Ecology, Economics, and Spirituality

Before I get started, I’d like to express my deep gratitude to CK for giving my thoughts this wonderful venue.  His blog is superb, its readers are among my very favorite commenters on the Web, and the topic he wants to discuss is fascinating.  So, onward!

I loved CK’s recent post on ecologism (defined, perhaps, as “the position that the non-human world is worthy of moral consideration, and that this should be taken into account in social, economic, and political systems”).  Especially interesting is his claim that pro-market forces are right to be scared of carbon taxes because their rationale seems to logically point to self-totalized industrial policy.  It reminds me a lot of (right-libertarian) Walter Block’s article in which he argues that everything (including the decision to wear socks) can be characterized as an externality, and therefore there’s no inherent limiting principle to externality-based arguments for regulation:

There are any number of external economies, neighborhood effects, spill-overs, benefits to third parties, which  flow from the purchase and use  of supposedly private  goods. Take,  for example, the paradigm case of a private good, socks. First, there is a health question.  People who do not wear socks are liable to colds, sore feet, blisters,  and possibly pneumonia. And sickness means lost days of work and lost production; it means possible contagion (as in the diphtheria case); it may result in rising doctor bills and increased health insurance premiums for other policyholders. Increased demand for doctors’ time and energy will result in reduced medical attention for others. There is, in addition, an aesthetic problem: many people take umbrage at socklessness. Restaurants often forbid  bare feet, presumably in the interests of retaining their more sensitive customers. Not wearing socks is also interpreted by some as a  disturbing political statement, like flag or draft-card burning. Many mothers — a third party, if ever there was one — rejoice when their “hip” sons finally don footwear. That benefits of sock-wearing “spill  over” to these mothers cannot be denied.

The problem is by no means limited to the socks example, for all so-called private goods affect second or third parties in some way. The reader is challenged to think of any item the use and purchase of which is not affected with a public interest, i.e., which  does not similarly have spill-over effects on other people.

I think there’s something to Block’s argument that orthodox market liberals are inconsistent on this measure, as I don’t see how they can draw a hard conceptual distinction between carbon permits and more intrusive environmental measures.  However, I also think Block should have extended his insight further by reasoning that if everything can be considered an externality, then there are no entirely self-regarding actions in the first place, and this therefore undermines a main libertarian justification of using violence to defend property rights.  It seems communitarians (including many conservatives) are more perceptive than the libertarians on this score.

Perhaps the more important take-away from ecologism and Walter Block is that the Western conception of the self (or at least the Anglo-world conception) is impoverished.  This isn’t news to anyone who’s ever had a Buddhism kick in high school, but I think it maps well to the “problem of ecologism,” which might be properly conceived as a non-theistic form of spirituality.

The problem of ecologism can be conceived as a kind of spirituality because it hinges on the self.  The Grand Mandate of Ecology is this: Attempts to change the natural world to one’s liking are ultimately counterproductive, and the prescription is to recognize that the self is dependent on an Earth-economy that is too complex to be willed into submission.  It’s hard for me to not see strains of Christianity in this (or Buddhism or Islam, but I’m compelled to stick with what I’m most familiar), and indeed many Christian primitivists equate industrialization with original sin.

I’m sympathetic to this idea of industrialization-as-original-sin.  For all the evo-psych talk of “the savannah,” we upright apes started in the rainforest: a god-given Garden where our bodies and culture evolved to fit things like fig morphology, Gabon Nut amino acid ratios, extreme humidity, West African microbes… and who knows what else.  This last category is the most important for ecologism’s purposes, because the entire history of science suggests our knowledge of the natural world requires a type of ritualistic revision: No matter how well your empirics match your models, the Duhem-Quine thesis always lurks in the background.  Agricultural science has never devised anything as life-enriching as a fig or a Gabon Nut — so though our brains get larger, they must forever bow before the bittersweet mysteries of That Which Is Prior To Oneself.

I may be accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy here.  But it’s not clear why it should be a fallacy, at least as long as it’s not presented deductively. It’s true the heritage of processes and phenomena are not absolute proof of their validity or utility.  But they’re nevertheless very good evidence.  For example, a biologist claiming to have found a better way than millennia of Nature’s own groping form of science must first be able to replicate it.  But because no mortal has succeeded in this, science is always an aborted apotheosis — there’s always something the model fails to accommodate into its schema.  The self strives, slips from false grace, and from that puny vista realizes its place at the right hand of a greater Self.

