Human Life - Nature – Technique

in the Perspective of Agenda 21

by Dr. Arnd Hollweg,

Berlin, Germany


Editor’s Note: In the previous edition of this Journal, the Page One Featured Paper presented a selection of opinions of readers of this Journal regarding a UN program called Agenda 21. The paper presented below offers a more detailed opinion piece regarding the implications of this controversial and far-reaching program. -JP


In Germany thirty years ago one would have been called a dreamer as to the present problems of ecology in the theories of natural sciences. They are like a big bang in the cosmology, but we live on our earth, not among the stars in the cosmos. In the last years many books were published in our country regarding the conception of “Nachhaltigkeit”, as it is called in German (in English: “sustainability”). It is even difficult to translate this word in other languages. The concept has its origin in the economy of German forests. But what does it have to do with the interdisciplinary sciences on the one hand and the intercultural social life and the different languages on the other our Journal is concerned with?


The first English translation was “sustained field”. It points to the economic law that we must not get more wood out of the forests than living trees will grow again in them. Only if we realize and accept these limits, the growth of nature will go on. Otherwise the living structures in nature will collapse. But this is also a problem in modern sciences: we must distinguish between the structures of our life on earth and the functional structures of instrumental and technical thinking by which we try to control our life. In this thinking life becomes an object for us and we ourselves become subjects. But this is a contradiction which implies many conflicts and much inconsistence in the sciences today.


Reality is mediated by our life

In the instruments and machines in industrial society today other powers are at work than in nature. They are mechanical ones. As media they can produce information of all kind. But how to distinguish them? The airplanes called drones for instance don’t need a human person as a pilot in them. They are flown by electrical management carried out by people on the earth. They can transfer bombs to all places on earth without risk of the own life. In killing people technical instruments seem to be much more effective than bodily strength. Why do we need them? To protect ourselves? But what happens to the other people? We are not alone in the world. Our life has a social character.


The Agenda 21 is a theoretical document, a mental program for 100 years. We cannot see into our future. We don’t know what will happen in it. How much has changed in the last 100 years! A plan for the future can only be mental. The empirical life I think, act, experience, feel, observe in is another reality. But this is also a problem of modern sciences in their relations to the reality mankind on earth is living in. There doesn’t exist any reality in itself, isolated from human beings who experience reality in their life. What we call reality is mediated by our life where it has its relevance and meaning. A mental reality can only become a lively one, when we accept that our brain is a part of our living body as a human being. Therefore we cannot stay any longer in the mental tradition of Descartes: I think, therefore I am. It is just the opposite: I am, therefore I think. I am not in the world as a thing, an object or an instrument I can use or misuse. I am a living I who can think, see, listen to other people or do something in life. Without relating to myself as a living person I cannot become conscious of myself in hearing, seeing, realizing, feeling, speaking, doing etc. in my life.


That is of immediate relevance for the present problem of ecology, because Descartes intended to control and rule the life of the nature we are living in. This claim to power is the reason of loosing contact to reality. Today we become conscious about these problems. But is it already too late? Is the destruction of the nature by our human thinking and acting irreversible? Therefore an urgent question is hidden in the Agenda 21: How can it be interpreted into the concrete life of human mankind on earth? Controlling the nature also means controlling all life on earth and what is happening on the ground of the earth. But that is not free to our disposal. Today already rich people try to invest their money in buying earth ground in the underdeveloped countries. The world trade concerns already own grounds in all countries and therefore can influence the community life at different places.


What does it mean for our scientific thinking today? It has to be interpreted into the concrete life situation of mankind today on earth. That is also valid for the natural sciences. Their thinking of facts keeps empty, as long as it is not intermediated by the life of human beings.

In life we cannot start with the future. It is ahead of us in time. We don’t know about it. What will happen in the future will depend on what the next generations will do with their life. We can only help them by our doing in the limits of our time and strength in our present life. Millions of children nowadays die of starvation, by wars or lack of education, and we could do much more against that.[1] But we cannot say what will happen to us tomorrow. Many events can intervene or interrupt present developments. We don’t know what will emerge out of them. We can’t define it by our ideas, theories, concepts, mental models.


