October 2005: The Three E's: Ecology, Education, Economy

We’ve got our priorities all wrong. Ecology should always come first
October 1, 2005

If we consider matters carefully, we would be wise to stop exalting our economic growth. We must begin to realize that we exist as a species because of the Earth’s own photosynthetic economy. Every moment of our lives depends upon Nature’s bounty.

In giving economy priority in our lives, we steadily degrade the planet. Actually, there are three evidence-filled concepts in our awareness, which we view in the wrong order of importance. These are economy, education, and ecology. To understand how we have reversed the proper order of priorities, we must first recognize that we are a part of the cosmos, which has been described by one scientist as a seamless whole.

The word cosmos, from the Greek root kosmeo, means “order” or “arrangement.” An obvious example of cosmic order is that our solar system consists of planets regularly orbiting a star that we call the Sun. Predictability is a factor in our cosmos.

The incongruity of selecting the economy as our most important concern is beginning to be clearly evident. The need for a more proper emphasis and implementation of the three terms is now of enormous importance.

Two of the terms share a common root, “eco,” derived from the Greek word oikos, which means “household.” In the order in which they should be emphasized, the first of these words is “ecology,” which is senior and means the “study of the household.” It makes sense that a study of the household should precede “economy,” which refers to the “management of the household.” It becomes more obvious daily that, if we knew enough about our household, we would not manage it as badly as we do. Our world would not be filled with the garbage and pollution that contaminates our soil, air, and water, all of which result from our incompetence as planetary managers.

Zoologists who trace our origin to the anthropoids which preceded us might reflectively decide that we are hasty in assuming that we are wise men (homo sapiens) and that we would more suitably be labeled pongo absurdus (absurd ape). We commission frequent and costly studies, all of which document our appallingly irresponsible stewardship of our planetary “household,” then ignore them and keep on tearing our world apart. We habitually lose sight of Aldo Leopold’s view that the wisest result of intelligent tinkering would be to save all the parts.

Now we come to the third term, which links ecology and economy. The third term is education, and the meaning of education is “to lead away from.” In other words, the process we should follow is to carefully study the organization of our planet (ecology) and then transmit proper understanding (education) to those who are responsible for harmoniously blending our lives into the seamless whole pre-organized by the order of the cosmos (economy). Such an understanding would significantly change our behaviour, which currently verges on suicidal brinkmanship.

Planetary ecology vastly antedates humanity, and is activated by the portion of the Sun’s energy captured by Earth. This energy accounts for the process of photosynthesis, which enables plant and animal life to exist. Through this process, some 300 billion tons of sugar and precursors of sugar are produced each year and nourish all life on our planet. This is nature’s own economy, the economy that produced and sustains our species.

The potentially lethal economy now favoured by humankind consists of taking apart Earth’s natural economy to facilitate its own. Unfortunately, most students emerge from our school systems without any true awareness of Nature’s economy. They have not learned that our reductionist version of economy is parasitic upon--and absolutely dependent upon--Nature and the dynamic sustainability that has hitherto preserved it. Our ecologically abusive economy is a threat to our existence and that of entire ecosystems. We have blinded ourselves to the folly of our deeds and expectations, glorifying them as “economic development.” We exploit, plunder, and exhaust Nature’s resources with no regard for the lives and livelihood of all the other species with which we share the planet, or the vital roles they play in the proper functioning of Earth’s global economy.

T.S. Eliot’s observation that “This is the way the world shall end,/Not with a bang, but with a whimper,” seems suddenly all too pertinent. A world run by powerful, greedy corporations and inept politicians can have no long-term sustainable future. Neither can a world in which “education” is often confused with “indoctrination.” Genuine education should be a process of transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next; it should never be misused to inculcate beliefs that do little more than reinforce the greed and power of business and political leaders.

Our root problem is likely the duality that separates us from our proper role as intelligent members of a community of life that transcends our self-aggrandizing religions, governments, and businesses. If we keep on our present destructive course, humankind may soon (in cosmic biological terms) turn out to be nothing more than an evolutionary dead-end in the development of life on Earth.

While we have learned much about ecology, we are still in ecological kindergarten, and time is fast running out if we are to survive as a species till “graduation day.” Ecology might be described as the one field of science that attempts to explain the inherent orderliness of this planet and the part played by all the living and non-living things that occupy it. Since such knowledge is an absolute necessity for the proper management (economy) of the planet, we ignore the findings of ecology at our own peril. And the ultimate peril, which we are closely approaching, is destruction of the ecosystems which make our own continued existence possible.

