Technoscience, nature, & the good life. 

Geoff Lacey. 

no planet b
Procession Climate change conference 09, Malcolm Williams, flickr cc.

As never before, global warming threatens the future of civilisation and the integrity of the ecosystems that sustain all life. Prominent environmental writer, Geoff Lacey, examines what needs to change in our practice and thinking so that technology truly becomes the servant of humanity, not a sorcerer leading to an unprecedented catastrophe. He concurs strongly with views of Pope Francis in his recent encyclical On Care for our Common Home.

A time of peril

We are living in a time of peril. Global warming is the most conspicuous indicator of this. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has spelt out the implications. Yet the response from governments has been at best minimal and business continues as usual

In fact, many of the policies of governments and corporations are making things worse. The city of Nadym, in the extreme north of Siberia, looks forward to being ‘the centre of gravity of the world economy’ as much of the Arctic Ocean becomes free of ice every summer. The Russian government plans to connect the port city to various inland centres to export their oil and gas. It plans to reopen a military base on the Novosibirsk Islands. Eleven countries have appointed Arctic ambassadors to promote their national interests. Companies of various nationalities intend to use the sea route to mine across the region, posing all kinds of hazards to the environment.

The U.S. government has given Royal Dutch Shell a green light to drill for oil and natural gas in the Arctic Ocean, following an intense battle with environmentalists over President Barack Obama’s climate and energy agenda.

In October 2015 the Australian Government gave approval to the Adani Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland. It would produce up to 60 million tonnes of coal for export per year, thereby adding a corresponding amount of carbon to the atmosphere. Its Abbot Point terminals are located close to the Great Barrier Reef.

Meanwhile around the world the technologies of violence continue to develop. There are still enough nuclear weapons and delivery systems to destroy the human race. They are being augmented by so-called missile shields and by installations like Pine Gap, near Alice Springs. Pine Gap has multiple functions; these include: providing early warning ballistic missile launches, targeting of nuclear weapons, providing battlefield intelligence data for United States armed forces, and contributing targeting data to United States drone attacks, for example in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

photo wind generators
20120922_09_Turbines, David Clarke, flickr cc.

Why do such outrages persist in violation of common sense and the active protests of millions around the world? To answer this we have to look at the values, the ways that different groups of people understand our relationship with one another and with the natural world. For it is at the deepest level that something has gone profoundly wrong.

In this paper I propose that we reflect on the present predicament, and on the metaphysical premises and notion of the good life that underlie present economic and political practice. I propose too that we examine the alternatives—and the possibility of ecological conversion, as called for by Pope Francis.

Converging technologies

When we try to understand all the processes that pose such hazards for the human race and the earth itself we come face to face with technology. Technology is first of all the complex of means that provide the material objects and the range of services that our culture desires. Moreover, these objects and services produced are increasingly technological entities, for example information technology systems and defence systems. So technology has become increasingly the end as well as the means. Technology is in fact the central preoccupation of our age.

To understand the world view that underlies the direction of our technology and to see its full implications for the future, let us look first at the forward thrust of science and technology. There is now a growing number of fields such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology and climate studies where it is not possible to separate the scientific from the technological. Here the cutting edge of science makes use of the technological contribution to research and furthers human powers to intervene into and control the world. This integration of science and technology is now called technoscience.

In 2002 the National Science Foundation (USA) put out a paper on certain new frontiers that they call converging technologies. These include the following: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science.

Nanotechnology involves the attempt to build up new materials and devices from the very atoms, regarding the atoms and molecules as elementary bricks. The proponents, Roco and Bainbridge, say that this is fabrication from the ‘bottom-up’ and that it somehow mimics the way biology builds very complex systems out of simple molecules.

Nanotechnology provides the key to the worldview underlying the converging technologies. In this view all things can be reduced to the material building blocks. According to the proponents:

Convergence of diverse technologies is based on material unity at the nanoscale and on technology integration from that scale. The building blocks of matter that are fundamental to all sciences originate at the nanoscale. Revolutionary advances at the interfaces between previously separate fields of science and technology are ready to create key transforming tools for NBIC (nano-bio-info-cogno) technologies.

Biotechnology includes genetic engineering and a range of related new developments. Roco & Bainbridge claim that recent work in biotechnology and computer science may make it possible to create “bio-nano processors” for programming complex biological pathways that will mimic cellular processes on a chip.

photo climate march
Pope Francis visits Washington, 9/24/15, Susan Melkisethian, flickr cc.

