Frances Hutchinson

McKanan provides a lively, readable and neatly referenced account of the environmental movement’s debt to Rudolf Steiner’s teachings and writings. Study of Steiner’s work by anthroposophists and sympathetic students of science, society and the various wisdom traditions offers the potential to bring healing energies to both nature and human society.

Steiner’s holistic vision provided the seed that has dispersed and disintegrated (in the sense of a seed that dies and disintegrates into the soil bringing forth new life), influencing a host of developments in the environmental movement as a whole. But although the roots of organic agriculture lie in Steiner’s biodynamic teachings, to flourish they needed to connect into a variety of enterprises on a world scale. As the initiatives of the 1930s and 1940s are fully documented in the second chapter, many familiar names emerge from a range of organisations in Europe and North America. These include Albert Howard, Lord Northbourne, Eve Balfour, the Soil Association and the Catholic Worker Movement. From the 1970s onwards the Anthroposophical Movement moved beyond it sspiritual centre of the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland and development of Waldorf education, to work with and through mainstream initiatives in a variety of fields. McKanan documents working links between anthroposophists and prominent figures and organisations in the wider environmental movement. These include Rachel Carson, Wendell Berry and E.F. Schumacher. The book as a whole is an epic portrayal of how the leaven of anthroposophy has worked with other spiritual, scientific and social traditions in the worldwide development of environmentalism. Without biodynamics, the organic farming movement would have focused on soil fertility, but would have failed to describe entire farms, much less the entire planet, as single living organisms.

There was no environmental movement when Rudolf Steiner gave his Agricultural Course to farmers in 1924, nine months before he died. Over the intervening century a host of practical, educational and community schemes have proliferated across the globe in the form of biodynamic and organic farms, pressure groups, intentional communities, research establishment, commercial enterprises and green banks, forming an interlocking network whose inspiration can be traced to the esoteric science – the ‘eco-alchemy’ – of Steiner. With clarity and dedication, Dan McKanan has created a most practical and informative guide for activists of all faiths and persuasions seeking to determine the options available for guiding the future relationship between humanity, the living planet and the cosmos. Through his extensive researches, (which includes articles in NewView magazine) and a series of in-depth interviews, McKanan builds a picture of anthroposophy and the environmental movement as a whole, with particular emphasis on Europe, Britain and the United States.  

In the Agricultural Course Steiner stresses the necessity for constant observation on the ground: “No one can judge of Agriculture who does not derive judgement from field and forest and the breeding of cattle ..[and a] personal relationship to manure.” McKanan provides a resumé of the Agricultural Course, demonstrating how and why Steiner offered an alchemic system as the antidote to the depletion of the soils and the rapidly emerging dangers of chemical agriculture. Over the course of the twentieth century Steiner’s holistic approach was influential through a host of developments in a range of fields, including education, nutrition, medicine, religious ritual, scientific research and organic agriculture. Anthroposophy balances the polarities of experimental sciences and traditional wisdom, the ancient and the modern across the field of human and planetary relationships.

Agriculture is the foundation of modern civilisation. Without a supply of clean, life-giving, healthy food we have neither the leisure nor the energy to develop industry, the sciences or the arts. Over the course of the twentieth century, as traditional patterns of food provision, farming, family and faith cultures disintegrated, individuals were faced with the necessity to engage in studying and working together in groups in order to participate in informed action. The author shows how many people in their 20s and 30s during the so-called inter-war years, between the First and Second World Wars, grounded their practical initiatives in systematic group study of Steiner’s work. The self-help adult education movement of this period encompassing trade unionism, socialism, Marxism, Guild Socialism, the Catholic Worker movement and Christian social teaching in general drew on insights from students of Steiner’s teachings. The links can be identified in diaries, biographies and essays of the period.  The fact that practical ‘alternatives’ to business-as-usual corporate capitalism relied upon systematic self-help group study is implied in McKanan’s work, but deserves greater emphasis because of its implications for the future development of environmentalism.

Eco-Alchemy is far more than a history. It is an urgent wake-up call to all concerned with the future of humanity and of this beautiful planet to which we are presently bound. The task is to recognise and weave together the common strands of the myriad varied initiatives that seek to preserve life in the face of the advancing monoculture of the machine age. Massive change is all around us, and it is inevitable. The challenge is to come out of our comfort zones to find new ways of living and working together so that we can constructively relate to the earth and the natural world.

