Transdisciplinarity, Worldview Change, and the Planetary Ecological Crisis

Transdisciplinarity, Worldview Change, and the Planetary Ecological Crisis

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There are a number of issues raised by the assertion around which this year’s conference is organized: “the challenge of the 21st century will be to integrate or synthesize the outcomes of the exponential growth in human knowledge into meaningful wholes.” One issue concerns clarity of intent. If the yearning for transdisciplinarity and the unity of knowledge is about something as ambitious as “a chance to get the whole story of the whole cosmos for the whole person”, then we should call it what it appears to be: a desire for worldview change. This might entail articulating and enacting new answers to such questions as: (1) What kind of world is this? (2) How do we fit into the world and how did we come to be? (3) What is most of value in life and how is it to be achieved? (4) How can we develop a better world? (Maxwell, 1980, pp. 20).

Yet as we name this process and raise it into conscious awareness, we enter uncharted territory. Worldviews have certainly changed in the past, but there is no precedent for a civilization deliberately catalyzing such a shift from within. Indeed, there are good reasons to doubt whether this is even possible. Genuine worldview change is non-linear and may be entirely beyond our ability to manage or even predict. While we can articulate the principles of a successor worldview, if our desired new way of being is easily imagined, then it’s probably not a worldview change. It’s just our familiar framework extended into the future, in a linear fashion, with marginal adjustments designed to remedy perceived flaws. This leads to a second issue concerning motivation.

What compelling reason would drive more than just a few leisured members of the theory class to pursue transdisciplinarity and the unity of knowledge? What is the widely felt itch that would be scratched by this ambitious agenda? Though some of us are genuinely troubled by the split between science and religion and “a fracturing of knowledge, of culture, and of the soul”, these are far from universal concerns. To put it more directly, might it all amount to indulgent, grandiose, distracting talk at a time when we should be focusing instead on a much needed civilizational tune-up?

In this paper I argue that if transdisciplinarity and the unity of knowledge are ever realized, it will not be because they were pursued as ends in themselves. They will be the byproduct of worldview change that is rooted in our best scientific understanding of the planet and cosmos, driven by an urgent need to address the planet’s accelerating ecological crisis, and guided by a new civilizational vision in which our destiny is learning how to become responsible members of the community of life. A look at the history of worldview transition suggests that the present is ripe. There are signs that we are in the early stages of another long, slow period of change that could rival the shift from the medieval to the scientific-industrial. It would be nice to go home and watch it all unfold. Unfortunately, the looming planetary catastrophe is reason enough to attempt the unprecedented task of deliberately speeding up the process with transformative learning practices. Daniel Quinn writes, “During your lifetime, the people of our culture are going to figure out how to live sustainably on this planet – or they’re not. Either way, it’s certainly going to be extraordinary” (2007, p. 169). And if we do figure out how to live sustainably, it will not be an engineering feat. It will be because a critical number of people will have undergone a transformation of their worldview.

The most recent significant worldview transition, from the medieval to the modern scientific-industrial, flowed from a confluence of critical events and circumstances, and happened over a relatively long period of time. Notably, it was not consciously planned or managed. The European plagues of the Middle Ages are recognized as a major contributor to the breakup of the medieval “cognitive map” with a hierarchical class system – a ‘Great Chain of Being’ – governed by a God who rewarded the just and punished the wicked (Laszlo et al., 1996, p.91). The indiscriminate deaths of so many people – in some areas nearly half the population – shook the survivors’ frame of reference. The traditional way of understanding the world no longer made sense, for it was contradicted by reality in a most horrifying way. Even so, there probably would have been much less impetus for change if the rigid social structure had not already been crumbling when the plagues struck (Laszlo et al., 1996, p. 85). Though it took time for new possibilities to develop, eventually two distinct visions emerged, neither of which attributed any special meaning or intrinsic value to an evidently inhospitable planet. Cultural historian Thomas Berry explains it as follows:

In response to the plague and to other social disturbances of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, two directions of development can be identified—one toward a religious redemption out of the tragic world, the other toward greater control of the physical world to escape its pain and to increase its utility to human society. From these two tendencies the two dominant cultural communities of recent centuries were formed: the believing religious community and the secular community with its new scientific knowledge and its industrial powers of exploiting the natural world. (Berry, 1988, pp. 23-24)

These two orientations have survived to the present, but two factors enabled the rise and eventual supremacy of the latter worldview. First was a vision, Francis Bacon’s “promise to build an earthly utopia by harnessing the forces of nature to meet human needs.” Second were the discoveries and inventions that revealed the vision to be functional and viable. According to Laszlo et al., a critical case involved Copernicus and Galileo. Copernicus’s claim that the Earth was not the center of the universe was just a matter of one person’s ‘belief’ against another’s until Galileo’s telescope provided objective evidence that could settle the matter (Laszlo et al., 1996, pp. 97, 92). Still, writes Daniel C. Dennett (1995, p. 19), “It took over a century for the idea to sink in, a gradual and actually rather painless transformation.”

