Approaching The Whole:
an Enquiry into Man and the Environment

Joseph Milne

In this essay I shall try to explore a number of problems that most current thinking about ecology and environmentalism raise but which are not obvious without standing back and attempting to gain a philosophical overview. I wish to draw attention to these problems because I believe they arise from deeper and wider questions concerning mankind’s place in the universe. Much of what I say may appear, on first glance, to be an attack upon ecology and environmentalism. But this would be to misunderstand the intentions of this essay. So let it be clear at the outset that I am basically in sympathy with the concern for the environment and accept that it urgently needs addressing. The aim of this essay is to question the manner in which environmentalists are addressing the problem and the ways in which ecology conceives the world. Through this reflective exercise I believe we shall arrive at a clearer understanding of man’s place within the world and an approach to remedying the problems that have arisen through the loss of contact with the greater whole.

Let me begin by saying that the problems I shall address have, so to speak, crept up on me through a certain discomfort I feel with all the ecological literature I have read as well as the proposed solutions of the environmentalists. This discomfort springs from a sense that our thought in this area is in some way incomplete, that it misses out something quite fundamental, and because of this our thinking is distorted. What this more fundamental thing is I shall try to elaborate later. But I want to draw attention simply to this discomfort for the present, which is itself ambiguous and elusive.

To convey some idea of what I mean by this discomfort, I would point first to the wide variety of what we might term "ecological schools of thought". These different schools of thought do not simply represent different facets of one thing. They contradict and even negate one another in many respects. Yet they also share certain fundamental misconceptions which are my main concern in this essay. Roughly speaking, these schools range from "ecological crisis" literature to "pantheistic" literature. The crisis literature is characterised by the enumeration of disturbing facts and frightening predictions. These facts and predictions, based upon scientific observation and inference, are aimed at persuading us to take action through fear of the consequences if we do not. Here the two main issues are global warming and the shortage of resources. The pantheistic literature, at the other extreme, is not so concerned with the scientific facts, though it takes them as given, but rather calls upon us to see the earth or nature as the sacred mother with whom we have lost communion. And there is a host of more moderate literature between, both scientific and religious.

These two extremes present us with an interesting polarity. On the one hand, with the facts that are intended to frighten us into action, we have an essentially materialist outlook coupled with a materialist morality. That is to say, its moral foundations lie in the fear of human extinction. Its rhetorical strength lies in the command "you must deal with all this pollution and draining of resources because it will lead to our destruction". At the pantheist end of the spectrum, which arises from a more religious outlook, we are called to a type of "earth worship", to submission to cosmic powers. This too has a moral imperative, but of a quite different kind. It critiques human arrogance and pride and calls us to overcome this by mystically merging our isolated and self-absorbed egos into Mother Nature, and to live for and worship the "greater whole" that is the earth through a sublimation of our personal will. The moral imperative here is "self-abandonment". In these two extremes we have two diametrically opposed moral stances; on the one hand the imperative to self-preservation through fear of extinction, and on the other hand to self-abandonment through sublimation of the human will into nature. One side calls us to act from collective self-interest, while the other calls us to overcome all self-interest and submit to the greater cosmic good. These two extremes are also implicit, though in milder forms, in the more moderate literature.

This moral contradiction presents us with just one of the problems we need to address. That there is a moral contradiction at all suggests that neither extreme genuinely grasps the real relationship of mankind and the world. But also, it raises questions about the relation of "morality" and the "environment". Is looking at ecology from an ethical perspective right at all, especially when that ethical perspective is only implicit and never fully explicated?

If that seems a rather disconcerting question, then I think we should bear in mind that we are living in an age of moral relativism and confusion. By this I mean that we do not have any generally agreed understanding of the foundations of moral action. With some philosophical and theological exceptions morality now is considered in a purely juridical way, that is, in terms of outward acts alone, in terms of imposed rule without any grounding in the self. This itself is an enormous philosophical problem. Outside academic explorations of morality most discourse in the modern West centres on the concepts of obligation and the claim of debts, to which are opposed existentialist notions of free will and conditioning. To put that more shortly, morality is commonly considered in terms of compulsions. For example, the many present claims of "rights" for certain groups - races, religions, minorities and even animals - all centre on the assumption of morality as enforced action, of compulsion. The grounds for making these demands are taken as given. Thus morality manifests in the form of violence, even when its aims are to overcome some specific violence. This is obvious in the actions of animal welfare groups and anti-abortionists, for example. It is a morality based upon an assumed conflict between man and nature. Similarly, the moment that environmentalists seek to compel change through moral argument, obstruction or compulsion, they are employing violence to meet violence. And so it is not surprising, but inevitable, that much ecological thinking expresses anti-human sentiments, as for example in the now pejorative term "anthropocentrism". This one highly charged term has the effect of concealing human nature under the veil of condemnation.

