Schumacher Woo-macher

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
Boulder by the Sisyphos

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:

Rudolf Steiner’s Theory of Evil
From the book Imaginary Landscape: Making Worlds of Myth and Science, by William Irwin Thompson:

“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.

Leave a comment


  1. A great piece of research!

    The David Lorimer book you mention has a chapter written by Prince Charles entitled ‘Restoring Harmony and Connection: Inner and Outer’

    Lorimer has previously written a book praising HRH’s ‘green’ credentials called ‘Radical Prince’, published by Floris books (an Anthroposophical publisher)

    It is well known that Charles uses Biodyamics, Duchy College runs courses and student placements at Duchy Farm

    So no surprise of the collaboration between Schumacher and Duchy College

  2. I so agree. The tragedy is that, in my view, neither E.F. Schumacher nor James Lovelock would have approved (J lovelock is still working and writing so we could ask him) of Schumacher Colege casting out science. Lovelock says again and again that his Gaia Hypothesis does not require any mystical or supernatural or teleological influence and none of his books suggest that his work, and that of Lyn Margulis, uses anything other than conventional science and systems modelling. Schumacher, by contrast was a self-confessed ‘spiritual’ person but also believed that the science and engineering should be sound even if an idea sprung from a spiritual thought. That is why the Intermediate Technology Development Group was founded – to ensure new ‘green’ ideas made scientific and economic sense. Schumachder College has thrown all that away and has scuppered the hopes of many many people who were originally very supportive of its general aims. It seems that science and maths are too much like hard work for aspiring gurus. It’s all too shameful for words.
    Nick Nakorn

  3. The sad thing is that many of the concerns mentioned (e.g. the environmental ones) are real, but by doing pseudoscience one will at best be ineffective, at worst stand in the way of real solutions to what are very significant problems …

  4. Thanks for a thorough analysis of un utterly barmy course.
    Of course people can believe daft thing they want to believe, but not with the help of my money. And please don’t offer it as a university subject. To call it a master of science degree is a tragic betrayal of academic standards.

    The VC of Plymouth is on Twitter. I just sent her a message.

    .@wmpupvc To give an MSc in antiscientific nonsense is a betrayal of academia Please read

  5. David, I like your tweet. The course is a betrayal of science and of Schumacher. Economics has never been a science, and can not be, but it would be nice to see our political classes (and our local gurus) pick up a calculator every so often before rolling over to be patted gratefully by the banking industry. What these mystics don’t realise is that they are simply another market niche for the consumerist machine. They think they’re some kind of an antedote but, in my view, they are much like any other consumer; ready to follow the latest thing offering reward without effort. Oh, I’ll retweet naturally.
    PS, I’m still off the cigs and some semblance of concentration is returning.

  6. @David Colquhoun- thanks for your response and for bringing these issues to the attention of Plymouth Uni- “To call it a master of science degree is a tragic betrayal of academic standards.”- of course I was mainly focusing on what this means for the environmental movement, since Schumacher seems to represent much of the irrationality that is all too often found there- but you are right to highlight the fact that this course is actually credited by a university- giving credence where there is none.

  7. Graham,
    I know I keep banging on about it but one has to differentiate between Schumacher the writer and Schumacher the college. The two are no longer linked at all and, about 10 years ago, Diana (Schumacher) told me that she and Christian Schumacher had given up trying to influence the college and wanted nothing to do with it.

  8. @Nick thanks for your comments- and interesting to hear about the Schumachers wanting to distance themselves from the college. It is a long time since I read Small is Beautiful, and I also read “A Guide to the Perplexed” some time ago- it influenced me quite a bit at the time, seeming to fit in with my interests in eastern mysticism at the time, but perhaps I have mis-read it. Schumacher’s influence on the environmental movement cannot be overstated of course- but Im not sure that they may also not be being used for supporting the ideology of “keeping the poor poor”- ie small-scale, intermediate technology can be great, but may assume that globalisation etc is always bad. Some things work better on a big scale, and we should be wary of promoting development pathways for the poor world just because they suit an anti-modernist ideology.
    Glad you’re still off the smokes!

  9. Graham,
    I agree about scale. I used to have a hell of a time trying to persuade advocates of windpower (I am one) that small is not worth doing due to the cubic nature of the power function and that rigs of less than 3 MW peak (this figure is now lower thanks to better production design) would probably never repay their embodied energy costs in their lifetime.
    I’m also having problems with everyone telling me that local shops are better than large retail chains – they might be right but where is the data? Where are the supply-chain investigations into human rights and environmental impact from the local shops?
    Concerning Lovelock, that hateful book ‘The Way’ by Goldsmith persuaded many that ‘Gaia’ was ‘teleological’.

