Is a Successful Ecological Civilization Possible?
by Evaggelos Vallianatos
In ancient times people believed in many gods and worshipped the natural world and the Earth. Now our world is primarily a world where most people believe in one god and consider nature a mine for the extraction of “resources.”
Of all modern ecological calamities, global warming suffices to bring to an end life on earth. Climate change, the usual name for global warming, is a result of the heavy human footprint on the natural world. This affliction, the human addiction to coal, oil, and gas, is deleterious to human health and to long-term survival.
Unless we slow down and stop dumping into the atmosphere countless thousands of tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, our children and grandchildren will surely curse us.
A warmer planet will be hostile to agriculture, drinking water, wildlife, ecosystems, forests and life in the seas and oceans. Some countries will disappear. The population of other countries will be forced to migrate, thus triggering bad ecological effects and possibly endless wars.
There are signs that not every one is blind to the coming storm. Environmentalists all over the world have been resisting governments and businesses: warning them that continuous pollution risks our health, wildlife and, possibly, the planet.
Some governments have passed laws regulating “development.” Like the United States, some countries even claim they have institutions for “environmental protection.”
The United Nations has its Environment Programme in Nairobi, Kenya. And the world’s largest country, China, is searching for ways and means to recapture its ancient traditions of ecological civilization.
Ecological civilization is like a pie in the sky, a dream. This is no small thing, if we understand our “modern” world was also the result of a dream of a few Arab and European humanists centuries ago.
The Arabs started a Renaissance almost immediately after they became Muslims and spread Islam in the Middle East. In the eighth century, the caliphs of Baghdad purchased copies of Greek philosophical and scientific texts of men like Aristotle, Euclid and Archimedes, who had studied the heavens and the earth.
The caliphs had these works translated from Greek into Arabic. From the eighth to the tenth centuries, the Arabs used Greek thought in building their culture.
The second Renaissance took place in Italy in the fifteenth century. Once again, Greek texts triggered a Renaissance, which, this time, constructed our world. Without Archimedes, for example, there would have been no Galileo or Isaac Newton. Like the Arabs, the Western Europeans studied and expanded the science and technology of the Greeks.
However, neither the Arab nor the Western Renaissance included the natural world at the core of its teachings. The monotheism of these two traditions resisted the challenge of nature. It taught that the Christian and Muslim god created the universe from nothing. This, of course, clashed with the legacy of Aristotle and modern science. You cannot create anything out of nothing.
The hubris of power that comes from the expanding world of science and technology was equally responsible for the ecological blind spot in Western culture, by now the powerhouse of global development.
Just like the Europeans built their first universities in the fourteenth century to study Aristotle and enter the modern world, so now we must build a different kind of a university to move us out of the modern world and into a world of ecological civilization.
This is necessary because our universities have largely become the brain of a capitalism whose main products are nuclear bombs, global warming, industrialized agriculture, hunger, massive pollution of the Earth, and endless wars.
An ecological university might help us rethink our suicidal path.
Such a school must be geocentric: teach agriculture, the sciences, and humanities around the key role of the Earth for our survival. In other words, this university ought to teach us to love the Earth. It should also be a global experiment for reconstructing civilization on an ecological model, merging ancient and modern ecological science and traditions.
Done right and with appropriate autonomy, funding, and scholars, this ecological school can trigger a life-saving scientific revolution and reinvent science in its Greek meaning of episteme, knowledge for the well being of people and for the exploration of the cosmos, nature and society.
Considering our present predicament, it would be dishonest to ignore the real threats of modern civilization.
A successful ecological university would be imitated all over the world, thus spreading knowledge and love for life. Ecological civilization might then have a chance to reestablish itself on this beautiful planet, our Mother Earth.
Evaggelos Vallianatos, former EPA analyst, teaches at Pitzer College. He is the author of several books, including “Poison Spring” (forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press).