Ecology, Economics and Development: A Holistic Perspective–M.S. Srinivasan

We need ecological balance but we also need economic development.  And we have to grow as human beings, individually and collectively.  We need a new vision of development which can embrace ecology, economics and human development in a holistic perspective.

Towards an Integrated Perspective

 One of the hotly debated topics in development circles is the balance or equation between environment and economic development.  As long as there is poverty in the world we need economic growth.  But the conventional strategies of economic progress based on the capitalistic philosophies of the west invariably lead to environmental degeneration.  Many alternative strategies for a cleaner and greener economic growth have been discussed, debated and experimented all over the world.  We have to arrive at a pragmatic solution to the equation between economics and ecology.

However, development is not merely a matter of economics and ecology.   Ultimately, all development has to come from human development because whatever growth or progress we have to realize at whatever level or domain, including ecology and environment, has to be achieved by the conscious effort of human beings.  Sustainability of earth requires human sensibility.  We can achieve sustainable growth only when we as human beings grow in our consciousness to embrace Nature and feel our being and life as part of Nature.  And our human organism is not merely a body or an economic or social animal.  A human being is essentially a psychological and spiritual entity or in other words a consciousness.  So any development theory or practice which doesn’t include the psychological and spiritual development of the human being can not be complete.  So an integral approach to development has to aim at a satisfactory equation between ecology, economics and human development.  In this article we try to examine this complex equation and its solution comprehensively taking into consideration all the dimensions of the problem.

Higher Dimensions of Growth

Development means Progress, Growth and Evolution.  With the advent of Industrial revolution, our modern age was gripped by the ideal of socio-economic development through the application of Science and Technology.  On the other side of the cultural landscape eastern spiritual traditions emphasized on inner evolution of consciousness through Yoga.  What is the perspective of modern sustainable development philosophy on nature of human and terrestrial evolution and its ultimate destiny.

Some overenthusiastic lovers of Nature and environmentalist consider all forms of progress, especially of the modern kind as an illusion and tell us to get back to the primitive simplicity of primal Nature.  This is undoubtedly a retrograde philosophy which tries to reverse the clock of evolution.  Change, evolution and progress are some of the eternal laws of life.  Any aspect of human life which doesn’t progress slips towards decay and disintegration.  But a reckless, exclusive and one-sided “progress” in a single dimension, ignoring the laws and limits of that dimension or at the expense of other dimensions of life will soon become unsustainable.  When this happens, we have to reorient our development to include what we have neglected.  Sometimes we may have to slow down the progress we are pursuing exclusively in a single track and shift our progress to other or higher dimensions which are neglected, or underdeveloped.  If exclusive pursuit of economic development has become unsustainable, what are the other dimensions of growth which can be pursued more safely and what are the aims and goals of this path of growth? These are important questions which have to be explored with insight and wisdom for the safe and smooth progress of humanity.

Beyond the material and economic dimensions of growth, there are the ecological, social, cultural, moral, aesthetic, psychological and spiritual dimensions of development.  In some of the new and broader conceptions of ecology or development all these higher dimensions are mentioned or included but without much clarity on the path and the goal.  Let us begin with the ecological dimension.

Balancing Economics and Ecology

The first and the most obvious higher dimension is the ecological paradigm.  Integration of economic development with ecological sustainability is a new horizon which holds promising vistas of growth.  Let us now briefly examine the possibilities in this path of development before proceeding with the other dimensions.

The Ecology-Economics debate has given birth to two schools of thought.  Both agree that the present patterns of economic and material growth, based on reckless consumption of fossil fuels, dumping of toxic wastes into the environment and uncontrolled population are inherently unsustainable.  But the first school of thought argues that this doesn’t mean we have to stop all material, economic or technological progress.  If we can reorient our growth within the laws and limits of planetary ecology we can still maintain the present pace of economic growth without jeopardizing the environment.  So there is no need to put ecology and economics in opposing camps.  They can be perfectly reconciled and that too profitably.  Using Green technologies, like waste recycling, renewable energies like solar, hydro, geothermal, biomass and others, controlling emission levels and a more efficient utilization of energy and using other institutional or administrative innovation or interventions we can arrive at a satisfactory reconciliation between economics and ecology.  So there is no need to create an unbridgeable opposition between environmentalism and economic development.  As David Gardener, an administrator in the US Environmental Protection Agency explains:

