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Eden and the fall: The fallacies of radical ecological history

Buttsworth, Matthew (1999) Eden and the fall: The fallacies of radical ecological history. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Radical ecology claims to be a new movement at the cutting edge of social change offering a solution to current social and ecological problems through the rejection of reformist ecological politics in favour of a radical restructuring of industrial and especially Western society. The claim to have discovered the historical cause of current ecological and social problems plays a key role in validating this radical approach. Although numerous interpretations of the historical origins of existing social and ecological problems exist within radical ecology, three main variants have been identified. This thesis critically examines the three main variants of radical ecological history - the belief in primal harmony, the belief in the civilisation of the goddess and its destruction by a Kurgan invasion, and the view that the rise of capitalism and the mechanistic world view was responsible for the ecological and social crises of today. In so doing it also examines a number of key questions central to radical ecological history - when did violence and hierarchy begin in human history, is it possible to argue that today’s ecological crisis has a religious cause, and can the scientific, technological, and commercial revolutions be truly described as purely Western phenomena? The main findings of this thesis are that each of these variants of radical ecological history is chronically flawed. In addition to numerous empirical errors, each of these historical interpretations is based on an extremely simplistic, Eurocentric reading of the past based on the use of archetypal stereotypes of good and evil, that have little or no historical foundation.

While these interpretations of history vary profoundly, they are all based on the same underlying model of history whose origins lie in the Judeo-Christian apocalyptic tradition, and ultimately in Zoroastrianism. While some of the flaws of radical ecological history are a result of poor scholarship, it is argued that it is the use of this underlying apocalyptic model of history, which is the real cause of its chronically flawed nature.

The conclusion is therefore that radical ecology’s claim to have discovered the historical origins of today’s social and ecological crises is false, and that as a result its interpretations of the past cannot be used as a guide to how to act in the present. Any attempt to put their ideas into practice would lead to an ecological and social disaster. At a deeper level, the real danger represented by their ideas is the anti-rational, anti- Western tradition to which they belong. The link between the ecological and historical theories of Nazism and radical ecology is uncomfortably close. A more orthodox historical approach based on a detailed empirical, non-Eurocentric, non-apocalyptic examination of the origins of specific ecological and social problems would be a far better guide to what did happen in the past, and how to act in the present. Such an approach would support a reformist as distinct from a radical ecological movement.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Division of Social Sciences, Humanities and Education
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Phillimore, John
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