Plato's Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology (William Ophuls, The MIT Press, 2011) is a book that should be read by all who are dismayed and/or angry about the corruptive influence of big money in politics and the consequent lack of political integrity that is pervasive worldwide.
In 256 insightful but highly readable pages, the book explains, clearly and unambiguously, the etiology of the disease; and, without offering false hopes, points to a possible path toward a politically feasible transition from consumerism to sustainability.
The Five Great Ills
The author starts by identifying the five great ills that have plagued human civilization since it emerged during the agricultural revolution (roughly 10000-5000 years ago): ecological exploitation, military aggression, economic inequality, political oppression, and spiritual malaise. These are dreadfully on target. It could be argued that "spiritual malaise" is the common thread through all five, and that this inner conflict in Homo sapiens sapiens is in turn traceable to the most fundamental of all "civilized" imbalances: the presumption of the superiority of men, and everything masculine, over women and everything feminine. The Book of Genesis, probably written about 1400 BCE or so, projects this patriarchal bias back to the beginning of creation. It is by no means coincidental that Genesis 3:16 (which prescribes the subordination of women as divine punishment for "original sin") stands in between the creation accounts -- full of evidence about the primal symbiosis between humans and the human habitat (1:28, 2:15) -- and the phallocentric cultures that followed after the original unity of man and woman had also been corrupted.
The Necessity of Natural Law
This section is a critique of currently prevalent cultures driven by a false concept of freedom that justifies human behavior driven by self-interest alone. It begins by pointing out that proliferation of laws and regulations seems to be highly correlated with gridlock and corruption in governance, and ends by posing the need for "a politics of consciousness dedicated to the idea that ennobling human beings matters more than accumulating dead matter."
The author suggests returning to "natural law" rather than trying to invent a new moral code. Thankful as we should be for the liberation from religious tyranny brought about by the Enlightenment, we now need liberation from the secular rationalism whereby financial gain becomes the idol to be worshipped in daily life. "This brings us to the impasse at which we find ourselves. As naked self-interest turns liberty into license and spreads demoralization, an increasingly despotic state tries vainly to forestall moral and ecological self-destruction with stopgap measures and ill-considered laws that cause mostly more harm than good."
It is noted in passing that "natural law" has also been used to rationalize culturally conditioned practices and prejudices that no longer stand the test of good science and human experience. There is certainly an urgent need to recover more of what is good in ancient wisdom but without regurgitating old social constructs that no longer serve the common good.
The Sources of Natural Law
For Ophuls, the sources of "natural law" are natural rather than supernatural. He covers three sources: ecology, physics, and psychology. "Ecology is the surest cure for modern hubris," he states. He goes on to explain the lessons that ecological systems provide: the need to comply with natural limits, seek quality rather than quantity, long-term stability rather than short-term growth, integration rather than separation, cooperation rather than domination, and "a polity in which individuals fulfill social roles rather than aggrandize private interests."
The chapter on physics is an interlude between the chapters on ecology and psychology. It demolishes the notion that natural law is restricted to the laws of physics, and deconstructs the absurd presumption that a mechanistic view of reality applies to anything other than clocks and other similar artifacts. All artificial technologies, from the wheel to the iPad, are but trivial clocks in comparison with the complexity of living, self-organizing systems. Science and technology cannot guarantee sustainability, and scientists cannot prove or disprove that climate changes are anthropogenic. Citizens must decide what politicians ought to do for the common good; else, "those who have a vested interest in the economic status quo" will make the decision.
Depth psychology has emerged as another source of natural law from which the author induces many significant insights, one of them being that "the greatest weapon of mass destruction on the planet is the collective human ego." In the psychological domain, the most important breakthrough may have been the work of Carl Gustav Jung and his recognition of the human need for myth and religion in order to contain moral entropy. The Jungian discoveries of the "collective unconscious," and the presence of masculine and feminine poles (the animus and the anima) in every human being, set the stage for new metaphors and ways of understanding human relations. Among other benefits, our improved understanding of natural law is finally transcending many exclusivist "either/or" dualisms and enabling us to discover "both/and" integrations such as the gender continuum; there is nothing "natural" about male domination and gay bashing.
The Politics of Consciousness
From the three sources of natural law - ecology, physics, and psychology - the author proceeds to the benefits that can reasonably be expected to emerge from its renewed internalization. These are therapeia (healing of the individual psyche), paideia (restoration of social cohesion), and politeia (reformation of the body polity for the common good).
Therapeia There are clinically-tested therapeutic methods to help people overcome the inner tyranny of a seemingly irrational ego and attain "individuation" (Carl Jung's terminology for full psychological healing). A person thus healed will generally exhibit two traits in daily life: an inner stability/happiness that is relatively independent of external conditions, and a willingness to live a reasonably virtuous life in harmony with other people.
Most people are mentally healthy in the sense that they can go through life and approximate these traits without need for medical help. But the increasing incidence of mental illness (often accompanied by violence) in today's industrial societies is a cause for concern, and a practical question remains unanswered at the end of this chapter: how many of the mentally ill people today can afford years of intensive - and competent - therapy pursuant to "individuation"?