“Conventional economic wisdom tends to focus on trade-off as the basis for exploring the relationship between the environment and the economy.  It suggests that environmental policy conflicts with economic progress.  The US Environmental Protective agency is trying to dispel this false dichotomy by leading discussion away from somewhat reactive focus on trade-offs and towards a more proactive focus on ways to achieve environmental protection and economic progress at the same time—- The key question then, is not ‘Does environmental policy conflict with economic progress? But rather ‘How can we get environmental protection and economic progress at the same time?’.  Clean technologies and management practices have a particularly important role to play in answering this question, as do price and institutional reforms that encourage reduction in all polluting emissions”. (1)

However not all environmentalist agree entirely with this highly optimistic scenario.  This second school of thought,-considered as more “traditional”—while admitting the possibility of a balanced growth embracing economics and ecology, cautions that it will be a difficult and challenging task.  Crucial choices have to be made and we should not live in a naïve illusion it will be easy.  Paul R. Portney, Vice-President of Resource for the Future, responding to the views of David Gardner, after listing the points of agreement, states:

“Despite these points of agreement, however, I take issue with some of what Gardiner has to say.  And I disagree fundamentally with a message I believe is implicit in his remarks:  we can avoid painful choices when setting environmental goals and instead ‘have it all’.  That is simply not true and we had better recognize this admittedly unpleasant reality if we are to fashion wise economic and environmental policies”. (2)

There is a positive element in the attitudes behind these two viewpoints.  We have to proceed with the confidence and optimism that we can find the solution.  But at the same we should not ignore or underestimate the magnitude of the problem facing us. However, one of the major obstacles in the path towards a just equation between ecology and economics is the present system of economic valuation and accounting which doesn’t take into consideration the ecological cost of production of goods or services.  For example, the cost of timber doesn’t reflect the ecological cost of felling trees and the destruction of forest involved in the production of timber.  For a tree or a forest is not merely a mass of wood and leaves.  It is, as Alan Sasha Lithman points out, “Oxygen-creator, soil-builder, erosion-preventer, stream and watershed-protector, wildlife habitat, medicinal plant provider, preserve for beauty and solitude, matrix for genetic diversity and source of natural wonder” (3).  And when big logging companies destroy forests and cut trees to produce timber it involves destruction of all these ecological resource.  But the present accounting system conveniently leaves out all these ecological and social costs and keeps the industrial timber prices artificially low.  We have to evolve a new system of economics which takes into consideration the environmental cost of products and services.

The Neglected Dimensions

But, as we have said earlier sustainability is not merely a problem of economics and ecology.  There are other important questions and issues, which remain vague, unclear and unresolved in the modern environmental movement.  First of all, the concept is focused mainly on physical, economic and environmental resources.  But if Man is part of Nature, then the sustainable development of “human resources” and whatever “resources” or energies within the human being have to be part of a synthesis of ecology, environment and human development.  But a human being is not merely a physical entity.  We are conscious being with a psychological, moral and spiritual dimension to our existence.  In our collective life we are part of a social and cultural environment, which is the collective outer expression of our inner being.  The concept of sustainable development cannot be complete without including and integrating these non-material dimensions of our life and consciousness with our ecological and economic concerns.

Thus there is something like social, cultural, psychological and spiritually sustainability which depends mostly on our values and ideals, not merely professed in thought or speech, but lived in action.  For example, a society or civilization driven predominantly by greed or indulges in a meaningless multiplication of its material and vital desires without the restraining and refining influence of some higher values will soon find its vital energies exhausted.  Similarly, when the spiritual aspiration and values are denied or suppressed it will lead to every form of psychological and social disorders and conflicts.  The eminent psychologist Carl Jung has said that many of the psychological problems faced by his patients are due to suppression of the religious urge by the modern western culture.

