A Battle for the Centre - From Mythology to Ecology
I’m currently reading a lot about the development of science. It’s something that I thought I knew a bit about, only to find there is a deep and interesting history to how science developed as a common worldview. As I delve deeper, what really strikes me is how what we choose to put at the centre matters. Whether it’s the Earth, the Sun, technology, money or anything else, each of these viewpoints brings with it other impacts and gives us permission to subconsciously act a certain way.
Winding backward in time, to around 1500 CE, our Middle Age worldview was mythological in principle. Any scientific gains made by the Ancient World had been lost to the West. Though Aristarchus, an early Greek philosopher, suggested a Heliocentric model of the world (where the Earth and other planets revolve around the sun), the idea was disregarded. Instead, we believed that the Earth sat at the centre of our known universe, with the heavens revolving around us in perfect spheres. This placement reflected how we thought of ourselves and our relationship with the universe. The Earth was at the centre and we dominated over everything on our planet. Therefore, we were at the centre of everything.
The size of the cultural and cognitive upheaval that resulted from the Scientific Revolution is difficult to appreciate in hindsight. Over the space of a century, we changed our understanding about where the Earth was located in the solar system. It went back to being one of many planets, moving in separate elliptical orbits and held in place by the physical forces of gravity.
It was only as the Enlightenment continued and the development of a deeper scientific worldview took hold that we began to understand how people fit into to larger systems. We reevaluated our place in the cosmos around the same time that we were re-evaluating our place in the vast ecological systems that surround us.
A deeper scientific understanding also gave birth to a new worldview, with technology in the centre. If the Scientific Revolution changed the world, technology revolutions have remade it entirely. The Industrial Revolution and Information Technology Revolution have led us to develop completely new ways of living in less then two hundred years. From the roads we travel, to the schools we send our children to, to the ways we work, to how we eat and spend our leisure time. The list goes on.
If a person were somehow transported from 1000 CE to 1100 CE, it’s possible that much of what they saw would make sense to them. Generally the level of technology would be the same, with the same tools and methods of architecture. Middle Aged technology was slow to improve. However, a person transported from 1813 to 1913 would experience some of the most radical transformations the world has ever seen, culminating in the ultimate collision of technology and society with World War I.
The technological worldview that started with the Industrial Revolution was not always kind to people. It was an age of huge machines that took little account of human strengths and weaknesses. The design of steam-driven power looms demonstrated little concern for the limitations of their operators. People using these sorts of machines had to work desperately to keep their hands from being impaled, tangled or smashed by the fast, violent and powerful motion of the semi-automated weaving process. The industrial view subsumed people into the machine, a flesh based component of a larger system.
This transformation doesn’t even began to touch on the subtle social costs of removing the value of human labour. We use the term ‘Luddite’ to describe someone who resists the progression of technology. It doesn’t matter that the term is misapplied or that Ned Ludd probably didn’t exist. The concept becomes an icon of our rebellion to the dominance of technology.
A rebellion with little effect, for as industrial technology gave way to information technology, it became involved in nearly every aspect of our lives. There may have been a few dissenting voices, but mostly the questions have been focused on how to build the technology; making it better, faster and more functional. More crucially, a technological worldview has become a key piece of how an economic story has grown. The economic story has grown beyond anything that the first architects of capitalism could probably ever conceive. Technology underpins our shift to an economic worldview, where everything is viewed through the lens of its economic development and value.
With the last twenty years or so, we have purported to shift yet again to a more ‘human centred’ viewpoint. We can see evidence of this from the rise of usability, customer experience and human centred design. These views challenges the primacy of both technology and economy. Yet, there is a strange arrogance with a human centred viewpoint. One that has a strange echo of the original mythological views that placed the Earth (and humans) at the centre of the universe.
A human-centred view implies that everything should ultimately bend its way back to us. This type of anthropocentrism (anthro for ‘human’ and centrism for ‘centre’) doesn’t make any sense in light of our growing awareness what our short-sighted choices have done to the world at large. A world that we are both a part of and one we depend on. In this light, I’m not clear how ‘human centred’ we should be. That is, assuming we can even trust that being ‘human centred’ isn’t just a new facade for continuing a technology-fuelled economic story.
I really think we can do better, but to do so we will need to let go of our smaller viewpoints and grapple with a much larger one. Rather than ‘human centred,' I think we need to become ‘ecology centred.’ Ecological thinking sees our shared world as a system. An ecological view puts humankind back into the context of life on Earth. We depend on all life, from the largest mammal to the smallest microbe. In turn, they depend on us. They pay a price for our choices. Our viewpoint must include a responsibility for the impact we have on the world.
The bottom line is that our viewpoint matters and I think it’s time we stop putting mythology, economy, technology or ourselves at the centre of our thinking. We need to put the entire ecology, the living system at our centre. This has its own consequences, likely a short term reduction in profit and a natural shrinking of economies. We have to be prepared to accept that. However, our future and the future of every living thing on this planet depends on it.
Watson, P (2005) Ideas. Harper Collins: New York.
Michaels, F. S. (2011) Monoculture. Red Clover Press: Canada.
Jack, A. (2015) They Laughed at Galileo, Constable & Robinson: UK.
Photo of Geocentric Model from Wikimedia Commons.
BBC (2010) The Story of Science: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1647292/