Towards Integral Sustainability—M.S. Srinivasan

Key Perspectives: dawn of deep ecology; neglected dimensions; ecology of  consciousness; integral aim.

The concept of Sustainable Development is now universally accepted by all development thinkers.  However in a more integral perspective, the present concept and vision of sustainability is not complete because it doesn’t include all the dimensions of human development.  Attunement with physical Nature, which is the aim of modern ecology, is not sufficient for integral sustainability.  There must be a similar attunement in the social, psychological and spiritual dimensions of human and terrestrial existence.  This article is a reappraisal of the concept of sustainability in the light of an integral spiritual vision.

Dawn of Deep Ecology

Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and for a long time, the process of development was equated with economic development powered by technological progress and measured purely in terms of economic indicators like Gross National Product or per capita income.  But the serious problems engendered by this one-sided vision of development in the ecological, social and psychological dimensions of life led to a radical rethinking among economic and development thinkers on the concept and aims of development.  This new generation of development thinkers, deeply influenced by the ecological and humanistic paradigms, started asking some crucial and relevant questions like for example, development of what and for whom? Whether techno-economic progress measured by economic indices has created a proportionate increase in the well-being and quality of life of people?

At present, it is universally recognized by all progressive thinkers that development means not merely economic development but human development or in other words development of the human being in all the dimensions of his individual and collective life¾economic, social, political, ecological and cultural.  But in the emerging trends of thought an increasing emphasis is being laid on ecology and environment.  For Man is only a part of the organic unity of the eco-system of Nature.  How can he “develop” in egoistic isolation of the biological and animal kingdom with which he is indivisibly interlinked? Thus came the concept of eco-development which means Man and Nature have to grow in symbiotic harmony with each other.  This new thought in ecology is sharply critical of the traditional anthropocentric and utilitarian view of environmentalism, which was dismissed as “shallow ecology” and considers its own view as “deep ecology”.  As Fritjof Capra explains the tenets of this new movement in ecology:

 ‘This broader and deeper sense of “ecological” is associated with a specific philosophical school— The philosophical school was founded by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in the early seventies with its distinction between ‘shallow’ and ‘deep’ ecology.  This distinction is now widely accepted as a very useful terminology for referring to a major division within contemporary environmental thought.  Shallow ecology is anthropocentric.  It views humans above or outside of nature, as the source of all value and ascribes only instrumental or use value to nature.  Deep ecology does not separate humans from the natural environment nor does it separate anything else from it.  It does not see the world as a collection of isolated objects, but rather as a network phenomenon that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent.  Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic values of all living beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life.  It recognizes that we are all embedded in, and dependent upon the cyclical process of Nature.”(1)

One of the central concepts of eco-development or deep ecology is the concept of sustainability or Sustainable Development.  Introduced by environmentalist, Lester Brown in 1981 and promoted ever since in the World Watch Institute’s annual reports, the idea has gained wide acceptance among the Green movement and in the emerging development debate.  To put in simple terms, sustainable development is defined as a path of development, which can meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of the future generation to meet their own needs.  The other aspect of sustainable development is renewability of resources, which means all the resources needed for development have to replenished.

 The Neglected Dimensions

From the integral perspective, the concept of deep ecology and sustainable development raises some 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 depend 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, emphasises 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 harmonise 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.” (2).

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.”(3).  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.

The 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?  Will it not be more logical as well as holistic to conceive consciousness as inherent in Nature and our consciousness is 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. (4).

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.” (5)  Similarly 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.” (6).

 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 eastern spiritual perspective, then it can give an entirely new and higher orientation to modern ecology and environment.  In this eastern 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.” (7)  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.’ (8)

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.


Capra, Fritjof, (1995), ‘The Challenge’, Steering Business Towards Sustainability, ed: Fritjof Capra and Guntur Pauli, New Delhi, Response Books p.3, 6.

  1. Sri Aurobindo, (1972) Collected Works, vol.15, Human Cycle, Puducherry, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, pp. 228.
  2. Brown, Jackson, (2001), P.S. I Love You,  New Delhi, BPB Publication pp.12
  3. Singh.T, ‘Vedanta and Science’, Savijjnam, Scientific Exploration of a Spiritual Paradigm, vol-1, 2002, p.51-65.
  4. Capra, Fritjof, (1995), ‘The Challenge’, Steering Business Towards Sustainability, ed: Fritjof Capra and Guntur Pauli, New Delhi, Response Books p.3,6.
  5. 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.
  6. Sri Aurobindo, (1972) Collected Works, vol.16, Supplement, Puducherry, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, pp. 228.
  7. Townes C.H, Interview with T.D. Singh, Savijnnam, Journal of Bhakthi-Vedandantha Institute, vol.2, Dec 2003. p.1-16

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