The Influence of A.N. Whitehead on the Future of Ecological Economics

5,807 total words    

23 minutes of reading

The Western world is now suffering from the limited moral outlook of the three previous generations. . . . The two evils are: one, the ignorance of the true relation of each organism to its environment; and the other, the habit of ignoring the intrinsic worth of the environment which must be allowed its weight in any consideration of final ends.[1]

A century ago an influential movement in philosophy known as “logical positivism” effectively banished metaphysics from sci­ence, declaring such speculative thought meaningless. Many disciplines in the humanities followed this lead, including economics and political sci­ence. This rendered the connection between political economy and fundamental questions about the es­sence of the natural world invisible.

My argument in this essay is that we must regain a critical understanding of the relationship between sci­ence, cosmology, and metaphysics on the one hand, and ethics, economics, and politics on the other. In­deed, it is problematic assumptions about human na­ture and our connection to the natural world that are directly tied to the deep failures of our current politi­cal-economic system. If we are to alter the destructive and unsustainable direction of our current political economy, we will need to rethink our underlying world view. To do this, we can recover the insight of earlier philosophers who still knew how to think creatively about metaphysical questions. One such philosopher is Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947). My aim is to show how Whitehead’s work in cosmology, “pro­cess thinking,” and “process theology” is contributing to the ongoing development of an alternative to neo­classical economics—namely, a new trans-disciplinary field called ecological economics.

Alfred North Whitehead was an English math­ematician, physicist, and philosopher. As a thinker who considered himself part of the “Pla­tonic” tradition, White­head recognized deep interconnections be­tween the trajectory of civilization on the one hand, and its dominant contemporary moral outlook, epistemology, and cosmology on the other. He attempted to intervene on contem­porary thought and culture by conceptualizing those deep links, and by addressing problems at their root, he hoped to initiate a broad sweep of intellectual re­form.

In this article, I first review and recover central el­ements of Whitehead’s thought, by situating it—as he himself did—in the discourse of classical Greek phi­losophy and in contrast to Newton’s world view and cosmology. Secondly, I focus on ecological economics and examine how that promising approach to a new political economy has dovetailed with the philosophi­cal outlook found in Whitehead’s thinking. Finally, I offer a broad assessment of where and how White­head’s ideas can continue to shape the development of ecological economics.

Rediscovering Process Cosmology

One of the central themes animating phi­losophy and science since their beginnings has been the nature, ori­gin, and intelligibility of permanence vs. change, or being vs. becoming, in the world. How can one same reality be both permanent and changing at once? Which of the two are more fundamentally real, and where do they come from?

This simple paradox has had the most profound reverberations in every field of thought imaginable. Great dynasties and civilizations appear to have inde­structible strength and absolute permanence. A world view based on permanence helps to reinforce belief in the status quo—the belief that the political structures, laws, and social order in place will never change and are meant to be exactly as they are. In reality, howev­er, dynasties and civilizations eventually collapse, and once-powerful tyrants leave behind ruins in the sand. A world view which includes the necessity of change may anticipate or even precipitate radical political re­form and fundamental cultural and social change, as well. Philosophically understood, however, perma­nence and change do not simply alternate or clash in history or in human understanding. In works of clas­sical sculpture, for example, one finds a more complex situation. The Greek discus thrower’s motion has been immobilized in hard marble for thousands of years by his sculptor, but at the very unique moment where motion itself is about to change in both direction and acceleration. Here, the art presses upon us a recogni­tion of a new becoming. (Compare ancient Greek and Egyptian sculpture in general: the Greek depicts elegance and motion, while the Egyptian depicts power and static permanence.)

Another dominant theme in metaphysics since ancient Greece is practically inseparable from that of being and becoming.  It is whether our universe is primarily “one” or “many.”

How can we account for the tremendous multi­tude and diversity of visible entities and phenomena around us? Did it always exist, and where does it come from? And yet, is there not as well a remarkable unity in all things, a wholeness of “being” that cannot be divided? Do we not have, at the largest of scales, an almost inescapable impression of universality and co­herence among diversity, as if the entire cosmos were One, and inseparable? What gives the universe unity and coherence?