Industrial revolution as begin of a new age

We have to understand the problems of the Agenda 21 in the context of history. Otherwise we are not conscious about the relations between forests as regions on earth, economy and techniques. The region on earth and the history we are coming from is shaping our present experiential world of life. We all have made different experiences on our place on the earth we call “globe” today. But in the global world of today the separations of the historical traditions fixed by the historical states and nations disappeared to a big extent. We are living in a time of universal migration and ambivalent mix of cultures. The problem is that we try to manage the different organizations which emerge out of this world-wide process by the technique, while it requires a new kind of social integration in a pluralistic social world. For this a technical-instrumental management is a permanent danger, because it has its own autonomous laws which are in conflict with human social life in history. So we need global exchanges between our different histories and cultures.


We should try to inform each other about the history out of which our present life is growing and shaped in its self-understanding. Therefore another turn in our thinking becomes necessary: we cannot longer explain our human history starting with families, tribes, kinship, groups, nations, states and empires. We have to think into the opposite direction in starting with the population on earth in relation to the different histories of mankind in their religious, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds at their place of living on the earth.


What do I think about the Agenda 21 in relation to the history and culture of my own country? Here in former times wood was the central issue in the relations between social, economical, political and certain religious aspects. The well known economist and sociologist Werner Sombart (1863-1941) regarded wood as the central resource in the time before the industrial revolution which he called the “wooden age”.[2] Wood and coal were still fuel in Germany until the last decades of the 20th century. For instance in Berlin many of the old houses, especially in the eastern part, had tiled stoves which were still heated by wood and coal until the early 1990er years. In the same decades after the Second World War the nuclear age started with the rapid development of nuclear sciences, industries, and weapons.[3] It is not only an event in history we can manage by new programs, methods, sciences, and techniques. It is a new age of history which affects all dimensions of the daily life of the future whatever will happen in it.


Agenda 21 is related to all areas of life: climate, environmental protection, raw materials, oil, transformation of energy, poorness, illness, nourishment, education, increase of the population on earth, migration, discrimination, terrorism, gender problems, labor, minorities, corruption, economical problems of all kind, techniques, methods of doing, human rights and dignity, values, depreciation etc. etc. This concept 21 is total. Nothing seems to be left. But I don’t see any living connection between all these items. They keep isolated from each other. They are just put together in the paper. Who speaks by it?  Global organizations of all kind, state and civil organizations as well as the mankind on earth as a collective whole – they all are addressed. The Agenda demands social justice and an unlimited growth of economics in all regions of the world without relating to the human beings in their social life. Who should carry out these mental requirements? Of course, it is nothing to say against them, as I see it. But what is their place in our social life in which we act day by day and make our experiences? From this point of view the Agenda 21 participates in the deficits  of  scientific thinking: it isn’t related to the life time of human beings in the limit of history in which we live in connection with each other. My life as a person cannot be turned into an object of mental thinking.


Rational realizing and consciousness in life

We have to distinguish between realizing by our brain and our awareness of life in our consciousness. Recently I saw an advertisement for the newest modern fashion with the slogan: conscious of fashion. They defined it by the word “sustainability”. But this is originally related to preserve the grounds in the fields on earth in rainy regions in which the forests are growing more than in others. In figurating to other facts this ecological term becomes unclear in itself as to its meaning in the different languages.[4]


Completely wrong, as I see it, is its use in an account with a bank. The liquidity of money cannot be controlled in the one-way-thinking of today. Its management is arbitrary, an object of uncontrollable rulers. They are reigning today in economy, in industry and commerce. Their processes have directly nothing to do with the growing forests which are connected with each other by the organic life in nature. Our problem is just that we have lost the contact to it. Nature is not run by instruments or techniques by which we manage the stream of money in industry and economy. It regenerates by the living dynamics in itself. All capitalists in the world would enjoy, if their money would regenerate by itself. But actually they pretend that this would happen. They don’t realize the limits, for instance as to oil. In our human life and in the life of nature limits are self-evident. We don’t need methods or techniques of abstract thinking in sciences to realize them. We know them by our experience in the daily social life.

