While looking into the Transition Towns movement for the last post, I had a look through the course offered at the Schumacher college in Dartington, Totnes.
Modeled on E.F. Schumacher’s principles of “Buddhist Economics” , the college runs an impressive series of short weekend workshops as well as a Masters in Holistic Science, with two more post-grad courses, one on Sustainable Horticulture and another on Economics for Transition scheduled to commence autumn 2012, and seems positioned as a significant center for disseminating some of the core ideologies on of the environmental movement:
Responding to the urgent needs of planet and society we want to reach as many people as possible with our work by enhancing the range and scope of our activities whilst maintaining the practice of education on a human scale.
Over the next few years our aim is to deliver programmes that reach over twice as many people as we do now, together with the possibility of engaging thousands more worldwide with our open learning and outreach initiatives.
Founded in 1991 by Satish – “the rockness-of-the-rock” – Kumar and others, Schumacher has hosted an impressive list of tutors on its many course over the years, including “king of woo” Deepak Chopra.
These two superstars of the New Age/Ecotheism worlds are famously exposed by Richard Dawkins in his series The Enemies of Reason:
Other visiting teachers at the college include transpersonal psychotherapist and originator of “Holotrophic breath work” Stanislov Grof, who was awarded the 2000 Bronze Delusional Boulder by the Sisyphos Club of skeptics;
Rupert Sheldrake, a pseudo-scientist who came up with the idea of “morphogenetic fields” as an explanation for supposed animal telepathy;
and Deep Ecologist Arne Naess.
The flagship course is the MSc in Holistic Science, lead by Stephen Harding, author of Animate Mind, which, I confess, I haven’t read- I did have a look at a borrowed copy once and remember the first few pages in which Harding complained about the tedium of counting insects or whatever it was he was doing on an ecology course, and found it much more interesting to just sit and enjoy the beauty of nature and enjoy the view.
Harding is influenced by James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and Jungian psychology, which also inform the MSc course.
From the course website we are told what you will learn:
“A thorough understanding of the pros and cons of using western science as a stand-alone tool for gaining reliable information about the world.”
This should awaken one’s skeptical faculties straight away: we are later told we will learn
“How to use inter-disciplinary scientific information in combination with knowledge gained from sensing, feeling and intuition”.
This looks very much like different ways of promoting the usual new-age deception that there are “other ways of knowing”- ie your intuition- that can be used alongside empirical science.
Holistic Science is a new and emerging science of systems and wholes, qualities and values. It allows us to look at the social, economic and ecological issues of the 21st Century in a new light. It helps us to come to understandings that go beyond the limits of our current scientific paradigm. It is the next evolution of western scientific thought.
Unfortunately, if you believe this then you are not likely to be much use at empirical science anyway. The whole purpose of science is to follow a method that will as far as possible reduce personal bias- “intuition” is nothing more than that, your personal bias. People talk about “using their intuition” as if it is an alternative kind of search engine, like Google, that we carry around with us and can turn to for, presumably reliable and perhaps infallible knowledge: for what use is it if there is no way of testing it against something?
We are told
Experts have now agreed that information is not enough to achieve a more sustainable future. What we need at this time in history is a more emotionally-based intelligence about the state of the earth, to combine with our advanced intellectual understanding.
-but who are these “experts”? and does “a more emotionally-based intelligence” actually mean anything?
Certainly, information is not everything- scientific evidence say for climate change effects, species extinction, pollution does not automatically translate into policy. Knowing about environmental problems does not necessarily translate directly into what, if anything, we should do about them, and proposed solutions often involve bitter political wrangling.
There is a deception here I feel: the underlying assumption is that the hard science- the “intellectual” part that does all this “thinking” and provides this “information” has already been done. The jury is not out anymore. The scientists have spoken, the consensus is clear: humanity is living in an unsustainable way, we have had an unacceptable impact on the natural world, and we need to change in some kind of fundamental way that involves a transcendence of the “current rational/reductionist scientific paradigm” which, on its own, is insufficient.
But it is not the scientists who have spoken thus: science surely has the job of presenting accurate information about the state of the planet, but much of this is hotly disputed, and there is plenty of evidence that the doom-sayers from Malthus onwards have proved repeatedly wrong; moreover, the question of what actually to do with this information, and what it means, given that humans will always use technology to improve their lot, is hardly one that should be left in the hands of those who see rational thought as a cause of the problem.
What we are dealing with here is religion: Gaia worship and Eco-theology.
I uses to practice Deep Ecology years ago, attending several workshops with John Seed and a week-long course with Joanna Macy, and these assumptions were prevalent there as well. If we have a look at the short courses at Schumacher, there is one on Eco-Psychology, run by Mary-Jane Rust- who attended that same Joanna Macy workshop years ago- and David Key.