A tremendous tension is generated by the attempt to untangle the mystery of the cosmic coexistence of change vs. permanence, and unity vs. multiplicity.

Greek Origins

In the sixth century B.C., a strange school of thought arrived in Athens, led by Parmenides and Zeno (515–430 B.C.E.), which baffled (if not mesmer­ized) the Greeks, with their infamous logical paradox­es of motion, being, and oneness. The Eleatic school of Parmenides has had, for better or for worse, the most profound influence on the course of all Western thought, including mathematics, science, theology, and political economy.

Consider Zeno’s paradox of motion. This is cap­tured by the infamous “arrow” that either nev­er arrives at its destination, never leaves its initial location, or never “moves” even though it arrives at its desti­nation. To cover a distance in space, an arrow must travel through an infinite number of in­tervals of space. This would take an infinite amount of time, howev­er, and hence would never occur. Worse, in changing places the arrow would have to cease “being” at any one place, and thus, in ceasing to be, it would lose its very existence. In this view, being is incompatible with motion. Yet another paradox is this: since nothing can be in two places at once, the arrow can only be in one political place during any given instant of time. If so, during that instant, it can only be at rest (think of the still frames of a movie); and so the arrow is always at rest, and never in motion. Thus, motion and change (be­coming) for Parmenides and Zeno had to be but an il­lusion! And for similar reasons, so, too, was diversity.

The ontological paradoxes proposed by Par­menides and Zeno raised profound questions about physical nature, the meaning of existence, space, time, infinity, parts and wholes, being and becoming, and indeed, about the prob­lems and traps of pure logic and abstract think­ing itself. It forced gen­erations of thinkers to reflect on the nature of the universe, its origins, and its future develop­ment. It also forced gen­erations of thinkers to reflect upon the nature, limits, and possibilities of their own minds, and how their minds relate to the rest of nature.

Coming back to Ze­no’s arrow: clearly, the most practical of solu­tions was simply to say that all this a priori logical thinking was utter non­sense, since we actually see the arrow arriving at its destination, plain and simple. One possible conclusion to be inferred about reality from sense perception was that both being and becoming simply coexist in our universe in the form of matter and motion. Problem solved.

Two proponents of this solution were the early empiricists and atomists Leucippus, Democritus, and later Epicurus (who derived ethical consequences from this epistemology and view of reality).  They held that the ultimate building blocks of all nature (bows and arrows, life, human beings and mind included) were tiny material atoms: homogenous, unchanging, and eternal.  These tiny hard balls were the substance or being at the origin of all things.  There was no going beyond or behind atoms.  According to the theory, atoms were the essence of reality.  In the attempt to get around some aspects of Zeno’s paradoxes, Democritus and Epicurus also hypothesized that between each tiny atom, there must be an absolute void, or non-being: an absolute empty space through which the atoms could move freely.  But Parmenides and Zeno’s penetrating thought had posed another problem—namely, that it was impossible for “non-being” itself to exist.  Therefore, how could the absolute void itself exist?  This was a paradox that Democritus’s school and many later scientists (including Newton) could not solve, and so they had to introduce the void as a brute axiom. Be­cause of the introduction of the void, the atoms neces­sarily gained a quality of isolated existence, where all atoms of “substance-being” were fundamentally sepa­rated from each other as isolated islands in a sea of absolute emptiness. This infinite separation between all islands of “being” implied that the universe could not have unity, coherence, or wholeness; it could not be “One.” All events (and people) in one location of re­ality are entirely disconnected from events in another. This conception of reality was later revived by Newton as scientific materialism and reductionism, and it in­spired or justified a crude individualism in social and moral philosophy.

The loss of unity and interconnectedness implied by the atomists troubled many thinkers, both ancient and modern, but it has come to be exceedingly influ­ential in the post-Enlightenment period in the West, particularly in classical and neoclassical economics.

Both doctrines (the static universe and atomism) have not gone unchallenged, however. Prior to Par­menides, Zeno, and Democritus, Heraclitus of Ephe­sus (535–c. 475 B.C.E.) had taught the contrary view: that all is change and becoming; that “ev­erything flows,” every­thing comes into being and decays. Heraclitus is now recognized as the wellspring of process thinking. He taught that nature’s opposites (light-dark, heat-cold, friends-enemies, war-peace) conflict with each other, yet at the same time depend on each other, and coexist with and are transformed into each other, all at once in a great turmoil of flux.