  10. It’s true that many historical predictions of impending catastrophes have proven to be flawed or inadequate, Malthus being the classic example. But even if we leave aside current forecasts regarding the future of the human species and whether or not climate change is a pressing concern, it is still perfectly logical from a scientific standpoint to argue that the effects of human growth and technology on the planet have been damaging. We needn’t even look beyond the basic facts of biology to see this.

    Our system of neatly assigning and dividing species is well known to be folly. The notorious worldview of a ‘tree of ascent’, though prominent in our morality, is anathema to the actual facts of evolutionary history; all modern species are equally as ‘evolved’ and all are cousins without heirarchy (as I’m sure you are probably aware). But this basic fact has not been assimilated by the human psyche at all. If it ever was, the problems it would present to our ethics aren’t difficult to see. Richard Dawkins, who you mention above, points out in his essay ‘Gaps In the Mind’ that:

    “It is sheer luck that this handful of intermediates [between humans and chimpanzees] no longer exists. (‘Luck’ from some points of view: for myself, I should love to meet them.) But for this chance, our laws and our morals would be very different. We need only discover a single survivor, say a relict Australopithecus in the Budongo Forest, and our precious system of norms and ethics would come crashing about our ears. The boundaries with which we segregate our world would be all shot to pieces. Racism would blur with speciesism in obdurate and vicious confusion.”

    More pertinently, if ‘intermediate’ forms still existed and interbred from humans and all other modern species right back to, say, the first eurkaryotic cell, then how on Earth could we justify factory farming? Or deforestation? Or industrial pollution? (Again, for argument’s sake, leaving out the effects that may be caused by anthropogenic global warming). That would be the ultimate political hotbed. And yet nothing about our history or the history of those species which are effected would have changed, literally nothing. It would just be that we could visibally _see_ the interconnectedness that ties the entirety of life together.

    Deep Ecology advocates that “humans no more important than other species” (Merriam Webster dictionary). From this basic premise, conclusions regarding the morality of humans and our current state are drawn (incidentally, that notion that humans are of no more worth than any other species is about as anti-theistic a perspective as one could hold). You describe the movement as “inherently misanthropic […] holding disdain for the moral decrepitude of us humans”. That may well be true, and perfectly defensible.

    • @Adam-
      1) only humans have ethics. With few exceptions of symbiosis, no other species cares- at all- about either humans, any other species, or the eco-system as a whole. Only humans have this capacity, which is one reason why we are so unique and special.
      2)Deep Ecologists are misanthropic- but (necessarily) exempt themselves. They judge only “other people” or an abstracted version of “the human species” (read: poor dark-skinned people in other countries). They do not include themselves.
      3)(incidentally, that notion that humans are of no more worth than any other species is about as anti-theistic a perspective as one could hold)- Deep Ecology is a religion of Gaia worship, holding the planet, other species and a reified “eco-system” as being above humanity, because it is seen as pure and without sin (unlike the Fallen humans). As with other forms of eco-theism, Deep Ecology maps rather precisely on Judeo-Christian beliefs of the Fall from Eden and Original Sin.
      4) Why do Deep Ecologists use computers?

  11. “only humans have ethics”

    I’m prepared to accept that; but what I’m arguing and have argued above is that our ethical norms are ignorant of the basic facts and tenets of biology. If humans could interbreed with a living ‘intermediate’ form between ourselves and modern chimps, and if this ‘intermediate’ itself could interbreed with the next, along a whole series right back to the first multicellular organism (and such intermediates must have existed so long as we accept biological evolution, they are extinct not for any essential reason), then our laws and ethics which rely a priori on humans being entirely distinct (and above) all other species would come crashing down. This is also the point that Dawkins makes in the quote I selected above.

    It’s not strictly related to morality, but I cannot leave unchallenged your claim that symbiosis is an exceptional case in biology. Almost half of all land plants rely for their survival on nutrients provided by mycorrhizal fungi. The eukaryotic cell itself, which is what allows multicellular organisms to even exist, was formed by the mutualistic fusion of two bacterial cells (or, more accurately as is now believed, a bacterial and an archaen cell). We try to combat infectious diseases with broad-spectrum antibiotics and find that the natural gut microflora is distrupted as a result and digestion impeded; hence, pharmacies now dispense probiotic after-courses to stimulate their growth. Examples of symbioses are legion across the animal, plant, fungal, and microbiological kingdoms. Of course they have classically received less attention than predatory or parasitic interactions, because they are not as intuitive to our own competition-centric worldview.