Canadian environmentalists in the ETC Group note that biotechnology includes synthetic biology, an industry that creates ‘designer organisms’ to act as ‘living factories’. The idea is that microorganisms in fermentation vats will transform biomass into a wide range of chemicals, plastics, fuels, pharmaceuticals and other high value compounds. Synthetic biology goes further than current genetic engineering techniques. It involves building up genetic material, DNA, from scratch, using machines that can print the DNA to order. ‘Synthetic biologists proceed on the assumption that DNA… forms a code that instructs a living organism how to function. By rewriting that code, they claim they can programme life forms much like programming a computer.’

However, there are even more radical applications. As an example, Adam Rutherford reported on ‘the rise of the spider goats’. Some researchers wanted to produce spider web fibres for industrial purposes. So they took DNA from a spider and implanted it in a goat, so that spider silk protein could be obtained from the goat’s milk. Rutherford quotes MIT professor Ron Weiss who started working with the code of life while coding computers. He said: ‘I decided to take what we understand in computing and apply it to programming biology. To me, that’s really the essence of synthetic biology.’

American biologist Craig Venter has claimed he is creating artificial life and said this landmark is ‘a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before.’

Cognitive Neuroscience involves the search for technological breakthroughs that could enhance individuals’ mental and interaction abilities. According to Roco and Bainbridge:

The convergence of [these technologies] could create new scientific methodologies… and industrial products that would enhance human mental and interactive abilities. By uniting these disciplines, science would become ready to succeed in a rapid program to understand the structure and functions of the human mind, the Human Cognome Project. Truly, the mind is the final frontier, and unravelling its mysteries will have tremendous practical benefits.

photo climate march 2
Coal and climate change debt action, Yarra Climate Action Now, flickr cc.

The National Science Foundation team envisages the ability to control the genetics of humans, animals, and agricultural plants and, furthermore, ‘widespread consensus about ethical, legal, and moral issues will be built in the process.’ So even consensus is to be engineered through the converging technologies!

The military factor

Closely related to these technologies are the new military technologies. The technological dynamism that gives rise to the remarkable civil innovations simultaneously provides the military with its new generations of weapons and tactics—now drones and robotic warfare.

P W Singer, in his book Wired for war, defines robots as machines that are built on a ‘sense-think-act’ paradigm. They have three key components: ‘sensors’ that detect changes in the environment, ‘processors’ or ‘artificial intelligence’ that decides how to respond, and ‘effectors’ that act on those decisions. When these three parts act together the robot functions as an artificial organism. Some robots are controlled directly by a human being, while others are designed to have varying degrees of autonomy in what they do with the information they process:

It is this part of robots that makes decisions, artificial intelligence, that may be the part most important to their impact on war. Up until today, each of the functions of war took place within the human body and mind… Now each of these tasks is being outsourced to the machine. For this reason, the US military funds as much as 80 percent of all artificial intelligence research in the United States.

Artificial intelligence links the new civil and military technologies, being a central feature of both. For the military planners increased autonomy for the robots is a goal—for example to design unmanned systems to automatically identify, target and neutralise the weapons used by the enemy. By 2007 the US Army had invited proposals for a system that could carry out ‘fully autonomous engagement without human intervention’.

The development of autonomous weapons represents a revolution in war technology—releasing violence from direct human control. There is a grave danger that this will lead to a global artificial intelligence arms race. It is impossible to imagine all the consequences.

Reductionist world views

The environmentalist ETC Group sum up the implications of the converging technologies in these words:

When the known world is reduced, literally, to atoms and molecules made up of chemical elements, the difference between life and non-life—between biology and art—ceases to exist. The fundamental building blocks of bio, info and neuro are ‘materially unified’ at the nano-scale and therefore can be combined, or otherwise manipulated through, atom technology.

As philosopher Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent observes: ‘It is as if science, having deciphered the book of nature, is now going to rewrite it… Everything—sky, earth, life, spirit—can be rethought, and reconstructed by the engineer.’To understand the full implications we need to recall the Discourse on Method of René Descartes. He saw the natural world in dualistic terms. The human mind was rational or spiritual, while all other entities in the universe, whether organic or inorganic, were material and their actions could be explained in terms of a mechanical model. Moreover, since the material world is mathematical in character, our mastery of the sciences gives us the power to modify and develop nature. So it is our destiny to use nature, to remodel it for our human wellbeing and progress.

