John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org..
This essay was presented at a conference in Harbin, China, May 31, 2004. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The author appreciates the thoughts of both Whitehead and Marx but defines the deficiencies of both.
1. My Point of View
As I compare Marx and Whitehead, I think it important to let you know from what point of view I do so. I am sure that point of view is very different from that of one who has lived through recent decades in China. It is also very different from one who has studied the thought of Marx and subsequent Marxists in a scholarly way. I have studied Whitehead in that way, but I am no student of Marx or of Marxism generally. Of course, I have encountered Marxist ideas for many years, and I have read a little here and there. Moreover, like most thoughtful people, I have been influenced by him both directly and indirectly.
I am an American Christian theologian, and like most Christian theologians, I belong to the middle class. Like Marx, I am deeply influenced by the Hebrew prophets and their concern for justice for the oppressed. Marx and his followers have made me realize that my middle class perspective is inadequate to the appreciation of the prophetic tradition, which, like Marxism, views society from the point of view of the oppressed. I have gradually learned to take this perspective to a greater degree, although I remain middle class, and I believe that a middle class perspective informed by the prophetic tradition also has its contribution to make.
I am greatly influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, although my concern for the oppressed does not come from him. In general, this is a concern much more of process theologians, that is, of Christians influenced by Whitehead, than of the followers of Whitehead in other fields, such as philosophy, who may not be shaped by the biblical tradition. Whitehead’s thought does not discourage this concern, and, in principle, it encourages it. But there is little thematic development of this in Whitehead. In this regard I share more with Marx, because of our common participation in the heritage of the Hebrew prophets.
In other respects, however, I am far more influenced by Whitehead. Marx shared with the prophets the expectation of a day when justice would reign. I hope for the reduction of oppression in various ways, and I work for that, but I do not anticipate any final resolution. In that respect, I am closer to Whitehead. Also, Marx shared with the prophets a sharp focus on economic issues. I see oppression in multiple forms, and in this respect, also, I find more help in Whitehead. Nevertheless, I am today inclined to give primary attention to the economy, and in that respect I am closer to Marx.
As a theologian, I view history more in terms of the role of theology and the church in society than would a secular observer. What we American Protestants call the Social Gospel, which flourished from around 1890 to 1950, had reemphasized the prophetic tradition, partly under the influence of Marx. I am largely a child of the Social Gospel movement. However, I have come to realize that this movement viewed the social order largely from a middle class perspective, making little use of real class analysis. It appealed more to the charity and sense of justice of the Christian middle class than to organized efforts on the part of labor and the poor.
The Social Gospel contributed to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which preserved capitalism by giving some support to labor and relief and security to the poor. It opened the door to the middle class for that segment of labor that was organized, thereby insuring that American labor unions would not employ Marxist analysis. As a result, American labor was strongly supportive of Western capitalism against Soviet Marxism throughout the Cold War.
This success in bringing organized labor into the middle class made Marxist class analysis unconvincing to many. Idealists, both Christian and secular, focused on injustices toward other groups rather than toward labor. Especially the exclusion of Blacks from labor unions as well as from other opportunities in society suggested that race was a more critical problem in the United States than class. Later, idealistic Americans turned their attention to the oppression of women. Today, much of the concern for the oppressed focuses on our treatment of homosexuals. Since Marx, or at least dominant expressions of Marxism, gave little attention to these other forms of oppression, or regarded them as by-products of class warfare, Americans who opposed all forms of oppression looked elsewhere for guidance. They were more concerned with cultural and political analyses than with those of class.
Class analysis has been not only been ignored but also condemned in the United States, both by the general public and even by many intellectuals. Even the word “socialism” has been used in a harshly pejorative way. However, many thoughtful people have not been entirely misled. Class structures are real, and we Americans are deeply affected in our perception of events by our place in those class structures. Middle-class Christian charity and concern for justice do not substitute for power in the hands of the poor.
The true locus of power in American society became clear during the War on Poverty. This “War” had widespread support as long as it consisted in governmental generosity to the poor. But it also included elements, rather minor, designed to organize the poor to express their own interests and act for them. When these began to show some signs of success, they were suppressed, and the “War” was ended.
The locus of control in the United States also became clearer when the Cold War ended. As long as that War was in progress, it was important to the capitalist system to have the support of organized labor and to give enough aid to the poor to prevent appreciation for Marxism from arising among them. The measures taken were successful in accomplishing this. However, when the Cold War ended, the capitalist elite was no longer much concerned about these matters. Through its great influence in government, it enacted policies that drastically weakened organized labor and undercut the “welfare” state. The middle class is now growing smaller and a real proletariat is coming into being.
