May 13, 2009
Musings on the Environment
"Our task must be to free ourselves...by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
I come to you today speaking of something very important: the environment, or rather, our relationship with the environment. The key, I think, to get people's minds and actions moving in the right direction is to get them to see things in a light that makes sense beyond the simple "well you just should," argument. Let's face it, everyone gets enough of that as a child that noone even pretends to listen to it as an adult. I offer no real solutions here, just what I think is the correct way to approach the subject.
Most people you hear speak about the environment seem to have one of two very opposing views on the subject (or one that's close). The first is that the world exists for humans to exploit to our desire. Human intellectual supremacy gives us the right to do whatever we want to the Earth and the whole of nature to advance our ends. The only caveat, in this mindset, is that we should be just sustainable enough that we won't destroy the earth within our own lifetime. The second is that the environment is a fragile, broken thing that we must protect, out of the goodness of our hearts. Human intellectual supremacy should be used to prevent anything in the natural world from dying, and anything less than zero impact is way too much. We should strive to place the world back into the state in which it existed before humans came to be.
Unfortunately, as with most things, I think the real answer lies somewhere in the middle of that continuum. However, it also supersedes that continuum into a third dimension that many don't consider. That dimension is how we see the natural world around us. Both of the views outlined above see humans as somehow existing separately from the environment and everything else in it. In reality, as much as we try to convince ourselves otherwise, we live within the same ecological framework as everything else on this planet, living or otherwise. The fact that we evolved into the dominate species on Earth does not mean we've transcended nature anymore than landing a person on the moon means we've conquered space. We must have the natural world around us to survive, but it does not need us. The hard truth is, next to the Earth and the whole of Nature, we are ants. Tomorrow could be the day that the Earth shrugs us off like so many flies. Yes, we are ants with intelligence and an affinity for problem solving that surpasses all known species, but we are ants nonetheless. And like all living things, we will live and die and life will continue without us, and during our lives we will kill and consume some of the other living beings with which we share this planet and its resources. However, the challenge is to do so in a way that does not destroy the source of those resources. In other words, the challenge is to use our superior intelligence to do what every other species on the planet can already do: live in harmony with the environment. This does not mean to always "leave only footprints," but to take what we need to live and let nature take back the rest. And it will.
yeah, good points, but you forgot about all the crazies that flat out deny that anything really bad can happen to this pale blue dot.
One thing I always think of when I think of the intersection of the environment and man is religion. On one hand, the word "dominion" is used in Genesis to describe out superior nature (and used by some to justify doing whatever destructive things we want to). However the earth is also described as God's creation, and we were originally caretakers of the place. It seems like Christianity aught to be capable of cutting both ways, but I invariably find more "kill everything" crazies in the church than I do "save the whales" crazies. Part of this also has to be due to the prevalence of Mind/Body or Spirit/Body dualism in common thought today, as well as the "left-behind" interpretation of Revelation - i.e. the world is gonna burn soon, but we'll be gone, so we can do whatever we want to it now. I think about this a lot because I was almost one of them for a brief period of time.
There are also really interesting economics questions wrapped up in all this. For a long time, "growth" meant "more people, more use of natural resources." Of course, we've done a pretty good job of that by now, and it's going to get harder to sustain. So what kind of model do companies, families, and governments use going into the future? Also, how do you solve problems like fisheries that need to be managed (or they will be permanently extinct), and still support free enterprise? We may be doing an okay job of that here in the U.S. - but how do you coordinate that on a global level (as it is a global problem)? Interesting questions indeed.
Comment by: matt g at 12:25 PM, May, 14, 2009
I think most often religion actually has very little to do with people's perspectives on how we interact with the Earth. The divide seems, to me, to really be more along what we currently call the conservative-liberal continuum. In other words, I think the people that see the world as infinitely exploitable are the same people that wish to see businesses unrestricted (by environmental laws for one) while the opposite end is populated by those that consider humans themselves to be weak and in need of protection (much like the environment).
In fact, I would almost go so far as to say that the "kill everything crazies," as you so succinctly put it, are many of the same people that use religion mostly as a mask for all sorts of other questionably moral stances. Almost. On the other hand, many of the "save the whales" crazies usually are fairly ambivalent or even hostile toward religion, consistent with many others on the left end of the political spectrum.
Comment by: neil at 1:19 AM, June, 28, 2009