Descartes’ dream of mastery over nature, through the understanding of its mathematical character, appears to reach fulfilment in the converging technologies. However, his notion of the world as a complex machine is replaced with the new concepts in which both inanimate and living things are reduced to atoms and molecules. In this modern worldview (known as materialistic monism) the human mind is no longer spiritual but is also reduced to the fundamental particles—to the point that, in the Human Cognome Project, the mysteries of the mind are to be finally unravelled.

However, there is a further complexity in the perspective of the converging technologies. The proponents argue:

With the discovery and recording of the human genome and other genomes, we essentially have the machine language of life in front of us. In a sense, this is the instruction set of a big computer program that we do not otherwise understand: we have only the binary code, not the source code. There is a huge amount of work to reverse-engineer this binary code, and we are going to have to rely on computing power to understand what these programs are doing.

This obscure wording reveals a view of matter as the embodiment of information, and of living things as the embodiment of a binary code as used in a computer. Cracking a genetic code is seen as equivalent to unravelling a computer program.

Philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy observes that the converging technologies program is thereby shot through by an enormous paradox. The underlying assumptions are monist: nature, life and the mind are governed by the same principles of organisation, and these are mechanistic principles. Yet ‘life is regarded as a digest of information—the blueprint for the fabrication of living beings themselves. The materialist monism of modern science has suddenly become a spiritualist monism… Nature is interpreted as if it were a creation of the mind.’ Both views are of course reductionist; that is, they reduce all reality to a single principle.

Reductionist ethics – power

The point of this analysis is not to arouse fear of coming developments. We should not assume that the proponents of the converging technologies will succeed in all of their schemes. Some of their ideas may turn out to be impractical. Furthermore, political campaigns may manage to stop some of the developments that pose real dangers for us. The point rather is to throw light on the kind of metaphysics that underlies these programs at the very cutting edge of technoscience.

This metaphysical perspective is associated with an ethical perspective, that is a view of what constitutes the good life. This ethic, which goes back to Descartes, is one in which human beings exercise the power to modify and develop nature for our own ends. This has since hardened to a view in which the natural world and its ecosystems are seen as having no intrinsic value but are merely assemblies of elementary particles or bits of information. Thus they are reduced to a set of resources for human benefit alone. And it is important to note that such control over nature involves at the same time the domination of some human beings over others. (A simple example is the impact of mining on Indigenous communities.)

These ethical values constitute the ruling values of the day. They are embodied in the global capitalist economy and in the development of the technosciences. This system assumes that we can continue economic growth with lifestyles characterised by excessive domestic energy demand, private cars, air travel, and the expansion of military systems. Technology is at once the means to pursue such goals and at the same time the very substance of economic development and of political power. It is even, for many, the ‘progress’ that we cannot stop. As Pope Francis put it, technology is often viewed as the principal key to the meaning of existence.

Our economic/technological system, is characterised by a relentless drive for power both in the pursuit of material goods and in mobility, at the cost of the environment, and in the simultaneous development and accumulation of powerful weapons. This drive recognises no natural or cultural limits. Yet its pursuit is considered the essence of the good life. As historian Lewis Mumford expressed it: ‘There is only one efficient speed, faster; only one attractive destination, farther away; only one desirable size, bigger… On these assumptions the object of human life, and therefore of the entire productive mechanism, is to remove limits, to hasten the pace of change, to smooth out seasonal rhythms and reduce regional contrasts.’

The possession of such power poses an enormous ethical paradox. Jacques Ellul argues: ‘We delegate power to technique. Thanks to it we have achieved an unequalled power. But the greater the power is, the harder it is to master it.’ Technology represents power. But ‘no one can master power… by its very nature power forbids all questioning and slips away from all attempts to seize it.’

The converging technologies are explicitly based on a reductionist view of the universe, either materialist or idealist. Moreover, while not always stated, such a view underlies all enterprises that treat the natural world simply as a set of resources for our use. For example, when industrialists or politicians deny global warming, refuse effective action or persist in the fossil fuel-based economy, they are treating nature as of no value in itself. At the same time they are disvaluing the lives of human communities and their future generations.