What I am trying to bring to notice here through these obvious examples is the mode of thinking that confronts the problem of mankind’s relationship to the environment. From the gathering of data about environmental changes brought about by human activity thought leaps to moral judgement, to condemnation, to seeking means of compelling different action. This leap from information to enforced action, or the attempt to enforce action, is not a reflective leap. It has no consciousness of the ground of morality, but assumes its absolute authority. This step in thought from fact to blame seems an obvious or self-evident one when there is no pause to reflect. What comes with this leap, perhaps also quite unconsciously, is the sense that the accuser - simply by being an accuser - has become on the instant morally blameless. Through the act of blaming the accuser instantly takes the moral highground and so becomes personally exonerated. Yet they have not come into any new or holistic relationship with the earth in this act of judgement. They have, in fact, become separate from mankind generally.

This mode of thinking, in its unawareness of the actual nature of the moral ground, is in reality a continuation of the same mode of thinking that is involved in the environmental problems in the first place. By taking the environment as the "victim" of human abuse it simply reverses the relationship and turns mankind into the victim, in the form of the accused. The ill-will towards the world is redirected toward man, and in that redirection man is separated off from the world and regarded as alien to the biosphere. There is literature which goes so far as to declare that the human species does not matter and could be eliminated for the sake of the biosphere. Thus the rift between human activity and the wider activity of nature generally is merely intensified and the fragmentation of the ecosphere maintained in a new way. The violence is simply redirected.

We need to look at this moral cycle quite dispassionately. By its very nature there is something happening in this leap from fact to reaction which conceals itself, and which needs to conceal itself in order to occur. If it is through pride and arrogance that we pollute and abuse the earth, as is claimed by some ecologists who argue that the human species is not superior to any other, then this type of moral condemnation is simply that same pride in another form. We need to question, as I suggested a moment ago, whether the problems of the environment are in fact a moral problem at all. That is to say: is a strictly moral grasp of environmental damage an appropriate way of grasping and assimilating the facts? Is the moral reaction simply a further instance of wrong relationship with the world? By itself I believe it is.

I shall return to this problem later. But first I want to note that there is another pole to this reaction of moral violence. This other pole I shall call "ecological quietism". It lies at the pantheistic end of the spectrum described earlier. Here, instead of the reaction of blame and the hubris of claiming the moral highground (although some do claim this at this end of the spectrum), we find the phenomenon of attempting to subsume oneself into nature or the biosphere. It is here that we find the cult of mystical union with the earth, of celebrating the wilderness, of embracing the Great Mother under various names, of pantheism. Here, rather than taking to oneself the task of compelling mankind to change, one goes in the opposite direction of seeking to abdicate one’s selfhood and hand it over to Mother Earth, to merge one’s own will and ego into the Greater Will of the Cosmos. In this instance there is a seeking to return to a mythical Primordial undifferentiated identity with the All. The literature springing from this end of the spectrum is usually cast in amoral terms. Let the Great Mother create and destroy according to her will. Let us submit ourselves to the dance of life and death, creation and destruction. The concept of losing oneself in the All represents a common misunderstanding of mysticism, especially of Hindu mysticism.

I deliberately use the word "abdicate" in my description here. Abdication of autonomy is simply the opposite pole to the assumption of authority, which is the feature of the other end of the spectrum. Clearly, there can be no discourse between these two extremes. The moral quietist has nothing to say to the moral activist, and the moral activist has no rhetoric with which to stir the moral quietist. The authority of the moral dictate has no meaning for one who seeks to surrender to the primeval will.

