An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Anthony Galli ( has a degree in psychology, with experience in mental health and education. He currently works for a non-profit corporation. His personal website can be accessed at:

Why We Need
an Integral

Anthony Galli

Lately, it seems, Hollywood has been embracing the idea that climate change is a compelling issue. 2004 saw the release of the popular thriller The Day After Tomorrow. While the movie was entertaining enough, the science was downright awful, perhaps reinforcing the stereotype that environmentalists are paranoid “gloom-and-doom” types little different from religious nuts convinced that the apocalypse is nigh. Worse, the plot implies that a disastrous shift in weather patterns is inevitable and all we can do is battle it out as best we can when it happens. At least it grabbed some attention. Last summer, former vice-president Al Gore's award-winning An Inconvenient Truth took it a step further by actually citing scientific evidence in his documentary. His gospel is more optimistic in the sense that it conveys that message that while time is running out, we still have a chance to redeem ourselves.

What is widely accepted by the majority of scientists studying this issue is that climate change is real, and most also believe it is, at least in part, due to human activity. [1] It's understandable why the environment doesn't get more attention, especially after 9/11. With threats such as WMD's, terrorism, Middle East destabilization, economic uncertainty, and the spread of epidemics, fuzzy bunnies and huggable trees don't seem like a priority. But the health of the eco-system, as well as our relationship to it, cannot be completely separated from any of these issues. While the idea of climate change is abstract, difficult to observe, especially within the context of every day life, and still faces a lot of resistance, there are concrete examples of environmental messes that are directly affecting our lives. It's ironic that solutions are rejected due to difficult life-style changes required of us, and yet the problems themselves are already changing our life-styles for the worse.

Take the Darfur genocide. Sudan's Khartoum government has an obvious record of callousness and racism, but what might be overlooked is that it was the after-effects of a drought that triggered the Darfur rebels to attack in the first place. Much of Africa is suffering to greater degrees due to over-grazing and desertification, and newly discovered aquifers will likely be tapped-out in a matter of decades. Water disputes have also affected the Middle East and South Asia. [2] While environmental problems are not usually a direct cause of social conflicts, they can certainly exacerbate them, especially as the population of the world continues to climb while available resources do not. It's not improbable that continued environment deterioration could facilitate another world war. [3] There is even speculation that the Pentagon takes the scenario seriously enough to draw up action-plans for just this possibility.

In debates about the environment there is often a false dichotomy presented, as though we must choose either what's good for humans or what's good for the rest of nature. Ecological devastation makes no such distinction, as we're all implicated in this fiasco. Countries with the most access to advanced technology, and which continue to consume the majority of the world's resources, are currently responsible for most of the damage, even though they are in the best position to make a difference. However, with India and China becoming major global players, they may eclipse the West in the next few decades in this capacity. Doubtless, few liberals would deny the right of poor countries to develop according to their own needs, but if current trends continue, it will be the poor countries themselves who will be the most hurt by the manner in which this development is taking place. [4] Not only are poor countries harmed by this, but also the poor within first world nations as well. [5]

Here are just three areas that warrant our attention.

Invasive species, both plant and animal, are a growing (literally) problem. Unlike toxic spills, which can theoretically be cleaned up in a once-over sweep, invasive species continue to reproduce and multiply. Invasives destroy native species properly adapted to the landscape, and along with other biological weapons, could provide an insidious form of bio-terrorism. In addition, they drain the world's economy, so far costing us hundreds of billions of dollars. [6]

The toxic by-products of energy production are an even more dangerous threat. Nuclear power plants, which are presumably cleaner than coal burning plants, create spent fuel rods that will remain radioactive for millions of years and must be stored as safely as possible. A crude nuclear bomb requires about 40-50 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, and a well-designed weapon only needs 12 kg of HEU or 4 kg of plutonium. The detonation of a “dirty bomb” requires even less fissile material. Keep in mind that there are more than 220 metric tones of plutonium stockpiled at civil reactors in Western Europe, Britain, the U.S., Russia, India, and Japan, and that tons of nuclear materials are located in poorly secured areas with outmoded guarding systems. [7]

The third area to look at is factory farming. The E.U.'s policies on farm subsidising have hurt small European farmers, as well as the economies of the developing world. [8] Industrialized agriculture in general is exposing the meat-eating public to serious health risks as well as polluting our air, land, and water.