Organized labor is still largely middle class, consisting more of teachers and government employees than of industrial workers. However, labor is now organizing farm workers and janitors, who are truly part of the proletariat. Eventually, they may recognize the relevance of class analysis to their plight. Overall, as oppression of people because of race, gender, and sexual orientation declines, class reappears as the fundamental basis of oppression.
Furthermore, the policies being pressed on other countries through structural adjustment intensify class structure around the world. The United States supports democracy, but only as long as the people elected to office reflect bourgeois values. When elected leaders genuinely represent the common people, as earlier in Chile and Nicaragua, and recently in Haiti, the United States arranges for their overthrow. It is trying to accomplish this also in Venezuela, thus far unsuccessfully.
Meanwhile the global economy, pushed by global capitalism, with its political center in Washington, D.C., is undercutting the remarkable achievements of Europe and Japan in developing mixed economies that virtually abolished poverty. Global competition is forcing reductions in governmental generosity to workers, to the unemployed, and to others who cannot participate actively in the economy. These countries had gone much further in the direction of a welfare state, paid for by the capitalist economy than had the United States. Their policies are still very generous by American standards. But they are all being pressed to “reform,” and today, to reform always means to adopt policies less costly to the local capitalists and less favorable to labor and the poor.
My main point is that now that Marxism has ceased to be a threat in terms of political and military power, its analysis is becoming more and more relevant. Those who now make the decisions feel free to make them in terms of their own short-term economic interests, without fear of political and military consequences. These policies are resisted now chiefly in Islamic countries on the basis of principles that have little appeal to those in Western countries who suffer from harsher treatment at home.
For Christian theologians, the importance of class analysis has been kept alive through the work of Latin American liberation theologians. They have not been Communists or strict Marxists, but they have acknowledged their great debt to Marx. They have renewed the theological themes of the Social Gospel on which I was myself nourished, but they have done so much more from the perspective of the poor. In this way they have understood the real locus of power more clearly and been more open to radical resistance.
Their work is partly responsible for the fact that there is more real resistance to capitalist domination in Latin America than elsewhere. Their greatest influence over the decades has been in Brazil, and Brazil has now elected as president a man of the people, who understands the structure of capitalist oppression. He knows that he can survive as president only as he takes a very moderate course. In the end, he may have no choice but to sell out to global capitalism. But at present he is still able to lead Latin American resistance to the extension of this capitalism, especially through the Washington proposal of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. Popular resistance in Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador is also an important factor in the Latin American scene.
2. The Limitations of Marx and Whiteheadian Contributions
This analysis of our global situation was more influenced by Marx than by Whitehead. Nevertheless, it indicated places where I find Marx’s analysis inadequate. Chiefly this is with regard to cultural issues. In the United States we have been dealing with forms of oppression that are not based on economic class although they have economic consequences. Blacks were oppressed by all classes, probably most of all by poor whites. Women were oppressed by all classes, but again, probably most of all by poor men. Homosexuals were oppressed by all classes, but with them also, the situation was often worst among the poor. One might argue that this was all due to capitalism, but oppression of people because of race, gender, and sexual orientation raises questions that are not well treated by class analysis.
The same is true of nationalism. Before World War I, many Marxists thought that the bond between the proletariat in France and in Germany was stronger than nationalist feelings. This proved to be wrong. French workers were Frenchmen first, and only secondarily, workers. German workers were Germans first, and only secondarily, workers. Marxist analysis does not go far to explain this cultural reality.
Standard Marxist analysis erred by locating individuals in only one context. From Whitehead’s point of view, every momentary event or experience and, by extension, every human being, is a member of many different societies. One may be a worker, a Frenchman, a male chauvinist, a homophobe, a Jew, a member of a soccer team, and many other things. Each of these characteristics establishes some kind of identity and usually some kind of loyalty to those who share it. Sometimes, for some purposes, the identity as worker may predominate. This is most likely to occur if workers are well organized and have cultivated personal loyalty to the class. For other purposes identities formed in relation to other societies predominate. During recent centuries national identity has dominated in the West. Before that, religious identity was primary. Perhaps the world is now moving into a condition in which class identity will become primary, but that has not yet occurred for most people. Approaching people with this recognition of their participation in many overlapping but distinct societies leads to greater openness to the historical facts and, therefore, greater ability to identify the multiple loci of oppression at different times and places.
