The Way

An Ecological World-ViewAllan Hunt Badiner

THE WAY: An Ecological World-View
Edward Goldsmith
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1993.
442 pp., $20.00 (paperback).

LIKE THE FROG that unwittingly dwells in water about to boil, human beings are poised on the brink of ecological catastrophe. And instead of helping us find our way, science, state, and church—claims British veteran Green writer and campaigner Edward Goldsmith—are only hastening our demise.

Founder and co-editor of the respected magazine The Ecologist  and author of several books, including The Imperiled Planet, Goldsmith has labored for almost twenty years to bring us The Way. He has codified basic ecological principles into sixty-six short—if somewhat complex—chapters designed to spell out the building blocks of ecological truth: namely, that the biosphere is the source of all benefits and wealth, and that the basic goal of society is to preserve the order of the natural world.

What Goldsmith offers here is not a New-Age eco-bible or a blueprint for a new world order, but a harsh critique of the thinking behind modernism and an impassioned call to return to the ethics that preceded it. Goldsmith argues that it is modernism—with its belief that economic development is our highest priority—that is slowly, but surely, turning up the heat.

What seems to anger the author most is the shocking indifference displayed by the academic world to our impending doom. He notes that even the science of ecology has conformed to the paradigm of reductionist science—one designed to suit a mechanistic world, structured to satisfy short-term economic and political interests. The ecology we need, says Goldsmith, is:

not ecology that involves viewing the biosphere on which we depend for our survival at a distance and with scientific detachment. We will not save our planet through a conscious, rational, and unemotional decision, signifying a contract with it on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. A moral and emotional commitment is required. Indeed, one of the key tasks of ecology must be to redirect our emotions into the role they were designed to play in helping us to preserve the critical order of the biosphere.

Much of the criticism of reductionist and mechanistic thinking will be familiar to the reader, however, Goldsmith takes it further by launching an attack against the priesthood of science, and some scientists in particular, with almost vitriolic zeal and by introducing some new terms to help dt;fine the battle: "The more the environment of living things differs from that in which they evolved, the more their behavior is likely to be maladjusted, unadaptive, or heterotelic." ("Homeotelic" behavior is that which seeks to maintain the critical order of the whole.)

The course of evolution, the author insists, follows opportunity and a plan. Excellent and convincing is the critique of randomness, augmented with the often-quoted words of the great French naturalist J. P. Lamarck, who said, "The word randomness only expresses our ignorance of causes." Underscored here is the awareness that living beings are not random machines—that they arise and conduct their lives with purpose. The mission of all living things, Goldsmith says, is to contribute something to the maintenance of the earth's stability.

The author seems repulsed by the misguided scientific search for "objective" knowledge. Perception itself is, of course, a subjective process. Never do we detect actual objects around us, but rather, by sensing patterns of light and shade, we construct an internal model upon which we act accordingly. Unable to notice all the data in a given moment, we select only what is within the limits of our genetic range and what is considered culturally relevant. But what Goldsmith only hints at, but never explores fully, is the deeper crisis of perception itself that afflicts not only scientists, but all of us. While he suggests that our vision is obscured by the self-serving paradigms of market-oriented science, he is less vocal about the obfuscation of reality that is effected by human greed, hatred, and delusion.

The author challenges the assumptions of our blind acquiescence to the demands of the emerging technosphere. He calls it the "Great Misinterpretation"—the ultimate manifestation of modern man's cognitive maladjustment to the industrial world he has created. Readers will question whether modern science with its mechanistic paradigm has had any positive effect on life at all, for the common assumptions that modern people eat better, are in better health, or are happier are skillfully refuted here. (Unmentioned, though, is the incontestable fact that those who do survive live much longer.)

Also not mentioned here is that the emerging eco-crisis is fueling a strong desire felt by many for a positive vision of the future. Nowhere does Goldsmith suggest the slightest sense of confidence that we will find the Way in the nick of time, that we will learn from our mistakes so as to usher into being a new ecological era. If his study were not so rich with the history of our erroneous thinking, so detailed in its justifiable indictment of modernism, it might be dangerously close to being just another book that tells us how wrong and hopeless things are, devoid of any inspiration for the future.

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