Eco-psychology is directly linked to Deep Ecology- the assumptions of environmental unsustainability and the need for change on a deep psychological level are prevalent. There is a general sense of impending doom and the need to express our despair at environmental destruction. This is most explicit in Macy’s “Despair and Empowerment” work which forms a bedrock of any Deep Ecology practice: by going deeply into our despair at what we know is wrong with the current paradigm, we can be empowered to change, but that change must come first from within.
It is the hard facts that must come first: if you don’t get them right, no amount of “inner work” or “holistic science” will be of any use; indeed, there is a real danger of instead becoming obsessively inward focused and cultish.
Deep Ecology is inherently misanthropic, placing an infinite value on the natural world and holding disdain for the moral decrepitude of us humans.
“Nature” does not care about human well-fare, and any notion of “returning to nature” will be applied only to poor farmers in undeveloped nations, whose pastoral lifestyle is romanticized but never emulated by the “holistic” western environmentalist, beyond weekend courses or the smallholder life in the country, still underpinned with the benefits of a modern industrial economy.
Instead, we should be calling for more progress, more adaptation and technology to bring the rest of humanity out of poverty. Since we are not going to relinquish the wealth we enjoy in the west, nor the well-being and other benefits technology has brought us albeit at environmental cost, the only ethical position is to celebrate ongoing human innovation.
We find this view of the need for a paradigm shift away from western reductionism expressed very clearly in the introduction to the book A New Renaissance: Transforming Science, Spirit and Society edited by Lorimer and Robinson:
This book diagnoses an urgent need for change and renewal in a period of crisis for philosophy, science and society. The Florentine Renaissance, some six hundred years ago, took a huge leap forward into realism, rationality and self-awareness. It was born out of the waning authority of medieval institutions and beliefs.
We stand now at a similar junction in history. It is apparent to many that reductionist science with its materialist values — the worldview that has driven modern culture for the last two centuries — is losing credibility. Its objectives of growth and acquisition, and its guiding principles asserting that there is no intrinsic meaning to life or purpose in the cosmos, are now widely seen as creating an unsustainable world.
A look down the list of the books’ contributors reveals several Schumacher connections- there is Rupert Sheldrake again, Satish Kumar of course, Peter Russell, and Guy Claxton, who runs a short course called What’s the Point of School? Cultivating Minds for Turbulent Times.
There is another way of looking at all this. For a start, it should be pointed out that “reductionist science” does not have “materialist” values – in fact, science arguably has no values other than freedom of speech, thought and inquiry and the pursuit of the Truth- whatever that may turn out to be. When science is criticized for being “reductionist” this misses the point that science is merely a method of inquiry, it seeks to know through evidence – and people’s personal opinions don’t qualify as such, since they are necessarily biased.
Secondly, it is not this reductionist worldview which has driven modern society, but a necessary evolutionary impulse to survive and prosper. This idea of the need for a new “holistic” paradigm shift appears itself to be a product of post-modern discontent, a feeling that comes perhaps with the removal through technology and progress of the historical need for constant struggle for survival.
There may be darker forces also behind this. The sidebar for the MSc Holistic Science tells us it includes “Goethean Science” and the “Science of Qualities”- but these are not sciences at all, they are actually pre-scientific concepts that would drag us back to the middle ages were they to become dominant.
Google Goethean Science and the first hit is this Anthroposophical website– Goethe was one of the main influences on the Austrian mystic Rudolph Steiner, founder of Steiner-Waldorf education and Biodynamic Agriculture.
Another of the listed tutors on the MSc, Margaret Colquhoun, a “Goethean biologist”. An account of her course by one of her students can be read here.
I still do not know what my plant is called
All I know of it is what I have taken in through my senses and expressed through my drawings and writing.
This is not science- I am certainly not qualified to comment on the quality of the art, but art and science are not interchangeable- they do not do the same thing anymore than baking and running are different ways of doing the same thing. Apart from the fact that Anthroposophy is a cult based on Steiner’s bizarre theories of racial karma, the whole idea of Holistic Science is a travesty of science, a sleight-of-hand apparently designed to lead people away from actual science- the pursuit of real knowledge- is subverted towards a bastardized version that leads no-where.
A look at some of the other short courses on offer at Schumacher reveals more of the same:
-Soul in Nature – Experiencing the Connection with Satish Kumar, Jonathan Horwitz, Stephen Harding and Princess Irene van Lippe Biesterfeld. Who? – yes, Princess Irene of the Nethelands who, according to her Wikipedia entry, attracted attention from the Dutch media for her book Dialogues with Nature, who “seized upon passages that recounted conversations she said she had with the trees and dolphins.”