The fact that reality was always changing didn’t lead Heraclitus to believe that most of nature was fun­damentally unknowable or that our minds were alien­ated from nature’s most predominant characteristic. Heraclitus believed that behind all the change observed in the perceptual or physical world was an all-pervading Logos, an intelligence “eternally valid” and “common to all.” This Logos provided the necessary unity which gave the universe coherence in change. He says, “Soul is the vaporization out of which everything else is composed; moreover it is the least corporeal of things, and is ceaselessly in flux, for the moving world can only be known by what is in motion.” For Heracli­tus, the mind, itself of a very active and dynamic nature, was capable of knowing and connect­ing with the constantly changing character of the universe.

Finally, Plato, too, struggled with Par­menides’ paradoxes and proposed his own solu­tions, developed espe­cially in the Timaeus. Plato thought that har­monious patterns in the visible and ever-chang­ing world were the dim reflections of a higher form of reality, largely unseen by the senses alone, but accessible by the powers of a well-trained heart and mind. He de­veloped a theory, similar to that of Heraclitus, that all things visible were in a constant process of becoming but shared a common origin, unity, and interconnect­edness. Plato taught that the common origin of all things was an Absolute Good, with characteristics of infinite intelligence, justice, and beauty.

Heraclitus’s early process thinking and Plato’s Timaeus were the most important sources of inspira­tion for Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism,” and by drawing upon them, he was able to develop an alter­native to the predominant framework of metaphysics and cosmology in the modern era.

The Newtonian Synthesis

By 1715, with his epoch-making Principia, New­ton had provided a new synthesis of both science and natural theology, building, as he said, on the work of predecessors such as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes. These thinkers brought down a view of the cosmos that had been defended by powerful impe­rial and religious authorities for nearly two thousand years. We can understand this scientific revolution as a modern attempt to solve the paradoxes of being and motion once formulated by Parmenides.

In Newton’s new system of the world, matter and linear motion were both primary and eternal (conser­vation of momentum), and as such, resembled the an­cient system of atoms of the Greek thinker Democri­tus. All bodies were composed of tiny hard particles that obeyed three astonishingly simple laws of motion: the laws of inertia, acceleration, and equal-and-oppo­site actions.

Matter itself was conceived as passive (or “dead”), in that one of its main properties was to offer resis­tance to change (both hardness and inertia). Newton defined “forces” as the factor mediating externally be­tween passive bodies in an empty void. The fact that the forces themselves were proportional to the quan­tity of matter (F = ma) therein only helped to reinforce the importance of dead “matter” in the new system of the world.

A most mysterious and unexplained element of Newton’s particular synthesis was the fact that forces could act not only through the direct mechanical con­tact of bodies, but also across overwhelmingly large astronomical distances, through an absolute void, instantaneously, without the need of a transmitting medium. Newton’s “action at a distance” doctrine led scientific opponents to refer to these mysterious forces as Newton’s own occult, or fictitious, qualities. Other problems raised by scientific contemporaries included Newton’s notion of independent and absolute space and time, his belief that motion and rest were absolute (rather than relative), and his belief in the material or corpuscular nature of everything, including light.

Despite such reservations, however, Newton’s synthesis satisfied the search for discoverable and de­terministic laws, was mathematically precise, and fit with many empirical observations. Yet the rationalist’s and natural theologian’s ideal, the search for natural and intelligible causes, seemed actually to lose ground with Newton. In the most famous exchange of letters between Newton and Leibniz, which shaped scientific debate for centuries, Leibniz cast doubt on the main concepts of Newton’s new physics (absolute time and space, the void, atoms, and gravity as a force that attracts instantaneously at a distance). About the notion of gravitational force, Leibniz had this to say:

But then, what does he mean when he will have the sun to attract the globe of the earth through an empty space? Is it God himself that per­forms this? But this would be a miracle if ever there was any. . . . Or perhaps are some immate­rial substances or some spiritual rays, or some accidents without a substance, or some kind of species intentionalis, or some other I-know-not-what, the means by which this is claimed to be performed? Of which sort of things the author [Newton] seems to have still a good stock in his head, without explaining himself sufficiently. That means of communication, says he, is invisible, intangible, not mechani­cal. He might as well have added inexplicable, unintelligible, precarious, groundless, and un­precedented.[2]

Strangely enough, when matters got too complicat­ed, Newton had no problem placating his mathemati­cal and materialist explanations with the arbitrary and miraculous powers of an almighty God. In Newton’s theology, God stood outside creation as a mighty ty­rant to be feared for his absolute power. It was God who had set the initial conditions and absolute laws for the planetary motions (their positions, speeds, and initial masses), which Newton made no attempt to ex­plain.

In stark contrast to Newton’s dry and inexplicable clockwork, Kepler and Leibniz imagined an intelligi­ble universe of active substances organized into sets of harmonic, or musical, relations. They searched for the process of self-generation, or becoming, which would account uniquely for the observed patterns in nature, and they did not divorce qualities of mind and sub­jective feeling (intention, sufficient reason, aesthetics) from their physics.

The deep assumptions of Newton’s “System of the World” and the myth of his great genius largely domi­nated scientific thinking—including the basic concepts of mathematical physics, legitimate methods of sci­entific practice (strict empiricism, inductionism, and the progressive banning of all metaphysical consider­ations), and faith in deterministic laws—for the next two hundred years under the names of scientific ma­terialism and reductionism. As a complete world view, both physical and theological, Newton’s System of the World provided a new constellation of authoritative analogies (identical to that of Democritus and Epicurus) for social disciplines—especially early economics and utilitarian ethics—to borrow from. 

Whitehead’s Process Philosophy

In 1929, Alfred North Whitehead published Pro­cess and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, the most complete exposition of his metaphysical system. The year 1929 is significant, since it marked a turning point in the history of science when the dual revolutions of general relativity and quantum mechanics finally overturned much of the old assumptions contained in Newton’s centuries-old System of the World.

During his lifetime, Whitehead was recognized as one of the world’s authorities in mathematical logic; the Principia Mathematica, coauthored by Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, is one of the most influential works in mathematics of the twentieth century. He was also active in theoretical physics and proposed a theory of universal gravitation that for several decades even rivaled Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Both of these elements of his work place Whitehead at the forefront of higher mathematics and modern physics at the time when Process and Reality was published. This is important to consider as qualifying background to his abstract and speculative work in metaphysics, cosmology, and theology.

Whitehead’s Process and Reality is extremely rich in detail and overwhelmingly broad in scope. It is highly rigorous in the interconnectedness and co­herence of its concepts, yet it also preserves an imaginative, creative, and poetic quality. The system is beautifully complex, as is our uni­verse, whose essence Whitehead attempts to grasp in its “creative advance.” Here, my aim is to describe only a few key elements of White­head’s complex system of metaphysics and cosmology that will be most relevant to the discussion about ecological economics. Necessarily then, much is left out.

We can start by comparing Whitehead’s cosmo­logical views, as he did, with what he called “the two statements of cosmological theory which have had the chief influence on Western thought”—that is, Plato’s Timaeus and Newton’s Scholium (or System of the World). Perhaps provocatively, the author of Process and Reality unequivocally sides with the far more ancient and speculative text of Plato, rather than the more modern and precise text of Newton: “To the mod­ern reader, the Timaeus, considered as a statement of scientific details, is in comparison with the Scholium simply foolish. But what it lacks in superficial detail, it makes up for by its philosophic depth. . . . The penalty of its philosophic deficiency is that the Scholium con­veys no hint of the limits of its own application.”[3]

Whitehead analyzes the shortcomings of Newton’s system in light of advances in more recent science, par­ticularly in regard to evolutionary thinking and quan­tum theory. By being deficient in terms of evolution­ary thinking, “the Scholium betrays its abstractions by affording no hint of that aspect of self-production, of self-generation which is so prominent in nature. For the Scholium, nature is merely and completely there, externally designed and obedient. The full sweep of the modern doctrine of evolution would have confused Newton, but would have enlightened Plato.”

