How deep is ecology?

Steering Business Toward Sustainability - Environmental Economics - State of the World - Vital Signs 1995-1996 - Environmental Policy and Industrial Innovation - Green, Inc. - Re-Enchanting Humanity - Life on a Modern Planet
November 3, 1995

In his book The Ecology of Commerce (which I reviewed in The THES on March 10 1995), the green entrepreneur Paul Hawken writes that "our business practices are destroying life on earth". Hawken does not mess with words like growth, sustainability and development; he spells out the message with unambiguous clarity. "Given current corporate practices, not one wildlife reserve, wilderness or indigenous culture will survive the global market economyI There is no polite way to say that business is ravaging the world."

Fritjof Capra and Gunter Pauli repeat Hawken's devastating conclusion in their book of perspicacious essays by business executives, environmental activists and politicians, and a former World Bank economist, noting in their own essay that the challenge to human society is "a change of paradigms as radical as the Copernican Revolution".

Capra and Pauli declare that there has been a shift towards a new paradigm: the holistic world or ecological view in which we see the planet "as an integrated whole rather than a dissociated collection of parts". Where these enlightened authors err is in their belief that "this broader and deeper sense of 'ecological' is associated with a specific philosophical school and, moreover, with a global grassroots movement known as 'deep ecology', which is rapidly gaining prominence".

Although Capra and Pauli define "deep ecology" as recognising "the intrinsic values of all living beings, viewing humans as just one strand in the web of life", the deep ecology movement is a mass of contradictions, convolutions and misconceptions. "Deep ecology" may well provide an understanding of how the planet actually works but as a philosophical, social and ecological movement it is seriously flawed. It is important to recognise the associations between the old and the new paradigms, but only if the awareness is total and includes a social as well as an ecological perspective.

There are communities all over the world which have never heard of deep ecology but they do not need to, they can see with their own eyes what is happening; their problem is knowing what to do, how they can shed their prejudices, curb their dependence on materialism, control their consumption, somehow produce their own food and clothes without damaging or depleting the planet and learn to live in harmony with each other and other species.

As Murray Bookchin is at pains to point out, much of the deep ecology movement is characterised by its antihumanism. "The problem of how we deal with each other and with the powerful technological means that society has at its disposal for reshaping the planet is a matter of paramount importance. To slight these eminently social problems, to play down the importance of reason in resolving them, indeed, to ignore the need to achieve what socialism in all its forms called a rational society, is in my view suicidal. Owing to the immensity of our social and ecological problems, the turn to an irrational antihumanism serves to paralyse our capacity to act with purpose and sanity."

Several of the authors in Steering Business Toward Sustainability refer to deep ecology almost as if it is the new religion we have all been searching for, a kind of ecological holy grail. Thankfully Capra and Pauli appear to see deep ecology from several perspectives, not least from a scientific one, particularly the theory of living systems, developed during the first half of this century when scientists explored living systems as, in the authors' words, "integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts".

The first principle of ecology, they state, is interdependence. "The success of the whole system depends on the success of its individual members, while the success of each member depends upon the success of the system as a whole." Another principle is the cyclical nature of most ecological processes. "The present clash between business and nature, between economics and ecology, is mainly due to the fact that nature is cyclical, whereas our industrial systems are linear, taking up energy and resources from the earth, transforming them into products plus waste, discarding the waste, and finally throwing away the products also after they have been used."

Sustainable patterns of production and consumption need to be cyclical, they stress, imitating the processes in ecosystems.

The problem for our society, Capra and Pauli add, is the need to understand these principles and "learn valuable lessons from ecosystems, because ecosystems are sustainable communities of plants, animals and microorganisms". To do that, they argue, we need to learn nature's language and become "ecologically literate". It is their belief that the main reason "we are destroying our natural environment is our ecological illiteracy".

Jose A. Lutzenberger, Brazil's environment minister from 1990 to 1992, and Kris McDivitt, chief executive with Patagonia (the outdoor clothing manufacturer), emphasise this in their essays, restating that knowledge not just of ecology but also of social systems should be an integral part of the education of corporate executives. The time is past, Capra and Pauli stress, when "scholars, governments or environmental organisations could hand down a doctrine from some high pulpit of academic certainty or from emotional distress and fears. Cooperation among all those who have a stake in the future of society is critical."

