Dr Julia Kasmire explores how sustainability, balance, and alchemy can be understood as strategies to understand our complex world.

Managing balance: Sustainability in science and history


Alchemy may be understood as the first scientific paradigm, beginning as a collection of observations, experiments, and recipes for practical processes. Woven into these primary alchemical texts were also a good deal of the symbolism, philosophy and religious beliefs of the time.


Dr Julia Kasmire explores the ways in which the seemingly unrelated concepts of sustainability and alchemy can both be understood as strategies that individuals and societies use to further understand our complex world.

Read her original article: doi.org/10.1007/s41463-019-00066-6 

Image credit: Aldeca Studio/Shutterstock



Hello, and welcome to ResearchPod. Thank you for joining us.


Today we will be discussing research conducted by Dr Julia Kasmire, Research Fellow at both the UK Data Services and the Cathie Marsh Institute at The University of Manchester and, more specifically, her recent paper entitled ‘Managing Balance’.


Dr Kasmire’s work explores the ways in which the seemingly unrelated concepts of sustainability and alchemy can both be understood as systems or strategies that individuals and societies use to further understand the complex world in which we live. Alchemy never actually managed to achieve its primary targets of transmuting base metals into gold, or creating a panacea that would give its user eternal life because those goals were based on fundamentally flawed theories and premises. Nevertheless, alchemy did succeed in helping historic societies explore the world, gain knowledge, improve processes, and more.


In a similar vein, it remains to be seen whether modern societies will achieve carbon neutrality, completely renewable energy, and other sustainability targets, or whether these too will subsequently be found to be based on flawed understanding. Dr Kasmire examines the lasting permeations of alchemy in our contemporary society and draws conclusions on whether or not sustainability ought to be viewed in a similar light to temper the expectations of those who either accept or reject its claims.


The majority of us would generally hold alchemy to be a failure, or a misdirected ‘quaint’ type of science. This is especially true when alchemy is compared to the technologically advanced science of today, which is frequently viewed as the best path to knowledge and societal development. However, this unfavourable view of alchemy not only ignores its successes and lasting benefits, but also fails to identify similarities between alchemy and contemporary sustainability science. Understanding these similarities may aid sustainability researchers in understanding their chances of success, especially if we entertain the idea that their own premises and assumptions may too be based on flawed theory.


Alchemy may arguably, and somewhat generously, be understood as the first scientific paradigm. Alchemy has since become synonymous with misbegotten attempts to create gold or live forever, but is more accurately understood as a system through which individual people, and entire societies, managed themselves, their knowledge, and their resources, for mutual benefit. It is also not an isolated phenomenon; alchemy arose in societies across the world, hundreds or thousands of years BCE. It began as a collection of observations, experiments, and recipes for practical processes such as smelting, tanning, fermenting, curing illnesses, and so on. Woven into these primary alchemical texts were also a good deal of the symbolism, philosophy and religious beliefs of the time.


Over time, these texts came to be understood as parts of an overarching approach that encompassed both physical processes and moral improvements. Alchemy came to be seen as explaining why the world was as it was and how one should be a part of it. One key belief in alchemy, readily accepted by the societies it existed in, was that everything in the world was made up of the same primary elements, namely: earth, air, fire, and water. So too was it believed that a perfect and proportional union of the four elements would bring goodness, beauty, and health. Physically, gold was thought to contain a perfect elemental balance, making it the only perfect metal, and thus explaining why it was so beautiful, easy to work and impossible to tarnish. Spiritually, balanced elements within a person would create perfect morality, physical beauty and lasting health in a life that was ‘golden’.


Improving health, curing illness, purifying liquids, blowing truly clear glass, creating more colourfast dyes for leather, or otherwise improving processes, were all understood to be about achieving a more perfect ‘balance’ of elements in disparate domains. Importantly, elemental balances could be changed through physical or spiritual processes, as both were equally capable of adding or removing elements. Therefore, processes such as prayer or ritual were included in alchemical texts alongside frequent references to deities. Further, processes such as mixing, firing, cooling, or distilling might be described in symbolic terms such as ‘birth’, ‘marriage’, or ‘death’. For this reason, alchemy was ambiguous and secretive, allowing alchemists to keep their processes hidden, obscuring their failures and projecting an appearance of achievement to their wider society. Alchemy drove an exploration of the world, adding and improving knowledge, and providing a rationale as to how society ought to manage itself, even if the ultimate goals of eternal and golden perfection were never quite realised.


Dr Kasmire argues that it wasn’t because alchemy did not ultimately achieve its goals that it came to an end. Instead, its demise may be credited in part to the Age of Enlightenment, a period when scientific reason came to be heralded and championed as separate to religion or spirituality. Initially, however, there was a time of Scientific-Alchemy, a crossover of sorts, in which the observation, experimental rigour and curiosity that had long been key to alchemy were emphasised while its historic reliance on secrecy, superstition and mysticism was gradually dropped.