The incompatibility between Newtonian mechan­ics and quantum thinking is another serious problem, and in this regard also Whitehead considered Plato to have been more prescient than Newton. Aside from the evolutionary character of Plato’s thought, White­head argues,

there is another side of the Timaeus which finds no analogy in the Scholium. In general terms this side of the Timaeus may be called its metaphysical character, that is to say, its en­deavour to connect the behavior of things with the formal nature of things. In the first place, the Timaeus connects behavior with the ulti­mate molecular characters of actual entities. . . . Newton could have accepted a molecular the­ory as easily as Plato, but there is this differ­ence between them: Newton would have been surprised at the modern quantum theory and at the dissolution of quanta into vibrations; Plato would have expected it. While we note the many things said by Plato in the Timaeus which are now foolishness, we must also give him credit for that aspect of his teaching in which he was two thousand years ahead of his time. . . . Plato accounted for the sharp-cut differences between different kinds of natural things by assuming an approximation of mol­ecules of the fundamental kinds respectively to the mathematical forms of the regular sol­ids. He also assumed that certain qualitative contrasts in occurrences, such as that between musical notes, depended on the participation of these occurrences in some of the simpler ratios between integral numbers. He thus ob­tained a reason why there should be an ap­proximation to sharp-cut differences between kinds of molecules, and why there should be sharp-cut relations of harmony standing out amid dissonance.[4]

In his “process cosmology” or “philosophy of or­ganism,” Whitehead will combine these two impor­tant characteristics (evolution and quantum theory or sharp-cut relations) into a new modern concept: cosmic evolution by the successive emergence of new epochs of ordered “societies.” Whitehead writes:

The notion of organism is combined with that of process in a two-fold manner. The com­munity of actual things is an organism [it has unity of action]; but it is not a static organism. It is an incompletion in process of produc­tion. Thus the expansion of the universe in respect to actual things is the first meaning of “process”; and the universe in any stage of its expansion is the first meaning of “organism”. Secondly, each actual entity is itself only describable as an organic process. It repeats in microcosm what the universe is in macrocosm. It is a process proceeding from phase to phase, each phase being the real basis from which its successor proceeds towards the completion of the thing in question.[5]

In the rest of Process and Reality, Whitehead de­velops an abstract conceptual system to describe an evolving universe that, in its scientific and poetic es­sence, takes on the characteristics of life: creative ac­tivity, openness of process and determination, inter­connectedness, unified diversity, and even “feeling,” “aim,” “value,” and “self-enjoyment.”[6] With its unified concepts of directed process and organic unity, White­head’s “philosophy of organism” brings together the two important themes of metaphysics mentioned ear­lier: becoming and being, and unity and diversity.

Ecological Economics and Whitehead Process Thought

I turn now to the connections between Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy and the ongong development of an alternative to neoclassical economics in the form of an ethical ecological economics.[7] There are two problems, above all, that plague economic theory today: first, the failure to acknowledge the in­terconnection between the human economy and our finite natural “environment,” and, second, the highly reductionist conception of human nature and the individual economic ac­tor. Whitehead’s process theology is sometimes used in ecological eco­nomics to address con­ceptual difficulties that arise when attempting to reintegrate humans and nature. There are other ways, as well, in which Whitehead’s ideas may be fruitful in continu­ing to develop ecological economics.

Ecological econom­ics is a trans-disciplin­ary field of academic research which seeks to (1) integrate the study of human economics and global ecology as the basis for a sustainable and desir­able future, and (2) eventually supplant neoclassical economics as the dominant economic paradigm. It is distinguished from mainstream environmental economics (a branch of neoclassical economics) in that it considers, from the point of view of energy and mate­rials throughput, the human economy to be a subsys­tem of the larger ecosystem (Ecosphere) in which it is embedded.[8]

One of the unique aspects of ecological economics is its particular interest for the laws of physics, and in particular, thermodynamics. Thermodynamics is used in ecological economics as a general framework to set the boundaries of macroeconomic analysis and to de­fine ultimate boundary constraints on very long term economic growth. It also helps in understanding, from a biophysical point of view, irreversible material and energy transformations involved in all agro-industrial transformations, and hence, all economic activity and ­transactions.[9]

The main challenge that ecological economics addresses is the problem of limits to long term eco­nomic growth, or limits to macroeconomic scale de­rived from embededness in a finite biophysical envi­ronment. (Two other policy problems addressed in ecological economics are just distribution of incomes and efficient allocation of resources.) The problem of scale has two aspects: one of intensity of activity at any given time (carrying capacity); the other, of longevity or lifespan.

