New Ageism: science or a tree-hug too far?

Holistic Revolution: the essential New Age reader edited by William Bloom (Allen Lane, £18.99)
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It's easy to roll your eyes at the prospect of a "holistic revolution". Whenever New Agers spot the slightest crack in Western rationality, they get their mystical crowbars in, trying to turn it into a gaping chasm. The Age of Aquarius always seems to be waiting for the Age of Insecurity to fall into its accommodating arms.

It's easy to roll your eyes at the prospect of a "holistic revolution". Whenever New Agers spot the slightest crack in Western rationality, they get their mystical crowbars in, trying to turn it into a gaping chasm. The Age of Aquarius always seems to be waiting for the Age of Insecurity to fall into its accommodating arms.

This book, edited by a former professor at the LSE, aims to silence the cynics. Bloom's best defence of his territory comes from his belief that the New Economy justifies the New Age. "In a shrinking planet of free-flowing information," he writes, "the whole nature of what we call religion is bound to change." Traditions and experiences once available only to scholars and devotees now occupy vast corners of your local book chain, or even an entire media empire.

Holistic talk has at least a fair-to-middling chance of becoming the dominant register in Western public life. We already know its pop-cultural rag: Cherie Booth and her birthing gurus, celebrities and their yoga-tastic bodies, sports managers and their spirit mediums. But the policy élites also seem to be succumbing. The voices of two recent Reith lectures on the environment - Sir John Browne of BP Amoco and the Prince of Wales - could easily be contained in Bloom's anthology. Jonathan Porritt, Prince Charles's adviser, is already here.

But hard-core New Agers such as Bloom always go too far. So we have Dorothy Maclean of the Findhorn Foundation relating a message received from her favourite pea plant: "While we in the vegetable kingdom hold no grudge against those we feed... " It's disheartening to find brilliant and empirical scientists such as James Lovelock - whose Gaia thesis about our living planet grows more statistically credible each week - in the same company as ley-line trackers and crystal healers.

It's not that the dreams of holists about human potential are necessarily unrealisable or even uninspiring. The turn-off comes when any duff science or mushy mythology is seized upon to justify the vision. Telepathy, for example - a New Age wish-fulfilment if ever there was one - is now a technical issue. Medical achievements in neuron-to-silicon connection (restoring optical and auditory nerves) and advances in brain-scanning make the idea of mental communication a real possibility. By comparison, the witterings here from the New Age telepathy sage Itzhak Bentov about moontides and "personal energies" are just an embarrassment.

Yet if we could become techno-telepaths, the more interesting question is: would we want to? Holists can be strong on eclecticism but weak on ethics. Bloom admits that "the movement needs to articulate [its moral codes] more clearly". But there is such a fundamental divergence in these writings, it's hard to see how any ethics could be made to cohere.

On one side are the tree-huggers and anti-futurists, who exult (like Jean Liedloff) in the freedom of tribal children to urinate in the dust. On the other are a range of prophets of human potential - Carl Rogers, Deepak Chopra, M Scott Peck - who suggest a variety of ways for humans to evolve their capacities using any psychological means at their disposal. The latter camp has its moments here: reading the French Jesuit thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminds you that his idea of the "noosphere" (a realm of planetary knowledge accessible to all) predated the Net by decades. And the extract from the US psychologist Abraham Maslow - whose "self-actualising" individual is the target of every brand manager in the West - shows that New Ageism is a "spiritual marketplace" in more than the obvious way.

New Age answers to timeless questions about human nature can be surprising and useful. But they may have to undergo something of an internal schism - like the German Greens, or the British Labour movement - before they can become the public movement that Bloom hopes for. But can those sweet-minded holists even have a fight without disappearing in a puff of self-contradiction?

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