The Intrinsic Earth (IE) research area for Ecological Civilisations consolidates all other IE research areas. In the IE research areas relating to business and to people, the differentiating factor is that both areas relate to the recognition of the complex, interdependent relations that are now known to constitute ourselves, our actions and our world. In short, knowledge of the world in which we live has changed and we need to update ourselves and our institutions accordingly – we cannot ignore this reality nor can the development of our civilisations.
Civilisations do change – they have done so in the past and they will do so again. It may seem as if the concepts, institutions and practices that are the foundations for the cities, nations and structures of daily life within which we live are immutable but within these seemingly solid boundaries of our lives, change is already underway.
IE is not the cause of this change. It is however a source of knowledge about this change – the people, the events, the ideas and the issues that are the real causes of this change. IE also provides a simple explanation of the root cause of the change. It is a cause that is both simple and extremely hard to grasp. It is simple because it is based on an uncomplicated change in the foundation of knowledge of the human sciences, especially relating to economics and sociology. This is the episteme change that is described in the concept page of IE (Birkin & Polesie 2012) and in many entries in the IE Knowledge Database. It may be a simple conceptual change at root, but nonetheless this change is extremely hard for some to grasp because of the investment and familiarity with the language, knowledge, practices and culture invested in the old ways of learning, thinking and acting.
An important foundational concept for Western civilisation is provided by economics. The discipline of economics dates back only to the 18th century. It was then a product of its times and it drew heavily from the scientific understanding of the day. In the beginning, economists aped the natural sciences and defined their work with laws and theories just as if they had been discovered and could be applied in the same way as, for example, Newton’s Laws of Motion. This tendency remains with us for we are still supposedly driven by such as Game Theory, Market Forces, Laws of Demand and Consumer Choice Theory. It is an unfortunate mistake since economics is not a natural science with an objective reality lying outside human experience: economics studies social phenomena and as such it lacks an objective reality. It is not possible to abstract, with full practical meaning, universal economic laws and theories from interactive, independent and autonomously created social phenomena.
Many economists of course understand these issues and have moved on to develop studies that are less prescriptive. Such economic studies claim to “understand” rather than “explain” social phenomena and they are frequently represented in models rather than in laws and theories. The models are abstractions, regarded as fictions by many economists (Frigg 2010), and they are used to investigate the causes of economic phenomena free of interference from other non-economic factors. These models are experiments (Mäki 2005) conducted in laboratory-like conditions abstracted from reality but which are nonetheless world-making (Morgan 2012).
However, whilst economists may have moved on to recognise the tentative nature of their science, they have left behind a dangerous cultural legacy. The initial tendency for economics science to want to reveal binding laws and theories still lingers in society as does the tendency to treat economic activity in the abstract, as if trade, possessions and industries exist in an experimental laboratory without real world impacts, without adversely affecting the environmental, ecosystems and societies. Businesses from international corporations to your local shop operate in the shadow of economics when they pursue wealth in abstract, financial and monetary, representations at the expense of those wider realities of the living world upon which we depend. This kind of widespread belief unsupported by empirical evidence is called dogma and it exists in this case as a secular religion known as “economism”.
The need for money and the resources money buys, you may argue, is a universal human need that has driven civilisations from time immemorial; yes, this is true – and ancient civilisations have perished for this reason (Diamond 2005). For all of us, it is uncomfortable fact that as economies and economism grows, the ability for our planet to maintain basic needs for mankind and Earth’s other incredible forms of life diminishes.
Despite this uncomfortable fact that is supported by swathes of empirical evidence in many forms from all quarters of the world, many governments insist on forming crucial strategies within the abstractions of economism; for example, seeing – and defining – developmental goals in terms of increasing that kind of wealth that is blind to deteriorating social and ecological conditions. It is time to reboot those civilisations that “will” to exist in absentia and develop the values and goals that support wealth as the “will for welfare and well-being” within the parameters of Earth’s realities… and that is not a job for governments alone… we must want to do it!
