Friday, November 23, 2007

World views and ecology

Buddhist cosmology expresses solid links between the heavens, Earth, and humankind. No part of the triad can be considered in the absence of the others. Between the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the human body, Buddhist philosophy posits correspondences that serve to integrate men and women into the greater world.

Native American wisdom, too, celebrates a dense web of connections that bind humans into a fabric of creation. Each plant and animal has a place in a scheme of things that can bear no gap or absence. Each is part of a Great Spirit who speaks through earth, air, fire and water, binding and consolidating.

Both traditions place great emphasis on cosmic unity and harmony.

Conservationists within the Western tradition generally embrace these Eastern and Native American ideas with enthusiasm, for they seem to offer a view of wholeness that is essential if we are to save the planetary environment from disintegration.

We sometimes forget that Buddhist philosophy did not save the Chinese from occasionally inflicting terrible cruelties upon each other and their neighbors, and that Native Americans existed in an almost constant state of warfare with each other before the coming of Europeans.

All of us -- Eastern, Western, Native American -- would appear to participate equally in the virtues and vices of the human condition. It is technology that has generally determined who wreaked the greater havoc on the human and nonhuman environment, not any intrinsic degree of virtue or vice.

But surely cosmologies based on wholeness will reinforce good behavior? Yes, but let's not forget that 500 years ago Western Europe embraced a cosmology similar to those of Buddhists and Native Americans. In the late-medieval European world picture, a “great chain of being” linked all creatures from God’s throne to the dregs of earth. Every creature had a proper place in the chain. Between the macrocosm and the microcosm there were many correspondences: between the seven planets, for example, and the seven holes in the human head. Earth, air, fire, water, heat, cold, dry, moist: all must be in balance, in both the big and little worlds, if the cosmos is to function properly.

"Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark, what discord follows," wrote Shakespeare.

Of course, the late-medieval European world view didn't stop Europeans from killing each other, or from lopping off the heads of Saracens with abandon. Nor did it stop the Black Death from periodically ravaging the population. What finally stopped the Black Death, and what gave rise to what little peace and tolerance we are presently able to muster, was not the great chain of being, but the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment.

Out of the scientific world view is today emerging something that might be called the ecological world view. It is not human-centered, but it does embed humankind in an unfolding tapestry of more-than-human meaning. Like the world views of Buddhists, Native Americans, and late-medieval Europeans, it offers a vision of cosmic harmony grounded in the evolutionary structure of the universe.

Can we have it both ways -- the Great Spirit and the world machine? Whatever the future brings, it won't be a re-creation of the past. We can learn from the wisdoms of earlier world cultures, but scientific knowledge of ecological systems, along with the universal Golden Rule, would seem to be our best guide to a harmonious future.