Exploring a cultural heritage of unsustainability

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October 2, 2011 by sgoobie

To better understand the growing ecological crises, we need to think big.  We need to teach our students to think big — and ask big questions.  Through thinking big, we may begin to understand the connection between thought and behaviour toward the Planet, the connection we attempt to describe through the ecological thoughtprint concept.

Our view must not be constrained only to the past 150 years, since the start of the Industrial Revolution or the rise of consumer culture.  Rather, however daunting it may be, we need to look further back and further afield to the major changes in thinking stemming out of, notably, the Western world.  To many (myself included!) this may seem overwhelming, especially given the urgent nature of ecological crises and our desire to take concrete actions now.

Thankfully, many thinkers have connected the dots for us.  One such thinker is Ralph Metzner, former academic dean of the California Insitute of Integrated Studies.  In his 1992 speech excerpted in the article “The Split Between Spirit and Nature in Western Consciousness”, Metzner gives an excellent overview of the central ways of thinking which may have led to our present global ecological crises. 

Here are five central ideas presented by Metzner:

1.  The roots of the ecological crises lie in the “basic worldview that we humans of the global industrial society have come to hold. This worldview of the Industrial Age is a product of European and Euro-American culture that has spread throughout the globe with its capital accumulation approach to economic development.”

2.  It is “a matter of historical fact, domination, control and exploitation have been Western humanity’s guiding values in relationship to nature.”

3.  “The exploitation and destruction of the natural environment by technological means…began in the Middle Ages, increased dramatically during the times of the scientific revolution of the sixteenth century, and then again with the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”

4.  “With the work of…Isaac Newton…Francis Bacon and René Descartes came the shift away from the medieval worldview toward the mechanistic-materialistic worldview of the modern era.”  In this view, Nature operated like a machine with no inherent purpose, with spirit being totally separate from the natural world.    

5.  Convenient interpretations of Judeo-Christian teachings allowed for the domination of “inferior” creatures the world over, while science allowed for the manipulation and exploitation of the natural world.  Together, “a kind of deal was struck between religion and the new science, resulting in a split worldview, a culture of two worlds.”

Metzner points us and our students in a cultural direction to better understand the world’s ecological crises.  Mainly, what are the cultural beliefs behind the Western scientific and religious worldviews which influence and legitimize the extreme restructuring of the natural world?  How are these manifested in our everyday lives?

We can take comfort in the fact that we are not alone in asking these big questions.  The more questions we ask, the wider our focus, the better we will be able to propose appropriate responses to the runaway destruction of the air, water and land.

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3 thoughts on “Exploring a cultural heritage of unsustainability

  1. I’m familiar with Metzner. Mahalo for bringing him to others. Dohn

  2. annamadeit says:

    Fascinating post – thank you! Although I’ve long sensed – and subsequently fretted – over the “split”, I’d never really thought of from where it stems, but you’re right; it is deeply engrained in our culture. For sure – bring on the big questions. I’m only afraid that as a specie we won’t have enough time to answer them. It’s like that Obama analogy – it takes time to change the direction of a supertanker going full tilt…

  3. 2 fishy 2 fish says:

    Not sure whether the “Eastern Consciousness” or however it is called is “better” – at least we Westerners are able to appreciate fish just for their beauty, and not only for their taste as happens in many (East) Asian cultures.

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