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The vision of Ecological Civilization

By Lloyd Hebert

The world is changing. Indeed, it always is, yet the developments of recent years would seem to indicate that we are at a radical juncture in history. The Global Financial Crisis cracked the veneer of neoliberalism, and shattered the hegemony of this ideology. Computer and networking technology has seen the rise of huge tech corporations that collect, process, and apply huge amounts of data and make business off of it. Postmodern and post-structuralist philosophy has re-emerged and empowered a generation of activists to fight for equality for all people, under the banner of what some might term 'identity politics', yet simultaneously economic inequality continues to grow apace, homelessness rises, and structural unemployment and underemployment persists.

And what about environmentalism? It seems that finally, climate change deniers are being left in the dust, and that awareness of environmental issues is increasing, and is greater now than ever. Yet at the same time, we have people like Scott Morrison proudly parading a lump of coal in parliament; a political class, including the Labor opposition (but not the Greens) supporting the Adani coal mine project; and continuing deforestation around the country. The environmental movement should seize upon this period of change, to push itself into the political and cultural mainstream. This is an ambitious proposition, but it is nothing less than what is needed if we are to avert environmental destruction. If the environmental movements and organisations of Australia, and the world, can cooperate on a large-scale project, this political and cultural change can happen. The vision that I would propose to underlie this broad cooperation would be that of Ecological Civilization.

As alluded to above, despite the complicity of the political class in the wrecking of Australia's environment and its ecosystems, they are still in government. Many Australians are outraged by these policies, evinced by the work of the Stop Adani movement, the protests in the forests and on the streets against destructive logging operations, and the day to day work of Australia's many environmental organisations. But far too many Australians are confused, or concerned yet inactive, or whilst acknowledging the importance of the environment, do not yet hold it as a high priority compared to other political concerns. Humanity is creating the disruption and destruction that will drive changes of global proportions, which will radically alter the Earth and its capacity for life. And yet collectively, our response is not enough; the mainstream of politics and culture is not responding to this imminent crisis. If we are to change the course of history, to create a future for humanity, environmentalism must become a key concern in Australian life and politics.

But how would environmentalism surge into the mainstream? And what exactly is this project I am proposing? These questions run side by side, and I will try to answer them thusly. The historical changes that we have been witnessing provide new ground to cultivate, a new opening. Neoliberal free-market economics are on the way out. Even if we are behind the ball in Australia ('Jobs and Growth'), the hegemonic power of free market thinking is gone; regulations, government spending, and issuing currency are all back. Now a space has opened up to put politics before economics; it's not about creating the best conditions for the economy and encouraging growth, rather the economy should be put to the service of democratically determined imperatives, such as full employment, environmental protection, and many more possibilities. Combine this with a historical period which demands radical changes for how we live on this planet if we are to survive, and the political and cultural space for environmental politics opens up.

Our tendencies towards environmental destruction, however, will not be undone overnight. This is because our society's destructive interaction with nature has profound roots, stemming from deeply held assumptions about reality and nature, and long running traditions of social and economic organisation. This is why a new environmental politics does not feel obvious. To create the change we need, and the philosophical framework to re-address the assumptions and contradictions of our society, I argue that we need the vision of Ecological Civilization.

Ecological Civilization

To explain what Ecological Civilization is, I will begin with a vision to which it is opposed. Much of our modern society draws its lineage from European, Roman and Greek history. From the Greeks onward, we have inherited, and contributed original developments to, a longstanding tradition which has shaped our understanding of the world through the sciences and the arts, our relationship to each other through moral thought, institutions and government, and our understanding of work, property, power and wealth. There are countless thinkers and traditions involved, but I will highlight three that are of crucial importance; Hobbes, Descartes and Newton.

Informed from his horror at the English Civil War, Hobbes argued in his famous work Leviathan, that society was based on individuals, out of their own self-interest, entering into a contract and endowing power to the sovereign. His ideas would be developed into what is now known as social contract theory. This has had a profound influence on political thought, which has led us to place self-interest at the centre of politics and economics, creating the picture of ­homo economicus—humans as rationally self-interested consumers—and has thus been instrumental in supporting free market economics.

Descartes, who sought a method to find truth, used radical doubt to question everything, and famously arrived at the certainty of 'I think, therefore I am'. By placing certainty at the locus of thought, he created a mind-body dualism which now pervades our society. Thought became the centre of subjectivity and agency, and everything that was unthinking was rendered as inert or stupid. As Herman Daly and John Cobb Jr. put it in For the Common Good, "For Ethical reflection, this has mean that human enjoyment or virtue constitutes what is valuable in itself. Everything else is a means to that end." The legacy of Descartes thought has bequeathed to us a human-nature dualism, whereby we see nature as resources to be put to use to our own ends.

Newton's Principia Mathematica outlined a new metaphysics for understanding the world. At the very base level, he argued, matter itself was inert and devoid of life. All activity was explained by cause and effect, thus stripping any spirituality from the world, and finally undoing the ancient Greek idea of telos, the purpose or goal of things in the world. As such, the universe was increasingly understood by the clockwork metaphor, as a cosmic arrangement of matter regularly and precisely moved by causes and their subsequent effects. Seeing the universe as fundamentally non-creative, this would feed a vision of progress in which humans would seek technological mastery over the universe, and a constant quest for greater efficiency.