Next February there will be a course on Spirit, Science And Consciousness: Living With The Paradoxes with Jean Boulton, Chris Clarke, Shantena Sabbadini, Amit Goswami, and again is all about going beyond that troublesome Newtonian wolrd view that has lead us to this ecological crisis, and shows how “new scientific insights, particularly in quantum physics and complexity science, are leading to a very different understanding of how the world works, which shares many common themes with the paradoxes of ancient wisdom and philosophy.”
The idea that quantum physics – the physics of the sub-atomic world with its very strange behaviors, confounding ordinary expectations of the macro-world we inhabit – in some way validates mysticism, as if western science is now “catching up” with ancient wisdom from the East or the inner knowings of the Shamans, is debunked here by Victor Stenger.
Quantum Physics may (or may not) pose more questions than it answers, but it does not demonstrate any kind of evidence for a non-material world of the Spirit or any supposed fusion between consciousness and physics, regardless of Chopra’s fantasy’s about science having expropriated the notion of the Quantum from New Agers for themselves! (see the Dawkins’ video above.)
Then we have Transition in Practice starting in the new year, to be run by Naresh Giangrande, Rob Hopkins, Sophy Banks, of the Transition Towns Network (TTN) and Jonathan Dawson of Findhorn Eco-village (another centre of Excellence in General Woo Studies.)
I have dealt at length in recent posts on the Transition Networks’ association with general woo, alternative medicine, and links with Anthroposophy, but it would appear that Transition fits in snugly into the general Schumacher mission: we need a new paradigm, the rational world view has run its course, “other ways of knowing” need their place in the sun – forgetting of course that these subjective approaches are essentially pre-rational/scientific– they represent a regression to earlier, pre-Enlightenment values.
There are longer courses starting next year including the MSc Sustainable Horticulture and Food Production. One can only assume the practical aspects of such a course will be of a high standard; the issue is the ideology behind it. With anti-GMO campaigner Vandana Shiva listed as one of the visiting teachers to the college, the course is hardly likely to give a fair and balanced view on Genetic Engineering, one of the most promising technologies that could make a real difference to improving the productivity of farmers in the developing world, especially by helping in the development of disease-resistance, and flood- and drought-tolerant crops.
The program details tell us:
In resilience thinking, it is irrational to separate the ecological and the social even for analytical purposes. The current dominant paradigm shaping production methods and food chains, is accelerating a critical transition at local and global levels to less desirable states.
It is not clear what this means- the first phrase does not appear to make any real sense, while the second sentence fails to define what it means by “the current dominant paradigm” or what “states” are considered “less desirable”: but I think I can guess it involves an attack on the Green Revolution, with its doubling of food production from the 1960s, and the industrialization of food production, which has liberated billions from the drudgery and insecurity of life as a peasant farmer.
I would certainly be interested in learning more about what the course teaches, but given the context it is taught in, can only have low expectations that it develops a realistic and science-based approach to feeding the world.
It is backwards into the Endarkenment that all this will lead us. The Great Mystic Barmpot himself Rudolph Steiner, whos ethereal presence throughout all these courses can no doubt be almost tangibly sensed by the Sensitive, shows us the way:
“The traditional mythological system of the battle of Christ and Satan in history must be seen in a new way. Rudolf Steiner articulated a Christology in which Christ is the human mediation between the demonic Ahriman and the satanic Lucifer. Ahriman is the unit crushed into the uniform, the destruction of individuality in sameness. Ahriman is the spirit behind Stalin, or Orwell’s nightmares of Big Brother. Lucifer is the opposite, the individual raised, in the unbounded pride of the sin of superbia, to a cosmic egotism where there can be no other one, not even God. The Ahrimanic evil is the state that crushes all diversity; it is the war-time economy. . . . in which all life, all art, all science, and all sensuous happiness must be sacrificed to the Moloch of battle. The Luciferic evil is the overweening pride of the scientist who believes he can do better by taking over the control of evolution through the genetic engineering of life in his laboratory. The Christ, however, is neither the unit and the uniform, nor the alone, but expresses the crossing of the unique and the universal.”
Ahriman – Christ – Lucifer
Schumacher college is really the Woo-Maker college. It is a vipers’ nest of irrationality, a veritable Woo-woo Central of regressive and delusional ideas that, while claiming to herald a new paradigm of ecological awareness, is actually undermining the rational and scientific approaches which are a priori necessary to inform human progress.
Small colleges like this with strong focused courses could be a force for true education, and play important and progressive roles in the world, but only if they dispense with their religious anti-science agenda and explicitly adopt Enlightenment values of free inquiry, rationality, and innovation and work with real scientists and not just quacks.
There is no such thing as ‘holistic’ science. There is science – and there’s wishful thinking;
and there is much, much worse.