In ecological economics, the problem of maximum size/intensity is an essential idea. There are biophysi­cal constraints that human economic systems cannot surpass in a finite global environment—especially in terms of continuous growth in size/intensity of energy and materials throughput—without risking inevitable economic, ecological, and population crashes.

The lack of connectedness of economic activity to the biophysical environment in neoclassical econom­ic theory is a problem that did not go unnoticed by Whitehead: “The Western world is now suffering from the limited moral outlook of the three previous gen­erations. . . . The two evils are: one, the ignorance of the true relation of each organism to its environment; and the other, the habit of ignoring the intrinsic worth of the environment which must be allowed its weight in any consideration of final ends.”[10]

Similarly, as one of the founders of ecological economics, Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen pointed out, “There are several regrettable consequences of the adoption of the mechanistic epistemology by standard economics. The most important is the complete igno­rance of the evolutionary nature of the economic pro­cess. Being erected as a sister science of mechanics, the standard theory has no room for irreversibility any more than mechanics has. The standard analysis of the market is all based on complete reversibility from one equilibrium to another.”[11]

Georgescu-Roegen adopted two important ele­ments of Whitehead’s epistemology and evolutionary thinking. First, as a mathematician of the first rank, he drew attention to a constellation of mathematically precise yet qualitatively false abstractions that clut­tered economics, blinding its practitioners to more insightful truths. (Whitehead called this the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”) Second, he partially ad­opted elements of Whitehead’s theory of innovation and epochal evolution—in particular, novelty and emergence through the combinations of entities into organic wholes.

The founders of neoclassical economics (Jevons, Walras, Edgworth, Pareto, and Fisher) closely pat­terned their new science of economics on analytical mechanics.[12] They borrowed from it more than just the same idealized axiomatic thinking, analytical meth­ods (infinitesimal calculus, calculus of variation), and perhaps distant analogies. Ultimately, they aspired to reduce complex human subjectivity, morality, and de­cision-making in general to simple, predictable clock­work. Stanley Jevons wrote, “No apparent limit exists to the success of the scientific method in weighing and measuring, and reducing beneath the sway of law, the phenomena of mat­ter and mind. . . . Must not the same inexorable reign of law which is ap­parent in the motions of brute matter be extended to the human heart?”

And Jevons was by no means alone among the founders of neoclas­sical economics in his hopes of reducing hu­man psychology to mechanics and energy optimiza­tion principles. Francis Edgeworth carried the rhe­torical art to an unsurpassed extreme, to the point of astonishing ridicule. He pushed ahead the translation of these simplistic ideas into ever more precise math­ematical language.

‘Mecanique Sociale’ may one day take her place along with ‘Mecanique Celeste,’ throned each upon the double-sided height of one maximum principle: the supreme pinnacle of moral as of physical science. As the movements of each particle, constrained or loose, in a material cosmos are continually subordinated to one maximum sum-total of accumulated energy, so the movements of each soul, whether self­ishly isolated or linked sympathetically, may continually be realizing the maximum energy of pleasure . . . at least the conception of Man as a pleasure machine may justify and facili­tate the employment of mechanical terms and Mathematical reasoning in social science.[13]

As these passages suggest, the core theme animat­ing neoclassical economics is a highly reductionist conception of human nature: an isolated being (homo economicus), mathematically equivalent to an isolated particle-mass moving in space according to a unique optimizing principle. The exact details of this strong analogy changed from author to author, but the gener­al idea was the same: given a continuous field of priced commodities and budgetary constraints, all ideal, ra­tional human atoms will seek out optimal combina­tions of purchases according to the same law—one that minimizes pain and maximizes pleasure (utility).[14]