This is another way of saying that mainstream Marxist thought and practice paid too little attention to cultural matters. National feeling is a cultural matter. So are the attitudes of men toward women and of one ethnic or religious group toward others. Even the extent to which workers identify with workers as a whole, with workers in their own trade, or with the companies for which they work is a cultural matter. We need a conceptuality that shows how deeply human beings are shaped by culture and how much they change as their cultures change. Whitehead is more helpful than Marx in this regard.
Standard Marxist analysis erred in a second, related, way. It tended to treat persons more as embodiments of a class than as distinct individuals. The quest for justice was directed more to justice for the proletariat class than for justice to individual persons. The result was that Marxist societies were often oppressive of individuals. Of course, many of the individuals who were oppressed were bourgeois, and a Marxist can accept that as inevitable. Bourgeois individualism has to be overcome in order to establish the rule of the proletariat. But individual members of the proletariat were also sacrificed for the advance of the class.
One might argue that the necessary changes cannot be effected without such sacrifice. But unless there is great pain connected with this sacrifice on the part of those who order or condone it, the structures that are built on it will continue indefinitely to perpetuate such sacrifice. Personal freedom and security of person may be bourgeois values in one sense, but they are also human values. Marx certainly wanted all people to enjoy them. But his system of thought gave too little attention to personal individuality, and the political systems erected in his name were weak in this respect.
Too often the alternatives are presented as between authoritarian control in the name of the proletariat and bourgeois individualism. One is based on treating groups of people, especially classes, as quasi-individual actors. The other takes individuals in abstraction from their relations with others as the units of being and action. There is another possibility developed in some forms of communitarianism. Whitehead provides the conceptual underpinnings for the development of this possibility. In the tradition of Christian ethics this alternative model is often called person-in-community.
This model locates reality not in the collective but in the individual, and in this way sides with individualism. However, it views the individual in a very different way from the dominant thought forms of the Western Enlightenment. In the Enlightenment tradition, individuals have their fundamental existence in separation from one another. This is expressed vividly in the myths created by Enlightenment thinkers about politics and economics.
Hobbes and Locke both posited a state of nature in which individuals, or individual nuclear families, were all in competition with one another. No fellow feeling is acknowledged among them. What moves them to form a government is the miserable insecurity they all experience when they are constantly vulnerable to their neighbors. It is to overcome this insecurity of possessions, and of life itself, that they agree to give up some of their freedom of action in exchange for security.
I do not mean that the Hobbes and Locke were so naïve historically as to suppose that the world was ever like that. Nevertheless, the assumption of mutually unrelated individuals each pursuing self-interest at the expense of others tells us much about their understanding of human beings. I believe that not only is it historically erroneous but also fundamentally misleading with respect to the understanding of human behavior. The United States continues to suffer from this individualist myth.
Classical and neo-classical economic theory, in contrast with Marxist economics, is also based on this atomistic individualism. For economic theory it is the free market, rather than order imposed by a central authority, that resolves the problem. In the free market all who exchange goods and labor get what they want more in exchange for what they want less. Thus the more transactions occur in the market, the better off is the whole. Here, too, the only relations recognized as occurring among people are the external relations of exchange and contract. By external relations I mean relations that do not affect the nature or being of the people who are related.
This view of human beings gained some of its credibility from a physical science based on atomism. In this view, atoms are completely self-contained, and they are related to other atoms only spatio-temporally. All the complex entities in the world, including human bodies, can be analyzed into groupings of these individual atoms. This metaphysics leads to scientific reductionism and determinism. When evolution brought the whole of humanity into this mechanistic system, the world of values collapsed.
The set of problems associated with mechanistic atoms was a major part of what Whitehead set out to overcome. He did so by positing events as primary in relation to objects. Larger events can be broken down into unit events that are no longer subject to actual division. In this sense, he was, in the Greek sense, an atomist. That is, he believed that there are indivisible units of the actual world of which all the more complex entities are composed.
However, Whitehead’s atoms, far from being related to one another only spatio-temporally, are largely constituted by their relations. His is a doctrine of the primacy of internal relations, relations that are constitutive of the entities they relate. This is just the type of relations that Enlightenment individualism systematically excluded..