We might wonder if there is a mean between these two extremes. Possibly there is, at least theoretically. But I think no way forward lies there. I think we need to attempt to look at the whole problem in a completely different way. It seems to me that we need to try to find the domain of life in which man’s relation to the environment, to the world, and indeed to the cosmos, actually belongs. That is to say, does it belong to the moral domain, the political domain, the economic domain, the technological domain, the cultural domain, the religious domain? The fact that it touches all these domains does not of itself tell us which it properly belongs to, yet it does indicate that it is more comprehensive than any one of them alone. Further, the relationships between these different domains are not all moral. For example the relationship between the technological and the economic is not a moral relationship. This is because these domains are "functions", types of action, not persons. And it is only persons that are morally accountable, not functions or instruments. On the other hand, institutions, such as governments, companies, schools etc., are morally accountable in so far as they are nominally persons. But they are accountable in quite different ways to that of real persons. An institution cannot be punished, though it can make reparation for damages.

We have become accustomed in recent decades to think of these domains in world terms. For example we speak of the "global economy" or "Western technology". But this global view can conceal from us that there are no global laws or global institutions to which these are accountable. Economies are accountable only to nation states. And nation states are accountable to no higher power. Their relations are regulated only through mutual consent or through treaties. If nation states are accountable to no authority above themselves, since in this lies their sovereignty, the question arises as to how a company, an economy or an institution can be accountable to the earth, to the planet, the environment. There are no formal mechanisms to enforce such accountability, and nor should there be. There is, to put that more strongly, no such thing as an "offence against the earth" or against nature. There is certainly no institutional mechanism to call any such offence to account, nor any institution of reciprocity between man and the earth whereby either party is accountable. The model of social morality cannot be extended to the earth because it is based upon reciprocity, on the consent of both parties. Where moral reciprocity is absent, or simply not evident, moral confusion easily arises. This is evident in the present confusion over the way to call to account or regulate genetic engineering. There is no code of law, natural or civil, ready at hand to deal with this problem. And this is because there is no code of law that regulates or calls us to account in our dealings with "entities" as such. Just as there is no law which determines how I should relate to the sun and moon, so there is no law that says how I should relate to the pen with which I write. I can destroy my pen and no offence is committed against any law. No law prescribes my duty towards my pen. And so it is with reference to all objects in themselves. I cannot destroy your pen, but only because it is your property. The offence would be against your person, not your pen. Thus our relationships with entities as such does not belong to the moral domain. There are no prescribed duties towards objects as things in themselves.

This may strike us as very curious, or even disturbing, especially as it extends to all objects. We feel that we are in some sense obliged towards all things of any kind. If this is in fact so, it is a type of obligation quite distinct from that upon which social morality and civil law are founded, and so these cannot be logically extended to include all things Yet the assumption of environmentalists that we have a duty to preserve species, and the assumption that they have rights, presupposes that we have duties towards objects or species as such and in themselves. We do not and no system of civil or criminal law recognises any such duties or rights. Duties and rights exist only when there is evident moral reciprocity. That is the ground of their authority and self-evident mutual good.

So I am suggesting that the idea of extending civil and criminal law towards entities, to species, to microbes or atoms or whatever is fundamentally the wrong way of looking at the problems of environmental harm. And the reason for this is very simple. All civil and criminal law is grounded on the consent of membership. Its aim is the preservation of the community so that each member may fulfil their life in freedom in so far as that freedom does not hinder the freedom of another member. Law, civil and criminal law, is essentially the expression of communal relationships. This alone is the foundation of the notion of civil rights as well as the notion of equality before the law. It follows from this that entities, be they genetic codes or species or matter itself, are not members of this community through this consent. Therefore to attempt to extend the notion of rights to animals or embryos or genetic codes or to forests is fundamentally to misconceive the meaning and foundation of rights.

Thus our human relationship with entities or with living creatures belongs to another sphere than that of jurisprudence. To attempt to bring it into the sphere of jurisprudence is not only a mistake of category, it obscures and erodes the basis of human community itself. To attempt to humanise other species or inert entities is to dehumanise mankind. Traces of this dehumanisation are common in much ecological literature. The human being is frequently classed along with other biological species and represented solely as a competing creature along with all the others in the endless struggle for survival. The world itself is reduced to mere biological survival. Such a model has no moral dimension in any respect. That is why the rhetoric of fear for the survival of the human species has no moral meaning. There are no rights or duties between the species.

