Integral Humanism, World-System, and Sustainability

With the development of complex machinery, technology, and the discovery of fossil fuels for running that machinery, the modern world exploded in a series of industrial revolutions that have transformed not only human living in the world but has damaged the ecological framework of the Earth portending climate destruction and possible human extinction.

With the development of complex machinery, technology, and the discovery of fossil fuels for running that machinery, the modern world exploded in a series of industrial revolutions that have transformed not only human living in the world but has damaged the ecological framework of the Earth portending climate destruction and possible human extinction.

Human beings have long struggled with the immense question of who and what we are in relation to the surrounding cosmos. For more than 2500 years, since the famous Axial Period in human history, we have asked the question about a divine dimension, a possible ultimate reality, and our relation to this dimension. The question of humanism arises within this context. Some thinkers, like Plato, looked to another “intelligible” world, while others, like his pupil Aristotle, emphasized this world and a much more “humanist” approach.

With the rise of early-modern science in 17th century Europe, another new cosmology entered civilization. Sir Isaac Newton and others systematized the findings of early modern scientists such as Galileo and Kepler. The world was now seen as a physical mechanism, with all things reducible to their atomistic elements, and governed by deterministic laws operating according to an efficient causality allowing no room for purpose, teleological direction, or development. Everything was comprehensible in terms of “atomism, mechanism, and determinism” (Harris 2000, Chap. 2).

About the same time capitalism began to emerge with the assumption that this system of human economic exchange constituted a discovery of the proper functioning of human economic relations. Capitalism assumed a universal egoistic self-interest within each person or corporation toward pursuing private profit in competition with other persons and businesses. Capitalism also assumed that the economic laws of investment, actualized through various forms of production of goods and services and their returns on investment with increase in private wealth, was the “natural” and only objectively confirmable form of human economic relationships.

During this same period of early-modern deterministic cosmology, the modern sovereign nation-state was born. At the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 at the conclusion of the 30-Years War in Europe, a system of territorially bound nation-states was defined in which governments possessed exclusive sovereign authority over their internal affairs and sovereign independence in relation to one another externally. Like capitalism, this form of governance by dividing the world into atomistic, absolute territories with external relations revolving around economic competition and backed by political and military power, became an unquestioned assumption of the modern era that has persisted to this day.

With the development of complex machinery, technology, and the discovery of fossil fuels for running that machinery, the modern world exploded in a series of industrial revolutions that have transformed not only human living in the world but has damaged the ecological framework of the Earth portending climate destruction and possible human extinction (Wallace-Wells 2019). Today, human beings face a very difficult situation in which the entire fossil-fuel economy is wrecking our planetary ecosystem.

Extreme wealth and extreme poverty, along with environmental destruction, the hallmarks of capitalism, gave rise to the economic analyses of Karl Marx and his “materialist humanism” exposing the hidden dynamics of this system with its inevitable deleterious human and environmental consequences. Capitalism, as a product of the Newtonian world view, is inherently atheistic since it assumes an economic determinism predicated on mistaken psychological assumptions about the egoistic structure of human nature (e.g., Kovel 2007).

Marxist humanism has features in common with “secular humanism” that continue, along with Marxism, as a major movement in today’s world (see Fromm 1992). Both reject any talk of the “supernatural” as not only counterproductive but meaningless. We must concentrate on human well-being by taking responsibility for our own economic and social development directed to the common good and the welfare of all. Integral Humanism, by contrast, embraces this responsibility within a larger framework that does not exclude the rootedness of human existence within its planetary and cosmic contexts.

This has become necessary since the work of Max Plank in 1900 and of Albert Einstein in 1905 and the vast paradigm-shift that has taken place in scientific cosmology and in our understanding of the universe. Revolutions in natural science since the early 20th century (as manifested in both quantum and relativity physics, see Capra 1996) contradicted early modern cosmology and have introduced an entirely new conceptual paradigm that is making the traditional distinction between the natural (physical) world and a hypothetical “supernatural” realm untenable.

The physical world is not made of some substance called “matter” that is opposed to another possible substance called “mind” or “spirit” as Rene Descartes posited in his Meditations (first published in 1641 at the beginning of the early-modern era). The reality of the natural world is that consciousness, with many modes and levels, is inherent within the cosmos from the very beginning. Consciousness emerges in our cosmos along with the complexification of living systems (Harris 1993, 57). Human beings are thereby understood to be directly connected to the holistic foundations of the cosmos.

The new scientific cosmology reveals the world as a dynamic explosion of energy with consciousness inherent in energy at all levels. There is zero evidence that the foundations of the cosmos involve some supernatural being transcending the world who created it ex nihilo. The evidence is that the “Ground” or “Implicate Order” (which is ‘no-thing’) is integral to every dimension and aspect of the world (Bohm 1980). With one voice, the cosmologists and physicists declare that the explicate, manifest order is itself a holistic order, and that science has revealed that there are no such things as atomistic or substantial parts.

The entire universe is one holistic “field” with descending levels of fields within fields down to the tiniest microparticle. The ground of “super-holism,” the matrix manifesting non-locality, “flows out” to a universe that is completely, totally holistic in nature. In traditional religious language, this might be thought of as the Infinite One that is not only transcendent but immanent within the world. Our manifest universe is coherent, intelligible, and astonishingly congruent with human intelligence. The implicit order of “super-holism” manifests in the explicit order as an intrinsic, scientifically intelligible holism from which human consciousness arises and to which we are inseparably linked. The human mind, when not befogged by particularistic illusions, reflects the Oneness and the intelligible order of the universe.

