Cultivating Ecological Consciousness: Shifting from Reductionist to Holistic Worldviews

By Louise Fitzgerald

Techno-optimism and greening growth dominate mainstream environmental policymaking, with Market Based Instruments (MBIs) & geo-engineering two manifestations of this. MBIs claim that in order to value nature it must be financialised, and incorporated into the economic system. Geo-engineering is based on the assumption that Business As Usual can continue as the Industrial Growth Complex holds promise of innovating solutions to current crises. While differing in approach, they are united in fundamental logic, not only in negating the need for a significant reorientation of the economy, but in a deeper worldview, as will be interrogated within this paper.

Critiques of MBIs to date have largely focused on commodification of nature into the capitalist system (Kill, 2014). Such analysis is related to the broader criticism of Greening Growth, and associated injustices surrounding implementation of MBIs on the ground (See Bond et al., 2012; Cabello & Gilbertson, 2012). The Geo-engineering critique concentrates mostly on feasibility and risk of proposed technologies, also hedged in concerns of the potential for carbon and technology lock-in and related justice issues (Cairns, 2014).

This paper develops and enhances this debate by focusing on a largely overlooked and under interrogated problematic of such policies; the enshrining of a reductionist worldview. In this way it further deepens perspectives in understanding and articulating the issues inherent in such policies. Such analysis holds a number of contributions. Firstly, it illuminates the shared assumptions about nature underpinning what is described here as “Techno-Growth-Optimism”. Secondly it demonstrates the dangers arising from this flawed reductionist view, relating it back to social and economic systems, as this fundamental assumption is the root cause of current crises. Finally, it presents an orientating paradigm within which emerging alternative sustainabilities and emancipatory movements can be appreciated and fostered.

Reductionism: origins & implications

Reductionism, the idea that complex phenomena can be understood and explained by reducing them down to the smallest of “singular” entities is a hegemony that underpins the organisation of contemporary socio-economic structures. Since its very origins in the Scientific Revolution it has been inextricably linked to the domination and destruction of nature (Merchant, 1980). Reductionism is at the root of the growing ecological crisis, because it entails a transformation of nature such that the processes, regularities and regenerative capacity of nature are destroyed (Shiva, 1988). MBIs are inherently reductionist in that, “Nature’s capacity to regulate, store carbon and sequester carbon dioxide, to regulate and filter water or to provide a home for a complex web of life has been abstracted into isolated units of ‘ecosystem services’ so that they can then be traded on the open market (Kill, 2014, p. 19). Geo-engineering, in the belief that we can isolate & “hack” the complex processes of the planet, while assuming this won’t have implications for the whole, shares this logic (Klein, 2014). Such mechanistic thinking about the complex life sustaining systems is the root cause of the environmental crisis. It also underpins social and economic crises, in cultivating the view of humans as rational self-interested entities, separated from one another and the natural world. Such economic and social crises have in turn fostered a dislocation with mainstream politics, as this discord in turn has cultivated fertile ground for extremism, resulting in multifaceted political crises.

Challenges to reductionist hegemony

With such large-scale prevailing overlapping crises, the time is ripe for challenges to the hegemonic reductionist worldview to emerge. Indeed, traditional indigenous science, and non-Western cosmologies such as Buddhist Systems thinking have long provided intellectual antidotes to reductionist views. Meanwhile, contemporary developments such as Gaia Theory, and Quantum Entanglement Theory are fundamentally undermining the scientific basis of reductionism in conventional scientific spheres. This, again, is reflected in grassroots environmental movements, with the clarion call of “we are nature defending itself” as environmentalism recalibrates itself from predominantly middle class conservation focus to more deep ecology and justice-based perspectives of humans as embedded in the wider web of life, humans as nature.

Within this lies hope for emancipatory and alternative sustainabilities to emerge, and for marginalised knowledge to come to the fore. This will arise from challenging hegemonic reductionism, as from its very origins this “epistemological violence” has been intrinsically linked to the domination of nature, women, and delegitimisation of organic, spiritual and holistic worldviews and those who bear them (Merchant, 1980; Shiva 1988). Thus, shifting from the domination and oppression of the current Industrial Growth Complex is predicated on challenging this hegemony.

A true paradigm shift: from reductionist to holistic worldviews

As this paper explores, the path to emancipation lies in such an interrogation; to make visible the insidious and pervasiveness of reductionist hegemony, in our societies, in our disciplines, and in ourselves. Only through this decolonization of our minds can we cultivate holistic systems thinking to challenge the fundamental drivers of (green) capitalism, develop adequate responses to the current crisis and foster a collective consciousness fertile for alternative sustainabilities based on convivial, holistic, restorative of balance, truly emancipated worldviews to emerge and flourish.

Global warming, plastic ocean pollution, the sixth mass extinction, growing inequality, all call for a new consciousness to emerge regarding how we exist in this world, and with one another. But what does this entail? Does consciousness mean just increased awareness, or does it necessitate a deeper questioning of fundamental assumptions and worldview that underpin the systems from which these crises came? Here consciousness means perception, to seek to reveal and challenge existing politics of knowledge, and cultivate new ways of understanding, alternative ontologies. This is the current challenge for political theory, so that crises may be transformed into opportunities for justice.



Louise Michelle Fitzgerald SPIRe Doctoral recipient, UCD

Irregularly tweets under: @LouiseMichelleF

Louise Michelle Fitzgerald is a second year PhD researcher and SPIRe Doctoral recipient at the School of Politics & International Relations, UCD. Her research focuses on environmental and climate policy, and seeks to analyse what conditions and characteristics give rise to effective environmental policy. In particular she aims to contribute to knowledge of how to develop holistic, future-just, social-just effective environmental policy. Broadly she is interested in political ecology, alternative sustainabilities, deep ecology, system-thinking and holistic perspectives in cultivating solutions to current socio-ecological crises. Previously to joining UCD she lived for 3 years in Berlin where she worked in environmental research and civil society organisations. She is an active member of a number of climate and environmental justice organisations, both in Dublin and Berlin.




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