All governments have a responsibility to maintain decent living standards for their citizens, but when it comes to the environment too many are failing on this front. Many signatories at the 1997 Kyoto Summit have not been able to live up to the protocol. The U.S., which is by far the largest emitter of CO2, along with Australia, wouldn't even ratify it, claiming that the treaty would hamper its businesses, even though environmental technology actually leads to innovations in industry. Another case in point is the failure of countries to meet The Millennium Development Goals, which were agreed upon by 191 UN member states in the year 2000. These benchmarks were not only eradicating poverty, war, and human rights abuses, but also included environmental sustainability as a much-desired goal. It is estimated that if these goals are not met by 2015: 30 million more children under the age of five will die from preventable causes, 350 million people will live without clean drinking water, and 650 million people will not have basic sanitation.

Toxic waste, massive soil erosion and deforestation, landslides, overpopulation, global warming; it is in our own best interest to take these phenomena seriously.


As anyone familiar with integral studies probably knows, a “holon,” a term coined by the philosopher Arthur Koestler, refers to a state of being in which a phenomenon is a whole unto itself and simultaneously part of a greater system. Holons (whole-parts) are the basic unit of the Kosmos according to integral thought, and are arranged in hierarchical pattern, also known as a “hol-archy.” Without going into the complex nuances of organizational structures (heterarchy, heaps, artifacts, etc.) it is worth mentioning how this concept relates to the status we assign to the realm of sensibilia.

To the best of my knowledge, Ken Wilber's current ontological position is a post-modern version of the traditional great-chain-of-being (post-metaphysical, or post post-modernism). In this view, matter is the outer complement to every inner aspect of the holarchy and cannot be dismissed as the “lowest” and least important realm.

In light of this position, there is nothing “flatland” about taking decisive action on the environment. What I have trouble comprehending is Wilber's reaction to Gore's film on Integral Naked. I agree that science-fiction writer Michael Crichton makes a valid point that we only have a little more than a century of data to conclude from, accurately at least. It is also true that climate scientists have taken this into account and have constructed sophisticated models that are surprisingly accurate. Those who dismiss global warming out of hand as some conspiracy tend to cherry-pick data from a few dissenting scientists to confirm their skepticism. Yes, the minority is not always wrong, and the majority is not always right, but it does say something if one deliberately ignores what most have to say about this issue who are qualified to say it. This strikes me as a nothing more than a rationalization for the denials and hesitations from U.S. policy-makers in the past, with the current Bush administration being the most pernicious example. And how does the charge that environmentalism is a “new religion” constitute a substantive critique? Wasn't the whole reason for creating the Integral Institute to lay foundations for an “institutionalized spirituality,” hence religion, based on Wilber's philosophy? (I'll get into the issue religion further down).

Granted, I have no knowledge of what II's Integral Ecology founder Sean Hargins has had to say about all this. My sense is that right now the general stance of the II is to focus mostly on inner work while adopting center-right political positions due to the fear that naïve “green meme” activists will ruin the whole integral enterprise, with their deconstruction of values and supposed sympathy with terrorists.

The only prior statement I've seen from Wilber regarding the environment was posted on the Shambhala Publications website in 1997, in response to reviewer Marshall Glickman, who himself was responding to a quote from the book A Brief History of Everything.

“And the only way we can do that [get more people to see the eco-crisis and act on it] is by developmental evolution of consciousness from egocentric to sociocentric to worldcentric (or global) modes. From that global perspective, the crisis can much more easily be seen, and thus a consensus on emergency action will start to form around that collective and mutually-agreed-upon perception.”

This may be true enough. The problem is that when, or if, the world reaches the point where a moral critical mass is attained in which a sufficient number of people are able to automatically recognize these problems and care enough to solve them, it may be too late. We need to find ways to inform people in the meantime, according to whatever level of understanding and concern they're capable. If this means appealing to people's selfish fears, so be it. It's worth pointing out that Wilber also wrote that problems in the noosphere are Gaia's main problem, not its only problem. He also added that “a thousand other things need to be done.”

The UL quadrant (individual-interior awareness) is not the only factor to take into consideration for environmentalism, though it is important. While environmentalists too often ignore the left side of the quadrants, if they even subscribe to such an idea, it's clear that the right side is now being neglected. An integral environmentalism is directly related to an integral economics, integral business, and integral politics.