At present most people in West Europe don’t seem to be willing to reduce their standards of life they regard to be their rights. Their high expectations demand a permanent unlimited growth of economy. The psychological motives are self-evident. We don’t need ideas or theories to explain them. As long as we are not affected by the destructions of nature in our own life most people don’t react in spite of all their ideas, theories and ethical declarations. On March 24th 2013 the European Parliament did not decide to reduce the CO2 content of the air, because they wanted to keep the money in their own pockets. But did they save it really? No, the reparation of the environmental damages will be much more expensive later on. But, of course, this will be the task of the next generations. It does not yet concern us.


Each householder knows that you cannot spend the money you don’t have. You cannot use what you don’t need. You cannot know what you don’t experience yourself. All knowledge is related to life. But what I do can destroy or sustain life. How can we distinguish this, if we have no consciousness of the life we act in? What kind of awareness is happening in my life? It is not static, because it is flowing in my living time in which I think, realize, act and behave. It is not isolated from the other life in the world, because it is flowing in organic, social and spiritual relations. They are different from the functional relations of instruments and machines. The latter belong to my work in life and can make it easier, but they cannot replace my life in the world I am born in.


There we make our experiences with each other by which we find orientation in life. We are growing by education and learning in social life. Surely we have to plan, but with many uncertainties already as to the next days. It cannot be the main issue in life to govern over it and control it. We lack the ability to do so. By constructing a mental world in our brains we lose the contact to life and to ourselves. Then we are not involved in what we are thinking, perceiving, recognizing, and doing. In our sciences today we recognize by definitions and conceptual methods we are not involved in as living persons.


God – humankind  – nature in life

But I myself am the one who is thinking, realizing, acting I am responsible for, because it influences my life and the life of my fellowmen and the communities I live in. I cannot recognize anything without the consciousness of myself as a living person in my spirit and body. Both belong together. But in the mental thinking of European tradition we separate both from each other in the metaphysical and in the physical thinking. This is different from the USA, but not without historical relation to the European history of sciences (cf. excursion 1). On this way, as I see it until today, scientific thinking in the USA is related to psychology as representative for the living person on the one hand, and to the mathematical physics on the other.


There is a lot to reappraise critically in the history of sciences between Europe and the USA in order to eliminate misunderstandings in dealing with life problems in thinking about our relation to the earth which is our common life center in the world (cf. excursion 2).

When today theories of pragmatic techniques govern us in constructing instruments or machines, we shouldn’t reduce our thinking in life to such aims. There is much more to discover in our human life than that. It is much more valuable. Maybe the technical things make our work easier, but we cannot apply them to life. On the other hand we also cannot turn back the hands of time in history. We cannot ignore the industrial society and the media in it which have already changed the conditions of life in the whole world. We must accept the historical development and make the best of it. Especially more than ever before we have to distinguish our instrumental work and the life on earth our work shouldn’t destroy. That would occur, when our thinking will lose its relation to ourselves in life which is rooted in God. Our body isn’t an apparatus, but a living organism. It does not function mechanically. We are not a function of ourselves. Therefore we have to be conscious also as to what we do as living persons in spirit and body.


We don’t live together only with our fellowmen, but also in the non-human organic life of nature. When we are conscious of this, then we know by ourselves that we cannot see nature only as an object of thinking and doing to exploit it. We ourselves take part in the organic life on earth, but we are more than living bodies or material things. For Christians our identity as human persons is rooted in the presence of God by his Holy Spirit in Christ. In our human empirical reality we take part in the spiritual eternal life of God, in the interpersonal social life with our fellowmen and the organic life in nature. These are different realities in our human life on earth we have to distinguish. But this is only possible, if we are conscious of our place on earth. We don’t have any alternative to it. This is not a question of a program or choosing special methods or techniques. It does not depend on special factors in life.


Therefore we cannot remain in our mental dogmatic and scientific traditions of thinking in realizing the reality (cf. excursion 3). Then we would stay blind for the life we are in since our birth. We live in the cosmos only on the living earth within all life on it we see with our eyes. As to the cosmos itself we don’t see what is occurring in its happening. We can experience it in our life by breathing the air, in the climate, in rain or sunshine. All this is influencing our life on earth. We also don’t know all that happens in our life. Maybe our ignorance about it is more extensive today than before. But there are also experiences which are self-evident in life. Thereby we can get an orientation we find our way in. Much in life still keeps open, for Christians open to God. Therefore the central issue is that we don’t live by ourselves, but by the eternal God who created human beings to be his earthly images.