In Whitehead’s view, an individual human experience does not first exist and then enter into relations with others. Instead, it comes into being largely as a product of the societies to which it belongs. It is a synthesis of its relations with others. It is, accordingly, deeply informed by past personal experiences. It is deeply informed by events in the brain. It is deeply informed by the human community in which it takes place. And it is informed by larger societies as well. An individual is the society, or better, the complex of societies, in a particular locus.
Formulated in this way, Whitehead seems to give priority to the community over the individual. No individual comes into being except as a new embodiment of the world it enters. This is true of a quantum event and of a human experience. Most of what characterizes either one is determined by its locus, spatio-temporal in both cases and, in the case of the human experience, also cultural.
However, Whitehead was convinced that this is not the whole picture. Every unit event, every moment of human experience, is something more than simply the determined outcome of its world. There is more than one way in which it can synthesize its past and achieve its own definiteness in that particular location and context. Among these alternative possibilities, each event, each experience, makes its own decision.
Outside the animal sphere, these decisions may seem to make little difference. The situation seems overall to be quite static. Nevertheless, over large spans of time even cosmic patterns may be affected by these decisions. However that may be, among animals, and especially among human beings, the decisions of individuals make a great deal of difference. Sometimes a single, momentary decision may be very important. In a threatened traffic accident, for example, one’s momentary decision about swerving and braking may determine whether one survives or is killed.
However, in general, Whitehead directs us to think of numerous small decisions extending over a considerable period of time. These can lead to significantly novel developments in personal life and even in the wider culture. A decision to peer through a telescope at a particular part of the night sky may results in an astronomical discovery. In one sense, that decision may be made in a moment. But normally, the possibility of that decision grows out of myriads of antecedent decisions, each of which by itself added very little interesting novelty to the situation in which it occurs. Most important changes result from the cumulation of numerous small, and apparently trivial, changes.
The point for a Whiteheadian is that, while individual decisions may contribute very little to what happens moment by moment, the fact that they occur and that their results accumulate means that decision plays a large role in human life and in cultural formation. Cultures are not inevitable products of purely natural causes. They are the products also of beliefs and practices that could have been different from what they are and are now subject to being developed in diverse directions. Decisions have been and are important.
The locus of these decisions is in the individual human experience. A healthy culture will encourage such decisions and constitute a context in which they can play a larger role. An oppressive society will discourage such decision seeking to turn individuals into products of the society without significant individuality.
Whitehead thus provides an understanding of the individual and the society that opposes the view that individuals ever were, or could be, or should be, outside of society. Society is not a voluntary construction by individuals for their selfish gain as the Enlightenment thinkers would have us believe. People have always grown up in community and assimilated the values of the community. Their relations to other members of the community have largely constituted them as the persons they have been. People identify themselves as members of such communities and find meaning in these relationships. Governance is part of all such communities, and the governments that now exist have evolved out of other forms of government. Governments that ignore the functioning communities in which their people live will fail or survive only through tyranny. Actual economic life also reflects the importance of community to each individual’s existence.
But a community is healthy only when it cherishes each individual member, not only as an embodiment of that community, but also for her or his individual qualities and capacity to be creative. Communities can encourage such individual creativity only when obtaining the necessities of economic survival does not dominate the lives of people. Hence, the economic order as a whole and the just distribution of economic goods and political power are of immense importance. Culture is not a mere superstructure, but no healthy culture can survive unless basic human needs are met with some surplus of energy remaining to the people. There is nothing in a Whiteheadian analysis to dispute the fundamental importance of the economy.
The appreciation of community changes our basic sense of how to improve the human condition. What is needed is not simply an increase of total wealth or an improvement of the relative condition of the proletariat. What is needed is healthy community. Healthy community must meet the economic needs of its members, but its health consists more in the quality of human relationships than in the amount of goods and services consumed. After the necessities for survival are met, healthy relationships contribute much more to human happiness than does the increase of consumption of goods and services.
Whereas in the capitalist model, people are fundamentally encouraged to compete, community depends on cooperation. To gain at the expense of others in a community is to gain very little. The unhappiness of the others detracts from one’s happiness. To improve the economic condition of the community as a whole is the economic goal; and this serves the larger goal of improving the quality of human relations and thus of human life, while stimulating the personal freedom of all the members of the community.
The difference can be demonstrated quite clearly in terms of two models of development. Community development is practiced by many nongovernmental organizations including church groups, but it is overshadowed by the top-down development programs of the World Bank and by transnational corporate investments. It remains, however, a practical possibility in many placed.
