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I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “nature” lately—a word which I think is seized upon in confused and inconsistent ways in our ecologically-sensitive times. Several streams contribute to what follows: 1) Stanley Fish’s amusing editorial in today’s New York Times; 2) a piece I came across on the First Things blog a while back; and 3) a chapter from Matt Hern’s Watch Yourself which discusses our views of nature in the broader context of our cultural obsession with safety.

At the beginning of a cheeky, irreverent confession that he resents the demands being placed upon his lifestyle by our cultural obsession with the environment, Fish says the following:

I resist and resent the demands made on me by environmental imperatives. I don’t want to save the planet. I just want to inhabit it as comfortably as possible for as long as I have.

Now I suspect that this isn’t a terribly uncommon sentiment, even if it’s not often breathed aloud. The question I’m interested in is why views like this aren’t breathed aloud and whether our cultural reticence in doing so is consistent. Our conceptions of nature are, I think, worth unpacking a little. We’re not always consistent in our understanding of the term itself, or the ethical imperatives that may or many not follow from it.

At the heart of the imperative to care for our world is the assumption, whether it is acknowledged or not, that human beings are somehow different than nature—an odd assumption, when you think about it, especially if naturalistic accounts of our origins and destiny are taken at face value. Despite broad acceptance of a naturalistic master narrative where human beings are nothing more than the result of time plus chance, we tend to retain conceptions of nature as something separate from us. Matt Hern, in a discussion about how our obsession with safety and “risk-management” leads us to insulate ourselves from nature, puts it this way:

Historically, “nature” has meant deep, inherent tendencies, either in plants, animals, or humans. It can refer to innate characteristics and the forces that caused movements and developments in the world. Almost always, nature is contrasted with the made that which humans have built: culture…. So are humans inside or outside nature?

Hern predictably goes on to indict monotheism for its introduction of an anthropocentric view of the world in which human beings were sovereign over a “wild” nature which was to be dominated and exploited for theological reasons. Yet it’s worth wondering just how lamentable this construal of the world really is. Indeed, upon closer inspection it seems that the impetus toward care for the environment depends upon this split. Without it, Fish’s statement above makes perfect sense as a general way of being in the world. If human beings really are just another part of nature, no more or less significant in the grand scheme of things than a toad or a tree, then the kind of blissful, irresponsible self-interest betrayed by Fish’s statement is perfectly justified.

But that’s not the way the logic of environmental ethics usually works. What we see, instead, are impassioned moral pleas to take care of the world as a kind of sacred obligation. At the most extreme end, we find the kind of stupidity highlighted by Joseph Bottum for First Things. Here, our desperation to promote environmentally-sensitive behaviour, leads to a troubling “anti-humanism” (I don’t know how else to describe a movement which seriously advocates discovering when you should die so as to be as little a burden to the planet as possible) where we stand accused simply by virtue of being human and tramping our dirty, impure feet all over the natural world. The pendulum has swung violently indeed; so far from human beings having dominion over creation, creation now is claimed to take moral precedence over human beings. (If you want to see some of the bizarre [I would say immoral] extremes that this philosophy can be and is being taken to, read the post.)

Mercifully, the kinds of sentiments described by Bottum would still (I hope) be considered extreme. The main point I want to make, though, is that the reverence our culture has for “nature” is profoundly theological in character, whether our enviro-prophets care to admit it or not. The claim that humans have a responsibility to protect the world cannot get off the ground without assuming that nature is something “other” than us—something which it is our unique duty to guard and preserve.

Western monotheism in general and Christianity in particular are no doubt responsible for understanding “dominion” in false and damaging ways, for treating the natural world carelessly and exploitatively, for failing to recognize that God created the world, called it good, and commissioned human beings to care for it accordingly. But our reverence for “nature” depends upon the separation between nature and human beings lamented by Hern above. If there really is no separation, there we have no grounds for critiquing Fish’s tongue-in-cheek cavalier approach to the world.

There is little to be gained, in my view, by claiming that we are just another part of nature. Quite obviously, we are not. Far better, I think, to acknowledge that while we are, in some sense, “of the earth” we have abilities and obligations that transcend the rest of “nature.” We are special. We are unique. We have ethical responsibilities to the planet, to each other, and to God. The sooner we stop apologizing for this, desperately attempting to minimize our uniqueness in a strange, inconsistent, and misanthropic devotion to “nature,” the more good we can do for a planet that so desperately needs its divinely-appointed care-givers to fulfill this important (but not all-encompassing) aspect of their duty as image-bearers.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I think it is true that environmental ethics and writings are often misanthropic.

    Aldo Leopold tried to not be anthropocentric with his “land ethic.” He tried to create an ethic in which humans were part of a larger whole. Although his name is famous, few people have adopted his view.

    One of the writers in the First Things link mischaracterized James Lovelock’s writing in Revenge of Gaia. Lovelock predicted that global warming would reduce the world population by more than 90%, but he was not wishing for that. He proposed ways to reduce the suffering of humanity as the population shrinks – such as, by increasing the use of nuclear power, for which some environmentalists criticized him.

    Much in nature writing is apocalyptic. Aldo Leopold evoked symbols associated with the second coming to describe what happened when the wild creatures returned to the land he helped to restore or redeem. Many other nature writers have used images of the second coming and the kingdom to come. In the misanthropic instances they have presented an end of civilization followed followed by a rebirth of a wilder world in which humanity has been destroyed and a remnant of life starts over with out us. In the most pessimistic versions of the apocalypse, all of life is destroyed with us and by us – no remnant survives.