It can be bewildering for individuals to decide what specific course of action to take. [9] In my opinion, there are at least four ways we can make a direct impact. First and foremost is dietary. There are many dietary alternatives available that run the gamut from radical to moderate changes in life-style, such as raw foods, lacto-vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic, whole foods, Ornish, etc. Even adopting a genuinely kosher or hilal diet, or simply reducing excessive red meat intake would have a considerable effect on both our health and, in a more relevant sense, given the context of this paragraph, heinous industrial practices. Thus, the second factor to take into account is consumerism itself. While it creates jobs and saves us money, unfortunately, the implementation of recycling programs has barely made a dent on the mass heaps of garbage piling up every day; it does nothing to stem the tide of mindless consuming and also requires additional gas guzzling transportation. What needs to happen is for people to simply buy less unnecessary disposable items, and we must definitely alter our patterns of gas/oil consumption. We need to vote with our pocketbooks and buy from, and invest in, eco-friendly companies. Along with prudent purchasing, citizens of democratic societies must donate to candidates who have a proven track-record of supporting: subsidies to eco-friendly companies and technologies, particularly in the energy and transportation sectors, protective environmental regulation, the scientific consensus on climate change and other issues. Lastly, as I've already pointed out, we need to effectively inform people on the environment.

The Role of Religion

As is true of all social institutions, religion can sometimes make things worse. The Abrahamic faiths can be detrimental if the theology puts too much stress on God's, and by proxy human, superiority to the physical world. The highest power of the universe did not give us the earth as a toy to play with, and the revealed books make it clear that humans have a caretaker role and cannot abuse this position. Dharmic paths, or various forms of Gnostic thought, can be detrimental if too much focus is put on a Higher Reality uninvolved or unconcerned with the mundane. While manifestation may be illusory, and it is a mistake to get lost in it, this does not necessarily mean we should ignore how we act within it. It cannot be denied that humans have unprecedented control over the eco-system. As this is the situation we currently find ourselves in, we must manage the earth wisely and cannot just abdicate this responsibility. Ironically, even indigenous forms of religion, practiced by peoples most in harmony with the natural rhythms of the eco-system, can be a potential danger if modern science is rejected and unworkable forms of subsistence continued (which is true of all religions).

It's not necessary for environmentalists to work against religion, nor to promote one religion or another. Rather, it's crucial to isolate beliefs in the LL (noosphere) which enable people to deny or ignore the problem and instead advocate ideals and practices which support environmental objectives. There are many promising examples. The Engaged Buddhism movement has convincingly included ecological sustainability as a key facet of Buddha-Dharma. Neo-pagans, whose religions revere the natural world, often include environmental action as part of their practice. Aboriginal peoples in the Americas, Africa, and Asia can obviously link the destruction of their sacred lands with their overall human rights struggle. The National Religious Partnership for the Environment has done important grassroots work with synagogues, local church groups, and Catholic Bishops in the U.S.

Of course, some religious thinkers will point out that from an eschatological point of view, the world won't last forever, so any desire to extend existence indefinitely will only lead to frustration, merely postponing the inevitable (astrophysicists themselves believe the universe will eventually collapse into a big blow or a big crunch). This notion implies that the world does not have ultimate significance independent of spiritual concerns. That the manifest realm is impermanent is just common-sense and requires no great leap of faith. But wisdom traditions and sages are largely in agreement that there are moral consequences for participating in the destruction of sentient beings. Whether spiritual practitioners like it or not, sentient beings are indeed in the realm of samsara, the world of ten thousand things, prakriti, the world of action, the kingdom of earth. It matters.


[1] Joint Statement of Science Academies:

[2] Mirza, M. Monirul Qader, Ahmad. Q.K. Climate Change and Water Resources in South Asia

[3] Brown, Seyom Causes and Prevention of War

[4] Klaus Töpfer, Klaus, United Nations Environment Programme Global Environment Outlook 3

[5] “Attack of the Alien Invaders,” McGrath, Susan National Geographic Magazine, March 2005

[6] Union of Concerned Scientists report on nuclear storage: [7] Monbiot, George original article printed in The Guardian

[8] Witteveen, Dr. H.J. Sufism in Action: Achievement, Inspiration, and Integrity in a Tough World

[9] Brower, Michael, Leon, Warren The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists

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