    Yes, in the short term, a Deep Ecologist participating in society and civilisation as a whole by using computers or driving a car, etc is contributing to the ill-effects which they claim humanity has on the planet. But the alternatives for such people aren’t exactly inspiring so long as humanity at large continues in its current vein. They are faced with the option of trying to spread a message and build a movement opposed to the destruction of other species and of the environment, or moving into the wilderness in an attempt to live a sustainable lifestyle themselves while the world burns, as it were. For anyone who believes that environmental destruction is almost at the point of no return, it isn’t difficult to see why choosing the former becomes more logical.

  12. “If humans could interbreed with a living ‘intermediate’ form between ourselves and modern chimps…”- convoluted logic I would say- cant see why this would mean anything really. The point is, all those other species that we can and DO care about, care not a jot for us. I say, this proves us to be special and unique, because we have ethics.

    There is nothing wrong with killing and eating other species to survive and prosper- it is an inevitable result of being alive- there is nothing wrong with using resources, any other species would do the same- but without the ethical considerations- given the chance.

    Dawkins is not a Deep Ecologist. I wonder why not, since he is clearly aware of the biological realities that you claim others are ignorant of?

    Adam, it really does just sound like you are making excuses- there is nothing stopping you wonderting off into the wilderness and living the good life as a hunter-gatherer if you so choose! get on the next slow-boat to the Amazon and stop whinging! Totally unconvincing Im afraid- you have no intention of giving up technology and the benefits of the modern world yourself, you just want to deny it to others.
    Environmental destruction is not at the point of no return- that is a tenant of eco-theology, not of the data.

  13. The point I was making is that our laws and ethics depend on an artificial distinction between humans and the rest of life (i.e. that species are separated only by convenience). The fact that humans are capable of ethical consideration, regardless of whether any other species ‘cares’ for us in return, ought to be reason enough for us to consider the consequences of our actions on the rest of life. Every species in the world has unique attributes, just because humans have big brains and ethics doesn’t prove that we are therefore more important.

    As for Dawkins’ views, they certainly seem to differ from your own on the issue. See this article he wrote for, in which he says that the existence of a human-chimp hybrid would, quote, “change everything”: (I’m afraid he seems to suffer from the same convoluted logic you’ve accused me of). I’ve never heard him discuss Deep Ecology one way or the other, but he is a proponent of the term ‘speciesism’ and a supporter of the great ape project.

    Finally, you’ve childishly ignored the point I made above which was that _those for whom_ the damage caused to other species and to the environment is at breaking point are faced with either trying to tackle the issue by raising consciousness and opposition, or deserting it altogether when their own ‘sustainable’ lifestyles won’t matter in the greater scheme of things. Whether or not you personally accept that environmental catastrophe is looming is irrelevant.

    • Biophilia:

      There are some who question the biophilia hypothesis. For instance, it doesn’t completely explain why humans evolved to care for things that weren’t part of their DNA structure and didn’t necessarily have anything to do with survival. Richard Dawkins proposes that caring for other animals or the environment may have evolved not so much because we need to feel connected to nature, but because such caring changes the perception of others. It makes others feel that we are superior humans, and we thus have a one-up in terms of attracting mates and have more power in society.

      As humans, we are naturally anthropocentric- just as apes are ape-centric, and amoebas are amoeba-centric. But we also exhibit degrees of biophilia, mainly to domestic animals that might love us back, and charismatic species that we feel an affinity for such as apes and big cats. Slugs and viruses…not so much.

      Another good example (along with Dawkins and the great apes) is Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, who states that protection of whales and dolphins is his one “religious” belief- they should never be killed because of their intelligence. But he doesnt extend this to all other species- that seems unnecessary; in a sense I guess he is elevating certain species he identifies with the most to a par with humans; it is hard to disagree with either of them on this.

      I think you may be reading too much into what Dawkins says- he is running a thought experiment which if happened would “change everything”- but he doesnt say how– he doesnt suggest that therefore, because of an unbroken chain of evolution the rest of nature has an infinite value over human life. The fox can kill the chicken, so why cannot we?

      I think Dawkins would likely be much more in agreement with Stewart Brand who used to say, “we are like Gods and better get used to it” to “we are as Gods and HAVE to get GOOD at it.”