The United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment recently reported that 60% of the world’s life-sustaining resources have been critically depleted. These include water, food, timber, clean air, and predictable climate. The UN study, the most comprehensive ever undertaken into life-sustaining natural systems, was a four-year project involving 1,300 scientists from 95 nations. It states that, “Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any other comparable time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fibre, and fuel. This has resulted in substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.”

The obvious assumption is that those entrusted with managing our economy do not know enough about the ecology of the planet to do their job. But it may not be simply a matter of ignorance or incompetence. Our planetary “managers” may be guilty of what has been philosophically called “double ignorance”--the form of ignorance that permits people to carry on behavior that they already know is wrong. In today’s society, this might be defined as a combination of economic greed and technological inebriation. In our overweening pride in our own superiority as a species, we foolishly rely on our technology and the money that flows from it to overcome all the ecological ills that result from the despoliation of our planetary “household.”

We insist on making and selling millions of individual vehicles whose emissions--and those from the manufacturing plants--have polluted our air and water to a devastatingly life-threatening and climate-altering degree. We assume that mechanical devices of all sorts have unquestionable merit and should be “consumed avidly” (by everybody who can afford them). The short-term sustainability of corporate profits is favoured over the long-term sustainability of human life. The endless outflow of advertising for fancy consumer products--in our newspapers, on TV and billboards--keeps the human “lemmings” skipping and frolicking happily to the brink.

This is not to deny that many individuals and organizations have become alarmed by the degradation of their environment. Even some politicians have expressed concern about the ecological breakdown. But where is the evidence that any government or society is seriously beginning to launch the necessary corrective measures? The establishment of powerless “Ministries and Ministers of the Environment” and equally powerless and ineffectual environmental regulatory agencies are little more than acts of tokenism--mere sops to public concern.

When I wrote To Heal the Earth: The Case for an Earth Ethic 15 years ago, I noted the insignificant status of Ministries of the Environment. “If one looks at a list of Canadian federal ministries according to preference,” I wrote, “one will find that far down the list, after the ministers of agriculture, finance, fisheries and oceans, even after the minister of state for fitness and amateur sport, and after the secretary of state of Canada and minister of state for multiculturalism and citizenship, in the lower one-fifth of the list may be found the minister of the environment.” Nor has the status of this department improved significantly since 1990. A true political concern would result in the creation of a large, professionally staffed, highly competent and powerful Department of Ecology that would precede all other ministries in importance and stature. That would be a realistic reflection of the priorities of any government dedicated to the public interest.

Rightfully, the word “ecology” should replace “environment” in ministerial jargon. The term “environment” is used is a convenient catchall for a cosmetic approach to the problems caused by pollution and unsustainable economic growth. A Department of Ecology, which should replace it, would be clearly defined as a department mandated to study the wisdom or folly of all human activities that affect the environment and advise the government what to do about them. It would assess and report on the harmful effects of industrial pollution and weigh the profits thus generated for corporate shareholders against the contamination of our air and water and the damage to human health. Such a department, given the requisite autonomy, could reveal that the apparent growth of our economy is being achieved at the intolerable cost of destroying the planetary biosphere that sustains human and other life on Earth. Such an awareness, deeply and fully felt by everyone, is essential to begin an effective strategy for survival.

The urgently needed measures are evident. They include:

  • taking immediate steps toward population reduction throughout the world;
  • curbing wars and international conflicts and redirecting the billions misspent on armaments into cleaning up our air, water, and soil, and instituting a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources;
  • cutting our use of motor vehicles in half, and stop using airlines as a taxi service between cities only a few hundred miles apart;
  • getting serious about developing renewable forms of energy that generate little or no pollution;
  • stop all government subsidies to industries that pollute and put profit-seeking ahead of the public interest;
  • giving priority to producing, transporting, and selling consumer goods (especially foods) locally or regionally, as much as possible, and phase out costly, unnecessary, and environmentally damaging international trade; and
  • replacing or complementing commercial media now dependent on corporate advertising for their revenue (and hence disinclined to criticize harmful corporate activities) with media independent of paid ads and committed to educating their readers, not brainwashing them.

If even a start were to be made on these and other needed reforms, Ecology and Education might take their rightful place on the Three E’s list ahead of Economy, thus restoring a proper balance in the greater Order of the Cosmos.

(Robert [email protected]--lives in B.C. He is the author of To Heal the Earth and The Soul Solution.)