Our modern corporate culture values innovation and some of the latest philosophies in science, like for example Chaos theory, emphasizes on complexity and diversity.  But an increasing complexity or diversity and an endless multiplication of needs and wants, products and services created by reckless innovation, without a corresponding expansion of consciousness which can harmonize this chaotic medley, will only lead to countless problems with no capacity to solve them.  These are some of the problems which every collectivity have to face as it moves from the state of primitive life of the physical consciousness with its simple needs to the consciousness of its vital and mental being with their more complex needs and desires, or in other words, goes through the process of civilization.  As Sri Aurobindo explains:

“It is found that civilization has created many more problems than it can solve, has multiplied excessive needs and desires the satisfaction of which it has no sufficient vital force to sustain, has developed a jungle of claims and artificial instincts in the midst of which life loses its way and has no longer any sight of its aim.” (4)

But ultimately even physical sustainability depends on psychological factors.  When we examine deeply the inner causes of present environmental problems we will find that they are problems created by flawed life-styles, values and a world-view which values material comfort, success and enjoyment over all other higher ideals.    When the values which guide our lives are skewed, we spend our money and resources not on the real needs of our sustenance and growth, inner and outer, but wastefully on frivolous non-essentials or on things which are harmful to our own development and to the environment.  As a wise mom sums up the essence of the problem in a letter to her daughter: “It is my observation that too many of us are spending money, we haven’t earned to buy things we don’t need, to impress people we don’t like.”(5)  We are not in any way underestimating the importance of the more material and short-term solutions, like for example in the domain of technology, law and regulation.  When the survival of the planet is at stake in the near future, material and short-term remedies are as important as the moral, spiritual and the long-term solutions.  Moreover short-term and the long-term or the material and spiritual solutions are not mutually exclusive.  They can be pursued simultaneously. 

Towards an Ecology of Consciousness

The second question is on the nature of Nature.  In modern environmental thought Nature is physical and biological.  This raises some important questions.  If Man is part of Nature, in what sense? For Man is not only a physical being but has a consciousness.  What is the source of our consciousness?  Is it part of physical nature and a mere epiphenomenon of material evolution?  But why modern ecology, which has given a higher orientation to modern thought and moving towards a more and more holistic approach to development accept such a grossly materialistic view of consciousness?  Is it not more logical as well as holistic to conceive consciousness as inherent in Nature and our consciousness as part of the universal consciousness of Nature or Spirit or God, or in other words, part of the higher dimensions of Nature beyond the physical?  In fact many eminent scientists are now dissatisfied with the materialistic conceptions of the traditional scientific view and veering towards the spiritual conception of eastern thought.  For example John Eccles, the Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology, uses strong words when he says:

‘I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism with its claim in promissory materialism to account for all the spiritual worlds in terms of patterns of neuronal activity.  This belief must be classed as superstition—- we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in spiritual worlds with bodies and brains existing in a material world.’ (6)

So the environmental movement should not dogmatically cling to the traditional, materialistic view of Man and Nature and have the courage to include the religious and spiritual dimension.  In fact, as the well-known physicist and author Fritjof Capra states “ultimately, deep ecological awareness is spiritual or religious awareness.  When the concept of the human spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels connected with the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that the ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence” (7) Brain D. Josephson, Nobel Laureate in physics from Cambridge University, makes the following interesting suggestion:

“Now there are two ways in which one could approach the issue whether God has an influence on Nature.  One is to continue following the traditional, materialistic line of explanation, seeing if it really explains everything.  That would be a very long job.  It might be couple of centuries, perhaps, we would get the answer that way.  An alternative approach for the scientists to say ‘Let’s investigate the opposite view, that perhaps we should be taking God into account in science; what would a science look like which had God in there playing a part, accounting thereby for particular phenomena.” (8)

Why not the science of ecology and the environmental movement explore this alternative approach suggested by the Nobel Laureate scientist.  But the success or effectiveness of this alternative approach depends on the concept of God on which it is based.  If we consider God as an extra-cosmic creator sitting in some remote heaven and creating or overseeing the Universe, it may not lead to any positive scientific results.  On the other hand if we conceive Man, God and Nature in the Indian spiritual perspective, then it can give an entirely new and higher orientation to modern science, ecology and environment.  In this Indian perspective God is the infinite, eternal and universal Consciousness which is the creative source of the Individual and Universe, Man and Nature.  He is the deepest and innermost Self of our own being and the universe and in which we can feel our unity with all creation.  Nature is the creative Energy of God and the source of all energies in the Individual and the universe—physical, psychological and spiritual.  Thus God in this conception is the spiritual Unity and Wholeness—Unity of Being, Unity of Consciousness and Unity of Energy—which sustains all creation.