To take this point a little further. We asked a moment ago: to which domain does our human relationship to the environment or the world belong? One response to this - a dangerously wrong response - is what we may term biological reductionism. This offers an apparent solution. We ask: to which general class does man and the environment belong? The answer proposed is the biosphere. Thus Homo Sapiens is reduced into the general world of living matter and human destiny and possibilities are tied in with the presumed and limited destiny and possibilities of the biosphere itself, which is expressed in the term "survival". The term "survival" is, I suggest, a completely vacuous term. As an "aim" for things it is a tautology. It is to say that things exist to exist. The aim of being is mere self-perpetuation. The only event before our eyes is the competition for perpetuity. For this reason the Darwinians logically deny any "purpose" or teleology in evolution. Thus, in this biological reductive way of looking at ecology, the world is stripped of any significance, any teleology, and reduced to being an end in itself. Oddly enough, it reduces all existence to total selfishness, in the mere pursuit of self-perpetuation, and it is this total selfishness that is offered as the moral argument for man to reduce himself to a mere biological entity for the sake of the biosphere generally. Here is where the notion of the rights of entities leads. As I said a moment ago, the basis of rights is membership of a community in order that the potential of each member of the community has the freedom to unfold. There is therefore a teleological dimension involved in social morality. Thus a facet of the basis of rights is founded on the aspiration or ideal of liberating human beings from the mere competition for survival, from life being nothing more than the mere struggle for perpetuity.

If there is, in spite of these observations, some actual moral relation between man and the creatures, or between man and the cosmos as a whole, (and we intuitively feel there is), then it is of a quite different kind than that between human beings and lies outside the sphere of rights.

This illustration of biological reductionism may serve as an example of a wider theme I wish to introduce. This is the question of language. I said at the outset that I wished to explore the ways in which ecology and environmentalism are thought about, and one of the keys to this is the language that it uses. I shall return to the questions already posed, but wish to take a route through further questions.

Here I would like to begin with a general proposition about language: our relation to language corresponds exactly to our relation to the world. That is to say, the manner in which we speak discloses the manner in which we grasp the world. There is an exact correlation between our language usage and our perception of the world.

First of all we need to examine what we take language to be. There is a prevailing idea about language which I believe completely replicates the prevailing way in which the modern West grasps the world. The prevailing view is this: that language is an artificial set of representative signs employed as an instrument of communication. This is the typical definition of language in any modern English dictionary. Take the first part of this proposition: language is an artificial set of representative signs. This notion of language derives from the rationalistic reductionism of the nineteenth century. It is an attempt to reduce language to its most basic material form. It embodies very well the foundational notion that objective definition is knowledge. However, it also embodies, at least implicitly, an anthropology. The key word is "artificial". On what basis is the assertion made that language is artificial? Artificial in comparison to what "natural" thing? Artificial because only used by human beings? If language is artificial, then what "natural" function does it have? Would man be more natural if he did not speak? Is communication artificial? These questions strike us as odd because it has long been taken to be self-evident that language is artificial and somehow "invented". This conception of language as artificial rests upon the assumption that there was, with the arrival of the human species on the earth, a break with the "natural", and that the human world and the human manner of existing is in general "artificial"; which is to say, an arbitrary invention. Consider: if language is itself artificial, then to speak is artificial. And this means that to discuss, to make laws, to teach and to pray are all artificial.

Now take the second part of the proposition: employed as an instrument of communication. The key word here is "instrument". In this one word human speaking is reduced to a mere tool. Saying, speaking, naming have no meaning in themselves according to this view. With this idea comes the instrumental notion of human activity. We might just as easily say that "communication" is also instrumental. What is the object of communication? To convey something to someone? But is not that the stated end of language? And might we not also say that to convey something to someone is also instrumental to yet some further end? The instrumental explanation is an infinite regress. It reveals nothing.

To this notion of language - this pseudo-scientific notion of language - we may oppose the most ancient: language is the Word of God. That is to say, language is the disclosure of God to man and of man to himself. In speaking man comes to himself because speaking is the manifestation of self-reflection. It is not an instrument of self-reflection but rather its manifestation. And in self-reflection all things come into the domain of reflection. The ancient myths, as well as the early philosophers, represent the birth of language as the revelation of ultimate being. Thus in the Jewish tradition it is the Word of God that gives birth to the world, and in giving birth to the world God is disclosing himself in that which he created. And the first speech of man is a speaking back to God saying "Thou hast made me and all things". In saying this, human speech is the dawn of man’s self-consciousness and grasping the mysterious origin of all things. Human speech, then, like philosophy, is the response of man to finding himself in existence and being filled with wonder and amazement. And so the first verb is "I am". With speech mankind declares himself, and in declaring himself he comes instantly before all created things and declares those too. Thus the ancient understanding of language, which is still the understanding of the poets, is bound up with self-knowledge and subsequently with the knowledge of all things. To speak is to be human. The conception of language as artificial conceals language and, consequently, conceals man.

