The Wisdom of the Earth: Ecosophy and Holistic Agriculture (Dr Fr K.M. George, Incumbent-Chairperson, Dr Paulos Mar Gregorios Chair, MG University).
What is Ecosophy?
Ecosophy is a rather new word. Literally, it means wisdom of the house (in Greek Oikos = house; Sophia = wisdom). The neologism is generally associated with Prof. Arne Naess (died in 2009 at the age of 96), the Norwegian philosopher, eco-activist, mountaineer, follower of Gandhian non-violence and proponent of what he called Deep Ecology. He shortened his ‘ecological philosophy’ to ecosophy where the house or oikosrepresents the earth and the whole environment. So we may translate it as the wisdom of the earth, or the wisdom of the global ecosystem.
Shallow and Deep Ecologies.
Naess taught, among other things, Gandhian philosophy and was a committed advocate of Ahimsa. He distinguished between ecology and ecosophy. The former is a scientific study of our environment and ecosystems while the latter is a comprehensive philosophy he developed from his personal experience in nature in order to perceive the holistic character of human and other life- forms living in a symbiotic mode, rooted in the earth and its ecological network.
Naess also distinguished between Shallow Ecology and Deep Ecology. According to him, Shallow Ecology is a conventional anthropocentric view of nature. It is interested only in whatever is beneficial for human beings – human comfort, pleasure and profit. According to this view, nature can be used, manipulated, abused or destroyed for human interest. There is a human- invented hierarchy of beings with the ‘human being’ (the male in most cases!)at the top and all others subordinate to him.
Deep ecology on the other hand attributes intrinsic value to every creature and plant in the world, irrespective of human use and judgement. Everything has inherent right to exist and there is no absolute hierarchical order based on human value judgment of the rest of creation. Arne Naess defined ecosophy in the following way: “ By an ecosophy I mean a philosophy of ecological harmony and equilibrium. A philosophy as a kind ofsophia, or wisdom, is openly normative, it contains both norms, rules, postulates, value priority announcements and hypotheses concerning the state of affairs in our universe. Wisdom is policy wisdom, prescription, not only scientific description and prediction. The details of an ecosophy will show many variations due to significant differences concerning not only the facts of pollution, resources, population, etc but also value priorities.”
Western Reductive Method
Here we should say a few words about the origin of the modern scientific method and how ecosophical insights disagree with its reductionist approach. The rise of modern Western scientific method has profoundly affected the rest of the world, including India. The names of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and Rene Descartes (1596- 1650) are identified as two of the prominent founding fathers of modern scientific method.
Bacon distinguished between what he called proud knowledge and pure knowledge, and introduced the empirical method which later science took up as foundational for any scientific methodology. Rejecting the syllogistic or deductive method of Aristotle, Bacon advocated the experimental method and inductive reasoning as central to the search for truth. This essentially reductive and analytical method contributed enormously to what we call modern scientific methodology. Rene Descartes, French mathematician and philosopher, clearly distinguished between mind and matter, creating the famous Cartesian dichotomy, paving the way for scientific objectivity. The scientist who does the experiment is detached from the object of his or her study. Aiming at clarity and position in knowledge, Descartes gave to modern Western scientific enterprise its characteristic feature of detached objectivity. He said that the human calling was to be ‘masters and possessors of nature.’ This philosophy was reflected in the Western world’s gigantic scientific success in conquering and subduing Nature for the sole interest of man. European colonial conquest of the earth and their scientific mastery of the laws of the nature went hand in hand and took place almost simultaneously.
We cannot dispute the enormous success of the reductive, analytical and objectifying European scientific method. It became the universal norm for the acquisition of knowledge and the perception of reality. Like in all fields of human practical knowledge this method began to be applied to agriculture from the second half of the 20th century onwards. So what we call progressive or mechanised scientific farming in today’s world and the heavy use of powerful chemical fertilizers and pesticides is the adaptation of the mechanistic and reductive methodology of science. As a scientist is detached from the experiments, or the observer is distanced from the observed in order to arrive at scientific objectivity, the farmer is detached from the soil, the seed, the buds, the crops and the harvest. In this model of agri-business, or agro-industry, focusing solely on production and profit like in any other business, one can be a “successful farmer” without ever touching one’s feet on the ground or taking the grains in one’s hands. This situation, with its fatal consequence for the biosphere of the planet, is the contemporary face of the crisis in agriculture.
