Industrialism exists in a moral universe that forbids we speak its name. In an industrial world, waste and effluents, social dislocation and misery and the destruction and degradation of ecosystems, species and communities are accepted as the necessary consequences of the power, profits and surpluses that industrialism confers and the cornucopia of products it disgorges. This is called progress. The consequences are dismissed as externalities, unrecorded, uncounted in the market as if they were somehow unrelated to industrial production and consumption and its maximization.

This is true for capitalism. This is true for communism. Yet industrialism, its ideology and its destructive cult of progress remain largely unexamined.

In fact, dislocation and disturbance of all aspects of ecosystems and communities are not just unfortunate consequences of industrialism, but essential concomitants that allow and facilitate industrial activity. Strangely blind to the cause, we bemoan the consequences. We focus on the crises of lost ozone, dying species, mammoth hurricanes and melting ice caps and ignore the underlying forces and choices which contributed to them.

We are afflicted by “progress” that you “can’t stop”. We are abused by that particularly malevolent corporation or this bad boss or that corrupt official.

To challenge industrialism is to be labeled a machine smashing Luddite or hopeless romantic primitive. To critique industrialism is to be pilloried as being against science and reason. To call for fundamental change, as global ecological catastrophe gathers, is to be told “there is no alternative” to business as usual. Of course, there are alternatives. We moved from an agrarian to an industrial world. We can move from an industrial to an ecological world. Industrial self-destruction is an unrealistic path. The movement from an industrial to ecological civilization is the practical pursuit of peace and sustainable prosperity.

Industrialism continues to colonize and exploit our souls and lay waste to the land, water, and sky. Industrialism, as the only alternative, obtains our consent and provides pleasures and rewards for the many millions of the lucky and dutiful participants of the consuming classes, albeit amidst widespread agonies and profound losses. Industrialism offers outlets for our creativity and entrepreneurship, our invention and our charity. All is permitted—if we accept industrial rules as participants.

The ideology of industrialism rests upon an ideological steel triangle composed of three dynamic elements that support the endless maximization of production and consumption: Technique encompasses science, technology and the applications of reason; Hierarchy offers fungible orders of power accessible to the talented, the fortunate, and the ruthless, supported by doctrines of law and obedience to industrial ends; Progress is a cult that justifies industrial change as good and its consequences acceptable.

Industrialism is, in a sense, a product of its own internal logic. Industrialism is, in the terms of anthropologist Claude Lévi Strauss, the grand expression of oppositional thought, the raw and the cooked, placed at the service of technique, hierarchy and progress. Industrialism is one particular, an ultimately self-destructive manifestation of a world of “A and not A” based on a relentless reductionism, a science that misses the forest for the trees.

The ecological successor to industrialism, in contrast, entertains the prospects of a world of “both A and B”, a world of freedom and community, of the one and the many, all within the context of embracing the biosphere. This is the expression of sustainability, of a mindful harmony where democracy serves the equilibrating function among the one and the many and the biosphere. Describing Gaian Buddhism, Elizabeth Robert writes, “It may be more appropriate to think of ourselves as a mode of being of the Earth, than a separate creature living on the Earth. Earth does not belong to us. It is us.”

Industrialism proudly and morally justifies its conduct through the practice of its self-justifying utilitarianism, the pursuit of a supposed greater good for the greatest number. This is a blinkered industrial utilitarianism predicated on counting only the “goods” in a peculiar fashion, that is, considering only the monetary value of the production and consumption that industrialism is designed to maximize and ignoring the “bads” of ecological destruction and human misery and never allowing them to be accurately accounted for and placed upon the scales of judgment.

Industrialism provides us with the reflexive “common sense” and the ethics and morality that permit our participation and consent to pillage to co-exist with our high-minded judgment of our intentions and moral conduct. Typically, we do our jobs to provide for our families and meet humanity’s needs. Our conduct is moral. Our operations are in accord with all pollution regulations and requirements.

Industrialism is not simply a crime committed by them. Industrialism rests upon our consent and enthusiastic participation in the maximization of production and consumption. More, the unnuanced more is always better. The GNP value of cancer treatment, a consequence of peripatetic industrial toxins, is still counted dollar for dollar as if it has the same value as education. Both are services.