In the capitalist economy the prime indicator of economic wellbeing is Gross Domestic Product. This reduces the worth of all our activities to a single number—a perfect reflection of the reductionist values of the system. As Terry Eagleton observes, capitalism ‘compels us to invest most of our creative energies in matters that are in fact purely utilitarian. The means of life become the end. Life consists in laying the material infrastructure for living…’

An organic view

In his encyclical, Laudato-si’, Pope Francis has drawn attention to the need for a different view of the world and of the good life, one that challenges the ruling view radically and in appropriate spiritual depth:

Ecological culture cannot be reduced to a series of urgent and partial responses to the immediate problems of pollution, environmental decay and the depletion of natural resources. There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational programme, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm.

The reductionist metaphysics and ethics that underlie the development of the technosciences have led us to the present environmental crisis of which global warming is the most striking manifestation. What then are the alternatives to this view? To what extent are people engaging with the natural world in ways outside (or partly outside) the ruling paradigm? And what future options are open to us?

In contrast with the reductionist view we have other traditions that also have a long history. An important strand is what we may call the organic view. In the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, this found powerful expression in the work of the writers and artists of the Romantic Era. In the face of the industrial revolution they kept alive a sense of the beauty and sublimity of nature.

This organic view goes beyond Descartes’ dualism. It asserts that it is not possible to reduce reality to simple categories, such as matter or information, still less to reduce living organisms to mechanisms. In this view, nature is not just a set of resources for human use but has its own intrinsic value.

Early in the 20th century Alfred North Whitehead argued that the mechanistic view and its underlying assumptions had become ‘too narrow for the concrete facts which are before it for analysis’. Thus, in order to take account of modern scientific thought, we need a view ‘which shall stand nearer to the complete concreteness of our intuitive experience.’ He argued that the scientific scheme needed to be ‘recast and founded on the ultimate concept of organism’.

For Whitehead science has something to gain from the poetic perception. Commenting on Wordsworth, he observed: ‘It is the brooding presence of the hills that haunts him. His theme is nature in solido. That is to say, he dwells on that mysterious presence of surrounding things, which imposes itself on any separate element that we set up as an individual for its own sake. He always grasps the whole of nature as involved in the tonality of the particular instance.’

In contrast to the reductionist, monistic views, the organic view looks at the world in all its diversity: the elements, soil, plants, and animals, including ourselves. The natural world is at once familiar yet evoking wonder. Thus it has a quality of wildness; it is not something we own. Commenting on Henry David Thoreau’s famous aphorism, ‘in wildness is the preservation of the world’, Neil Evernden observes that while wilderness can be regarded as a thing, susceptible to identification and management, wildness ‘lies beyond the objects in question, a quality which directly confronts and confounds our designs… The essential core of otherness is essentially nameless and cannot be assumed within our abstractions.’

Choice of technology

We have seen how in the reductionist perspective technology is bound up with a relentless drive for power and that, paradoxically, when we persist in this pursuit we are ultimately unable to master this power. In contrast, within the organic perspective there is no such technological imperative. Instead we have great freedom in our choice of technology, with no need to accept every innovation. We refrain from choosing some of the options that are open to us. We set limits, and thereby preserve our freedom.

In this perspective we choose certain technologies as appropriate to our culture. In particular we can choose those that are grounded in an ecological matrix and are conducive to building and strengthening local communities. In this way we can provide ourselves with what we need to sustain ourselves in wellbeing and happiness and, through science, to better understand the world. We can produce artefacts that are beautiful and useful. But we do not pursue an open-ended set of wants, still less the radical reshaping of the world’s ecosystems and genetic codes.

Many current technologies are in tune, at least potentially, with an organic perspective. Benefits in medical science are plain to see. Some information technologies can greatly facilitate communication between people and often enhance the quality of their lives. Also many new technologies lead to environmental benefits, for example in providing renewable sources of energy or enabling ecological monitoring and powerful modelling, as in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Some of these technologies may have been developed in a reductionist environment. If so it is important to try and reorient them into an organic perspective. Others have an explicit organic context and history.

Popular technologies

To further explore our understanding of technology let us examine the dynamics of the newest popular information technologies. The social media now feature many products that are brilliant, convenient and attractive. Sue Halpern, in a New York Review article about the late Steve Jobs, points out that when the Apple company produced a new product like iPod or iPad, Steve ‘transformed the product launch into a theatrical production, building suspense in the months and weeks beforehand with leaks and rumours about “revolutionary” and “magical” features, and then renting out large auditoriums, orchestrating the event down to the smallest detail.’

