Wile human beings have always exploited one another, and even looked down upon the so called "other," never before was it possible to claim as a matter of objective scientific fact, that other peoples were simply not "human" and thus could be treated as little more than farm animals. Of course looking back now, it is clear that these racialist theories were nothing more than pseudoscience, and justifications for exploitation, yet they illustrate how powerfully seductive the new science was to human beings. Further, it can be argued that the project of modern science as illustrated by Bacon, meant not only the harnessing of nature for human ends, but also seeing other peoples as mere fauna to be similarly harnessed. In essence, the whole world was to be turned into a "New Atlantis" where everything would come under a monolithic civilization of machine like efficiency and precision, all to the benefit of Europeans.
It is important to note that "science" is not the problem here, rather the issue is the use of science as a means to power and control over as much of reality as possible. This is what the philosopher of history, Eric Voegelin has called "modernity without restraint." For Voegelin, the traditional experience of human beings constitutes the mediation and symbolization of the relationship between humanity and the rest of reality. This is experienced as a kind of tension which must be contextualized and dealt with in order for the people to remain spiritually healthy and for dangerous things like hubris to be contained. When human beings forget about, or ignore this tension, seeing it as mere illusion, they come to believe there are no constraints to their actions. The resulting lust for power and control, and well as the alienation which occurs due to a loss of the symbols, lead to a kind of self-destructive spiritual disease in the society itself. Over time that can lead to the collapse of the civilization if the ground of being and the tension is not rediscovered and new symbols created (Voegelin & Henningsen, 2000). What has occurred in the modern European experience, is that the pace of scientific advancement and technological achievement has been so fast, that the tension has been ignored in favor of progress, and no adequate symbols have been created to prevent the onset of self-destructive behavior. While ideologies such as Marxism and movements such as environmentalism have emerged to try and restore some balance, these too have fallen under the spell of the material transformation of reality through knowledge and the promise of a Utopia. Because expectations associated Utopian transformations of nature and society are not in line with real constraints, the proposals that are put forth end up having their own particular and unexpected negative consequences.
In traditional societies, such as Native American tribal culture, this does not tend to occur, because human beings have learned to symbolize and contextualize their relationship with nature in such a way that a balance is created and unrealistic expectations are not entertained. Interestingly enough, this does not imply a complete passivity when it comes to nature, after all many Native American tribes used fire to clear forests in the American Midwest in order to create suitable landscapes for herds of bison and other big game (Stewart et al., 2002). The difference between say that, and a massive forest clearing for crops in today's society, is that the Native Americans generally took care to limit what they did to maintain an equilibrium in the ecosystem, while we tend to seek maximizing production above all else. It is rather remarkable, that these apparently unsophisticated tribes were able to accurately gauge the limits to their use of nature and stay within those boundaries. One can imagine therefore, what could be accomplished if we combined the Native American sensibility to nature, and our modern scientific knowledge.
Considering what has been presented so far, the solution to the current environmental crisis, including and especially global warming, is to reestablish our connection to the ground of being and its representation in nature, and to create new symbols to restrain our modern appetite for development and progress. These symbols can not be artificially imposed however, no matter how clever their creators are, they need to emerge organically out of a society that seeks to rekindle its relationship with nature and to once again appreciate its limitations. Unfortunately, we are heading down a path where our limitations...
While our knowledge of the Earth is considerable at this point, thanks to a very reductionist approach to science, we tend to know very little about how it all works together (Newman, 2006). What we do know is that the Earth can be thought of as one large dynamic system, with various components interacting with each other to produce a homeostatic equilibrium (Steffen & Sanderson, 2005). This is ironic considering indigenous people all over the world understood this thousands of years ago, and carefully sought to minimize their disruption to that equilibrium. So it seems that modern science is confirming the intuitions of what had appeared to be primitive animistic religion.
If we assume that Native Americans and other traditional or indigenous peoples learned over the course of thousands of years to have an almost intuitive knowledge of their natural surroundings, a knowledge that let them preserve the environment and by extension themselves, then it seems prudent to see how we can do the same. While short of a tremendously destructive global catastrophe, we are not likely to return to a traditional way of life, in the hunter-gatherer sense, it is possible to adapt our knowledge and lifestyles to live in a more relative harmony with nature. The first and perhaps most important thing we must do in order to accomplish that, is not to simply look for so called "sustainable" practices, but to redefine our relationship with nature and reality itself. We must begin to see ourselves as an important but ultimately related element to everything around us. As self-aware rational beings, with the capacity for tremendous creativity and ingenuity, our place is unique among the other creatures of the world. Yet that uniqueness is not a license for arrogance or feelings of superiority, but rather a call to be responsible stewards of our planet and everything that lives in it.
Contrary to popular belief, Native Americans and other indigenous peoples did not live as passive elements in the wider environment, careful not to change anything. They managed, cultivated, and used the land in order to survive. They did that however under a restraint inherent to their orientation to reality, where they had to respect powers larger than themselves, and keep their desires for more land under control (Cajete, 2000). Applying this to our modern context implies no longer seeing perpetual and exponential growth and development as the ideal (Kruger, 2008). We must not seek to turn the whole world into some immense urban area, inter-spaced with parks, but rather to use what we need, and try blend in as much as possible with the larger ecosystems of the planet. This implies creating new habitats in our current areas of concentration, while protecting existing areas from further exploitation. We can create new ways of settling parts of the world, where we do not need to slash and burn in order to carve out a prosperous and comfortable existence. One great example of this is the concept of permaculture which is revolutionizing the way we think of agriculture. What permacultue does, is take the traditional Native American approach of seeking to maintain the equilibrium of nature, and combining it with our immense repertoire of biological scientific knowledge. This enables farmers to craft interconnected gardens in which each plant, tree, and even animal, plays an important role in producing a balanced system that can sustain itself with minimal human intervention. We know for example, which plants emit certain fragrances that repel pests, and so we can plant those along side other crops that fix nitrogen very well and thus increase soil nutrients, thus creating a habitat that can feed many people without the need for massive fertilizer or pesticide (Bell, 2005). Another promising idea is to take waste products and turn them into fuel for airliners. Instead of just dumping problematic material in landfills, we may be able to process it and create a sustainable source of low CO2 emitting fuel (Bomani et al. 2009).
Ultimately though, such innovative steps will not be enough if our orientation towards nature is still one that sees natural resources as nothing more than raw material to be exploited. Nature as a whole needs to be seen as a dynamic system that we are a part of and fundamentally depend on for our own survival. Everything that is used from…
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