I have resorted to myth to attain the sharpest contrast with the current view of language. We could come to the same thing philosophically but it would take a long time. The essential point I wish to make is that the prevailing notion of language presupposes a rift between the being of man and his speaking, as well as a rift between speaking and the thing manifest in speech. And this presumed rift within man, which has permeated the general consciousness, extends between him and the world in which he dwells. And so it is held that the "natural world" and the "human world" are two different worlds. Human society is held to be "artificial", an arbitrary and accidental disturbance amid the natural order of the world, an intrusion into nature, an epiphenomenon. So it is believed that there is no natural relation between human society and nature. This idea, which is absolutely extraordinary because it implies that man invented himself, is held in common by the most materialist of materialists and by ecologists generally. In the current conception of language is concealed the prevailing notion of human nature itself. As I mentioned earlier, much ecological and environmental literature is permeated by misanthropy, epitomised in the dreadful word "anthropocentrism". Curiously, it is the notion that man is "outside nature" dwelling in an "artificial world" that is actually anthropocentric. And in conceiving the domain of man as artificial society is commonly regarded as imprisoning and conditioning the individual and constraining their possible freedom. There is a relationship between this notion of alienation inside the human domain and the rift between man and nature.

This general notion of language produces very evident consequences. Since it is founded on the idea that there is no natural relation between speech and the world, we begin to see that the world itself is being presented to us as something abstract and artificial. This is evident in the loss of the capacity to name things. There are many everyday examples of this. What was once called a house is now called a "living area". What was once a mother is now a "carer". What was once called a park is now an "open space". The exchange of wealth is now called "consuming", the passenger a "customer", the university student a "customer", the poor the "socially excluded" and so on. In each such instance the concrete presence is abstracted, depersonalised and objectified. Instead of disclosing the nature of things and acknowledging their existence and abiding with them, naming is now a way of distancing things from ourselves and alienating us from them. Yet this is a perfectly logical and inevitable consequence of the current notion of language. It is a law of language, but a law unobserved precisely because of what we take language to be. If the nature of language is concealed, then its disclosing power is also concealed.

Along with this abstract naming of things, and directly connected with it, we also witness the proliferation of a thousand private languages based on membership of some group that has dislodged itself from the common human heritage. This is very evident in the many new age ideologies. Each creates its own special language which projects upon the world yet another distanciation, another condemnation, another critique while appearing to affirm some new thing. Thus, instead of embodying man’s openness to the world, language now projects a fantasy upon the world in the distressed voice of the isolated soul.

This is a vast subject and can be presented here only very briefly. I am drawing attention to it because I believe it provides a way in to the problem I am trying to address. It seems to me that there is an obvious connection between the current alienation of man from his language, the abstracting language that is now used to name the things about us, and the domain to which the ecological question really belongs. For if the things about us are abused and diminished in the very names we give to them, then it follows inevitably that we shall abuse and diminish them in action too. A language usage that cannot grasp and presence even the everyday things close to us cannot possibly grasp and disclose the cosmos to us.