These are some of the cornerstone ideas that underpin our modern understanding of the world. The legacy of these thinkers, and how their legacies would intermix with each other, have limited our ability to understand and conceive the world. They have created an unholy synthesis where we see destructive technology feeding the mastery and subjugation of nature, all to feed the endless desire for consumption. Now these ideas are not the only legacy of thought we hold, nor do they determine our future. But we must come to terms with how our deeply held assumptions about the world limit our possibilities to create new ideas and new futures.

Ecological Civilization is a vision for a civilization that lives not sustainably on its environment, but in harmony with it, engaging creatively with the environment to augment and enrich it, and to celebrate the value and complexity of all life. Ecological Civilization is a tradition which understands humans to be primarily cultural beings, not rational beings. Society is not built upon a contract that restrains the antagonism between self-interested individuals. Rather, society emerges from the recognition that people living and working together accord to one another, the stories they tell themselves and each other, and the habits, customs, and eventually laws that they establish.

Australian environmental philosopher Arran Gare has argued for the significance of Eco-Poiesis in Ecological Civilization. In his paper Toward an Ecological Civilization: The Science, Ethics, and Politics of Eco-Poiesis, Gare argues for the centrality of the science of ecology, from the scale of the micro-organism to Lovelock's "Gaia" hypothesis (the surface of the Earth considered to be a self-regulating macro-organism). To cover the complexity of the paper briefly, life is understood as emerging from the cooperation of and communication between dynamic processes which have their own significance and autonomy, which create larger processes and communities of processes and organisms. The very possibility of complex life emerges from the creativity of nature itself, thus eliminating any human-nature dualism, and reanimating all life with value and purpose.

Process philosophy

Of central importance to the vision of Ecological Civilization is process philosophy. Process philosophy understands the world to be primarily not matter, but processes; a world not of things, but of change. The world as we understand it, it is argued, emerged from simple processes encountering or interacting with each other, leading to more complex processes emerging. The emergence of these more complex processes could not have been predicted, as they are more than the sum of their parts. These complex processes can then interact with their environment, and create the conditions they require to flourish. Humanity is understood to be an emergent phenomenon in nature, and the civilizations we build to be emergent phenomenon from us, all existing within nature. Reality itself, at the most basic level, is understood to be fundamentally creative, and some thinkers have made the point that the emergence of humanity should be understood as the universe becoming conscious of itself.

For the sake of brevity, I have had to use basic outlines, of both the heritage of Modernity, and of Ecological Civilization. Yet I hope it is apparent that, broadly speaking, one vision sees us at worst as the masters of nature in a cold and empty universe, and at best as perfect technicians living sustainably upon nature, efficiently extracting the most possible without causing disruption. The other vision sees us and our civilization as part of nature, an expression of the universe. Our being is not to order nature to our purposes, rather we constantly become toward the future, conserving and enriching the complexity of nature, celebrating its beauty and integrity, all unified by the stories we tell each other informed from many diverse voices. This is not a blue print for a new utopia, but rather the potential for cultural transformation, to set off a spark, or plant a seed, that generations from now will carry on and interpret in their own way. It is a crucial chance to break away from the destructive and avaricious tendencies of our society, so that there may be a future for us to enjoy.

So, after this philosophical odyssey, where are now? From what I have outlined above, I would argue that we, as a society, must tackle this deep, underlying vision of the world that we currently hold. The environmental crisis, and our inability to confront it, reflects the deep contradictions of our assumptions and beliefs. A crack has opened—the possibility for change is here. Yet the philosophical vision that underlies our society restricts and resists change.

In the face of 'Jobs and Growth', fear mongering about how environmental protections will undermine jobs, and hearing of the need for a 'smooth transition' from fossil fuels (a bi-word for extending the life of the coal and oil industries), we must put politics before economics. And we cannot do this unless we refute the idea of homo economicus, unless we provide an alternative to the self-interested individual, an idea which prohibits an economy that is geared towards collective deliberation rather than maximising individual consumption. Likewise, our policies must go beyond sustainability, and we must forward a vision that sees us living in a collaborative harmony with nature, augmenting natural ecosystems rather than merely reducing our impacts upon them. And crucially, we must bring humanity's relationship with the environment back to everyday life.

Environmental movements as an ecosystem

Broadly speaking, I see the environmental movements in Australia existing as an ecosystem; each organisation has their role to play, and diversity augments the collective. Grass-roots, large-scale campaign groups, policy minded folk, conservationists working with a particular species, and the permaculture movement, all make their significant contributions. But all these groups must face the reality that if we are to avert disaster, environmentalism and environmental change must become a part of Australian daily life and daily politics. I propose Ecological Civilization as a vision to unify environmentalists in common projects, and as a vision to tackle our society's resistance to change. This is not a merging of groups, or the towing of a political line. But it can be a shared spark, or a common seed, that lights the way to different possibilities, that grows the hope of a new future. It can pave the way forward to cooperation, communication, and new initiatives.

Ecological Civilization should not be understood as limited to the aims or statement of governments, including the Communist Part of China, but rather as an international collaboration between academics and thinkers.

For anyone interested in finding out more about Ecological Civilization, I highly recommend reading the works of Arran Gare. Most of his works are available through the website and

I hope that this is the beginning of new interactions. Currently, I am writing for a newspaper called 'A New Kind of Human', and I encourage anyone with questions or ideas to email me at [email protected] ‒ Lloyd Hebert.

Published in Chain Reaction #133, September 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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