What some thinkers have called “Integral Humanism” recognizes this holism. Leading contemporary physicist Henry Stapp writes:

“A radical shift in the physics-based conception of man from that of an isolated mechanical automaton to that of an integral participant in a non-local holistic process that gives form and meaning to the evolving universe is a seismic event of potentially momentous proportions” (2011, 140).

Our human minds are rooted in the “non-local” foundations of the cosmos, and this means a deep rethinking of what it means to be a human being.

Neither capitalism nor territorial sovereign nation-states manifest the new-paradigm reality—that is, they are not and cannot act as “non-local participants in a holistic process.” As a result, economics fails to serve human needs at the same time it is destroying our planetary ecosystem, and sovereign nation-states pour endless resources down the toilet of militarism while threatening to wipe out humanity in thermo-nuclear holocaust. Our lethal planetary problems must be solved by a global vision and planetary transformative initiative. One such global initiative, for example, is provided by the Constitution for the Federation of Earth which is premised on the “unity in diversity” of all people living on Earth (Martin 2014).

Today’s integral humanism also arises directly from the worldwide focus on human dignity and human rights that has transpired since the publication of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948. That document beings with the famous words: “Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Today we also recognize “global rights” such as the right to peace and to a healthy planetary environment that also stem from our common human dignity.

The debated idea that there may be “different dignities” of nature and human beings is not critical to the struggle for an ecologically transformed world community. For example, the Charter of Global Ecological Responsibilities created and promoted by Children Now (2022) of Canada begins with these words:

We stand at a critical moment in our earth’s history, a time when every adult, every family, every society and every government…. [has] responsibilities that derive from the fundamental right that all persons and other living creatures have to live within a healthy and ecologically sound planetary environment. As the world becomes increasingly fragile and interdependent, the future holds concurrently both a great peril and great opportunity…. As a global society that should be founded on respect for nature, concern for present and future generations, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace, it is imperative that we declare our responsibility to one another, to our planet as a living whole, and to the future generations.

All persons have dignity and rights, and other living things may have a lesser dignity but still a fundamental right to flourish. Our responsibility is to “our planet as a living whole” and requires a complete transformation that includes human rights, economic justice, and peace. However, the “early-modern” paradigm violated both dimensions of dignity—the first by commodifying human beings as merely labor in a capitalist process of endless accumulation of private wealth, and the second by commodifying nature as if it were nothing but “inert” resources to be used and used up. Today, we are reaping the whirlwind created by this paradigm—an orientation still operative in both global capitalism and the system of militarized nation-states (Martin 2021, Chap. 3).

We need a new holistic paradigm derived from the revolutionary transformations of 20th-century science that understands the holism of the cosmos and the Earth’s ecosystems, as well as human beings as one species of dignity and mutual interdependence throughout our planet. Integral humanism declares “our responsibility to one another, to our planet as a living whole, and to the future generations.” The implications here are staggering, but absolutely necessary if we are to survive as a species.

We must understand the necessary “limits to growth” as economists Donna Meadows et al. have shown (2004). We must establish our entire planet as a “steady-state economy beyond growth,” as economist Hermann E. Daly has demonstrated (1996). And we must focus all economics and nation-state polices on creating “flourishing communities” that end extreme poverty for all persons on Earth at the same time that we carefully do not transcend the limits inherent in our planetary ecosystem (as economist Kate Raworth, 2017, has shown).

We must give up wars and establish world peace. We must give up cutthroat competition and become a cooperative species. We must learn to think beyond “quarterly profits” or our “retirement portfolios” to the welfare of future generations. Finally, we must establish a non-growth economy for the Earth, create massive programs of voluntary population reduction through education and birth control, and learn to find meaning and fulfillment in the process of living itself, rather than in endless consumption and ever more possessions (Fromm 1976).

I believe that integral humanism can indeed provide leadership in all these areas. But our humanism must insist on being “integral” in the sense that we learn to pay deep attention to the processes of creative living and being in our own lives and to our interdependency, cooperation, and harmony with all others and with nature. The creators of the well-known “Happy Planet Index” and other thinkers have shown that people can indeed be happier without endless consumption and possessions.

Community can be a source of real fulfillment in addition to our own creative interest in and affirmation of the fullness of life. Living must become an end-in-itself, not a means to something else. Let us bring a truly integral humanism to the very heart of our common human project to create a world of sustainability, integrity, community, freedom, peace, and justice—for the entire Earth and its other living creatures. This is our immense, common human task, and this reflects our unfathomable dignity as human beings, the recognition of which is truly “the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”



Works Cited

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    2. Capra, Fritjof (1996) The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. New York: Random House Publishers.
    3. Children Now (2022): 10th Symposium | Children Now (avanttoutlesenfants.ca)
    4. Daly, Herman E. (1996). Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.
    5. Fromm, Erich (1976). To Have or to Be? New York: Continuum Books.
    6. Fromm, Erich (1992). Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Continuum Books.
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    10. Martin, Glen T. (2014). Constitution for the Federation of Earth with an Introduction by Glen T. Martin.. Online at http://www.earthconstitution.world. In print with Institute for Economic Democracy Press, 2010 and 2014.
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    12. Meadows, Donna, et al. (2004). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
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