And he was successful. The dynamism of these ever changing technologies provides a powerful mystique. Many people around the world have adopted these products of information technology and made them absolutely central to their lifestyle. In addition to providing entertainment, these developments now have a major role in the universal sharing of ideas and experiences; like-minded groups and isolated individuals can keep in touch and work together, and international movements of solidarity can be strengthened.

However, while they have an important place, the capacity of the information technologies to bring about human community is limited. Sometimes they become a substitute for direct face-to-face human contact. Some technologies, for example video games, take us away from an engagement with people and nature, and draw us more deeply into the world of technology—a virtual world in place of the natural. As Pope Francis puts it: ‘Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim, thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature.’

Furthermore, these new products have an ominous downside in the loss of privacy. Reviewing a number of books on this topic, David Cole notes that Amazon Kindle tracks what you read; Facebook can predict race, sexual orientation, political ideology, etc.; Google monitors your e-mails and web searches in order to direct particular advertising to you. Furthermore: ‘Our data are collected in the first instance by private corporations, but are increasingly exploited, as Edward Snowden has shown, by government intelligence agencies’—in particular the National Security Agency.

And what about the unseen environmental impacts. For example, millions of mobile phones, laptops, toys, cameras, etc. create a flood of dangerous e-waste that is put into containers dumped illegally in developing countries.

So there is a certain ambiguity in the popular technologies. The widespread enthusiasm, even euphoria, for information technologies and social media needs to be tempered with a more critical approach—in which we make careful choices as to which technologies to adopt and which to reject. It is important to avoid the open-ended pursuit of innovation—above all to reject the reductionist ethic, with its pursuit of power.

A deeper commitment

Our metaphysical understanding of the world has profound implications for the way we act and for our understanding of the good life. In particular, an organic view of the natural world implies a culture that is very different from the present economy of high consumption and militarism. How can such radical change come about? It will require a new kind of engagement with the world, one that goes against the current. For many this will mean a difficult and courageous life of hard work, activism and development of political theory. While such activities are vital, on their own they are not sufficient, for the challenge that confronts us calls for a commitment in the very depths of our being.

In developing such a commitment, it is important to draw on the past and on the wisdom that has been acquired. In particular, many will draw on the depths of the great religious traditions. Generally in these traditions there is a sense of a transcendent reality: the natural world is full of richness and meaning, yet at the same time it points to something beyond itself. I will look at one stream, namely the Christian tradition. I believe this is of the utmost relevance, paradoxically at the very time that many have abandoned it.

The Kingdom: simplicity and non-violence

At the centre of the Christian tradition is the theme of the Kingdom of God. Early in his public ministry Jesus proclaimed the beatitudes. The first of these is as follows: ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God’.

How are we to understand this strange saying: ‘Blessed are you poor’? Many dismiss it as something entirely other-worldly and impractical. Others have interpreted the beatitudes as ‘counsels of perfection’—something to aim at but achieved only by saints and by members of religious orders that take poverty very seriously. This interpretation is no longer considered adequate. More recently some theologians, including those writing on the theology of liberation, have put forward new insights: this first beatitude is seen as affirming and empowering the poor and oppressed. They are the main bearers of the Kingdom. The ‘preferential option for the poor’ is now mainstream in Catholic teaching, while related commitments occur in the other Christian traditions.

Palestine at the time of Christ was the object of imperial oppression and deep poverty. So here Jesus is telling the marginalised and destitute that a quite different future is possible, that they themselves are the agents of that future. He is turning the ruling ideology on its head and proclaiming the seemingly impossible. What he is proclaiming is a thorough transformation of persons and community, in which justice and compassion are central. This Kingdom comes as a gift from God yet requires our collaboration.

Elias Chacour, a Palestinian priest, explains that in the Aramaic spoken by Jesus, the word translated as ‘blessed’ has an active intent. It means ‘to set yourself on the right way for the right goal; to turn around, repent’. So the first beatitude could be loosely translated as: Get up, go ahead, you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. According to Mark Hathaway and Leonardo Boff, Malkuta, the Aramaic word used by Jesus and normally translated as ‘Kingdom’, refers to ‘the ruling principles that guide our lives towards unity’. The Malkuta is that which gives us the sense of ‘I can’, an empowering vision rooted not in domination but in the presence of the divine in the cosmos.