  14. Where on earth are you getting this notion of the rest of life having an “infinite value” over human life? Not once have I suggested such a thing, and indeed the reference I used above in defining Deep Ecology quite clearly stated that “humans no more important than other species”. This is not at all the same as saying other species are more important than humans. You will find a similar definition to the one I used wherever you look. So whatever interpretation of Deep Ecology you are using, it is not a commonly accepted one.

    I don’t think there’s any ambiguity about what Dawkins means with this thought-experiment. He is quite clear in the links I’ve provided in stating that it is our ethics towards other species that would be forced to change (“our precious system of norms and ethics would come crashing about our ears. The boundaries with which we segregate our world would be all shot to pieces. Racism would blur with speciesism in obdurate and vicious confusion”). Why? Not because any other modern species would have changed to make them more worthy of ethical consideration, but because we could see our relatedness to them and the artificial boundaries separating us would be blurred.

    • He is quite clear in the links I’ve provided in stating that it is our ethics towards other species that would be forced to change

      yes but how would they change?- Dawkins doesnt say, but pokes a little fun at the debates that would ensue:

      Bishops would bleat, lawyers would gloat in anticipation, conservative politicians would thunder, socialists wouldn’t know where to put their barricades.

      It is a fascinating thought experiment that leads to many other questions: if such a hominid close enough for us to breed with were to be found, would it also have ethics? what would they be? would they all be speceist, believing in their inherent superiority over all other animals including us? Or would they be Deep Ecologists, anguishing Jain-like about the ants they might accidentally tread on? and how long before the distinction between them and us is eliminated by general inter-breeding?

      Earlier you have said:

      if ‘intermediate’ forms still existed and interbred from humans and all other modern species right back to, say, the first eurkaryotic cell, then how on Earth could we justify factory farming? Or deforestation? Or industrial pollution?

      but how could any animal justify any impact whatsoever on the environment in any form or to any degree? Should we have to justify such an impact? after all, we have all evolved to where we are by fending off competitors and modifying the environment where it suits to the degree we are able. No other species seems to give a damn about their impact- they just care about survival and passing on genes. Why should our species alone be saddled with the burden of ethics at all? It seems very unfair.
      Froma strictly logical point of view, if we treat all species as of equal moral (and therefore legal) rights as we do our own, could it not equally mean that factory-farming humans would become acceptable, instead of opposing the farming of other animals?
      So while these are fascinating issues, I don’t think they automatically result in the ethical position you espouse IMHO.

  15. I largely agree with your sentiment. However one could read into your article that all of the contributors to the College are humbug. I know the work of Brian Goodwin (having been a student in the 1970s) and also Kaufman. In my opinion both were “ahead of their time” (if such a thing was possible).

    • Thanks for your comment Tony. I dont know much about Goodwin but according to this obituary he

      became a leading advocate of holistic science, in which emotion and intuition rank equally with rational analysis of natural phenomena, aiming to lead science away from an amoral notion of control to an ethical sense of participation in the unfolding story of life on Earth.

      In this interview he cites Goethe- who was one of the main influences on Steiner:

      Goethe developed ways of cultivating intuitive, holistic knowledge. I’ve tried this with students, and it works remarkably well. It requires going on a somewhat different journey than that pursued in present science and deliberately include all the qualities that Galileo left out of science, including the feelings.

      Seems to me he was very much part of the problem I am addressing here: he was an anti-modernist, suspicious of science and technology because he thought it involved a “separation” from nature; in reality, we can only truly enjoy the beauty of nature once we have sufficient technology and wealth to protect us from it.

      To mix “feelings” in with science is a contradiction: our feelings will not directly tell usanything about the objective world, because they are clearly so strongly shaped by culture.

  16. Dear Graham

    Good to see you’ve started a new blog to promote skeptical approaches to ecology. I remember that we had somewhat of a disagreement over on Zone 5 last time I was there. I have the feeling that we still differ on what constitutes skepticism; whether it means an open-minded and even-handed approach to the world, or merely mud-slinging at anyone who doesn’t fit into scientific orthodoxy (or your interpretation of it).

    I have several points here.

    You criticise “the usual new-age deception that there are “other ways of knowing”- ie your intuition- that can be used alongside empirical science.”

    Intuition is nothing at all to do with the New Age. It’s as old as the hills and is an invaluable tool in any situation when you don’t have all the information you need to make a rigorous analysis of the situation. In the real world – outside a laboratory – that’s virtually all the time. And yes, intuition can in fact be used alongside empirical science, and invariably is. I use it, you use it, even Richard Dawkins uses when he decides what to wear for his next TV appearance or whether to take an umbrella when he walks to work.