Recourse to Whitehead’s naturalistic (process) theology of­ten occurs in the writings of Herman Daly in rela­tion to prob­lems associ­ated with the integration of the study of nature and the study of humanity, as found in both ecology and econom­ics. For Daly, a significant philosophi­cal problem occurs when either pole of this relationship (ecology-economics) attempts to entirely overwhelm and absorb its partner science within its own set of restricted conceptions. This can happen when economists attempt to impose economic-monetary valuation on all natural systems, reducing life and ecosystems to substitutable and ex­changeable units of monetized utility. Conversely, it can also happen when certain ecologists, biologists, and physicists attempt to reduce all human motives, emotions, and values to ultimately purposeless and accidental expressions of self-reinforcing chemical re­actions, rendered more complex merely by the law of large numbers playing itself out over eons on an insig­nificant spec of galactic dust.

The frantic denial of the existence of purpose by modern scientific materialists (especially biologists) is something that Whitehead enjoyed making fun of. “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study, “ he remarked. Whitehead called the radical divorce of humans (and cognition) from our scientific conceptions of nature, dating back to Descartes and Newton, “bifurcation.” For the author of Process and Reality, feeling, aim, mind, and value, in their abstract sense, were just as much a part of modern physical re­ality as quantized energy flux and four-dimensional space-time. Whitehead’s bold work in metaphysics and what became known as “process theology” re­stored a sense of intel­lectual confidence and credibility to arguments for the existence of an “ultimate purpose”: a moral guide (or lure) to an unfolding universe. This remarkable aspect of Whitehead’s work has served as a potent intel­lectual resource to many ecological economists in search of a middle, or higher, ground in the ef­forts to reintegrate humans and nature.

In practical terms, Daly describes how the rec­ognition of purpose and moral value (non-nihilism) for both humans and living organisms is a philosophi­cal prerequisite for all sane discussions of policy. Of purpose, he writes “unless one recognizes its existence it is meaningless to talk about policy. Indeed, unless one can also distinguish good from bad purposes, bet­ter from worse states of the world, it is impossible to talk about policy, since if policy is anything it is a plan for moving the world from a worse to a better state. If there is no such thing as better and worse states of the world then all policy is silly—if indeed ‘silliness’ any longer has meaning in such a world.”[15]

The Future of Ecological Economics: A New Evolutionary World View

Four decades ago, Georgescu-Roegen developed an alternative framework for macroeconomics based on two principles of classical thermodynamics applied to the earth-system as a whole. His approach had many advantages over the neoclassical model (circular flow of exchanges). First, it extended the boundaries of analysis of macroeconomics to include a changing environment upon which human economic systems depend. Second, Gerogescu-Roegen’s model adopted a provocatively realistic approach by making irrevers­ible evolutionary processes central to very long-term macroeconomic thinking.

Unfortunately, Gerogescu-Roegen associated the entropy law and irreversible processes with only ei­ther (1) the immediate decay and gradual destruction of existing complex structures, or (2) the inevitable decrease in the potential to sustain future complex structures. The intellectual grip of the all-encompass­ing entropy law and grim world view on ecological economics was and remains profound.

Modern cosmology and non-equilibrium thermo­dynamics demonstrate, on the other hand, that we live in a universe where conditions for higher orders of complexity may actually be increasing discontinuously in time. This view of a self-developing, self-organizing universe “unfolding” toward higher levels of complex­ity and social organization is much more consistent with Whitehead’s process cosmology, or “philosophy of organism.”

As the astrophysicist Paul Davies explained, self-organization in non-living systems does not contradict the entropy law, but it certainly challenges it spirit, as well as that of the prevalent world view that goes with it, based as it is on the idea that the universe is running down amid spiraling toward entropy:

The new paradigm will drastically alter the way we view the evolution of the universe. In the Newtonian paradigm the universe is a clock­work, a slave of deterministic forces trapped irretrievably on a predetermined pathway to a unalterable fate. The [nineteenth century] thermodynamic paradigm gives us a universe that has to be started in an unusual state of order, and then degenerates. Its fate is equally inevitable, and uniformly bad. . . .