“Move to a planet beyond our Solar System to protect the future of the species,” argued the late physicist Professor Stephen Hawking. Stephen had in mind protecting people from disasters such as nuclear explosions or asteroid impacts and a long-term timescale to develop the technology for such a move. But we can argue this way to solve our immediate and pressing disasters using our current state of technology, providing we move to another planet within our solar system, a new Earth.
Seeing and living in a new planet Earth is what implementing an Ecological Civilisation requires. It requires that economism is replaced by a form of development that pays attention to the values and ways to flourish within the complexity of interdependent, interactive and autonomously creative relations that science has now revealed to be constitutive of our planet and ourselves. We can summarise these relations in the term “ecological” (Latour 2013).
The new discipline of Ecological Economics can help guide this transition:
“Ecological Economics addresses the relationships between ecosystems and economic systems in the broadest sense. These relationships are the locus of many of our most
pressing current problems (i.e. sustainability. acid rain. global warming, species extinction. wealth distribution) but they are not well covered by any existing discipline.”
From an Introduction to Ecological Economics (Costanza 1989)
But the transition needs much more than a new discipline. Businesses and people have important roles to play and some ways forward are explored in other IE research areas. For example, governments can learn from the example provided by the People’s Republic of China. China has taken sustainability to heart and has rewriten the development rulebook which she now links to ecology and society and not just to economics.
In 2014 when China’s Ecological Civilization Blueprint was announced, the then president, Hu Jintao, said: “the essence of the construction of the ecological civilization is building a resource-saving and environment-friendly society based on the environmental carrying capacity of resources, the laws of nature and sustainable development.” The UN supports this move and states: “China’s commitment to ecological civilization as a national strategy and its new post-2015 development framework are of huge significance to the world.”
Ecologically aware knowledge, values and actions are urgently needed to implement what may well be the next stage human development subsequent to agricultural and industrial civilisations. It is a transition to engage all of us to progress away from the destructive abstractions of economism to rewarding, fulfilling and sustainable values and activities based on ecological mindfulness.
But this is no step towards a bleak eco-deterministic, science-based, inhuman future. True, it is a civilisation based on a reality revealed by empirical science, but this is saying no more than we will be living in accordance with our best knowledge of ourselves and of the world.
We humans have been on Earth for some time – far longer that the 200 years or so of economism. During our time on Earth, we, Homo sapiens protean (see “Better People: Better Lives” IE research area), have lived in many ways in multitudes of tribes, communities and civilisations – some of which worked and some of which proved unsustainable. But these were all experiments in long-term living, and can we learn from them to enrich and diversify our own, tailor-made Ecological Civilisations.
One IE member, Andressa Schröder, and her colleagues have recently asked a similar question but in more detail: “How can the paradoxical conceptual overlap of nostalgia and sustainability in cultural constructions of the present be used in order to make previously unexplored territory within the study of culture accessible?” Her new book, “Futures Worth Preserving: Cultural Constructions of Nostalgia and Sustainability” provides a positive answer. (Clucas et al. 2019).
If we can link the needs of sustainable development with existing traditions and cultures, we will have a powerful tool to communicate and motivate people within the parameters of Ecological Civilisations.
It needs many hands to make this happen.
Please join Intrinsic Earth, learn about the emerging Ecological Civilisations and make your contribution.
Birkin F. K. and T. Polesie. (2012) Intrinsic Sustainable Development: Epistemes, Science, Business and Sustainability. Singapore: World Scientific Press.
Clucas, T., Schröder, A., Völker, N. and R. A. Winkler (eds.). (2019). Futures Worth Preserving: Cultural Constructions of Nostalgia and Sustainability. Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript.
Costanza, R. (1989). “What is Ecological Economics?” Ecological Economics, 1, pp. l-7.
Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. London: Penguin Books.
Frigg, R. (2010). “Fiction and Scientific Representation”, in R. Frigg and M.C. Hunter (eds.), Beyond Mimesis and Convention, New York: Springer.
Latour, B, (2013). An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Morgan, M. and M. Morrison (eds.). (1999). Models as Mediators: Perspectives on Natural and Social Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mäki, U. (2005). “Models Are Experiments. Experiments Are Models”, Journal of Economic Methodology, 12, pp. 303–15.