Even that apple, however, is under threat. As a direct result of our insatiable appetite for consumption the earth’s environment, precisely tuned to support our species and millions of others, is under threat. The arguments and terrifying statistics are already well known, and there is little need to rehearse them here. Hamilton’s analysis is more concerned with the root of the problem, the philosophical and spiritual disconnect between humans and their natural environment. He writes: “Although its more obtuse adherents are prone to deny it, neoliberalism is based on a particular philosophy of value. Instrumental value theory maintains that, while humans are valuable in and of themselves, the non-human world is valuable only insofar as it contributes to the wellbeing of humans. Thus the natural world has only instrumental value.”16 Hamilton very briefly suggests that such a view is traceable back to the Judeo-Christian belief that the world was created by God in the service of mankind, and that fundamentalist adherents to this view see it as their divinely-ordained right to appropriate whatever resources they need from the natural world. (Unfortunately, he makes no reference to the equally valid, and equally Judeo-Christian view that, thought the earth may have been created for man, man was still created as a living, breathing, integral part of that creation, and that it is our duty to be custodians of the planet, and not to despoil it, for to do so is to mar God’s image as it is made manifest in the world, His creation just like us.) The end result is thus: “The agent acts on the physical world, which now consists of ‘resources’, in order to satisfy human desires. In no sense does rational economic man participate in the world. In contrast with other modes of self-awareness in which the world is fraught with meaning, the world is essentially dead.”17 Such a philosophy seems to be all that is left, the defining characteristic of our rapacious, growth-obsessed and progress-driven society.
Yet Hamilton believes there is hope, and it is this belief—whose presence is felt strongly throughout—that provides the book with its power. He describes the idea known as “transpersonal ecology”, a notion centred on the fact “that only the ego-involved, contracted self can imagine itself to be distinct from the natural world and that expansion of the self beyond the boundaries of the personal necessarily means that one’s awareness, and ground of concern, extends to the natural world. Mere moralising is not enough and can in fact be alienating to the public; the real task is to build not so much an environmental ethic but an ecological consciousness. Transpersonal ecology is a philosophical reassertion of ‘participating consciousness’ and therefore goes beyond mere rational appreciation of our relationship with the natural world. It holds promise of a transformation of personal identity as well as understanding because it poses the question: With what do I identify? Put as starkly as possible: Do I identify with the natural world in which I find myself or with a pair of Diesel jeans? Do I work for Saatchi and Saatchi or Greenpeace? These questions are being confronted by growing numbers of young citizens in post-scarcity societies.” 18
Once again, we find ourselves returning to what I believe to be Hamilton’s most central concern, the concern with identity. He quotes Richard Sennett’s fundamental question: “How can a human being develop a narrative of identity and life history in a society composed of episodes and fragments?”19 In part because of the decline of religious belief and practice, and the disintegration of traditional communities, both developments whose roots lie in the neoliberal economics of the Growth Fetish, modern lives in the developed world have become defined solely on the basis of consumption, as discussed above. Yet this is no authentic definition, as the model of consumption is one that is never stable, and is virtually guaranteed to bring about dissatisfaction and unhappiness: consumption has become, he writes, “an emotional habit in which the consumer is repeatedly trying to restore the tenuous bonds of self”.20 It is Hamilton’s hope that philosophies such as transpersonal ecology may yet become more powerful, as more and more of us become turned off to the prevailing way of thinking.