Sustainability: The new alchemy?
Whilst the practice of sustainability is widely accepted as a crucial to the persistence of our civilization, the practice of alchemy has widely been discredited. The SCI’s Julia Kasmire asks what have the two in common and what does this mean for the sustainability movement.
Most people probably believe alchemy to be just medieval hokum of how to make gold and live forever, referencing ‘cosmic elements’, ‘humour fluids’ and other things commonly derided as nonsense. In contrast, most people believe sustainability to be a modern scientific field looking to improve the environment and society. Comparisons between the two could seem insulting or obstructive. Nevertheless, I wish to draw out an important idea shared by both and reflect critically on the potential consequences.
Alchemy texts have been found in China, India, and the Mediterranean dating back to thousands of years. Throughout its long history, alchemy offered an explanation of how the world works and practical guides, methods, tools and advice for living.
On the philosophical side, alchemy asserted that everything was alive because everything was composed of the same small set of elements, the precise proportion of which determined a thing’s appearance, function and behaviour. Specifically, alchemy stated goodness, healthy, beauty and proper function come from balanced elements while all problems come from imbalance. For example, too much fire made something red-coloured and brittle, and people prone to fevers and ill-temper. The perfect balance of gold was thought to be why it was beautiful, never tarnished, and was easy to work. With only one way to perfectly balance a limited number of elements, health, youth and beauty were not seen to be as good as gold, they were seen to be gold.
On the practical side, alchemy advocated experimentation, hard work, and close observation to solve problems. Caused by imbalance, all problem-solving within alchemy was about determining and then improving a thing’s elemental composition. Effectively, alchemy tried to turn problems into perfect, ever-lasting gold (in a literal and figurative sense). Alchemists closely observed processes such as smelting, distilling, fermenting, dyeing, tanning, blowing glass, and efforts to heal, for their consequences on ‘elemental balance’ and how this could be improved. Alchemy did not separate these philosophical and practical aspects, so any balance-creating effort—from blowing clearer glass to considering the meaning of life—was invariably seen as a moral act.
The idea of balance as a good and moral goal was commonly accepted as true by practising alchemists and non-alchemists alike. Alchemy eventually fell out of fashion, although not through a lack of belief in its core ideas. Indeed, esteemed scientists like Sir Isaac Newton considered alchemy intellectually equal to mathematics. However, science emphasised experimental rigour, observational precision, and transparency and de-emphasised mysticism and allegory. Without a blend of philosophy and practice, alchemy fragmented into modern scientific disciplines, including chemistry, engineering, medicine, optics, and astronomy. Alchemists never achieved the perfect and incorruptible balance, nor the goals of limitless gold and eternal life with which alchemy is synonymous today. Nevertheless, alchemy substantially improved many processes, significantly expanded knowledge, and in many senses led to the foundation of modern science.
The word “sustainable” débuted in response to growing awareness of how modern environmental problems were linked with social, economic and political issues. More than just environmentalism, sustainability is defined as an enduring balance over economic growth, environmental action and distributive justice commonly known as ‘the three pillars’. Since its first use in the 1980s, sustainability has become a popular discourse throughout the world, both as a guiding philosophy and a practical aim.
Philosophically, sustainability argues that everything is connected, both throughout physical, social and technological systems but also throughout time. A common idea within sustainability is that ‘nature knows best’ because natural systems possess many deeply embedded checks and balances that create enduring, self-maintaining equilibrium states. These states of lasting balances are interpreted as healthy, natural, beautiful and well-functioning. In contrast, social, economic and environmental problems are attributed to unchecked growth, inequality and imbalance with associated risks of crisis, war, pandemic and scarcity.
Practically, sustainability researchers try to identify and correct imbalances, such as rates of resource use and renewal rates of waste production and absorption or levels of environmental degradation and the economic growth to which they seem to be coupled. This is approached through technological innovation, community involvement, social practice, governmental policy, and economic incentives, among many other ways. Efforts to rebalance the three pillars are seen as just, laudable and moral.
Although not everyone is convinced, sustainability can certainly be described as widespread, with researchers and activists from all over the world dedicating their careers to the topic. The broad consensus about many aspects of sustainability extends beyond the scientific community as well, influencing the beliefs and actions of politicians, philosophers and laypeople in their everyday lives. The long-term success and legacy of sustainability are still unknown, but many are hopeful.
The Alchemy of sustainability
Alchemy and sustainability can both be understood to equate goodness with an enduring or even eternal balance. Drawing attention to this similarity is not intended to discredit sustainability but to provoke critical reflection. Why should two otherwise very different systems of thinking share something so fundamental? Three non-mutually exclusive possibilities suggest themselves.
First, the shared belief that goodness equals balance could be a truth about reality that both alchemy and sustainability have tapped into. Second, this idea (true or not) may have endured from the days of alchemy to the present sustainability movement through the scientific process of retaining, modifying and replacing ideas. Third, the equation of goodness with balance may be underpinned by human psychology, perhaps derived from evolved preferences for symmetry. If so, then such a belief could be common to almost every human culture in history, although such claims fall outside of the scope of this blog.
All three possibilities should motivate critical reflection and scientific inquiry because they highlight a fundamental idea or belief that has not been tested. The link between goodness and balance is (and perhaps always has been) commonly accepted. However, this popularity does not seem to be the well-deserved consequence of an idea proven through rigorous testing. Instead, the popularity may be obscuring the fact that this common belief is little more than instinct, ideology or received wisdom.
The only solution is the clear-eyed examination. If supported, a link between goodness and balance deserves more attention which could ultimately lead to more successful efforts toward sustainability. If not supported, scientists and non-scientists alike will need to make an effort to identify how a common but baseless belief shapes their assumptions, perspectives, goals and expectations. They will also need to open up to a neutral, or perhaps even positive, view of imbalance. Reorienting away from the apparently deep-seated view that incorruptible balance is morally good and a worthy goal would indubitably be a difficult or painful process, but abandoning an unhelpful assumption could also lead to more successful efforts toward sustainability.