nature, as the Primary Unit (the True One) is a closed system (cybernetics) that works through common patterns over long periods of time (gradual uniforimitarianism) bringing about balance.

So, the policy recommendation of course is to leave nature alone and she will bring about stability. The Endangered Species Act, The Northwest Logging-Spotted Owl Controversy, Yellowstone, all of these are the legislative result of this strange merger of European science and homegrown American politic and religion.

Biocentrism, advocated by Arne Naess and his Deep Ecology movement, takes the Ecosystem model a step further–The Primary Unit is the Ecosystem, and therefore given that all individuals are subordinate to the whole, all parts are equal.

This principle is known as biospherical egalitarianism. Biocentrism has actually been deconstructed as excessively “biocentric.” The new cutting edge is ecocentrism which believes that not only are ants and huamns equal (biocentrism) but that rocks, minerals and air have the same value as say a child. A rock is as equally valuable as a dolphin. Wow.

In their essence, in a Nondual moment yes, but not relatively no they are not equal and do not therefore share in equal rights. Because they do not have equal responsibilty and equal capacities: rocks don’t create ideas and form groups to save humans and dogs.

All these movements came together in a strange way in the US, which as Chase notes, has a poor historical, philosophical, political, historical consciousness. Americans spout out that the whole is greater than the parts, never knowing that such a slogan was used to promote the Third Reich. Recall that Hitler was a Vegetarian and the SS were trained in animal-friendly modes of relation. It is said that the Nazis treaated the Jews like animals. Hardly, for the Nazis to have treated the Jews like animals, it seems, would have been a good thing.

If you want to see the end result of this wilderness, preservation model, based on the faulty notions of Nature as a closed feedback loop see Crichton (Fear, Complexity…)top article. It concerns the destruction of Yellowstone (chronciled in Chase’s first masterpeice, Playing God in Yellowstone).

Also common in ecosystem thought is the fuzzy notion of biodiversity. The notion being that communities of many diverse populations helps bring about the mythic stability of nature more than non-diversified ones.

The elk in Yellowstone were becoming extinct, so the park rangers tried to protect them (good start), then their population overshot the mark and Teddy Roosevelt called for their populations to be managed. But given the romantic-pantheistic wilderness backdrop to American environmentalism, this was not pursued. Nature was to be left alone and would regulate herself. Unfortunately what happened (bc the rangers shot all the wolves, how’s that for stability?) is the elk exploded, eating all the grass and themselves becoming sickly and diseased, like deer in Michigan.

Nature does not self-regulate. Human and animal activity influences the natural world and vice versa. There is no such thing as a “state of nature.” Humans are going to either be involved in helping nature or will be hurting her. There is no neutral position.

And this leads us to the concept of complexity and nonthermodynamics.

With increased technological capacity and scientific innovation, during the 70s,80s,90s, a new science and mathematics emerged: complexity and chaos theories. Names like Prigigone, Bertanalaffy, etc. The injunctions of these sciences-mathematics brings about a higher worldspace than the cybernetics. Complexity injunctions reveal a turquoise worldspace. Cybernetics a (mostly) orange one.

As Clare Graves called orange relativistic because it was the first stage that could envision multiple perspectives simultaneously. As opposed to the prior value system blue (what he called absolutistic) because it had one point of view and one point of view alone–like a dogmatic religious fundamentalist.

Relativistic however, while it could seee other possibilities, typically chooses one and only one and promotes that value universally. Uniformiatarianism, gradualism, stability of nature, preservation, these are all the negative downsides of the orange worldspace. They are the aspects of the relativistic picture that promote a simplified mono-perspective. And this thinking pervades environmentalism.

Too much carbon make the world warmer, the sea levels will rise, etc. Its all too modernist in thought.

Complexity science shows that gradualism is superseded and certain points by massive upheveal known quaintly as “punctuated equilibria.” Mass extinctions are common in natural history, nature does not necessarily like biodiversity, and when forests in the NorthWest are not scientifically cultivated (through controlled fires and cutting), they led to more damaging infernos because the old-growth beloved of the romantics typically fall prey to more disease and are less fire resistant (plus leave more dead old wood on the forest floor for tinder).

Complexity theory shows that systems are in fact open as opposed to close in cybernetics. Cybernetic closed systems tend to entropy (The Second Law of Thermodynamics). Non-equilibrium, open structures show a tendency towards greater complexity. There is a teleology to nature (contra Chase, who is a believer in objectivism, my only disagreement with his work): it is towards complexity—again but this truth is only revealed in the higher worldspace.