    I think it is extremely difficult to reconcile the view in which humanity is part of nature, of which the Darwinian view is the prime example, with the view that we are separate.

    I think another factor affects the way we see the world in which we live in modernity. We have a hard time believing we are loved, a hard time accepting grace. I imagine that if we could believe we are loved, if we could accept grace, I think we would do less harm and have more hope.

    August 4, 2008
  2. jc #

    “I resist and resent the demands made on me by environmental imperatives. I don’t want to save the planet. I just want to inhabit it as comfortably as possible for as long as I have.

    Now I suspect that this isn’t a terribly uncommon sentiment, even if it’s not often breathed aloud.”

    Exploit the Earth or Die

    Well the above link isn’t really a common sentiment but I have seen a few bumper stickers around.

    August 4, 2008
  3. Sue #

    Ken, if you are really separate from nature and the world why do you breathe, drink and eat?

    And why do you need other human beings and the culture that you live in to even survive, let along prosper and develop your full potential?

    All of those perfectly natural processes involve participating in the world as an indivisible Process.

    There is not, and has never been a jot of separateness anywhere in the entire cosmos.

    “IT” is an Indivisible Unity. And to presume and assert other-wise is a form of benighted insanity—-a form of benighted insanity that “informs” or rather afflicts our entire “culture”.

    And with devastating results. Have you read the “news” lately? All the chaos is caused by people (everyone) asserting their presumed absolute separateness.

    You breathe in the world. Some of the breathed in molecules become part of your body for a time. And sooner of later “it” is all breathed out.

    So to with water and food.

    We are structured water. Over 70% of our bodies are water.

    And what about your mind?

    Every aspect of it, and all of its contents are a product of the culture that you grew up in. And, more importantly, the entire multi-dimensional mind of Humankind altogether. A mind which is an indivisible and totally inter-connected whole. And as it has developed or manifested up until RIGHT NOW.

    August 5, 2008
  4. Ken, I’m not familiar with Aldo Leopold so I can’t really comment on his ethical views. I’m also not familiar with James Lovelock – sounds like the First Things writer wasn’t either!

    Re: the separateness of humans and Darwinism, I would simply echo what I said in the post. We are “of the earth” but there is something more going on with human beings as well. Darwinism explains some things well, but not enough things to provide an anthropology that does justice to how we think of ourselves and our role in the world. If we believe that we are nothing more than physical stuff it will, as you say, be difficult to believe that we are loved, that grace is possible, that the universe is anything other than indifferent or hostile to us and our aspirations. In that case, Fish’s response is the most consistent one. The ironic thing, from my perspective, is that we often see two things together: 1) a rejection of God and the anthropology of human uniqueness that is thought to follow; and 2) a deep ethical obligation to exercise responsible dominion over the planet. I’m not sure these two are consistent.

    jc, good to hear from you again. Interesting website – I’m not sure I would go as far as the “objective” folks of this organization, but I certainly agree that we need to use (not necessarily “exploit” – although I guess everything depends on how the word is used) the resources of the earth to survive. The question, from my perspective, is how do we do it responsibly? And why?

    August 5, 2008
  5. Sue, I’m not sure if you meant to address Ken or me. Because Ken didn’t really argue for human separateness, I’ll assume the latter.

    You said:

    There is not, and has never been a jot of separateness anywhere in the entire cosmos.

    As I said in the post, if this is the case, then we have no grounds for arguing for environmental ethics in the first place. The call for human beings to take care of the earth already assumes a separateness that cannot be derived from nature alone. As I stated in the post, we are obviously “of the earth.” But this does not warrant the further claim that we are nothing more than “of the earth.”

    August 5, 2008
  6. Ken #

    If you ever do have a chance to read A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, I will be interested to read your analysis of it, of the land ethic Leopold proposed in it, and of his use of Biblical symbolism in it. I like Leopold and think that there is a compatibility of his view of life with Christianity, even though he did not think of himself as religious and was critical of what he termed “the Abrahamic conception of land,” (which revealed his lack of understanding of the Bible and God’s promises to Abraham.) I think his view is one in which we are part of nature in one sense and separate in another.

    Loren Eiseley is another nature writer that I admire. His view is one in which we are part of nature and yet separate from it. He spent his career as an anthropologist thinking about evolution and natural selection and their implications for who we are and where we are and also thinking about, as you expressed it, the “something more going on.” I hope you have a chance to read him as well.

    My friends who have read Leopold and Eiseley have not read much theology or the Bible, and I don’t think Leopold or Eiseley did either. So, I have mainly just been having a conversation in my own mind about these things.

    I think your analysis here is well-argued and thought-provoking, as usual. I see the same inconsistency that you describe.

    I think that environmentalism is quite similar to Puritanism: humanity is seen as totally depraved, a terrible judgment day is coming, the writing is prophetic in tone and the call is to repent and lead a pure life in a new world. But one big thing is missing: belief in God.

    August 5, 2008
  7. I like your comparison between Puritanism and environmentalism, Ken. I think there’s a lot of very similar things going on if for very different reasons and with very different emphases, motivations, and presuppositions at work. You definitely sense a “puritanical” component in some of the rhetoric out there right now.

    I’ll have to try to make time for Leopold and Eisley at some point – they sound like interesting thinkers.

    August 5, 2008

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