Relatedly, Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg have critically reviewed Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, which claims that naturalistic Darwinism lacks solid epistemic footing.  While I agree that Nagel’s thesis is wrong (or at least their characterization if it — I have yet to read the book), the critics’ arguments are dubious.  They rely heavily on a pragmatist defense of naturalistic science in concluding that it’s superior to Aristotelian teleological inquiry:

[Physics, biology, and chemistry] are successful precisely in the way that Aristotelian science was not: they enable us to navigate the world around us, to predict its happenings and control some of them.

First, it’s not even clear that naturalistic Darwinism is in opposition to Aristotelian teleology.  Biologists notoriously have a hard time talking about evolutionary adaptations without also talking about “purpose”, because even if we stipulate that there is no Creator, the idea that biological features are probably “for” something has been a remarkably fruitful vein of inquiry.  Interestingly, this is the exact function that Darwinism has played: Karl Popper said Darwinism is primarily valuable as a “metaphysical research program”.  So there appears to be precious little difference between the value of Darwinism and teleology, which if we’re to consistently apply the critics’ pragmatism, puts the two on comparable epistemic footing.

Second, I believe Nagel’s critics have fixated on the apparent powers of science while ignoring ecologism’s doubts about the enterprise.  Leiter and Weisberg extol the benefits of physics, chemistry, and biology, but are silent about nuclear weapons, toxic waste, and antibiotics-bred superbugs.  The critics have ignored the Grand Mandate of Ecology: The power to control the Earth is also the power to destroy it, and thus it’s premature to assume we were wise to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.

9 comments on “Ecology, Economics, and Spirituality

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  1. Great first piece here, Robert. I’ve already introduced myself in the context of my New-Age meanness, so I have to live up to that a bit. Knowledge is never the issue. Mystics see the Garden of Eden snake as a symbol for knowledge. Eating of that tree is never a problem if you can handle it. I don’t look at that as being similar to the guns-people relationship because even though people use guns to kill, guns are definitely not knowledge. But things do go wrong with knowledge. Oh, for example, (sorry CK, but here’s a bit of meanness), CK sometimes uses what Buddhists refer to as Ultimate View (truth) to explain why it’s okay to do something he thinks is okay to do on the Relative View level, Big mistake. My point is, that it was okay for us to eat the Tree. It’s not meat, after all. We just have to make sure that we maintain a level of consciousness high enough to match the knowledge and thus, keep ourselves from using power badly. I don’t think we will blow up the world because of knowledge. I think we will blow it up out of stupidity and stupidity in my opinion includes the scientific understanding of the physics involved in blowing shit up. That’s just mechanics. I don’t think the Garden of Eden snake taught Eve mechanics.
    Only one other point: Buddhism has many levels, and maybe you know that there are 3 types. The “lower wheel” type would be the kind that intelligent young Americans might play around with in high school. The Vajrayana Buddhist level would be the type that no matter how old an intelligent person might get, it would be still be intellectually challenging. Of course, that wouldn’t be the reason for its practice, but I’m just making the point in connection to your comment.
    I know I didn’t really address your post’s real theme here. I do that. It frustrates CK, but you’ll get used to it. Or not. Feel free to express your frustration on that account. I will apologize and then do the same thing next time. One of the main consistencies on this blog is that we all keep thinking the same dumb things no matter how well our blog brothers try to evoke change in us. Or, you could be the first person to buck that system. That would be great. But before we would know enough about whatever you think habitually in a screwball way, you’ll have to do that habitually. So we’ll see. In any case, you write well.

    • Hi Scott, thanks for your comment. I think it’s interesting that you’d label scientific understanding of nuclear bomb physics as a kind of stupidity. I think this is consonant with the broad theme of my post, which is that we should be skeptical of scientific “progress” because we’re continuously “rebuilding the boat” in which we’re traveling.

      Some evo-biologists think the reason humans were able to develop such large brains is that at some point they started eating a lot more meat, which is a more efficient source of nutrients. I have doubts this is actually true, but if it were, it would pose an interesting parallel to the Garden of Eden story: Humans eats the forbidden fruit (of the womb of an animal), thereby increasing the brain size of Adam’s progeny, which enables them to settle in environments their biologies were not adapted to (human ancestors were likely frugivores), which leads to the necessity of nutrient-poor agriculture of grains (the “herb of the field” from which Adam wrests his bread). Increased brain size also makes childbirth a much more painful affair for women, which could be a secular account of God’s curse upon Eve. And of course Adam and Eve have to go East of Eden, which is the same direction the primordial humans got to the savannah after leaving the rainforest…

      Posited: The Garden of Eden is in equatorial West Africa, and God is the Forest. What do you think?