The most famous proponent of community development was Mahatma Gandhi, and it is sometimes call the Gandhian model. If Gandhi had lived, it might have had a real chance to improve the quality of life in thousands of Indian villages. Gandhi’s symbol was the sewing machine. He thought that during parts of the year the women had time for productive work, which was not available to them. If they were provided with simple sewing machines, they could produce clothing for their families and also for sale. If this increased the family income by twenty per cent, the quality of life of very poor peasants would be significantly improved.
Of course, the sewing machine is simply a symbol. In some villages the great need is for a pump that will provide water locally and save people from long trips to a distant source. For others, it is solar cookers that will reduce their need for hard-to-find firewood. For still others, it may be a steel plough that will reduce the labor of preparing the fields. For still others it may be baby chicks or rabbits that can grow, reproduce and contribute significantly to people’s diet and income. For still others it may be learning to control family size.
Meeting one such need does not complete community development. It provides a basis for taking the next step. There is not a single magic bullet for community, but a process of development of the village as a whole along the lines desired by the villagers. It is important that the villagers e subjects of development, not mere objects. “Development” that makes them radically dependent on outside aid is not true development. True development empowers them to meet their own needs more efficiently. In the process of such development, the hope is that the quality of human relationships also improves.
So far as I can tell both Marxism and capitalism have worked against community development. Their typical programs of development are quite different from this and lead to the systematic destruction of traditional communities and even of new ones that emerge to replace them. This is because the goal is simply increased production. Both Marxists and capitalists believe that this is achieved best by rapid industrialization. Rapid industrialization, in turn, requires economies of scale.
Both have supported supplanting small farms by large ones, in one case communal, in the other agribusiness. Some of the inhabitants of villages are employed on these large holdings; others are expected to go to the cities to supply labor for factories. The village community is destroyed. Where no value is placed on human community, this is not considered a loss. But viewed through Whiteheadian eyes, the human loss is incalculable. Even if total production grows more rapidly when these methods are employed than when there are incremental improvements in the agriculture of existing villages – which is doubtful – much more is lost than gained when valued in a holistic Whiteheadian way.
3. Marx and Whitehead on Nature
There is one other very important element to be introduced in this sketchy analysis of our situation. This is the natural environment. Around the world, there are tens of millions of people who care deeply about the destruction of ecosystems, the loss of forest cover, the expansion of deserts, the pollution of land, water, and air, the changing of weather patterns, and the exhaustion of crucial resources such as fresh water and soil. They love the Earth and are unwilling to support policies geared to short-term economic gains for the rich at the expense of the future of all humanity. Although many are middle class, they share the concerns of the proletariat with respect to global capitalism. Increasingly, the poor, especially those who live closest to nature, join with the concerned middle class. The poor are often the ones most willing to put their lives on the line to defend parts of the natural world. This movement is sufficiently powerful, that the capitalist elite must give it lip service, even though the major policies they implement continue to be highly destructive.
Both Marx and Whitehead died before the ecological crisis had become a major matter of concern. Both had some awareness and concern about the destruction of the natural environment. Neither highlighted this as a major practical issue.
How Marxists have dealt with this is a question about which you are better informed than I. In China, I believe that the Marxist government instituted huge programs of reforestations. When I was in Nanjing some years ago I was shown forested hillsides that I was told had once been bare. It was said that this reforestation had lowered average summer temperatures in and around the city. I was impressed. Clearly it is possible to find in the Marxist tradition reasons for improving the human environment.
Likewise in capitalist societies there have been some positive actions. In the United States we have long preserved scenic areas as national parks and tried to control exploitation of resources in national forests. We have taken action to improve the quality of water and air and to slow down the loss of species diversity.
Nevertheless, it is my impression that in both societies, concern for economic growth typically trumps concern for a healthy natural environment. Whether the basic ideology is Marxist or Neoliberal, growth plays the role of god as that which is served by government, education, and business. It is my judgment that, as long as this is the case, the environment will continue to deteriorate even if some resources are dedicated to its preservation.
This worsening of the environmental situation and acceleration of the movement toward ultimate collapse is not inevitable. It is a function of culture, both of Marxist culture and of capitalist culture. Both place economic growth ahead of a healthy natural environment, treating the latter as a secondary matter and even as one means among others to the growth of the economy. There is some difference between the two economic systems in that the Marxist can have a major concern for the equitable distribution of what is produced, whereas pure capitalism does not. But neither includes in its basic categories or structure any view of the natural world except as a source of resources for economic production. In my opinion, it is only those who care for the natural world for its own sake and for the sake of future human inhabitants who can guide us toward patterns of action that will be truly sustainable.