Industrial civilization has proven to be the great consumer, not only of goods, the earth’s material substance turned to products, effluent, and waste but of human culture and values. Industrial expansion is graced by the universal imperative of progress that conflates growth of almost any kind with goodness. The tools for progress are science and industrial techniques placed at the service of ruling hierarchies. This has been true of industrialism’s capitalist and socialist manifestations.

The usually unspoken supposition of industrialism was that the incredible productive power of our machines has essentially resolved the material problem, and we are left with issues of fair distribution and enjoyment of our bounty. In fact, the application of industrial methods has created new physical threats not only to our comfort but to our civilization and perhaps to the existence of our species.

Thus, our ethics in the 21st century must be conditioned to address this tripartite interaction and feedback between freedom and community and ecosphere – between individual and the group and the living world. We must value and protect the freedom and rights of individuals. But we must do so in the context of a more complex system where the community is both guarantor of freedom as well as a potential fetter, and the ecosphere is the fundamental basis for freedom and community and where actions in any of the three spheres affect the nature and well being of the whole. It is democratic action to establish social policies for sustainability that manifests new ecological ethics in social practice and a common sense of what now is right.

Ecological ethics and new common sense can help us begin practically answering the question posed in many forms, “How can we be prosperous without being self-destructive?” Followed by a corollary question implied by the first, “How can we make economic growth mean ecological improvement, not ecological destruction?” This is not a Zen koan, or riddle, such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

There is, in fact, no necessary equivalence between prosperity and self-destruction, and between economic growth and ecological pillage. Economic growth need means neither ecological pillage nor injustice. There is, for instance, no practical limit on the trade of information in cyberspace powered by renewable energy resources. And if this can be true in a high-profit information-based economy, why can’t it be true for other more material pursuits, particularly if we need to and try to make it so? This is sustainability in action.

Instead of self-evident enduring truth, to identify economic growth with ecological destruction is a category error confusing the quality of economic growth with its quantity. It’s a matter of not distinguishing between self-destructive growth in an industrial market and sustainable growth in an ecological market.

And if this supposed verity, always connecting growth with ecological degradation, is not true, and need not be true, then we are called upon both to more carefully examine our assumptions and recognize that fundamentally what’s at stake is the nature and quality of our actions and their consequences.

The self-destructive proclivities of industrialism paradoxically came from the exercise of autonomy and of the reason for industrial ends which were focused on the limitless maximization of production and consumption typically with little or no regard for their negative consequences. In the 21st century, our virtuous industrial moral order graces things with inherent trappings of good or bad, and where prosperity, or lack thereof, is the epiphenomena of virtue, or its lack, seems to be running into trouble. Erecting our shining city upon the hill has polluted the aquifer, destroyed the forest habitat, and changed the climate.

Sometimes the market, instead of the realm of freedom and prosperity, leads us down the path of self-destruction. Fifty SUVs are an interesting oddity. 500 million gasoline-powered SUVs are a plague.

Rawls, Nozick and industrial ethics

In an ecological civilization, ethics, values, and morality must address questions that transcend typical modernist ethical judgments that were wrought, often with compelling philosophical legerdemain, upon the forge of industrial fire. These are applied to our conduct within the context of an industrial world of “A and not A”. Thus we were offered two classic and prescient books in the early 1970s, John Rawls’ liberal treatise, A Theory of Justice (1971), parsing justice as fairness, and Robert Nozick’s property-friendly, anarchic libertarianism, Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). These books represent a classic philosophical confrontation, largely academic and obscure in the 1970s, now played out between liberals and conservatives in the everyday politics of modern America in ideological conflicts over the role of government and the market.

It should be no surprise that these singular works of Rawls and Nozick are compatible with the core conduct of industrial business, as usual, that is the maximization of production and consumption. Their books were written at what, in retrospect, was the high water mark of the American empire and industrialism.

Rawl’s and Nozick’s efforts reflect those times of muscular American power and confident imagination. These are works of logical philosophical reasoning and imagining. Self-doubting deconstructionism, soon to be fashionable, is nowhere to be seen.

The central issue for classically liberal Rawls is, “How should the fruits of industrial production be distributed?” For Rawls, the answer is fairly. For libertarian Nozick, the question is, “What limits, if any, shall be placed upon the free association and actions of individuals by the impositions of the state?” For Nozick, the answer is ideally none, and, in practice, only minimally.