This abstracting and alienating tendency in our contemporary language usage is producing discomfort and a kind of reaction is emerging against it. This shows itself in the various forms of anti-intellectualism such as we find in some schools of psychology, in feminism, in the desire to think intuitively, and in the various attempts to recreate mythologies. However, this anti-intellectualism becomes a retreat from the world of yet another kind. It is a retreat into human subjectivity and is highly solipsistic. The retreat into subjectivity reinforces alienation from the world. Curiously enough, its language is abstracting too, but in this case the abstracting process is accompanied by demonising. The concept of "anthropocentrism", mentioned earlier, is a typical example. But many examples proliferate in the language of political correctness which always abstracts and demonises. Political correctness invariably demonises concrete words and replaces them with Latin abstractions. A recent example is the phrase "institutionalised racism". Just like the abstractions that come from scientific positivism, these depersonalise, reduce and create false moral identities - that is, classes of victims defined by being owed some debt from institutions and humanity at large. For example the notion of "patriarchalism" is charged with indignation at history for the oppression and subjugation of the "feminine" which identifies itself as owed a debt. The masculine is abstracted and demonised as cold, rationalistic and aggressive. Although the claims for the recognition of the feminine and the intuitive arise from a sense of exclusion within the prevailing mechanistic language, in practice the polarisation of masculine intellect and feminine intuition simply further extend the type of discourse that fragments and atomises. The false rift between the "objective" and the "subjective" created by mechanistic positivism is further extended and reinforced. The manner of speaking of the world is the same in both cases and the dichotomies imagined or projected originate in the same way and exemplify an identical notion of language. In either case the language is that of alienation and reinforces alienation. The abstracting and objectifying language used in representing the world is carried over into representing the human person. Therefore it is possible to conceptually invert the dichotomy and project upon the world the subjective attributes of the person, as we find in the pantheistic literature of ecology and various types of new age thought, in which the earth is conceived as feminine and intuitive, and even as the suffering "victim" of aggressive humanity. Here the "mythical" language of poetry and religion is subsumed into the abstracting language of science and becomes, just like the scientific language itself, an idealised projection upon reality. Both belong to the same mode of discourse but this fact is concealed by the apparent opposition between their stances and claims. Perhaps one of the most potent instances of this is exemplified in the attribution of femininity to God. No claim is made that God has "revealed" the divine nature as feminine, but rather the traditional symbolic discourse of theology has been accused of projecting its patriarchal arrogance upon God. But the claim that God is feminine is equally a projection and is mixed with anger at history. In redescribing God as feminine religion concedes outright to the claim of the atheists that God is merely an invention of human thought.

These observations about current language usage and the examples I have given touch very powerful emotional investments. This in itself is highly significant since these emotional investments (in which I include the scientific claim to impartiality and objectivity) distract and drive our attention away from grasping the nature of language usage itself. In our haste to rectify injustices or remedy urgent problems the mode in which we conceive the world which is embodied in our language usage is passed over and concealed. In this concealment, which is a positive act, lies a clue to where we really need to look to find a new understanding of the questions we posed earlier. Unless we turn to this problem of language we remain trapped inside modes of thinking, determined by language usage, which have shaped the manner in which we conceive and present to ourselves our human situation and our relationship to the natural world. The inevitable resistance to examining this domain conceals in itself the same impulse that conceals the world itself from us. Our hidden alienation from our own act of speaking corresponds exactly with our felt alienation from the world. The remedy to this does not lie in seeking to redescribe the world, in creating new paradigms, since these would spring from exactly the same alienation from language. The proliferation of new paradigms, apparent in academia and in new age thinking alike, is just more of the same and indicative of the increasing fragmentation that follows the abstracting tendency. And yet, precisely because it is the true nature of language to disclose, an examination of our current usage also provides a way to understanding our mode of thinking since it manifests in the language in spite of how we think of it. The manner in which we speak discloses our apprehension of the world.

So far, in attempting to discern the problems and difficulties that attend all ecological thinking, we seem to find ourselves in a very negative situation. If all attempts at remedying environmental destruction still spring from the same abstracted notions of the world which have created the problem in the first place, then where are we to turn? I have already suggested that an examination of the ground of language is essential. This is itself an enormous task, although some philosophers have made significant progress with it.

There are, however, more immediately accessible points of entry into the wider question. One of these is similar in character to that of language usage and has already been indirectly raised. Let us pose a question. What realm is concealed in the concern for the environment? In turning to the problems of pollution and abuse of the earth, what is discounted? The answer is in fact obvious. It is mankind.

We have already remarked that the human species is commonly reduced into the biosphere and equalised with all the other "competing" creatures in the struggle for survival. A common idea, reinforcing this one, is that mankind has become arrogant and a tyrant in the natural order. There is a substantial literature that claims the entire answer to pollution and over-use of natural resources is a reduction of the human population. Many environmentalists believe a first priority is the enforced imposition of birth control. This view, which claims strong support in the scientific community, is a very good example of representing the problem in entirely mechanistic terms. It views humanity in wholly quantative terms, both in population numbers and in terms of "consumption" of natural resources. It represents a "remedy" in precisely the terms of the prevailing mechanistic view which lies at the heart of the problem in the first place. What it intends to attain, in terms of all the other species apart from mankind, is also merely quantitative. It is not grounded in any value whatsoever. Its rhetoric is, as noted earlier, that of fear. It argues that if we do not take steps to reduce the human population, then shortage and famine will do it for us. The brutality of this interpretation is obvious enough. But here I wish to draw attention to what it conceals. By reducing mankind to a mechanistic view of the biosphere - to a world completely devoid of any values - it completely evades any notion of human nature. It has no anthropology. That is why it has no moral dimension.

