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My Way to Integral Thinking

An integral ecologist’s personal and philosophical confrontation with modernity.

by Michael E. Zimmerman

When I was about seven years old, I would occasionally play in a delightful forest with a stream running through it. On one visit, my last, I discovered bulldozers tearing up the site to make way for the first shopping center in northeastern Ohio. I’ve never forgotten the dismay and puzzlement I felt that day, and I often trace my awakening as an environmentalist to that incident. A few years later, we moved to a small Ohio town, where I played for many hours in nearby woods, creeks, and fields. I had no words for the pleasure I took in the outdoors. Only in college did I discover Wordsworth’s poetry, which gave incomparable voice to how youthful joy and exuberance entwines with wooded glen and high blue sky.

Growing up had been difficult at times, with seven siblings, an understandably distracted mother, and a demanding father whose disciplinary methods were occasionally modeled on nineteenth-century practices. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate in chemical engineering, he helped to produce a very useful but rather toxic plastic called polyvinyl chloride, the notorious PVC. When I graduated from college in 1968, I condemned industrial modernity, and capitalism in particular, for destroying the natural environment. But my attack on modernity was motivated not merely by ideology and love of nature. Hostility toward my father, and by association toward his belief system, played an important role as well. What was that belief system? That industry was good because it brought material well-being, greater health, and longer life spans to millions of people, many of whom had known firsthand the deprivations of the Great Depression and World War II. For friends of industry, pollution was just the cost of doing business that was good for everyone. After all, an engineering professor told me, humans are very adaptable animals!

All the same, I bristled righteously at modernity’s polluting factories and its gross exploitation of labor. As a budding academic in the 1970s, I was attracted to philosophical views that depicted modernity as an enormous mistake that was destroying the biosphere and divorcing humanity from its true possibilities. Drawing on the work of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who argued that modern industry’s treatment of nature as nothing but raw material could be seen as the culmination of the West’s long slide into nihilism, I began publishing scholarly articles criticizing our misguided efforts to dominate the planet. My writings put me in touch with Bill Devall and George Sessions, whose book Deep Ecology helped to define an environmental movement of the same name. Deep ecologists claimed that in order to reform a completely unsustainable civilization, people needed to think more “deeply” about the source of environmental problems instead of approaching them piecemeal. To me, their strong bias against modernity seemed consistent with Heidegger’s thought, and I published several papers interpreting Heidegger as one of deep ecology’s conceptual forerunners.

But this is only the first half of the story. You see, in high school and college, I had also become committed to one of modernity’s brightest lights, the civil rights movement, which ended Jim Crow laws and finally made available to black people (in principle at least) the rights of all other U.S. citizens. The United States Constitution—a central achievement of modernity—made possible movements demanding the fulfillment of its promise of equal rights for everyone. Along with civil rights, other movements followed: rights for women, for gays and lesbians, for Native Americans, for animals, and—yes—even for trees, rivers, and ecosystems! This expansion of rights beyond those who initially benefited from them—property-owning white men—has been a striking feature of the past two centuries of modernity, and the fact that they were being extended to nature as well as to marginalized peoples gave me pause when thinking about my own smug antimodernism.


At the time, however, I was not yet able to find a way out of my ambivalence toward modernity. My quandary was made worse by the fact that I was appreciatively reading Karl Marx at the same time that I was reading Heidegger. Marx was an archmodernist who regarded industrialism as a necessary stage along the way to a postcapitalist society, where material plenty would free people to pursue their creative interests, and he dismissed as weak-minded those who felt nostalgia for premodern ways of life. I was greatly attracted to socialism, yet I could not accept its uncritical commitment to industry, and I eventually turned to Herbert Marcuse, a socialist thinker who had studied under Heidegger but who maintained that capitalism and socialism alike were both driven by a lust for domination.

Marcuse offered no plausible alternative to the industrial and technological “system,” but it was my hope that deep ecology might—that it might, in fact, provide the beginnings of a postmodern, postindustrial culture that could heal nature and humanity alike. Then in 1987, a book came along that changed my life. In Heidegger and Nazism, historian Victor Farias argued that Heidegger’s infamous affiliation with national socialism was not a political error that ended in 1934 but rather an expression of his very own philosophy. Although Farias’s criticisms went too far, he forced me to recognize that Heidegger was critical not only of modern industrialism and its destruction of the environment but of modern social institutions as well, including the American and French Revolutions that had promulgated the very human rights I regarded as such important achievements. The same fascist ideology responsible for Auschwitz, I discovered, had also provided the justification in the early 1930s for the most sweeping environmental legislation the world had ever seen. As a famous Nazi slogan put it, “pure land” and “pure blood” went hand in hand.

So I asked myself, if Heidegger’s thought was somehow compatible with national socialism and if his work could also be read as anticipating deep ecology, then to what extent was deep ecology itself compatible with fascist antimodernism?

There was no simple answer to that question, but I found enough reason to be troubled by the connections that I had to develop a different attitude toward modernity—an attitude that could acknowledge its dark side (the domination of nature) while simultaneously affirming its noble side (the promise of rights for all humankind). I had been moving in this direction ever since reading Ken Wilber’s book Up from Eden in 1981. Here and elsewhere, Wilber offers an integrative reading of human history, in which he argues that it is appropriate to both integrate and transcend modernity rather than either dismissing it altogether as a mistake or uncritically embracing it as the pinnacle of human development. I was well on my way to realizing an integral perspective, but one more step, perhaps the most difficult, remained for me to take.

In the mid-1980s, I visited my father in his office at what was then the world’s largest PVC plant, near Baton Rouge. I asked him to show me around and tell me something of what he did there. I wanted him to know that I appreciated the remarkable contributions that he and his generation had made to improving human well-being, despite the problems with PVC and a number of other industrial products. But I also wanted to thank him for the contribution he had made to me in his role as my father. By then, he knew that toxic emissions were a real problem that had to be minimized and dealt with appropriately. He wasn’t yet willing to give up on PVC, but we had come to respect each other’s points of view; and in all my years of attempting to attain an integral outlook, nothing was more important than healing my relationship with him. In the end, the personal and the philosophical were intimately related; only by integrating the debt I owed to my father could I truly integrate the debt I owed to modernity.

Michael E. Zimmerman is professor of philosophy and director of the Center for Humanities and the Arts at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His next book, Integral Ecology, is due out in March 2009.


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This article is from
Welcome to EnlightenNext


December 2008–February 2009