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A Cultural Odyssey from the Middle Ages to the New Age
By Jeremy Rifkin
New York: HarperCollins, 1992

Jeremy Rifkin is a persuasive writer and a fine synthesizer of cutting-edge ideas. Over the years he's taken on touchy subjects like the beef industry, energy consumption, green economics, and the future of work. As the president and founder of the Foundation on Economic Trends, he's also been active in shaping public policy on a variety of ecological and technological issues.

In this book, he explores how the last five centuries of human history have shaped our relationship to the natural world. It's a history that bears directly on some of our most serious environmental problems today, according to Rifkin.

The ideas here are not entirely original — Rifkin borrows freely from the work of a wide range of innovative thinkers, from Hazel Henderson and Vandana Shiva to Fritjof Capra and Charlene Spretnak. But the book is well-organized, convincingly argued, and a pleasure to read.

Rifkin uses the metaphor of "enclosure" to trace the development of contemporary culture and its flawed relationship to the biosphere. In the practice of enclosure, which began in England in the 15th century and continued intermittently into the 18th century, commons land was fenced in to provide sheep pasturage, and subsequently privatized to accommodate the new economy. Dispossessed peasants were deprived of their lands and relegated to abysmal urban lives of sickness and squalor.

Rifkin applies this metaphor to our modern world where the land, sea and air, the electromagnetic spectrum, outer space, and even the genes that program life itself, have become subject to manipulation, control and commercial exploitation. The "enclosure" of the natural world is an outgrowth, Rifkin believes, of a worldview that emerged from Enlightenment thought. Francis Bacon, John Locke, Rene Descartes, and other leading thinkers of the day, provided the philosophical justification for a separation of human life and the natural world.

With the Cartesian notion of the world as a giant clockwork mechanism, Bacon's emphasis on a new scientific neutrality that sought to objectify nature, and Locke's ideas on the utilitarian value of nature and material well-being as the key to human fulfillment, the groundwork for our modern Western paradigm was laid. It has led to a society bent on conquering and controlling nature and its resources, denying mortality, and engaging in a blind quest for security. Yet, as Rifkin writes, "questions of personal and national security, economic and military security, which have dominated the affairs of modern man and woman, have suddenly become dwarfed by the magnitude of environmental changes that threaten to alter the very biochemistry of our planet."

We therefore have no choice but to rethink our ways, Rifkin says. The issue is not recycling another bottle or can, or dropping one technological gadget or another, but completely refashioning our philosophy of life. "Saving our planet," he writes, "will require a fundamental change in our thinking about security and a new worldview that is more compatible with our species' awakening ecological consciousness." Revival of personal relationships with the natural world is the starting point for structural change and for saving the environment. But, ultimately, we must remake ourselves first, he says, and only then can we remake our world: "Today, the new thinking about security flows from the inside out."

Biosphere politics, which "envisions the earth as a living organism, and the human species as a partner and participant, dependent on the proper functioning of the biosphere and at the same time responsible for its well-being," seeks to unite democratic principles and a concern for the natural world in a modus operandi capable of healing the earth and securing a life for future generations.

Copyright 1998 by Scott London. All rights reserved.