A talk given at an open interactive discussion on Deep Ecology August 2012

Welcome. We have invited you here this morning to share a deep concern for the growing disconnect between our economic activities and the natural systems that support life on the earth. I want to start by setting out as clearly as possible the predicament as I see it, and to suggest tentatively some ways of addressing it. Some of you may well be familiar with this, and some less so. After which Michael will explain more fully the principles on which a deep ecology is founded. Together this will give us several avenues to explore in an interactive discussion.

At the outset it would be as well to acknowledge that what we call the “economy” or the “free market” is barely distinguishable from warfare.

According to the Living Planet report 2012 we are currently using the renewable resources of 1.5 planets each year. It is estimated that “business as usual” would result in this figure being 2.9 planets by 2050. In short: the dominant culture is killing the planet. It is not a pretty picture. There are many daily disasters we could list, all of them catastrophic for the future of this earth, and most of them criminal in their disrespect for life.  Daily we trespass upon the lives and territories of other species, on the dwindling resources of marginal communities. Daily we behave like murderers and thieves with impunity.

Think of the 200,000 acres of rainforest that have been destroyed in the last 24 hours, or the 13 million tons of toxic chemicals released into the environment in the same period, the nuclear waste, the depleted uranium used in recent wars, or think of the 250,000 Indian farmers forced to take loans to grow cotton who committed suicide when the cotton price plummeted. These were reported as suicides, but they were more like corporate murder. Or think of the growing number of refugee camps, the increasing numbers of malnourished children, or the Thai women among others who contract cancer assembling your laptop, or the 150 or so plant or animal species that vanish every day, the increasing acidity of oceans, or the fact that only one third of the world’s rivers 1,000 km long are still free flowing, - the list is endless.

We could add the projection that the urban population will double to over 6 billion by 2050 requiring 350 trillion dollars of infrastructure that will  appropriate over half of humanity’s carbon budget for the next 90 years in just 30.

Or the 2,795 gigatons of carbon that represents the carbon contained in oil, gas and coal reserves, which fossil-fuel companies plan to extract and use – and make no mistake they will use it, for this is already factored into their economic forecasts and share values, without which they would collapse. This amount is 5 times higher than the agreed limit of carbon emission, 565 gigatons, that would give us any chance at all of staying below the 2 degree Celsius rise of global warming.

All these growing crises: burgeoning population growth, droughts, violent storms, melting ice caps, extreme temperature fluctuations, rising food prices, social unrest, the lethal drug wars, the trafficking of women and children for sex, the vast networks of organized crime, some linked to governments, the corporate and banking scandals, the global financial instability, they are not different crises: they are all interlinked. They are all part of one crisis: the growing disconnect between human economic activity and the systems of the natural world that support life. This culture has a pathological dimension, which expresses itself in a questionable narrative of progress, based on an economy of infinite growth within a finite planet intent upon stimulating an endlessly acquisitive mode of life fed by an impersonal process of production – consumption. The UN and other institutions are committed to what is called “sustainable development”. But this widely accepted term is an oxymoron, since it is the current notion of development that is totally unsustainable.

How should we describe this other than with the language of those engaged in warfare: the unavoidable collateral damage of the war against the earth for the convenience of civilization. Whose convenience? Many of us in this room perhaps. And yet there are many more who will never share in this convenience. Those who control these processes ensure that the wealth that accrues via this complex web of production is funneled upwards to the already wealthy who must protect what they own, by force if necessary, as well as expand their operations in their search for more resources and raw materials to increase their profits by taking what they don’t own through land-grabbing schemes and other exploitative activities for which Africa is now the terribly fraught arena.

