Ancient seeds of our ecological crises

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October 15, 2011 by sgoobie

At the core of thinking

When we take a step on the Planet, we step not just with our “feet” but, more fundamentally, with our minds.

Perspectives on NatureThe thrust of the Ecological Thoughtprint concept is that our ways of thinking and our ecological actions impacting the Planet are intertwined.  Our thinking is used to rationalize and legitimize our behaviours — however irrational these behaviours sometimes seem, given the physical limits of natural systems we may now understand.  It is not just the direct actions of felling an old growth tree or building of a highway through thriving marshland which are important, but rather it is the ways of thinking which influence and drive these actions to which we must attend and challenge.

The modern ecological thoughtprint is a weaving together of all those ways of thinking used to legitimate the destructive practices of modern industrial societies — clearcut logging, fishing to the point of eliminating species, dumping toxic and nuclear waste, and so on — especially over the past 150 years.

Perhaps at the core of the modern thoughtprint we find a particular way of thinking which aids to excuse all these destructive behaviours.  It’s called mechanism (or mechanistic philosophy).

Nature as machine

USFS-TAMU clipart

Mechanism is a way of thinking in which natural entities, primarily living beings, are likened to machines, made up of components which lack any intrinsic relationship to one another.  Any entity’s functioning is governed solely by its parts (or by external influence) rather than the whole itself.

In short, from a mechanistic way of thinking, Nature is seen as little more than a factory which manufactures various products.  A cow is a machine, nothing more than the sum of its basic organs.  A tree is a “thing”.  The human mind is simply a high-powered computer.

Such a view tears away all inherent meaning from the natural world.  It removes whatever sanctity the forests, seas and mountains may have held in various cultures.  Most importantly, it provides a strong justification for the exploitation of the Earth’s creatures for the benefits of industry- and capital-fixated societies.

Origins of mechanism 

In understanding our modern thoughtprint, it is important to know how and why modern societies have adopted these particular ways of thinking.  Just as with every word in a language or every institution in a community, each and every way of thinking has a particular history.  We inherit our ways of thinking from the past, fitting them to our practices — and so it is to the past to which we need to look to better understand our ecological heritage.

Many trace mechanistic philosophy back to the advent of the modern Scientific Revolution and the then-genius of Rene Descartes and Frances Bacon.  Certainly, these “founders” advanced the adoption of mechanism in European societies in the 17th Century, from which classical science burst forth around the world.

However, if we look back further, we may perhaps find our thinking’s ultimate origins in early Greek philosophy.  From what scant evidence remains, we surmise that in the time of 5th Century BC, Greek colonists had established flourishing cities in Ionia.  From their contact with the Near East and the subsequent development of alphabetic writing, philosophic debate began to thrive.  Milesian philosophers contemplated and discussed the basic nature of the universe and underlying reality of things.  Unlike their predecessors, the Milesians left the Olympian gods out of these theories, preferring to limit their debates to the material world.


Two philosophers, Leucippus and Democritus, themselves products of the times, ventured a bold argument: that the world consisted merely of an endless void filled by tiny randomly-moving “atoms”.  They and others who shared their view promoted a vision of reality as lifeless, without purpose.  The universe, they argued, was a piece of machinery; life was simply the motion of inert particles.

As time went on and philosophical ideas changed, the Greeks — led in debate by Plato and Aristotle — lost the taste for this mechanistic view of the world.  However, the seeds had been planted deep.  These ideas would sprout back to capture the imagination of many contemporary thinkers nearly two millenia later.  Little could Leucippus and Democritus predict that their musings might one day drive industrial societies to rely on similar ways of thinking in the pursuit of power and profit at the expense of the natural world.

A mechanistic future?

It is quite comfortable to continue our devastation of the air, water and land by perpetuating the belief in Nature as a mere machine.  If a tree is purposeless — just a collection of chemical elements and physical components — one need not experience any internal or ethical conflict upon robbing it of life.  We may efficiently dismiss any doubts with It’s just a tree.

However, through recognizing the arbitrary nature of our inherited ways of thinking, and questioning the consequences of ardent faith in our beliefs, it may be time to consider other ways of thinking more suited to a sustainable vision of humanity.  With a final nod to Leucippus and Democritus, we may be approaching the end of mechanism — or at least, the end of an era in which a mechanistic view of the world is touted as the only perspective on Nature.

For the betterment of the future it may be time to look around and see the true diversity of “seeds” planted around the world.  Failing this, we may just need to plant some new seeds.


Reference:  Lindberg, D.C. (1992).  The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 BC to AD 1450.  Chicago Press.


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