    I don’t agree that you can just dismiss someone as a “pseudoscientist” just because their work is contrary to scientific orthodoxy. For example, I understand (I may be wrong here) that Rupert Sheldrake had a career as a plant pathologist before getting interested in telepathy. Doesn’t sound like a typical pseudoscientist to me. Of course that proves nothing about his results, but it does make it harder to dismiss him out of hand. Especially coming from someone with a sociology degree! By the way, I have a PhD in marine ecology, in case you’re into comparing degrees.

    About Schumacher College. I have been to two “short courses” at Schumacher – one on Ecological Design with David Orr, John Todd and Nancy Todd, and one (as facilitator) on Sustainable Cities with a variety of teachers including members of the design team of Dongtan EcoCity in Shanghai. Neither course, as I recall, made any reference to any topic that could be classified as pseudoscience. The learning environment was exceptional when compared with most of the places I have studied. The supportive learning community was brilliant, and everyone was free to participate in whatever activities they wished; there is a clear college ethos that’s Buddhist/ spiritual in flavour and pro-organic food and the like, but I didn’t find it intrusive in the way that it might be in an overtly spiritual place like Findhorn.

    I don’t think you can tar everyone at Schumacher with the same brush – they have good thinkers like Arne Naess and James Lovelock, as well as dodgy gurus like Deepak Chopra.

    I do have two criticisms of the college. One is that, as you rightly point out, there seems to be an increasing number of fringe scientific or pseudo-scientific topics on offer. The second is that I think it’s too expensive, which limits the range of people who can attend. My first short course there was supported by the Nicholas Carr-Saunders Foundation, otherwise I’d certainly never have been able to afford it. Former course participants have the option to apply to act as a facilitator, which means you can attend for free.

    When I decided to create an ecological study centre here in northern Spain (see for more on that!), Schumacher College was one of my main inspirations; more for its ethos of learning in community and in nature than for its specific curriculum, however. The college has been around for a good while now and has inspired countless environmentalists of different stripes in different ways. I’m disappointed that it seems to be turning towards pseudoscience, but it should not be dismissed as merely a fringe institution.

    • Hi Robert
      Welcome to Skepteco!
      Interesting points, glad you had some good experiences at Schumacher. Obviously you are right, we all use intuition, and often have no choice when as you say we do not have all the the information. This is not what I am talking about here though- New Age conceptions of “other ways of knowing” specifically elevate intuition to claim equal status with scientific knowledge- an arbitrary substitution of “intuition” (guessing or going on a hunch) whenever it suits. This is very clearly seen in alternative therapies for example which are always justified by anecdotes, which support the “intuition” that they must work. The mistake is to think that intuition can trump evidence, when in fact it is always the other way around. Intuition might be true but usually turns out not to be- in any case it should never be trusted until verified by evidence!
      As you say, Sheldrakes’ (or Dawkins’) qualifications mean nothing, they do not support the use of intuition over evidence.
      I dont mean to tar everyone and all courses at Schumacher with the same brush, but there is a real danger that the more rational and science-based stuff is just used to add credibility to the New Age stuff which seems to be predominant. That is one of the ways in which cults operate- apparently reasonable stuff is used to draw people in.
      Good luck with your centre in Spain and may it embody the best of innovative learning environments and rational thought!

  17. iona

     /  January 18, 2012

    Anthroposophy is NOT a cult. I know so many people who have been through the Waldorf system- if it is a cult then surely they would have been forced to learn about Rudolf Steiner throughout their education? Anthroposophy is actually the opposite of a cult – it encourages people to stand up for what they believe in and seek freedom and think for themselves.
    Are you honestly telling me that you think companies like Monsanto (GM-crops) are beneficial? Can’t you see that the current economic crisis is linked with environmental issues and our constant desire for more. We need to go back to basics, you cannot deny this.

    • Hi Iona
      did you go to a Steiner school yourself ?
      Depends what you mean by “going back to basics”- give up shoes? return to before the discovery of fire? Go back to days of average life expectancy of half what it is today, the life of a peasant laborer perhaps?
      What if “standing up for what I believe in and thinking for myself” means supporting new technologies like GMOs, nuclear etc? what then Iona?

    • Hello Iona —

      ‘I know so many people who have been through the Waldorf system- if it is a cult then surely they would have been forced to learn about Rudolf Steiner throughout their education?’