Frances Cairncross and Richard D. North would do well to listen to this. Their arguments seem diffuse, their use of facts appears arbitrary and their dialectical understanding of life on this planet suggests an ivory-tower elitism. Intellectually they are both naive and ignorant; naive about the true nature of corporate capitalism and the role of nation states and their governments, ignorant of genuine scientific research, and the needs of disempowered communities in rich and poor countries. The reader should also conclude that they are messengers for those who do not have the wit or imagination to see, as Capra and his contributors point out, that industry has no choice: "doing business the same way as in the past is a guarantee of failure". Cairncross does a little better than North, with her recommendations to governments on green policy, but her preceding text devalues much of what she has to say.

To suggest, as Cairncross does, that "people in rich countries rarely die from environmental pollution" is a dreadful comment by a supposedly informed journalist. She is obviously not aware of the research work being done in the US by Joel Schwartz, Douglas Dockery and C. Arden Pope III and in Britain by Anthony Seaton and his colleagues. According to Pope and his colleagues at Harvard, air pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas) in cars, trucks and power plants is killing 60,000 Americans a year. Schwartz estimates the figure for Britain at 10,000 a year. The precise killer is fine particle pollution which Cairncross appears to believe is no longer a problem for rich countries, because Londoners no longer choke on the "pea-soup fogs" that killed 4,000 in one week in 1952. (How then does she explain the nine million Britons who suffered respiratory illness last year?) Back in 1979, the US National Academy of Sciences was convinced that fine particles retained in the deep lung cause long-term lung disease.

Cairncross is wrong to believe that when faced with the deaths of their own people western governments "find themselves under pressure to take action". Governments and their regulatory agencies do not take action because, argues US scientist Peter Montague, they are searching for the holy grail of scientific certainty. Her ignorance of these facts is perhaps forgiveable but her lack of understanding about why some countries are rich and others are poor is not.

A proper critique of her book would involve a line-by-line analysis but perhaps she could check some of her mistaken facts and assumptions herself by perusing the Worldwatch Institute's books Vital Signs and State of the World, particularly the sections which deal with land use, cash crops, grain and meat production, fast food consumption and third-world debt.

She might then ask herself a few questions, such as why so much grain is fed to livestock (665 million tonnes or 38 per cent of total grain use in 1994). She might even refer to J. Janick's 1969 book on plant science, in which the author noted that 50 per cent of total production of plant products was grown for animal feed and then ask McDonalds and all the other fast food merchants some economically orientated questions about land use, grain and cattle production.

Her recommendations to governments are laudable but any government wanting a check list would do better to consult David Wallace's appraisal of environmental policy and industrial innovation in Denmark, Holland, Germany, France, Japan and the US. This book highlights the simple fact that only a global strategy based on cooperation between nations rather than competition between their industries will begin to solve our environmental, if not our social, problems.

It could be argued that Cairncross and North have attempted to present in their books a holistic world view but their arguments are not only flawed, they are misleading and should not be taken seriously. Sadly much damage has already been done. North's book and his world view received considerable coverage in the mainstream media and while Cairncross's has taken a bit of a hammering the fact that they are working journalists with some influence should be of concern.

It is a pity those papers and magazines which featured North's work did not take a look at what Eric Utne has to say in his essay in the Capra and Pauli book. "Right now," he writes, "the interests of the media and of business are very short-sighted, based as they are on concentrating power, ownership and the messages communicated in very few people's hands. Their goals of economic growth, efficiency, and expansion put them in direct conflict with ecological balance and sustainability, which are mandatory for the health of all human and nonhuman communities. Unless the mass media begin to serve the interests of communities (where the vast majority of us live), rather than the interests of a few private individuals and corporations, people will eventually reject them - as they are doing by creating their own community access television programmes, desk-top publications, on-line computer conferences, and the like."

Utne goes on to confirm what anyone reading Cairncross and North might conclude, that "the press has mostly become a mouthpiece for prevailing corporate and political values" and that the "media's commitment to social justice has all but disappeared".

What is significant is that Capra and Pauli are prepared to give people like Utne a global platform and that the United Nations University Press is willing to publish such a radical and thought-provoking book. The same can be said about Cassell, a mainstream publisher which has just launched its "global issues" list featuring people like Bookchin and Peter Marshall.

Robert Allen is a visiting lecturer in environmental resources and science, University of Salford. He is compiling a pollution and health database for the Social Ecology Research Unit.

Steering Business Toward Sustainability

Editor - Fritjof Capra and Gunter Pauli
ISBN - 92 808 0909 1
Publisher - United Nations University Press
Price - $22.00
Pages - 191

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