      • I love that. Did you ever write any science fiction? What you wrote there would go well with a story I was actually thinking about writing (just after downing a large martini) involving a zombie take over in which a beloved realized being eventually is changed into a zombie. I thought of it as kind of a final zombie story that pointed to how done we should be with zombie stories at this point. My idea for how it starts came from reading about the fact that our bodies are only 25% human cells. The other 75% is bacteria, virus, mites, and parasites. So that 75% of peoples’ bodies develops “supervisory I” consciousness. I never really worked out how the realized being handles being a zombie. But if the story started with your historical rundown there, then it would be better to go more biblical and have the second coming of Jesus go all Nietzschian rogue as he becomes a zombie. Maybe the Forest God has to step in at that point.

        • Unfortunately I was never quite Mormon enough to write science fiction, though it surprises me how often people think I should. Maybe I should take that as a sign.

          In a certain sense we’re already zombies, right? We lurch through life aware of nothing but our most immediate concerns (food! sex! status! braiiiiiins!), we waste lives through gluttonous consumption, and we propagate our lust by harvesting the minds of the innocent to feed our unthinking greed…

          • Well, that’s true from a samsaric perspective. But I think you should wait until you’re at least 50 to start thinking of that as a permanent state. Hang in there on the nirvana side for awhile longer would be my suggestion and then maybe we’ll all get to the vajrayana awareness that they’re the same thing together. That is unless we all get Mormon enough.

  2. Scott Miller: CK sometimes uses what Buddhists refer to as Ultimate View (truth) to explain why it’s okay to do something he thinks is okay to do on the Relative View level, Big mistake.

    Hmmm… Richard RortyCharles Taylor, probably the mostan influential recent philosopher of liberalism after Rawls, arrived at a kind of last resort schizophrenia that is reminiscent of that theory, and that is also relevant to Robert’s theme. For RortyTaylor, it was possible to entertain grave ontological skepticism on liberalism, yet still support a liberal politics. I see that in a lot of people, including myself, and certainly including people who’ve never read or even heard of Richard Effin RortyCharles Taylor. The alternatives often seem to be one or another species of extremism, quietism, or utopianism, or even an extremist quietist utopianism… Kahn adopts a version of that RortianTaylor’s perspective in regard to his own philosophical project, but goes a step further, maybe in the way that you fear or believe I’m doing: He destroys liberalism (in the broad sense, covering the ground from libertarianism to welfare state liberalism) not just as overly dependent on metaphysical individualism and related ontological premises, but as incapable of understanding its own inability to respond effectively on its primary political program: inequality, poverty, environmental destruction, war, human rights, imperialism, and so on. Yet at the same time he claims that his purpose is merely to illuminate, not to politicize. He explains the enduring power and violence of nationalism and American popular sovereignty, but insists that he doesn’t like it, allows that the world might be a better place without it, and still claims to support the very dreams he strongly indicates may be impossible – such as an elimination of war via international legal idealism.

    Oh, well, didn’t mean to go as far as all that – maybe I’ll save it for a later review of Kahn’s work. I still have one more book of his to read.

    I’ll put my more direct responses to Robert’s post in a separate comment, but just keep my fingers crossed that both you and he understand the relevance to his post and to what I take to be his own political position, as well as to your New Age Cruelty.

    • (I think Rorty arrives at the same place as Taylor, but Taylor is the one who made the distinction between “ontology” and “advocacy” somewhat central. While I’m on the subject of self-corrections: Kahn’s discussion is also more nuanced, of course, than I could convey in the above.)

  3. Now, the one main point from Robert’s and my preliminary correspondence that I think might be worth a post or a few hundred is this notion of “ecologism” as a “non-theistic spirituality.” I wouldn’t have tried to make that connection, as I don’t see ecologism as necessarily any more or less spiritual than any other discourse under the sign of science. So, we’d have to know what we meant by “spiritual” and “theistic.” Under theism I think that most people, certainly most atheists, imagine an anthropomorphized deity, or, at best, a being among beings or within Being. They see no evidence of the actual existence of this self-conscious, willful, interested super-individual being. My own view is that we seem to need an anthropomorphic and super-individual moment in order to discuss the deity of monotheism, but the more fundamental and indispensable identity is the being like no other that encompasses Being and all beings. It might be understood as the correlate to ecologism at the level of the infinite, a statement that hovers close to or spills all the way over into nonsense prior to explication. I think it might be safer to think of ecologism as “the discourse of ecology,” or, more speculatively, “discourse or ideology of the system of systems of life or of living beings in relation to the physical environment.” That might leave room for a “divine ecology” of some sort that would correspond to the deity of monotheism – but possibly also alternative spiritual concepts – in somewhat the same way that the medieval divine economies were meant to explain the relationship of God and creation.

    (It goes against the standard definition, but I wonder if there’s a useful non-vitalist way of discussing ecology – as happens sometimes when theorists try to reduce “life” to informational complexity or some physical-chemical phenomenon.)

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