The lessons of this historical example are that for worldview change to be set in motion, deliberately or not, there must be a ripeness that includes motivating circumstances, a viable new vision, and evidence to support it. There must also be ample time, which is the crux of the challenge today. The ironic dignity of the scientific-industrial world is that it has provided overwhelming evidence that we are in the midst of a vast ecological crisis, the sixth great extinction. It has also provided predictive tools that give us a fairly clear picture of what the future holds if we do not quickly alter our trajectory. This knowledge has thus far been the primary motivator for the ecologically oriented action groups in their efforts to slow the damage, analyze causes, create alternatives, and urge us to a new relationship to the planet before a major collapse. There have been changes, but another lesson of the history is that a perceived or even actual disaster is probably insufficient. Today, the data are overwhelming, but as Nordhaus and Shellenberger (2004) correctly note, facts and arguments alone have not been sufficient to generate even relatively limited, short-range changes to prevent ecological catastrophe. A transition also requires significant energy in a new, inspiring direction. Today that means falling in love with a successor vision to Francis Bacon’s utopian dream, which has been realized and disastrously overshot.

Obviously, “transdisciplinarity”, the “unity of knowledge” and even “sustainability” are too narrow and too bland to function as inspiring civilizational visions, but there are other options. What they have in common is a vision of the future in which we realize our place as members of a single planetary community, and as conscious participants in the flourishing of life. Liberty Hyde Bailey (1915) prophetically spoke of “The New Hold”, Macy and Brown (1998) call it the “Great Turning”, Thomas Berry (1999) writes about “The Great Work”, and Daniel Quinn (2007) speaks of “The New Renaissance”. No matter what it is called, any transitional vision must be more than a strategic plan. It must have a narrative appeal that generates the kind of broad-based creative energy that yielded the scientific-industrial revolution. Yet to legitimize any successor narrative and distinguish it from subjective fantasy or mere dreaming, there would also need to be discoveries and/or evidence to support it, and time for it to “sink in”.

The fact is that the evidence supporting an emerging, evolutionary, non-dual, unitary vision of the cosmos has already been gathered, much of it within the last hundred years, some within the last 150 years and more. Laszlo et al. (1996) confirm that “The new physics and the new cosmology, and the new sciences of nature and complexity, elaborate and specify the vision of a self-evolving, dynamic, and essentially unified reality in which life and mind, and human beings and human societies, are no strangers or accidents but integral co-evolving elements” (p. 111). This evidence reinforces the philosophical principles proffered by Nordhaus and Shellenberger (2004), and the new cosmological vision articulated by Thomas Berry and others. The signal event in this process of discovery was the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s Origin of Species. It provided evidence and a strong argument for a particular mechanism of evolution, while igniting a still smoldering debate about how we fit into the world and how we came to be. The immediate aftermath was a widespread worldview level conversation that transcended disciplinary boundaries, engaging scientists, clergy, social thinkers, and much of the public.

The impact of the debate surrounding Darwinism was far-reaching, but the result of that intense public conversation was not worldview change. For several reasons, the time was not ripe. First, though there were indeed signs of environmental destruction from industrialism, it was comparatively less severe and there was no sense of imminent global catastrophe. Second, no genuinely alternative narrative had yet been formulated, in part because knowledge of the planet and universe were still sketchy at best. Third, evolutionary thought was easily assimilated into both communist and capitalist narratives. Marx gladly used Darwin to support a strictly materialist variation on the industrial theme, and capitalists re-defined “survival of the fittest” to suit their needs. Elisabet Sahtouris (2000) writes that:

the industrialists of Darwin’s England were in just such competition for survival with one another, so they readily adopted the new evolutionary theory as part of their worldview. These ever wealthier industrialists were not so ready to believe the news that they were cousins to the apes, but the idea that they were the fittest creatures in all nature seemed to make up for it (Sahtouris, 2000, p. 230)

Finally, there was no major change because unlike the Copernican revolution, which was assimilated relatively quickly and painlessly, the implications of Darwinism struck at the most sensitive, and ultimately most destructive, aspect of the controlling worldview. It was one thing to accept that the Earth was not located at the center of the known universe. It was quite another to accept a purely materialist, naturalist explanation of human origins and destiny — that humans are just another animal, not the focus of the cosmos, and perhaps not intended to have self-serving dominion of the planet. These ideas were and continue to be resisted, not because the evidence for them is weak – it is in fact overwhelming. Rather, writes Kenneth R. Miller (1999, p. 167), it is resisted by so many in the U.S. public because “of a well-founded belief that the concept of evolution is used routinely, in the intellectual sense, to justify and advance a philosophical worldview that they regard as hostile and even alien to their lives and values.” In other words – and this is a critical point – evolution is resisted by many reasonable and rational people because it has thus far been linked with an undesirable narrative or vision. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Dennett (1995) marvels that “today, more than a century after Darwin’s death, we still have not come to terms with its mind-boggling implications” (p. 19).