This example is an extreme one. Nevertheless, because it springs wholly from the abstracting world-view it is probably the most persuasive of all environmental arguments. This is evidenced by the fact that virtually every school of environmental thinking presupposes two fundamental tenets: that there is overpopulation and over-consumption and that these are the two things that have to be curbed. It is beyond the remit of this essay to examine the question of over-population, yet I assert that it is a falsehood. And I assert that over-consumption is likewise a falsehood. I believe that the falseness of these two beliefs is rationally demonstrable, but here I am concerned with these notions from quite a different perspective. From the perspective of this essay I wish to draw attention to what is concealed in conceiving the problem in this manner.

First of all, conceiving mankind as a consumer is to falsify and dehumanise. Although transposed from economic discourse, it is misrepresentative even from that point of view, for what distinguishes human activity from that of the other species is that man is a maker, a creator. Man does not merely "consume", he shapes the world in which he dwells. When we gaze upon the daily activity of man we do not see consuming but inventing, discovering, learning, mastering, nurturing. To describe all this immense creative activity as consuming is to fail to see its nature, and thus to fail to see something essential about human nature. Nor is all this creative activity by any means confined to the physical domain. Man also imagines, conceives and creates in the domain of mind. Here is the realm of culture, of the arts, philosophy and religion, the most human of what is uniquely and essentially human. Man is that being who seeks to understand the nature of being. These activities are not incidental or peripheral to man or to nature. They are essentially human, and they are natural, part of and continuous with the natural order. Man is not distinguished by being outside nature but rather as that being who most fully occupies nature, whose thoughts and concerns embrace the whole cosmos.

But more than this. Man does not only shape the world around him, he shapes his destiny. He is responsible towards the future. Humanity does not merely adapt in order to survive, in the narrow Darwinian sense, he aspires towards fuller being, to justice, to self-perfection, to truth. No account of ecology - that is the ecology of the whole universe - is either truthful or meaningful that leaves out of account these essential human features. A universe without man is meaningless to man. There are no grounds to call man to account for destroying the natural world if that conception of the natural world has no account of mankind. Yet this is precisely what we find in environmental and ecological thinking, and at either end of the spectrum. Whether we are called upon to "consume less" for the sake of the forests, or to lose our arrogant will in merging it with the Great Mother, the essentially human is negated. Such thinking is not holistic but yet further fragmentation and alienation.

These observations lead us to an obvious yet very difficult way forward. This may be formulated into a simple principle: The remedy to mankind’s abuses of nature lies in the fuller actualisation of humanity itself. That is to say, the more fully mankind actualises his potential as a thinking and creating being, the more fully will that activity harmonise with the natural world as a whole.

I am aware that this principle runs counter to environmental thought generally. In our discussion so far we have sought to bring to light what was concealed in the mode of thought environmentalism generally arises from. We have seen that a division or even opposition has been taken as given between the "natural" and the "human". This division has been carried over from the reductive and abstracting thought of scientific positivism and unconsciously embraced by ecologists and environmentalists. Yet in carrying this mode of thought across the primary concerns of ecology and of environmentalism have been compromised and distorted. The proposed remedies turn out to be continuous with the manner of thinking and being that have created the problem in the first place. And the essential feature of scientific positivism is that it leaves out, or even discounts, what is essentially human. In short, what is deficient in either case is an authentic and meaningful anthropology - an anthropology that recognises mankind as a part of the natural order as well as the infinite creative potential of humankind.

