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Towards a New Ethics in Relationship to Nature: The Work of Warwick Fox

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Many of us may scorn academics for their "ivory tower" perspective, but it is often these academics that provide the theoretical ground upon which practical new ways of life can flourish. One example of this is James Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis which states that the planet operates as a living organism. Warwick Fox provides us another example. Perhaps academia is still one venue allowed to question the status quo.

Warwick Fox
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Warwick Fox by Warwick Fox

Warick Fox

Yes, reading his A THEORY OF GENERAL ETHICS: HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS, NATURE, AND THE BUILT ENVIRONOMENT was heavy going even for my wife with her PhD in English Education. Maybe, that is why academics get away with proposing some truly foundational changes. Maybe they fly over the radar of the powers-that-be...Or...Maybe these powers assume that the ordinary Dick and Jane are simply too dumb to comprehend the enormous impact such abstruse ethical considerations have on their lives! But we aren't, not when scholars like Warwick Fox, Colin Tudge, and F. David Peat speak directly to all of us in our own language via the internet, through such channels as ENVISION THIS.

Fox's ethical theory attempts to develop principles of an all-inclusive "General Theory of Ethics". He explains why traditional ethical theories that address only human-to-human relationships have become obsolete, as we must now take our relationship to Nature into account. Moreover, as both consumption and population grow, we must consider how our built environment--the processes of building, transporting, purchasing, using, maintaining, and disposing of all our stuff--effects everything and everyone else.

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His theory centers around the cohesion that holds an object, system, society, ecosystem, or idea together as a distinct entity. Citing influence from systems and complexity theory, he develops a taxonomy of three types of organizing principles: Fixed cohesion, dis-cohesion, and responsive cohesion. Fixed cohesion is when an entity holds together because it is "cast in stone" and not open to modification. Dis-cohesion is when it doesn't hold together at all and chaos prevails. Responsive cohesion exists when the elements of an entity are mutually modifying. The elements 'respond' to each other in ways that support the overall cohesion of the whole. In fixed-cohesion, order is imposed or regimented either from within or without; in dis-cohesion no sense of order is established; and in responsive cohesion an immanent, self-organizing order is constantly arising.

Fox gives us an example in the political sphere: dictatorships display fixed cohesion; anarchies or states in Civil War display dis-cohesion; and functioning democracies display responsive cohesion. Likewise, families can be dictatorial, fixed systems; disfunctional, dis-cohesive systems; or transactive, responsive systems. Another example contrasts conversations in which one party clearly dictates while the other party responds "yes, sir" (fixed); conversations in which both parties talk "past" each other, not really listening to one another (dis-); and conversations in which each party speaks, listens, considers, and adapts to reach a consensus (responsive). We can see clearly from these examples why Fox's theory of ethics is based on maximizing responsive cohesion.

In trying to understand and apply this taxonomy of cohesion to agriculture, the author's wife, Merry, suggests that freezing and secluding seeds in a vault for future use on a changed Earth represents fixed cohesion, genetically modifying seeds by incorporating genes from diverse species represents dis-cohesion, and planting out seeds locally and annually represents responsive cohesion. Fox believes that this concept can inform all our ethical decisions--even though he isn't as sure as Merry is that genetic engineering is inherently dis-cohesive.

Returning to the domain of politics, we can see that every time a dictatorship is overcome by a revolutionary movement a period of chaos and lawlessness ensues. In fact, we see it when any rigid structure is overwhelmed by internal or externally imposed forces and shatters into pieces. Thus, we almost never "move in the direction of" dis-cohesion. This kind of change from fixed cohesion to dis-cohesion is typically abrupt and almost always involves jumping from the frying pan into the fire. Equally, order can forcefully be imposed upon a chaotic situation, as, say, when a new dictatorial regime emerges from civil chaos and imposes a strict order overnight. Only within a politic of responsive cohesion among all participants can a stable-yet-flexible order emerge gradually. We remain in danger of repeating a "meet the new boss same as the old boss" scenario over and over again until we establish a politic based on a cultural ethic of cohesion that is responsive to all citizens. Only then can we claim, along with the rockband the Who, that we "Won't get fooled again." Responsive cohesion isn't easy, requiring constant negotiation and modification, but what is the alternative?

We can understand how we continue to be fooled by understanding the concept of fractals.

Fractals are repetitions of the same general pattern at both ascending and descending scales. They tell us that the universe and all it contains is made up of folded realities within self-similar worlds. For example, a tree is a fractal with its repeated pattern of large and small branches, with similar details found in the smallest twigs and within each leaf. Now think of this system in relation to the systems of rivers and streams to oceans and to the blood flowing from the heart through arteries and their return by veins. In a sense, when Genesis 1:27 says that human beings were created in God's image, male and female created (S)He them," then it could be stated that we are each a fractal mirroring of the All. As the world turns; so do we. As we evolve; so does the world. As within; so without. "As above; so below" in a continuous flow of waves and particles.

Or, to make this less abstract: Gaze into the nighttime skies or into a well functioning forest and see one's self. The atoms floating about in your body do so in the same proportion to the spaces among them as do planets, stars and moons to Space. Like Nature, ultimately you and I are 99.9% empty space. The orientals have a great grasp on this as reflected in much of their artwork. There is a lot of empty space which may relate to their spiritual teachings regarding becoming unconditioned or "free of yourself." This contrasts to our Western culture where it appears we are more likely to be "full of ourselves."

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Are we empty or full? Is it an either-or proposition? This question has the same answer as the question in physics, "Is it a wave or a particle?" The answer is YES, both-and. How can form be known without space? Of course, if we are full, the question becomes what are we full of? And how does the stink of that block us from smelling the roses?

We are so full of, surrounded by, and stuck the distorted (cancerous?) fractal of top-down structures, we have been unable to allow (not force) a new structure to emerge. The Eastern Tao Te Ching has it down when it says, "be newborn, be free of yourself." Only when we become free of the top-down memes of brain-over-heart, wealthy-over-poor, might-over-right, life-over-death, or human-over-nature (the list could go on exponentially...) will we take the unfathomable leap from the particle into the wave of all life.

This entails the importance of listening to scholars such as Fox. To repeat his words again: Responsive cohesion exists when the elements of an entity are mutually modifying. The elements 'respond' to each other in ways that support the overall cohesion of the whole. If I'm reading this right, we have to move past self-righteousness of the pervasive ethos of "its all about me! My culture, my nation, my wealth, me!"

The movement beyond this conditioning by an Earth destroying sociopathic ethos begins with you and me. We aren't powerless, because we are, each-and-every-one, a hologram of the Whole. It is now-here , in the space within our hearts and in the space between us as we relate, each-to-each, that change happens. Change occurs in your participation in the wave, not the (I-me-mine) particle. When you make that leap of paradigm, you'll become more and more attracted to those engaging in similar change. Pretty soon, a new world shall emerge. And, it won't be determined by the 99% of people; or even 100% of people. It will become via the interaction of the all-within-the-All.

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Burl is an avid writer and publishes to OpEd News. He is author of "Sophia's Web: A Passionate Call to Heal Our Wounded Nature." As of this writing, Burl is planning to self-publish the book. Alongside his wife, Burl co-hosts an on line radio (more...)

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