Today, the conditions that were largely absent in the post-Origin era are now present and have created an opportune ripeness. There is, sadly, an ongoing ecological crisis that will only worsen, an available new cosmology, and the discoveries and knowledge to support a vision in which humans are integral to the community of life. What remains undone is the successful, widespread assimilation of the new knowledge into a vision and cosmology that honors both science and spiritual-religious insights. Unfortunately, within the United States there appears to be little progress on this front. The situation remains polarized as mainstream science continues to advance a militantly reductionist and materialist worldview, while some communities still challenge the teaching of evolutionary theory.

Hope may be found in efforts to revive the kind of vibrant, difficult, important worldview-level conversation that characterized the years after publication of the Origin. The objectives of such a conversation might be: 1) greater general understanding of the new knowledge and its philosophical and spiritual-religious possibilities; 2) greater understanding of the means to begin the long, difficult process of growing into new narratives, a new consciousness, and new individual-social purposes, and; 3) continued formulation of ways of living and being that would be diverse but consistent with a new background narrative. In part, this is what the Metanexus Institute is accomplishing.

Yet as this year’s conference should make clear, there are obstacles that prevent such conversations from being more widespread. These are obstacles that have developed since the era after the Origin. In The Return to Cosmology, Stephen Toulmin (1982) argues that since the latter half of the 19th century, the structures, practices, and guiding attitudes of the scientific disciplines resulted in much aggregated knowledge, but it has been nobody’s job to integrate it into a meaningful “transdisciplinary” narrative:

All the questions that arose within particular scientific disciplines had corresponding groups of people whose professional task was to deal with them. By contrast, the integration of scientific results into an overall, transdisciplinary cosmology, and the theological interpretation of the resulting structure, were nobody’s disciplinary concern; and in an age marked by bureaucratic rationalization within all spheres of human activity, this soon came to mean that they were nobody’s professional task, either. (Toulmin, 1982, p.233)

And so while researchers in universities and other institutions have excelled at providing data within narrow disciplines, there has been a failure to systematically assess and disseminate the possible emergent meanings that transcend the sum of the parts. These are meanings that could eventually capture the interest of a public suspicious of evolutionary theory and of those who currently use it primarily as a weapon against religion. Toulmin (1982) captures the result of all this specialization by saying, “it was no longer the professional business of anybody in the sciences to think about “the Whole” – that is, to deal with those broader questions, about the overall interrelations between things of vastly different kinds, which had been a major concern of earlier cosmologies” (p. 237). There are few if any generalists who take responsibility for interpreting or making sense of the whole. The scholarship of integration, as Ernest Boyer (1990) has called it, has been left to those mostly on the margins.

Nicholas Maxwell has identified another difficulty related to specialization. He argues that since our answers to fundamental, worldview creating questions are always provisional, such questions should be part of problem-solving in all disciplines, all the time, not just when there is an imminent crisis. His provocative conclusion is that investigations disconnected from regular consideration of worldview assumptions are and have been irrational. Maxwell writes that:

If specialized puzzle-solving cuts itself off from all critical consideration of fundamental issues . . ., then such puzzle solving becomes irrational in the straightforward and basic sense that implicit, influential, and controversial assumptions are made which are permanently protected from critical assessment. (Maxwell, 1980, p. 42)

The academic culture of specialization has made it extremely difficult to generate regular, widespread conversations not only about trans-disciplinary meanings, but also about fundamental, worldview creating assumptions. In an effort to accelerate the process of worldview transition, there is a desperate need for the remedial work of restoring wholeness and rationality to the intellectual enterprise, and for individual models of how to operate in this way. What will motivate this process is the increasingly urgent need to recreate our ways of thinking and being so that we can stop and reverse industrial civilization’s assault on the life-systems of the planet.

What principles and practices might guide those who want to actively participate in accelerating worldview transition? First is an understanding that the movement for a life sustaining civilization is different from 20th century social movements because it is trying to do what has never been done before – deliberately and rapidly facilitate our transition into a new worldview. If one grants the necessity of intervening at the level of worldview – of deep assumptions and cultural narrative – it becomes apparent that even our best educational modes (environmental education, education for sustainability) lack the mythic vision and transformative practices needed to catalyze fundamental shifts. For me, the burning question is this: What kind of education will help us grow out of the mode of consciousness that sees itself as separate from the rest of the planet and universe, that perceives the natural world primarily in terms of use value, and that is driven by a self-defeating vision of consumption and total control of nature? The work of formulating answers to this question may eventually coalesce into a new transdisciplinary field, Education for Worldview Transition, that produces practices, experiences, and materials designed to facilitate a shift in consciousness. Such work would certainly go beyond what we do at conferences such as this. Even so, our best short-term strategy may be to generate fertile conversations at a time that appears to be auspicious.



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