To these conditions of life we have a profound responsibility. Our convenience is someone else’s misery. It is bought at the price of the extinction of species, of flora, of the remorseless poisoning of earth, oceans, lakes and rivers. Do we see this? Do we feel it? Yes, if it was our own back garden. But much of it comes to us as numbers in a report. In our day-to-day lives it is invisible. It is someone else’s problem. It is the government’s problem, or my neighbour’s problem. But  in the end it will surely be my problem. The government isn’t doing anything. None of them are doing anything. They’ve taken hundreds of years to shake each other’s hands, and now they are all in it together. Kyoto. Rio. Copenhagen. For forty years since the Limits to Growth was published nothing significant has been achieved. Political expediency overrules responsible action every time. They are detached from reality, locked up in the rational mind that depends on a disengagement from reality and upon an ever proliferating mountain of confusing and self-contradictory statistics that only stall any meaningful action. It is the exclusive dependence on the rational mind that has produced an irrational culture.

A culture that prioritizes production-consumption over life itself, and which destroys its own environment in pursuit of this, is a culture doomed to self-destruction. This culture takes from what the earth provides and gives nothing back, but the poisonous wastes of a wasteful process. It is founded on the ideology of an exclusive humanism based on a science that is mechanistic, reductionist, and regards nature and all other life forms as inferior, and therefore disposable. It has built a society founded upon the use of instrumental reason based on the individual as the engine of economic growth, with a purely utilitarian perspective that is supposed to deliver an economy of mutual benefit.

In reality our lives serve only the machine of production-consumption, which mostly serves the vested interests of global multinational corporations driven only by the profit motive. The economists, the World Bank, the IMF etc tell us it cannot be otherwise. TINA: There Is No Alternative. The individual is the engine of what is called development. Collective action, community work, is wholly secondary if it is not excluded. A radical dissenter 40 years ago, Ivan Illich, said  “Economists understand about work about as much as alchemists about gold.”

The dominant culture’s notion of work serves only to maintain the state of disconnection psychologically, socially and ecologically. The mainstream society’s connection to the earth is essentially through “bad work”. It is work, as Wendell Berry, the author and farmer, explains, that is “only generally and crudely defined, that enacts a dependence that is ill understood, enacts no affection and gives no honour.”  “Bad work” is rewarded. “Good work” almost never. Every one of us is to some extent guilty of  “bad work”. But if we acknowledge this we can also agree that there is a great deal of good work to be done by all of us and that we must start doing it.

Deep Ecology is a response to this predicament. Deep Ecology is the beginning of doing “good work”. The beginning of “good work” implies adopting a deep resistance to doing “bad work”.

It undermines the comforting and self-flattering assumption that this civilization, in spite of all its horrors, is still the only and best of all possible worlds. Behind such a belief, which is sustained only by a culture of manipulation and control, there lurks a great fear that in the absence of such control, in the absence of more reform, more programmes, more legal restraints, anarchy would reign, and chaos would result.

But we already have chaos. And as to anarchy we are all of us victims of a global plutocratic anarchy. The technology we thought would liberate us has become our deepest bondage; the temples of economic power, the banks, are ruled by a governing elite who are the priesthood of the new religion of money, and, like abusive clerics, are forgiven their sins by those who should know better.  And if we look to mainstream science we are not helped much either. Apart from its questionable claim to a monopoly on truth the career scientists, apart from a few lone heretical voices who seek a new more integral and holistic model, have become the priests of the religion of scientism, bent on manipulating, controlling and altering the mechanisms of nature for purely human purposes without regard for consequences. This scientism is now the handmaiden of capitalism. And capitalism is by definition a war against nature.

In presenting the case for deep ecology we do not expect such criticisms to go unchallenged. You are free to disagree. We are not authorities. I am just highlighting the predicament as clearly as I can. We are trying to find common ground for action that can bring about a real and fundamental change for the better, not a superficial change. 

In doing so we should bear in mind that all these problems, ultimately have their root in the psyche. We live in a very defensive and violent culture, when the violence is not obvious as in explicit acts of war, aggression, the brutal suppression of dissent or despoiling the natural world, it lies always just beneath the surface. We are all without exception deeply implicated in this. So to explore this together is the intention, to ask awkward questions by coming out from our comfort zones. Our task as I see it is to create a culture of awakening that arises from facing the actuality of our condition. Consumer culture screens its violence by supplying an ephemeral array of anaesthetics, when what we need is a new aesthetic.