Dynamics in the social structures of human life

If I do something or not or even do wrong, the time in my life keeps running. We live in a fluid time on earth. We cannot stop it as long we are living. It belongs to our life. The instrumental and technical work by my reason, when separated from life, is timeless and lifeless. It implies nothing than itself. It cannot help me in life. It is jumping over it as if it would not exist. We cannot determine it. It is God himself who will rule it (cf. excursion 4).

In the abstract sciences themselves I don’t see any way to overcome these contradictions. There is no hope of change as long we don’t turn back to the experiential knowledge in our empirical life all thinking, realizing and acting of us as living persons takes place in. In the mental world of logical thinking all differences are abolished. All becomes equal. Then the only request will be that all comes into a perfect balance. But all is different on earth, also geographically. A geometric measuring cannot avoid it. It depends where we live on earth: in a waste, in green areas, close to the ocean or in the mountains. in a big town or in a rural area etc. The conditions of the ground, the utilization of it, mineral resources are all different. Today the land speculation is booming everywhere. When some people want to get the same, hostility and even wars may arise. When we are confronted with each other in a one-way-street, we crash together in our automobiles, if there is no place to turn around.


That is not different in a one-way-thinking mental world. There is always a competition to be the first and the best one to come to power, whatever it costs. The U.N. Agenda 21 is a scientific construction with many important questions and analyses, but that is not enough. We have to question about what is going on in our modern scientific thinking in the western world and what it helps in other regions of the world. The problem is that in our technological thinking our life itself becomes a technical one so that we cannot distinguish any more between technical sciences and cultural life on the one hand and the industrial society and social life on the other. That has consequences as to our responsibility for the future of the next generation. As I see it, this becomes conscious in a field of thinking we call “teleological ethics”.[5] We have to work out new ways of living, thinking, and acting if we want that mankind will survive. There are new chances and new limits. Thereby we are also challenged ourselves in our interdisciplinary, international, and intercultural Journal of Global Issues and


Solutions. We have to find new ways in the future of our earth.

I only can briefly mention in which direction I am looking for such ways. In doing it we also have to learn from the histories of the different nations until today, but we cannot continue them. In my book Theologie und Empirie I have tried to explain one dimension.[6] I was concerned with the point that the government of human beings individually or collectively intends to get power and to gain thereby as much as possible. That isn’t the way the eternal God deals with us in his government. He will guide us by his divine love and truth in which we find our personal identity in life so that we can accept ourselves as we are and our fellowmen and -women as they are. When he reigns in our social life, we learn not to dominate social life, but to guide people in it in a way of learning self-responsibility and social attitude to fellowmen and-women. That implies many aspects, especially to learn a human kind of awareness and organizing groups of all kind (cf. excursion 5).


A technocracy in management leads into centralistic fusions, entangles and destroys social relations. We have to ask: what is dominating our life? On the one hand we are already in a dichotomy between technique and nature in which the nature and the organic life become an object of technical thinking and doing. On the other hand there is a conflict between individualistic thinking and a technocratic industrial society which prohibits the continuing emergence of interpersonal relations between human beings, groups and nations by the lack of transpersonal spiritual relations to the eternal God. We have to distinguish between social conforming to each other and adapting mechanisms in management of our life. Techniques are helpful in doing special things, but not for orientation in social life. The systems of thinking belong to another reality than the concrete structures of human life (cf. note 3).

The chapter 28 of the Agenda 21 contains a survey about the so-called “Local Agenda”: the local administrations are challenged to start a dialogue with the citizens, the local organizations and the private economy in order to decide on a Local Agenda. The motto is: “global thinking and local acting”. But this is against the human nature: we all have to think in social life, also at the local level. However, the concept is due to the fact that the Agenda 21 can only be converted into sustainable practice at the places where people are living, thinking and acting. This doesn’t mean that the social commitment in life becomes destroyed or a great mix would happen between religions and cultures, a cross-over-reality, as many people fear. Quite reverse: a pluralistic social life will arise in which also the inner life can develop its dynamics. People can join each other by their faith and inner values in their life, when they feel to belong to each other. My congregation is situated in a region of Berlin, where more immigrants than Germans are living. In the house of my congregation we live together with Christians from Iran. Many of them had to leave their country, because they became Christians. We are personally involved in their problems. The pictures in TV cannot create personal relations to the happening in other regions on earth. We all are challenged by the expanding world of migration today, also by new chances. But we have to use them. The main task will be the education for all people to organize themselves in realization of common goals. The administrations will have to coordinate the process instead of managing it. Otherwise nothing would change.