This principle assumes that there is no conflict between human destiny and nature, no rift between the human aspiration towards the greatest fullness of being and the destiny of the cosmos. Neither needs to be curbed or diminished for the sake of the other. It is the assumption that such a conflict exists that confuses the question of the relation of man to the world. Thus the word "environment" has come to mean the realm of nature outside mankind, rather then his dwelling place. But this way of looking brings a further and more vital thing to our notice. Environmental destruction is indicative of some barrier to the flowering of human potential. To put that another way, pollution and abuse of natural resources are external symptoms of some inner disorder of mankind generally. They are not themselves the problem. Just as we observed earlier that the prevailing notion of language confounded the true place of speaking in being human, alienating man from himself, so likewise the way man uses or abuses his environment discloses this same alienation. Therefore all the calls to deal with the environment are ultimately calls to deal with the wrong thing. This is the reason why these calls are finally ineffectual. All the arguments for taking action there miss the point because they are grounded in the same inner disorder of man himself. This is why they have no moral force. They cannot have any moral force because they are not grounded in any mutual reciprocity. This is why even the Christian argument for stewardship as an ecological model has no force. Man as steward of the earth encapsulates an extremely limited anthropology. It takes no account of the nurture of mankind, of human potential.

There is hardly a shortage of evidence of human problems. The tragic curtailment of human creativity manifest in large-scale poverty is obvious. That the human race can disregard the starvation of family members indicates an extraordinary incapacity to act. But the prevailing world-view prevents us from acting. It subverts our sense of the human family and conceals the nature of poverty under the paralysing notion of over-population. But this obvious material poverty is complemented by the poverty of neurosis in the cities where there is abundance of material wealth. The so-called successful in the "consumer society" are the clients of the analysts. They too are the victims of the prevailing world-view, the abstracted and diminished notion of man as merely a consumer of material goods. Both forms of poverty, the material and the psychological, are manifestations of the same problem. And what is not possible to either is a sense of creative participation in the whole. This is the salient feature of the prevailing world-view. The strong survive it more or less intact but the vulnerable are crushed.

All this is not to say there is no seeking a remedy. Nor is it to say anyone is to blame. Blaming is just another act of concealment. What I wish to call to notice is the fabric of conceiving the world. The current manner in which the world, or reality at large, is conceived has no relation to our foundational sense of the whole. Every human being, simply by being human, has a sense of the whole. It is immediate like the air we breath. But with few exceptions attention goes elsewhere, not to the presence of things but to conceptions about them and projections upon them. And so the call to be, to go forth from oneself, is not heard in the fabric of things. Yet it is there. Every human being knows the wonder that gazing at the stars calls forth, or the sudden awakening to beauty. These are always embraced in a sense of the whole. But the paths of our contemporary thought deny the truth of these apprehensions. They are dismissed as either romantic or impractical. Yet they are the ground of all human creativity and invention, even of scientific discovery and, of course, religious illumination.

In the light of the problems I have outlined and the grip they have on our thinking generally this notion of the sense of the whole appears rather tenuous. I grant that. It has no foothold in the abstracting mode of thought we have become accustomed to and which is our collective inheritance. The habitual way of thinking rushes in to critique and swamp it, inevitably because of its inertia. The tendency of modern thought in addressing any matter is to turn to a part, a fragment, and to abstract an explanation for the whole from that fragment. Nevertheless, I believe it is towards this that we need to turn our attention.

But I will close with a more optimistic observation, which also follows from the principle formulated above. The fact that we know there is a problem to be addressed concerning our environment, no matter how ill-conceived or inadequately dealt with, indicates a peculiar law of nature is at play. It is this: mankind is ceaselessly called to attend to reality and to understand it. This call is what shapes us as human. Nature brought forth a being who’s task it is to reflect upon nature. The emergence of human reflective consciousness is nature herself emerging into self-reflection. In this sense the human species is deeply continuous with nature’s blossoming. This event of self-reflective consciousness, which manifests as mankind, is pressed onward by the very problems mankind encounters. Nature, or reality, will not let man rest until the call to understand is fulfilled. The problems will not cease until mankind finds a way into dwelling with the whole and creating with the whole. The call to know and dwell with the whole comes both from within and from without. The human joy in creativity is already an overcoming of the supposed divide between man and nature, and it arises both within man and in the things he creates. A symphony of a Mozart is called into being by human civilisation, and it is only a Mozart who can respond to that call. Likewise justice calls every human being to remedy injustice, and truth calls every human being to be truthful. We know these things by their call, not by their definitions. And so, likewise, I believe the current problems and abuses of our environment call us to a new mode of being with the whole. But it is not the environment that is at stake but the fullness of being human. This means we are called to free ourselves of the slavery to an inadequate apprehension of the world and our place within it.


Note: This essay has met with fierce criticism form ecologists, which is not my intention. If you have any comments or suggestions, then please email me at All comments will be gratefully received.