Ecology and Human Freedom

Monthly Review, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Ecology and Human Freedom


We live at a time when it is reasonable to speak of the possibility of complete ecological destruction, in virtually the same sense that critics of nuclear armaments have often referred to the possibility of complete nuclear destruction. Both human society and the survival of the planet as we know it are now at risk.

Social action to combat this peril, however, has been agonizingly slow. The task of saving the earth is viewed, more often than not, as a costly burden, one which society is willing to support only in very limited ways at present, despite growing evidence of global ecological decline.

To understand why this is so it is necessary, I think, to turn to the dominant conception of human freedom. For centuries our society has seen freedom as a mechanical outgrowth of the technological domination of nature, and of a social arrangement in which each individual is encouraged to pursue his or her own self-interest with no consideration of the larger natural or social repercussions. Environmental protection, it is feared, would set limits both on the freedom of human beings to exploit the earth's resources, and on the freedom of individuals to pursue their own immediate material gain. It raises issues of the quality of life that transcend the quantitative ways in which we have come to judge human progress and freedom. It therefore threatens the very fabric of the possessive-individualist society in which we live.

Our present social order is entrapped in a mechanistic view of human freedom, and of the human relation to nature, that is directly at odds with ecological imperatives. This mechanistic emphasis in our culture dates back to the emergence of the modern scientific world-view, which arose along with the capitalist world economy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. "The modern view," the great physicist David Bohm has argued,

has been that of mechanism. The universe was compared to a gigantic machine, like a clockwork, and later to a structure of atoms. This outlook has gone on to regard the human being as a machine and is linked to the development of artificial intelligence. Thus, Descartes said that everything was a machine--all animals, the body, etc.

Although highly productive in terms of technological advance, this way of seeing the world has had fateful consequences. Values," Bohm observes,

have significance behind them.... If the universe signifies mechanism and the values implicit therein, the individuals must fend for themselves. With mechanism, individuals are separate and have to take care of themselves first. We are all pushing against each other and everyone is trying to win. The significance of wholeness is that everything is related internally to everything else, and therefore, in the long run, it has no meaning for people to ignore the needs of others. Similarly, if we regard the world as made up of a lot of little bits, we will try to exploit each bit and we will end up by destroying the planet. At present, we do not adequately realize that we are one whole with the planet and that our whole being and substance comes out of it.(1)

Today there is a growing awareness of the ecological threat posed by the prevailing mechanistic world-view and by the idea of the domination of nature that is part of it. Discoveries in such sciences as physics and ecology have undermined Newtonian mechanics, which has not yet however been replaced by any other equivalent world-view. From this has arisen the hope among many that a less mechanistic scientific outlook (some would say an antiscientific outlook) will eventually provide the answers to the environmental problem.

Yet I think it is essential to recognize that it is not science (that is, the physical and natural sciences) but economics that is the mainspring of the mechanistic outlook that still characterizes our culture. An unwillingness to understand that it is irrational "for individuals to ignore the needs of others" and that the world is not "made up of a lot of little bits" is central to the ruling concept of freedom as free-market individualism.

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