Paideia This is therapeia at the level of society in order to recover the balance between mechanistic rationalism and appreciation of aesthetic beauty in the collective unconscious, which is turn would facilitate recovering individual minds from the tyranny of the left brain over the right brain. It is "a movement from quantity to quality and from matter to spirit." It is about leveling the field between Wall Street and Main Street, and about people thinking and acting within the limits of the human habitat. In brief, it is about Homo economicus becoming Homo ecologicus.
Politeia On the future of politics, Ophuls' outlook is a "recycling" of Plato's Republic, in which politics is a living drama rather than just an institutional framework. Politeia brings to mind the Socratic method of learning via questions and answers rather than one-way dictation, and also adheres to Gandhian principles such as swaraj (self-rule), satya (honesty), ahimsa (nonviolence), satyagraha (insistence on truth), and sarvodaya (wellbeing for all). It also brings to mind the need for a new metaphor to supersede the "consent of the governed" without lapsing back to aberrations such as despotic theocracies or totalitarian communism.
From therapeia, paideia, and politeia, it is postulated that an improved "politics of consciousness" can emerge, to be practiced by "a more experienced and wiser savage." It is a very appealing hypothesis. While carefully worded to preclude any naive expectation of perfection, it does make sense that the politics of Homo economicus need to be replaced by the politics Homo ecologicus, hopefully animated by civilized dialogue rather than confrontation and organically embedded within the planetary web of life.
A Liberating Metaphor
Human civilization has reached the point of diminishing returns when it comes to pursuing human development (let alone "sustainable" human development) along the path of mechanistic "bigger is better" metaphors. Bigger ceases to be better when material growth leads to social systems of such complexity that most ordinary citizens are unable to understand the issues that emerge and the character of candidates for public office. Then the "art of the possible" degenerates into a myriad of self-serving tricks that make it practically impossible to attain that which is possible and conducive to the common good; "the collective refusal of the American political class to confront our addiction to oil and to profligate energy use is a lamentable case in point" (quoted from page 115; see also the book review of Energy and the Wealth of Nations).
Building on Thoreau's insight that "civilized man is a more experienced and wiser savage," Ophuls goes on to make a persuasive argument that we need a new "master metaphor" for politics and governance, one that is based on ecological optimization within the boundaries of natural resource scarcities and truly liberates humanity from the tyranny of capital accumulation and conquest by military force. He very sensibly suggests James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis as a good possibility. A highly respected scientist, Lovelock has written extensively about Gaia as a cosmic organism. But since metaphors become prevalent when they can be expressed in many different ways, the following "chemical reaction" model is suggested as one more that might be useful:
Solidarity + Sustainability → Material Stability + Spiritual Growth
The metaphor means that solidarity and sustainability interact to produce material stability (the steady-state economics of "enough is enough" in harmony with nature) and "spiritual" growth encompassing ascent to the upper levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, Jung's individuation, and purely spiritual growth toward mystical union with Divine Wisdom. The need for human solidarity is implicit throughout the book but could have been mentioned more explicitly, especially with regard to gender solidarity. Political subsidiarity may be another ingredient ("catalyst") required for the reaction to occur, and adding a bit of agape would make the reaction happen faster and mitigate painful side effects. In any case, this "chemical reaction" format of the Gaia metaphor may appeal to chemists and chemical engineers but probably not so to economists, Wall Street executives, and many other players that must participate in the sustainable development drama.
This is the bottom line: "True liberation comes from within." Much remains to be done to convey this message in a form that is appealing to people. Things may seem to be dark at the moment, especially with regard to earth system governance; but "it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness" (Christophers). Ophuls' book (a bargain at $27.95) is a luminous little candle, and readers of Mother Pelican are earnestly encouraged to get a copy and enjoy every page.
The Invisible Partners: How the Male and Female in each of Us Affects our Relationships, John Sanford, Paulist Press, 1980.
The Global Citizen, Donella Meadows, Island Press, 1991.
The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan, John Paul II, Pauline Books, 1997.
Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers, Chelsea Green, 2004.
Benchmark Assessment of Sustainable Engineering Education, Center for Sustainable Engineering and EPA, 2008.
The Vanishing Face of Gaia, James Lovelock, Perseus Books, 2009.
Earth System Science for Global Sustainability: Grand Challenges, W. V. Reid et al, Science, Vol. 330, 12 November 2010.
Energy and the Wealth of Nations, Charles A. S. Hall and Kent A. Klitgaard, Springer, 2011.
The Masculinity Conspiracy, Joseph Gelfer, Melbourne School of Divinity, CreateSpace, 2011.
Amrutha: What the Pope's man found out about the Law of Nature, John Wijngaards, Author House, 2011. A summary is provided in the book's web site: The Body is Sacred.
Ecological Ethics, Patrick Curry, Polity Press, 2011.
Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene, Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Vatican, 11 May 2011.
Reinventing Fire: Blueprint to the New Energy Era, Rocky Mountain Institute, Amory B. Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute, 15 October 2011.
Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation, Tom Theis and Jonathan Tomkin (Editors), University of Illinois and CNX, 21 January 2012.
The Spirit of Biblical Law, Jonathan Burnside, Oxford Journal of Law and Religion, 28 January 2012. See in particular Section 8 on Our relationship with the environment—to limit our take.
Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance, Frank K. Biermann et al., Science, 16 March 2012. For more information see this press release.
Patriarchy's Persistent Bastion? Religion, Felice Lifshitz, Sightings, 22 March 2012.