With much of that mysticism left aside, science split into chemistry, engineering, medicine, and other specialist disciplines. Despite these changes, Enlightenment-era scientists still viewed their work to be about expanding their knowledge of nature and the moral improvement of society, just like the alchemists who went before. Similarly, the belief that everything in the world was made up of certain elements remained, though this expanded into the periodic table of elements that we know today. Alchemy’s love of balance as the expression of goodness and perfection was also retained by Enlightenment-era scientists, though the sought-after balance was now observed in time. Persistent and self-stabilising physical and chemical systems were seen as balanced and therefore perfect, while the collapse of such systems was interpreted as failure caused by imbalance and imperfection. Thus, balance remained as desirable as ever.


While Enlightenment-era science was considered extremely successful, it was not as widely accessible as alchemy due to the much higher level of education required to participate in scientific pursuits. Subsequently, science had less to say about how individuals or societies should manage themselves, apart from the belief that enduring things must be well-balanced and therefore also morally good.


What followed this Enlightenment period was Industrialisation. Dr Kasmire notes that while the Industrial Revolution contributed to highly valued scientific discoveries and societal benefits, the consequences included pollution, crowding, disease, new resource scarcities and inequality which threatened some regions, groups or industries with collapse.


In response to this, certain scientific disciplines, including biology and ecology, began to champion the idea that natural ecosystems and indigenous societies were the only ones capable of achieving genuine balance and symmetry; Western or industrialised societies could only struggle to emulate the balance found in such natural systems and were prone to self-destruction and failure. Some went on to claim that humans had gone too far in their quest for progress and growth, and, as a result, have seriously damaged their own habitats and were spreading dangerous imbalance to other natural systems. The initial proposals to combat this perceived spread of unsustainability was to withdraw human activity from certain disrupted areas to allow nature to ‘rebalance’ itself.


Unsustainability, Dr Kasmire argues, is often associated with injustice because it seems to shift inequality or imbalance temporally, socially or geographically without resolving it completely. True sustainability is often interpreted as a long-lasting equilibrium that balances economic growth, environmental value, and social justice, although it is not currently clear exactly how that balance ought to look, nor how it may be achieved. Sustainability implies an inherent moral obligation to seek the benefit of the world and its inhabitants through its practices.


Like alchemy, the sustainability science research clearly seeks to increase knowledge of the world, provide solutions to environmental damage, and determine moral guidelines within society, even though its adherents unfortunately rarely agree on practical actions. Also like alchemy, sustainability science appears, at least theoretically, capable of achieving the desired balance without any actual evidence that such a balance is achievable. Additionally, there is no evidence that the proposed systemic changes to society would be truly sustainable in that they may not create a perpetually self-balancing system that is not vulnerable to future reintroductions of unsustainability. It is in this way, Dr Kasmire argues, that sustainability finds itself in the same situation as alchemy once did prior to the Enlightenment. Both are popular, useful, rewarding, and full of promise, but ultimately have  proved unable to achieve their own goals.


Science, however, is not a static subject, and discovering some erroneous theories would ultimately aid sustainability in correcting and realigning itself. Perhaps the first error to confront is the concept of a ‘truly sustainable’ or perpetual and perfect society or system. As of yet, none have endured without problems, collapse or widespread change. Furthermore, scales and scopes for sustainability have not yet been set, which strays from the rigid observations and well-defined experiments expected of scientific practice. Without agreed terms, a sustainable balance over a given scope and time-frame would be difficult to recognise. In this sense, sustainability’s goal of perfectly balanced eternal systems appears to be as abstract as alchemy’s aims of transmuting base metals into gold.


However, Dr Kasmire stresses that this does not mean that sustainability ought to be discarded, as every effort to make the world a better place is valuable. However, contemporary scientists need to be open to and able to see potential flaws in their own theories and understanding. It is necessary then, for sustainability researchers and policymakers to critically reflect on their own aims and practices, as well as on whether, in Dr Kasmire’s words, ‘what is currently known may be replaced by other things to be known in the future.’


Perhaps in the future, the roles of balance and imbalance may come to be seen differently if the long-standing equivalence of balance and goodness can be set aside, especially in light of how a perfect balance has not thus far been shown to exist in the first place. Rather than seeing imbalance as a failure or ugliness, it could be instead be seen as a useful or even necessary part of change, allowing society to shift away from pursuit of unrealistic ideals based on flawed ideas, and instead act more urgently on matters of societal and environmental injustice. In this way, ‘forever perfect’ need no longer be the enemy of ‘good enough for here and now’.


Thank you so much for listening today. Please be sure to take a look at the links to Dr Kasmire’s research, including the just discussed paper, in the description of this episode, and don’t forget to subscribe to  ResearchPod for all the latest in science news. See you again soon.

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