A culture of awakening implies the awakening of intelligence.  We view intelligence as a measurable intellectual capacity and as such something only humans possess. It also implies a detached view of the world. But I use it in another sense. Intelligence is not the same as intellect, but a quality of response shared I would suggest by other life forms. Only a reductive machine model blinds us to the creative dynamic that informs the natural world. Intelligence implies the fostering of an awareness that goes beyond culturally imposed limitations and constraints to seek a broader participation in the wider intelligence of the natural world. Perhaps, as the author and deep ecologist David Abram has suggested, the quality of inwardness we attribute to mind is not something that resides within us, but something vaster that we are situated within. Perhaps sentient mind was never a private possession, but only seen as such by a culturally constructed isolated and boundaried self. Moving out of this limited and perhaps illusory identity we reconnect with the natural world by fostering an awareness where we find ourselves in Abram’s words “immersed in the intelligence of the world, enveloped and informed by a creativity we cannot quite fathom.”

The brain has evolved for millennia, we are the result collectively of the sum total of the whole history of humanity, and as a species, which by all accounts migrated out of Africa approximately 50-100,000 years ago, not a very long time ago in the scale of 6 million years, we all have the same brain. Only our background, our linguistic, cultural, religious conditioning, differs. All that is on the surface. Beneath the surface we all have our share of anxiety, fear, shame, anger, resentment, ambition, envy, desire, affection, guilt and anguish. These are common to us all.

By intelligence then I mean the intelligence of the heart. This is not merely a poetic conceit. The fairly new discipline of neurocardiology shows how heart and brain interact in a reciprocal process that aims always at a higher integration of the emotional cognitive and the verbal intellectual domains. One of the lost skills buried by this culture is the skill of nurturing our young. Today intellect is prematurely force-fed at the expense of feeling and emotion, of tangible interaction with the natural world. The intelligence of the heart is not concerned with information but with transformation. Which means the ability to face the actuality of any culturally engendered condition and to have insight and to move beyond it.

In a modern open society personal autonomy and individual freedom are sacrosanct.

Yet the freedom to exercise our capacity for personal and social fulfillment in the service of greed, aggression, and fear has accelerated all the negative effects of our current predicament. Rather than a creative realization of these freedoms many are persuaded by the dominant culture to choose the unreflective conformism dictated by television, the media, and mass-consumerism. The freedoms of contemporary society are vigorously defended, but in practice have led to a loss of meaning and the fragmentation of society.

Yet the need for social engagement must be rooted in awareness of how self-centred confusion and the anguish of forms of craving encouraged by an acquisitive culture can no longer be adequately addressed as a purely subjective issue, for these psychological drives are embodied in the very economic, political and military institutions that influence and direct the majority of lives on the planet. For how much longer must we continue to tell each other convenient lies to avoid an inconvenient truth? A culture of awakening then requires a convergence between individual reflection on our condition and a social engagement arising from an empathy that responds to the anguish of a globalized and interdependent world.

The author Daniel Quinn said that if the world is to be saved it will not be by old minds with new programmes, but by new minds with no programmes. We must become the change we wish to see. Problems cannot be solved by the same mind-set that gave rise to those problems. The intelligence of the heart never solves problems, but simply gives a new situation.  The real journey begins as you step out of the old situation. It is up to us, individually and collectively, to take that bold step in whatever way is appropriate. Stepping out of the cultural mind-set means forming a new partnership with a living and animate earth.

We live in a culture that promotes a profound sense of exile from the earth that gave birth to us, which is our only home, a nature that gave rise to the mystery of consciousness, a nature within which we are deeply embedded and from which we cannot extricate ourselves no matter what strange realms of abstraction we pursue with our intellects in our futile quest for a technological Utopia as we lead increasingly discarnate lives in what has become a dystopian nightmare. Utopia, remember, is a Greek word meaning Nowhere. By going nowhere fast we are going only somewhere unthinkably uninhabitable.

We have lived our lives assuming that what is good for us is good for the world. Real change would mean we reverse that assumption and that what is good for the world will be good for us. The world is still an astoundingly beautiful place. Would we could return as much as is given, would we could give back as much as we take, and how different our lives would be if we did.

David Beatty 2012