Both Rawls and Nozick embrace a world of logical and cogitating individuals who make careful calculations leading to decisions and agreements that determine the good life. People attempt to construct, through these agreements, the best of all possible worlds that logically follows if free individuals are given the opportunities to make such decisions.

The underlying problem is not so much what these books say, but what they do not entertain—the question of sustainability and the unanticipated consequences of otherwise lawful, proper, and even well-intentioned industrial activity.

In the 21st century, more than 50 years after A Theory of Justice, the central importance of the relationship between the individual, group and the living world should be unmistakably clear as a liberal, industrial free market industrial society moves toward self-destruction. Both Rawls and Nozick did not adequately consider the community, under unremitting assault from industrialism, and focused their attention upon the individual as if the two could be separated.

In Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (which Nozick calls “a powerful, deep, subtle, wide-ranging systematic work in political and moral philosophy which has not seen its like since the writings of John Stewart Mill”) community is nowhere to be found in the index. It’s not that community is unimportant for Rawls. For Rawls, the importance of community is subsumed within democracy’s underlying constitutional framework.

Community and collective action as inextricably connected with the exercise of justice is not central for Rawls, let alone the interconnection between the individual, group and the living world.

As Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia proceeds to critique Rawl’s embrace of distributive justice, he begins with a thought experiment. “Let us imagine n individuals who do not cooperate together and who live solely by their own efforts…” He then continues with a complex and robust discussion of individual efforts, entitlements, the validity of voluntary market mechanisms and their relationship to cooperation and distributive justice.

The philosopher’s point of departure is an impossible world where cooperation is voluntary, not an inescapable part of human social existence. And it is a similarly impossible world where concepts of distributive justice (whether mediated by market exchange or social distribution) and the good do not rest upon the healthy sustainable relationship between the individual, group, and living world. We are social. Our communities are inseparable from the biosphere.

We are not isolated individuals, anonymous wielders of instrumental logic, living apart from this earth. We are a part of the biosphere. We are both A and B. We are individuals and one of the many.

It is profoundly ironic that the exercise of industrial freedom today is endangering industrial civilization and perhaps courting human extinction by ever-so-slightly upsetting the carbon dioxide balance of the biosphere through our relentless extraction and burning of carbon from ancient plants. We can no more be separated from the biosphere and the embracing atmosphere whose nature and homeostatic maintenance is a central expression of life than a fish can separate itself from the ocean and from oxygen. But unlike a fish suddenly out of the water, we take the air as a given to be abused with impunity.

Community is of central concern for Nozick for whom the state is anathema. But this is community, in his utopian vision, as the logical contractarian creation of individuals mediated, if at all, by a minimal state. Collective action has little valence as a force for Nozick, save as a mechanism for the exercise of individual freedom of consenting individuals and its protection from the impositions imposed by the state and community. Rawls and Nozick embrace a rational world that doesn’t entertain emotion and passion. The power of crowds and sexual attraction, the nationalism, patriotism, racism, and industrialism and the history and social dynamics that brought them, and the accelerating ecological crisis does not stand in the way of the philosopher’s self-assertion of the primacy of reason and the logic guiding social contract theory.

Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison in their forthcoming book Terminal Philosophy Syndrome – Ecology and the Imponderable note that “Climate change gives us a current and plentiful rationale for trying to come to terms with what is, quintessentially, a human-born crisis, a philosophical chasm.” Taking steps to slash greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate global climate catastrophe is the ethical issue of our times. It’s time for us to understand the epochal crisis and to act.


Elizabeth Roberts, “Gaian Buddhism” in Allan Hunt Binder, ed., 1990. Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology. Berkley, CA: Parallax Press. Page 148.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1969. The Raw and the Cooked (Mythologiques). John and Doreen Weightman are translators from French. New York Harper and Row Inc.
For further discussion of the ideology of industrialism see “Industrialism and Myth and Machine" in Morrison, 1990. Ecological Democracy. Boston: South End Press. pp. 25-43.
John Rawls, 1971. A Theory of Justice. Harvard.
Robert Nozick, 1974. Anarchy, State and Utopia. N.Y.: Basic Books.