From a Mechanical to an Ecological Worldview

by Nancy Jack Todd and John Todd

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

For some time now there have been tremors threatening to undermine the edifice of Descartes and Newton and the acceptance of the strictly causal nature of physical phenomena. Early in this century the general relativity theory of Albert Einstein abolished the concept of absolute space and time, and with it the mechanistic world view. Since that time the cosmology on which we have built our political, economic and social structures has no longer fit the theories being involved on the frontiers of scientific theory and advanced thought. In spite of the daily evidence of our senses and the quantity of information pouring in from the media, books, and scientific journals—deserts expanding, forests dwindling, species vanishing at the rate of one a day, widespread social unrest—we continue to act as though none of this has anything to do with us and our behavior. Reports are published on limits to growth, on the finite carrying capacity of the Earth, on repression and injustice, yet economic and political strategies, both capitalist and communist, continue to be based on assumptions of indefinite exploitation and continued growth. This reflects our world view which was built on now outdated concepts but is no longer cohesive with emerging scientific thought. Gradually, however, as general loss of faith and confidence are becoming evident, this paradigm is fading and another is emerging. As the concept of a mechanistic universe and a schizophrenic attitude to nature are relinquished, we find ourselves on the verge of a cosmology potentially far more cohesive intellectually, more sound intuitively, and more peaceful spiritually.

It begins to become increasingly apparent then that with the slow dissolving of the mechanistic world view, we are evolving a new or renewed awareness of the universe—one that is internally consistent. No longer must we gloss over the discrepancies between the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the secular. The scientific paradigm points to acceptance of the cosmic dance of Shiva and the dance of quanta—and all of us participate, creatures of light-energy, star matter, all are dancers. The ancients watched the sky and saw with their hearts. Eastern mystics see with the inner eye, and now physicists have looked at the universe with telescope and microscope and all seem to have come to a commonality of understanding. The physicist John Wheeler maintained that the most important aspect of the quantum principle is that it destroyed the concept of the world as “sitting out there.” The act of observation in itself makes the observer a participator. Making a measurement, even of an electron, changes the state of the electron to that degree so the universe will never again be quite the same. He concluded, “In some strange sense the universe is a participatory universe.”

The idea is an overwhelming one. Just as we are beginning to reassume some responsibility for our actions in the context of the Earth, a question of a larger context and consequence arises. Yet no matter how far-reaching our ultimate accountability, it seems common sense that it is here, with the Earth and each other, that the healing must begin. And if because we have discarded their myths we can no longer look to the ancient gods for instructions as to how to proceed, science re-embedded in the cosmology of a participatory universe and a sense of the sacred may yet prove to be an appropriate guide….

The chance to participate in a process so much larger than ourselves holds out to us, the heirs of the age of science and technology, the possibility of a new set of instructions—or perhaps the eternal instructions—in a language, that of science, which we understand and accept. The Native American spokesman, Chief Black Elk, once declared that “All life is holy and good to tell,” but we chose not to listen. Yet we cannot ignore the rest of life indefinitely. Our understanding must grow to encompass a union of nature and culture in which the sacredness of all life is honored. As long as we saw all other life as outside and apart from ourselves, we treated it carelessly. Embracing the interconnectedness of all life, we can again weave together the rift between sacred and secular, and the totality will be seen as sacred. Perhaps, now, with a synthesis of knowledge of fields as disparate as quantum physics, astronomy, ecology, religion, holography, anthropology, and the contemplation of sacred art, architecture, and geometry, certain harmonies are beginning to be heard, or heard again, and our sense of the world, rather than being cacophonous and diffuse with the claims of economists and environmentalists, communists and capitalists, the secular and the sacred, begins to make more sense, and ring true. Perhaps a cosmology that is at once beyond memory and still just out of reach of present knowledge, yet somehow alive within us, is unfolding. The stars are still there to remind us that we are both trivial and non-trivial. One way of reaching out toward what we want to bring into being is a careful reassessment of how we are to live; where under the shining sky, in what relation to the sun and the solar winds, and how we are to best care for the living, celestial matter that is the small portion of the Earth on which we find ourselves.

Excerpted from Bioshelters, Ocean Arks, City Farm­ing: Ecology as the Basis of Design. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1984.

Nancy Jack Todd (b. 1938) is an activist, writer, editor, and lecturer with particular interest in how topics like feminism, agriculture, and the arts intersect with environmental issues. In 1969 she co-founded New Alchemy Institute with her husband John Todd and Bill McCarney, and in 1982 she and her husband co-founded Ocean Arks International, for which she serves as vice president. She is also editor and publisher of the ecological journal Annals of Earth.

John Todd (b. 1939) is a biologist specializing in ecological design. He’s helped design self-perpetuating miniature ecosystems which can be studied and used to develop systems to address human needs. This research has led to real-world applications, including water treatment systems. He was the co-founder, with his wife Nancy Jack Todd, of Ocean Arks International, and, with her and Bill McCarney, of the New Alchemy Institute.

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