      Absolutely not. Being ‘forced to learn’ about the founder of a cult is surely no indication of the degree of cultishness. In addition, you have to keep in mind that Steiner himself was against anthroposophy being taught directly to children. They were going to be immersed in anthroposophy and the education — as well as the foundation of everything that happens in school, from what subjects are taught to how they’re taught to how the buildings are designed — is based upon anthroposophy… but the children are, on the whole, not taught any anthroposophical content directly, nor are they taught about Steiner. It’s actually not a bad way to indoctrinate children — they don’t even know how deeply influenced their education has been by what Steiner taught and believed! So — whether it’s a cult or not can surely be debated, but the fact that kids aren’t forced to learn about Steiner directly is no indication whichever way!

  18. iona

     /  January 18, 2012

    To skeptco –
    I did not, but I would be very interested in knowing why YOU think anthroposophy is a cult. I have been to talks on the subject many times and do not understand why you say it is. By ‘going back to basics’ I mean not exploiting the planet, humans and recognising that this pattern of endless growth is making the planet a very uncertain place to live and to be blunt, destroying human life. I didn’t actually mention nuclear power in my comment. Basically, thinking for yourself should not affect others in a negative way (GM crops has affected so many people in a bad way). P.s this blog is extremley interesting
    To alicia –
    Fair point but I think its slightly OTT to say that by going through the Waldorf system children are ‘indoctrinated’. As I said before so many of my friends went to this school – some of them are involved with anthroposophy, many aren’t. It’s personal choice and every individual has the FREEDOM to choose:-)

    • @Iona
      -many Steiner critics do see anthroposophy as a cult:

      I know many people involved with anthroposophy, through Steiner schools or biodynamics for example, who either don’t know anything about the ideology of anthroposophy- what Steiner actually wrote- or pretend not to. And as Alicia indicated, Steiner specifically advises that anthros. should not tell outsiders what they are really up to. I would say, if it looks like a duck, talks like a duck, then it probably is one: I mean, what else could it be? Anthroposophy is possibly somewhere between a cult and a religion, or both.
      Lie most or perhaps all such organisations, it resists criticism by calling for “equal respect” and that spiritual knowledge does not require evidence to warrant this respect; in other words, that there are “other ways of knowing” a la Goethe etc.. This is false- either there is evidence or not. If you reject the scientific method, claim special “ways of knowing” and follow a guru, and are part of a coherent and formally established ideological system, with hundreds of institutions inc. schools and farms, Id say that is a cult.

      I refer you to Skepteco’s Podcast page with regard to GM crops. GM is a technology like any other- except that unlike chemical farming it represents a superior method of plant breeding that can and does bring improvements in farming, including a reduction in pesticide use; the opposition is essentially political and ideological propaganda. The main mistake is to compare the “harm” of GM with pristine Nature, unsullied by human hands- which does not exist. It should be compared with other kinds of farming, and in this sense there are already successes that are clear improvements over some conventional farming, while maintaining higher yields than organic. There is no evidence that GM has caused specific problems that do not happen in farming anyway.

      This is a key post by Pamela Ronald:

  19. A Dr of Philosophy

     /  November 21, 2012

    I am a molecular biologist, lecturer, long time gardner and pragmatist. I have also been evaluating some of the ideas put forward by EF Schumacher and the Transition movement in my spare time. Like a lot of things in life, I find some of the ideas have potential, but not all.

    I stumbled across your blog because I was curious about the content of the Schumacher college courses and was looking for information. The college website is pretty uninformative (especially the video!). Thanks for your analysis.

  20. M

     /  August 12, 2015

    I am sorry to say that Schumacher college is a complete scam.
    I paid an extortionate amount of money for a course that lasted a few days.
    I am too ashamed to say how much. We sat inside the whole time, and were lectured by an incredibly dense and boring individual. I wanted to scream out in pain every time we were ushered back into the room after a break.

    The most worrying thing is how brainwashed everyone there seems to be. They ve jumped on the bandwagon for whatever reason, and are possibly just trying to avoid the real world, for which I cannot blame them. But really, so much goddamned money for listening to absolute drivel, and eating indigestible food from an aggressively ‘pure’ buffet: I want to weep when I think of what I could have done with all that cash.

    I think Schumacher is just a for-profit scam trying to cash in on the green-problem by offering promises of resolving people’s dis-ease, their despair at the overwhelming problems faced by our society, in exchange for a fee.

    Conning people out of money in such a cynical way should be a crime.


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