We cannot derive from Whitehead all the teachings we need. However, in three respects his view is helpful to counteract the dominant attitudes that now shape global behavior. First, whereas both Marxist and Capitalist theories are thoroughly anthropocentric, Whitehead’s theory is not. That is, for Marxism and capitalism alike, value is located in human beings and what serves them. For Whitehead, on the contrary, value is located in everything. There were values in the world before human beings came into being, and there will be values in the world even if humanity disappears. True, much will be lost. As far we know, the greatest values are now to be found in human experiences. But the fact that all events have value means that human beings should weigh these values along with their own in planning their actions.
Second, capitalist theory is radically dualistic. Human beings and the remainder of things are treated as belonging to radically different orders of being. The anthropocentrism with respect to value is based on a metaphysical dualism. There is humanity and there is nature. To view nature as having any intrinsic significance is supposed to express the pathetic fallacy.
I am less clear about Marxism in this respect. Its self-definition as a form of materialism seems to reject the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter. Nevertheless, some analogous dualism seems to be functioning here. Dialectical materialism is the rejection of dialectical idealism, focusing sharply on the material conditions of human existence rather than the history of thought. I do not find in it a metaphysical challenge to Cartesian dualism. I will be glad to be corrected on this.
Whitehead’s philosophy is dedicated to showing that there is only one order of being. Every event has both a physical and a mental pole. In simple entities, the physical predominates. In human experience, the mental plays a large role. But the mental plays a role everywhere, and human experience is also profoundly physical. When we recognize in this way our kinship with all things, our attitudes toward the others must change. We cannot treat our kinfolk the way human beings are accustomed to treat other species of animals, plants, and even the inanimate world.
Third, as I already noted in the discussion of human community, capitalism is based on a notion that individuals precede their relations to others – that these relations are external. Human society is seen as a product of human action. Once individual needs for security are met, society has no further function. There is really no such thing as community. If our relations with other human beings are thus trivialized, we can hardly expect any attention to our relations to the rest of the world. It is viewed as radically external to us.
Again I confess my limited grasp of Marxism. However, it is my impression that for Marx also the natural world is quite external to human beings. Marxists have been willing to wipe out human communities for the sake of communes, which they regarded as more efficient units of production. The loss of traditional human relationships has not been viewed as important. If kinship relations with other human beings have not been important to Marxist theory and practice, then it is unlikely that there is much emphasis on human kinship to other animals and to the natural environment generally.
Whitehead’s understanding of internal relations makes a difference here too. We are constituted by our relations. Very important among these relations are those to our own bodies. These are part of the natural world. Through our bodies and even more directly we are related to other parts of nature. Who we are, what we are, is affected not only by our human communities but also by the broader natural environment.
Relations to other living things are important, especially to children. The landscapes of the places we call home shape our sense of reality and of belonging. Hence the deterioration of our natural surroundings not only reduces the resources for economic life, it directly impoverishes our experiences.
I am simply making the same point about our relations to the natural world that I made earlier about our relations to the human world. We are parts of natural communities, or if we prefer, eco-systems. Our personal health and well being are bound up with the health and well being of these communities or ecosystems. If we view economic development in terms of its contribution to the health and well being of human communities and natural ecosystems, we will not seek increased production as such as the good in itself. We will instead decide, community by community, whether economic growth is needed, and where it is, what form it can take that will strengthen the community as a whole and benefit the natural environment as well.
The answers will not be simple, and efforts along these lines will not always succeed. But their failures will not be nearly as harmful as have been the numerous failures of top-down development programs. And there will be more successes, however modest. In general, there will be some improvement of the economic condition of the people, and there will be little disruption of their communal life and relation to their environments. Sometimes the gains will be dramatic.
Today, top-down development has gone so far that one may think that the proposal of another form is idle. Certainly, much of value in human and ecological terms is already, irretrievably, lost. But if we continue along these lines, we are headed for catastrophes of unimaginable horror. Difficult as it may be to change, it is important to make proposals and try experiments. I do, deeply, believe, that Whitehead’s philosophy can suggest far better directions for development than those that have dominated global efforts thus far.