Since 1997 in Berlin the Senate for Town Development coordinates the activities of individuals, groups and institutions dealing with the propositions of the Agenda 21. Until 2007 100 ecological and social projects have been supported. But actually the dynamics of the realization of Agenda 21 arise in the daily life of people. It cannot be put from outside on them. It is embedded in the dynamics of social life itself.



1.      In his philosophy of transcendentalism Immanuel Kant tried to get an access to the empirical thinking in natural sciences. Georg Friedrich Hegel was asking for a way of relating metaphysical thinking to the materialistic world. Thereby he had to abolish the interrelation between the living spirit and body in his mind. John Dewey was right in refusing the contradictory mental thinking of Hegel. He started with a pragmatic view which was centered on doing and experiencing in human life, not on thinking. It was not necessary for him to deduce empirical life from mental constructions. So his instrumental thinking in his outward direction was also open for the inward perception on life.


2.      I will only notice one problem: the abstract thinking in German tradition led towards a dichotomy between one’s reason and between one’s senses. When Germans say: You should come to reason (“du solltest zur Vernunft kommen”), Americans would say: You should come to senses. Rational (in German language used for abstract thinking) means in the American English: “sensible” (in German “feinfühlig” which would mean in English: sensitive).[7] What people see, has a priority against what they think. This is opposite to the judgments of Germans about reality. The cause of this difference is the metaphysical background in German history and the one of natural sciences in the USA. Therefore it will be important for the future of globalization to reappraise the different life traditions of the nations in their religious and cultural aspects which are eliminated in the instrumental and technical thinking. We should avoid any one-way-thinking which leads to crashes, as we experienced in Germany, where the metaphysical, dogmatic and physical sciences more and more lost their roots in life. The lack of orientation in life and also of faith in the presence of God in life led with the nihilistic philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer into the time of National Socialism I am born in. Dogmatic thinking in church and scientific thinking in the society in their abstract mental conceptions of the historical-social reality of human life completely collapsed.


3.      As an example how much we still are involved in the metaphysical thinking also in relation to the natural sciences I  want to have a critical look on the book of Ulrich Grober: “Die Entdeckung der Nachhaltigkeit. Kulturgeschichte eines Begriffs“, in English: „Sustainability  – a cultural history,“ Totnes UK 2012. Grober’s book is written in a style as it is used in feature articles of newspapers criticizing culture and art life related to the contemporary history. But Grober makes a journey into the history of literature in order to discover how the concept of sustainability has been used in it. Actually his thinking is related to the intellectual history of Goethe’s time. It is idealistic, timeless and abstract. What has his cultural history of a scientific concept to do with the social history of mankind on earth we live in today? We cannot return from our present reality into the ancient time. That is only possible in our thoughts. They can jump through the history where we want. The reality does not come out of a definition of sustainability in the form of the “most original world heritage of culture” (p.14).[8] That is an ontological thinking of metaphysic. A scientific concept is something else than the content of human culture in the whole. How can a scientific word contain all that is necessary in the life of human beings? (p.14, 286) How can it have gravity, elasticity? As an art scholar Gruber gives a theory of combination of all ideas which exist in the life of human beings in relation to one scientific concept. Where does he touch the reality of human life at all? He is captured in pictures and models of thinking where the concept of heat becomes identical with the concept of brotherhood and cooperation (p.291f). Can one mental metaphor explain the other without being intermediated by a real living and thinking person?


Since the classic period until today there happened the collapse in Germany by the ideology of National Socialism with the genocide to the Jews, the rapid growth of nuclear sciences, the rapid centralization in the fight of political powers to gain the dominance in the social history of mankind, several genocides on some places on earth etc. etc. At the same time the industrial society in its global perspective emerged we are in today. Grober fades out this whole history. He is concerned with the history of arts in the  German idealistic classic period in the Weimar of the 18th century with the famous names of Goethe, Herder, Schopenhauer and the following Romantic period (Novalis, Winkelmann etc.). But the history of arts in Germany is something else than the social history of mankind on earth. This shouldn’t be mixed up, especially since in the German history of arts in the classic and the classical periods the Greek art of the 4th/5th century was the ideal. This means that Greek metaphysical thinking was involved in the German history of arts. In its cultural understanding it is the frame of Grober’s book. His concept of sustainability is related to the idealistic thinking of German classic period, and so it is not transferable into the global discussion, as I see it.