The Integral Aim

This brings us to the aims of sustainable development.  The aim of modern environmentalism seems to be perfect attunement of the outer life of man with the ecological laws of physical nature.  This is a perfectly legitimate aim for the development of the material and economic life.  But is this the highest aim of human development or human consciousness? Why should the growth of human consciousness be tethered to the laws of physical Nature? The development of our consciousness, or in other words, our psychological and spiritual development, has to be in harmony with the laws or ecology of the higher non-physical and more conscious realms of Nature which may not follow the laws or ecology of physical Nature.

There may be a certain amount of correspondence between the laws of the various dimensions of Nature.  For as the ancient Vedic sages of India perceived there is an essential unity and correspondence between the laws of the different planes of existence.  In this Vedic conception, according to Sri Aurobindo “—it is one Law and Truth acting in all, but very differently formulated according to the medium in which the work proceeds and its dominant principle.  The same gods exists on all the planes and maintain a different aspect and mode of working and to ever wider results.” (9)  So a clear understanding of the laws of ecology of physical Nature provided by modern science, can throw some luminous clues for a better understanding of the laws of the supraphysical realms of Nature in the domains of consciousness.  But correspondence does not mean similarity and sameness.  Laws of consciousness and inner development of the human being in the realms of consciousness cannot be the same as that of physical Nature and outer development.

So an integral approach to sustainable development has to include not only the development of the outer life but also the development of consciousness.  And the development of consciousness has to be based, not on the ecology of physical nature but on the laws of psychology and the higher laws of the Spirit.  The environment and ecology movement has to carefully consider the following suggestion by Charles H. Townes, Nobel Laureate in Physics and the inventor of Laser:

“Understanding the universe, I think is somewhat parallel to our understanding of our relation with the Creator.  In this search for truth, it will be certainly beneficial if scientists can incorporate the spiritual principles in their scientific works.” (10)

When we undertake this deeper study with the same amount of scientific rectitude with which modern science has examined physical nature, we may perhaps find that moral and spiritual values discovered by the higher wisdom of humanity has the same significance as the laws of physical Nature discovered by modern scientific ecology.   Ethics and Spirituality are part of the inner ecology of our moral, psychological and spiritual nature or in other words the ecology of consciousness.  Just like the quality and sustainability of outer life depends on attunement with the ecology of physical nature, quality and sustainability of our inner life depends on attunement with the ecology of the psychological and spiritual dimensions of Nature.


  1. David Gardener and Paul R. Portney, Environment and Economic Growth, Resources of the Future, reproduced in SPAN, January, 1996.
  2. ibid.
  3. Alan Sasha Lithman, An Evolutionary Agenda for the Third Millenium, pp.173
  4. Sri Aurobindo, (1972) Collected Works, vol.15, Human Cycle, Puducherry, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, pp. 228.
  5.  Brown, Jackson, (2001), P.S. I Love You, New Delhi, BPB Publication pp.12.
  6. Singh. T, Vedanta and Science,  Savijnanam, Journal of Bhakthi-Vedanta Institute, Vol.1, 2002, p. 51-65
  7. Capra, Fritjof, (1995), ‘The Challenge’, Steering Business Towards Sustainability, ed: Fritjof Capra and Guntur Pauli, New Delhi, Response Books p.3, 6.
  8.  Josephson B.D, ‘Science and Religion: How to Make a Synthesis’ Seven Noble Laureates on Science and Spirituality, ed. T.D. Singh, New Delhi, Bhakthi Vedantha Institute, pp.15-21.
  9. Sri Aurobindo, (1972) Collected Works, vol.16, Supplement, Puducherry, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, pp. 228.
  10.  Townes C.H, Interview with T.D. Singh, Savijjnam, Journal of Bhakthi Vedantha Institute, vol.2, Dec 2003. p.1-16


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