The partial truths of the orange world remain: we still believe in Natural Laws and the common tendencies of Nature (elliptical orbits for example). It is just that there are also chaotic patterns as well (chaos and stability being mutually dependent concepts of the Relative World).

It is the absolutization of the stability side of the equation that haunts enivronmentalism.

As Crichton notes, we can never predict chaotic change. These tipping points may in fact occur. But we can’t predic them—that is why I disagree with the science in the Washington Post Article. Not that there can’t be tipping points, there can be, just that we can’t predict what is on the other side. Tipping points by the way are based in complexity, chaos, and nonthermodynamic thought.

Because environmentalism is locked into the modernist myth of the Given (that everyone can see ecosystems, but everyone can’t. Plants, rocks, and all non-human animals can’t. And only humans at formal operational cognition or higher can who take up 3rd person perspectives).

Again following Crichton: complexity science is the base. The superstructure (worldview) ecologically appropriate to the advanced science is not preservationism, wilderness thought, stable ecosystems, biodiversity, but managed chaos.

We are learning how to adapt and channel chaos even though the effects can not be predicted in advance. There is novelty inherent in nature. Biological life, even an ants DNA is more complex than the entire astrophysical universe. Much less the biosphere.

For chaos theory and complexity science properly applied to the biological realm see: Manfred Eigen and Stuart Kauffman.

The choice to leave nature alone and expect stability is a human choice. It is not predicated by nature. The choice to manage chaos is a choice by humans. It is a better choice, though not without flaws. Either way it is a human choice.

What complexity and the study of earth’s history tell us is that there is no objective (contra modernist environmentalism) healthy state of nature per se. Nature is not healthy or unhealthy per se, but rather healthy or unhealthy relative (thank you postmodernism) to a speices.

When the meteor crashed that caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, it was an unhealthy environment relative to them, but very healthy relative to mammalian life which flourished under the same conditions.

Nature will be fine. We will not destroy her. We could cross a tipping point and a new chaotic complexity would emerge that would not support human life (like the meteors killing the dinosaurs). Nature will still flourish, just without humans.

It is human arrogance to assume we can destroy Nature. It is our arrogance to assume we can control Nature, understand her enough to “leave her alone”. It is more humbling to say we can only adapt and manage chaos at thsi point. It is the arrogance of humanism and modernism supposedly jettisoned by enviro, once again proving that by completing denying something in the manifest world (instead of accepting the partial truth and excising the mistakeness), that which had been “shielded” frontally so to speak, ends up creeping in the back door of one’s psyche, coloring everything one does.

That is why environmentalism, sadly, being so officially anti-modern is in fact thoroughly modernist. In all the bad ways (Mean Orange Meme).

[Until, possibly the 3rd tier arises on a deep deep scale and some future human worldspace, technology, e.g. biotech and nanotech, could harness and comprehend the deeper underlying forces of chaos-complexity. That is coming anytime soon, at least on the consciousness side of the equation].

The Noosphere transcends and includes the biosphere. Ecosystems theory is, as Wilber says, part of flatland, the denunciation of the graded hierarchy of nature. It is of course its own hierarchy (the whole is greater than the parts), just a mistaken one parading around as a non-hierarchy.

A new enviornmentalism, a new discoursse, a new ecological worldview based not in fear, not in repeating litany of sins (without acknowledging successes), recognition of the number enviro negative indicator (poverty), increased humility, jettisoning of mania surrounding future catastrophes (e.g. The Coming Global Ice Age of the 70s, The Population Bomb, Nuclear Winter, etc.).

That is a future worth striving for, limited though it certainly is. But good nonetheless, really good. Better than everything out there now (on either side of this non-debate).

Published in: on January 29, 2006 at 9:03 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. John from Melbourne Oz.

    Please check out Fear No More Zoo for a unique understanding of the non-human inhabitants of this mostly non-human world.


    The “philosopher” who is the inspiration of this site states quite categorically that we humans (particularly us westerners)in our profound ignorance/misunderstanding
    have brought the entire world to the brink of both cultural & ecological meltdown. And there is a distinct possibility that if the currents patterns continue we WILL render this planet to be unihabitable.
    And yes “nature” always in one way or another and sooner or later does implement a harmonising/”cleansing” process. Our current civilisation is profoundly out of balance!!

  2. It should real be understood that promoting anthropocentrism should be discouraged. man should understand that is part of a system that is made of independent entities that pursue their own good and should respect each other for mutual interaction.

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