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SEPARATING AND REINTEGRATING

Prince Charles wants to do this in a contemporary way – to find as many possible ways of reintegrating traditional wisdom with the best of what we can do now so as to demonstrate how we make this age fit for a sustainable future. So what are the timeless principles that apply today? Nutrients in soils are recycled, rain is generated by forests, and life is sustained by the annual cycles of death and rebirth. Every dead animal becomes food for other organisms. Rotting and decaying twigs and leaves enrich soils and enable plants to grow, while animal waste is processed by microbes and fungi that transform into yet more vital nutrients. And so nature replaces and replenishes herself in a completely efficient manner, all without creating piles of waste. No single aspect of the natural world runs out of proportion with others – or at least not for long.

What is more, nature embraces diversity. The result is a complex web made up of many forms of life (8). For this web to work best there is a tendency toward variety and away from uniformity and, crucially, no one element can survive long in isolation.

There is a deep mutual interdependence within the system which is active at all levels, sustaining the individual components so that the great diversity of life can flourish within the controlling limits of the whole. In this way, nature is rooted in wholeness. The other principle or quality that Prince Charles draws our attention to is beauty. Our ability to see beauty in nature is entirely consequential on our being a part of nature herself. In other words, nature is the source, not us. If we ignore beauty we neglect a vital ingredient in the well-being of the world. Moreover, we have a tendency in the West to emphasize linear thinking rather than seeing the world in terms of cycles, loops and systems, and the intention to master nature and control her, rather than act in partnership. Our ambition is to seek ever more specialized knowledge rather than take a broad or holistic view.

In what Prince Charles call this Age of Disconnection we have systematically severed ourselves from nature and the importance to us of her processes and cyclical economy. As a result we are beginning to fall seriously out of joint with the natural order. And there is order. Whether we choose to be part of the process or not, everything in truth depends on everything else. Whether it is the bee to the flower, the bird to the fruit tree, or the man to the soil, we depend on them all – and we neglect this simple principle at our peril. It stands to reason – take away the bee and there is no flower; without the bird there will be no fruit; deplete the soil and soon people will starve.

Moreover, just as natural species, once lost, cannot be re-created in test tubes, so traditional, so-called "perennial" wisdom, once lost, cannot be reinvented. This is the real damage being done by our disconnection, which is fast becoming all but complete in the modern world, all the while proving that the great experiment to stand apart from the rest of creation has failed. This is why Prince Charles has argued for so long that we need to escape the straightjacket of the modernist world view. For modernism deliberately abstracted nature and glamorized convenience and this is why we have ended up seeing the natural world as some kind of gigantic production system seemingly capable of ever-increasing outputs for our benefit. We have become semidetached bystanders, empirically correct spectators, rather than what the ancients understood us to be, participants in creation.

In the 21st century then, we desperately need an alternative vision that can meet the challenges of the future. It will certainly be a future where food production and its distribution will have to happen more locally; where the car will become more subordinated to the needs of the pedestrian; where our economy will have to operate on a far less generous supply of raw materials and natural resources. But it could also be one where the character of our built environments once more reflects the harmonious, universal principles of which we are an integral part. If our goal is to re-establish our rightful relationship with nature and pull back from the brink of catastrophe, we will need to remind ourselves of the essential grammar of harmony – a grammar of which humanity should always be the measure. What inhibits us from such is that we live in an age of disconnection.

Slowly but surely, in the 17th century in Europe, God began to be defined as something that lay outside of creation and was separate from nature, and, as that happened, so nature itself came to be seen more and more as an unpredictable force, something likely to be unruly, without inherent order and capable of going its own, sometimes dark way. The first evidence of this intriguing shift in fact comes in the way education began to break apart. Aquinas' approach to learning at the University of Paris had been the traditional, classical one, which aimed to arrive at an integrated knowledge of reality as a whole – one that was apparent in the outside world, but had its roots on the inner level. In other worlds, it incorporated what was known scientifically or empirically with what was understood philosophically and also sensed spiritually. But this fundamental shift began to take hold, so each discipline began to take its own separate course, and so the integration of scholarship ceased to be the central aim of learning. In time it framed the outlook that allowed science to make its clean break from religion and forge ahead toward modernity. It effectively shattered the organic unity of reality, which could be traced back to Plato and Pythagoras and, before them, the Ancient Egyptians and the start of the Vedic tradition in India. At the heart of things, within a very short space of time, that all-important, timeless principle of participation in the "being" of things was eliminated from mainstream Western thinking. Or, to put it more graphically, with God separate from his Creation, humanity likewise became separate from Nature.

In the social sciences, moreover, for the French 18th-century political philosopher Rousseau, for example, society existed to defend against threats and dangers, not for the attainment of the universal good. This was not the view of human nature taken by the great thinkers of Greece and Rome. Figures like Plato and Aristotle did not believe human nature was fundamentally savage. They held that it inclined toward the good and true. It had not been the plan, then, but Western thought, and outlook, were laying the foundations for our present Age of Disconnection.

 
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