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Context and Belonging

Andrée Mathieu

Andrée Mathieu est chargée de cours à la maîtrise en gestion et développement durable à l'Université de Sherbrooke.

Many scientists have described the feelings of emptiness and alienation evoked in them by the modern conception of the world. No one has expressed it better than celebrated physicist Erwin Schrœdinger: “The scientific picture of the world that surrounds me is quite deficient. It obtains a great deal of information based on facts, and it organizes all our experience into a marvellously logical order, but it maintains a spectacular silence about everything that really matters to us. The scientific picture of the world tells us nothing about red and blue, bitter and sweet, pain and pleasure: it knows nothing of beauty and ugliness, of good and bad, of God and eternity.”[1]


The defect of modern science rests not only in the way it is used, but in its objectives and in its very conception. While at the time of Aristotle, the goal of knowledge was to identify where things properly belonged in the universal order, modern science only values knowledge that enables us to make predictions and gives us the power to manipulate nature. Swedish physician Hakan Snellman, of Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology, suggests that responsibility be adopted as the new objective of knowledge: “To choose power implies in the end that we cut ourselves off from higher influences and let everything emerge from ourselves”. (On the other hand,) to choose responsibility means that we try to attune ourselves to a higher will and try to co-operate with it.” [2] We often hear it said: “We must re-establish the bond between humanity and nature,” as if this connection were the fruit of human initiative. But the bond between people and nature does not have to be restored, because it exists with or without our will. Whether we are conscious of it or not, human beings and nature have a common destiny. We may ignore it, but this interdependence of our fates will not disappear because we do. It is this very interdependence which generates the ethic of responsibility which must, now more than ever before, bind us to one another.

For Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski, “to be human means to integrate responsibility into one’s life,” that is, to become aware of the relationships that we have with the living world and with the cosmos, and to act accordingly. In his essay titled “Eco-philosophy and Eco-theology” (Éco‑philosophie et éco‑théologie)[3], he places the human adventure within the context of evolution: “Our unique character does not come from our separation from everything else, nor from the pretention “that we are the measure of all things and rightfully so,” as the classical humanists affirmed, but rather from the fact that we possess characteristics carefully worked out by life, and that we are the guardians of the treasure of evolution. (…) When human beings appeared, the universe was experiencing a process of continual transcendence that we must carry on (…) The development of life is incomprehensible if we do not recognize that, whatever the level of our achievement, transcendence is the very nature of life. (…) To gain a heightened sense of responsibility, we must acquire a heightened sense of the cosmos and find our place in its breast.”

Physicist Fritjof Capra attributes the sense of belonging, which gives meaning to life, to the human experience of this sense of cosmic context. [4] Awareness of this context has been removed from the world by the criteria of truth accepted by scientific knowledge, especially the principle of localization, which stipulates that all relationships of cause and effect may be found within a confined boundary of time and space. Because it concentrates our attention on a part rather than on the whole, the criteria of localization introduces a distortion incompatible with a global vision of the world, for life is nothing other than a fabric of relationships. Against the crises that we can foresee, it is urgent to provide humanity with a new paradigm that will adapt scientific knowledge to the complexity of the world.

In short, nature has become, for modern science, no more than a resource to be exploited in the service of satisfying our desires, which far outnumber our needs. Moreover, because they are unpredictable, human feelings and the exercise of free will have been excluded from the scientific description of the world. We must restore to science its “patent of nobility” by setting new objectives reflecting what we are: beings capable of love, respect, attention, and consideration. The integration of responsibility in our life presupposes the awareness that we belong to a community that includes not only human beings but, equally, the other living creatures and all the elements of the biosphere. Guided by an ecological perception of the global community and of the interdependence of all things, every ethic of responsibility must consider future generations. Beyond the foundations of what we call “equity” or “intergenerational justice,” philosopher Hans Jonas has proposed a new moral imperative that he describes in this way: “Act in such a way that the effects of your action are compatible with enduring and authentic human life on Earth.” [5]
The principle of intergenerational justice has given birth to the notion of sustainable development, which the Bruntland Commission defined using the following well-known formula: “A development that responds to current needs without compromising the capacity of future generations to respond to their own.” The images and symbols are very important to a clear understanding of the concepts which they illustrate. You will no doubt recognize the Venn diagram below, in which sustainable development is found at the intersection of three circles representing the economy, the environment, and society:

This model is widely used in Québec, notably at the heart of the Ministry of Sustainable, Development, Environment, and Parks (MDDEP). I have some serious reservations with this representation of reality, because it may lead one to believe that some aspects of economic activity take place apart from society, or that some part of society lies outside of the environment. My doubt is surely shared by French economist René Passet and by California physicist, Frijtof Capra, since they have suggested that sustainable development might better be represented by three concentric circles, to which the Maori of New Zealand add a fourth, representing culture:


In this diagram, one can see that the economy is a sub-system of society, which itself is part of a culture inscribed on a particular territory. These four concentric circles make up the context of human experience, which generates a feeling of belonging and gives meaning to life.