4.      Kant has shown in his history of sciences that since its beginning there is a controversial problem in it which never has been solved. Kant calls it the problem of antinomies, that means the contradictions which are in a law itself and between laws. The main problem was in the question of time in life: does it have a beginning and an end or is it without both. Then it is endless. It has no limits in it. However, in my empirical life it is clear. When I am dead, I have reached the end of my life on earth. Then I can no longer think, realize, hear, see, act nor do anything. This fact makes it self-evident that in our abstract logical thinking and mental realizing we have lost our relation to the time human life is involved in. We are not conscious about. Therefore our thinking, realizing, sensing, and acting gets empty. It isn’t worth all the trouble we put in it. I cannot explain here, how Dewey has critically dealt with the thinking of Kant and Hegel. I only want to emphasize: if we project our abstract mental thinking on ourselves as living persons, then we see ourselves in our timeless and endless way of thinking. But also then our life is a mortal one which goes to an end.


5.      As to the history of Christian faith the 18th century was the time of the inner secularization of the Christian church from the pneumatic life ground in Christ. Its thinking was governed by a rational hodgepodge of monotheism and theism in a linguistic confusion between adjectives and substantives similar to the ancient metaphysics. But now it was not related to the metaphysical world of ideas, but to the theoretical world of natural sciences. Christian faith and its theological thinking became split in themselves. Secularism was dominating the church life more and more until today. (cf. my essay: Christian Faith, Philosophy and Science Against the Background of the Present Ecumenical Discussion, ‘Front Page’ Feature in the Journal of Global Issues and Solutions Nov./Dec. 2007)




[1] According to the report of UNICEF in 2012 still seven millions of children less than five years died of birth complications, diseases, malnutrition etc., especially in the poor countries. Although the figure is declining, it is still terribly high.

[2] Wood as fuel was only producing poor energy. In earlier centuries 90% of wood was taken for heating, only 10% was used as material for working with it. Wood became more and more expensive which caused social problems. The whole culture was infected by it. In the church it became a religious duty to save wood. The priggishness of wood and money was judged as criminal. The wood as main resource of life was combined with the virtue of thrift and economizing. This became internalized by a long tradition in the history of continental Europe. (cf. Rudolf Lavater: Lignea Aetas, in U. Gäbler, M. Sallmann, H. Schneider: Schweizer Kirchengeschichte – neu reflektiert, Bern 2011, 63-145).

[3] In this short time the developmental speed increased in an unconceivable way. Dr. Manfred Broy, physicist and information scientist at the Technical University of Munich/Germany gives an explanation we have to think about: After the periods of steam engine, production line and IT Systems we experience a forth industrial revolution today. It implies the total integration of all life by computer networking of millions of systems. Never before human beings could experience another reality more directly and immediately than it happens today by the total digitalization which is out of being controlled. (cf.: Manfred Broy: agendaCPS. Integrierte Forschungsagenda Cyber-Physical-Systems, Springer Verlag 2012). The global social fusion is one of the symptoms of this development in modern societies.

[4] So for instance the term is applied to pedagogic: “nachhaltiges Lernen” (sustainable learning) means:  children are educated by ways and methods they like so that they don’t forget 90% of what they have learned at school. Cf. Richard David Precht: Anna, die Schule und der liebe Gott, 2013. With his pedagogical concept of sustainability Precht intends to revolutionize the German school system.

[5] The teleological ethics points to the consequences of individual and collective doing in the history of mankind.

[6] Arnd Hollweg: Theologie und Empirie. Ein Beitrag zum Gespräch zwischen Theologie und Sozialwissenschaften in den USA und Deutschland, Stuttgart 31974

[7] Cf. Langenscheidt Collins: Großes Schulwörterbuch Deutsch-Englisch, Berlin, München, Wien, Zürich, New York 2006, und Englisch-Deutsch 2007

[8] The pages follow the German edition.

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