And how does it apply to those of us in 21st-century Australia who are not poor, who have the material things we need and have a range of choices open to us? Clearly we need to support and be in solidarity with the poor. But now it is possible to see a further dimension to the saying. It is the basis for an authentic response to the environmental crisis of today. It is time to reject the ruling ideology that we need more things, economic growth, a higher standard of living, etc. Since the Kingdom belongs to the poor, it is far removed from any ideology of wealth and power. The path to the good life is one of simplicity in which we make do with little.

The Kingdom, with its fullness of life, is here in all its immediacy. We don’t have to acquire anything but rather awaken to the present and see the beauty in our local place. We are told in the gospel of Matthew: ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.’

Following on directly from the beatitudes, Matthew’s gospel adds yet another dimension to our understanding of the Kingdom: ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.’ We have here a call to a radical non-violence. It goes beyond any facile judgement as to who is just and who is unjust and opens up the potential for reconciliation.

The Kingdom involves our relationships with one another in community and our relationship with the natural world. Its spirituality is one of full engagement with the world. It involves a vibrant, creative life characterised by justice, compassion, non-violence, ecological practice and building up of community. The Kingdom is political and ecological yet at the same time mystical. It is present here and now but at the same time transcendent. It demands our sustained work yet comes as a gift. All creation is filled with its power and meaning.

The ecological vocation

In the perspective of the Kingdom how do we respond to the global environmental crisis? According to Pope Francis, we are called to a deep conversion—a change of heart ‘whereby the effects of people’s encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them’. He says that ‘this conversion calls for a number of attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness. First, it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift… It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.’

Following such a conversion, I believe that many people are being called to an explicitly ecological vocation—one in which we try to awaken a will to conserve the treasures of creation and heal the damage done to it. This vocation is also a journey, a pilgrimage, of a kind that differs greatly from one person to another. Generally it will start from the local, with a strong sense of the place we live in and all that is special to it.

The ecological life is one of simplicity. Mark Burch observes that ‘thousands of lovers of simplicity have practiced the art quietly and unobtrusively… The very nature of their journey… shrinks their footprints on the world, making them progressively less visible to their neighbours. As this journey unfolds, one can actually fall in love with the aesthetic of minimalism, with an image of lightness of being and of the gracefulness that characterises changing seasons… that leave no traces.’

For some people the journey will entail the recovery and development of their own traditional culture. For others it will find poetic or artistic expression. For many people today the journey involves growing food and producing what they need locally. Pope Francis observes that ‘there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens.’

In Melbourne, for example, groups of people are developing the most diverse and productive gardens in private yards or in community plots. Trees, shrubs, vegetables and animals are all integrated, often in ways that mimic wild ecosystems. As well as constituting a key to the good life, such activities have wider environmental implications. If we produce more of what we need close to where it is consumed, we reduce the need for long distance transportation, while participation in local ecological or cultural activity also reduces the need to travel and the consequent demand for fuels.

Some may regard such lifestyles as austere. But in fact they embody a distinctive view of the good life. As Pope Francis notes: ‘Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption… Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full.’

Such ventures and lifestyles have profound economic significance too. The people engaged in them are initiating a shift away from an economy of maximal consumption—an economy in which means become ends—to an organic economy based on a sustainable and equitable understanding of the good life.

Engagement with the land

As part of my own journey I have been involved with ‘Friends’ groups that work to restore elements of the indigenous ecology and protect animal species through planting, weeding and systematic monitoring. Through this work we become familiar with our own place, with its special character, its mystery.

We discover too the spatial patterns in the landscape. The ecosystems have been shaped by topography, rock type, rainfall and the history of human use, going back to Aboriginal management in the profound culture of the Dreaming. The whole countryside today is criss-crossed by corridors rich in remnants of the original ecosystems. They run along rivers and creeks, along roadsides and railway reserves, forming a rich ecological matrix, in which sustainable productive activity can take place. This landscape is full of power and meaning, if we care to encounter it.

Engagement with the land will have to be at the core of our communal response to the environmental crisis. In becoming familiar with the land, in its complex diversity and connections, we open up insights into the way our economy will need to go if we are all to live sustainably on the earth.

We need to re-connect the remnant ecological networks throughout the countryside and to integrate the farms, towns and cities into this matrix. Even the world’s megacities need to be permeated by corridors of greenness. I envisage sustainable cities in a beautiful and restored countryside, where life is full of meaning, warmth, adventure. People have restored remnant forests and woodlands. They build beautiful houses, grow food organically and experiment with simple energy systems. They practice hospitality and work with others to transform city, town and district.