The emerging picture of cosmological develop­ment is altogether less gloomy. Creation is not instantaneous; it is an ongoing process. The universe has a life history. Instead of sliding into featurelessness, it rises out of featureless­ness, growing rather than dying, developing new structures, processes and potentialities all the time, unfolding like a flower.[16]

Today we are witnessing a remarkable change in cosmological paradigm, away from a view of the uni­verse as decaying and dying and toward a view of the universe as alive, self-developing, and flourishing. This shift can be explained by scientific discoveries in astrophysics and non-equilibrium thermodynam­ics that occurred in the second half of the twentieth century. It is only beginning to make itself felt in the realm of political economy and in policy areas dealing with conservation, biodiversity, energy, agriculture, water use, and climate change.

Whitehead’s great genius, his deep knowledge of mind, mathematics, and meaning, and his cunning wit have all helped to provide inspiration and ammu­nition (or antidote) to certain brave ecological econo­mists in the final toppling of neoclassical theory. Still, one of the most vital aspects of Whitehead’s work has yet to take seed and fully flourish—namely, his pre­scient vision of the immensity of creative potential that remains to be actualized in humankind and the universe as a whole.

The implications of the coming radical shift in world views in ecological economics—of adopting a more lively, truly Whiteheadian evolutionary cos­mology (in contrast to Georgescu-Roegen’s)—will undoubtedly be profound. As Whitehead beautifully explained: “The world is thus faced with the paradox that, at least in its highest actualities, it craves for nov­elty and yet is haunted by terror at the loss of the past, with its familiarities and its loved ones.”[17] Though this shift may take several years to untangle and unfold, it is one of the most crucial adventures in ideas that we can undertake in our time.

[1]. A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925), quoted in H. Daly and K. Townsend, Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 153.

[2]. G.W. Leibniz, From the Letters Clarke (1716), quoted in R. Ariew and D. Garber, G.W. Leibniz: Philosophical Essays (Cambridge, MA: Hacket Publishing Company, 1989), 345.

[3]. A.N. Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, corrected ed., ed. D.R. Griffin and D.W. Sherburne (1929; repr., New York: The Free Press, 1978), 93.

[4]. Ibid., 94.

[5]. Ibid., 215.

[6]. See A.N. Whitehead, “Reflections on Man and Nature,” in A.N. Whitehead, His Reflections on Man and Nature, ed. R.N. Anshen (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), 14.

[7]. Briefly, neoclassical economics, the dominant economic paradigm today, refers to a reformulation of classical economics begun in the 1870s–1890s. Three of its main features include: first, a new theory of economic value and prices entirely based on human psychology called marginal utility; second, the introduction of infinitesimal calculus in economic analysis; and third, the claim that economics, following this reform, had now become a hard science, theoretical and empirical, on equal footing with physics or any of the other natural sciences.

[8]. Ecological economics has its historical intellectual origins in the works of Alfred Lotka, Frederick Soddy, Kenneth E. Boulding, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, and H.T. Odum in the 1950s through 1970s. It was organized into an active field of research by Herman Daly, Robert Costanza, and others in the early 1990s. Of these individuals, at least Lotka, Georgescu-Roegen, and Daly were strongly influenced by Whitehead.

[9]. H. Daly and J. Farley, Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2004).

[10]. A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925), quoted in Daly and Townsend, Valuing the Earth, 153.

[11]. N. Georgescu-Roegen, “The Steady State and Ecological Salvation: A Thermodynamic Analysis,” BioScience 27 (1977): 267.

[12]. P. Mirowski, More Heat than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991); R. Nadeau, The Wealth of Nature: How Mainstream Economics Has Failed the Environment (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

[13]. F.Y. Edgeworth, Mathematical Psychics: An Essay on the Application of Mathematics to the Moral Sciences (London: C. Kegan Paul and Co., 1881), 12, 15.

[14]. Nadeau, The Wealth of Nature; Mirowski, More Heat than Light; P. Mirowski, Against Mechanism: Protecting Economics from Science (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1988).

[15]. H. Daly, Ecological Economics and the Ecology of Economics (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 1991), 171.

[16]. P. Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature’s Creative Ability to Order the Universe (Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2004), 199-200.

[17]. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 340.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Related Stories & Ideas

Scroll to Top