For Steiner, social institutions work best where people work cooperatively for the community as a whole. That is, they are motivated by altruism, empowered by spiritual practice and not driven by the selfish motive of securing a personal wage entitling each one to a personal share of material wealth. Steiner’s rejection of the capitalist wages system, and of Marxist materialism, renders his teachings incomprehensible to mainstream students of society. Nevertheless, as McKanan observes, anthroposophical thought melds with mainstream religious traditions in the evolution of a range of alternative enterprises, a host of which are documented within the densely-packed pages of this work. Although by the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century practical anthroposophical initiatives remain on the fringes of the environmental movement, anthroposophy forms its spiritual centre:

“Students of Steiner have welcomed the rise of spiritual Gaianism and of animal liberation, while continuing to insist on humanity’s unique role in the earth’s future. They have partnered with back-to-the land hippies and communitarians but have refused to turn their backs on modernity. They have taken sides in the raging battle over genetically modified organisms and related forms of biotechnology but have also deepened their commitment to scientific research. Perhaps most significantly, as organic agriculture and other organic movements have migrated from the political right to the political left, most people rooted in anthroposophy still practice a social idealism that cannot be fairly characterized as either ‘left’ or ‘right’.” The study of anthroposophy paves the way for systematic exploration of unease at finance-driven research into genetic engineering, organ transplants, embryo research, the new reproductive technologies and agrichemicals.

The chapter entitled ‘Flowers’ covers the blossoming of Steiner’s teachings on economics. Termed “social threefolding”, these teachings provide the foundations for a series of political, economic and cultural initiatives. The social financial institutions are of particular interest. These include the GLS Bank in Germany, the Triodos Bank in the Netherlands and Great Britain, and RSF Social Finance in the United States. The relationship between finance and the real economy is brought into the open. Thus, participants in the organic farming apprenticeship programme at Hawthorne Valley, USA discover that farms are businesses, “that there are actual developmental laws at work when you take a new initiative on that is a business. The same type of developmental laws [as are found] in the growth of a plant or a human being or a social organism”. It is difficult for an individual family farm to sustain organic farming practice whilst remaining financially viable. Hence the solution adopted by biodynamic farms like Hawthorne Valley is to create a large farm that is not privately owned, but is run as a non-profit corporation formed from a group of households. Such enterprises do not conform to the conventional circular flow model that distinguishes between the interests of the Firm and the Household.  The social finance initiatives documented in this chapter are highly discussable, and will give rise to further research and study of their wider implications.

In the chapter entitled “Fruit”, the theme is carried further, to include the intentional communities of the Camphill Village movement. Here Steiner’s ecological vision is shown to have given rise to a holistic vision that includes educational, medical, artistic, agricultural and community-building activities. The story of Camphill will be familiar to readers of New View. As McKanan observes, Camphill would presently appear to be in a position to lead in the creation of intentional communities based on social threefolding principles, in contrast to the ecologically destructive booms and busts of capitalist economies. There would seem to be a rapidly moving sea-change in the willingness of individuals from all wisdom traditions to seek out common ground. The time has come for anthroposophically-inspired thinkers and organisations to engage more fully and openly with the currents that are flowing through the mainstream social order.

The individual emerges as the key to the transformation of human relationships and the interconnections between humanity as a whole and the process of planetary evolution. In the final chapter, McKanan outlines the four gifts of anthroposophy to this ongoing and swiftly changing process. The environmental movement would appear to be moving to “cosmic holism”, to ever widening and deepening webs of interconnection, capable of recognising that “every culture has its own cosmological traditions, its own imaginative pictures linking the carrot or the earthworm to the music of the spheres”. The widening of the environmental imagination is accompanied by the second gift, the necessity to appreciate small and subtle forces. This “homeopathic model of social change” suggests that practices that cannot be scaled up are nevertheless powerful influences for healing society as a whole. Appropriate anthropocentrism, the third gift, is the awareness that the earth is not subordinate to humanity’s spiritual ambition, but is identified so fully with humanity that “human well-being cannot be imagined apart from the health of the planet”. Equally the destiny of the natural world of the planet is inextricably bound up with, and influenced by human activity. The earth is constantly changing in response to the actions of humans and other life forms. Hence talk of conservation, sustainability and ‘zero-impact’ limit our ability to see that the choice is between processes of change, not between change and maintaining the status quo. Here anthroposophy’s final gift comes into play. The vision of “planetary transmutation” enables us to distinguish between too rapid change, based upon mechanistic solutions to immediate problems, and holistic processes of social and biological change that stem from the conviction that the entire cosmos is spiritually connected. Through anthroposophy, Christian teachings on stewardship are deepened by the notion that humans “are more like a specialised organ within an organism than like a caretaker who subsists independently of the object of care”.

The author is to be heartily congratulated for providing a long-overdue documentation of a movement which has played so crucial a part in the development of a sane approach to environmental issues and has so much to offer for the future. In researching and writing Eco-Alchemy, McKanan presents the Anthroposophical Movement with the gift of a classic work of scholarship. May it be accepted graciously, used wisely and to the full.

Dan McKanan, Eco-Alchemy: Anthroposophy and the History and Future of Environmentalism,  University of California Press 2017, ISBN 976-0-520-29006-8, Pb, 290pp, £25.00

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