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The ‘economistic worldview’ and the destruction of life

In his important recent book Treading Softly – Paths to Ecological Order (see my earlier post on it) — Thomas Princen distinguishes among four “worldviews” in relation to the environment, that is, four different ways of “perceiving and conceiving and making sense of one’s world” (pg 164) within what he terms “the current industrial, commercial and expansionist order”. They are the “naturist, agrarian, mechanistic and economistic” worldviews, respectively.

Briefly, the “naturist” worldview conceives of the “environment” as everything that would be there even if there were no humans and its scope-limits are subatomic particles, on the one hand, and the entire universe on the other. Importantly, the “archetypal actors” of this worldview (biologists, chemists and physicists) typically generate knowledge needed for sound ecological practice, although their emphasis is not on practice.

For the “mechanistic” worldview, by contrast, the environment consists of a “system of interlocking pieces”, from atoms to water, organisms and minerals. As the name indicates, it supposes all of these to function like a machine and one which can, if necessary, be rebuilt and improved. In other words, according to this worldview virtually everything, from rivers to plants and mountains, can be manipulated, (re-)arranged and “managed” (one of the key-words of our era, with its built-in conceit that everything is “controllable”.) for human use. According to Princen the “archetypal actors” are “engineers, planners and architects” (pg 166).

The “agrarian” worldview has something in common with the mechanistic one, in so far as it is predicated on the ability to intervene in the environment (from water, soil, wheat, fruit and livestock to fish) and manipulate it for human benefit, except that here the knowledge to do so issues from agrarians’ and their communities’ practice. It also shares something with the “naturist” worldview, namely its tendency towards a holistic grasp of things and its long-term temporal focus, unlike the comparatively shorter-term approach of the mechanistic worldview. Here the actor archetypes are fishers, loggers and farmers (pg 166).

The “economistic” worldview also construes the environment in material terms but it is not concerned with it in its entirety, like the naturalist, mechanistic or agrarian worldviews (even if the latter always focuses on the natural environment “on a limited scale”). Its scope is restricted to the world of “human exchange, of producing and consuming … products and services are of interest, not atoms, molecules and energy, let alone living systems” (pg 167). These last words, “let alone living systems” are of crucial importance. But first Princen must be quoted further (pg 167):

“And it is all about transaction, about buying and selling, investing, pricing, retailing and purchasing. It is, above all, about the clearing of markets and the efficient allocation of resources, physical and human. Its field of view stretches from one side of the input-output model, where raw material enters production, to the other, where wastes exit — that is, from sources to sinks. If either sources or sinks become scarce, rising prices via the market stimulate new sources, new sinks, and substitutes. Its focus, therefore, is price. Its temporal scale is short-term, even instantaneous; it systematically discounts the future … and ignores the past. Archetypal actors are economists, planners, policy analysts, and investors.”

Princen adds that the economistic worldview of the (material) environment “has no natural or ecological component; everything of concern is reducible to money or hypothetical ‘utiles’, and all is substitutable”. (In this belief the economistic worldview draws on the knowledge of the mechanistic one but for its own purposes.) Needless to stress (and as Princen points out), the naturist worldview stands in stark contrast to the economistic one, since it is guided by an interest in knowledge of the pristine natural world while the economistic worldview is essentially indifferent to nature as such — hence the phrase, “let alone living systems”, foregrounded earlier.

What is easily overlooked, however, is that an interest in such knowledge of nature — manifested, for example, in David Attenborough’s exemplary cinematic celebrations of nature in all her variegated splendour — reveals, concomitantly, that nature and her creatures, from insects and plants to animals of all varieties, and even humans (although some of this most dangerous species of predators do not return the favour), are intrinsically valued, and not merely as an “investment”, that is, as something that is “reducible to money”.

Of these four worldviews the economistic one is dominant at present, as Princen remarks — perhaps redundantly; as the saying goes, it is obvious “for everyone who has eyes to see”. And yet, not everyone has eyes to see this, and more importantly, to see what the consequences of its dominance are as far as that wide area which escapes its limited scope (and covered by the other three worldviews, especially the naturist worldview) is concerned. The consequences are nothing short of it blindly (because it does not form part of its limited purview) undermining the very foundation of life on the planet, through “for-profit” activities like deforestation, and via by-products of industrial production such as the acidification of the oceans via often highly toxic industrial emissions into the sea.

And if this systematic, blinkered pursuit of “financial wealth” (which is not really “wealth” in the encompassing sense, because it promotes the destruction of the conditions of life itself) is not enough, the very same economistic worldview is blind to, and worse, promotes, the ongoing destruction of living creatures worldwide. These range from animals like deer, bears, wolves, rhinos, tigers and lions, to sea mammals like whales and dolphins, all of which are mercilessly hunted for a variety of reasons (despite earlier wildlife-protective laws, in the US for instance), ranging from their “market value”, to the atavistic need, on the part of mindless macho hunters, for “trophies”.

Those among us who still have a modicum of sympathy, if not empathy, left for animals and plants, owe it to them, the planet and to ourselves to do whatever we can to stop this mindless destruction, which is implicitly sanctioned by “the economy”. After all, they are our relatives — as Carl Sagan points out in his television series (and book), Cosmos, an examination of the DNA of a tree will confirm that we share common genetic roots; in fact, all forms of life on earth do.

If you need some evidence of what I have argued above, have a look at the following — one a link to a video on a variety of unpardonable, destructive practices by people; the other to an article on the disappointing stance on the part of Barack Obama (in whom many of us, myself included, had such confidence when he was elected president of the US) regarding ecological concerns, specifically deep-sea drilling for oil, deforestation and wildlife.