The context that gives us a sense of belonging is, first of all, ecological. It must be expressed in systemic terms, i.e., described in terms of relationships. In a systemic vision of the world, we are no longer alienated. We belong to a whole. Not only are we part of and dependent on nature, but we share many fundamental characteristics. Frijtof Capra puts it very well: “We are members of oikos, the Earth Household; and when you are a member of a household, you behave in certain ways. How do we need to behave as members of the Earth Household? Well, we need to behave like the other members of the household (i.e., the other living beings) who (…) sustain, and even enrich and diversify, the patterns of relationships in the web of life. This is what is meant by ecological sustainability.” [6]

Culture: The context to which we belong is also cultural. If we feel included in or touched by the context of a phenomenon or an idea, we find meaning within it. The sense of belonging includes, therefore, an emotional dimension. Thus, two people may intellectually understand a certain context, but it is possible that only one of the two will find any meaning within it. Deep meaning is subjective and, often, it can only be shared within the same culture. Meaning springs from belonging to a community. Mathieu Bock-Côté expresses it remarkably well in his book La dénationalisation tranquille (The Quiet De-nationalization)[7] “A true nation cannot be built without a collective awareness extending beyond a self-sufficient present, without a historical awareness that seems to come from some distance. This gives to the nation the depth and gravity without which citizenship is no more than an administrative stamp, disconnected from the fundamental obligations that accompany the fact of belonging in a community of memory and culture. A people must have something of a specific idea of itself, a destiny, the possibility of a mission to accomplish, at the very least a real raison d’être, a real reason for its existence.”

In a way, culture is the interface between a society and the territory it occupies; it is shaped and transformed by both.

Society: The social context develops as a result of the way society chooses to organize itself. Society is a fabric of relationships that reveal themselves most notably in its institutions and laws. Vaclav Havel describes civil society in this way: “You have a civil society when citizens participate in public life, in the management of the common good, and in decisions that affect them. To do this, they make use of various mechanisms that complement one another, while the institutional form of their participation in power depends essentially on themselves, on their initiative and their imagination, obviously applied within given limits. It is thus a matter of a society creating a significant space for individual and collective activities, of a society that is, at its foundation, established on the participation of citizens. The role of the state and its structures of power are limited to their intrinsic functions, those that cannot be fulfilled by any other group – for example, legislation, defence, the security of the state, and the administration of justice. (…) I believe that the best social structure, the structure that is the most open and which best supports the realization of human aspirations, is that of the citizen. This means a social structure based on the confidence of citizens and their respect.” [8] Social responsibility is linked to solidarity, that is, to the acceptance of the obligations we owe one another, and that we all owe to the community to which we belong.

Economy: The final component of the context in which we live is the economic component. In order to create a sustainable economy, it is useful to understand how the organization of natural ecosystems optimizes their potential longevity. In effect, we may learn valuable lessons from these ecosystems since, just like our societies, they are communities composed of living creatures: plants, animals, and micro-organisms. From an understanding of ecosystems, we can extrapolate fundamental ecological principles. Fritjof Capra describes these as follows: “…ecosystems generate no waste, one species’ waste being another species’ food. (…) matter cycles continually through the web of life; (…) the energy driving these ecological cycles flows from the sun; (…) diversity assures resilience; (…) life, from its beginning, did not take over the planet by combat but by cooperation, partnership, and networking.” [9] If these ecological principles are to be applied to human societies, we must re-conceive our industries and our businesses. We must “de-carbonize” our economy, using solar energy as much as possible; we must have a goal of “zero-waste”; we must close the cycle of production (raw materials – products – raw materials), encourage diversity and expand cooperation. Beyond this, we must overcome our dependence on material consumption, and replace the principle of unlimited economic growth – an aberration – with that of sustainable development. We must remember that unlike the biosphere, the economy is our creation and reflects our society and culture.

Finally, to fully recover the meaning of our existence, we must find once again the sense of belonging to a reality, to a context, that is greater than ourselves. Skolimowski writes “Spirituality occupies the place which includes the transcendent hopes of human beings, the grace, the dignity, the worship of life. These characteristics are essential, if life is to be filled with meaning.” [10] In a speech delivered at Stanford University in 1994, Vaclav Havel also underscored the need for a spiritual life: “If democracy is not only to survive but to expand successfully and resolve these conflicts of cultures, then it must rediscover and renew its transcendent origins. It must renew its respect for that non-material order which is not only above us, but is also in us and among us, and which is the only possible and reliable source of man’s respect for himself, for others, for the order of nature, for the order of humanity, and thus for secular authority as well. The loss of this respect always leads to the loss of everything else. […What] modern man has lost (is) his transcendental anchor, and along with it the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect.” [11]


1 Henryk Skolimowski, Éco-philosophie et éco-théologie
Éditions Jouvence, 1992, p. 86
2 Hakan Snellman, Scientific Knowledge and Human Responsibility
3 Henryk Skolimowski, op. cit., p. 91
4 Fritjof Capra, Is there a Purpose in Nature?
5 Hans Jonas, Le principe responsabilité
Collection Champ-Flammarion, 1998
6 Fritjof Capra, Is there a Purpose in Nature?

7 Mathieu Bock-Côté, La dénationalisation tranquille
8 Vaclav Havel, Pour une politique post-moderne
Éditions de l’Aube, 1999, p. 52
9 Fritjof Capra, Is there a Purpose in Nature?
10 Henryk Skolimowski, op. cit., p. 91
11 Fritjof Capra, Is there a Purpose in Nature?


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The editor of L'Encyclopédie de L'Agora and well known newspaper chronicler and philosopher, analyses actuality through the looking glass of Belonging.
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