A new synthesis

This time of peril for the human race and for the earth is a time in which we are called to stand up to the prevailing powers. It is important to support the many groups and networks of people who are acting politically to stop further environmental damage and to oppose military power and its expansion.

At the same time it is necessary to engage in critique of the underlying dynamics and to articulate the alternative way. As Pope Francis put it: ‘There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking… a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance’ to the present assault.

I have drawn attention to two inter-related features of the dominant power system: the reductionist metaphysics that underlies the frontiers of technoscience and the power ethic associated with this. Such views are implicit in all enterprises that treat the natural world simply as a set of resources, as in the global capitalist economy with its unending economic growth. To question the underpinnings of the power system is in itself a way of being active. It is subversive, because the system does not admit of such questioning.

At the heart of our active work is the practice of ecology, simplicity and non-violence. Our active and political life needs to be balanced by our inner life—one of awareness and on-going reflection, leading us deeper into the mystery of creation.

Today there are many people working together for social justice and care of the earth. They do not all share the same vision, and it is important that we accept one another, recognising the good work done by those who do not fully agree with us and avoiding any new or old type of sectarianism. There will be many alliances and some democratic compromises. But what about those who actively or institutionally oppose us? Even in struggling against their power, it is important to retain an openness to the people. To reject them would be to fall back into the kind of culture that we wish to go beyond.

The outcome is not something we can predict, and there is no place for facile optimism. Many throughout the world are fully experiencing violence and terrible tragedy day after day. Yet it is important to speak out, without ceasing, of what is true and also of what is possible—and to articulate the different vision of the good life—in the hope that others may listen. And is it possible that even in this time of peril there is indeed hope, as Pope Francis dreams?

An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door.

Notes on sources

A time of peril. Nadym: John Vidal, The Guardian Weekly, 7 Feb. 2014. Royal Dutch Shell: Wall Street Journal, 17 Aug. 2015. Adani Carmichael: The Age, 16 October 2015. Pine Gap: Nautilis Institute (website). Pope Francis, Laudato si: encyclical letter of the Holy Father Francis on care for our common home (2015).

Converging technologies. M C Roco & W S Bainbridge (eds), Converging technologies for improving human performance (NSF/DOC-sponsored report, Arlington, Virginia, 2002). Synthetic biology: ETC Group, The new biomassters: synthetic biology and the next assault on biodiversity and livelihoods (Report on ETC Group website, 2010). ‘The spider goats’: Adam Rutherford, The Guardian Weekly, 17 Feb. 2012. Craig Venter and artificial life: The Guardian, 6 October 2007.

The military factor. P W Singer, Wired for war: the robotics revolution and conflict in the twenty-first century (Penguin, 2009).

Reductionist world views. ETC Group, The Strategy for Converging Technologies, Communiqué, no. 78 (2003). Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, Les vertiges de la technoscience: Façonner le monde atome par atome (Editions La Découverte, Paris, 2009). Jean-Pierre Dupuy, The mark of the sacred (Stanford UP, 2013).

Reductionist ethics. Lewis Mumford, The myth of the machine, volume 2: The pentagon of power (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1970). Jacques Ellul, The technological bluff (Eerdmans, 1990). Terry Eagleton, The meaning of life (OUP, 2007).

An organic view. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the modern world (Macmillan, 1926). Neil Evernden, The social creation of nature (Johns Hopkins UP, 1992).

Popular technologies. Sue Halpern, Who was Steve Jobs?, New York Review, 12 Jan. 2012 (pp. 24-26). David Cole, The new America, New York Review, 13 Aug. 2015 (pp. 18-22). Dangerous e-waste: John Vidal, The Guardian Weekly, 20 Dec 2013.

The Kingdom. Luke 6:20 (RSV). Elias Chacour, We belong to the land (HarperCollins, 1992). Mark Hathaway & Leonardo Boff, The Tao of liberation: exploring the ecology of transformation (Orbis Books, 2009). Matthew 6:28-34 & 5:44-45.

The ecological vocation: Mark Burch, Voluntary simplicity: the middle way to sustainability, in Voluntary simplicity, ed. Samuel Alexander (Stead & Daughters Ltd, Whanganui, NZ, 2009, pp. 27-54). 

Dr Geoff Lacey is an environmental engineer, ecologist, and honorary senior fellow in the School of Geography, University of Melbourne. His most recent book is Sufficient for the day: towards a sustainable culture (Yarra Institute Press, 2011).


Print Friendly, PDF & Email