There is, however, an emerging paradigm shift in science and the philosophy of science for the last five decades or so. First of all, it is generally recognized that modern science is only one of the forms of knowledge, a rather young and immature one, that human beings have developed. There are innumerable other ways of perceiving and approaching reality. Folk traditions and indigenous knowledge, once ignored or underestimated, are now emerging with a new vitality.
In the newly emerging paradigm, the earth is seen, not as a lifeless, material object but as an organic entity full of life. It is not a passive object to be used or abused by human beings but a living body capable of positively responding to, or collaborating with, or negatively reacting to, human activities.
One of the most significant alliances in our ecological age is the one between Earth and Woman in movements like Eco-feminism. Both earth and women, considered as passive by the dominant male order, have been objects of exploitation, mistreatment, humiliation, aggression, conquest, possession and control for ages. The new Eco-feminist alliance between Earth and women, or as we traditionally say in Malayalammannum pennum, has given rise to a new perspective and a fresh vitality to human thinking and human activities like agriculture. Well known Eco-activists like Vandana Shiva, for instance, would consider this alliance between earth and women not as a link between two passive objects, as traditionally considered by dominant male patriarchal order, but as a creative association for the maintenance of life. The Bija Vidyapeeth in Doon Valley started by Vandana Shiva and others focuses on an agricultural paradigm rooted in this combined creativity of Earth and Woman.
The Gaia Theory
The new paradigm is not mechanistic but centred on life and its vital signs. The Gaia Theory proposed by James Lovelock already in the 1970s considered the earth as a living being. He took the title Gaia from Greek Mythology where it is the name of the earth goddess. According to this theory the earth as a living body can sustain a lot of human activities of exploitation and aggression, like our own bodies that repair themselves to maintain the homeostasis. In traditional language we call the Earth as the all bearing (sarvam saha) mother. But the Earth can retaliate and take revenge if human interventions exceed a limit. Lovelock’s co-author was Lynn Margulis, an American biologist who unveils the mysterious world of micro organisms that lies beneath our normal world of every day affairs. The Gaia theory has an ecosophical dimension and has implications for holistic agriculture.
Sacred Dimension of Agriculture
The production-consumption pattern in the industrial mode associated with capital investment, market and more and more profit should not be adapted to the production of food and its eating. There is an explicit sacred dimension associated with agriculture and food in all cultures. The idea of offering the first fruits to the Creator God is very ancient. Sheaves of newly harvested rice stalks are offered at Sabarimala temple every year in a ritual celebration. Offering first fruits of one’s labour to temple and churches is an ancient practice in the Judeo-Christian tradition. All religious traditions constantly exhort us to share our food with others, especially the poor and the needy. At a broader level, the food is shared with birds and animals, even with the spirits of ancestors, thus showing its essentially sacred character. So, from preparing the ground to sowing the seeds, and to harvesting, eating and sharing the fruits of the earth generated by human labour there is a certain spiritual world-view that is not found in industrial-mechanical and digital means of production and consumption.
Questions of Value
Whatever be the attribute we use for agricultural methods – natural, organic, sustainable, biotic, holistic, integral, Palekar or Fukuoka – there is a common ground in all of these in spite of their mutual differences and limitations. The common element is life or bios. We are cautious of chemical pesticide, for instance, because if used on earth against the principles of ecosophy and conviviality, it can eventually be biocide, the killing of all life on earth. Hence we welcome the shift from the anthropocentric to the biocentric. However, we need to develop a sane understanding of ourselves as humans because it is often our wrong self-understanding that creates problems not only for our own life but for all life forms. Our lust for profit and power, our craving for possession and control, our drive for aggression and conquest, these are the roots of the present crisis. What do we really need for a decent human life? How much we need to consume to keep in good health? How can we re-order our style of life so that all human beings can live together in justice and peace? How do we maintain the integrity of the whole creation so that all creatures can be respected in their right to live? These are questions of values. Agriculture, and for that matter any human activity has to constantly keep these questions to accompany the means and methods it employs to realize its objectives.